An Interview With Aaron Zigman
By Kim Tran
Award-winning composer Aaron Zigman is known as one of Hollywood's most diversified young film composers. Now Zigman is Hollywood's busiest composer. In five years, Zigman has scored more than twenty-five movies including "John Q," "Take the Lead," and "The Notebook." In 2007, ten movies he composed will be released, including two pairs of movies with simultaneous release dates. Aaron Zigman is in high demand in Hollywood, with no signs of slowing down. For the next year Zigman will have at least one movie premiering each month including "Good Luck Chuck," and "Jane Austen Book Club" on September 21st, then "Martian Child" in October, followed by "Why Did I Get Married," and "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" on November 16th, and "Christmas Cottage" in December.
Can you give us a brief bio?
AARON: I started playing piano at age six. I was taught in the beginning by my mother, who is a pianist and harpist. Then at seven, I started with other teachers. I studied jazz around 12 or 13 with a few guys: Rocky Slight, Gene Hartwell (a great jazz pianist who resided in San Diego where I grew up). Then I continued my classical studies with Florence Stevenson. I moved to Los Angeles, went to UCLA, playing with a few jazz groups, including an original combo.
In my third or fourth year at UCLA, I began to break into the session scene doing demos for a few producers. Then in 1984, I got signed to publishing company Almo-Irving as a songwriter. Under their auspices, I penned songs for Carly Simon, the TV show "Fame" [and] some stuff for David Lasley.
I then broke in as a studio musician. I came to the attention of Gary Katz, who is Steely Dan's producer. He and Don Was hired me on keyboards ... Now I'm starting to arrange, developing a bit of a name for myself as an arranger/writer. Then I got into the scene and started playing with guys like John Robinson, Steve Lukather, Jerry Hey, David Williams, Neil Stubenhaus (in the early 1980's these guys were the "cats"), and meeting other great studio players like Gary Grant and Alan Pasqual. Alan and I are great friends; he's an unbelievable jazz piano player.
Then I wrote a big hit in pop music called "Crush on You," which was a top three CHR record for a group called The Jets, a young group out of Minneapolis. I wrote all their hits - "Curiosity," "Private Number." That started my career as a producer. I worked for Clive Davis and produced and arranged for Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole.
How did you come to put on the film composing hat?
AARON: As you know, it's kind of hard to get that feature film composing spot. It's usually an interesting story for most people. I had actually befriended director Nick Cassavettes who knew of my pop background but also knew of my serious concert works. When he was directing "John Q," he called me up and said, "You know Aaron, I can't promise you the gig, but why don't I send you some footage of the opening montage and score it and see if my editor and I like it and see if New Line likes it as well." So I went in with a 55 piece orchestra and wrote a 6 minute opening as a demo; kind of an extravagant demo, and they loved it, and that's basically how I got my break. Obviously I had to prove myself, but it was my relationship with Nick Cassavetes that was the connection.
Can you talk a little about the importance of self-belief and taking risks for new composers?
AARON: There's a certain point where you just feel so exhilarated, you're on fire and you just know that what you're doing is right. That's the best way I can describe it. I knew that what I'd written was valid, and I knew it was poignant. There are no guarantees, but I knew I was ready. When you have that self-assurance, that's the key to breaking through.
How has your pop music experience influenced your approach to film composing?
AARON: It's only in a positive way, when you need to bring those chops into the arena. I love pop music and have certainly have a big long run in it. What it does for guys who make that transition who also have the classical background, is it reinforces the teaching of writing the "tune" or writing a memorable melody. And then knowing all the different styles in pop music certainly helps when you have to do something more quirky. It all works because there's something about good music in any genre. I certainly have a big orchestral background...I'm a trained classical pianist since childhood on, I've studied the classics even while I was producing pop records, that's why I always enjoyed doing string charts and doing a lot of arranging when I wasn't producing. But, the two work with each other, especially in the modern medium we have, you know, the hybrid scores that happen in a lot of films - you need to have a command of the orchestra, you need to have a command of rhythm and different styles. I think pop music helped me understand and make that transition and has been a nice little advantage for me.
As a relative newcomer to the mainstream film composing world, what do you think of the current state of the more collaborative film scoring that often goes on?
AARON: I think for a lot of composers it's because it's a tough field to crack that. The problem I feel on some of these scores that I hear where you have big houses of composers working under the auspices of one person is that for me, I often, not all the time, but I will hear a score like that and it will sound disjointed because it's not one person doing all the work. It will sound a mish-mosh...you'll hear a little theme here, then you'll hear 4 or 5 cues that are completely different in the sense of the cloth of the score. Now, in fairness to a situation where you only have 2 weeks to get a score done, well, that's certainly warranted. A man can only physically write so much music in a certain amount of time. So, sometimes that's necessary and that's why I wouldn't pass judgment on that function in that type of scoring because it can be daunting for anybody in two weeks to have to write an hour and a half of music. But I've heard scores where they do that and they have had time so it can be an advantage or a disadvantage in the quality and consistency.
I prefer to orchestrate my own music and do everything. On "The Notebook" I had quite a bit of time where I was on the project a long time. I think that shows because the music becomes so ingrained with the picture. Yet, I just finished a film where I only had 3 weeks and I orchestrated most of it and that's cool too. I think it's the amount of time you have to get a product out that will determine what the division of labor will be. It really varies from project to project, so I think these days for anyone to complete a score and to get it through the final dub and out there on the streets...that's a feat for anyone so my hats off to anyone who can complete the job and please their director and studio. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about. You're doing the best you can and making the person you work for satisfied. That's the business of film scoring: to work with the people around you and have them like your product.
By the time we hear it out on the streets, it's gone through a lot of morphs, a lot of opinions, a lot of suggestions. It's how one conforms himself in that arena, personally as well as having the tools and the talent. It's how you get along with people. It's one's ability to put one's ego on the shelf because if you've got a big ego and you're reticent to criticisms, ideas and opinions, when you walk into a room full of 6 to 8 people, you're in the wrong business. Relationships are very important.
Who have been some of your most seminal teachers, mentors, inspirations?
AARON: I'll focus first on influences ... Vaughn Williams, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Mahler, [and] the impressionistic juice of Ravel. For modern day guys, I love Ennio Morricone, who has a heart the size of the Grand Canyon. You can't ignore John Williams. He doesn't influence me; I just like him as a composer - he is one of the best alive today.
Are there certain actors whose performances have inspired you to write melodies?
AARON: Sure, Laurence Fishburne in that one scene in the garden in "Akeelah and the Bee." What a beautiful soul that guy is. That alone made me write. Also, Rachel McAdams' performance in "The Notebook" was wonderful.
Is it true you had the same car mechanic as Bernard Herrmann?
AARON: (Laughs) Yes, Harry Nichols. The nicest old British guy you'd ever want to meet. Every time I'd come in, he'd tell me Benny Herrmann anecdotes. He fixed Benny's car one time and Benny kept bringing it back, saying, "No, I want a concert C! The engine's humming in another note."
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