Composer Mark Isham Wasn’t First Choice For Semi-Meta Action-Comedy Nicolas Cage The unbearable weight of massive talentbut it was good.
Isham had sent his reel when the call for a composer first went out, but when he didn’t score the job, the award-winning musical mind behind countless films – including the Cage films bad lieutenant, Following and Fly – hid the project in the back of his head. It was something he might want to see, even if he couldn’t work it out in the end.
Then the phone rang.
“A call a few months later said they’re having issues and would like to see me again,” Isham recalled.
But he still hadn’t seen the movie. In fact, all he had at the time was a two-line synopsis. So he asked to see what he was going to do. The viewing was an opportunity to see “exactly how it worked and how awesome it was” before he delivers his pitch.
His concept combined his musical treatment of Cage on other projects with multiple genres and thematic concepts, with a strong Spaghetti Western influence. With the help of director and co-writer Tom Gormican, whom Isham told The Hollywood Reporter was “very practical”, it delivered a “multi-genre score by Nick Cage”.
“We dabbled in everything – the moody stuff, the passionate ones. We use flamenco guitars; we use Spaghetti Western; we use hardcore action music,” Isham said.
Following the film’s theatrical release on April 22, the composer spoke with THR on the influences of the score and various Cage references and worked with the film’s director and music supervisor to create Unbearable weightthe musical identity of.
What was this working relationship with director Tom Gormican?
Tom is very, very collaborative. He had worked on the music not just for temporary music but on a score with someone else. He had so many ideas. He knew a lot of things that weren’t working and he had some ideas of what would work. So my first job was to pitch these ideas – to about 15-20 minutes of music – and they worked. We continued from there, he’s famous, but he’s a very practical guy – lots of thoughts, lots of opinions, lots to try. We ended up with something that I was very happy with.
Did you work closely with other people in the music department, like the music supervisor, to help you set the tone and decide between composition or needle drop?
Yes, George Drakoulias and then Julia Michels, in the music department at Lionsgate, who was also very involved. George and I talked quite often because he had some big needle drop moments. Tom kept saying, “Maybe we should try a song here or a needle drop instead of a cue here”, so we would go back and forth. George would call me and say, “Listen, he wants to try a needle stick here. That’s what he’s looking for. It might be better to score, but you have to know that’s what he’s looking for. So we had a lot of discussions about it, and he’s a great collaborator. He is very good at what he does. And Julia just backed it all up. She was a wonderful support system when those late nights rolled around.
You have composed many film scores, including several for Nicolas Cage films. How was this project different for you?
That’s exactly the question I asked myself when they called me and said they wanted you to tag this photo. I said, “Well, all I’ve heard of is a two-line synopsis, and I haven’t a clue if that even works.” (Laughs.) So they sent me the picture and luckily — of course — it’s fine. When I thought about it, I said it just needed a traditional score, or even a score influenced by pre-Nicolas Cage films. I went back to Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin and listened to this kind of almost spaghetti western type stuff if you will. Because, after all, it’s a buddy movie with its roots in a Western confrontation. But it is also much more. It gets very modern in the chase scenes, with modern percussion because the movie demands it. But basically, it’s very traditional. It has a large eight-bar John Berry-type theme. I think it allows the audience to wink, nudge. We’re just having a good time here.
Have you composed any Cage-related Easter Eggs or your past scores for the Unbearable weight music?
There is a tribute – a small personal tribute – to Mr. [Hans] Zimmer. There’s also a few Nick Cage action movies that I’ve scored, so I’ve got my little things that I slipped in there for the sheet music I made with them. One of my favorite Nicolas Cage scoring moments before this one was with a Werner Herzog movie. bad lieutenant. And that, of course, is about as far removed from this movie as it gets. It’s darker than dark. There were a few times when I tried to borrow stuff. There’s a lot of drug trance stuff in this movie, and, of course, there’s the acid-taking scene in this movie. It’s a bit of a stretch, but for me, I can hear it. I don’t know if anyone else would ever hear it.
Two of the songs in your score serve as yet another Nick Cage reference in a Russian doll movie of Nicolas Cage references. There’s “Nick-Napped” and “You Must Kill Nicolas Cage”. Can you tell us about what is behind these titles in terms of meaning and music?
“Nick-Napped” is the film’s turning point. You were teased by Tiffany Haddish. You know she’s in the CIA, but you’re not sure how that will affect Cage. So when he’s kidnapped, and they’re sitting in the van, and he’s told the truth, it turns this movie into a whole other [movie.] This title is a play on words. But in the scene itself, we enter the action genre for the first time. The suspenseful kind. Shit is different here. It actually seems like lives are at stake. Up until then, it was just kind of funny. You feel like ‘Oh, Nick, stop crying. You are a star.’ (Laughs.) But he’s so good at being that character, sad Nick Cage. But then you realise, “Oh my God, he could actually be in a real-life situation, and this movie has taken a 180-degree turn.” So the music must have changed there. All of a sudden the low bass came in, the grooves, the notes of tension, it all starts to build from that scene. Until the end, really.
“You must kill Nicolas Cage” – this line comes off the screen so loud. The cousin turns to Javi [Gutierrez, played by Pedro Pascal] and said, “You must kill Nicolas Cage.” You realize that for Javi it’s a phrase, and there couldn’t be a worse phrase that he would ever hear from anyone in his entire life. Someone just told him he has to kill the man he idolized and adored and who has now become one of his best friends, if not his best. It is a line of utter despair and terror. Javi would never recover. The line itself should therefore be used as the title. It’s just too good a line not to. (Laughs.)
This movie has so many genres. What was the most difficult genre or aspect of scoring?
What makes music fun isn’t necessarily the music itself. Obviously you have Spike Jones and you have some kind of fun music. But it’s a very small genre, and it’s not used much in comedy movies. What makes music fun is juxtaposition. You put a [Joseph] The Haydn String Quartet is the last place you would expect to hear a Haydn String Quartet, and it’s funny. Or you put a James Brown song in a scene where you never expect to hear that, and it makes you stop. So it’s this juxtaposition of a genre in a place, used in a way you don’t expect. I think that was the most difficult thing, for example, in the scene where Vivian, the character of Tiffany Haddish, describes to Nicolas Cage that a film must have a hook. I have maybe 15 versions of this replica on my computer. What are you doing that connects her that you didn’t expect, that’s not part of this movie, that makes funny what she’s telling Nick just by the juxtaposition of this music? It took us at least 15 tries to find something that worked. In this case, it’s not about the notes. It’s not E flat or F. It’s really about the concept.
Beyond this comedy or action, there are emotionally dramatic moments for “Nick Cage.” Is there a musical moment that stood out to you telling that part of the film’s story, and how did you approach that compositionally?
There is a death that occurs in its most flamboyant form; then, he comes to this personal realization in a very surreal moment there. Ultimately, there’s a heartfelt reunion of a family at the end, and it shows. I dressed him in every possible different costume. I made a Morricone, a kind of Farfisa organ with a vocal version. We did a full orchestra version of 90 musicians and a small chamber music orchestra with a solo cello version. He gets a lot of different clothing changes.
Before, you mentioned that spaghetti westerns had a noticeable influence on the score. What did you draw from to recreate this sound?
It comes from Ennio Morricone and the Clint Eastwood movie series he did of westerns. Even though they’re made by Italians and scored by Italians, it’s something very American. The two tough guys face each other in the town square and go to shoot each other. Morricone came up with these beautiful sorts of orchestrations for that which were totally improvised. Something no one had ever really done before. I didn’t want to get bogged down, but I borrowed this tremolo electric guitar that’s used there. Then I increased it in different ways. It’s a tribute that I think I loved, and then the director said, ‘Let’s take more! (Laughs.) So whenever these guys get caught up in this kind of showdown – when Javi was told, ‘You have to kill Nicolas Cage’ – we can come down to that guitar. It brings that sort of iconic memory back to the American West and the Clint Eastwood-esque characters of villains who have to kill. It is now. It is noon.
Is there a favorite music from the film for you?
Not every movie gives a composer a chance to actually write that Pulitzer Prize-winning composition. A lot of the time you do something so specific to a movie that, yeah, you’re happy with what you did, and you’re proud of it, but maybe that’s not all you would do in another kind. Every now and then movies give you that opportunity, and I would have thought this movie wouldn’t have one. Most comedies don’t. But in the scene where Javi takes a stand in the street, Tom turned to me and said, “We’re going to turn off the effects. This is your stage, mate,” and I sort of went there. It’s almost a moment like that for me with this movie, where I said it was a really good piece of music, and I stand by that compositionally. I’m so glad it’s in a movie like this because it’s very rare.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.