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'World War Z' Composer Marco Beltrami Had to Pull Back "Aggressive" Score, Featuring Skulls, Emergency Sirens

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood June 4, 2013 at 4:28PM

The term 'family movie' might not be the first thing that comes to mind to describe "World War Z," the upcoming Brad Pitt-driven zombiepocalypse flick that pits a group of government workers against a pandemic of the undead. But that's exactly how composer Marco Beltrami--who has worked on the score for "World War Z for more than two year--thinks of the film. (Early review round-up is here.)
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Marco Beltrami
marco-beltrami.com Marco Beltrami

The term 'family movie' might not be the first thing that comes to mind to describe "World War Z," the upcoming Brad Pitt-driven zombiepocalypse flick that pits a group of government workers against a pandemic of the undead.  But that's exactly how composer Marco Beltrami--who has worked on the score for "World War Z for more than two year--thinks of the film. (Early review round-up is here.)

"It is a family movie--in certain respects," Beltrami told me by phone, after pulling over at one point so as not to lose signal. But Beltrami's horror DNA contributed to his having to pull back the "World War Z" score: it was too scary.

The composer cut his teeth on the horror genre: among his early works is the score for "Scream," and he's stayed with the franchise and similarly scary pics like remakes of "The Omen" and "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." But Beltrami has also branched out into more dramatic films, nabbing two Oscar nods: one for "3:10 to Yuma" and another for Kathryn Bigelow's Best Picture-winner "The Hurt Locker."

That last score is one of Beltrami's most innovative and impressive works, a jagged combination of traditional orchestral cues and unnerving soundscape that proved crucial to conveying both the film's drama and its intense sequences of high-stakes suspense.

For Beltrami, "World War Z" presented a similar--if thematically different--challenge, pairing the global mystery of the zombie pandemic's cause with a focus on Brad Pitt's character and his efforts to keep his family safe.  "I think the reason it's so successful," Beltrami told me, "is that it's able to function on an intimate level as well as a big, epic level."

In fact, Beltrami mentioned--perhaps surprisingly--that's he "not really a fan of horror movies."  As he admits, the kind of music he composes is well-suited to horror scores, with its extended orchestral techniques, unconventional use of instruments and exploration of different timbres and sounds.  But he says prefers composing outside of the horror genre, telling me, "I'm more interested in the dramatic essence of pictures and working creatively with sound for that."

It's no surprise, then, that the music to "World War Z" is full of Beltrami's signature sonic experimentation.  The score's fundamental harmonic structure is based on the U.S. Emergency Alert System's iconic siren, an overlay of two adjacent whole step tones that Beltrami and his frequent collaborator Buck Sanders processed and included in the music both on its own and in the orchestrations.

In addition to the sounds of the emergency siren, Beltrami's score also uses the jaws of the javelina (or peccary), a feral pig native to southwestern North America, to underscore the film's focus on the zombies' teeth, an important motif throughout "World War Z."  The idea was suggested to him, in fact, by none other than Tommy Lee Jones, with whom he is collaborating on the upcoming film "The Homesman."  Beltrami bought several peccary skulls and brought them to Abbey Road Studios in London, where the score was recorded, playing them himself at times and also collaborating with professional percussionists--who, he adds, jumped right into the challenge of playing the unusual instruments.

"World War Z," of course, experienced significant setbacks during its production process, with several big-name writers hashing out a complete overhaul of the third act that necessitated reshooting 30-40 minutes of the movie.  The delays required Beltrami to step away from the project for about a year, and he ended up having to significantly rethink the score's original feel--which he described as "harsh, dissonant and extremely aggressive"--after the studio worried the music could push the film towards an R rating rather than the intended PG-13.

The extended schedule, though, might prove to be a boon for Beltrami, who recently finished scoring "The Wolverine."  Up next: extra score work on "Carrie" as he conforms his music to picture following--you guessed it--reshoots.

This article is related to: Sound and Score, World War Z, Brad Pitt, Marc Forster


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.