Director-Composer Collaboration in “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”
by Scott Essman
Director-composer relationships have long resulted in some of the most memorable collaborations in movie history. Of course, there was Hitchcock and Herrmann. Spielberg and Williams. Zemeckis and Silvestri. Burton and Elfman. Now, a relatively more recent partnership has evolved between a director and composer that has had the effect of creating some of the most impacting film music of the last two decades. Enter Rob Cohen and Randy Edelman.
Starting in 1993 with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and continuing through this season’s December 16 DVD and Blu-Ray Hi Def release of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and likely well beyond, Cohen and Edelman have worked together to give the movies some of its greatest scores in modern cinema.
With six films together to date, the relationship is special to Edelman as Cohen is usually his own producer on their projects. “It’s nice to work with someone who is making most of the decisions,” says Edelman. “When he’s shooting a film, I usually go to the set. He likes me to soak up the vibe. When they were shooting The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and I saw some of the sets in this tomb, it evoked an emotion before I saw any footage from the film.”
As the relationship is an intimate artistic one, Cohen will often voice to Edelman what kind of character the music is to play in their discussions. Plus, Cohen is willing to meet with Edelman as often as the composer wishes. “Sometimes with other studios or directors, they will come over in a week when they make time,” the composer says. “Rob just shows up as soon as I ask him, and that shows up in the music. In the movies we’ve done together, we’ve got this rare history. In all of the films we’ve done, the music takes on a life of its own. It lives independently of the film even though the melodies comes out over what he’s created on film.”
With movies including Dragon, Dragonheart, xXx, Daylight, and The Skulls under their belts, it was destined that the two would work together again. But Edelman came onto Dragon Emperor by unorthodox means. “One year ago, completely by coincidence, I was in Shanghai leaving at four in the morning, and Rob was there leaving at 9am, and we didn’t know each other was there,” Edelman remembers. “We couldn’t believe it, but we decided to do this movie together. I got a call from his assistant because he was doing pre-production on the film. It was interesting that our first meeting about the film was there in China. That’s the first time, and now we’re finishing the score and soundtrack in June of 2008.”
Last fall, Edelman started working on ideas for the Dragon Emperor music. Production had shot in summer 2007 in China and following over several months in Montreal on stage. As Edelman prefers to come onto a project early, he got involved during stage work in Canada. “You really can’t tell a lot from the script,” he says. “It read a certain way, and there was an aspect of this that Rob wanted that’s not really on the paper. Two of the biggest musical themes in this picture were written before I saw any cut footage. Sometimes, that’s a great idea, but sometimes that’s a terrible idea where the purposes you thought the music can serve are not what they need to do in the film.”
With Dragon Emperor, Edelman knew that he would have a panoply of musical choices to implement. “This film has tremendous passion and emotion but huge action sequences,” he states. “It carries over from the previous Mummy movies, even though this is a completely different movie. It has a historical reality and is interwoven into the theme of this Chinese emperor. It turns into something quite unexpected.”
By January of 2008, Edelman started writing the actual music though many of the ideas were already in his head. “I had some strong thematic ideas,” he reflects. “There is nothing like having time if you are going in a good direction. If not, you get locked into things. There are so many aspects on this project: it’s a musical dream. “
And a dream it was, as Dragon Emperor has two hours of Edelman’s music in a two-hour two-minute movie. “I started writing after the first of the year and was in London at the end of April where we recorded at Abbey Road,” he says. “It was three months of really creative composing, working, and talking it out with Rob — being able to react to his reactions and having the time to digest what he told me after he heard what I was doing. This was probably the best relationship that we have had.”
With wall-to-wall music in the movie, naturally, every cue segues into another piece of music, and with only three months of writing, Edelman was pressed for time, but he made it work. “If the work schedule is right, and there is not lot of studio interference, it can work out,” the composer, 61, explains. “It was just Rob and I working on this movie. I can work on a small independent picture, and there are twenty people involved. But the studio really put this in Rob’s hands. The last movies that I’ve done, there’s a lot of interference where you are trying to placate people’s egos.”
Based on a historical fact, set in China before the wall was built, Dragon Emperor has many types of music mixed into its pastiche. “I think audiences will be surprised – it’s a real musical adventure,” said Edelman. “A whole wonderful prologue explains who this guy was. The audience knows who this character is who comes to life thousands of years later.”
When Edelman finally went to Abbey Road to record, it was a quick process. “The recording was a few weeks – that’s all you have,” he says. “I had ten days with the orchestra – members of London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, and some of the finest orchestral musicians in the world. I spent a lot of time with the London Chinese ensemble and time with ethnic percussion and non-orchestral instruments. “
Unlike other composers, Edelman routinely conducts the music that he writes. “This is what I do — I would never think of not doing that,” he says. “It’s so important to me because it’s my music – I orchestrate it and conduct it. Composers now have a different background – some don’t have the traditional musical background because there is a different way of doing it. If you come from the old way, it’s hard to relinquish the reins of composing scores and turning it over to other people to execute.”
In addition to conducting, Edelman played all of the piano parts live in Dragon Emperor’s score. “John Williams is exactly the same way,” he remarked. “He is of a different era than me but comes out of a traditional background. It’s different now – most people don’t conduct their own scores, but I don’t like sitting in a booth. I enjoy being in the room with musicians, and then I go in the booth and discuss it. I get it the best it can be, then I move on.”
In the studio, Cohen was actively involved and would provide Edelman with regular feedback. “Different directors have many ways of working – some of them back off and some of them are intimidated by it,” Edelman comments. “When you go in with an orchestra, they are all different. Rob is probably the best you would want him to be – he loves it more than anything in the process of making a movie. He knows what he wants and has very good comments. A lot of directors have a problem doing that.”
Regarding the language that they use when discussing various musical passages, Edelman described how he and Cohen have developed a shorthand disseminated in simple phrases. “You don’t have to discuss it in musical terms,” he says. “What do you like about a cue or what do you need from a cue that’s not there? He knew all the themes and out of two hours and 80-90 cues, he hadn’t seen only three. That’s how I’d like to work with everybody, so that they are not surprised by anything. I like to have a close interaction with the director rather than there be something where they are not tuned in with what I’m doing.”
“Because of the different kinds of styles and sounds,” Edelman continues, “we were on top of every aspect of the music. If Rob has an idea, I’d like to make sure that he gets to hear what was in his head. He’d be the first person to say that it was a bad idea.”
One idea that Cohen had came from a sound that he had heard on a location, one made by a Tibetan Horn – an eight-foot long floor-seated instrument – so Edelman determined to incorporate it into Dragon Emperor’s score. “There are one or two musicians in England who play it,” he says. “It’s a really cool sound and we found a few wonderful places for it. It was an idea that [Cohen] had that we decided to pursue in a few scenes. We also used an Erhu – a Chinese violin that’s hard to play in tune with an orchestra. They have to fit in the right register, but they make very beautiful sounds — a noise that evokes certain sensations with the right visuals that are very interesting and unique.”
Though many shots, effects and sections of dialogue on a movie of this size continue to change right until the film nears its release date, Edelman explained that a composer cannot wait for such elements to coalesce. “There is a certain point where you can stay writing and running around on a ball like a mouse in a cage,” he says. “You have to stop and execute what you were writing and record it, and then the music editor can edit it properly. If they make changes, the music will change – especially in this kind of film. You can do extraordinary things.”
Even after he got to the mixing stage of Dragon Emperor’s score, Edelman stayed actively involved, which is evidently his modus operandi for every step in the film scoring process. “I pre-mix myself, and mixing is when all those tracks – the electronic instruments, choirs, etc. — all of those colors are put together,” he states. “I have a lot of control and it’s pretty much adjustments when I do the final mix – fine-tuning.” Another important facet is that Edelman mixes during the actual recording process as well. “The best sound is to get the orchestra live in the room,” he claims, “and get the balance right at the time. Then, you adjust it in the end.”
In hindsight, Edelman noted that he always likes to feel like his last score is his best. “With Dragon Emperor, you are doing a certain type of picture, but this score affords me so many different textures and styles that I’ve done over the years,” he describes. “It was fun to pull out your action and comedy chops. It’s much easier to do a big beautiful drama that everybody takes seriously. I was able to take all of my scoring background and, in this one film, put a lot of it to use to make something really special.”
Featured in StudentFilmmakers Magazine, December 2008 Edition.
Sign Up for your own subscription to StudentFilmmakers Magazine.