Interview: Mark Mothersbaugh from "The Lego Movie"
Musician Mark Mothersbaugh is known by many as the Energy Dome headgear wearing lead singer of the classic rock band DEVO. And over the past 30 years he has built a career as a composer of films that rivals anyone in history. Among the dozens of films he has done, he has composed Wes Anderson films like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and he has done animation classics like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. His most recent film, The Lego Movie, is one of the top three movies in America. Mark was kind enough to sit and talk with us here at Movie Room Reviews and tell us about his work on The Lego Movie and what it takes to be a composer in Hollywood.
Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews: This is truly fantastic. I have so many questions for you, I could talk to you all day, but I know I can't. So, I'll get started with your latest project, The Lego Movie. You're one of the people responsible for bringing everything as awesome into homes around the world.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Sorry about that. It was important to the movie. It was important to the story.
MRR: Well you were the composer for the film, can you tell us all about your part in making this wonderful film?
Mark Mothersbaugh: It's the fourth movie I've done with this director team. We had a pretty good working relationship, and we're pretty relaxed. I was looking for a sound to create the universe of Lego Land, so I went through my synthesizer collection, my electronic music collection of instruments going all the way back to Devo stuff and using circuit bent things from the 90s all the way to more like rave stuff. I put together like a palette of sounds and then went from there.
MRR: You kind of went through looking for a ‘square’ sound that would be present in Lego land?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah. I was looking for kind of interesting sounds. When I saw early tests of the animation that came back and you'd see like an ocean wave crashing and it was all Lego bricks. There was like a couple million Lego bricks crashing and sea foam. It looked so amazing and it was definitely a Lego world, I wanted to make the music as special as the Lego World visually was.
MRR: You mentioned you were working with this directing team and Phil Lord, you've worked with him several times with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 1 and 2, and 21 and 22 Jump Street. How does the relationship work between the director and composer?
Mark Mothersbaugh: You come in at different points in the film. If it's your first film together, you may not come in until after he has a rough cut. An example is, Wes Anderson, our first film I came in after he was already screening it, and he needed a score. But by the time we got to Life Aquatic, I was writing music for him to listen to in his earphones, while he was shooting. He sat on the sofa behind my keyboard here, and he had his laptop, he'd said, "You know I'm gonna add a composer to the film. What kind of music equipment would they be using?" And he explained that they were not, they were like the unsuccessful version of Jacque Cousteau. That they hadn't changed equipment since the '70s, and I said, "well, probably sounds like they would've been using equipment like Devo used back when we started." So, we went downstairs in my studio here, and we pulled out a couple of old synthesizers and it was an old Oberheim that I got the sound for Ping Island off of.
You get in at different points and with these guys, we talked about it. I knew the movie was coming for a while before we got to it. I always had it in the back of my mind that I would be putting together sounds for Lego. And so, when they finally gave me the first test, I was already looking for things that would sound like you were in the Lego World.
MRR: When I was thinking about, 'cause you have a dream job of mine, and one of the things I think as a composer's job is almost to fill the gaps, the space with music where people can't even tell its there, because it's so brilliantly placed. Is that how you feel about a lot of the music that you put into movies?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Sometimes, and then sometimes you get to take over, but a lot of times it really is, especially in the case with Lego, you're helping the little plastic face emit emotion. You're helping people see that Emmet's heart is broken or that he's fearing for his life, or that Wildstyle is angry and is gonna kick his butt in a second. That's kind of the fun part about animation.
In some movies, you really stay way in the back and in a movie like this it's like some of the music suffices as sound effects too, so you get chances to stand out now and then too, so that's one of the things that attracts me to animation.
MRR: And I was just gonna ask you that because one profession I was considering was being a Foley artist, and as a composer in a way you're adding these sound effects to certain things that are happening on screen. Do you have to adjust your musical timing around or is that something that the editors do?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Yeah. And because Foley and sound effects are happening at the very end of the movie it's the same time the scoring is, you have to kind of talk to those people and find out what they’re doing and hear what they're doing and they wanna hear what I'm doing and I write my music so that I could anticipate what I need to do. They have a great sound effect for a motorcycle that's gonna obliterate everything else or what if he doesn't have the great sound and the music's better? You try and anticipate as much as you can then give the directors options when they do their final mix 'cause maybe the early sound effects of the motorcycles that I had on my chase scene sound nothing at all like the ones that ended up in the final version of the film and you don't know till after they do the final mix what they're gonna want, so it is a little bit tricky sometimes.
MRR: [laughter] When you begin to write, it sounds like you start with the instruments that you'll be using. Is that true or do you start more with a rhythm or a melody?
Mark Mothersbaugh: I know I said it like that but it was a combination of both for this movie 'cause I was looking for a real specific sound for the World of Lego, for this world that we were gonna be in. I was looking for something so that in an ideal world you'd be in another room and you could hear the Lego movie playing and you go, "Oh that's Lego." But really, I like to start with themes almost always in movies so I was writing themes for the different characters and the different situations in the movie early on. Funny thing is, is we even get to recycle stuff now. The love theme between Emmett and Wildstyle I had originally written it for 21 Jump Street and we used a different piece of music for 21 Jump Street but they remembered this and they had it on their laptops so when they were first cutting together the early sequences they put in this other love theme from 21 Jump Street that never got in that movie and it worked perfect so we incorporated it into Lego.
MRR: Now my little nephew, he watches you paint on Yo Gabba Gabba [laughter]. What is so wonderful about working on programs for kids and what are the challenges musically?
Mark Mothersbaugh: I'm Mark the Artist, yeah, the art teacher. But the thing with music or art, anything, kids are much more open to different kinds of mash-ups and to different kinds of musical ideas. In fact, when kids start going into puberty then they start trying to figure who they are and what they are and they're trying to get harder edged and then they're on their way to becoming little tiny adults and they start closing their mind up. People later on, they remember music from that time period, it's like the best music that ever happened. And for me it might've been Beatles and Rolling Stones, and for my daughters it's probably like, I hate to say it, stuff like One Direction and Bruno Mars [laughter] but it's because that's their coming of age music. For everybody that's the stuff that's really important. But kids, you can mash-up a Watusi dance with Italian sci-fi from the '60s and they go with it.
They love the idea, you know? For them that's like, "Oh, that sounds great, what is that?"
MRR: [laughter] I was wondering if you could help me inspire hope in the thousands of musicians and composers out there that wanna be you, that want your job. But for those out there, guys like me with home studios, good instruments with MIDI and sound libraries, how can we compete?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Can I tell you something, there's never been a better time, at least in my lifetime, there's never been a better time to be into the arts. The things that kids have at their fingertips is just incredible. There's phone apps that are more powerful than the Beatles had to record their first album on. And you can sit there and put a song together and if you really like it you don't have to go try and talk a record company into letting you sign a deal and then them putting it out, you just go right to the Internet, you put it on YouTube or you put it on your own website. You eliminate all this stuff that was in the way when I was a kid from being an artist and you just get to be an artist.
I think I would love to be 18 right now 'cause it's such a great time. And the tools are just incredible. My 9 and 12-year-old, they're making videos at home and they don't even know, they don't even know how much work it was making the first Devo video. It took us like about a year from the time Jerry and I started a design company so we could earn the money. We had to save $3000 up so we could pay for it. And then we had to get the equipment and we had to talk to people in editing rooms in Minneapolis to let us come in and edit on off hours, and it took about a year at the end. And my daughters, for them it's like they don't even know about any of that. They just know that there's an app on their iPad and they get together with their friends and they're making music videos. It's crazy.
MRR: So, you think it's possible for someone to be able to get scores that you get and do the things that you do without having a million dollar studio?
Mark Mothersbaugh: Well, of course everything is possible and more so now than ever. I think it's also changing constantly. I mean already it's kind of a liability to own a studio. It's a liability to own a facility because so many people can write music anywhere. You can sit in traffic and pull out your iPad and start writing some music while you're waiting for the light to change. It's so transparent now. It doesn't really require a studio and all that stuff. I mean I have this place 'cause it's my private studio and I moved here a long time ago. And so I'm comfortable here. But, I think being a film composer in five years will not resemble what I do now. I think it'll be much different. And as far as somebody, if they really think that's what they really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, wanna do, I have one suggestion I would make. I could probably have two, but the one that I think is really the best one is I would, instead of thinking, "Oh, I'm gonna go to Hollywood and make a film.", I would go to the local college, local schools, where there's people making movies, directing a movie. And maybe those movies aren't gonna be that great. Maybe they're gonna be very, very low budget, a shoestring at best, and maybe you won't even get paid. But, let it be known that you're available for free, or you're available cheap and you just wanna score a film for them.
And then when somebody gives you a film, just make sure that you write something that is so good that no matter how bad the film is or how many things are wrong with the film, how flawed it is because it's people learning how to make a film, maybe if it never even goes out into a general release, maybe it's just good enough to get into a festival or something, make your music so good that people go, "Yeah, the film was alright, but did you hear the music? The music was incredible.". Just do something like that. Do something really great and put all your energy and everything you have into it, and make it something great. And that is to me a much better way to go than to like drive out to California and then advertise yourself as an unknown entity because there's too many people out here already.
MRR: Well, thank you so much, Mark. I really appreciate it and it was such a pleasure talking with you, man. I can't even tell you.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Thank you.