LIVING IN THE AGE OF AIRPLANES: INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN TERWILLIGER
JHFM chats with filmmaker Brian Terwilliger on the eve of the home media release of his documentary and soundtrack album.
JHFM: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. The charter of the James Horner Film Music Association, now that he’s no longer with us, is to celebrate and preserve the legacy of James Horner and his music. We’re grateful that you could chat with us about your experience working with him on one of his last projects.
BT: My pleasure.`
JHFM: Your first film, One Six Right, was about the romance of flight and in some ways was geared more towards aviators and aviation enthusiasts, whereas Living in the Age of Airplanes is more for the masses. How did you go about bringing the poetic sensibilities of your first film into one that was more about how aviation affects the everyday world?
BT: That’s a great question. You know, in One Six Right, the first film, visuals were really important, the music was really important. But the message was much more geared towards pilots, and people who loved to fly. Why they love to fly. And a lot of pilots loved that film, because it talks about what they love, it shows what they love. So, it’s pretty easy to get pilots excited: show them airplanes, talk about airplanes, show people talking about loving airplanes. They’re in!
Now, try to make a story and try to take those sensibilities—you know, the visuals, the music, and the emotion of that—but make it interesting and exciting and romantic in some way and awe-inspiring to people that don’t like aviation, that don’t like airplanes, that when they think of airports or flying, they don’t have a positive association with it, they think about frustration and inconvenience… That’s what more people—most people—think that about flying and aviation and airplanes than the really passionate group that are pilots. So, it was tricky to be able to do that, so in the messaging of the film and the story of the film, it was a perspective piece. It really puts you back into looking at all of history and all the time we’ve been on this planet, and how hard it is to get around, how big this planet is, which we don’t really think about or see anymore, because we’re all born into the time of the airplane. Everyone alive today is born into a world where we can already do this thing that’s amazing but it’s so ordinary, because it’s all we’ve ever known; it’s always been this way. So, say, a smart phone, this sort of thing is new to us: the Internet, having Google Maps in your pocket is new to us, and we really appreciate it, and we really realize how new it is and how helpful it is to us, because we know the time prior to it. We lived in that time, most of us. That perspective has really been lost for aviation, so it’s very big-picture about what it means to live in the age of airplanes. So, the visuals and the music are really important to make people really get a sense of the specialness to something they otherwise might not be interested in or actually have some sort of anxiety about. Making something they don’t necessarily care about is quite tricky to do.
JHFM: I think you were quite successful. It’s known that James Horner, an avid aviation enthusiast and pilot himself, actually sought you out to be involved in this project, having loved your first film. Can you tell us a little bit about how that came to be?
BT: I’d met James through a mutual friend, a pilot. And he had seen, as you mentioned, One Six Right, my first film, and enjoyed that film very much, which was great. And that’s how the conversation got started. I invited him over to the office to see some of the early footage we’d shot, because I was trying to get him hooked on this thing and excited about it; he was absolutely my first pick. I remember talking to him on the phone and trying to figure out a time to get together, and he was very busy—this was, like, 2009 or something, maybe 2010—and we were looking at calendars, and he said, “Well how about tomorrow? What are you doing tomorrow at 5?” And I’m like, “Uh… yeah, that’s fine! Tomorrow’s perfect!” So, it was a five o’clock meeting. He came by the office, we had a bunch of footage prepped for him, and we’re in the edit bay, and we had a couple of recliner-type chairs in there. And just a few minutes in, he was like a kid in a candy store. He was absolutely loving it, kicked off his shoes, hopped up on the recliner, Indian-style, and just, “Show me more, show me more, show me more.” And we kept showing him, and showing him, and showing him. He was there until—I remember vividly—9:45 at night. Almost five hours. It was incredible, it was so cool, just to see his passion and love for it, and talking through the sequences, and the story, and the music. Of course, he walked around the office. He has a globe collection, I had a globe collection; a model airplane collection, so does he. It was really cool, how much we connected on so many levels. We even knew more of the same people than we knew we knew, and had in common. It was really wonderful, and he was so committed to this project.
JHFM: Did you have an opportunity to go to his studio as well at some point?
BT: Actually, no. I didn’t go to his studio. We were working remotely for most of the time. They would be sending mock-ups and such, and it went really well. We were on a really tight schedule, actually to do this back in 2014, that summer. It all came together very quickly and, so, no—I was never at his studio.
JHFM: His personal spaces were known for being filled with model airplanes, like you mentioned, and remote control helicopters that he’d built from scratch, and all kinds of exotic toys. It was like a magical contraption-filled wonderland. A shame that visiting that was never in the cards.
Now, James was at the world premiere of Living in the Age of Airplanes, which took place on an Emirates A380 out of LAX… and that was only ten weeks before he died, flying one of his own planes not far from where the film premiered. Tell us about the last time you saw James.
BT: Oh, wow. Well, the last time I saw him was actually at the premiere in Washington, D.C. It was all the same week. On Monday was the in-flight premiere, out of Los Angeles on the Emirates A380, and then the Wednesday, was Washington, D.C., the [Smithsonian] Air and Space Museum—and that was the world premiere, in IMAX. And… that was the last time that I saw him. His commitment to the film and to promoting the film was incredible. You can never count on or expect that someone at his level is going to be able to attend those events, or is willing to give that much of their time. Especially at that time, he was in London, mostly. I think he was preparing for Titanic Live, which was the same month, and was very, very busy and was not in the States at the time. So, he made a very special trip, coming from London to Los Angeles on Sunday for the Monday in-flight premiere, traveled Tuesday to D.C., got him a tour of the Air & Space Museum, was there Wednesday for the premiere at the Air & Space Museum, and then off back to London on Thursday. So, it was a big commitment out of the week and out of that month for him. It was really, really special for me to have him there. He was so eager and willing to just support it. “Brian, whatever you want and whatever you need,” and “Yes, I want to help,” and “If you think that will help, yes, I’ll be there.” So, he was really fantastic to work with, and I enjoyed his company, and his talents were certainly… well, they’re immeasurable.
JHFM: Once you knew that James was going to be on board, you’ve mentioned getting your hands on as much as you could of what James had written to begin temp-tracking your film. Were you familiar with his music before that?
BT: Oh, yeah. I have a playlist—I’ve had a playlist—on my iPod, for about ten years, twelve years or something. Probably one of the first playlists I’ve ever had. It auto-populates as a Smart Playlist, so when the soundtrack actually comes out next week, it’s going to be really interesting to see it just show up. So, of course—I’m very familiar with his music and love it very much.
JHFM: Was there anything he’d done that you really love that you’d have liked to see something like it in your work, but just didn’t fit this film, musically?
BT: Gosh. I feel like all the music in this film very much fits this film, and that’s the most important thing. So much of his music that I love very much, that style, or those particular cues, obviously might not fit for this film. It’s not a character-based film. It doesn’t have some of those moments. The moments that it does have need to be supported musically, appropriately. And I feel that it’s there, it all feels very custom, which is what’s amazing about an original score; it’s really beautiful. So, no—I think everything he brought to the film, and, musically, the way the film is in its final form—I wouldn’t wish it any different.
JHFM: Do you recall what you did end up temp-tracking and how much of it might have influenced his approach?
BT: You know, we had so many versions of things, it’s hard to remember what we ended up with in the end. I know some of it was still James’s stuff, a lot of it was other stuff, but I don’t actually recall any particular cues. I know we talked about a lot of things, we listened to a lot of things, and it was very collaborative. He was very willing and wanting to make something special and different. Some of it is very James Horner-esque, some of it is very different. There’s the big rock anthem at the end that’s really unique and different, but it really fits what this movie is. I really loved the diversity, as well.
JHFM: Horner was known for sometimes revisiting earlier material of his, wanting to take the time to explore the ideas further. This is extremely fresh music from him. Maybe a little bit of Avatar that you can hear in a few cues and some other hints here and there, but those of us who’ve heard the score are very impressed with how new and fresh this was from him, even though it still has a lot of his hallmarks and trademarks. We’re very grateful for one of his last efforts to be a film like yours that was able to evoke a lot of that from him. So: thank you.
BT: No, thank you.
JHFM: Was the film locked when he began composing, or was it iterative?
BT: By the time he was composing, it was locked, at that point. There was an earlier cut that he was starting to write to, more than a year prior, and we started making a lot of changes because we started shortening the film and reformatting it for the giant screen in IMAX. It needed to be under an hour. The first cut was much longer. We put a pin in what he was doing—in everybody; we sort of stopped, unlocked the picture, created the final film which became the one that we now have, the only version, which is a shorter, giant-screen cut—forty-seven minutes. But once he started on that, it was locked; it didn’t change. So, that was a luxury for him, something that he says he rarely, rarely (if ever) gets anymore. Because, there’s always changes. And, if nothing else, there’s always visual effects shots that are coming in so late or change last-minute or cut out or shortened, and then everything has to conform to that. A measure is gone because a shot’s only ten seconds instead of twelve seconds, and it’s just a mess. Music Editorial is required to make it fit again. And sometimes—often times, I’ve learned—that the original score is modified quite a bit to finish and fit the final cut of a film, because that locked picture gets unlocked and relocked, and locked and unlocked. So, with this cut, by the time he was running with it in the summer of 2014, it stayed the same cut.
JHFM: That really amazing, final visual effects shot, tracking all the flights in the world in real time over the Earth… Did James Horner have that available to him when he composed, or was it just all the pre-viz work that you’d been doing?
BT: Yeah. No, that wasn’t available yet. That was one of the very last things to get finished. The only thing that was there were basically the shots of the Earth—a lower resolution version of the Earth without any airplane activity. We always had words on screen describing what’s going to happen, describing what you’d be seeing. But none of that made the cut until basically after the music was done.
JHFM: The main theme has lots of presentations, with many different orchestrations. But the really notable one is with the vocalist and backing choir singing—you can’t quite tell if it’s African-influenced, or if it’s supposed to maybe be the Islands, or… what, exactly. Was it a conscious choice on your and James’s part to make it global, but undefinably so, or did that just come out of the creative process?
BT: I don’t know, that’s something that’s all James. It feels like it just fits the film. I don’t know how he did what he did, what the inspiration was. I definitely like the vocal sense of it. Reminiscent certainly of Titanic, Avatar, so many of other voices in his work. But there’s something very human there. Especially in a film like this, where it’s not character-driven, having a human element in the music and the way he used vocals really does ground it. That was something that was really important to me. He found that, and it really works.
JHFM: You’ve said that Horner really knocked it out of the park for you on this film. Did you ever talk about possibly working together again on your future projects?
BT: There wasn’t really any definite conversations about that. I certainly would have loved to have had that opportunity, but, no, we never talked about that. It was always about this film. In the months between it and the premiere, we touched base about the film and I told him about what was going on with it. Then, getting ready for the launch and the premiere. We’d swapped emails just a few days prior—about a week prior—to his accident. He was very kind. He wrote the nicest email about him flying around Los Angeles, talking on radio on frequency to controllers who knew who he was, saying, “Hey—we’re so excited!”, because they were seeing promotions about the movie, and they were asking him about the movie, and they said, “Tell Brian we say ‘hi’”, because these controllers in L.A. know One Six Right. It was like this really small-world thing. And he was so like a kid, explaining it to me. “I’ve never, in all my flying, had these types of conversations on the radio about stuff I’d worked on. It was so cool, they were so interested and excited about the movie.” And then… the news, just a week or so later. But, no, we’d not talked about the future.
JHFM: Perhaps a difficult question. Your films are about the dream, the thrill, the benefit of flying, but you don’t really discuss much about the dangers of small craft flying. Just a month before your film premiered, one of your principal storytellers, Harrison Ford, was gravely injured flying a small craft. Two months later, James Horner, your other key storyteller, died flying one of his own planes. Has that changed at all any of your enthusiasm for aviation; looking back on your films, do you think the story is any different?
BT: No. You know, the tragedy is incalculable, and the loss, for sure. It doesn’t change aviation for me, in terms of my love of it, in terms of the message in the film and the way the film portrays aviation and all the ways it’s changed the world and how special it is to live in the time of the airplane versus any other time in history we could be born into. I think it’s a fascinating time and aviation, like driving a car or so many other things—is it perfect? No. Is there some risk? Yes. Is there more risk in small planes and private flying than in big planes and commercial flying? Yeah. Those facts haven’t changed, and it’s very unfortunate, but it doesn’t impact my love or enthusiasm at all for it. Ever since I was a kid, I think it’s a beautiful thing. I feel very fortunate to have aviation be a part of my life and to be able to share with others through the two films, seeing aviation in a different way, seeing the ordinary extraordinary all over again. To me, it’s something I want to continue to do. I’m very passionate about it.
JHFM: It definitely shows in your work. Now, you’ve been mixing the score for the soundtrack release up to very recently. What, besides the obvious volume adjustments for dialogue, were you trying to achieve in your soundtrack mix beyond what you mixed for the movie?
BT: Very few changes at all except for exactly that—volume, leveling things out to be consistent for soundtrack release. Dynamic range typically is less for a soundtrack than in a film. And, Mastered for iTunes requires certain things you have to do. One of them, of course, is keeping everything at its original 48k and 24-bitm and so… it’s really going to sound fantastic. I’m very excited about it. It will really sound like the narrator and the sound effects got turned off, and you’re listening exactly to the music in the film, pretty much as it is in the film.
JHFM: Based on what was released to us earlier this week, it sounds absolutely phenomenal. Stunningly gorgeous.
Speaking of Mastered for iTunes, we noticed a change in your website about whether you’re going to distribute in other digital venues like Amazon and Google Play?
BT: It very likely will be. In fact, it will be on both of those—Amazon Download and Google Play. We just aren’t certain yet it’s going to be on the 25th. iTunes for sure, the 25th, possibly all three on the 25th. But at this time we’re promising iTunes on October 25th, very likely Google Play and/or Amazon—could be on the 25th, if not then very shortly thereafter.
JHFM: Well, we’ll keep in touch with the PR agency so we can correctly report the availability. You did mention on Facebook the possibility that you’re considering a physical release. What’s necessary to make that happen?
BT: I’m talking to a couple record labels that are very interested in doing it. They believe the demand is there, for sure. I’ve wondered if there was. Because, doing a physical release, as you know, is a much more complicated thing. Creating a physical product, designing a physical product, shipping, and storing, and inventory, it’s a whole other thing. Digital is so much easier. I will love the physical, for sure—if there is an audience to do it. If there’s only a few hundred people who want it, the die-hard fans, then it would be a loss to actually do it.
JHFM: These labels are highly proficient in making it work for everyone, even just a limited release of only 3,000-5,000 copies. The fans get what they want, they make money, the craft of film music is served.
BT: That’s what they’re proposing. It sounds like it will make sense, we’ll just have to see which one of them really gets involved, and—to be continued…
JHFM: We look forward with hope, then. Thank you so much for your time to share with us your working experiences with James Horner, and for making such a worthy film to bring out such brilliant work from him in his last-released film score.
BT: Oh, it’s been a pleasure and an honor, all around.
a physical release would be a dream come true. from what i heard in the samples it’s an outstanding score. a real gift. thank you, jean-baptiste, for this wonderful interview!!
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