4.0 Bringing you up to speed
In his eye-opening book Save The Cat, screenwriter Blake Snyder reveals the structure of the standard Hollywood screenplay: a three-act story with fifteen different “beats”. It’s important to realize that Snyder didn’t invent anything, rather, he deduced it from the hundreds of movies he watched after having read Syd Field’s seminal work Screenplay. Assuming correctly that the average Hollywood movie runs about 110 minutes, Snyder arrived at a remarkable conclusion. Not only are these fifteen beats present in the vast majority of scripts, but they always occur at roughly the same time: the Midpoint arrives at minute 55, All Is Lost at minute 75 and so on. Snyder also realized that this template gives a movie its internal rhythm, and directors who deviate from the mold had better know what they’re getting themselves into. I remember watching The Lion King back in 1994 and thinking that the movie struggled to get going after Elton John’s Circle of Life sequence (the Opening Image, in Snyder speak). I later learned that the movie’s first act, quite simply, spends forever churning out Exposition and takes too long to get to the Catalyst, the event that sets the story in motion. (I am using Blake Snyder’s terminology in italics. Seriously, read Save The Cat and you’ll never ever watch movies the same way again.)
Project X is a thriller with slight fantasy overtones. The story starts with a little chimp caught in the wild by poachers and sold to the highest bidder. It ends up at a university research facility, where graduate student Teri MacDonald teaches Virgil, as she calls him, sign language. However, when Teri’s grant is not renewed, Virgil is relocated to a zoo. Or so Teri is told. Since Virgil is the story’s protagonist and since he now moves from the Thesis World to the Antithesis World, the story’s second act kicks in.
Enter boisterous airman Jimmy Garrett, who took a girl and a bottle of champagne up in an army plane and promptly found himself grounded. He is assigned to a top-secret chimp training program, where he is to be the trainer of, you’ve guessed it, Virgil. During the early stages of the sunny second act, the chimps are trained to pilot a plane. The Fun and Games section offers plenty of histrionics, many of the apes clearly not knowing what to do. Virgil, however, as we have gleaned from the Opening Image, is obsessed with flying, and when Jimmy inadvertently makes the sign for “fly”, the chimp’s mind clicks, he takes a quick look at the simulator’s controls and takes off, to the surprise of all.
When the story reaches its Midpoint, the stakes are raised. Jimmy is asked to take Bluebeard, who has graduated to a red collar, to a flight simulator room, where both the character and the audience finally learn the military’s dark designs: once they have mastered the controls of a plane, the chimps are hit with a lethal dose of nuclear radiation and “fly on” until they’re dead. It’s the army’s way of finding out how long actual pilots would survive after delivering a nuclear payload. Jimmy is obviously appalled. Before long, Bad Guys Close In and Virgil is up next: he is to be sacrificed during a demonstration run for military bigwigs. Jimmy goes out on a limb: he manages to contact Teri MacDonald and together, they decide to break the monkeys out of captivity. Jimmy again steals a plane and plans to fly all the chimps to liberty. However, All Is Lost when Jimmy’s escape attempt is cut short and he and Teri are forced to leave the plane. During the story’s fantasy-tinged Finale, however, Virgil takes the pilot seat and takes off with the rest of the chimps. The Final Image sees the chimps returned to the wild. Synthesis has been achieved.
Project X was right up James Horner’s alley. For one thing, the Maestro was obsessed with narrative, and as such, must have known about the three-act structure (Hollywood’s best kept secret). Moreover, he must have felt a very personal connection with the story, especially with pilot Jimmy Garrett and with Virgil, the story’s protagonist who so desperately longs for the skies. Unsurprisingly, the Project X score is truly one of the finest in James Horner’s career.
Although it took me a little under thirty years to realize that.
I am a high-school teacher in Belgium, and during lunch break, I try to teach students about film music. The school has equipped me with both a Blu-ray player and a CD player with pitch control, allowing me to sync the CD up with the movie. Once I have nailed down the start of a cue in the film, I start running the CD in perfect synchronization. Re-adjusting the volume buttons enables me to essentially recreate the movie’s soundtrack, now emphasizing score over sound effects and dialogue. There’s a reason why dialogue and sound effects are usually mixed higher than the score: they are the literal (= diegetic) elements of the movie experience, the sounds that go with the story. Music, however, is not part of the world in which the characters live (= non-diegetic). It is of a more symbolic or metaphoric nature, and invariably ends up at the bottom of the sound mix. However, film composers who know their chops take a scene and redefine it emotionally – all good film music is emotional manipulation. The film music giants also manage to construct their own narrative, dovetailing a story told through music with the screenwriter’s work and adding new layers of meaning, all the while infusing sequences with a rhythm of their own. Famously, when Elmer Bernstein had composed a stately piece for The Ten Commandments’ Exodus scene, an unsatisfied Cecil B. DeMille asked him to compose a new piece of music that was a lot faster than the visuals. It worked great and the experience ended up being one of the greatest lessons Elmer Bernstein ever learned about film music. Standing on the shoulders of giants, James Horner copied this approach in, say, Stealing The Enterprise from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). Film music can impact scenes in lots of surprising ways, especially when it comes to pacing, emotional manipulation and new meanings provided by a composer who uses notes to create a narrative of his own. In all these respects, Project X is a masterpiece.
Unlike the previous episodes, I will focus on three cues from the score: Bluebeard’s Flight, Ghost Call and Flying. As always, the timings mentioned are as in the movie.
4.1 Bluebeard’s Flight (44:25 – 50:20)
Spotting the picture, the composer typically holds off for as long as he can before starting a cue. In this case, James Horner could have started on any number of cuts: the one to a fellow trainer who looks decidedly worried, the door opening to a long corridor that leads to the simulator room (a death row of sorts), you name it. Instead, Horner waits until the movie cuts to a handheld point-of-view shot of Jimmy taking Bluebeard down death row, the simulator room looming ahead.
For this portentous and suitably drawn-out set piece, Horner mobilizes five musical elements: the flying theme, Virgil’s theme, a sneaky piano line often accompanied by a percussion ostinato and two Horner standards: Khachaturian’s adagio for Gayaneh and the four-note danger motif. The composer had introduced the flying theme right from the movie’s opening shots, when Virgil looked up and spotted an eagle soaring in the sky. Virgil’s own theme was first heard during the university research scenes. Quite understandably, Horner only introduces the danger motif during this scene, and reserves the Khachaturian quote for the couple of moments that feature the nuclear device in the fateful simulator room. In retrospect, Horner applied Gayaneh’s adagio very often to the evil machinations of the military apparatus, as evidenced by Electronic Battlefield from Patriot Games (1992) and Navajo Dawn, the largely unused opening cue from Windtalkers (2002). Even its lavish application in the space scenes from Aliens (1986) has obvious military overtones.
© 1987 – 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved.
At the very start of the piece, the Shakuchachi blasts shades of the danger motif, although at a distinctly deliberate pace. Before long, Horner adds the sneaky piano motif, an idea that laid the foundation for many of the action cues in such scores as Gorky Park (1983), Red Heat (1988) and 48 HRS (1982). In Project X, the idea represents the devious and insidious nature of the top-secret military experiments, right down to the nuclear device that rises up on a platform located behind the flight simulator.
In the cue’s first thirty seconds alone, three of these elements play in conjunction, as the piano motif and the percussion ostinato are overlaid with a grim minor-mode statement of the flying theme. The melody is a close cousin to Jerry Goldsmith’s main theme from The Blue Max (1966) and James Horner doesn’t try to hide the inspiration. Even though it mostly appears in minor-mode incarnations here, the flying theme is the only remotely tonal idea in this cue, and Horner’s judicious use of counterpoint leaves us, the audience, deeply unhinged by the emotional imbalance.
At 45:25, Horner presents the first four notes of Virgil’s theme (and repeats them), even though Virgil isn’t anywhere in the sequence. Interestingly, his theme returns at 47:13, now somewhat more easily identifiable, though stripped from any kind of harmonic setting, played at a slow pace and not rhythmically aligned with the percussion ostinato. A final subtle hint can be heard at 49:24, when the Shakuhachi plays the melody’s first two notes. This is James Horner telling his own story: even though Virgil’s theme does not relate to any element in the sequence, Horner uses three subtle quotes as a way of setting up the scene where Virgil himself ends up in the dreaded chair. By implying his theme, Horner has Virgil’s presence hovering over the sequence.
The pacing of the cue is absolutely masterful, Horner bringing in and cutting out the percussion ostinato at all the right moments. Early on, the flying theme is underpinned by the ostinato and assumes a dirge-like quality. It builds a little as Bluebeard boards the simulator, but drops entirely when the lights go out in the room at 45:16. As a bonus, Horner uses the Shakuhachi to accent the eerie moment: the lights have gone out, literally and metaphorically. (Mere seconds later, Horner mimics the lightning bolts on the simulator screen.) The percussion ostinato reprises, now playing under the cue’s most soaring statements of the flying theme as Bluebeard takes the plane ever higher into the sky. But then Horner uses another Shakuhachi accent to cut the ostinato off abruptly at 46:21 and bring in Gayaneh’s adagio. Again, there isn’t a single element in the scene that required him to change the tone or the rhythm of the cue, but he does so nonetheless and to great effect: the unease deepens as Khachaturian’s eerie strings strip the soundscape of its last tonal element. The adagio will return at 49:33, when Jimmy is checked for radiation and slowly realizes what the experimental chimp program is all about.
At 47:32 comes one of the cue’s most emotionally effective and certainly its most intellectually stimulating moment. A hatch opens and the nuclear device rises up. Its rising movement inspired Horner to resort to the flying theme once more, but now it is perverted by pitch-black orchestrations and laced with repeated statements of the danger motif. It was a brilliant stroke on Horner’s behalf to apply the flying theme both to the innocent Bluebeard and to the lethal nuclear device.
At 48:08, the music and the movie come to an almost complete standstill: Bluebeard is irradiated in painful slow-motion, and James Horner gladly plays second fiddle to the sound effects, adding only grating electronic effects carried over from Aliens, where they accompanied characters crawling though cramped shafts – the electronic effects sound like metal that is heated and slowly bends. There’s a reason why this moment works so well: it lasts for a full minute (from 48:08 to 49:05)! (I played this scene for an audience of over a hundred and twenty adolescents and you could hear a pin drop. Set pieces are set pieces because they are unapologetically looooong, it’s what makes them effective.) One of the secrets of this drawn-out minute is the successful marriage of music and sound effects, which for once are mixed just the right way on the film’s final soundtrack.
When Jimmy is told that Bluebeard will continue to fly until he is dead, Horner returns to the percussion ostinato, overlaid with the piano motif. The last note of the ostinato is an ominous string note that trails off under the spray of a shower Jimmy takes.
The key to making a 6-minute set piece like this work is to construct it as a standalone sequence with its own beginning (build-up), middle (climax) and end (aftermath). Horner capitalized on the careful construction and deliberate pacing of the scene, using an ostinato to give it its own internal rhythm. Moreover, he uses themes to create a separate intellectual narrative. Finally, he takes the pleasantly tonal flutes of the previous scenes, turns them on their heads and incorporates them into a carefully woven tapestry of musical ideas that are downright disturbing.
And Bluebeard’s Flight is just one of the superlative cues of Project X.
4.2 Ghost Call (53:03 – 57:02)
Ghost Call starts roughly three minutes after Bluebeard’s Flight, after a scene where Jimmy discusses the events that took place in the simulation room with a fellow chimp trainer. Horner splits the cue into three distinct parts: part 1 (53:06 – 54:41) leads up to Virgil getting away from Jimmy and walking around the facility. Part 2 (54:41 – 55:56) sees him entering a dimly-lit morgue where he discovers Bluebeard’s dead body next to a red collar. Part 3 (55:56 – 57:02) starts when Jimmy returns Virgil to the vivarium and Virgil draws the attention of the other chimps in a deafening call for rebellion. Horner ties these three parts together with the orchestration: in this and so many other scenes, he primarily relies on the flutes to musically describe what goes on in the chimps’ heads. The score’s single greatest achievement is that it reveals an entire inner world of the chimps and provides an incredibly effective emotional commentary on it, more often than not with admirable restraint. Up until the 45-minute mark, nothing much happens, really, yet Horner grabs the audience’s attention and never lets go. (In 1998, Horner returned to the chimp motif for flutes and expanded it into Mighty Joe Young's wonderful main theme.)
Horner opens with the flutes, focusing squarely on the chimps. But interestingly, the cue starts on a cut to Jimmy, who sees a young and unknowing trainer cleaning Bluebeard’s cage and removing the chimp’s name tag from the wall. Jimmy realizes the young man is a mirror version of himself before the Bluebeard tragedy. This spotting decision enables Horner to explicitly involve Jimmy in the scene, as it fuels the grounded pilot’s budding decision to help the monkeys escape. Horner plays through the apparent comedy of Virgil monkeying around when Jimmy wants to weigh him. The restrained sadness of the cue nicely offsets Jimmy’s anger and Virgil’s playful disobedience, thus creating an emotional layer that was not in the visuals.
Virgil gets away from Jimmy and wanders off. As he enters the morgue, the music takes a dark turn and the flutes return, although the notes are now a lot lower. The most emotionally “neutral” moment of the cue underscores Virgil putting it all together: the red collar, Bluebeard’s motionless arm hanging off the table, the tarp over his body. Virgil approaches the arm and tries to make it move in a futile attempt to wake Bluebeard up. At this point, the music melts and expertly conveys Virgil’s sorrow. Jimmy finds him and gives him a hug, at which point Horner presents a statement of Virgil’s theme in plaintive oboe accompanied by guitar, which echoes the scenes with Teri.
© 1987 – 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved.
If Ghost Call is by general consent the highlight of the score, it is arguably because of the third part, which is sadly not allowed to reach its full potential in the film. Horner’s intent is clear. The flutes return as Jimmy takes Virgil back to the vivarium. As he leaps out of Jimmy’s arms and starts calling out to the other chimps, the flutes become more and more frenetic, a defiant call to arms. When all the monkeys join in, Horner adds primitive percussion and uses it as a rhythmic foundation for a devastatingly effective rendition of Virgil’s theme in the strings. The tone of Horner’s cue reflects two widely different and perhaps antithetical meanings: the energy of defiant rebellion and the restraint of incomparable poignancy. The brilliance of the moment lies in the wondrous juxtaposition of these two extremes. Sadly, the music is largely drowned out by the monkey cries in the movie. The filmmakers’ decision to focus primarily on the rebellion part of the scene disturbs the careful balance Horner had created. Only after re-adjusting the soundtrack of the movie was I able to realize the incredible potential of the score. Just thinking about it now sends shivers down my spine.
4.3 Flying (1:36:15 – 1:40:35)
Jimmy signs Virgil to “go up” and the chimp takes off. (He essentially becomes Caesar from the recent Planet of the Apes movies, without the medical experiments.)
There’s a difference between scientific reality and dramatic reality. Monkeys piloting a plane are not exactly believable from a scientific, objective point of view, and yet the scene is the logical conclusion of the training program central to the movie’s storyline (which, as an ominous opening card told us, is inspired by actual military experiments). As such, the flying scene that Project X climaxes into may not be entirely plausible, but it has strong dramatic believability. Movies are a form of art, not science, and while film makers go to extreme lengths to mimic reality and make the protagonist’s journey every bit as believable as they can, their first responsibility is to the drama of the piece. Sure, there are plenty of scientific mistakes in Gravity (2013) – George Clooney could never have been pulled away from Sandra Bullock in an environment without gravity and therefore without pull – but the scene makes sense dramatically because Sandra again loses a loved one and now has to rebuild herself alone in space. The alien world in Contact (1997) was criticized for looking like a cheesy Club Med setting, but when Jodie Foster meets her dad, she effectively re-establishes contact with humans and realizes that in spite of her mistrust of religion, she ends up finding a f/Father in the sky. The finale of Signs (2002) was accused of being too small-scale for the protracted build-up, yet the scene rings true because it is a spectacular pay-off of the story’s myriad little set-ups (the glasses of water everywhere in the house, Joaquin Phoenix’s baseball past and especially Mel Gibson’s fall from faith). Stories must first and foremost have dramatic truth.
Horner realized the believability issue was one of the challenges of the final scene. Instead of avoiding the issue, however, he acknowledges it full-on and brazenly steers the scene in the direction of the fantasy genre. It is a bold decision that the composer must have discussed at length with director Jonathan Kaplan or whomever else he had to report to, because it is the kind of gutsy move film composers rarely attempt for fear of having their score thrown out.
© 1987 – 20th Century Fox All Rights Reserved.
The orchestration recalls Cocoon (1985), down to the swirling strings, the solo triangle statement of Virgil’s theme at the start and the shimmering electronic embellishments. Flying also looks ahead to The Rocketeer (1991), especially in the brass accents heard around 1:38:16 and later on.
The cue contains a wonderful come sopra, the composer reprising wholesale a previous cue to establish a link between two scenes. Go to your CD and compare 1:20 through 2:30 from Learning To Fly with 2:03 – 3:43 from Flying, and you will notice that the build-up, the use of themes, the order in which they play, the orchestrations, everything is exactly the same. It’s easy to see why: in the former scene, the music accompanied Virgil’s first successful take-off on the simulator, whereas Flying sees him doing the same thing in the real world. Of course, no come sopra works unless there’s one significant difference, because the composer has to acknowledge the protagonist’s transformation. Horner held back just a little during the simulator take-off, but scores the climactic one with a triumphant cymbal crash.
Interestingly, the take-off is immediately followed by thematic material for Jimmy Garrett, Horner’s implicit homage to the grounded pilot, whose fate is unsure at the end of the story. He may not have piloted the chimps out of harm’s way himself, but he had an important part to play in the lead-up to the chimps’ jubilant final flight.
The strengths of the Flying cue are many: Horner’s surprising decision to score the climactic flight as a fantasy scene, the intelligent come sopra that ties this scene to another part of the narrative and the orchestrations that give the cue a meaningful place in the meta-score that is Horner’s entire oeuvre. But more than anything else, it is another exhilarating flying cue from a brilliant composer who was also a passionate pilot. In light of what happened on that fateful morning of June 22, 2015, the unbridled excitement is forever tinged with sadness, the cue itself now a combination of antithetical emotions. Maybe James Horner is smiling at the irony of that final remark. In any case, let’s hope he is allowed to fly through the skies of eternity while we, down here, continue to marvel at the genius of his work.
Photo credit: 20th Century Fox