Composer Series,  Interviews,  Movies/Entertainment

Interview…Composer Reinhold Heil Discusses Scoring Helix for Syfy

Reinhold_HeilReinhold Heil is a German-born, L.A.-based Golden Globe nominated film and television composer. Prior to Reinhold’s career as a film composer, he was well known throughout Germany and Europe for his monster synth chops. At 21, he became a fixture in the Berlin music scene as the keyboardist of a popular jazz funk fusion band, marrying jazz, rock, and electronica into a sound all his own. Soon after, Reinhold toured Europe as the keyboardist, co-producer, and co-writer of the legendary German punk band The Nina Hagen Band and later Spliff, one of Germany’s most popular rock bands of the 1980s.

Reinhold was also a prolific music producer. “99 Luftballoons,” which he produced for Nena in 1983, went platinum, topping the charts worldwide and becoming one of the most successful non-English songs in US history.

Reinhold’s career as a film composer began in 1999 with the pioneering electronic score to Tom Tykwer‘s international art house sensation and cult classic, Run Lola Run. That film was the first to have a techno score that was not comprised of pre-existing music, but was scored directly to picture. Experimentation and innovation are integral to Reinhold’s creative process, as is a passionately hands-on approach to music production, mixing, and engineering. Reinhold’s iconic film scores include One Hour Photo, The International, and Cloud Atlas. His unique approach to scoring also extends to television. His scores to “Helix” for Syfy and “Legends” for TNT challenge the boundaries of contemporary television scoring.

Despite the contemporary nature of Reinhold’s sounds, his themes and melodies are always employed to maximally support the story’s narrative and the protagonists’ emotional worlds. His distinctive musical signature is characterized by harmonic complexity, emotional resonance, unconventional chord progressions, and unique hybrid soundscapes. Enjoy our session with Reinhold Heil.

GoSeeTalk: Glad to be speaking with you Reinhold. Run Lola Run was a film that was pretty much on repeat when I was in college, so I’m pretty familiar with that soundtrack. But you, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer have a long history together. What’s it like working with more than one composer, and how has it changed over the years?

Reinhold HeilReinhold Heil: In the beginning we were a bit more specialized, everyone had a different focus in the music creation process. Our approach was different from other composing teams in that we collaborated on every cue instead of just splitting up the cues between us. It was like being in a band. But at the end of the day, the filmmaker made the final decision, which removed the head-butting aspect of your typical band situation. Filmmaking by nature is not a democratic process. There is one filmmaker whose vision you are there to help realize.

During so many years of collaboration, Johnny and I formed our own ideas about the process of scoring, and so we decided to stop working together as a team. I needed to do things my own way. It is very liberating and refreshing to go solo, but I think that goes for Johnny as well. We have shown a lot of range over the years.

Cloud Atlas was the culmination of everything we had done for the past 15 years together so it was a good moment to stop for Johnny and me. When we did I, Frankenstein together, we were already moving into our solo careers so we did it in a different way: we both wrote themes and used them as needed, but we didn’t work each other’s cues. Johnny did his and I did mine. It turned out to be good preparation for working solo.

When writing music for a TV show, I’ve been told there’s a certain math to the scoring process, meaning that the show is intended to be broken up by commercials. Does that limit you creatively knowing a cue may not be as lengthy as you’d like?

I have to structure my cues based on the story and the cut. On a European show there might not be any breaks when the episode is cut. Then the network creates act breaks after the fact, which can be kind of random. In the US, when I get a cut of an episode, it already has act breaks. The cool thing about that is that you have a music spot at the beginning and at the end of each act and you can use those creatively. I don’t feel restricted at all by commercial breaks.

What are your thoughts on returning to Helix now that you’ve established themes? I imagine it’s easier than starting from scratch. But are you now having to expand on music or character themes that you didn’t expect? Or will you go for a new angle?

I have to do both. We’re no longer at the Arctic Circle, but on an island far away from civilization and everything is very low-tech. So the arrangement and palette had to Helix S1change in the
second season. We aren’t simply rehashing the music from season one. With certain shows there is a distinct sound to the show that never changes and this is obviously not that type of show because of the completely different setting.

But it’s true that once you have musical ideas for certain characters you are able to reuse them, and it’s actually a good thing because you guide the audience along in a meaningful way. I don’t spend months and months writing themes, they just come. You write cues and eventually you find one and think, this is it for a certain character and you start using it consistently. But for this show we are not just reusing a cue from last season by music editing it into place. I work it to picture because the picture really dictates the intensity and dramatic curve. I actually like the process of working these cues to picture and giving them different spins.

It’s been said before that film music is manipulative, but do you find that on a TV show it’s a necessary evil to move the short form story along?

I think language is very powerful. What a misleading term! If you go by that, the entire filmmaking process is manipulative, the writing, the camera angles, the acting, etc. Sony says it openly in its company slogan, Make Believe. It’s all about making you believe something different. What’s wrong with that? Of course I’m not talking about documentaries here. When we deal with political topics in a documentary, music can be really manipulative, and that can be wrong.


But on Helix we’re doing fiction, taking an audience out of their everyday boredom and helping them escape into another reality. Every action taken by the filmmaker is making you believe something that doesn’t really exist. I don’t see that as wrong at all. We are manipulating you to be entertained for 45 minutes, if everything goes well. And we don’t think our audience is stupid enough to get stuck in the realm of fantasy after the episode ends. Having said that, a lot of the scientific aspects in Helix are factual and researched with consultants.

I’ve always been curious how the production budget affects the scoring process. These days, TV shows, even video games, are getting that big Hollywood sound. How do you begin writing music and scoring the project based on the funds allotted?

Inevitably there is a correlation between the music budget and what you are able to do. Big network shows often have an orchestral score done under extreme time constraints, which can only be accomplished with large music budgets. If you’re working for a cable show with a more restricted budget, you have to do pretty much everything yourself. It doesn’t mean it’s a lesser score, but it means you are not approaching the project with an orchestra in mind. For me, that can be a good thing because it forces me to experiment and usually leads to unconventional results.

Helix has a really short title sequence, how long did it take you to develop that and who decides on the length?

The length of the main title is decided by the network. The Helix main title was chosen from my first layout. I presented it very quickly and it stuck. So that part was easy. But because it Helix Season 1is only ten seconds long, it was more like working on a commercial, which is definitely harder in some ways than making a three-minute cue. To put emotion and drama into ten seconds is very difficult. There was still a lot of work involved but I didn’t go through hell to find the final version.

On Legends, the other show I’m scoring, it was a different story. I went through 15 or 16 musical ideas for the main title before they settled on one piece that was very assertive. I was so relieved because we had very little time to score the pilot. That was in 2013. When the show actually went into production, it was 2014 and there was a different showrunner. The sensibilities had shifted and that required a complete rework of the title. But it felt a lot easier than the version I did for the pilot the year before. It’s a cool title sequence that is really up my alley.

When scoring something that’s dramatic, humorous, or chilling, how do you go about avoiding clichés?

I think that is always in the eye of the beholder. Everything is on a scale, you can be very cliché or you can be very against it or you can use clichés for humorous effect. I think that’s what Helix does quite a bit. It uses clichés for humor. Clichés are not all evil. Everyone’s tastes are different. At the end of the day, it’s down to the showrunner’s taste. That’s why it is nice to work with the same team from season to season because one develops a certain language and learns about the filmmaker’s likes and dislikes. I like to experiment, which helps avoid clichés.

I know TV shows have ridiculously quick time frames, so do you get to be a fan of a show when you’re working on it? Or are you just trying to turn in your music on time?

Yes, I get to be a fan of the show while working on it! When we go on air I might not be able to watch every episode because I’m so busy. I see the final cuts but most of the visual effects aren’t done yet. The only way I can truly enjoy an episode is to sit in front of the TV and watch it on Friday nights like everyone else.

Before this new season I binge watched all of season one on iTunes. I enjoyed it very much. It’s great to watch the show that way. It’s like a long movie. And I learned a lot about the application of music from having a bird’s eye perspective.

If you had the famous Golden Ticket from the Schwarzenegger film Last Action Hero, what movie or TV show that you’ve scored would you like to be transported into? Or maybe something from your childhood?

I’m not sure if I would want to be transported to any of them. In one of my fantasies I might want to go inside a Leni Riefenstahl movie so that I could kill Hitler. But seriously, most of the projects I have scored are very dark and deal with human misery. I would not like to have been in Paris in the 1700s, Deadwood in the 1800s or dystopian South Korea in 2400. I’m not nostalgic about my past. I like to be in the here and now and pursue the opportunities I have now. Despite the fact that I work long hours and need a vacation, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. I love what I do!

What experience do you feel has pushed or challenged you the most?

Since I was 21, I was able to make a living with what I enjoy doing most, making music, but whenever times got a little hard I thought I might have to do something else. That pushed me to work even harder because I didn’t want to do anything else but make music.

Finally, Land of the Dead is a great film to have on your resume. Any memorable stories from working with Romero?

The sad thing about working with George was that we only saw him twice during production and then at the premiere. We did the score in Los Angeles and he filmed in Toronto. I liked him even more when I got to know him. I think he is a groundbreaking filmmaker. I like where his heart is. He put zombies on the map and uses them as powerful metaphors. He was pushing us to be more shocking with the score and we learned a lot from him.

helix-bannerThanks to Reinhold for his time. Season 2 of Helix begins tonight only on the Syfy Channel. For more information, and to listen to samples of his work, head to Reinhold’s official website and follow him on Twitter at @reinholdheil.