Film composer Carl Thiel is an award-winning music writer/producer. Over the course of his career he’s worked with a multitude of musicians and personalities including Willie Nelson, Bob Schneider, Los Lonely Boys, John Debney, and Del Castillo to name just a few. Carl currently serves on the Board of Governors of the Texas Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and frequently volunteers his time to teach and work with high school and college students across the state during educational events.
But it’s his collaborations with visionary director/filmmaker Robert Rodriguez that occupy a large portion of his resume (he’s even a member of Robert Rodriguez’s pet project band Chingón). In the last decade Carl has lent his sound (both themes and songs) to the weird and wild worlds of the Rodriguez universe as he’s scored or helped score films like Kill Bill 2, Planet Terror, Upon A Time In Mexico, Spy Kids 2 & 3, Sin City, Machete and most recently its insanely over-the-top sequel Machete Kills.
We got to chat with this talented multi-instrumentalist to discuss his process and what it’s like working with a creative mind like Rodriguez. Enjoy the highlights of our time with Carl Thiel.
– To ask “What’s it like working with Robert?” is a grapefruit of a question but he’s such a unique filmmaker it’s a good one to start with. Feel free to answer that however you want.
Well, he’s definitely unique! He’s an amazing creative force, and has built a career out of making very successful films with modest budgets. He’s an incredibly resourceful guy, and doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.” Just the fact that he shot “Machete Kills” in 29 days, with such an incredibly star-studded cast and with so many action scenes, tells you something about his abilities. He’s also very loyal to the people he works with. In any of his movies, if you go to the set, you’ll see the same crew, the same friends, and many times the same cast, so it’s like working with family. That’s one of the reasons he gets so much done so quickly; everyone’s comfortable from day one, and everyone knows the drill.
On the music side, the more movies I work with him, the more efficient we become. I have backgrounds in both album production as well as scoring to picture; so I personally do all the recording and mixing on my scores, and I always look for ways to get more out of the resources that we have to make the music sound as good as it can. I think that’s why Robert likes working with me. We both work fast and pride ourselves in stretching our resources beyond what most people would expect.
– RR likes do a lot of work himself (writing, directing, chopping, scoring) so what’s the trade off between the two of you when it comes to composing/recording for his films, particularly Machete Kills?
There really isn’t a trade off. It’s more of a benefit. Robert is a great musician and composer himself, so we can talk in musical terms and concepts. That makes it so much easier to know what he wants. He’s a great director, and when he’s got a specific idea, he knows how to communicate it clearly. But he’s also very open to suggestions. There have been times when I’d write a cue the way he asked for it, and if I felt strongly about a different approach, I’d write an optional version. Many times he’d pick the option.
On “Machete Kills” he used a lot of the original “Machete” score as a temp when editing the sequel. That was a great reference that gave me an idea of what kind of pace/feel he was going for on specific scenes.
– Your first credited score is Planet Terror, which was AWESOME by the way, but you’ve been working with Rodriguez since what looks
to be Spy Kids 3-D in 2003, but how far back do you and RR go?
Thank you! I first met Robert after “Spy Kids” had been released. He was finishing “Spy Kids 2” and was looking for a local music producer and studio to record the end credits song. We were introduced by a mutual acquaintance. I invited him to my studio, and we ended up doing the song there. Alexa Vega sang the vocals. I’ve worked with Robert in some capacity on every movie he’s directed since then.
– The score to Machete Kills has so much more weight and presence to it than what was heard in the first Machete. How was that created? I ask because on one of the special features to ‘Once Upon A Time in Mexico‘ Robert shows us how he uses a vastly impressive digital library of musical instruments to create the score…but in the end it was just him at his keyboard. How many musicians/trades came together for the finished product of Machete Kills?
Most of the “Machete Kills” score is just me playing all the parts. The schedule was very tight and there was a lot of music to be created, so there was very little time to bring in and record outside musicians. I did however, bring in drummer/percussionist extraordinaire Dony Wynn to record ahead of time, before things got crazy. We spent a day recording a multitude of patterns and sounds with different percussion instruments, which I then looped and catalogued. Once things got going, I was able to use those loops/sounds to add another unique layer to the score. The rest was me playing synths, digital orchestra sounds, guitars and more percussion. Oh, and a Kalimba for the Chamaleon theme!
Towards the end Rick Del Castillo brought in this really cool wah guitar groove that we ended up using as the theme for one of the characters. He also wrote the music for the “Space Trailer” you see at the beginning of the film. We also used one or two tracks that were previously recorded but never set to picture.
– Sound and music give an intangible vitality and longevity to a film so what are your first steps in getting started composing for a film, and further how does it differ when you approach a sequel?
If I know far enough in advance, I like to visit the set so I can get a feel for what the actors are doing and the mood of the scenes. You get so much more from that than just reading the words on the script. That’ll get me thinking about a sound palette. Then before I even see any picture, I’ll sit down at the piano or on guitar and start noodling ideas for themes. Once something strikes me as a possibility for a particular character or element in the story, I’ll play with some sounds and record a rough demo, just as a concept to show the director. If he likes it then that becomes the theme for that character/element. Most of the time it will evolve and grow once I start scoring to picture, but that’s how the concept begins.
In a sequel some of the themes and sounds have already been established in the first movie, so you have that as a starting point.
– More to that point, in regards to a sequel, when does Robert tend to contact you about a project? Also, do you embellish and improve upon an existing theme or do you get to try all new stuff?
I knew I was going to work on “Machete Kills” quite a few months in advance, but I didn’t know to what extent. A lot of times Robert likes to share the score with more than one composer, like he did with the first “Machete” and several movies before that. When it came time to get busy with this film, he ended up entrusting me with the majority of the score.
On the sequel, Machete travels to the deep jungles in Mexico and then to the futuristic sci-fi world of Luther Voz (Mel Gibson), meeting a lot of intense characters along the way; so it felt like it needed a bigger, more adventurous score than the first film. I tried to make the music follow that journey with him, and create a different soundscape for each character. But there were definitely melodic/sonic elements that were borrowed from the first movie to represent Machete’s character and to keep it part of the same saga.
– Robert likes to work, as he puts it, at “the speed of thought” and is a big advocate of digital filmmaking which helps him work fast. Because he works fast and as you said shot this in 29 days, when you are working with him do you have to take your first draft and run with it or by getting involved early does it allow you time to refine your themes?
Well a little bit of both, I had the opportunity to learn about the characters before things got really crazy so I actually sat down at the piano before I even saw any finished picture and developed a couple themes prior to doing the actual scoring. Take the boss theme for example, the character Voz (Mel Gibson) is a cue I wrote at my home. I have a piano here and drew a rough sketch of it and showed it to Robert and he really enjoyed it. The boss is kind of a James Bond villain, a great character in the movie played by Mel Gibson, and Robert wanted to go for a really retro, sci-fi feel to his picture and since I’m a big Bond fan I really enjoyed designing the soundscape for him.
But basically to answer your question I was able to do some preliminary work and had a few themes in my pocket before things got insane. I had that theme and The Chameleon theme written as well because I had seen a part of the movie with The Chameleon character. That particular character kind of goes on his own separate journey from Machete and we went for a completely different type of sound. I had this idea I really wanted to make it stand out from the rest of the score and looking around the studio I have a bunch of instruments that I’ve collected through the years. My family gives me gifts, different percussion or hand instruments sometimes from their travels, and I had this kalimba that I’ve had for God knows how many years but I’ve never recorded with it and I picked it up and I started playing with it and said “yeah, this has to be The Chameleon theme”.
It’s the same thing with the main Machete theme which was composed by Robert and two other musicians for the first movie so those themes were already established before we really started Machete Kills. Once we got going then yeah you really have to fly by the seat of your pants. It’s a lot of work but once you get the confidence by seeing that it’s working, everything else seems to click. There were one or two times though when we were working out a particular scene and it just wasn’t jelling for one character or another, and we had to start all over. But luckily having worked with Robert I have kind of a good instinct of what works for his movies and what he likes. We have good communication so we can work pretty quickly.
– The director (and sometimes the producers) have the final say in many aspects, being that Robert puts a lot of faith in you did you have complete freedom in your compositions or was it a constant approval process?
Robert gave me a lot of freedom to work on this score. I would write and send him cues on a daily basis, and every couple of weeks we would connect. He’d give me great feedback and invaluable insight on the more challenging scenes. Rarely did I have to start over from scratch on any given cue.
– RR is a musical nut so do you two develop the sound of a film together or it is your theme and Robert adds/comments and writes his own separate pieces?
Yeah, Robert is a creative monster! And he’s really great at so many things. When we work together, we usually sit and watch a rough cut of the film first. We discuss broad concepts like instrumentation and overall feel. Often he’ll have a temp score in place (borrowed from other movies), which helps to see what kind of mood/tempo works for particular scenes. We go through the movie scene by scene and discuss what his vision is for the music. Sometimes he’ll have a definite idea for a particular part in the movie, and other times he’ll leave it open for me to interpret.
Once we get going, we mostly work separately. Sometimes he’ll send me a rough guitar or synth track with a theme idea he’s written, and I’ll take it and build a production around it. Other times I’ll write a theme or a cue and he’ll give me notes on what he likes about it or what he feels needs to be changed. So it’s a little bit of everything.
Carl offered so much insight into the process we felt the need to cut the interview in two pieces. Click here to read Part II of our interview with versatile composer Carl Thiel.