EXCLUSIVE: Inside composing the score for Mission: Impossible Fallout with Lorne Balfe
The explosive Mission: Impossible franchise is back with Fallout – its sixth instalment – starring stunt-junkie Tom Cruise as IMF agent Ethan Hunt alongside Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg and more. BAFTA and Emmy-nominated composer Lorne Balfe composed the score for the latest Mission: Impossible and here he tells Mandy News how he went about revitalising music for the series, what it was like ascending in the industry under legendary composer Hans Zimmer, as well as offering tips to up-and-coming composers wanting to work in film and television.
Lorne, can you tell us a little bit about how you first got involved with music?
I got into music by being surrounded by music. The introduction to it was very simple – my father was a songwriter and so we had a residential recording studio at our home. Bands and musicians came regularly. I was always surrounded by it.
I thought it was a pretty normal job, unlike everyone else.
That was the beginnings of it and then I found that I loved to compose – though my way of composing was simply banging a piano. But that’s how it began.
Did you start in bands first or was it straight into composing? And how did this take you into film?
I was playing in bands and not very well.
It really started off with doing commercials, a lot of short films – a hell of a lot of short films – and that then led into TV, then film and games.
I’ve dabbled in every field of the medium really and still do. I still work on games and I still do commercials – they’re all part of the same narrative for me.
How did working on Mission: Impossible Fallout come about?
It came about due to many different factors. We all had mutual friends and people we had worked with. The main interview was over breakfast, with Chris [Christopher McQuarrie]. We talked a lot about our taste in music and film.
I was a massive Mission Impossible fan; I’ve loved all the movies. There are very few franchises that are strong and able to recreate themselves – and Mission is one of them. I was at college watching the first one and little did I know I’d end up doing one.
So, I’ve been a massive fan. We met, we talked and then I just started writing. I didn’t have the job, but I felt a lot of inspiration from what Chris had said and decided to write.
Probably for the last 20 years, from watching these movies, I’ve been writing the score in my head anyway. You’ve got these world-famous themes. So, I just started writing and sent them to him. And, thankfully, he loved them.
It was like an audition tape, where an actor reads a script. I felt I couldn’t describe to him in words what I felt about the story, so the best way was to musically compose it.
So, once you got the job, what was the process then of working on the story?
Normally, the composer sits in a dark room for half a year and doesn’t ever have any interaction with anybody. But thankfully, and it was very unique, my writing room was right next to where Chris and Eddie [Hamilton] were editing.
So, that’s a rare one. I love working that way because you’re able to constantly experiment.
We’re coming up to probably a year now from when we first started talking, so it’s been a long journey. And the music has evolved in the same way that the movie has evolved through that whole process. This movie, unlike others, has got its own life because of the legacy of Mission Impossible. So, being able to sit in a room next to your director and editor is a unique thing and a great thing.
It was probably a solid eight or nine months of working on the show, which is nothing compared to Chris, but for a composer it’s a luxury because the music is normally added at the last minute.
What was the actual composition process and does that change from project to project?
What’s very unique about Chris is that he doesn’t use temp music – pieces of music from films and songs that are used as a guide when editing. I started writing to what he was saying about Ethan’s [Ethan Hunt] character and Ethan’s journey, and then he used that music while editing. So, we created our own temp.
This is a very unique way of working and an amazing one. There is nothing worse than working on a film and they put the music from E.T. in it – you can’t do that, because you get attached to your memories of that music.
So, the unique process was creating our own temp and that’s how the journey started. The main thing then was trying to analyse the DNA of that famous theme. There are many things – you have that famous rhythm of the piece and the melody and then the plot scenes.
When watching all the movies, nobody has really ever focused on that rhythm. So, that was something we wanted to play with and have as a pulse. That led to drums and then one day I thought, “gosh, Mission Impossible has always had that retro 60s feel, wouldn’t it be great to do something with bongos?” So, instead of getting one bongo, I thought we’d get 12.
We recorded 12 at Air Studios and just tried to take elements that we relate to Mission but also turn them on their head.
When you’re working, are you working in-the-box primarily? What’s the mix of in-the-box to live studio for something like this?
The compositional process is everything in-the-box. I think that in the old days, you used to sit and play the piano to your director and demonstrate how it may sound. But then the director would never hear it until the day they recorded with a live orchestra. Now, we really rely on computers.
The luxury of working on an amazing film like this is time, but also experimentation. To be able, throughout the process, to involve musicians and record certain sections separately.
We had a very large orchestra and choir – we had 12 French horns, 12 trombones, four trumpets, two sax players, two tuba players. The brass alone was the size of an orchestra and it was the same with the strings – we had over 100 strings and an 80-piece choir. Then, we had eight woodwind, 12 bongo players and 14 drummers.
Of course, it’s impossible to record everyone at the same time, so you split recording sessions up. I think what’s interesting about recording separately is, when we recorded the bongos for example, the whole focus of the movie was different, musically. This brought up an idea of how we should start the movie.
The bongos are a sonic sound that connects to the world of Mission: Impossible, so we just thought that, rather than having one player, the full team would sound interesting.
What was your feeling when you came to tackle the theme tune – a track you recognise so well from your youth?
You start of in total fear, because you’ve got such high respect for this melody. You’re just petrified, and you don’t want to mess it up. But then you’ve got to move on and put it to the side.
You have to try to be loyal to what that memory is that you’ve always had of it. You can try to be clever and overanalyse it, but I think it all comes down to emotions and that feeling you get when you hear that three-note motif and what it represents to the viewer.
That’s what’s been an enjoyable part of the process – having those memories of the music and trying to create more memories for fans.
When you heard the finished project, how did you feel?
Probably still in shock. Technology is great with the quality of samples, but when you stand in front of these amazing musicians playing it for real, it’s the same feeling as a first love. I think it just enriches you.
It’s now part of the legacy of Mission: Impossible. I hope that, when watching it, it embraces everything from the past, but also now takes you to another world of Ethan Hunt that we haven’t seen before.
Congratulations on being able to work on something you’ve looked up to since you were a kid – it’s a fantastic story.
It’s a privilege to be invited into that family – that’s the only way I can look at it. It’s like having a high school crush and then dating that person. It’s a dream come true.
You’ve worked on some other massive films and series, but you have also worked as an additional composer on films like Inception and the Batman series. Is that a relationship you have with Hans Zimmer and can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, I was very privileged to be Hans’ assistant for maybe 15 years. I started working with him on Batman Begins. That was the beginning of my journey with Hans and it led on to so many great movies. It was incredible being in a room with amazing filmmakers – and being able to watch and learn.
Being able to work with someone like Hans is amazing, because his music is known all over the world and, really, he has shaped filmmaking.
Would you say you were influenced musically during your time working with Hans?
I think, I have to have been. The first time I started working for him, it happened too quickly for me to be in shock with what I was doing, but I learnt so much in regards to the whole process. In that, it’s not just about writing melodies and nice music – it has to work with the picture. That’s the whole point of film music.
So, I learnt a lot from him musically and, also as a mentor, the whole process of filmmaking.
It’s interesting to see a thread running through the films you have worked on – this Mission: Impossible score, for example, feels like it has some of the percussive elements of Inception.
I think, as a failed drummer in my youth, percussion has always been my loyal friend and so I always try to introduce that into scores. Rhythmical patterns, which I like because, as someone who’s dyslexic, when there’s a lot of notes I probably get complicated by them. So, patterns I see as something to hold on to.
What advice would you have for musicians and people wanting to become involved in the film industry?
If there was a clear path, everybody would do it. The fascinating thing about film is that there is no one clear path. People go to University to study it but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to win an Oscar. It’s a fascinating profession, because it’s not obvious how to succeed.
The only advice I can give is to have a love for it, where it will overtake your life. You have to love film or love games or love TV and live and breathe it.
And study the classics – to know your craft is the best weapon. That and working hard is the only advice I can give.
If there was a university degree that guaranteed you a job in film music, it would be amazing, but there isn’t.
You also have to get on with people – that understanding of working in a team is essential.
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