INTERVIEWS

QUE SERRA, SERRA

Interview by Lukas Kendal
"007 Magazine", issue 30, 1995, pages 17, 28-30.

Transcribed by Dennis Lodewijks

'Que Serra, Serra,

 

Whatever will be, will be!', go the words to the famous song, and now, after GoldenEye has taken its place on the video shelf alongside the other 16 Bond movies, perhaps it's time to take stock of Eric Serra's music for the movie. Almost universally panned by James Bond fans around the world, was it really as bad as everyone made out?

Definitely different, his music score suffered mostly from being mixed under a barrage of overly loud sound effects, and being overlayed inappropriately on some scenes in the movie (particularly 'We Share The Same Passions' in the casino sequence). Serra's, 'A Pleasant Drive In St. Petersburg', featured on the soundtrack album, worked more convincingly the John Altman (Serra's conductor and orchestral arranger) dramatic composition which accompanied the tank chase. The chase through St. Petersburg could only be considered light hearted hokum, and Serra's music underlined this beautifully - try playing your soundtrack over this section of the video or laserdisc and see if you agree.

LUKAS KENDALL spoke with the French composer shortly before GoldenEye opened in The United States.

When legendary James Bond composer John Barry was unable to score GoldenEye, Eon Productions sought out a new sound for their most successful series of movies in the history of the cinema. Not wanting to go the route of the traditional Hollywood scorer, as they had done in 1989 with Michael Kamen on the last Bond movie, Licence To Kill, the producers settled on the relatively un-tried Eric Serra. Unbelievably, the 36 year-old musician had to be talked into accepting the job! Better known as a rock star in his native France, Serra had only scored films mainly for his friend, director Luc Besson, a productive relationship which has resulted in Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), La Femme Nikita (1990), and The Professional [Leon](1994). To his credit, Serra is a soft-spoken, pleasant man, and we managed to break through the language barriers, not only of French/English (not really a problem, as his English is excellent) but more significantly putting his feelings about his music into words.

How did you decide to approach James Bond?

Well, as usual [laughs], I didn't have a special approach because it was a James Bond movie. I just tried to do what I feel, as I do usually. When they called me to score this movie they said they were big fans of my music, so I thought the best thing was to write my music and not to be influenced by the old James Bond.

Had they temp-tracked GoldenEye with your music from La Femme Nikita and The Professional?

Yes, I think they had temp-tracked some things with La Femme Nikita and The Professional, but just a little bit. And actually the copy of the film they gave me was without any temp track. So I just did what I wanted.

Are you a big James Bond fan, did you look back at the older films at all?

I didn't look back because I'm a very big fan, so I knew everything, I could describe all the movies. I had old James Bond videos, not since I was born, but almost, and I've seen all of them probably ten times each. So I knew it perfectly.

 

Was that intimidating?

Well, yes, of course. Because to me, it's such a huge legend that to enter this legend was very impressive and scary. It was my first American movie, too, but as I signed it, I had to do it, so I had no more time to be scared.

How much time did you have to score the movie?

Six or seven weeks.

How much music is there in the picture?

There is an hour and ten minutes of music, which is 47 cues.

You had only done films before for Luc Besson. Was it challenging or frightening to work for a different filmmaker?

In the beginning, yes, because I didn't know how it would work. With Luc Besson, he always has a very precise idea of what he wants, not in terms of music because he's not a musician, but in terms of the emotion. He usually knows precisely what he wants to create with the music on each sequence. He comes to my studio almost every day, I play what I have composed, and we discuss it, so usually it's very close working together. This time, with Martin Campbell, he didn't really know precisely what he wanted, so he left me much more freedom to do what I wanted, which at the beginning was very scary and finally very enjoyable, because I had a lot of fun. I could do what I wanted and just have fun. It was very interesting to have this experience. So now I realised, I think now after this movie, I could score any movie. I wouldn't be scared now.

You used your 'industrial' sounding music a lot in GoldenEye, and which was featured so well in La Femme Nikita. Was that your choice?

When they hired me they told me that they loved my music, and they really gave me the freedom to do what I wanted, so I did what I was feeling. So sometimes I feel on a special sequence, I will hear 'industrial' music, as you say, usually I don't call it this. I don't call it, I compose it. And sometimes on another sequence I will feel something completely orchestral and very classical, and sometimes I will feel something a mix between orchestral and percussion. Usually I don't decide I'm going to do this, or I'm going to do that, I really score as I feel. It's usually after six or seven cues that I start to have an idea of the global thing.

How did you start scoring GoldenEye? What were the six or seven cues you started to work on before you got the overall idea?

I began in a chronological way. I started with the very beginning of the movie, the opening is all action, so the music is very ... if I have to compare, it's a little bit like The Professional with a lot of percussion and low sounds which gives the suspense. After that there is a sort of car race on which I did a very funky, fast rhythm thing, but much lighter than the beginning because there was no suspense. And then after that there was a sort of romantic sequence, completely orchestral. So after all these cues I thought I had all the different styles that would be there until the end. There was the suspense, the tragic part, the romantic part, and the fun part. So it was six or seven cues.

 

Did you have any involvement with the title song?

The one sung by Tina Turner, no, it was written by Bono. But I composed and sang the end title song.

Did you score the trailer?

No. Actually I have not seen it so I don't know if they put in some of my music or not. [They didn't. I later discovered it was an original piece by trailer composers Starr Parodi and Jeff Fair. No album release is planned]

How do you actually create your music, such as the more percussive-style. I know it's synthesised, but how do you lay down tracks, or think of the sounds?

It depends. Some of them I programme, some of them I play. I use a lot of percussion all the time because I go very often to Africa, and in Africa there is a lot of percussion of course. So sometimes I record percussion there and then when I come back I loop it, in samplers. There is no rule. Sometimes it is completely synthetic and completely programmed, sometimes it is played, sometimes it is looped. There is no rule.

How do you process those vocals? It's a very deep, processed sound.

I used a couple of different samplings. It all comes from Russian traditional sounds, Russian folklore voices that I have sampled and completely transformed and it's almost impossible to recognise. I usually do this all the time, I love to mix a lot of different things coming from totally different continents. That is why I like for example to mix African percussion with a symphony orchestra, with synthesisers, with vocals from some ethnic records. I like to mix everything.

Do you find that you don't really like talking about your music?

[laughs] It's not that I don't like, it's that it's very difficult to talk about music. I think when you are a composer it means you have some problems expressing yourself with words. So what I can express with the music is very difficult for me to express with words. That's why to talk about the music is a sort of translation of the music, which I can't really do. Also, I've been doing music since I was five years old, so music to me is totally natural, I've never learned. It's completely natural and it's something I can't really explain. I don't know how it comes and I don't know I can't explain.

How did you treat the violence, the action in a James Bond movie as opposed to the violence in a Luc Besson movie?

The difference is, that in The Professional, for example, on all the action scenes, Luc Besson wanted me to bring the emotion. He didn't want the music to double the violence. He wanted the action scenes to still be very emotional so that when you had an action scene, you could feel the emotion of Leon or the little girl, Matilda, and that was brought by the music. It gave all of the movie a very deep and tense feeling, and very emotional. In the James Bond movie the action scenes are much lighter, I would say. It's not tragic. It's more, action, but not sad action. So the music is much more connected to the action than to the emotion.

What are your favourite James Bond movies?

My favourite one? Probably Goldfinger. I love all the films with Sean Connery. They are all my favourites. But if I had to choose one it's probably Goldfinger.

How did you work with The James Bond Theme? Did the filmmakers request that you use that in some scenes, or did you decide to use it?

Yes, they requested me to use it a couple of times in the movie, so I used it. I think this theme is a nice one, but it is a bit old-fashioned now. So the most difficult thing was to use it and to make it sound modern, which was not so obvious because I think every time they have used it, it always sounds old-fashioned. I think I found a way.

In the middle of the movie [the tank chase] there's a more traditional arrangement of the Bond theme. Was that done by you?

No, that was done by my conductor [John Altman], because I didn't agree with this. I had composed a very modern version, and I think they were a bit afraid because it was too modem [laughs], so they finally asked my conductor to do an orchestral version of The James Bond Theme. I didn't quite agree, it's a pity too. We did the whole score in a very modem way and a very new way, so I think it wasn't an especially good idea to do just one sequence using the old version.


ERIC SERRA, SHOOT THE PIANIST

Interview by Eric Dahan
Translated by Dominic 'Verzon' Villeneuve.

Rock & Folk, No. 357, May 1997, pages 60-63

Scorn by critics, acclaimed by the "The Big Blue" generation who bought three million copies of his original score album, Eric Serra, known as the composer for Luc Besson's movies, talks about the forthcoming movie "The Fifth Element" and his come-back to rock music in the fall.

It's about 4 PM at Sunset Plaza on Sunset Boulevard, a place with many hot restaurants a little bit above Los Angeles. "Clafoutis", "Le Petit Four", "Chin Chin". Cafes are under the sun and full of young businessmen and young actors taking advantage of the young, beautiful and charming creatures full of silicon and in sexy clothes in the wind. It seems Eric Serra will never arrive. But now, I see him in his black convertible car, with dark glasses, he greets me. The original score album from "The Fifth Element", the latest Luc Besson film, was recorded in Paris, with some symphonic takes at Abbey Road Studios. It was mixed and edited in the city of Angels. This is a mega sci-fi production with a ninety (90) million dollar budget. Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman and Mathieu Kassovitz are supposed to star in this movie which will open the next Film Festival of Cannes. With his white shirt, Eric Serra comes to my table and orders some raw vegetables and a glass of Sancerre to the waitress-actress, a beautiful and very sexy babe.

It was impossible for me to see the movie, images stay secret until the Cannes Festival. Serra doesn't want to give me some clues about the story. Eric Serra was born on September 9th, 1959 at Saint-Mande in France. His father was a songwriter ("My father wrote his name as Claude Cerat because double initials were hot") who became inventor of the French flash style ("Humourous songs very short, during a couple of seconds only"). His mother didn't work, she stayed at home. They moved to the South of the France. "At home, daddy listened to some great music: classic, rhythm 'n' blues, Jacques Brel. He also played guitar. He gave me my first acoustic guitar for my fifth birthday and an electric one for my eleventh." In 1970, the young Eric lived only for the rock, he listened note by note to guitar solos like the one in "Sympathy For The Devil", the "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!" version, some classics from Ritchie Blackmore and Alvin Lee. Eric was also Led Zeppelin fan: "It was strange, Led Zep was the only band that I didn't listen to to reproduce theirs guitar solos. I was a super-fan but I didn't want to do like Jimmy Page, I don't know why." Jazz rock with Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin interested him too. "Super school, explains Eric with a noisy voice of a police squad chassing gangsta-rapper gangs. Around fifteen years old, I got to play with a band. It was very cool to play lead guitar. We didn't like singers at this time, we didn't see any interest in a singer. In fact, I sang for the first time on "The Big Blue" soundtrack by chance. I had recorded some demos for an american singer who lived in Paris, but Besson, Corine de Telephone and all my friends who had listened the both versions prefered mine. I was not a professional singer but there had were more feelings in my version. That's how I started to sing. It was exciting. I needed ten years after that to finally record my own album."

So, it was not a childhood dream?
"Yes, but in fact, I have did a lot of work in studios since I was sixteen years old but I didn't see myself as professional musician because it was not considered as a real job. So for me it didn't exist. I didn't make the relation between musician and people who recorded albums. So, I went to university and became a sound engineer. It was the only interesting job on my list. But since sixteen (16) years old, I got to make some money playing music."

ALIENS

How did you meet Luc Besson for the first time?
"He was in studio with my friend Pierre Jolivet when he asked me to come and re-record all guitar solos for the nearly finished album. Besson was eighteen, like me. He was very impressed by me, but in fact, all my life I've improvised when playing guitar. When Besson did his first film some months later, he asked to me to composed the music."

Later came "The Last Battle", "Subway", "The Big Blue"...
"Yes, but in the same time I was playing bass for Higelin from 1981 to 1988, from Cirque d'Hiver to Bercy. I've composed and wrote for him "Coup de lune", "Manque de classe", "Victoria", etc. For ten years I didn't play on a show. I didn't understand myself, I was depressive and I was saying to me: "You have all which a musician can dream about: "The Big Blue" has sold three million copies, you have a lot of money to do what you want to do, your own studio to record in in the middle of the night if you want..." But you know, I am only happy when I'm on tour, when I play music every night. I got to play on a stage when I was eleven years old. When I stopped working hard with Higelin, it was like stopping to make love. That's why a come back on stage is my priority. When I won't want to do that, I will continue to compose music for movie somewhere where it's quiet."

But did the success of "The Big Blue" make you crazy, you and Besson?
"We had a lot of fun at the time. We didn't think that "The Big Blue" could become a success like that. This success didn't change our way of working. Of course, we constantly learn something new each time we do another soundtrack. We have more experience when we become older, we have more culture and we have more things inside us who are reflected in music, symphonic, ethnic, groove... I only listen to classic music since 10 years ago. Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, and only three soundtracks include symphonic music: "Atlantis", "The Professional" and "GoldenEye". I'm a self-taught person. I take some risks and by the years, my technique has progressed. I began to know what sounds good and what doesn't. Percussions, by example, I play them myself because I want them to be groovy like pop music, and I like to mix ethnic rhythms and symphonic orchestra. I like to use anything which makes some noise, a violin, a trashcan, a chinese flute. I think I compose real music now. We can mix anything in music, all that we need is to have some taste and to hear what we want. Music must have a relation with a feeling, a desire. We cannot compose just to be interesting. Success or not, it doesn't matter for me. "GoldenEye" is the first hollywoodian thing that I have accepted. Before, someone had suggested to me to compose the music for "Piege en haute mer", "Chute libre" with Michael Douglas, and "Heat". I didn't refuse but I was already busy with the James Bond movie. It was very cool to do the music for James Bond. When I was a child I liked James Bond a lot.

BABYLON

How do you describe "The Fifth Element"? It takes place in the year 2300. There are humans, aliens, and starships... What can I say? It's really cool. In two hours, there is about one hour fourty-five minutes of music, and for the end credits there is a song from my forthcoming solo album...

What kind of music is on you solo album?
It's hard to say, I don't know what I can tell you. It's rock, but good, it doesn't mean anything. It's not like the Stray Cats or Sting, maybe it's like Peter Gabriel. There are some classical and north African influences. I have co-produced this album with Rupert Hine. It's love songs - what else can I talk about? Love of a woman, love of life, love of beauty... Next year, I will be touring. I have a great band with me: two drummers, a percussionist, a keyboardist... I play guitar or bass, it depends on which song. I started to read a lot of literature to help me with lyrics. I didn't read since three years ago, now I have read "L'alchimiste", "Les lettre de Vincent Van Gogh Theo", Barjavel and the complete work of Prevert.

Techno music?
I listen to techno but also to rap on the radio. That's clear, techno isn't a little phenomena. My favorite techno band is Massive Attack, they're opening the way to a new music style. I love Radiohead. I also hate the guys from Oasis and their attitude, they don't bring something new to music, but sometimes they write a few good songs.

How does it feel to live in Paris when you have lived in Los Angeles for five years?
Now, since two months I wake up every morning in the sun with a irresistible desire to work. In Paris, you wake up and it's raining outside, you have only one desire, to get back in your bed. Paris has become more sad in time. People are depressive. It takes all my energy, life in grey inside and outside people. I wanna leave Paris again.

For some political reasons?
Political reasons don't influence my desire to leave... In fact, I want to be in a place where it's sunny, on a beach... Here, I have a lot of Mexican, Canadian and Europian friends and a few American friends. It's like Babylon... It's a pity 'cause I really like life.

BODYGUARDS

What are the dreams for you, having a lot of money? Piloting an airplane?
It's funny, how do you know that? Yeah, in fact, I have already taken some flying courses. It's a real childhood's dream. Life is short, we must realize our dreams...

Mystic? Yeah. I was in a kind of religious group fifteen years ago, but I won't tell you which one. I learned some things, a kind of new thinking. But there were also some dark sides in this group, that's why I finally decided to quit.

Tell me how you describe Eric Serra in a few words...
Oh, I don't know, I'm not dead yet... Huh, now I know... respect of music. I'm very meticulous and consciencous. There is nothing that I respect more then music. My success is not a coincidence. Besson works hard as well, it's not just talent but there is a lot of work behind his success. I want to be assimilated as a hard worker. After I watched the movie "Amadeus", I was not able to compose any music. Mozart is permanent grace. I remember when I got out of the theatre, I was with some friends, it was not possible for me to pronounce any words, I was crying a lot. That was the only time a movie influenced me like that. Since ten years I have been working for eighteen hours every day. I like to work to make money. My mother died when I was seven years old. I have lived all my life with two friends and a guitar as my only confident. That's why music is the thing I respect the most in this world. I can't believe what happens to me when I'm in a studio like Record Plant with Michael Jackson and his eleven bodyguards, Madonna and Ringo Starr. It's scars me that all the world wants to work with me. I don't see how it happened. To me, I'm always this ten year old boy who plays the guitar alone in his bedroom.

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