Robert Kraft: Last of a dying breed

Fox music chief sounds off on film scores

Robert Kraft, the president of Fox Music, is the only studio music chief who can boast Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe nominations as a songwriter (for “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” from 1992’s “The Mambo Kings”) as well as credits as a composer (“Hudson Hawk”) and producer of music for a megahit Disney soundtrack (“The Little Mermaid”). He’s been running the 20th Century Fox music department since 1994. He recently sat down with Daily Variety to talk about the state of the industry.

DV: In the past few months, music from your films has resulted in two Grammys (“Slumdog Millionaire”), a Golden Globe and Oscar (“Crazy Heart”) and two Oscar nominations (“Avatar,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). What’s been the most gratifying aspect of this awards season?

Kraft: There are some (soundtracks) that you can identify from the beginning, that you think have the capability of going all the way. I also benefit hugely from Fox Searchlight buying, developing certain movies — “Crazy Heart,” “Slumdog,” these are just absolute gifts.

DV: How has the economy affected the soundtrack business?

Kraft: By the end of the 20th century, we made a big soundtrack for virtually every film. By the beginning of the 21st century, it was starting to diminish, and I would have conversations with heads of labels who would say, “I hate soundtracks.” It has imploded.

In the case of a “Juno,” “Garden State” or “Slumdog,” it’s interesting music onscreen. You sit for 90 minutes and you’re hearing cool songs, so you think, “I don’t know what those are, I’ll go buy the record and find out.” The problem is, not a lot of people buy it — they steal it, they stream it, they forget about it by the time they’ve gotten in their car and texted three friends. I think the airspace is cluttered. Nobody comes out of a movie and says, “I’m going to Sam Goody to buy the album” anymore.

DV: What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

Kraft: “Rio,” an animated film. John Powell is scoring it with Sergio Mendes. We brought in Carlinhos Brown, a big Brazilian star. We had 13 drummers on the Fox stage last Saturday, just playing yards and yards of Brazilian rhythms. Will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas is writing songs. It’s hugely exciting.

Music for (movies) is an enormous canvas. I hope in my life I get to do music for iPads and iPhones, and music for television, and everything in between. My interest has always been in what happens when music and image mix. Film is the highest aspect of that, so I get to work in the penthouse of the industry.

DV: What’s getting a lot of play on your iPod or car stereo?

Kraft: Right now I’m listening to Gotan Project and Bajofondo, both from different parts of the world — tremendously interesting ethnic-meets-electronic groups. Very flavorful use of accordion and violin, Bajofondo (features) a lot of tangos with electronics. I like listening to Galactic, a funk band from New Orleans. I just ordered the new Brad Mehldau CD.

DV: How have advances in recording technology affected film music?

Kraft: It has completely changed everything. First of all, every filmmaker has been spoiled by the ability to do incredibly sophisticated synthetic mockups. So, more and more, every composer must now present the entire score, played synthetically, with every cue being prefaced with “the string samples are really terrible,” or “this’ll sound better when a French horn plays it.” So you’re not playing something on a piano and saying “imagine an orchestra” any more. The filmmaker is hearing his or her cue.

Two very specific technologies have changed everything: Pro Tools and sequencers. Pro Tools, where just as in a Word document you can cut and paste, underline, stretch and insert. Don’t like what the composer wrote? “Thank you very much for giving us the material, we’re now going to take this half and use it here …”

And the use of sequencers, primarily Logic and Performer, changes the way music is composed to film — instead of a pencil and a Knudson book (of timings), people are tapping on a keyboard, often a computer keyboard, not a piano keyboard, digitally manipulating those two measures, slowing it down and moving it up.

DV: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Kraft: I don’t make judgments. People spend all their time saying, “it was better before.” It’s easy to say that. I’m not smart enough to make a judgment. This is what it is, and when we’re finished with this era and on to the next one, they’re going to tell us that it was better when we were doing it with Pro Tools and an orchestra.

DV: Who are the composers you haven’t worked with yet but would like to?

Kraft: No. 1 is John Williams, although he’s done Fox scores — the “Star Wars” films, “Minority Report.” Bernard Herrmann, but that’s a long-distance call (he died in 1975).

I really like Alexandre Desplat. He did “Fantastic Mr. Fox” for us, but he did it overseas with Wes Anderson. I keep hearing great things about Abel Korzeniowski. I really dug Jonny Greenwood’s score for “There Will Be Blood” — particularly when somebody came out of the movie and said, “oh, I hated that music, it was all so weird,” I thought, “Thank you, Jonny Greenwood; people heard your music.” It was a character in the way that the best kind of film music often is, dissonant and gripping.

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