Bunnyman takes big hop with ‘Savages’ score

Composer Adam Peters brings wide experience to harmonize Stone pic

Oliver Stone, whose “Savages” opens wide today, has demonstrated an omnivorous taste in composers over his career, having employed everyone from standard-bearers Ennio Morricone and John Williams to rock vets Stewart Copeland and Paul Kelly and electronic experimentalists Vangelis and Craig Armstrong. His latest maestro, the classically trained cellist and ex-Echo & the Bunnymen collaborator Adam Peters, could fit readily into a number of those categories.

Though “Savages” marks his first feature score of note, Peters is no neophyte. In addition to his time with English gloom-rockers Echo & the Bunnymen (for whom he did the orchestrations on 1984’s “Ocean Rain”), Peters has logged stints touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees and recording with Beth Orton, Mercury Rev and his own projects Neulander and Family of God.

Featuring extreme levels of violence and visual hyperactivity, “Savages” reps in many ways a return to the lurid, button-pushing Stone of yore, and Peters took an aptly multidisciplinary approach to scoring it, using everything from a 70-piece orchestra to densely overdubbed samples of his own electric cello playing buried in the background.

Though the the film features nearly wall-to-wall music, some of it rather complex, Peters was careful to dial things down when the need arose, even when it mean scrapping his own themes and melodies. “I tried writing broad themes at first, but the film is just moving too fast to accept them; you need to get in and get out quickly,” he recalled. “There’s the theme for the Laguna Beach scenes, and then the theme for the Mexican cartel scenes, and those are really the only two major themes in the score. But then I’m also sort of using ambient sound as a theme as well, like when we cut to Benicio (Del Toro), I’m not actually using a theme. But you hear these very specific sounds to still get this recurrent mood, sort of like a dark cloud passing through the score.”

“Savages” also required Peters to devise an appropriate compositional counterpart to Stone’s manic, referential style. For this, Peters toiled to connect the film’s licensed music with the score by rewriting source music melodies as preludes and echoes and composing his own nonorchestral pieces to mimic the pop music heard elsewhere in the film.

For example, Peters recalled, “There was always the question of how to approach the action scenes. I wrote some action music, but every time I was writing it, all it said to me was ‘this is music for an action scene.’ So I just wrote a techno track and put it against the picture like a piece of found music. I thought it was interesting, sort of playing it through the kids’ eyes, rather than just saying, ‘Here we are in an action movie, and now we’re going to blow some shit up.’?”

Born and schooled in Britain, Peters moved to Los Angeles several years ago with the intention of breaking into scoring. But he’s nonetheless surprised by the ease with which he’s been adopted into the brotherhood. His first break came when he gave a tape to Elisa Bonora, then editing Stone’s political docu “South of the Border,” who passed it along to the director. (Peters ended up scoring the film.) Then, in search of a studio space, Peters gravitated toward Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control home base in Santa Monica, which brought him into contact with a host of fellow composers; Zimmer delegated some of his scoring duties on “Rango” to the composer.

“I didn’t quite realize what a big deal (Remote Control) was in the film music world when I first went there,” Peters said. “I’ve been there a few years now, and it definitely helps to be around other film composers.”

Still, it was with Stone that Peters began to feel truly comfortable scoring, and he’s presently writing music for the director’s long-gestating “Secret History of America” project.

“He’s really inspiring when he talks, and sometimes he really reaches to the heavens describing his ideas,” Peters recalled. “I’d have these long abstract conversations with him, and try to write with that feeling in my head, rather than just sitting down and watching the picture. You’re in this sort of exploration together with him.”

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