Marc Streitenfeld — the composer of “Prometheus,” “American Gangster” and the upcoming “Poltergeist” — can trace his musical roots back to a 19th-century troubadour whose family was executed after he wrote a song mocking the emperor of Germany.
“Which is funny, you know?” he says, laughing in his spacious, comfortable Venice, Calif., studio just days after completing the mix for the “Poltergeist” soundtrack. “That’s the only family musical connection I can find.”
It must have been enough.
The 40-year-old German native has joined the ranks of billion-dollar composers with five films for director Ridley Scott, including “Gangster” and “Prometheus,” and four more for other directors including “The Grey,” “Killing Them Softly” and “After the Fall.” He’s now scoring the series “Hand of God” for Amazon.
It seems like a meteoric rise, considering he’s only been composing for nine years. But this ex-guitarist has been working in various capacities in the film-music field for more than two decades, starting at the very bottom.
“He literally showed up at the studio door,” composer Hans Zimmer remembers, referring to Streitenfeld’s gutsy 1994 arrival from Munich at the age of 19. Starting as an intern, he was hired three weeks later as an assistant to Zimmer.
Over the next few years he toiled behind the scenes on everything from “The Thin Red Line” to “Gladiator.” “We went all over the world together,” Zimmer says. “Those were pretty intense times, but he worked really hard and he always had really good ideas.”
Streitenfeld graduated to music editor (on “Mission: Impossible II,” “Black Hawk Down” and others) and then to music supervisor (on “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Matchstick Men”).
Says director Scott: “I had noticed Marc as a very clever and sensitive music supervisor on a few of my films, from large to small productions. His suggestions for temporary scores, which is very important in the editing process, were always unusual and different.
“I asked him if he had written scores before and his response was, ‘Only for myself.’ I took a chance and gave him ‘A Good Year’ as his first formal assignment, and it was really good.” Scott’s romantic comedy about an investment broker who retreats to his uncle’s vineyard in Provence, France, launched Streitenfeld’s career as a composer.
Nine years and multiple projects later, directors praise his sense of experimentation and willingness to go the extra mile to discover a unique sound for their films.
“The score is obviously another layer of storytelling,” says Streitenfeld. “But it changes from film to film. Do you push the story forward? Do you express the more internal feelings of a character? Do you help with the pacing?”
He says he prefers to start early, before shooting if possible. “I always like to talk to directors early on. I like to have as much information in my head while I’m working.” That has meant set visits (New York for “American Gangster,” England for “Robin Hood”) and long conversations with his collaborators.
“I’ve been lucky that every film, especially the ones I did with Ridley, has been so different,” Streitenfeld says. Case in point: his second film, Scott’s gritty ’70s drama “American Gangster.” The composer remembers Scott calling him from the Harlem locations and talking about the noise and energy that constantly surrounded him.
Streitenfeld translated those discussions into siren-like sounds made with guitars, adding shuffle beats, blues elements and a 1969 drum machine to the mix. His efforts earned him a Bafta nom for original score as well as a World Soundtrack Award for Discovery of the Year.
“What’s good is to come up with a concept or an approach,” Streitenfeld says. “What is the function of the score in this film? What does it need to express? Then you think about the instrumentation. They all affect each other.
“If you talk about very emotional subject matter, I want to be very subtle with how the music comes in and how it underlines those emotions.”
In the case of “The Grey,” the survival thriller starring Liam Neeson, for example, “there were action elements to it, but I always saw it as a poetic movie,” Streitenfeld says. “Those guys facing death and talking about life — for me that’s where the score had to go. The more emotional music was actually played at the end of a scene, when the emotional part was over and you were moving on. The taste is left in your mouth, and that would carry over into another moment.”
Unlike many of his peers, Streitenfeld does not use sample libraries. “I make all the sounds you hear in my scores. I spend a lot of time creating textures and percussive sounds. On ‘Prometheus,’ I spent months just recording things to make it sound unusual. You need to allow yourself the time to do it.”
Up next for the composer: “Lowriders,” set in East L.A. with Brian Grazer producing and Ricardo de Montreuil directing.