When Heitor Pereira was a boy growing up in rural, heavily forested Brazil, his grandfather — an avid birdwatcher — used to tell him, “Listen to the symphony of the birds and the life around us. Can you imagine a day without these melodies?”
Nowadays Pereira honors that memory within the context of moving pictures, whether mimicking nature or underscoring character and story.
“Melody is still where I start,” says the composer of such animated features as “Despicable Me” and “Minions,” and live-action films like “If I Stay” and “It’s Complicated.” “Even if it’s a birthplace for the score and then becomes textural. If I do that, I never get lost, because melodies have meaning. They are a musical conclusion of a conversation that we may have about a character.”
Pereira is among a long line of film composers — including Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Trent Reznor — who established themselves in the pop realm. A guitarist for English pop-soul band Simply Red during its most successful period (1989-95), he is also a Grammy-winning arranger and producer whose career defies easy description.
Pereira has played for everyone from Elton John and Destiny’s Child to Willie Nelson and Shania Twain but, for the past decade or so, has spent more time at the keyboard in his Santa Monica studio creating music for the bigscreen.
He likens his current gig to an earlier time when he was performing onstage and backing vocalists. “Nowadays the dialogue is my singer and the sound effects are my band,” he says. “So when I need to take the lead it’s fine, but I find that it’s a beautiful thing to keep challenging yourself, looking for different ways to be an accompanist.”
Pereira first picked up the guitar when he was 14. He began studying music at a Rio de Janeiro conservatory, and classical guitar, with some of the country’s top musicians.
From there, he began continent-hopping, studying in Boston, spending six years in London and two in Ireland, doing world tours with Simply Red and recording three albums as a solo artist. He moved to the U.S. in the mid-1990s and is still a world-class, in-demand guitarist.
Pereira’s entry into the film world was (like so many of today’s top film composers) via Zimmer, who “needed some Brazilian songs” for “As Good as It Gets,” James L. Brooks’ 1997 romantic comedy. The two composers struck up a friendship, and Zimmer wrote the guitar solos in “Gladiator” for Pereira to perform.
“I think of Hans as a brother, even more than as a musician,” Pereira says. Before long he was contributing as a writer to films like “Black Hawk Down” and “The Pledge.” “The music inside the instrument was starting to become a little small,” Pereira remembers. “The guitar wouldn’t suffice.”
His first solo composing credit was “Real Women Have Curves” (2002) although he continued to collaborate, notably with songwriter Jack Johnson, on “Curious George” and Zimmer on the Nancy Meyers film “It’s Complicated.”
He finds the lessons he learned as a bandmate valuable in working with filmmakers: “To be a soloist is easy, but to accompany means that you listen. If you do it successfully, you understand, and if you understand, it’s not painful, because it’s a process.”
That process can be “scary and unnerving,” says director Raja Gosnell, who has collaborated on three films with Pereira including “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” and both “Smurfs” movies. “But Heitor is a master at creating, managing and navigating all of the creative and sometimes contradictory input.”
Director R.J. Cutler, whose “If I Stay,” last year’s Chloe Grace Moretz drama, elicited a melancholy, piano-based score from the composer, calls him “a musician of great emotional depth, and both clarity and complexity. He can coax emotion out of both the instruments and the music itself in a way that is always surprising.”
Pereira’s involvement with the “Despicable” trilogy began when Zimmer asked him to arrange a song that Pharrell Williams had written for the first film. Before long, Williams moved his gear into Pereira’s studio and they were collaborating, Williams writing songs and Pereira adapting them into the score.
Universal president of film music Mike Knobloch says: “Heitor had captured the soul and essence of the musical landscape, so it was a no-brainer to elevate him as the sole composer of ‘Despicable Me 2’ and then ‘Minions.’ He is an eternal optimist, a lovable, life-affirming guy, and that has a lot to do with the kind of music he makes.”
Pereira concedes that he loves working on those films and is ready for more sequels. “In animation, you are sometimes saying what characters haven’t said,” he explains. “You are dipping into the personality that they might have but haven’t been able to convey.”
He’s now starting on “The Angry Birds Movie,” based on the videogame. His grandfather would be proud.
“I’m using instruments from everywhere,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate the knowledge that I acquired through years of birdwatching, traveling the world, listening to birds everywhere.
“This new phase of my life as a musician has been so liberating.”