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‘Blade Runner 2049’: Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on How to Follow Up a Classic Sci-Fi Score

Benjamin Wallfisch also did the music for horror hit "It."

It’s been a big year for composer Benjamin Wallfisch. First, he reimagined Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” to create the most talked-about musical moment in Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”; then he composed a complex, frightening symphonic score for “It,” now the most successful horror movie of all time; and most recently, he collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the music for one of the most anticipated films of the season, “Blade Runner 2049,” opening today.

Wallfisch has often worked with Zimmer (writing additional music for “12 Years a Slave,” “The Little Prince” and “Batman v. Superman,” then a full partnership on last year’s “Hidden Figures”) and, says the composer, “Blade Runner” began much the same way, with a phone call from Zimmer asking him to come over to his studio.

There he found Zimmer conferring with director Denis Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker about the musical needs of the sequel to the 1982 Harrison Ford film. They began musical explorations almost immediately: “Hans just put his hands on the keys, played some notes, and there was an immediate synergy with Denis,” Wallfisch says.

Wallfisch went off and wrote a 12-minute suite of proposed musical ideas, “and within days there was 20 to 25 minutes of music written away from picture, a lot of which went into the movie untouched,” he adds.

The biggest challenge, he reports, was creating a sound that would “keep it very much in the world of ‘Blade Runner,’ which is synonymous with Vangelis,” the reclusive Greek composer who scored the ’82 original, which ranks high among the all-time great sci-fi film scores.

It was also created almost entirely on synthesizers, so, Wallfisch explains, they wanted to “be as respectful as possible, celebrate that sound, and at the same time think about how it could be reinvented for a completely new story, 30 years later.”

Zimmer immediately pulled out of storage his Yamaha CS-80, the late ’70s-era analog synth that Vangelis had used as the primary voice of his original. “It was important to begin and end the score with it,” Wallfisch says, “tipping our hat to the great Vangelis. Most of the rest of the score was created using contemporary synthesizers,” he adds, although many of the sounds were inspired by the ’70s and ’80s machines that Vangelis used.

The second challenge was “finding the heart of the movie,” Wallfisch says, especially difficult considering the movie’s intellectually provocative premise: “What is it to be human? What is consciousness? Finding musical analogues to those questions,” says the composer.

What he calls “the soul theme” consists of four notes, “a very simple melody, the first thing you hear over the opening shots of the movie,” recurring throughout as K (Ryan Gosling) searches for answers. Much of the score is subtle, with “synth textures and colors that evolve very slowly to match the pace of the film.”

CREDIT: Benjamin Ealovega

It’s hard to imagine a greater stylistic contrast than Wallfisch’s “It,” which relies on more traditional orchestral means to deliver the scares and dramatize Stephen King’s story of misfit kids terrorized by a malevolent, supernatural clown in a small Maine town.

“The first thing I realized was, first and foremost, this is an adventure movie,” he says of “It.” “The film needed a score which, at its heart, told the story of The Losers Club, these kids who go through a coming-of-age experience (in which) they are forced to confront their individual fears. I found myself connecting to that, the chemistry of these kids – there was such a tangible human complexity there.”

A fan of the big orchestral adventure scores of the ’80s (the period of the film), Wallfisch sought to create “a very thematic, motif-based score that has a great symphonic arc to it and a real payoff at the end. Most films don’t allow for that,” he notes.

Among the film’s cleverest musical touches is the use of an 18th-century British play song, “Oranges and Lemons,” which is variously sung, whispered, yawned and screamed by a 10-voice children’s choir. “The melody is innocent and sweet and sing-song, but the words get darker and darker. It’s a very disturbing piece.

“It’s not Pennywise’s theme as such,” Wallfisch explains, referring to the sewer-dwelling clown. “This is the sound of him thinking. When he creates fear, what does that sound like? You could make something ugly and scary, or you could go against the grain with something that’s innocent but actually is not innocent. There’s more of a story there.”

Wallfisch mixes the eerie children’s voices with a melancholy piano theme for the troubled town of Derry, and the ghostly sounds of high strings with celeste, his “strange and unsettled” Pennywise motif that haunts the entire movie. Wallfisch’s intense, often dissonant score is the stuff of nightmares.

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