This month, three very different projects will showcase three sides of the same composer: a grand-scale symphonic score for a comic-book movie; a hardcore punk sound for a nightmarish supernatural tale; and a surprising combination of orchestra and electronics for an edgier-than-usual nature documentary.
The composer is London-born Benjamin Wallfisch, and his music for “Shazam!,” “Hellboy” and “Hostile Planet” couldn’t be farther apart in sound and style. But, as director James Marsh (“The Theory of Everything”) points out, “You can be versatile but boring, or you can be versatile and interesting in every genre that you take on. That is Ben’s great ability. He owns those choices and makes them his.”
In the past three years alone, Wallfisch has written an eerie and disturbing score for the Stephen King horror film “It”; earned Grammy nominations for his collaborations with Hans Zimmer on the all-electronic music for “Blade Runner 2049” and the soulful score for “Hidden Figures”; and created a jazzy big-band sound for the Michael Caine heist film “King of Thieves.” These box-office successes have contributed to Wallfisch’s status as a billion-dollar composer.
Says Zimmer, whom Wallfisch considers a mentor: “He made a living as a conductor, so he has all the chops and he knows the whole classical repertoire. He has a great sense of storytelling, and he’s very good at embracing the new. All I did was give him a push.”
For “Shazam!,” which opens April 5, director David F. Sandberg says he was looking “to tap into that old-school superhero, fun-adventure movie sound, a John Williams-type score.” Sandberg notes that many modern scores have moved away from such traditional music, but for “an old-school superhero from the Golden Age,” it felt even more fitting.
The result was a nearly two-hour score rich with melodic themes and played with gusto by a 100-piece London orchestra and 40-voice choir. “There’s so much joy and hope in the film,” says Wallfisch. “There is magic, and a kind of tenderness at the heart of the story, this idea of striving for something and looking optimistically to the future. David wanted the music to be a big part of that.”
Contrast this with “Hellboy” (out April 12), a reboot of two earlier films and based on a much darker comic book from the 1990s. The title character is a half-demon who cracks jokes while battling a medieval sorceress and whose friends include a man-turned-jaguar and various seers and witches.
“The film has this extraordinary kind of punk attitude,” says Wallfisch. “I thought, we have to make the music sound as if it’s from the underworld, so I started experimenting with extremely aggressive synth sounds, combining it with punk rock guitars, and then a very heavy low-end orchestra. It’s the sound of an irreverent underworld, I guess.”
In search of yet another creative challenge, Wallfisch took on a six-part nature documentary for National Geographic (which debuted April 1). Each hour of “Hostile Planet” examines a different environment — mountains, oceans, grasslands, jungles, deserts and the poles — to show how different species adapt to sometimes brutal and constantly changing conditions.
“We were looking to shake up the natural-history genre and find a more contemporary musical score,” says producer Tom Hugh-Jones. “Music has to work really hard — animals can’t speak, so music is the voice of the animals and the landscapes. Ben brought a really fresh take, conveying a huge amount of different emotional tones.”
Adds Wallfisch: “It’s scary, like a thriller. There’s a lot of tension, and they don’t hold back. [You see] the brutality of the natural world. But the key thing is that everything is contextualized, how things are now versus how they were 10 years ago. These animals have that much more to deal with because of climate change.”
His music is an offbeat combination of orchestra, electronics and vocals. “If we visited Latin America, we didn’t want a samba beat,” Hugh-Jones says. “We liked the idea of making it more of a consistent narrative, bringing a dramatic ebb and flow. For Ben, it was much more about finding the instrument that conveys the right emotion.”
Wallfisch’s ability to work in wildly different musical arenas may stem from his unique family background. His great-grandfather was Russian-born Albert Coates, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra during the early 1920s. His grandmother, cellist Anita Wallfisch, a Holocaust survivor, was a founding member of the English Chamber Orchestra. His grandfather was a concert pianist, his father a cellist and his mother a violinist.
“He comes from a long line of extraordinary musicians,” Zimmer says.
“When you grow up in an environment where music is the culture of the family, it’s all you really talk about and all you see. To this day, my dad practices for six hours every day, and he’s in his mid-60s.”
Inevitably, young Wallfisch undertook a traditional classical-music education (first at London’s Guildhall School, then at the Royal Northern College of Music, finally a master’s from the Royal Academy of Music). A fine pianist, he initially considered a career at the keyboard but wound up spending most of his 20s in an even more demanding role, conducting Shostakovich, Mahler, Beethoven and Stravinsky with such prestige ensembles as the London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic and the L.A. Philharmonic.
“But,” he says, “I had this obsession with film music since I was a kid. It was always my first love, the thing that genuinely got me excited about music. I literally wore out my ‘E.T.’ LP. And my parents encouraged all of my crazy experiments with very primitive electronic rigs in my bedroom.”
Eventually Wallfisch scored his first film, “Dear Wendy,” in 2005. London-based composer Dario Marianelli heard it and, needing a musical assistant, contacted Wallfisch. Over the next seven years, Wallfisch worked on 20 Marianelli scores, orchestrating and conducting the Oscar-winning “Atonement” and Oscar-nominated “Pride & Prejudice” and “Anna Karenina,” among others.
He moved to L.A. in 2012. Erin Scully, executive VP of music for New Line Cinema, recalls recruiting him for “Within” and “Lights Out,” two early horror entries. “He never does the same thing twice,” she says. “Each film has its own musical identity specifically crafted to tell a story bespoke to the narrative and the nuance of the characters and the genre.”
“Annabelle: Creation” and “It” followed at New Line. Wallfisch’s intense, often dissonant music for the King adaptation was the stuff of nightmares. He mixed eerie children’s voices with a melancholy piano theme for the troubled town of Derry, and ghostly sounds of high strings with celeste, the “strange and unsettled,” as he puts it, motif for the frightening clown Pennywise that haunts the entire movie. He is now starting work on “It: Chapter Two.”
Says producer Peter Safran, whose film “Hours” was among Wallfisch’s first U.S. films and who produced “Shazam!”: “He has a way of telling the story and enhancing the emotion we’re feeling. It applies as beautifully in horror as it does to the more lighthearted moments in ‘Shazam!’ He has a real ability to look at a movie and work with the filmmaker to deliver something unique.”
Wallfisch’s goal is to never repeat himself. “Every film has to feel different,” he says, “as if you’ve picked up your pen for the very first time.”