Q+A: Film Score Composer Brad Fiedel ("The Terminator," "Terminator 2" and "True Lies")

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Few in the film music industry have lived to see their music rise above the fickle box office cycle. Decades after his work on the popular franchise, film score composer Brad Fiedel’s music from the Terminator films has millions of streams on Spotify alone and has fans who were not alive when either film hit theaters. The staying power of the film’s score exists because it is reflective of the time period and timeless: switch things around, and it could be the soundtrack to any post-apocalyptic blockbuster released today.

A foreign film poster for  Terminator 2 . The film was loved around the globe!

A foreign film poster for Terminator 2. The film was loved around the globe!

Film directors and film score composers conflict with each other creatively often enough to where people actually get let go from composing jobs. Guessing what someone means when he or she has never studied music and has the vaguest descriptives possible is like dealing with people messing up your order at a fast food drive thru. How did you and Mr. Cameron wind up working together so well on three of his films? Did he avoid giving you much direction, leaving the process mostly up to you?

I actually like when directors talk to me about their film and about individual scenes in non musical terms, more like they would speak with an actor about back story, motivation etc. As well as the overall impact they would like the film or the scene to have on the audience.  I've had the most challenges with directors who considered themselves schooled in music and were very specific about instrumentation etc. This can be creatively restricting. For the first Terminator, Jim showed me the film without any temporary music which gave me a clean slate for my imagination. A few days later I presented my idea for the main theme. Since this worked well for him, we were off and running with a good base of trust. On T2, we had an interesting challenge of relating to the first film while evolving with the great expansion of story, budget, visual effects etc. We were in sync most of the time, but I remember a few times we had different ideas for the approach. One was the canal chase. I had done a test cue and Jim didn't like it. He said something like" You are scoring the big, lumbering truck coming after him, and I want you to give more support to the feeling of the kid on the little motorbike trying to get away like a scared mouse. This is the kind of direction I was referring to above. It allowed me the freedom to find the musical solution. Jim always knew frame by frame what his film was about and was almost always able to communicate that clearly. This made for a very constructive conversation and allowed me to give him what he needed under very high pressured schedules.

Your Terminator theme is said to have an unusual time signature of 13/16 completely unintentionally. But when you hear it, the theme itself sounds very simple in structure and that’s why it is popular with fans today. What other mistakes from the Terminator movies’ film scores became their best assets, making the final cut on the recordings?

My approach to film scoring in general was one of freewheeling experimentation and improvisation, so the term "mistakes" doesn't really feel like quite the right way to express the way things happened and how elements ended up in the final scores. Having endless hours in my own studio allowed me to approach scores in a playful" let's try this and see what happens" kind of way. So, many sounds and musical moments came out of unexpected results of this kind of approach. I guess much of creating in all forms of art is about recognizing when something that occurs in the process has value and then crafting it to be part of the final work. I understood that the technical limitations of my clunky sequencer caused an imperfect time signature in the original Terminator theme, but when I listened to it I realized that it worked for the feeling I was going for and supported a subliminal feeling of unrest, I didn't work at trying to fix it and embraced it instead. The way the mic overloaded and distorted when I slammed a metal frying pan with a hammer for the creation of the metal clank sample was another example of an imperfection that had more power than an undistorted sample would have and made it into the scores of both films. There are endless examples of discoveries that were made when things didn't happen like I first thought they would. The happy surprises. The trick is recognizing when something like that has value.

For Terminator 2, you took risks with the new bigger, more unusual music having to accompany the most expensive movie of its time period. Did anyone hearing the initial music samples think you were making a mistake? What did Mr. Cameron think of some of your real sound manipulations you put into the score? The time period didn’t have these wild film scores like Mad Max: Fury Road. Your material must have been shocking to him and others at work.

When Jim first heard my atonal brass, stomach turning sounds in the fight between the Terminators in T2 he said " Brad, I'm into avant guard music!" I was so committed to supporting his ground breaking special effects that I stood my ground. My pitch was that people have never seen anything like this before and I do not want the music to "normalize" the experience with any kind of fight music cliche. He agreed to listen again from that point of view and really got what I was going after and let it stay in the score. That was really the only time I remember him reacting negatively to sounds I was introducing in that film.

You were given more time to work with the script as an influence on the Terminator 2 film score, but it took longer to film with all of the special effects and stunts. Had you been given a standard music-less copy of the finished film to write your material, would you have gone a different style on the score or changed any scenes’ music?

Such a hypothetical it's hard to answer that. I started conceiving my musical vocabulary from the script and then he sent me rough cut scenes as he progressed. There were often black "effect missing" segments so I needed to keep adjusting and re-recording cues as they evolved. It was pretty stressful and intense since everything was still being recorded on analogue 24 track . Now the process of making changes in the digital realm is much easier. The biggest question of style had to do with the fact that we considered early on the possibility of using live orchestra for some elements of the score. This fell by the wayside as we progressed both for aesthetic and logistic reasons. I guess it's possible if we had a final cut early on that would have made the orchestra conversation more feasible. I'm glad it worked out the way it did, though having a film keep evolving right down to the last moment is definitely a challenge.

Scoring science fiction movies does, these days anyway, allow for rule breaking. Which film scores out today in the genre do you love?

I think there's a lot of great work going on today. I am often blown away by how far things have come and what tour de forces the scores often are, though there is often not a uniqueness that I walk away with on the big sci fi films. I am concerned that the technical ability to make things bigger and bigger and louder and louder and has made the tracks so impactful that I don't have psychic room to enter into the world that's being presented onscreen.  But I'm sounding a little like the old fart here.... A lot of talent and skill out there!

What could bring you out of retirement for film scoring?

Not sure. I'm enjoying creating from the bottom up. I collaborated on so many projects for so many years, supporting other people's stories and visions, it's interesting( and difficult) at this point to sit down and say to myself "OK, what do you want to say". I feel though as an artist that it's what I need to do. I must say that the more I've worked on my own original projects, the more I really appreciate the people who have been able to get their projects made and out into the world. That has not been my strong suit.

Since you left film music, you have gone onto new things. Please tell readers about your musical! Can we get to know you? What are your hobbies and favorite foods?

I have been working on Full Circle off and on for years. I recently recorded an audio only version of the show and am looking for the best way to release that recording to the public.

While taking a break from music when I was no longer working as a composer in the industry, I took up surfing and fell in love with the whole experience. I ended up designing and building a small surf hotel on the pacific coast of Mexico near Zihuatanejo.

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“I’ll Be Back”

To celebrate the release of Terminator: Dark Fate on November 1, I am interviewing people from the amazing franchise for my Apple News section and website. Stay tuned for more!