‘Blade Runner 2049’ Composer Benjamin Wallfisch on the Unique Score, Experimenting, & Vangelis

     October 17, 2017

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Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has been a very busy guy lately. Over the past 18 months he’s composed the scores to Hidden Figures, A Cure for Wellness, Annabelle: Creation, IT, and Blade Runner 2049, and he worked with Hans Zimmer on some key pieces of the Dunkirk score. Working on just one or two of these films would be challenging enough, but that Wallfisch not only lent his talents to the aforementioned films but crafted unique, memorable scores for each one is mighty impressive.

Blade Runner 2049 may have been the most challenging of the bunch, as Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer boarded the project relatively later in the process when director Denis Villeneuve opted to part ways with the film’s original composer, Johann Johannsson. But Wallfisch and Zimmer were able to craft not just one of the best scores of the year, but one of the most thrilling sci-fi scores in recent memory. Their work on Blade Runner 2049 is dynamic, surprising, exciting, and deeply emotional, offering a wide range of soundscapes that track the journey of Ryan Gosling’s K.

So when I was offered the chance to speak with Wallfisch recently about his work on Blade Runner 2049, I jumped at it. During our discussion, Wallfisch revealed how he and Zimmer came onto the project through editor and friend Joe Walker and discussed how early discussions with Walker and Villeneuve shaped the entire idea for the score. Wallfisch also discussed the influence of Vangelis and trying to pay homage to his work on the original Blade Runner while crafting something different, and how the process of scoring Blade Runner 2049 was a lot of trial and error, with score for entire sequences removed from the film. Wallfisch also talked about the surprising origin of that memorable motorcycle rev.

Wallfisch is full of insight into the process that gave us this incredible score, and I do think fans of the film and its music will find it insightful. Read the full conversation below, and for even more from Wallfisch check out my interview with the composer about his work on It and A Cure for Wellness right here.

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Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

Now I’ve seen IT so I have to congratulate you on scaring the shit out of me. So thank you for that.

BENJAMIN WALLFISCH: (Laughs) It was a pleasure.

That movie is huge. It’s one of the biggest hits of the year. How does it feel to see a film like that explode?

WALLFISCH: It’s a joy and I’m just so happy to be part of something which connected with so many people. It’s one of those movies that I feel lucky to have been a part of.

Well, it’s a job well done. And it’s great to see a lot of people connecting to it. Moving into Blade Runner 2049, which I absolutely loved. I saw it twice in three days because I wanted to go back and see it in IMAX. Were you guys kind of involved in the IMAX of it at all and kind of the mixing of that part?

WALLFISCH: The incredible sound mixing team led by re-recording mixer Ron Bartlett was responsible for turning our 5.1 mixes into IMAX and Dolby Atmos. And, yeah, it was one of the best mixes I’ve ever attended. Just astonishing work from Ron and the whole team.

Yeah, it’s really incredible. And I know that you and Hans kind of came on somewhat late to this project. Another composer was working on it before. So how did this kind of come about for you? What was the call like that you got to work on Blade Runner?

WALLFISCH: Hans and I both know [editor] Joe Walker well and he reached out to Hans when they were making decisions to explore a different musical direction. Hans called me into the room and the four of us just started a conversation about our shared love of the original Blade Runner, and what this new version might need. We spoke at length about how Vangelis is so intertwined with the very fabric of the original movie, and how we could acknowledge that and still do something new that works for this story, 30 years on.

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Image via Alcon Entertainment / Warner Bros.

And we just went from there. It was a wonderful period of discovery with the filmmakers. Hans and I just finding themes and then suites were written and we just sort of jumped straight into it with no hesitation. There is something about how this film explores those almost impossible existential themes of ‘what is the human soul’, ‘what is consciousness’—the magnitude of those thoughts gave our early experiments a certain musical attitude—we had to keep it simple and ask questions more than provide answers. There needed to be a clarity and simplicity of approach to the material, in the context of a real complexity of sonic—always inspired by the incredible visual spectacle… and keeping the audience fully in the unfolding puzzle at all times, allowing K to follow his path in this ever expanding maze, and be a musical partner on that journey.

When you guys first came on, did you listen to any of what the previous composer had done or was it very much just starting from scratch?

WALLFISCH: We were starting from scratch. I’m a huge fan of Johann’s music, but we deliberately started with a completely blank slate. If there was a model, it was Vangelis, and finding a way to reinvent that musical attitude and approach so it felt right for this new story.

One of the things that I was struck by is that, I mean the score is incredible and it has this dynamism to it. Kind of melding sound design and score a bit, if that makes any sense. Were you guys kind of approaching it that way?

WALLFISCH: Denis’s filmmaking style is so vivid and has such powerful emotional impact just on a visual level that we found a more textural approach at times was the best way to be a partner to his approach. The cinematography of this movie alone is so visceral that sometimes you need to give the audience a moment to take things in musically. There were times where it would have been tempting to lay over a big melody over one of those breathtaking images, but we would have risked taking the audience out of that moment.

Having said that, we were able to use themes in this score, at carefully placed moments. There is a four note tune which you hear over the opening shots of the movie, that we call the ‘horse theme’ or ‘soul theme’. The melody takes on different guises, expands and contracts as the story unfolds and we hear it mainly when K makes a significant discovery. It’s no coincidence that this melody is built on just four notes, corresponding to the four acids in the DNA strand that is crucial to the story. The idea of complexity being built on immense simplicity. There’s a certain beauty and truth to that.

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