For his new drama-thriller, 127 Hours, director Danny Boyle re-teams with innovative Indian film composer A.R. Rahman who won two Academy Awards for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman has created an awesome score to convey the 127-hour ordeal of American mountaineer Aron Ralston when his arm is pinned by a boulder deep inside a Utah canyon and he must resort to desperate measures in order to survive.
We sat down for a round table interview with Rahman to talk about his new film. He told us about his collaboration with Danny Boyle, why he chose a personal and intimate score with Western influences to help bring to life the director’s unique vision, and how much he enjoyed once again being part of the Oscar-winning team behind Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman also liked our suggestion that he consider working with Ryan Murphy on a Bollywood version of Glee. Hit the jump to read what he had to say:
Q: How do you go about putting together a score and tracks for a guy stuck under a boulder?
A.R. Rahman: Since I worked with Danny Boyle before on Slumdog Millionaire, we have great success and everything. So, when I first got the script and the screenplay of Simon (Beaufoy) and I was reading it, even before the shoot, some kind of sounds came into my mind and I put some stuff [down] and sent it to Danny when he was cutting the movie. How we approached this was I wanted this to be personal in a way. It’s not a big, epic Hollywood score but really personal and intimate, and we thought guitar would be the perfect instrument for him because he’s young and he has an undying spirit and all that stuff and we went on that feeling totally.
Q: The music plays a huge role and almost from the beginning you feel like you’re inside his iPod. What were the sounds that you heard when you first started reading the script? What sort of musical emotions did you get?
A.R. Rahman: Certain things are done intentionally opposite — like there’s no sound at the end or synthesizers or all that stuff. Anything that drowns the movie, no. Anything that makes you sit up and watch it, yes. So, some are expecting a very sad theme going on. We didn’t want to do that. It would have been a beautiful moment in the movie but it would have brought the movie down. So Danny’s vision was perfect I think when he wanted it to be driven at the same time having this new emotion about this boy coming as a hallucination or like a déjà vu and as the future kid. That was a very different emotion and I felt Dido’s words would be good and I had a template with my voice in it. Then, when he heard it, he wanted both our voices together in it and that’s the scene when he sees the boy and then he gets charged to go on that final cutting effort.
Q: In that scene, there’s a string that he hits. I associate that noise with that scene so strongly. How did you create that sound?
Q: I thought they were all one thing.
A.R. Rahman: No. That’s the sound design. I watched it sixty times because we were constantly tweaking. The same thing comes twice, right? Once it comes in the beginning when he’s about to discover that he needs to come out and one is the dream where he’s flattered (??) and then he comes out. The last one, instead of going bigger, we made it smaller. We removed elements and thinned it out. So it doesn’t drive him. He drives the music rather than the other way around.
Q: Do you hear music constantly in your head?
A.R. Rahman: Yes and no. Sometimes I intentionally cut it off. I just want to be in silence, especially when I’m traveling. I watch movies without sound.
Q: What was the degree of difficulty for this particular movie? Was it something that flowed right out of you when you saw what was going on or what did you have to do?
A.R. Rahman: I had an initial 3 days before coming for this trip. I went to London to do the stuff. I was like “What am I going to do? What’s going to happen?” But then once you start working, you forget all that and you start enjoying what you’re doing. Once you enjoy the process, you know that people are going to do the same thing. If you don’t enjoy it and just do it like a job, then it’s going to be feel that way. That’s my theory of doing a movie.
Q: Can you talk about how you collaborated with Danny Boyle and what that process was like?
A.R. Rahman: It’s a very simple process. He comes in the tube (subway) and then he sits with me for 3 hours every evening and then I work on something. Then later, if he likes something, I put it even more perfectly. I tweak stuff. So this happened for 3 or 4 weeks and the music was done. When I initially read the script, it goes inside and comes out different things even without commenting on any stuff. And then, those pieces are taken out and then spread out through the movie.
Q: Everybody else went to the exact location in the canyon, did you also go there?
A.R. Rahman: I missed that because I was rehearsing for my tour in Los Angeles, and by the time I could go, it was done.
Q: Having worked on this project, would you like to go see the location in the future?
A.R. Rahman: Yes, of course.
Q: In this film, there’s one piece that reminds me of an Indian movie song?
A.R. Rahman: In this?
Q: Yes. Was that Danny’s request or your idea?
A.R. Rahman: It had a language. It’s a very emotional language that only exists in India, that part of [inaudible] so we wanted to use that. I had two versions — one with my voice and one with the girl’s voice. But he preferred the girl’s voice and he preferred my voice with an [inaudible].
Q: Who had different themes? I felt like the raven had a theme, the streets and the sky had a theme.
A.R. Rahman: There were basically three themes. One was the sun theme which is the guitar when he’d get sun on his leg and it comes again in the end. And there’s of course the lullaby which Dido sang, “If I Rise.” And then there’s this driving guitar which is the motivation theme.
Q: How did you come up with the sun theme?
A.R. Rahman: I played a couple of ideas and then had this unusual texture underneath which was like this little granulated kind of pipe organ almost like a scratchy record which he started [inaudible] brilliantly. “Oh I love that song.” And when things go fine, it’s good. So he started loving that song and that song was used quite a lot in the movie which is very granulated stuff on the guitar.
Q: You won two Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, one for score and one for best song, where do you keep your Oscars?
A.R. Rahman: I don’t know. I don’t even know where mine is. My mother has hidden it because everybody who comes in wants to take a photograph of it. So what she’s done is she put it inside a suitcase somewhere.
Q: What if it’s lost?
A.R. Rahman: No, it’ll be inside somewhere.
Q: You don’t want to look at it?
A.R. Rahman: No, maybe I’ll look at it later. (Laughs)
Q: How radically different is your life as a result of that experience and did you even see that coming?
A.R. Rahman: I didn’t see it coming at all. I just wanted to have this new experience with this team of Danny Boyle, Christian (Colson) and Simon (Beaufoy). It was like an excursion for me from my normal routine and the Indian movies I do and that helped. Because when you work with a different team, the expectations are different and then you deliver in a very different way. You look back at it and you’re proud of yourself. And when the same people come in and you do the same thing, it’s boring. You could re-envision it again and again but when the new chemistry of ideas comes in, something happens as a team.
Q: When you’re not working on something, what do you like to listen to?
A.R. Rahman: I listen to everything. As I told you, sometimes I just want to shut off from music and be silent. Then I play a song and it’s refreshing. It’s almost like initializing yourself. Recently I was in South Africa doing a press day for my tour. I listened to this band called “Freshly Ground.” They were doing a live gig there so that’s the last thing I’ve heard.
Q: Is there a genre you’d like to experiment with?
A.R. Rahman: Yes, it’d probably be somebody like Danny having a vision of a musical which I thought would be a brilliant idea but not the old way of doing it but rather the Danny way. The last time I think he tried to do a musical but it didn’t take off, I guess. Four or five years back I think.
Q: Do you think Indian music is more accepted and listened to around the world now as a result of Slumdog Millionnaire?
A.R. Rahman: What is good is what it’s going to lead to, like the song “Jai Ho.” If good numbers are going to come in the future, it bodes well for a lot of things. But then, who’s going to maintain that. That’s the question. So far they could never lead to an Indian song, like a normal film song in this that they can relate to. There are a lot of firsts in that thing. That’s the reason I was doing this tour for them to see my backlog of work and what I’ve done for the past 20 years. We’re going 17 places including South Africa, Singapore and all those places. It is stressful and exhausting, but I think when you see the joy of people, it’s very nice.
Q: You’re the founder of the A.R. Rahman Foundation. Can you talk a little bit about what the foundation is, how it came to be, where it’s based and who it helps?
A.R. Rahman: I’ve been doing music for almost 20 years and after a point what is the motivation that drives you to compose and to do stuff? I did this song for the U.N., a fighting for poverty anthem. That’s when I realized that I could do a foundation. And when I started the foundation, it was basically to fight poverty and to help — that kind of stuff. The best way would be education and kids and all that stuff and then education and working education comes through. Then I started a music school and the music school now teaches kids to play the violin and the viola. These are the Rad (?) instruments that are dying out in India. So, it’s going well and I think now we are increasing the number of kids we have taught and of course we are helping out with other things too. It’s based in India now. [The idea is to] perfect it in one place and then we’ll expand.
Q: What do you think of the success of somebody like M.I.A. who had a song on the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack (“O…Saya”) that really broadened her appeal and made her far more successful than she was?
A.R. Rahman: Actually it was the reverse. She catapulted. Her song, “Paper Planes,” is very popular. And then, sometime later, the soundtrack through her… “That Little Face,” she was helpful in doing that. “O…Saya” was a collaboration between her and me and she wrote good stuff.
Q: What genre besides Indian music would you like to see pushed more to the forefront with the work that you do?
A.R. Rahman: I basically love classical music. I love a lot of musicians playing together and the whole culture of that whether it’s Indian or it’s Western. But in India, I think it’s limited to filler ?? music unfortunately. That’s one thing I want to push in India where we have the infrastructure of an orchestra where you play Indian melodies with an orchestra and something different for a universal audience. It requires a lot of work from me.
Q: Have you ever played at the Hollywood Bowl?
A.R. Rahman: Yes, I did in 2006.
Q: You should do it again.
A.R. Rahman: (laughs) Do it again?
Q: Do something for their new season especially since you have another movie coming out. You should do it with the L.A. Philharmonic because that seems like it would fit right in your wheelhouse.
A.R. Rahman: That’s a good idea. I just finished a concert in March with the London Philharmonic playing all the themes of my stuff.
Q: What do you think about (Gustavo) Dudamel?
A.R. Rahman: Dudamel? I love him and his music.
Q: Do you think people like him just because he flips his hair a lot?
A.R. Rahman: At least that’s a charming thing. (Laughs) Why do you have to be critical about everything?
Q: I love him. I think he’s fantastic, but I think people like him more because he is so quirky.
A.R. Rahman: Full package, isn’t it? (Laughs)
Q: He makes it more interactive for an audience.
A.R. Rahman: Yes, that’s good.
Q: Where haven’t you been to play that you’d love to go and perform?
A.R. Rahman: My list would be Russia, Morocco, Turkey, and South Africa I’m doing which is somewhere I’ve wanted to go, Australia, Japan maybe, and China, if I have the energy to go and play at all those places.
Q: Is there any chance we’ll see Danny bringing you along for the Olympic Opening Ceremony?
A.R. Rahman: He’s briefly asked me but then there are other things (considerations). I think it’s good for a team where a lot of people can put all their energies together. But he said “You’re so busy here. How can you do all three? You need to give two years of a lifetime. I don’t think you can give.” He both asked the question and answered it.
Q: Are there other filmmakers you’re collaborating with aside from Danny?
A.R. Rahman: Right now I’m taking a break. I’m just finishing up here. It’s been a stressful year with this tour and all the scores and stuff.
Q: Especially since winning the Oscar, do you have a lot of people in Hollywood clamoring to work with you?
A.R. Rahman: Not as much, but the thing is I don’t want to be in a studio situation where you’re forced to think. I love the second stuff. This stuff is perfect for me. This is what I want to do. I wanted to work on a movie that is intimate and yet have the music ?? I did, of course, a movie called Couple’s Retreat with Vince Vaughn. This came even before the Oscars. He wanted me to do the music. I’m doing a complete U-turn. (Laughs)
Q: You mentioned you liked classic music. What are your favorites?
A.R. Rahman: I grew up on Bach and Beethoven and now I’m listening to more modern composers who I can’t even name. But since I’m constantly doing music, it’s difficult to have that quality time to listen to music and do classical stuff. That’s the only reason I’m thinking of going on.
Q: So what are you going to do with all this time off now?
A.R. Rahman: Spend time with my family. Then, my studio is getting completed here in Hollywood.
Q: Are you going to come to L.A. and be based here now?
A.R. Rahman: I’m already based half.
Q: Half? That’s not based. That’s half based. You have your foundation in India. There are lots of kids here who need musical educations. It’s dead in America now.
A.R. Rahman: Maybe I should do that very soon. But I’d like to perfect it in one place. My ideology is to do one thing perfect first.
Q: At one point I think I suggested to Ryan Murphy that they do a Bollywood Glee and he was kind of interested in that. Is that something you might enjoy seeing – something mainstream on television in America?
A.R. Rahman: That would be awesome.
Q: Has Ryan spoken to you about it?
A.R. Rahman: Has he said he wanted to do something with us? I’d be interested. I think it brings a lot of excitement and joy. That whole style which was there before has been forgotten for years now in Hollywood. My recent DVD which I loved was Rob Marshall’s Tony Bennett: An American Classic. Have you listened to that stuff? It was beautiful. It was Tony Bennett’s movie, a documentary. Nobody knows but it’s a beautiful piece of work — a lot of collaborations in it and all that stuff.
Q: What about a big band Bollywood?
A.R. Rahman: There is a band in London that does that. It’s called Rahmania, strangely.
Q: If you did a musical, what sort of things would you want to do?
A.R. Rahman: I think I would like to discover a new root where people don’t get bored with people singing boring lines but something exciting. That’d be interesting.
Q: In a classical style or the rock opera style?
Q: Do you see yourself teaming up with Alan Mencken anytime soon in a Disney animated film?
A.R. Rahman: I’d love to. That’s a very exciting thing. It’s so exciting. But again, it has to be discovered. It shouldn’t be the same old thing. Boring.
Q: You keep mentioning Danny’s team — Christian, Simon — and now you’re part of it.
A.R. Rahman: (laughs) Hopefully. At least in this movie I’m part of it.
Q: You don’t think you are?
A.R. Rahman: Well I think nobody should be pressurized like a tag on. And, of course, I’d love to be in another movie but nobody should have the pressure of “Oh he’s wants to be in my movie? How do we get rid of him?” It shouldn’t be like that. But it should complement it.
Q: I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to get rid of you.
A.R. Rahman: No, no, I’m just saying. That’s my philosophy of life always. The film gives you even more joy to work with rather than…
Q: When I was watching this film, I felt the same kind of emotion and energy as in Trainspotting. Was that Danny’s idea?
A.R. Rahman: I’ve never watched Trainspotting. I just know it’s a very critically acclaimed film. In fact, I’ve never watched any of Danny’s movies [means before he met him]. I just worked with him and felt the energy of what he is about initially before I do something. In a way, I think that’s why we have discovered each other rather than replicate something else.
Q: You’ve seen the movies you’ve done with him though?
A.R. Rahman: Yes. Of course.
Q: You said you’d never seen any of them?
A.R. Rahman: Danny’s movies I’ve not seen any except for the Hollywood movie with Cameron Diaz, A Life Less Ordinary.
Q: So you have?
Q: How do you think the audience reaction to 127 Hours compares to Slumdog Millionaire? Have you been watching the audience?
A.R. Rahman: I haven’t watched the audience yet because I just came in two days ago and I missed the screening yesterday.
Q: Are you looking forward to seeing it with an audience?
A.R. Rahman: Yes, I’m going to see it in London. It’s going to happen in two days.
Q: Do you get nervous about those sorts of things or do you just feel the excitement?
A.R. Rahman: I do get nervous.
Q: Can you feel the audience sort of swelling with the score?
A.R. Rahman: My first experience of that was with my first movie which I did in India. And it was so different from other people. I find that “Oh my God.” Every time the music is slow I feel that people are going to get up and go out. You get this nervousness. But, to my surprise, people starting singing the song even before it came in. They started singing along a week later, after release, which was very cool.
Q: How do they know the song?
A.R. Rahman: In India, the music releases at least 15 days before.
Q: Who’s doing film scores that get you really excited?
A.R. Rahman: I like Tan Dun, the Chinese composer. I like some of Hans Zimmer’s stuff. (Ennio) Morricone is my favorite and John Williams. As a sound, I think Gustavo. But this is all four or five years back. Now I just want to cleanse my mind. I’d like to discover something new or a new part of something. And anybody that’s coming to you, they want a fresh sound. They want more of me which I’m discovering myself every day.
Q: Where do you see yourself 10 years from now with your music?
A.R. Rahman: Ten years from now? I don’t know. Because a mind is like a monkey, isn’t it? Suddenly it says “Work hard” and suddenly it says “Quit.” And for me, the second one is the one that keeps sounding off. “That’s enough. Let’s go.” If something comes along that’s exciting, it motivates me to work harder. But I guess that’s a burden to have. Ten years of good music. I want to feel light inside.
127 Hours opens in theaters on November 5th.