For composer Lorne Balfe, action movies are in his blood. The man behind the scores for films like Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Ghost in the Shell, and The LEGO Batman Movie grew up on a steady diet of action cinema, revealing that while he wishes he could say “a black and white Italian film” first inspired him to want to work in the movies, it was actually movies like Bad Boys, Crimson Tide, and The Rock. It’s no surprise, then, that when producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Ang Lee were looking for a composer for the long-in-the-works actioner Gemini Man, they turned to Balfe.
Fresh off the iconic score for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Balfe tackled the music for the sci-fi thriller Gemini Man, starring Will Smith as an aging hitman who is forced to square off with a younger clone of himself. I recently got the chance to speak with Balfe about his work on the film and his collaboration with Ang Lee.
But Balfe doesn’t only score action movies, so we also discussed his work on the highly anticipated BBC One/HBO series adaptation of His Dark Materials and how closely the new adaptation hews to the books. Additionally, Balfe teased his work on Michael Bay’s Netflix movie 6 Underground and also revealed that fans can expect to hear the return of the Bad Boys theme in the upcoming sequel Bad Boys for Life.
However, our conversation began with Mission: Impossible – Fallout because, frankly, I couldn’t resist. It’s one of the best blockbusters of the decade, and Balfe’s score is one of the best in the entire franchise (and that’s saying something). So check out our full interview below.
I think the last time I talked to you was for Mission Impossible: Fallout, and I hadn’t seen the movie yet. So, I just wanted to take this opportunity to say that was one of my favorite films of last year and one of my favorite scores of last year.
LORNE BALFE: Brilliant! I actually watched it [again recently]. I was around at a friend’s house about a month ago, and they said they hadn’t seen it and they wanted to watch it. I said, “Oh God, really? Is there nothing else we could watch?” And I watched it again, having not seen it in a year, and it really is a fantastic movie. I’m removing myself from the fact that I worked on it; they just really reinvented the franchise.
BALFE: And I still think one of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen was that bathroom fight.
BALFE: And I cannot say I helped, because there is no music in that scene. So it’s not me being egotistical. But it really is just … That entire sequence is just fantastic. So it’s great to hear you enjoyed it.
It’s so good. So, moving into Gemini Man, I was kind of curious how you first got involved with this movie? Because this is a project that’s been around in Hollywood for a long time.
BALFE: It sure has been a long time. I started hearing about it when I was doing 12 Strong and Jerry Bruckheimer was the producer on that, and I’ve done a few films with Jerry. I got to know him through working for Hans Zimmer. I was in the back, a lot, working on Pirates of the Caribbean and Rango, and a few others. So I had been introduced to him, but then we’ve done a few films together like Geostorm, 12 Strong, Gemini Man, Bad Boys 3. So basically, I knew about it then, and then another producer, David Ellison—I’ve worked with David quite a few times also. So I met Ang before Christmas I think, and they wanted to introduce me. So I met him and that’s how I got brought into the team.
Ang is such a fascinating director. His filmography is so diverse in terms of tone and genre and I’m very curious, what are those early conversations with Ang like, when you first come on the project?
BALFE: The thing is, what’s amazing about Ang, is I think that his chosen composers and scores, they always tend to do very well. And if you think about how bold Brokeback Mountain was, musically. It’s become iconic now. That sound became part of a musical soundtrack in all fields. And then of course Life of Pi. So the main conversations were, Ang never thought of it as an action movie. He always said to me that the main focus was the emotion with Henry and Junior. And I think that was the hard task because I think I spent longer thinking about it than writing it. I think finally, I had an idea and I thought if there’s a way to have two different pieces of music work on top of each other, that it might help their journey. So I wrote a Henry theme and a Junior theme so that they could play on top of each other.
Ang would come to the studio every day and I was very lucky, I had an amazing cellist, Tina Guo, and Tina’s played on Wonder Woman. She is a wonder woman. And Tina came and we basically did live rehearsals to Ang, playing to him. She’s great. But it was to present this theme and after a while, we started working on the actual cues. He’s one of these rare people in Hollywood. He’s a gentleman and he’s a good person. It’s like working with Ron Howard. They’re good people and Ang has got a great love for music, and also, when we recorded Gemini Man in New York, and he’s been a resident of New York for I don’t know, 30 years or something, and he had never recorded in New York. So it was lovely because he was so thankful to all the musicians because he is a New Yorker and it was just great for him to record in his second home.
So your job is to kind of carry the emotions of the characters and everything, but one important aspect of this film to Ang, clearly, is the high frame rate and the technology used to bring Junior to life. Did that factor into your discussions at all? Did he talk about that when you were coming on board and did that in any way affect your score?
BALFE: I hope so. I hope it did. I think what I had was, Henry’s theme was an electric cello, and Junior’s theme was the acoustic cello. And the reasoning for that was because in one respect, even though Junior is a clone, the point I wanted to make is that he is more real than Henry. With regards to feelings and his path emotionally. So I think that one of the most difficult scenes, the scene when Varris is talking to Junior and they’re discussing about the fact that he’s first said I love you, you’re my son.
When you’re working on a film, it’s not always finished visually, what you’re looking at. So every couple of weeks we’d go back and look at these scenes, especially that scene, and rewrite it, because visually it was different. The performance was different. The performance was more real. And we felt earlier on we were probably writing too much for the scene, because it wasn’t finished. You would pull back and write less because the performance was there. They would shoot scenes, like when you would see Junior crying, that emotion being revitalized, once you saw it, you would then not need to write as hard.
That’s fascinating. Well, you’ve also got another project I’m really curious about, which is His Dark Materials. What was that experience like?
BALFE: It’s an ongoing experience. I was a major fan of the books and when I found out that they were making it, I was banging on their door because I wanted to be part of it. So the books had been part of my life, and the characters have. And it’s a journey that started last year and will hopefully be continued for another couple of years. So, I’m still working on it, actually, at the moment. I’m on the last episode. It’s an amazing show. It’s loyal to the books, which I think is important because I think so many times, when adaptations occur, they’re not loyal and the fans are hurt by it. So I think it’s a great interpretation and musically, it’s been great.
A month ago I was recording Chad Smith from The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Chad’s playing on it. I’m recording with a lot of great musicians because I wanted to make sure that each of the characters, even though they had their own themes, I wanted to make sure that I cast their own musician also for it. And we’ve been recording in Vienna and London and in Wales with the BBC World Symphony Orchestra. So it’s a mammoth task just recording it, let alone writing it. But it’s a great show and it’s a show that everybody can enjoy, young people and old people alike. Which is kind of, I’m a father now and I love to be able to watch things as a family, and experience things as a family. And the show is truly remarkable and it’s just a joy to be a part of it.
I know you worked a little on The Crown. Do you enjoy that episodic experience, especially now, kind of spearheading the score by yourself? Or is it just really daunting?
BALFE: I think TV composers don’t get enough credit. I really think it is one of the hardest jobs. And when a composer starts for a series, it’s basically like having to write six feature films in this short space of time. So, those composers that work on primetime network shows, where they’re delivering every week, it’s just astonishing. I think that it’s kind of only dawned on me, near the end of the first season of Dark Materials, how mammoth the show is. And yeah, we’re recording maybe 50 minutes of music for every episode. I think you’ve just got to forget about how daunting it is because if you don’t do that, you’ve got no reference.
And then, as if you don’t have enough on your plate, you have a Michael Bay movie that you scored, which is huge.
Is that complete?
BALFE: Yes, it’s out in December on Netflix. I’ve worked with Michael quite a few times, in the background and I did 13 Hours with Michael, which I still think is one of his best movies. I think it’s just spectacular. But 6 Underground has been a fantastic experience. I started writing just before he started filming. And then while he was filming, I was writing throughout that process so he was able to hear the music and work with it during the early stages of editing. It’s just a fantastic movie.
There’s nobody that can shoot like Michael Bay. It’s exciting and it’s pure. It’s the reason why I got into movies. My movies that I would sit as a young teenager and look at were made by Jerry Bruckheimer and were films like Bad Boys or The Rock. Sometimes I wish I could be telling you that it’s a black and white Italian movie but it’s not. Con Air and all these movies were what made me want to get into film and if Crimson Tide is on the television, that’s me for the next two hours. I’m not leaving. That was what made me fall in love with film. And so it’s great to be able to work with Michael and Jerry. So yeah, 6 Underground was just an absolute blast and great fun.
Michael Bay films are known for just an immense quantity of action. What’s that like for you as a composer? Is that just a lot of really propulsive music that you’re working on for 6 Underground?
BALFE: You know, when you have the luxury of time, you’re able to experiment. And it doesn’t daunt you so much. And I think that with great filmmakers like Chris McQuarrie and Michael, they have a great understanding of knowing when music should be used and when it shouldn’t be. So I think that the understanding that if the music is continuous, it becomes relentless and the audience no longer appreciates it. So I think it’s not daunting, you just start being kind of very aware of sound effects and visually, not trying to fight it too much. But I love action music. That’s why I started getting into doing the music for video games. I can think, probably in my head, as a child I thought I always wanted to be soldier. So action music to me is something that I just absolutely love writing. So thankfully, I get to do Michael Bay movies.
Well and then you’re also putting your stamp on an iconic Michael Bay franchise with Bad Boys for Life. What does that sound like? It’s been awhile since we’ve had a Bad Boys movie.
BALFE: To me, one of the best, most iconic themes is the Bad Boys theme. I don’t think it got used in the second one, but it’s definitely coming back for this one. It’s too good to forget. Because it makes us feel connected. And it’s only now, when we speak to people and you kind of say, oh yeah, I’m working on Bad Boys, people can hum that theme and I think that’s part of a musical legacy of memorable film themes. So it’s definitely coming back, that’s for sure.
That’s good to hear.
BALFE: When I worked on Terminator Genisys, I was always very aware about how in the majority of the other films, the theme never got used. You’d hear it for the main title sequence and then it would be just dotted off, and I never understood why. I just thought, to me, that melody and that rhythm, that iconic rhythm is as important as Arnold Schwarzenegger. It just comes hand in hand. So I always really feel that the theme is part of that experience, the memory you have and it’s the same with Mission: Impossible. You’ve already got a head start when you’ve got one of the most iconic themes of all time.
Yeah. I loved your twist on the Mission: Impossible theme. I thought that was just so fantastic.
BALFE: Good! Great to hear!
And speaking of, I know Chris [McQuarrie] is about to embark on shooting Mission: Impossible 7 and 8 back to back. Has he reached out to you? Do you know if you’re coming back to do the score for one or both of them?
BALFE: I don’t know. We’re good friends and we speak regularly. I would absolutely love to be involved in it because Chris and Tom [Cruise] are a great team, and I would absolutely love to be part of the family again, so yeah, it would be great.
I’d love to see you come back. I also really enjoyed Ad Astra. I think you co-composed that with Max Richter if I’m not mistaken?
So what was that process like?
BALFE: Well, I’ve always loved James [Grey’s] films. The weird thing is, I seem to be doing lots of movies involving a father and son relationship, or a relative relationship. But James had asked me to help out on Ad Astra and it’s just … What can you say about it? It’s a visually beautiful and rich movie.
Yeah, it’s stunning.
BALFE: It’s something that, now as a father, I kind of relate to. And as a son, I relate to. And James has got an amazing encyclopedia of music in his head and he really knows a lot, so his reference points are always very exciting for composers. And I think the majority of James’ movies, he’s always used a lot of sourced music, so it was great to be able to work on it. And also, Max is just … Max is a genius. He’s a serious composer. I’ve always thought of him as a serious composer because he writes music that he creates fully, his own inspiration from. Some composers are always just given the inspiration, so I’ve always respected Max. It’s great to be able to be part of it.
I loved that movie. Clearly you’ve been incredibly busy and I can’t wait to hear all these new scores from you coming up.
BALFE: Neither can I! It’s always daunting when you’re getting near the end. It’s a bit strange. You know you’re running out of time. And really with His Dark Materials, it’s intimidating because people have lived with these characters for a long time, and all of a sudden, your music could be saying this is the journey of Lila and everybody has got their own interpretation of that. The reaction so far for the first batch has been fantastic. It’s been great to see how people are feeling about it so far. So I hope everybody else feels the same.
Gemini Man is now playing in theaters and the original score is available to purchase. His Dark Materials premieres on BBC One on November 3rd in the UK and on HBO on November 4th in the U.S.