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Golden Circle: Interview with Mark Snow

Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter Composer Registry Golden Circle, our tribute to those composers who continue to inspire through their work and love of music. It is our pleasure to welcome Mark Snow.

Golden Circle: Starsky and Hutch in 1975 was one of your first big composing jobs. How did you get into the business and land that job?

Mark Snow: My brother-in-law was an actor in a series that Aaron Spelling did called The Rookies, and that was my first job. They liked me over there and I did other work for them. Starsky and Hutch was part of that. Right now to me, anything before The X-Files is almost like something I don't remember. I mean, there's a lot of it. I would say there have been two big beats to my career; "Pre-X" and "After X."

GC: And how did you win The X-Files job?

Mark Snow: I had a producer friend named Bob Goodwin and he did the pilot up in Canada. He suggested me to Chris Carter and Chris didn't have a relative or a friend who was a composer, so he was just looking around. Oddly enough, one of his main concerns was that he wanted someone on the west side (of L.A.) so he didn't have to go out to Agora or Woodland Hills or someplace every day on his way from the Palisades to the Fox studios. So he came to my place twice and heard some stuff and looked around. He was very polite and respectful, but he didn't say much else. About a week after the second visit, I got a call saying they wanted me to do it. At the time it was good news, you know, but if I had known what was coming, I would have been jumping up and down like a maniac. I knew it was a cool thing, but it certainly didn't seem like it was going to be this phenomenon.

GC: How has technology, specifically digital, changed composing over your nearly 30-year career?

Mark Snow: Around 1985-86 these different kinds of keyboards were coming out and there was a more sophisticated sense of sound and sampling at that time, although it was still incredibly primitive compared to now. Most of the working people were finding combinations of electronic gear to make mini home studios. It seemed like a very important bandwagon to be part of, so I looked around and came up with a Synclavier as the most impressive, most important thing at that time, although it was invented in the late '60's by some people at Dartmouth college. It seemed to me the most self-contained situation. You didn't have to have five different keyboards with wires going berserk all over the place. They had an amazing storage capability, amazing recall capability and recording capability all wrapped into one thing. Plus, it had more voices than anything at the time so the sound was pretty cool. It took me a good three or four years to make the thing sound really great and luckily when The X-Files came around in '93, I knew it really well and had stored up a great personal library of sounds and samples that went into the theme.

GC: Needle drop and pre-written compilation soundtracks have become increasingly popular these days. What effect, if any, do you feel they have had on original score composers?

Mark Snow: I think the subject of a lot of films and t.v. out there right now really benefit from pop music or other sources of music beyond the actual score. I did the movie Disturbing Behavior, and it had tons of songs on it and that was absolutely right for the picture. I don't think that stuff takes away from the composer's roll at all. Say, for example, your Elmer Bernstein on Ghostbusters, - that was a gigantic-selling album, you know, with Ghostbusters, (written and performed by Ray Parker Jr.) on it, and he had two and or three cuts on it and made a couple million dollars. Or going back to David Shire when he had two cuts on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Those guys aren't too unhappy about it. And my thing with The X-Files, there were two cd's with that show. One had just my music on it and the other one had a bunch of songs sort of inspired by the show and my music. So I went along for the ride on that. I hear a lot of detractors of this, but I just don't see it as a negative.

GC: What do you see as the biggest differences between television and movie composing?

Mark Snow: I think everyone wants to think that they will eventually write for film scores, but you just do the work that is being offered to you at the time. There are a couple of people who started out when I did who didn't do particularly well in t.v. and somehow they got to do a bunch of really crappy B-movies, but their careers gained momentum. Now some of these people are the ones who are in the forefront. It's not about not wanting to or wanting to, it just happens that way. I've done a lot of t.v. stuff and that can tend to pigeon-hole you. Agents try to get me stuff and a lot of people will hear my music and say, 'Oh boy, that's great,' and then say, 'Oh, t.v., well ... I don't know.'

GC: Obviously your X-Files theme is very distinctive and unusual. Do you attempt to put a sort of "Mark Snow" stamp on all of your work?

Mark Snow: I don't. I don't think about that. I think about what's right for the picture and what the obligation is to the film. Hopefully there's a quality to it that might cut through and people will say, 'Oh, that sounds like Snow.' There are a lot of great composers who you can hear and recognize their style right away. I'd say like [Ennio] Morricone or John Barry, you recognize them when they're doing what they do best. Morricone with his lush romantic themes and John Barry with his very slow, very broad, fat orchestral melodies, or John Williams with that 19th century orchestration that just flies all over the place. You get to recognize their style. My thing is that if I did a comedy or a romance or something else, I don't think it would be too recognizable as Mark Snow. But that's not necessarily bad. If I do a great score for a project, that's the bottom line.

GC: What advice would you offer to a young Turk starting out in the business today?

Mark Snow: Things have completely changed since I started out. It's interesting you use the term 'young Turk' because that's really what you have to be. You have to have a strength and a confidence and a perseverance. If you're lucky enough to have as much talent as perseverance, then you've got a really great shot. In the old days it was about getting meetings with the head of the music department at one of the studios. They had incredible influence. Now that's all out the window. In film it's the director who has a few good movies under his belt who gets to call the shots and that's it. In t.v. it's a combination of the director and the producer, but the producer or the people putting up the money usually have the last word on that. For a newcomer it's about taking advantage of every relationship you have with anyone in the business, even if it's not the music side of it, making contacts and hooking up with a working composer. I had a combination of a little nepotism with my family and then ghost writing for a few composers. Some of them were gracious enough to suggest me for stuff they couldn't do and it just started to take on its own momentum. My success has not been something like these internet stocks where they go sky high instantly. It's been this very sort of slow progress. On a graph, the line wouldn't be spiked. Still, what would be amazing for me right now would be if somehow I got a shot at a movie and it was a success and people really took notice of the music. And then to spend the final third of my career working in movies, that would be my dream. On the other hand, if it stops tomorrow, I still would have had a really great run. So it's sort of a win-win situation I think.

GC: What projects do have coming up?

Mark Snow: There's a mini-series coming up called Sole Survivor, with Billy Zane in it, and that looks really great.

Source: The Hollywood Reporter Composer Registry [www.hollywoodreporter.com/registry/showcase/index.asp], 2000

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