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As a composer Christopher Lennertz has a wide range of genres and mediums under his belt. His film credits range from dramas such as The Perfect Holiday to comedies like Soul Plane and The Comebacks. He earned an Emmy nomination for his work on the television series “Supernatural” and his award-winning work on the Medal of Honor video game series further shows his tremendous versatility.
His latest project, Alvin and the Chipmunks, was one of the top movies this holiday season. Chris took a few minutes to chat with CB to talk about the Chipmunks, Sean Connery, Elmer Bernstein, and a whole host of other exciting aspects of his work over the last few years.
CB: At the end of last year you pretty much pulled together scores for four movies in five months. That’s huge. Did you have any time to sleep?
Lennertz:Almost none. My wife called me once in September and said “hey, honey, when are you coming home?” and I said, “Thanksgiving.” And unfortunately, in a vague sense I wasn’t really lying. I just got back from Serbia where I spent a week and recorded the score for my latest movie. So it’s been crazy and absolutely off the wall, but it’s been wonderful. And now I’m actually taking some time off. I’m going to take a good amount of time off and we’re going to have a baby in January, our first.
Lennertz:Thank you! Yeah, it’s really good timing. I was really busy and now I’m going to take a little bit of time and give myself a month or two to try and get my fatherhood thing going on.
CB: As I was listening to the score for Alvin and the Chipmunks I was hearing something familiar in the style and I kept coming back to Elmer Bernstein. Then I was doing some research for the interview and discovered that you actually studied with him.
Lennertz: I did study for a whole year with Elmer.
CB: What was that like?
Lennertz: It was absolutely fantastic. He was one of the most amazing composers but also one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He taught me so much, specifically about looking at where the music is supposed to go in a movie. He really also had a great outlook on how music can have its own personality in a movie, and that served me really well in a movie like Alvin [and the Chipmunks].
Another thing that Elmer did so well was that he would have the music become a character in a comedy where the character was playing it straight. It really heightened the emotions and let the comedy by comedy but the emotion be emotion. So, when you look back on something like Stripes or Caddy Shack or Animal House and you listen to the score separately there are these amazing, wonderful, phenomenal pieces of music that are quite serious in and of themselves, but yet they play the comedy brilliantly because they’re playing that straight main character. And that’s something that I learned from Elmer and I don’t think anyone has ever done it as well as he did.
CB: You didn’t have a whole lot of time to pull together the score for Alvin and the Chipmunks but it still feels robust. There are some nice themes going on and yet each track feels like it’s telling the story. You had a very short amount of time to pull all that together. What was that process like?
Lennertz:The process was short in terms of the fact that there was a very short amount of time when the picture was close to being locked. But at the very beginning things were still very much in flux, and they were editing furiously to try and make the movie feel right. So, when I came onto the movie at the end of August I sat down with the director, Tim Hill, and really decided that even though the movie was still very much in flux and there were a lot of changes being made, the personalities of all these characters were going to stay the same. So what I really did at that point was take a little bit of time and rather than writing specific pieces of music for specific scenes, I focused on trying to come up with themes that I thought would represent what we needed.
One being was to come up with a Chipmunks theme which you hear in the main theme of the film, and then I wrote a theme for Dave Seville, Jason Lee’s character. The rest of the movie is sort of a back and forth between Dave’s perspective and Alvin and the Chipmunk’s perspective. So the first order of business was to come up with those two themes, and then to come up with the sound of the movie. And then after that was all done, that took two or three weeks of getting that together, then the movie was in better shape and we had a couple more weeks left and that was when we really got down to business writing actual cues to picture.
CB: It’s been awhile since the characters have come to the screen, and for a lot of kids, especially younger kids, this will be their first introduction to the characters. Did you and the director try to create and establish anything musically that would help establish a new identity for the characters?
Lennertz:I hope so. We both love what we did for them thematically, and one of the real inspirations for that came when I first was interviewing for the job. I had to meet with Ross Bagdasarian Jr., whose dad created the Chipmunks, and he and his wife Janice were producing this movie and they had been living with the Chipmunks for forty years. They did the show in the 80’s and the one thing that both Ross and Janice felt strongly about was that they didn’t want this movie to feel like it was a cartoon character. Obviously there were going to be bits and pieces of comedy and things that were going to be somewhat cartoon-ish, but when it came to the emotions they wanted this to be three young orphans who at the end, find their father, find their family. And so if you listen to the music, I think that’s something that we put at the forefront, that’s something we did very definitively. You could put the music that I wrote in with a drama about three young children. Even if they weren’t chipmunks it would fit just as well. They wanted the next generation of people to come in and see and hear and meet the Chipmunks to realize that, yes, these are characters and they’re animated, but they wanted the emotions to be real. That’s something that we took very seriously, to try and make it that there was an emotional stake in the whole thing.
CB: You’ve worked on a wide range of projects from films to tv shows to video games. What are some of the differences between writing a score for a video game and writing a score for a movie?
Lennertz:I always say this, that writing dramatic music is exactly the same, no matter what. The idea of which chords and which textures sound sad or sound happy or in the case of a military game like Medal of Honor, sound noble or somber, that is not going to change. That is going to be the same, no matter what the genre is. But, I think it’s more in the execution when the differences come. Obviously linear music like movies and TV, there’s a distinct amount of time.
For an example, when Alvin turns the corner, slides down the hallway and jumps into the car, that’s exactly the same every time you see it. So it’s very easy for me to write something that fits it perfectly. In a video game if you’re playing the Battle of the Bulge it may only take you a minute to get from your tank to the gun turret, or it may take you twenty minutes. So for me it’s the whole idea of game music perhaps being a little less scene specific and just a little more mood and story driven. It’s more about putting the player in the world than hitting specific actions of the player. And technology is getting to the point where we can slowly do a little bit more specific scoring of actual events in the game, but a lot of it has to do with just setting the mood. In the movies you can definitely be a little more specific.
But at the same time there’s some freedom that goes along with video games, which is, you don’t have nearly as much dialogue to contend with so you can really show off a little bit with the music and have it be a little bigger and bolder and have it tell some of the story where the dialogue in the movie would be doing it. To me, that’s a really great position because I get to write some music that stands in the forefront.
CB: You score videogames. Do you play them very much?
Lennertz:I do. I don’t play a ton, just because I’m usually working, but I do fit them in here and there. I got myself a guilty pleasure and got myself a PSP and usually lug that on all my vacations, including my honeymoon, much to my wife’s dismay. So I got to play the James Bond game while I was in Bora Bora.
CB: Nice! Speaking of James Bond, there’s a kind of project that not a lot of people have had a chance to work on: do the music for a Bond game where Sean Connery himself has come back to do the voice. Out of curiosity, did you work directly with Sean at all when you were doing “From Russia With Love”?
Lennertz:Don’t I wish. I did not. Actually, Sean recorded all his dialogue in Bermuda where he lives. But the cool thing was that I would actually get audio files from EA of the recordings of Connery’s lines and they would string them together to make scenes and I would basically get to score the scene with just his dialogue. So I would get to match my musical pacing with what he did in a lot of the situations, which was pretty amazing because he was all time favorite actors. And as far as I’m concerned, he is James Bond.
CB: There are a lot of people who would agree with you on that, myself included. Who are some other composers who you would say influence you or who you draw on for inspiration?
Lennertz:There are so many. I grew up in Boston so I would go to the Esplanade and the Hatshell and watch John Williams conduct Indy and Raiders and Star Wars and all that stuff. I was seven, eight years old at that point so I definitely fell in love with film music with Williams. But then beyond that I’ve had such great teachers and mentors and I think they’ve had the most influence over me. I got to study with Elmer [Bernstein] so obviously I’m a huge Elmer fan, But then I got the absolute pleasure of working for Basil Paledouris and Michael Kamen who both are unfortunately not with us any longer.
Beyond that I’m a huge film music fan in general. And growing up in the seventies and eighties my big influences would have to be Rota and then I’m a huge Jerry Goldsmith fan, from Chinatown to, you know I grew up on Gremlins and Rudy and Hoosiers, so I’m a huge Jerry Goldsmith fan, and I really love that stuff.
CB: Thanks so much for your time! Congratulations on your upcoming new arrival!
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