Saturday Cinema

Interview: Brian Reitzell, composer for NBC's Hannibal

Mads Mikkelson stars as Hannibal Lecter in NBC's "Hannibal."Photo by Brooke Palmer/NBC

November 07, 2013

You may not know the composer Brian Reitzell by name, but you've probably heard his work on television or in movies. His skills have been enlisted by a number of modern storytellers — including filmmaker Sofia Coppola, with whom Reitzell has worked as music supervisor and composer on a number of acclaimed films. Drawing on his training in percussion and sound experimentation, Reitzell is able to evoke core elements of the human experience in ways familiar, yet altogether new.

Recently Reitzell has become key to the success of the hit NBC series Hannibal — a new show about the infamous Hannibal Lecter character created by author Thomas Harris. The show's second season is now in production; the first season is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. I asked Reitzell about how he and the show's creative team assemble the soundtrack and mix it into surround sound for home theaters.

How did you and [executive producer/director of Hannibal] David Slade begin working together?

I had just done two films back-to-back with Sony [Pictures]: Marie Antoinette and Stranger than Fiction. After a final screening of Stranger than Fiction the head of music there, Lia Vollack, asked what I wanted to do next. I told her I wanted to go to Iceland in the winter and rent a schoolhouse or empty church and set up a studio. I wanted to bring in a bunch of instruments and some musicians and make a horror score. I didn't have an actual film in mind but I had been to Reykjavik in the winter once before to work on an album. I knew a bunch of places closed for the winter. The place is just so intense: so dark and cold and beautiful. Lia told me about a film that Sony was starting that took place in Alaska in the winter — meeting with David [Slade], who had just finished the film Hard Candy — which was such an intense film. It only has a few minutes of music in it, which is so cool and powerful. David and I really hit it off, and he took a chance on me in some respect because I had never done a horror score so there wasn't anything I could play for him to express how it might sound in my hands. I really had no idea what I was going to do, but in the end, with David's support and given our shared love of music as sound design, it worked quite well and it's a process we continue with Hannibal.

How has it been to work in TV?

It's hard for me because of the fast turnaround. Everything I do is handmade. There is very little MIDI [efficiently computer-generated music] or samples. Almost no click tracks [for coordinating the score's tempo to the action on-screen]. No mock-ups [electronic demonstration scores for director/producer approval before real instruments are recorded]. I have a fantastic engineer, Michael Perfitt, who works five days a week with me — and I typically work 14 hours a day, six days a week to satisfy my own ears.

How did you respond to the show's narrative arc? 

Hannibal was built around my score for 30 Days, which is a very particular score both in the instrumentation and the application. The series gets progressively more quadraphonic: as Will Graham starts to lose his mind, more and more things start spinning around out of control. The idea really came out of having a hard time mixing the first episode. The initial mixers took my score apart and [inserted] tons of cheesy sound effects. It was a disaster. David likes music to create the sound effects. He likes to pull out all the background sounds and let music play alone or with just a bit of production sound. I score with this in mind. We want the audience totally immersed in the world of the show: sound and vision. The arc spawned the gradual surround mix, but I was also figuring out the best way to work with the mixers. Eventually they were told not to alter our mix so we just assumed the role of using surround as an extension of creating the music.

Did you know how the first season would end? 

No, I had no idea what was coming. I like to move with the arc of the show and not know what is around the corner. That way I can compose based on my first reaction and gut impression of what is happening and what it should sound like. I don't read scripts unless I have to prep something like a pre-recording, so it's all totally fresh and I can start recording right away [when I receive the video footage]. I'm reacting 100% to what I'm getting and projecting on the screen at my studio. If the show got more extreme as it went along then it was the case of simply staying with the story for me. Will loses touch with reality, and so does the music.

What's your primary composing voice?

I like playing with the audience's subconscious ear. I'm interested in music psychology and applying that to the score as much as possible. If you dig in and really listen, you will find a ton of patterns and formulas that we play around with. If there is a main instrument in Hannibal it would be percussion, especially tuned percussion. There are a lot of bronze instruments, which I liked right away for their sheer complexity. The more [the character] Hannibal was incorporated into the fabric, the more you heard those voices. I had a bronze slit drum built for me that sounds incredible. I love how its timbre sits inside the picture. I'm all about timbre. Disguising things, pulling out harmonics, losing fundamental pitch, taking off the attack of instruments and building complex chords out of the tones. Everything is fair game. The final episode features a bullroarer that I played while standing over a Soundfield microphone: a mic with four capsules built into it so you get a perfect surround recording.

Do you regularly build instruments?

I love to both make instruments and have custom-built instruments made for me. Growing up in San Francisco I was exposed to tons of cool early industrial music; bands like Einstuerzende Neubaten, Test Department, Hunters and Collectors, and others that used found percussion as part of the drum kit. At the same time I was listening to Ennio Morricone, Steve Reich, and jazz. I remember seeing David Van Tieghem play at an art gallery space when I was 19 and being totally inspired to play anything and everything. I started incorporating saw blades, sheet metal, Freon tanks, toys, plastic bottles — anything that sounded cool. I still listen to lots of percussion ensemble records: John Cage, Lou Harrison, Max Roach, Art Blakey, les Percussions de Strasbourg. I love all those rich textures that you get with orchestral percussion and the different blends you get when you incorporate that in with the rest of the orchestra.

I quite like to play classical percussion instruments too. Krzystof Penderecki and Philip Glass got me really thinking about those instruments differently than the way they're used in, say, rock or pop music. I got quite obsessed with the triangle and my tambourine rolls for a few months.

[I also use] found sounds, for sure. I remember one day while working on the score for Friday Night Lights I was having a hard time with a cue, so I went outside to take a break. I saw a shopping cart sitting abandoned in the alley behind the studio. It was a really nice clean new shiny metal one. I tapped on it and it sounded really cool, so I wheeled it in and used it on the [sound] cue. When I look around the room for sounds or instruments, anything is a candidate.

Do you manipulate the instruments once they're recorded, or does the manipulation happen primarily while recording? 

The first step is usually capturing the performance on a very pure and organic soundstage. Sometimes that's all it takes to achieve something that sounds interesting. You'd be surprised how much of my stuff is just an instrument and a room mic with some reverb. I always want the music to sound as limitless and pure as a Penderecki recording, or Toru Takemitsu. I'm fortunate to have a studio built in the 1970s with incredible-sounding rooms. Michael [Perfitt] is great at capturing things in a very natural and cinematic way, moving and selecting microphones and signal chains, breaking [an effect] down to its most fundamental concept and creating it naturally in front of the microphone or with wave-form editing. It's much more interesting to simply move the volume up and down or use any number of cool-sounding pedals or hardware than to use a [software] plugin for things like that. I'm way more of a purist than you might think. I get most of my voices by simply blending instruments together.

In the episode Fromage, what is the actual sound for when Will plays the human vocal cords like an instrument?

The human cello is made up of several things. Live cello, vocal samples, bowed wood, and probably some low-end treatment. It took a bit of work to get the sound and the performance.

Are there any plans to release the music as a record?

We have been approached by a few soundtrack labels, so yes, there will be a [soundtrack] available. Not something to play alone in the dark while driving! It will likely be a double record. [Each episode] is roughly 43 minutes and there are around 40 minutes of score on average. There must be about ten hours of score we will have to go through to make a soundtrack!

Have you begun working on season two? What do you foresee happening with your work as the show progresses?

I won't officially start for a few more weeks when I get [video]. We are prepping for it though. I have just done an entire studio renovation. I haven't stopped working long enough to do wiring upgrades to the patch bay — get all the gear serviced and stuff moved out and in and around — since we opened the doors back in 2007. It has been great fixing all the little things that bugged me about the studio and moving into a new chapter with a new layout that is more relevant to my work flow these days. I'm excited to see and work on the new season. I have some ideas that I want to try out so we'll see where it takes us. I also want to make a song out of the opening theme music, which is a bit of a challenge but is sounding really cool. My favorite thing about TV is the long story arc. The second season of Boss was [very] creative and fun for me, so with Hannibal I expect to stay the course and keep pushing things as far as we can.

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.