Alan Silvestri has been scoring films and television for decades, writing some of the most recognizable music of the movies. Some of his iconic orchestrations include “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Cast Away.”
It’s hard to believe the prolific composer has only been nominated for two Academy Awards and, even harder to believe he has never won. And yet, it’s true. He was first nominated for Original Score with “Forrest Gump” in 1994, and the for co-writing the Original Song, “Believe” from 2004’s “The Polar Express.”
Silvestri joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe with “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and then went on to score three of the four “Avengers” ensemble films. (He was unavailable for “Age of Ultron.”) I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with him about reaching the end of the Infinity Saga, working with the Russos on the perfect ending for “Avengers: Endgame,” and what the MCU means to him.
We hope you enjoy this conversation that was insightful, and surprisingly emotional.
Warning: This interview contains spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.”
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Are you having a good day?
Alan Silvestri: I’m having a great day talking to some fun folks about music and movies. It’s been great.
KP: And your non-cinematic score…
AS: (laughs) Yeah! Right! Well, there you go. To each his own.
KP: Everyone gets to have their own opinions.
AS: They do.
KP: You’ve done several films in the “Avengers” world. What is it that you love about them?
AS: They’re very multi-dimensional. They’re based on comic books, and a comic book is traditionally a very two-dimensional event. It’s incredible artwork, but it’s designed to have a certain kind of sense to it. Readily accessible, visually compelling, but very well defined and clear and bold. So the movies are that.
But then I think it’s been a big part of Marvel’s success is their characters are not like that. Their characters are very multi-dimensional. And especially their bad guys. My first experience with a Marvel bad guy was Red Skull, on “Captain America.” And I remember talking about that event. Joss Whedon didn’t direct that, Joe Johnston did. But when I met with Joss about “Avengers 1,” I think Joss might have written have a lot of the original “Captain America.” I’m meeting him about the “Avengers” and we’re talking about the movie and where it’s going and we’re talking about Captain America and I said, “You know, Joss, I really loved working with Red Skull.” He said, “Really? What was it about him?” I said, “Well, he was like a lover scorned.” And Joss went, “Excuse me? What the heck are you talking about?” I said, “He was created to be a gift for Hitler, and something got mucked up in the process, and he was kind of like damaged goods and he could never get over it. It just ate him alive that he never got to be the gift he was intended to be.”
And so then we look at somebody like Thanos. Thanos, he’s this really ominous, mean, evil guy. And yet, he’s sincere about how he has discovered the only hope for the universe. And no one else in the universe could do what has to be done. And no one else in the universe would do what has to be done. And the great scene on the ledge where he needs to get that stone and the only way he can do it is he has to sacrifice something he loves, and he does it and the very fact he gets the stone means he did really love her. That’s what is great about working on the Marvel films. Because then you get all the cartoony, comic book extremes, but you also get these rich characters. It’s a great palate for music.
KP: I was talking with someone yesterday about the fact that you’ve written the scores for three of the “Avengers” films and he said, “It’s all the same music, just put in a different order. And I said, “No, you need to listen to it again.”
AS: Yeah, it’s not.
KP: For “Avengers: Endgame,” how did you approach it so that it would be new and fresh?
AS: It’s kind of driven by the film. In “Infinity War,” we really get to know Thanos and everything about him and it’s really driven by him. “Endgame” continues to be driven by him as the bad guy, but after that, there were just new kinds of moments and events that none of the Avengers lexicon of thematic material were going to work for. The glaring examples were the portals. We had to go to new terrain for that. And of course, Tony’s death. And the funeral. There was nothing that could be retooled or revisited that was going to work for that. It just had to be new things and the movie demanded it. And so that’s what happened.
KP: For a score like this, do you tend to go in order? Or do you pick out certain scenes first?
AS: It’s great when you can go in order. This was not a place where you could do that. It was really driven by how the film was being made. Joe and Anthony [Russo] were moving to different areas of the film. Now that I look back on all of that, I can see something about the method there. It’s such an enormous undertaking and if you change a little something here, something all the way over here is going to be out of whack. And so they kind of worked a lot of areas, and so that’s how things came to me.
I started at the beginning. And that was very interesting because in the very beginning, we start with the ghost ship and Nebula and Tony. He’s saying good bye to Pepper (long pause), and then we want everybody to believe he’s going to die. Right? So that’s how we’re playing it. That little bit of material, after he turns off his recording and lies down to die, that’s just something I found watching the movie. So there it is. But I knew, this is the funeral. I was terrified of the funeral because I had seen it a number of times. There was a lot of it and what are you going to do there? I mean, it’s the end of the MCU chapter. Mr. Feige has a name for it, the Infinity Saga. But I knew that the key to that whole event was in that minute where Nebula comes in and sits him in the chair.
That was a place where we could promise something thematic and then get back to it. But then I really had to be willing to move around. And the great thing about the way Joe and Anthony worked with me was that they used music as part of the development of the movie from the point of view that they knew they were going to do this caper and they wanted to have fun with it. But it was difficult to figure out how long to stay here and when to move here and how it was going to feel until they had some music there with it. Then all of a sudden they could go “Oh, yeah, we can do more of that because that’s fun and that’s feeling good.” There was a lot of that going on too.
Even in the portals, that was a very challenging scene for the filmmakers and we explored a number of different paths to that. Some were more literal, like the Wakandans come in and it’s so huge and then Strange comes in and Spidey comes in.
KP: I get emotional just thinking about that scene, honestly.
AS: Yeah! We tried versions where I was making more of these arrivals. It all felt wrong. It just felt like we needed this anthemic thing that builds all the way to that big shot of this massive army and then, of course, when Cap says “Assemble,” then it’s just like we throw a hand grenade out into the audience, like “Here you go!” Let them have the tune. They’ve earned it. Everybody’s earned it at that point.
KP: How did you and Joe and Anthony know when you had it?
AS: Hard to say. It’s kind of like we start to zero in on something. So it’s like we had three versions of that, okay, and then all of a sudden Joe and Anthony will just go, “That’s it!” And again, the portals is a really interesting example. We did a version where the whole front of that cue is just choir. We did a version of that cue where it’s six french horns just playing that first (hums first measure). Six horns. It’s regal and it’s great. The Wakandans come in. That fantastic look. And then we did this version with a solo trumpet. So here we are with the orchestra, we play it. And Joe and Anthony were like, “That’s it!” And they just viscerally react like that. And they know when that’s it.
Of course, the thing about that trumpet was it brought it all back to Cap. Because that military sounding trumpet is associated with Captain America. So it was a way to ease on into that, but still have it be emotionally powerful.
We did different versions of the logo in the very beginning of the film. We played two or three different versions and one of the versions, they went, “That’s that. Done.” It’s incredible. They’re very clear when they hear it and they know.
KP: As a final question, if you could describe your experience in two or three words.
AS: In two of three words…
KP: Or four if you need it.
AS: Epicly challenging and epicly satisfying.