INTERVIEW: COMPOSER GEOFF ZANELLI DISCUSSES HIS WORK ON ‘TRAFFIK’

THERE IS A GOOD CHANCE YOU’VE HEARD GEOFF ZANELLI’S SCORES BEFORE AS HIS RESUME INCLUDES TITLES SUCH AS PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALESINTO THE WESTTHE PACIFIC, THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN AND DISTURBIA TO NAME A FEW.

The Emmy winner’s latest project is Lionsgate’s action-packed thriller, Traffik,hitting theaters April 20. The film follows a couple (Paula Patton & Omar Epps) who are off for a romantic weekend in the mountains and suddenly accosted by a bike gang. Alone, they must defend themselves against the gang, who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Ahead of the release we decided to sit down with Zanelli and discuss his score for the film, read the exclusive interview below.


IN A FEW WORDS HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SCORE TO “TRAFFIK”?

Geoff Zanelli: This score for Traffik is intense, dark, intimate and personal. What it aims to do is remind you that human trafficking is a real thing that happens to real people all over the world. So it had to be rooted in reality, and to do that I used mostly acoustic sounds. Sometimes I’d go and mangle those sounds with some studio wizardry, but they nearly all originate from honest, real-world noises.

WAS THERE ANY SPECIFIC CHALLENGES COMPOSING “TRAFFIK” AND, IF SO, WHAT WERE THEY?

GZ: One of the big challenges with a score like this is how to support such an uncomfortable story. The word that kept coming to my mind when I thought about trafficking, and how massive a problem it actually is, was “disgusting.” So I had to translate that word into sound.

That meant the score doesn’t rely on melodies in the traditional sense. I did get some melody in there for the love theme, but the core of the story, all the tense aspects, those wouldn’t work if there was a melody to latch on to. It’s too comfortable if you can hum along! That was the biggest challenge, figuring out how to write a compelling score that supports this story without one of the major tools a composer usually has.

IS THERE A SCENE OR SEQUENCE THAT YOU COMPOSED IN THE FILM THAT YOU ARE MOST PROUD OF?

GZ: There’s a piece called “Semi” which I wrote for the sequence where Brea, played by Paula Patton, has been drugged and is being loaded into a semi-truck with other captured women. It’s the lowest of low points in her story. She’s defeated, and the score had to be powerful but sparse all at once. It also plays right next to the song “Strange Fruit,” which is an amazing song about slavery, perfectly performed by Nina Simone. My cue and Nina’s song play a critical moment in the drama. I think “Strange Fruit” was Deon Taylor‘s idea. It’s used to intentionally point out the parallel between human trafficking and slavery, both of which turn human beings into products and hold them against their will. Deon would say trafficking is “modern-day slavery.”

WHY DID IT RESONATE WITH YOU?

GZ: Well, I think it’s important to make a movie about subjects like this. I love movies for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is that they can shine a light on things that aren’t well represented in the media. Some films get important conversations started, and Traffik will be one of them.

WHAT DO YOU THINK FILMGOERS ARE GOING TO BE MOST SURPRISED ABOUT AFTER SEEING ‘TRAFFIK’?

GZTraffik is a tense movie, but it’s also very accessible. Many filmgoers will first be interested in the thriller aspects of the film, and they’ll be happy with what Deon put up on screen, but I think they’ll be surprised at just how visceral this film is. You can feel the dirt on the skin of the victims, and you’ll get caught up on all the turns it takes. Ultimately, I think people will really respond to Brea refusing to be victimized and everyone is going to get behind her as she tries to become her own heroine.

WHEN YOU ARE SCORING A SCENE AND YOU GET STUCK ON SOMETHING NOT SOUNDING RIGHT, WHAT DO YOU DO TO GET OVER THAT HUMP?

GZ: Usually I just change gears, work on a different scene or make a cup of tea. I don’t usually suffer from writer’s block. A bigger problem for me is whittling down the number of ideas I have for a score, and deciding which ones to explore.

WHAT IS AN ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF BEING A MUSIC COMPOSER FOR FILM AND TV THAT MAKES THE JOB EASIER FOR YOU?

GZ: Collaboration is the key, I’d say. I really love the conversations that filmmakers and I have. I find my work is at its best when I’m working with people who communicate often. Scores typically evolve during the whole time I’m writing them, and it’s always informed by the shared ideas everyone involved has. Filmmaking is inherently collaborative, even while there’s an informal hierarchy. The buck always stops somewhere, usually with the director, but the way everyone collaborates is really what makes the whole endeavor work so well.

HAS THERE BEEN A RECENT FILM OR TV SCORE THAT HAS REALLY STUCK OUT TO YOU?

GZ: Sure! I loved everything about Stranger Things, the score included. Arrivalwas another recent score that resonated with me. And I think both of the How to Train Your Dragon scores were outstanding. Before I go, I do want to thank you for your interest in my work for Traffik. It’s been a pleasure!

You can learn more about Geoff Zanelli at http://geoffzanelli.com.

As seen on That Moment In

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