The Intruder: Breaking in with Composer Geoff Zanelli (interview)

With Deon Taylor’s The Intruder now playing in theaters, we’re sitting down with the master of the sounds, Composer Geoff Zanelli. Let’s break in…

Throughout history, home invasion thrillers have found success for a multitude of reasons. With loved ones and personal space to protect, unwanted intruders are one of the biggest fears of anyone — that’s even when that guest is the legendary Dennis Quaid.

With Screen Gems’ The Intruder now playing in theaters, we’re sitting down with the man behind the scary sounds, Composer Geoff Zanelli. So let’s make sure those doors are locked while we talk with one of the hardest working musicians around.

1428 Elm: What are your earliest memories of musical inspiration? When did you know you wanted to compose music as a career?

Geoff Zanelli: Well, my earliest memory or film music was actually Willy Wonka, the one from the 70s. That was when I realized that someone somewhere wrote specific music for a film, and that was the reason that music existed in the first place. That, of course, is obvious to most people but I was a child, and for me it was an epiphany, at least in retrospect.

I wanted to write music pretty much right after I became a musician, which was pretty late in life as compared to other composers. I was 16 years old, but it was an instant obsession, and I was drawn to film music since you’re able to experiment with sounds so often, and you’re not constricted by making something radio-friendly. I find there’s a ton of creativity in film music, and that’s what carries my interest.

1428 Elm: Inspiration is an important aspect of creation. Who are some of the composers who have inspired you?

GZ: Bernard Herrmann is certainly one, and since I grew up in the 80s I have to say John Williams as well. I’m talking about film composers specifically, and I have a few great mentors I’ve worked with personally who inspire me. Those would be Hans Zimmer, John Powell and Danny Elfman.

1428 Elm: Any particular scores that stay with you? Your favorites?

GZ: Sure, I really love North by Northwest, Images, Edward Scissorhands and The Lion King.

1428 Elm: Scoring is an underappreciated aspect of film and TV series, but it’s important to video games as well. I know you’ve scored video games. Is there a difference composing music for games versus visual media?

GZ: There is, yes. In games, I want the music to make as many of the decisions I might make if I were composing in real time for the player, which means the music has to be written in a way that it can go from one thing to another quickly and seamlessly. No easy task! And that also relies on having great programmers working on the game, who can work with me to implement the score in such a way that it’s all possible. We’re doing this with Star Citizen: Squadron 42 which I’m working on.

I do find it radically different, actually, to write gameplay music or score a film.

1428 Elm: Speaking of scoring different things, your new film The Intruder is a horrific thriller. How is scoring horror different from other genres?

GZ: I think one of the main differences is that most of my work is very melodic. My Pirates of the Caribbean work, for instance, or Christopher Robin were very melody-driven scores, whereas in The Intruder, while it does have themes for certain characters, it’s really relying on tonal shifts and sonics.

Especially as Charlie Peck, played by Dennis Quaid, unravels and goes more and more crazy, the score just devolves into violence and tension, and you can’t really play a melody cause that gives the audience something to latch on to. It’s much more effective to have the audience on the edge of their seat, with no idea what’s coming next!

1428 Elm: How did you land The Intruder?

GZ: It’s the second film I scored for director Deon Taylor, the first being Traffik. We met because he heard my music for Disturbia through his picture editor, whom I had worked with before as well. And we hit it off right away. I could tell he was going to keep making interesting films, and he’s truly an inspiring person. He really just willed himself a filmmaking career, and he sustains it by pure hustle.

1428 Elm: How does one get hired to score a film? Do you have to audition?

GZ: You do, yeah. Usually a director might meet four or five people unless they already have someone in mind. So you’re up against other composers, and you might watch the movie and score a scene or two and the director makes their decision from there. Most important, I find, is that you’re able to have good conversations about the direction of the film and the score. Without that, it’s hard to imagine working well together.

1428 Elm: What’s on the horizon for Geoff Zanelli? Any projects coming you want to let our readers know about?

GZ: Another movie with Deon Taylor, actually! It’s called Exposure. We’re doing it with Sony and it’s about a rookie cop, played by Naomie Harris, who records something terrible on her bodycam. From there, things get intense quick but I’m not here to spoil it for anyone! I think we’re coming out in September with that one.