‘Back To The Future’ Composer Alan Silvestri On Revisiting A Modern Musical Classic


On New Year’s Eve, the final performance of the Back to the Future live concert series will take place at Symphony Hall in Boston. The touring show will then break for January, travel to Switzerland for two performances in February, then break again for March before heading to Italy for two final shows. As a result, the experiment first performed during the summer of 2015 will come to a close — capping off a year and a half’s worth of celebrations to commemorate the 30th anniversary of director Robert Zemeckis’ classic film.

Alan Silvestri score to the trilogy plays a vital, if sometimes overlooked, role in making the films so memorable. The Back to the Future trilogy without his musical flourishes would be like Star Wars without the opening crawl’s boisterous theme music or Empire Strikes Back‘s “Imperial March.” The films just wouldn’t work, which is why the live concert series’ need for 20 additional minutes of music proved so daunting at first. Yet as Silvestri explained to us over the phone, the task ended up being a lot easier — a far less stressful — than it initially seemed.

Let’s talk about the prospect of adding 20 minutes of new music to Back to the Future. Was it as scary as it sounds?

It’s an interesting question because when this project was first presented, one of the stumbling blocks was there just wasn’t a lot of music — or enough music — in the first half to make for a satisfying night in the concert hall. So of course the suggestion was, “What about adding more music?” At the time I replied, “You want me to add more music to what’s being called a ‘perfect, classic film’?” They said yes, so I had dinner with Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale — the film’s director, producer and co-writers. I told them about the idea to screen Back to the Future in concert, and the need to add new music. They thought it was great and told me to do whatever I wanted.

So I got to return to a score I’d written 30 years ago and write 20 new minutes of music. It sounded like a dream come true, and it kind of was, but it just wasn’t the dream I thought it would be. What I quickly found out was you can’t write new music for Back to the Future. You just can’t. It’d be like sticking a new character into the movie. What we needed to do was to add music to Back to the Future in such a way that fans would always think there had been music where we added it. What I wound up doing was going back through the score for all three films and looking for fun things that could travel. Just as the Bobs set up everything in the films so things would pay off later, I got to take music from later scenes or sequels and adapt snippets of it for the first movie.

For instance, I brought a little piece of the clock tower material into Doc’s lab in the beginning, when we first see Marty. It’s the same setup. “Marty, where are you?” It’s the same line Doc says when he’s looking at his watch, waiting in the town square for him. We also scored the main title, which had never had music before. Plus, I used Doc and Clara’s love theme from Back to the Future III for when Lorraine sits at the dinner table, drunk and reminiscing about when she fell in love with George. When the Bobs heard that, they fell on the floor. It’s the love theme, but it’s also the counterpoint to an absurd situation.

Did you have to change anything in the original film score to make the new music work?

Everything that was in the original film stayed where it was, exactly the way it was. We didn’t go in there and change start marks or anything of significance. That was the canvas, if you will, and then I had the film to work to. I had the scores from all three films. It actually turned out to be a lot of fun. It’s like trying on outfits that weren’t designed for certain occasions, but still manage to work. We never, in any way, wanted to be disrespectful to the film. In fact we needed to do just the opposite. We had to continue to find ways to honor the film and the audience’s embracing of it. That brings us back to the idea that if we go in, the first act of the movie plays and people don’t hear or see anything new, we will have accomplished our mission. I really think we did. I asked many, many people — especially in the beginning — about the new music and they said, “What new music?” That’s how we worked our way through to the film. We just tried not to break anything.

Be they musicians, writers or artists, creatives often have a difficult time returning to projects they’ve long since completed. Was that the case with Back to the Future?

It would seem that way, and there were certainly moments where that was the anticipation. Oddly enough, and this is often the case working on a Bob Zemeckis film, the movie tells you what it wants. All you have to do is keep your mouth shut and follow along. As soon as I brought in the new material and played it with the film, I knew right away if it was working or not. In the end it was not a stressful, belabored or difficult task. The movie is the movie, and you really just have to listen to it.

Can I say how wonderful it is that you refer to Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale as “The Bobs”?

It’s like a marriage, you know? If the Smiths are coming to dinner, we know what that is. They’re married, they’re together and it’s like one single thing: “The Smiths.” So when you talk about Bob Zemeckis, Bob Gale and Back to the Future, it’s “The Bobs.” The movie came from their marriage. It’s their child, just in the same way that a child would be a product of a marriage.

I imagine it’s very similar to you and Zemeckis’ working relationship, which includes 16 movies.

It’s absolutely amazing, and you can imagine what a privilege it is for a composer to be invited back in that way. I think it’s the 16th film, but the 20th project we’ve done together. When we were recording Allied recently, I introduced Bob at the end of the film because he loves to thank the orchestra. I told everyone this was the 16th film we’d made together over a span of 33 years, and Bob added it was 16 in a row. He has never worked with another composer since our first time together, which was Romancing the Stone. It’s an amazing thing, certainly for me, to have had that kind of relationship with someone I consider to be one of the greatest living filmmakers.

You two are practically married. You’re probably finishing each other’s sentences at this point.

There’s no doubt that that happens, and it has happened more and more over the years. Again, the marriage analogy is perfect here. It’s like a husband and wife. With my wife Sandra, we’ll walk into a room, see something and look at each other. Nobody has to say anything because we both know what the other is thinking. There’s certainly a lot of that that has happened with Bob over the years. What having this shorthand does is it leaves a lot of room for other kinds of contact. Other kinds of considerations. At the bottom of it all is a kind of basic trust that the other person’s going to see so much of this the same way you do.

Zemeckis has described you as a “visual” composer, noting you had to see cuts of the film before you could score anything. He also said this proved troublesome with animated features like The Polar Express and Beowulf. This is especially interesting since, aside from working on Zemeckis’ films, you’ve scored effects-driven tentpoles like The Avengers and Captain America: The First Avenger.

One of the perfect examples was Forrest Gump. When I went down to first see that film and start working on it with Bob, they sat me down and rolled the cut. It opens to a blue sky and before anything significant happened, Bob stood up in front of the screen and explained to me what I’d eventually see. Namely the feather, which floats down and across the screen in the final cut. So he put his hand in front of the screen and mimed the feather’s movements throughout the entire opening sequence. That’s what I got to see. I never got to see the feather when I was working on that music. I saw the background, the tracking shots, the camera moves and Bob’s hand.

Yet it was such a great, vivid explanation on Bob’s part, so I was fine writing the music without seeing the actual feather. Other times, when I’m scoring to some of these mo-cap things, I’m not really seeing a defined character. Instead I’m seeing what we sometimes call the “Michelin Man” — a little grey, characterless body clunking around through a scene. Maybe there’s a sign that points to it saying, “Mighty Warrior Beowulf” and that’s it. Though very often, I don’t see the mighty warrior until after I’ve already scored the film. It requires the involvement of the imagination, so from that point of view, you’re prepared to imagine and exercise that capacity more than usual.

I remember playing “The Feather Theme” from Forrest Gump in my middle school’s orchestra. I loved playing film music, though I haven’t touched a violin in decades.

You can totally pick it back up! I’m 66 now and I spent many of the years of my youth playing guitar. After my time at Berklee, I made my living as a guitar player in clubs. I’ve been away from it for 30 years, and just recently I literally woke up and said, “You know? This is just not right that I don’t play on any level anymore.” So I went out and got myself a beautiful guitar, and I’m trying to get it in my hands every day — even if just for five minutes. So when I say you’ll get back to it, I hope you do because there’s just something great — even if it’s here and there — about making sounds yourself. You know, moving some air based on your own playing.

A lot of your scores feature guitar. Did you ever play while conducting scoring sessions?

I used to stand on the podium on occasion when I was doing the CHiPs show, and I’d stand up there in front of the band and play. When you start to deal with larger ensembles in the movies, however, it gets a little weird. I really did kind of walk away from it. I’ve had other things I’ve been doing, studying and all that, but there was just something about my not playing anything personally anymore that didn’t feel right. I’m back at it. We’ll see how long it lasts.