Showing that faith and persistence can lead to rich and rewarding opportunities, composers H. Scott Salinas and Reza Safinia have pursued their art through music composition. They have carved out a career as film and television composers that shows dedication and enthusiasm, and they were quick to sign on to work on “Birth Of the Dragon” as it gave them the chance to work together and create a sound that would add to the visual tapestry of the film. In an exclusive interview, H. Scott Salinas and Reza Safinia shared what was the appeal of this film project, as well as their continuing passion for their work as composers.
How did you get connected to or approached in composing for “Birth of the Dragon”? What was the initial appeal of the project?
SCOTT: I had worked with the director George Nolfi before on a TV show called ALLEGIANCE for NBC and we were hoping to work together again soon. He told me about the idea and I read the script and got super excited. Then as the time grew nearer I reached out to Reza because we had both collaborated in the past on some music for a martial arts movie that never wound up getting made. And both of us were super excited about that so we reached out to Nolfi and some of it wound up working as temp as well. So sure enough, eventually, it all just made sense to work together.
Were there any specific challenges composing “Birth of the Dragon” and, if so, like what?
REZA: The first challenge is we had three weeks. The biggest challenge creatively was to find the tone of the movie, there’s a lot of different elements going on, the film starts in China and then moves to San Francisco, plus it’s set in the sixties. It also took place before Bruce’s fame. The movie is based on true events, but the story takes a twist into an alternate reality fantasy. To find a cohesive sound that serviced all those needs, that was the challenge!
For you, what are the rewards for you composing for “Birth of the Dragon”?
REZA: Solving that challenge we just spoke about was a great reward, and doing it together was super fun. Being a composer is usually a lonely gig, but we had a lot of fun playing off each other! I’ve always been a huge fan of Scott’s work and we’ve done various things together in the past, so working with him is always its own reward for me.
SCOTT: Likewise I’ve always been a big fan of Reza and we had in fact collaborated before but just never got our work out there. Also we got to meld orchestral music with rock with traditional Chinese music, and that in a short period of time sounded like an insane challenge and it’s always good to push the envelope in one’s career.
Is there a scene or sequence that you composed in the film that you are most proud of that you can talk about and reveal why it resonated with you?
SCOTT and REZA: The whole movie’s point is the epic fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. It was reputed to have been 18 minutes in real life, and was depicted in 12 minutes in the film. The fight is beautifully shot and edited, and there’s a whole lot of storytelling as well as ass kicking in those twelve minutes. Almost the whole thing is scored, so to write a twelve minute cue that went through all those twists and turns was an awesome thing to do, it was challenging for sure, but I feel really proud of what we did. I think we spent a third of the time scoring the movie on that one scene.
What instrument(s) did you find was key with this particular project to set the tone or musical theme you were striving to achieve for “Birth of the Dragon”?
SCOTT: Some of the standout instruments were. Chinese and western flutes, solo cello, tremendous amounts of percussion, rock & roll rhythm section, and of course a giant orchestra. In the case of Wong’s theme he was reliant on the flutes and cellos and had a very clear melody which we hear right from the first shots of China. Mirroring young Bruce’s character in the film Bruce’s theme develops over time. At first it’s more of a chord progression with churning instrumentation and finally by the end credits he gets a full-fledged orchestral melody on a crazy rock bed. But his music was based on power and masculinity and Wong’s was more nuanced, ancient and wise.
Were you given freedom to choose the sound for the project or were you under specific parameters to work within?
REZA: It was a bit of both, George Nolfi the director and Joel Viertel the editor had strong ideas of what they wanted, but sometimes Scott and I didn’t agree, so we just presented them with our idea as an alternative to what they asked for and much of the time they ended up liking our suggestions, and also a lot of the time we liked their suggestions. The direction of the film is a really good collaboration between the four of us.
How fast do you work when given a project of this scale? Are you allowed considerable time or is it kind of a rushed thing? Did it take days or weeks to compose for?
SCOTT: We had no time for this one. Luckily a lot of the temp was our music and luckily I had worked with George and Joel before so we had a shorthand. But we basically had 3 weeks including recording orchestra. So needless to say very little sleep was had. But what made it work was George’s tireless energy and willingness to be at our studio from about 10 AM to 2 AM almost every night. One of Nolfi’s favorite pieces when the masters are in the diner deciding to save Steve was composed at around 3 in the AM with Nolfi in the room and we were rocking out. Bruce’s theme as well was composed in the room on piano in one of those sessions. I think the combo of his commitment and our willingness to be vulnerable and compose in front of him is what made it all work. Next time more time would certainly be nice, but at least now we know we are all comfortable in a room making music together and that we are battle tested.
When looking for a project, what is something you look for? Do you take everything that comes along or can you pick and choose?
REZA: Good characters, emotion, something that moves me. The music writes itself when I feel those things.
SCOTT: You have to pick and choose because each film is such an investment of time and emotion and what we can give as composers in our lifetime ultimately is finite. And more and more as I get older I find it’s the people that are hiring me that matter the most. How I feel about them and vice versa is usually a great indicator of how the process will go and the quality of the final result. Plus it’s just more fun to be around people you enjoy. Life’s too short otherwise.
What is an essential element of being a music composer for film and television that makes the job easier for you?
REZA ad SCOTT: Passion. Passion for film, art, music, stories. Really loving the job and feeling the privilege to do it, make the work better and the job easier. Also a degree of being detached. It sounds like a paradox to being passionate, but somehow, being willing to trash the thing you put so much work into makes it easier to get to the best outcome. Scott calls it killing your darlings. You know, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, I feel like as an artist you have to put yourself to the same test about your ideas.
What tools and equipment do you rely on to get the sound you want?
REZA: I am a real simpleton when it comes to this stuff. I used to be an engineer with all the gadgets, and I’m not knocking people who still have a lot of toys, but now I’m a less is more guy. I like using east west samples to mock up my scores, and I like using waves compressions and eq’s when I’m mixing, one of our friends, Tobias Enhus just made this awesome drum library called Strikeforce and to call it that is kind of a sin. It’s the sickest drum library for film composition, anyway we used that a lot in “Birth of the Dragon”… outside of that give me any instrument and a Neumann mic and I’m good to go.
SCOTT: I like humans. Whether it’s an orchestra or a soloist or Reza playing bass, I’m the most comfortable when a human performance is part of the sound.
What are some of your favorite instruments to use? What makes each so appealing?
REZA: I love writing on bass. First off I love the instrument, especially playing it high up on the neck, it has such a plaintive sound. But as a writing tool, I love the simplicity of starting with single notes, and imagining wild harmonies as I play those single notes. In orchestral stuff I love using cellos and basses to create tension by going to strange notes underneath more conventional harmonies, and I usually figure out those moves on a bass.
SCOTT: The orchestra is my favorite instrument as it’s the most expressive and it’s the most forgiving as well. If I have to not cheat and choose one solo instrument, I’m a guitar player but I really love the harp and think it’s underused as a solo instrument.
What in your background inspired to pursue a career in film/television composing? Was it a conscious decision or did you kind of fall into it?
REZA: I fell into it. I always loved Ennio Morricone and John Williams as a kid, but I aspired to be Quincy Jones or George Martin. Film scoring kind of happened organically for me.
SCOTT: I went to school to study economics then switched to music, then wound up doing a film score for my thesis. So I kind of fell into it in college then started really paying attention to the music in films and felt I could someday contribute in that arena. And here we are!
What kind of advice can you offer to others seeking to pursue a career in film and television composing?
REZA: I’m still waiting for someone to enlighten me!
SCOTT: Stick with it. Don’t want to be the next “Hans Zimmer” or the next “John Williams” just want to be a part of it all and have something authentic to say. Always trust your gut instincts and just because you are fond of something doesn’t mean it’s right for the scene or the film. Those are two different things and you have to be honest with yourself and always differentiate between those two things and strive to always accomplish both with every cue.
Are there any cool perks of where you are in your career right now?
REZA: Working with brilliant artists who are passionate about what they do is the greatest joy for me.
SCOTT: We get sneak peaks at gear! We got to use this amazing drums sample library called StrikeForce (bit of cross promotion here but they really hooked us up) that helped us map out all our crazy fight cues in seconds. We get to go to fun awards shows and festivals too, which always gives me an excuse to wear weird hats.
Has there been any great advice you have gotten?
REZA: Yes. Actually, Scott gave me great advice, I’ll let him tell you!
SCOTT: LOL [regarding Reza]: John Powell once told us at the ASCAP workshop circa early 2000’s, when asked: “John, do you ever write for the reel?” Meaning, “Do you instead of just focusing on what’s best for the film or do you ever just write something you think is awesome and go for it?” And he said. “I always write for the reel. The reason why I’ve done ok is because worst thing that happens is they don’t like it and I try something new and then I have a cool piece of music lying around.” Then he proceeded to show us a rejected main title from one film that he used on another film and of course it worked even better. So the advice is be malleable and open and willing to try multiple ideas, but always trust your instincts and always really go for it musically, don’t second guess yourself or water something down before anyone else has heard it.
What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring television composers?
REZA: Anyone in entertainment or the arts needs to be committed and love it so damn much because it is not an easy road. So, figuring out if you really want it is the most important thing.
SCOTT: There are three ways to make it in this biz:
(1) Be a rock star – I would suggest all three. If you aren’t a “rock star”. Make a record of music that you love and put it out there. Get it in the hands of music supers and editors. And just do it for the love. Make that “rock star” into making your own music when you aren’t scoring.
(2) Assistant or apprentice – Be a human slave to another composer. Work those crazy hours. Learn the craft, the biz, what not to do sometimes and maybe that will give you some decent credits as well.
(3) Rise up with young directors you meet and grow together. – Find people at your level to collaborate with and sure enough those relationships will pay off. I met Joel Viertel over 15 years ago at film festival in NYC and we’ve been working together ever since.
(4) Be patient. It takes time. And it takes time because you need that time to develop. Don’t be afraid to pay the bills with other parts of the music biz while your film career develops. Music editing. Performing. Teaching. Tech stuff etc.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for?
REZA: I’m working on a project with Dr Dre for Apple that I’m super excited about. I also scored an upcoming doc about nude photography that will be coming out on Starz.
SCOTT: “City of Ghosts” – Matt Heineman (Cartel Land) follow up film in theaters now. Absolutely incredible movie. “The Ballad of Lefty Brown” – Jared Moshe A western starring Bill Pullman that was the darling of SXSW. Coming out in theaters in December.
To hear the exciting musical score that H. Scott Salinas and Reza Safinia have crafted for “Birth Of the Dragon,” look for the release of “Birth Of the Dragon” this weekend by BH Tilt, a branch of Blumhouse at movie theaters near you.