by: Anne M. Raso
Creating the original songs and themes for the animated family film Despicable Me (being released on Friday July 7th 2010) is Grammy Award-winning artist and blockbuster music producer Pharrell Williams, who composed the score with Heitor Pereira (of It’s Complicated and Beverly Hills Chihuahua). We caught up with Pharrell by phone a few days ago, and we have to say that he seems more enthused about scoring a major motion picture that producing a #1 hit for a major recording artist. Apparently, scoring a film is something he has been dreaming about for at least 10 years now!
Pharrell and Heitor (L-R) discussing music
It actually wasn't easy scoring Despicable Me - a film about a curmudgeon-like lead character Gru (voiced by Steve Carrell) who is out to steal the moon but ends up as the soft-hearted adoptive father of three little girls (who almost get returned to their orphanage after a misunderstanding) - but Pharrell was up to the challenge! For those who want to see him go Hollywood in the true acting sense, check out his cameo opposite P. Diddy in Get Him To The Greek - my pic for funniest flick of the year so far. Unfortunately, Pharrell would not comment on whether he knows music biz folks like the crazy ones depicted in "Greek" - from the geeky underling executive played by Jonah Hill to obnoxious English rock star Aldous Snow (played by Russell Brand). Hey, Pharrell--we wouldn't have named names!
Q: What’s your interest and fascination with animation?
PW: Well, all my life I’ve watched cartoons; I love cartoons.
Q: Any favorites?
PW: “Looney Toons,” old “Tom & Jerry,” “The Smurfs,” “Family Guy,” “Sponge Bob,” “Wacky Races" and “The Banana Splits.”
Q: Will any of those animated films make it into your lyrics somewhere? You know how a lot of animated films have signature sounds and words and things....
PW: No, it actually never occurred to me....interesting idea though.
Q: I’m wondering what else you have going on in terms of future projects.
PW: Well, Hans Zimmer and I are actually working on another piece now (he produced the score for Despicable Me and is an Academy Award winner). I can’t really talk about it, it hasn’t been announced, but we’re definitely working on another piece.
Q: What about making movies yourself--as an actor (I know you had a cameo in Get Him To The Greek)?
PW: I’m content with my current privileges. (Laughs.)
Q: Talk a little bit about the difference between making music that’s your own music for the purposes of whatever concept you have, producing somebody else, and doing it for a movie.
PW: When you’re doing it for someone else, I am mainly looking at the person judging what they may need, trying to find the holes in the voice, and most of the time there usually is a hole just because they’d just be wrapping up the album. So we find the hole, and instead of patching it, we try to use that hole as the inspiration to fill it and to make something different and take it to the next level. Whereas with this, with a song there’s usually about 10 basic song structures; with this there’s no structure at all. There are no parameters; you’re only really answering to the aesthetic and what is being shown and what the director wants to be articulated at that moment.
Q: What do they show you (when you score a film)? Do they show you the completed film; do they show you parts of it?
PW: They showed us sketches at first, and then they showed me a character breakdown, and then they showed me the animation. And from there I was able to sort of see what it should sound like.
Q: I just want to know how you basically decided to do this project. Who approached you? Did somebody working on the film, like one of the producers, just like your music and wanted you?
PW: I was bugging Kathy Nelson because she had awarded a job to Jack Johnson for “Curious George” and I thought he had done such an amazing job and I was like man, I’d do anything for a movie. So she said that she would try and she would let me know when the next concept came about like that, and it did. So once it did I just jumped in and I threw caution to the wind and I gave it everything that I could.
Q: Were there any challenges doing this? You obviously had to deal with quirky characters; did you sort of feel that some of them were hard to put into music?
PW: Oh no; this was all a pleasure. I was blessed. Universal (Pictures) is one of the biggest studios, Illumination is one of the best animation houses there is; they have the best technology, the best tricks. It was a great story and had great characters, so I was in great company. So it was very hard to mess it up.
Q: Was there something in the dialog or the story that hit home with you?
PW: Oh, I loved the story....(but) I think more than anything else I just felt like the animation was so colorful! I felt like the sound of it needed to be justly fitted. And the story obviously dictated what should be said and how it should be said.
Q: Did you have a favorite character in this film?
PW: The Minions are pretty funny.
Q: What was it like working with someone like Hans Zimmer and his amazing staff?
PW: For the most part they were challenging me and edging me off to interesting directions and what I should be considering. It was a really incredible experience. There would be times where Hans would say, “Well I think your scene should sound a little bit more like this,” and I’d love it so much I’d go “Okay, well look we’re a team, I love that.” And he’d go “What else do you hear?” and we’d sort of finish it like that.
Q: When you were working on the film, what instruments do you use to sort of build your songs with? What do you start with and where did it go?
PW: We start with a computer and it ends up being like 150 piece orchestra.
Q: And you use the computer initially to build the orchestral sounds and then you transfer it to the orchestra?
PW: Yes, then I have it transcribed.
Q: How did scoring Despicable Me affect the way you might do future albums? Does it change you or give you new ideas on how you might create music or produce other people?
Q: And how so?
PW: I have way more paint cans and much finer brushes now.
Q: Do you have nieces and nephews or kids? What do you think they will think of the film?
PW: I think all of my family members will really be into it, I do. I think it’s a family film and it’s really funny, and I’m just so thankful to be a part of the equation for something that is so great.
Q: This movie is, as you say, very funny and very entertaining, but it does hit a topic that’s very serious--adoption. Do you have any thoughts on this subject?
PW: On adoption? I think it’s a very interesting concept and I feel like if a person has the time..it would be nice for everyone who could afford to do it...but you’ve got to have that time and the will to educate; you’ve got to have time to do stuff like that. You’d be robbing a child of a better experience if you don’t have the time but to each his own. I think this film makes people feel really comfortable with the whole concept of adoption.
[Photos: Universal Pictures]