James M. Dooley - Composer 'When A Stranger Calls'
'Creating The Call Of The Wildman!'
As a New York native, James Michael Dooley didn't need to think twice about his choice for higher learning when he was ready for college. He headed straight for New York University, majoring in Music Composition. Immediately after graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to study film composition with such prolific composers as Christopher Young, Elmer Bernstein and Leonard Rosenman.
In 1999, he joined Media Ventures and collaborated with award-winning composer Hans Zimmer both as his Chief Technical Engineer and as a composer. Dooley applied his technical skills on films ranging from comedies such as Barry Levinson's 'An Everlasting Piece' and Penny Marshall's 'Riding in Cars With Boys' (starring Drew Barrymore) to blockbusters such as Ridley Scott's 'Gladiator,' John Woo's 'Mission: Impossible 2,' Michael Bay's 'Pearl Harbor,' those delightful penguins in 'Madagascar' ('A Christmas Caper'), and now the remake of 'When A Stranger Calls.'
Dooley's music can also be heard on the small-screen as well. He has scored several TV documentaries for ESPN ("Citation", "Greatest Games", "Richard Flowers"), National Geographic ("Ascent", "Dean Kamen"), and The History Channel ("The Louisiana Purchase").
Chatting recently with James Michael Dooley himself, I first wondered how he had approached this new score to 'When A Stranger Calls,' and if he had listened (or watched) the 1979 original to get a feel for it? "I watched the 1979 original to see why everyone I know that's seen it got scared. There's not a lot going on in the house so music is more crucial in this style of film than anything else. I began by recorded two sessions in Prague with different size string ensembles to get a battery of very specific aleatoric 'horror-ish' textures. I did this because I didn't want the score to feel like a generic horror film score."
"So I worked with specific ideas for the film so that the score would have a unique color to it. The score is supernatural in a way. It's not performable by a single orchestra. One cue might begin with eight overlapping textures of a 50 piece orchestra. You can't just get a really huge orchestra, it doesn't work that way. I can then filter one, pitch one down, and distort one. It's a very fun way to work. Recording the Prague orchestra was only the beginning of the process. Ultimately, we then went to Seattle to replace some of what I did prior, but mostly to augment what was already there. We recorded all the melodic bits, and the osstinatos in addition to some new textures. I feel that helped give this score a sense of identity."
In the sense that sometimes composing can be a collaborative affair (ie: 'The Ring' alongside Hans Zimmer), I wonder if these occasions perhaps constrict you in any way that you might have expressed certain scenes musically differently as an individual? "With this film I had a chance to do me doing horror, not someone else. It was very freeing to just start anywhere I wanted and see if it stuck. You succeed or fail based solely on your choices. It's exciting and scary at the same time. Recording orchestras before writing cues on my dime was risky and you have no idea if you're doing anything worthwhile from a client perspective until they hear it. But I have learned, especially from Hans, that you have to go with your instincts and put it out there. Risk is part of doing something worthwhile."
To your mind, what was the stand-out scene that upon your musical addition, just cinematically shone brighter than even you could have imagined? "There is a scene in the film which I loved from the beginning of the project. The unnamed caller brushes his hand up against a piece of glass and walks slowly, clenching his fist. I designed the cue so that the low brass and very hi strings are doing this odd, slow, brooding chord progression, and the instruments in the middle are doing the tension and racing around. You get to feel the power off our villain and the desperation of our hero. I wasn't sure it would work till I showed it to the film making team. I am quite proud of that section."
Are there ever scenes that just won't musically come together, for what ever reasons? And if so, how does one overcome such situations? "We struggled with one cue in the film for a while. I found a solution for it, scored it, mixed it, and then we put it in the film. During dubbing, it still became an issue and we began editing other parts of the score together to see what we could come up with. It was a tense point in the process, but we finally found something that would keep the tension and the pace going. Whew. You have to be very calm in these situations because your clients don't want to see you stressed. They're stressed enough with the project that you need to be the Zen monk in the middle of the battle, always with a solution. That is rather difficult to do and you have to deliver the goods once they're promised."
Please tell us more about your involvement in 'The Mars Undergound' project and about your agreement with CDBABY therein "A write friend of mine from USC was working on the documentary and put me up for it. They had a very small budget but the project was beautiful. I agreed to do the film because I believed in it. I was so pleased with the score that I personally released the CD. CDBABY was doing quite well for some of my friends. They didn't really have a 'film music' section because it's not common for people to release those independently. It's a great way to get a small run of CDs out in the world. I've had people purchase the album from the farthest reaches of the globe. A good amount of the people that purchased copies thought that it sounded interesting and wanted to give it a try, spontaneously. The response has been great and I thank CDBABY for making it possible to get it out there."
Finally, what's next for you to begin scoring on? "There is a German animated film called, 'Urmel Aus Dem Eis,' that I finished scoring recently that is dubbing right now. It will be out in May and a soundtrack will be available as well. It's a cute story based on a children's book from the 1960s. There will be a soundtrack for 'When a Stranger Calls' as well. Right now I'm helping Hans Zimmer on 'The Da Vinci Code' and that will take me to about March. I will be announcing the next couple of things by then. Check out www.jimdooley.com for updates!"
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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