Return to the Caribbean: An interview with Geoff Zanelli
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise boasts some of the most memorable and iconic musical themes of the 2000s. Composer Geoff Zanelli (Into the West, The Pacific, Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power) was one of the composers who worked on the Curse of the Black Pearl score in 2003 as well as each sequel. For the latest installment, Zanelli took over the reigns from Hans Zimmer to bring to bear his previous experience on the films as well as his own voice for the new film and characters of Salazar, Carina, and Neptune's Trident. Notes from the Soundscape had the opportunity to interview Geoff about his experiences working on this film and how it related to the previous installments. Thanks to Geoff and his team for the interview.
You worked on the previous Pirates films. What were your favorite parts to write and themes to use, and did that influence your approach to the new film?
On the previous films, I enjoyed writing Calypso's theme, which started in the second film and takes on a much bigger role in the third. For On Stranger Tides, I wrote the theme for the Spanish which played throughout the film, and I loved writing the mermaids sequence as well for that. One of the things I'm looking forward to with the release of Dead Men Tell No Tales is that it gives listeners the opportunity to hear in retrospect where my voice came through in the earlier films.
I'm not sure that writing those themes influenced how I approached the new film. It's really just that I love these films, and I understood the language of Pirates music so when I sit down to work on any of them, I've got my rock and roll attitude that I can apply to the orchestra and that point of view permeates everything I do for Pirates.
All the themes Zimmer wrote for the series start with the same three notes. How did you approach the composition of new themes in the franchise?
I started by writing Carina's theme, since she has the biggest story arc in the film and lots of different angles that her music needs to be played from. She's a scientist, but she has to come to terms with the fact that there are things which science can't explain. And she has an emotional journey that I won't spoil here, but it goes deep. So her theme had to be very versatile.
When I got into Salazar's music I got to thinking, since so much of the movie is about the conflict between Jack and Salazar, that Salazar's theme had to work in opposition to what we know of as Jack's music. We've come to identify Jack with a drunk solo cello, and at first I was looking for instruments that can stand up to the cello, which is probably my favorite instrument in the orchestra. But then I realized, the key isn't finding a different instrument, it's in finding another approach to the same instrument, so Salazar became this army of solo cellos, some played through nasty guitar amps, some remaining acoustic but played with as much grit as possible. They combine to form this thick mass, so Jack is underpowered, outnumbered and in big trouble, and the score reflects that!
Curse of the Black Pearl had a huge impact on blockbuster film scoring and may be the most iconic themes of that decade. Here we are 14 years later with the final film in the franchise. Was there pressure to deliver? How was the experience with the new directors compared to the first film?
There's always pressure to deliver, even on the first films where I was credited with Additional Music. The music has always kept me up at night because I invest myself fully into it.
Having Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg come on board was a great way to break new ground, and they were very easy to work with. They, like me, are fans of Pirates to begin with, so we could connect on that level before any of the hard work was done.
I keep saying that they went darker with Salazar, and into new emotional territory with Carina than we ever have before in the series. We've had plenty of emotion throughout, of course, but Carina's journey has some very specific elements that needed special music treatment.
Coming into a franchise at film 5, how did you approach it to make it sound fresh while also fitting into the series?
I just wrote what I thought was right for the film, having had over a decade of experience working on Pirates. There are some of the legacy themes in there which help the series stay cohesive, but Salazar, Carina, and a focus on the mythology of the sea are all important, bespoke concepts for the film that keep things fresh.
I am very happy to hear you working in themes from At World’s End, both the main love theme and Hoist the Colors. What were your thoughts on what Zimmer did for that film in 2007 and how did you balance the themes from it versus the themes from Curse of the Black Pearl?
Well, we do get to tell a little bit more of Will Turner's story, and Elizabeth Swan as well, so it seemed essential that the music that we know for those characters be present. I didn't really have to do anything special to get that to work in the same film as the themes from Curse of the Black Pearl though. It's all part of the legacy of Pirates music, and those tunes play nicely together!
Given your previous work in the franchise, how did you approach thematic
continuity for the franchise?
I think people will hear this score, recognize the presence of my work in the earlier films, and the thread of continuity comes from having someone like me, now the only person who has written music for all five films, stay on board. I'm deeply passionate about Pirates, and this really was a dream job for me.