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Film, Television

One Musician To Another: Darren Fung Interview

One Musician To Another: Darren Fung Interview

Email This Post Share on Facebook One Musician To Another: Darren Fung InterviewTweet This Post Print This Post 05.18.12 | | 1 Comment

Editor’s Note: we at OSV would like to welcome Brad Dyck to our team of writers! Brad is himself a composer (website here) and has expressed interest in interviewing other composers, and presenting those interviews to the public, all with the goal of mutual edification. In his first interview, Brad interviews fellow Canadian Darren Fung. Darren has the mouth of a sailor and plenty of insight. Enjoy! – Pat

Having already achieved considerable success in the Canadian composing scene, Darren Fung has set his sights on Hollywood. While one gets the feeling that he has only begun to tap his potential, he has accomplished everything that most Canadian composers could hope for. As we discuss in our conversation below, he was responsible for the latest version of the Hockey Night in Canada theme song (now known as “The Hockey Theme”), as well as the memorable Bell 2010 Winter Olympics commercial. He has also recorded with such orchestras as the Symphony Nova Scotia and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra before moving to L.A. where he continues to write for numerous film and TV projects. Even though he has been quite busy himself, he has still been able to help young, developing composers reach their own goals.

Darren was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to talk with me from his L.A. home. Check it out after the jump!

OSV: So you started music at a pretty young age, is that correct?

Fung: Yeah, I started playing piano when I was 3, like all good Chinese kids, you know, I got whipped to the piano, chained to the piano, Tada! Here you go (laughs).

OSV: Do you think there was anything else you could’ve done in life or was is set pretty early on?

Fung: Umm, yeah, there was a bunch of things I could’ve done in life, I was in air cadets as a kid so there was a time where I thought I might want to join the air force or do air traffic controller, my commercial pilot’s license, you know, and then I just sort of realized that I didn’t really want to do that so I did music. After I graduated from McGill, when the money wasn’t coming straight in, I remember having an argument with my Mom because I needed to call home for money and she said, “If this doesn’t work out, when are you giving this up?” And I said, “Well, give me two years and if not, I’ll go to law school” so luckily, that 2 years never happened and here I am.

OSV: Was there a particular time or moment that kind of led you on that path or sort of one big gig you were able to get?

Fung: One big gig as in, made me want to decide to be a film composer?

OSV: Yeah, that allowed you to do that and not have to do something else.

Fung: At the beginning…I don’t think there was one real big gig because they are all just a bunch of small gigs but what it was more than anything else is that there was a government program in Canada called the Self Employment Program and what that allows you to do is to basically get $1200 or $1300 a month to start up your own company so you’d write a business plan, you do all that sort of stuff and that program was huge for me because it allowed me to put all the money I was making from these gigs, and it wasn’t a lot of money, it was like $3000 here, $2000 here…I think the biggest gig I had was $6000 to do music for this online video game and that program allowed me to not worry about paying my rent and just help me buy computers and buy samples and all that other stuff like that. So that was really the pivotal point for me, having that backdrop, and after that year then stuff was actually pretty good, pretty stable, I wasn’t making huge money, I was making enough to live but…barely.

OSV: Another question I was going to ask you was if you ever considered doing music for video games.

Fung: Yeah, absolutely. I did that one thing, that one little online video game for Discovery Education but that said, I would love to do it. I guess the biggest challenge right now is that I’m established as sort of a film and television composer and to kind of go and…I don’t know how willing I am to work on – forgive me for saying this – shitty games that don’t pay a lot. And it’s not that I don’t want to do shitty gigs that don’t pay a lot, they just…a video game takes a long time to do, it’s almost like, you know, depending on how big it is it could take 3 or 4 months and to take that much time off and to write that much music for that long a time without…unless you’re getting paid properly it’s really hard to justify. If that makes me sound really snooty I apologize (laughs).

OSV: That makes sense. You’re the 2nd vice president of the Screen Composers Guild of Canada, correct?

Fung: Yep.

OSV: I was just wondering what sort of responsibilities that entails.

Fung: Oh fuck (laughs). There’s sort of two things with that, first of all there’s providing my input as a board member. We have a lot of policy things that come up, where do we stand on copyright, how do we feel about minimum rates, and so forth. So what I do, the biggest responsibility is providing perspective, I think. I just recently moved to L.A.. I was sort of the Quebec guy and sort of giving them a bit of the Quebec perspective. I’m also the youngest guy on the board too, so giving them that view from the emerging composers standpoint as well.

Outside of that role as 2nd vice president, I do a lot of other work like organizing seminars and workshops. Until a couple years ago I used to run orchestral readings with the Screen Composers Guild. There’s a Glenn Gould school orchestra in Toronto, there’s a McGill orchestra in Montreal and we ran a professional development program for composers who’ve never worked with orchestras before. I run another program, this is actually my last year of involvement, where we match up 4 emerging composers with 4 emerging directors at the Canadian Film Centre and we put them through a program where they write a cue, we hire an orchestra for them, put them through the mixing process, all that stuff.

I write a couple articles for Spotting Notes which is sort of our industry vibe, I used to chair that as well but ever since I moved to L.A. I’ve been trying to clean my hands of that stuff (laughs) and just passing the – not necessarily passing the buck but passing the torch. The program with Canadian Film Center and it’s great because other people are taking that program and turning it into their own. It’s great for me to see all the things I’ve worked on at the Guild kind of grow into their own little thing.

OSV: What prompted the move to L.A., was it more of a career decision?

Fung: Two things, my wife, my very patient, very lovely wife. My wife and I had been in long distance mode for eight and a half years. Even the first year that we were married we were still long distance. She was in New Orleans, she’s a doctor and she wanted to practice in the U.S. and I said, “You know what, we need to live together because this is ridiculous, we can’t go on for more long distance time.” And if I’m going to move anywhere it’s going to be L.A. to try and make it work. L.A. is obviously Hollywood, there’s all the stuff that’s happened here and it’s just about meeting people and getting those gigs here, so yeah, it was a career thing.

OSV: What sort of process do you go through while writing music, starting from software going to live musicians?

Fung: I guess you can start from spotting sessions, so I’ll usually sit down with a director either on the phone or in person and we usually go through it, you know, not frame by frame but we go through and we look at every single place where we want music so we say, “From here to there.” The picture generally has to be locked, I’ll start looking at stuff if it’s a fine cut but if it’s not locked it’s really hard to write stuff when you know it’s going to be changed again. And a lot of directors will say, “Oh yeah, I just took a few frames here and a few frames there,” but that could be the difference between this great line that you have and you have to take one note or one beat out of it, right? And all of a sudden you have to move it from 4.4.4 bars to like 3.4.4 bars and it just sounds awkward and it’s really frustrating doing that.

So we do the spotting session and then I’ll usually step away from the picture for a little bit and just try to come up with some thematic ideas. I’m old school, you can even see (shows me his notes) a pencil and paper, you can’t really see a whole lot there but I’ll try to work away from the computer because when I’m by the computer, stupid things like Facebook and everything like that kind of distract me. Once I have some ideas I’ll usually run them by the director and they approve or disapprove and then we start plugging things into a sequencer.

I use Digital Performer, my equipment is very simple. I just have an 8 core Nehalem, super ramped up with RAM, 32 Gigs of RAM. I use Vienna Ensemble Pro as a bridge to all my sounds. I use mostly the Play libraries, East West, Symphony Orchestra stuff and all the Ethnic stuff. I use Omnisphere and RMX, a whole gamut of stuff.

OSV: Finale or something similar?

Fung: I use Finale towards the end of the process if I’m writing for live musicians. But what I’ll do is I’ll start plugging stuff in, lining stuff up to picture. I’ll usually start off with sort of a piano line and then I’ll start to orchestrate it from there using samplers. The director and I go back and forth and the norm is usually revisions, maybe 2, 3 revisions. If you go for any more either the director is not being clear or doesn’t know what they want or is just kind of frustrating. So once that’s done there are 2 things that can happen. If we’re doing a synth score, I’ll move on to the next cue but I’ll have my assistant go there and clean up my MIDI files, he’ll quantize everything nicely, he’ll make sure there’s no crazy notes sticking out. Then he’ll bounce it out to stems and send it over to my engineer to do the mix for me.

I’m a horrible mixer, I have no idea how to mix. My idea of mixing is opening up plug-ins and saying, “Hmm, what does this knob do, Hmm, what does that knob do?” So then if we’re going with live musicians what we do is we’ll take that sequencer stuff and translate that to into Finale or something like that and then do parts and my assistants help me out with all that as well too. It’s interesting, you know, you start working on your own because you don’t have the money to hire people to help you out but then you start hiring people because you just don’t physically have enough time to do it yourself.

You learn what you feel comfortable giving up and what you don’t feel comfortable giving up. I’ve always been a little uneasy giving up my orchestration so what my assistant does is they populate the Finale files with all the notes as it is in the sequencer and then I’ll take that and revise it; I’ll add the articulations and all that stuff. Then when we go into the recording studio I need to be familiar with the score as well too and if I’m just kind of looking at them for the first time, I feel a little uneasy leaving that.

That was a really long answer, I’m sorry (laughs).

OSV: What’s the best thing a director can tell you as far as the direction of the score, do you prefer that they’re hands off?

Fung: No actually, I prefer them to…they need to be open minded I think and not locked into the score but they need to know what they want. Sure, I can give them my interpretation and if they really like it, great, that’s amazing right? But if they don’t know what they want it can be hard. That being said, one thing that I really don’t like is when directors start speaking musical terms because a lot of the time they have no fucking clue what they’re talking about (laughs) and it just becomes really confusing.

You know, the word ‘beat’ could have lots of connotations or ‘crescendo’ and they think they know what they’re talking about and they have no clue and it throws you on a complete tangent. One of the first short films I worked on the guy said, “I don’t like the melody, I don’t like the melody,” and I’m like, “You don’t like the melody?” and at this point anything closer I’d be copying the temp score. So let’s play it to him over the phone, okay, where don’t you like the melody and he’s like “this is good, this is good, okay, boom, right there” and sort of like a Fender Rhodes came in as opposed to a guitar. And what it was, it wasn’t that he didn’t like the melody, he didn’t like the instrument playing the melody, so that’s a really good example of having directors not talking musical terms, just talk to me in emotions.

OSV: It’s better to be abstract.

Fung: Yeah, absolutely.

OSV: What would be the most challenging non-musical aspect of your job?

Fung: Um… (pause) finding work (laughs). I would say the job is 20% music, 80% business. I’ve been lucky in the sense that at least over the past few years every time where I’ve thought that it’s going to be kind of a down time I’ve had work come in quick enough. I think keeping on top of the business aspect like bookkeeping, taxes and stuff like that…I hate bookkeeping, I hate accounting stuff and ever since I moved to the states I said “I am going to hire a bookkeeper to do all this shit otherwise I’ll have a shoebox full of receipts that I have to sort through and enter into Excel and it sucks, it really sucks, you know? So yeah, I would say that it’s the accounting stuff that I hate the most.

That being said, I will say it’s important for everyone to know a little bit about the accounting stuff because if you’re going to give something off to a bookkeeper you need to understand what they’re doing so that when you look at stuff you know what you’re reading. When I go to my accountant, I know what he’s doing and I understand that, it’s just the actual physical process of going through receipts just sucks (laughs).

OSV: For those who aren’t Canadian “The Hockey Theme” is probably one of the most recognized songs aside from the national anthem.

Fung: Yep.

OSV: Could you talk about your contribution to recreating that song?

Fung: That was probably one of the craziest gigs that I’ve ever done and originally what it was – before all the brouhaha with CBC and everything that was happening I was lined up for the gig to redo the theme song for NHL on TSN which was going to be great, I was like “Yeah, this is going to be cool.” So then I was in Ottawa one day for some stuff with the Screen Composer’s Guild so my phone and email were all off. Then I hear on the radio going back “CTV just bought the rights to the Hockey Night in Canada theme song.” And then a few minutes later I get a call from my producer from TSN saying, “I’ve got good news, bad news and terrifying news, which one do you want first?” So the bad news is that we just bought the rights to the Hockey Night in Canada theme song. The good news is we still want to work with you; the terrifying thing is we want you to redo the Hockey Night in Canada theme song. So I’m explaining this to my agent who’s in L.A. and I remember her saying “So you’re redoing a hockey song” I’m like, “No no no, you don’t get this (laughs), it’s like Canada’s second national anthem.”

So there was a lot of back and forth and I was really trying to push it in a new direction, trying to put my own stamp on it but they really wanted to keep it very vanilla, you know? I think there’s an article in the Toronto Star and it was Ivan Fecan, who was the president of CTV at the time, who basically said vicariously through other people “This is New Coke, I want Old Coke” so basically the theme itself stayed the same but what was really fun was that I got to do a whole bunch of variations on it with the Toronto Symphony. We did this James Bond version, we did what my engineers call the alien version, the punk rock orchestral version, we did the cowboy version and we did this apocalyptic version. It was just a lot of fun, right, and surprisingly enough they actually use it for a lot of their other featurettes. Every year they do the highlight reel for the Stanley Cup and use those arrangements for that.

OSV: They use the apocalyptic one?

Fung: Yeah, they do, they do.

OSV: I’d like to hear that.

Fung: Yeah, I’ll send you a YouTube link. It’s kind of interesting because a lot of people can’t tell it’s the Hockey Night in Canada theme song or “The Hockey Theme” as it’s called now because they don’t like calling it the Hockey Night in Canada theme song. A lot of people can’t tell but if you’re listening to it you’d be like “Ah, that’s kind of interesting,” you know, it’s kind of neat. It was a great gig, I got to work with members of the Toronto Symphony and it was really fantastic and it was definitely a boon to my career.

*Note from Darren: The first minute is an original theme that I did that was SUPPOSED to be the new theme for NHL on TSN, until they bought the old HNIC theme… sigh… :)

OSV: Could you tell us about how the Bell Commercial for the 2010 Winter Olympics came about and your thoughts on it?

Fung: Yeah, the Bell commercial was interesting, I did a lot of work in advertising for a while and then my friend Roger Harris asked me if I’d be interested in helping out with this so I personally pitched about 3 or 4 different versions of that song but then there were other composers who were pitching it and it was just something that just really resonated with them. So there was a little bit of back and forth and one thing that you might catch on is that towards the end there’s these little tubular bells – I’m not particularly a big fan of those tubular bells but they wanted to hear some sparkle and magic at the end, so there’s that.

So the version that you hear on TV, the orchestra that’s playing on there, I mean, they’re not air guitaring but that’s not the recorded version that you’re hearing. The recorded version I’m conducting it, we did it in the Glenn Gould studio and then what happens, a couple days later we basically took that track, we went into Pinewood Studios in Toronto and then they basically had this whole big video shoot and treated it like a big music video shoot.

So you have the song playing along, you have this completely different orchestra coming in, they’re playing along so it was really interesting. I had no idea what a big hit that would be – I got fan mail from a commercial (laughs). But everyone really liked it and Bell really like it.

OSV: Do you think that was the most widely heard thing that you’ve worked on so far?

Fung: Between that and the hockey stuff, yeah, probably. Yeah, I think so; I guess I never really thought of it that way.

OSV: Is there a particular style of culture that you find is the most interesting or the most challenging to compose in?

Fung: In terms of the most challenging…(laughs) my wife likes to tease me a lot because my wife listens to a lot of hip hop, right, and I am not into hip hop at all and she keeps saying “Oh, the hip hop classics, the hip hop classic song.” I’m like, “Every frickin’ song is a hip hop classic to you!” I think that I’m trained as a Western classical musician and I’ve done a lot of work in jazz stuff as well so anything sort of outside that realm…say if I’m doing a pop song or something like that, that’s easy enough to change over from jazz into pop, like you need to throw chords on some people and the musicians take it away.

In terms of, “Could I ever do a really good dance score or a hip hop score or a house or trance thing,” I could probably get away with it and I’d like to refine my chops in that but it’s not what I’m good at. What fascinates me is when I’m able to take a lot of that stuff and then mesh it with my classical training. I just finished a score for a documentary a few months ago that we recorded in China with the China National Symphony and we had a lot of ethnic instruments in there and that was a really fun project for me because I got to write these big, lush orchestral scores but also got a look at some of these Chinese ethnic instruments and bring them in.

I love doing drum loops and orchestra as well too, mixing those 2 worlds, I really enjoy doing that.

OSV: Can you think of any particular iconic melody that you wish you could’ve created or that you particularly admire?

Fung: (laughs) Any particular…wow…I don’t know if there’s anything that I wish that I created but I think there’s a lot of things that I really…I really like Steve Jablonsky’s stuff, he does all the Transformer’s stuff. I mean, those movies are so frickin’ loud and over the top and bombastic but his melodies and his orchestrations are so fantastic. I really like Thomas Newman’s stuff, Randy Newman I think is brilliant, the songs that he writes. I have a lot of respect for John Williams – I have a lot of respect for all the big guys. In L.A. it’s a little bit political, a lot of people are torn about Hans Zimmer but I really liked his score to Inception a lot, I thought that was a fantastic score.

OSV: Yeah, I agree. When you’re scoring to picture, are there any guidelines that you follow internally as far as where to put music, where to leave it out or do you use a lot of direction from the directors?

Fung: I think first and foremost it’s what the director wants. It’s an interesting question; one of the hardest things I find is to find the right “in point.” The right “out point” isn’t as hard but the right “in point” I think is hard. What I try to do for an in point is I either try to have it sneak in very…what’s the word I’m looking for?…try to have it sneak in so that it’s unnoticed when it comes in or I have it kind of come in masked with a sound effect sound. Say there’s a big car crash, I use that to mask the entrance of the music. Sometimes you just have to kind of go in and you try to find musically the right beat to come in on. Like, say the guy stopped talking, you don’t want to go ‘Boom’ and then in comes the music.

The guy should stop talking, then you wait 2 or 3 beats and then you come in, so it’s a little bit of just looking at it and then often times what I need to do is, I need to go and listen to the music in context of everything else, both the music that I’ve written and then score what’s happening 10 seconds before and then often times after I’ve finished the cue, I have to go back and revise it because I’m not happy how the cue comes in starting-wise and stop-wise.

OSV: Is there a way you can describe how the music you write comes to you or is it just instincts?

Fung: There’s a lot of validity to what Mozart and the guys in the 18th century did in terms of; it’s very formulaic in the sense that you just have to come up with a really good 2 bar motif and then you can kind of expand that to 4 bars, 8 bars and 16 bars. So I think a lot of it is “How do I come up with a good melody?” Well, you just do, I don’t know, you just kind of twinkle a little bit on the piano and then you work away from the piano. The biggest challenge is trying not to write something that you’ve already written before and trying to write something that someone else hasn’t written before, just trying to find that good little melodic hook and then moving from there.

OSV: Could you tell me what you’re feeling when you’re conducting an orchestra?

Fung: (Laughs) If I’m behind schedule it’s like, “Holy shit, I’ve got to get through this stuff quickly, don’t fuck up, don’t fuck up!” No, you know, recording with an orchestra, it’s an incredible feeling; it’s a huge ego trip. Here you are, standing in front of 20, 30, 40, however many people, they’re all reading music that you wrote and they’re all waiting for you to do the work and you’re running the ship. It’s incredible. Often times these recording sessions are pulling all nighters just to get all the music written before you get to the podium. Then when you’re done you’re on such a high afterwards that you’re just like, “Yeah!” You’re tired but you can’t sleep because you’re on such a high, you have such a buzz, it’s really an incredible feeling, it’s a lot of fun. It’s scary as hell sometimes too but you have good musicians and you have a good team and it’s just a lot of fun.

OSV: Is there a piece of music you’ve written that you’re particularly proud of?

Fung: Uh…jeez…(laughs). I mean, here’s the cop out answer to that – every cue that I’ve written I’m particularly proud of but you have to be when you’re in this business. But there are certain cues I like from different pieces. There’s some stuff that I really like from Lost Years, that documentary we did in China. Summerhood, my first feature film that I did, there’s a kiss scene from there that I really like. Every film has a favorite cue that I have. One of the hardest things for me to do is to assemble a demo reel for people because there are so many cues that I like but when you’re assembling a demo cue it’s about trying to show off what you do best, not like, a big sort of wank off. So, I have a lot of favorite cues, do I have any one in particular? No, I don’t think so.

OSV: That’s fair (laughs) I’ll end with this question then…what is your favorite key?

Fung: Ah, fuck, (laughs) what is my favorite key? Ah, Jesus…I don’t think I have a favorite key, you know, I have perfect pitch so I think all the keys are unique. I do gravitate towards D minor a fair bit but that being said because I know that I gravitate towards D minor a lot, I purposely try to not write in D minor so I’m not always writing everything in D minor, so yeah, how’s that for an answer?

OSV: (laughs) That’s good. Thanks, I appreciate you meeting with me Darren.

You can keep up to date with Darren’s work at stinkyrice.com.

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