Roque Baños is an inventive musical visionary, who has shaped the emotional character of powerful cinematic works, such as In The Heart of The Sea, Risen, Don't Breathe, The Commuter, and many others. After breaking into the global mainstream with his terrifying score for Fede Álvarez's re-make of Evil Dead, Roque has continued to stretch the limits of his own creativity, mastering the art of storytelling with clever uses of organic sounds. In our brief discussion, Roque speaks on the musical luminaries that defined his formative years and the joy that stemmed from his collaboration with director, Terry Gilliam on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
You were born in Jumilla and studied a diversity of musical subjects at the Madrid Royal Conservatory of Music before relocating to Boston to attend Berklee College of Music. Can you tell us about your musical upbringing in Spain? What experiences led you to pursue a career in film scoring?
As a kid, classical music blew me away. That was the start of my studies. Then when I was 14 years old, I went to the theater to see E.T. John Williams’ score was brilliant and made me think, “Wow, I want to do that”. Ever since then, I have tried to learn every style of music and not limit myself to the classics. When I was at Berklee, I was playing saxophone and really dipped into the jazz world. I always say that knowing both classical and jazz gives you a wide range of knowledge to compose any kind of music. I compare it to learn how to use a knife and a fork. After that, you can eat anything with them. It’s the same thing. Later on, I included electronic sounds as well, which was a consequence of mixing jazz and classical. I think the only thing that differs is the use of synthesizers. The chord progressions in electronic music come from other genres. The medium is the same — you only change the instrument.
Which artists shaped your musical taste early in life? Who did you look up to most in your formative years? Who are your favorite saxophonists?
I am really a fan of Tchaikovsky. I think he is one of my biggest influences. I also love the music from Stravinsky. I am also very influenced by French musicians and by Spanish music, especially the Flamenco. You know, composers like Manuel de Falla.
It’s always been John Coltrane. He's my hero. When I was starting to learn jazz, John Coltrane was considered a God. He spoke in a language that goes directly to the heart. It's difficult to explain, but he's like a voice that beats in your heart and makes you elevated.
The Commuter revolves around the menacing story of a businessman who is forced to uncover the identity of an unknown passenger before the train's last stop. Can you tell us about how you became involved with the project? What were some of the first musical concepts that sprang to mind?
I had a meeting with the director, Jaume Collet-Serra. He called me and he didn't really ask me. He just said, “Okay, Roque. Let's do this now.” and I said, “hold on!”. I was doing another movie that was going to be released in April, which is called Miracle Season. Fortunately, I was almost finished with that one. I just had to jump in, do it right away, and finish it quickly.
I got inspiration for The Commuter from the sounds of the train line, here in my studio in Los Angeles. The train horn was the first thing I thought about. It made me think about trains dropping people off. There are many different stories happening on that train. So, in a way, the horn is saying out loud, "here we come with all these people with all these stories.” Maybe some of them are love stories, every day life stories. So, it created some kind of mystery. That's why I used the train horn in the score as if it was one more instrument added to the orchestra and electronic sounds.
For The Commuter, you strayed from the trope of pulsating, electronically dense suspense scoring and brought orchestral instrumentation to the forefront. Your piano playing is a refreshing constant, evoking both atmospheric beauty and radical tension. Was this a conscious decision? What did you hope to highlight and achieve with this approach?
The whole movie goes against the clock. There's a deadline. There's a time when everything is going to be finished. That’s the only thing that we have to convey. So, musically, that includes some features like the clock ticking faster and faster as the movie moves towards the end. When you don't really want the time to run, the time runs faster. The instruments that I used for that were all electronic inspired by the pattern of a train when it is in motion. When you pay attention to one of the first cues in the movie, I think it’s called "Back Home Down”, you’ll notice how the path goes very slowly. By the end right before the train crashes, it goes really fast. The elements are the same. The instruments are those that I got from a sampler. They are what I thought was close to the sound of what a train makes when it runs. The main title cue, where I used the string section from the orchestra was 70 bpm. That was to represent the everyday life of a commuter. It is repetitive which is also a general theme of the movie. By the end, it reaches about 158-164 bpm.
Your score for Ron Howard's In The Heart of the Sea is incredibly expressive, providing a dramatic musical support system for the telling of Herman Melville's timeless tale, Moby Dick. Can you tell about your initial conversations with Ron about the musical direction of the film? What musical inspirations were you able to draw from this classic piece of American literature?
Ron wanted to have a very emotional score that would show human feeling. There’s more focus on the emotions than on the adventure or the whale hunting. Ron always told me to use the music as a voice of these people from their hearts. We're proud that we accomplished this. There are different personalities in the story, and then they all come together on this ship. The only thing that is common between every one of them at the end of the movie is the need for survival. They all just wanted to get home, see the people they love, and continue living. So, that was our focus in the music and I think that's why the score came out so emotional. Nothing matters, just your own life. It's what really matters.
If you pay attention, I use sounds from whales. I actually used many things you see in the picture to create the score. The whole percussion section on that score was recorded on the ship. Instead of using cymbals and such, I sampled the sounds of hitting on the deck, hitting of the sails, hitting with the ropes, and more.
The musical environment you created for the re-make of Evil Dead is extreme, earth shattering, and explosive. I read that you had nightmares for the first two weeks of working on the Evil Dead score. Being a fan of the original film, what was most important for you to emphasize through your gothic orchestral score?
I spent my first two weeks working on that movie having really terrible nightmares of the devil running up on me. It was horrible. That's how I got into the spirit of horror. In one of the nightmares, I was suddenly woken up by sirens from police cars, and I was like “Why don't I use the siren in my score?”. I tried it and we loved it.
To date, what has been your most cherished moment in your career as a film composer?
I’ve been in Madrid, working on the movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with Terry Gilliam. He’s an amazing and passionate director. The ending is a very beautiful shot where we see the shape of Don Quixote. Terry wanted the most wonderful orchestral music plus choir music in that moment to signify the figure of Don Quixote. Doing that recording and looking at the picture was heaven for me. It was incredible! I'm so looking forward to the release of that movie. I hope it's going to surprise many people.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 19th, 2018.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Roque Baños and The Krakower Group.