Interview: Composer Lorne Balfe talks ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’

The film music industry today is pretty much dominated by Hans Zimmer and his disciples over at Remote Control Productions. This stellar group of artists compose scores for many popular blockbusters today. One of their most recent projects is the Michael Bay-directed true story 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Lorne Balfe wrote the music and it is yet another example of Remote Control’s amazing works. I had the privilege of speaking with Lorne about the film and his association with Hans and Remote Control. Here’s how that conversation went:

Tell me how you got involved with the project.

Well, I got involved with it, I worked with a few – I started off doing additional music, and I had worked on the first couple of Transformers films. I had met Michael [Bay] that way, and then I think what happened really was he had been talking to Hans [Zimmer] about ideas, and Hans had mentioned my name, and that’s why – also, Hans had passed on the score because he was a producer of the score, so he’d spent the last fifteen years working, and he thought that I might be a good match for it with Michael on this project. There wasn’t, it’s not your typical – I don’t think so – your typical Michael Bay film.


It’s something very unique.

It’s a bit deeper than the typical Michael Bay production, I’d say.

Well, also you’re dealing with a true story.


And even in Michael’s other films, there is a deeper meaning in them, whether you want to believe that or not, but there is a love interest and with this, though it was a true story and it was something that was very important to Michael for the story to be told, and it’s more amazing – I find it always amazing when you work with something that is true because you sit there, and you can question it. “Oh gosh, I can’t believe that happened,” but it did, and it makes it kind of, in one respect, quite intimidating doing the score because you know that you can be too over-the-top and too patriotic. We were very cautious of not going too rah-rah with the score. We had a term on the score, let’s not go to “rah-rah,” and it’s easy to because of the subject matter, but we were trying to hold that musically back, that it didn’t feel too grand.

Okay, okay. What was it like working with Michael again?

You know, the luckiest thing that you get, I feel in life, when you’re kind of able to work with people that have just got passion, and it’s the same as on a video game or even a commercial. When you get the opportunity to work with anybody that’s just got commitment and passion and all they think about is that one story, it’s a fascinating journey. I think in all of his films, music is always being, to me, a very important part of the storytelling process.


And many other directors, they may not be able to use terms for a musical descriptions, which I don’t think is ever very useful when somebody’s analyzing your chord progression and saying, “Well, you should be diminishing” – it doesn’t help because when something doesn’t work and it’s not making me feel sad, that has a way of describing what you’re doing and what you’re not achieving. So I think it’s, he likes music and he loves what music does, so it’s very difficult because you write something, and you may feel, gosh, I think I’m telling their story, but also you’re kind of new to the party. Michael worked with the remaining soldiers, and they were on set, and it’s part of their soundtrack. That’s what we tried to treat it as also, it was part of their DNA, so having not met them, it was kind of that in between of making sure that soundtrack was also what was there for them.

Okay, okay. Going back a bit, can you just tell me about your original involvement with Mr. Hans Zimmer and Remote Control Productions? How did you get involved with this great artist?

Well, I met, I basically started off as an intern, a good old-fashioned coffee boy, and thankfully, my coffee isn’t that good. So I had come over, I was working as a composer back in Europe, and I came over to really assist, but I was working for, at the time, a composer here, and then it just gradually led – I think probably the first film I worked on with Hans was Batman Begins, probably. And he just seems to, I’m not going to put myself in the same category, he seems to have a good eye on picking people and encouraging them. It’s like any other form of apprenticeship, really. It’s what used to happen all the time, and it doesn’t happen as much nowadays, unfortunately, but it was really luck. I know some people don’t believe in luck, but it was just a lot of common people. I used to work for Harry Gregson-Williams, and he used to work for Hans – a lot of connections, so there was no straight-forward way.

So would you say that Remote Control is like a big fraternity of brilliant composers?

No, I never look at it because it’s funny when people say how do I work at Remote Control. It’s a business name. It’s a complex, a studio. It’s not an actual training camp or academy, it’s really just a complex of studios. There’s many people here who don’t work for Hans, and it’s not quite what a lot of people think it is, a university campus. But it’s definitely not a fraternity, that’s for sure.

Well, I’m just curious, do you ever hang out outside of the office with, say, John Powell, Rupert, Hans, do you associate outside of work?

That would be thought, to be able to have time to be going outside, but I think the only time we socialize is when we go to each other’s weddings, so that’s it. No, the last time I think I had a drink with Rupert was probably at my wedding because he was sitting down on the other side of the table, so no, we never, nobody really ever socializes, unfortunately, because – well, we’re very fortunate to be working. I know it sounds kind of an old pun, but it’s not really working when you’re doing something that’s a hobby and fun. But no, there’s no evenings out to the Olive Garden. (laughs)

You do collaborate with these fine gentlemen. Can you tell me what that process is like? How do you bounce ideas off of one another? What’s your composing process like?

I think, well, all of us have backgrounds working in bands, and that process is working with other people, and that means not being selfish and not being egotistical, what you think is right. It means bringing something to the table, and it may be out-voted, but it’s a fascinating way to work, and I think like anything, I think the first time I worked on Kung Fu Panda, I remember just being always in awe of the music of John Powell. I felt so intimidated, and I just felt there’s no way I’m gonna get, there’s no way I can get through this project. Everybody is insecure, and no matter how successful they are, that’s one interesting thing because you get people in the room, and no matter how many Grammys they have or BAFTAs, they still, it takes a while to compose a certain core sequence for something. And sometimes, it doesn’t work, working with people. Sometimes, it’s very like the record industry, especially at the moment, where artists work with a couple of producers, and they always work with the same producer, and it’s kind of what we do. It’s very like on Rush, Steve Lipson produced that score, and again, when working, you learn so much. I remember thinking that I learned more during those months than I did in, like, the last four years, so it’s very interesting how you work with people.

Out of curiosity, you all at Remote Control, it’s interesting. I don’t want to generalize your genre you composer for, but it seems that the majority of films composed, you and everybody else, it’s either dark epic or lighthearted animated romp.


Now how did you guys get into those – like, you guys have cornered those two film genres. How did those two genres become so ingrained in your styles and the way you approach projects?

I’m going to hazard a guess here, probably the most successful platforms of genre.


It’s, we are in Los Angeles. I can look at the last four films I’ve done, and probably only one of them fits into those genres, so I think it’s – I don’t think anything is ever intentional. I know what you mean, it’s like when certain people go down the romantic comedy route, and that’s what they do, and they never move out, or some people go down the horror route. I think that looking back at my twelve years of having worked for Hans, I think we covered every single genre. Of course, at the moment, he’s doing a lot with superheroes, but I think last year, as I look at the twelve or fourteen projects, I think I was, I covered every single one, apart from horror.

Okay, okay.

I think. But there’s no, because I think everybody wants to think that everyone wants to keep doing the same style, everybody’s going to move on and do something, and I wager to say I think about a year and a half or two years of all I had was video games, and it was full-on action for about two years. It’s scheduling or that was the intent, but everybody liked the diversity.


There’s no specific, you’re not given a handbook, and this is how you do animation.

So you’ve done film, TV, video games. Do you have a favorite or are they about the same, your approach to them? Do you have a particular favorite medium?

It probably sounds not believable when I say that every single medium I think is just as valid and enjoyable as each other. Same way as a commercial, just as difficult as writing a whole film score. It’s the same process, and it’s telling a story and being part of a bigger feeling than just this whole – you’re part of the whole piece, and everything, every process is different. Every process is sometimes enjoyable, sometimes painfully hard, and I think when you look back on projects, it’s, to be able to say that’s my favorite form, I think that’s like choosing a favorite child. It’s next to impossible. What I get from each project, I think I learn from it in the end because I think last year on the Penguins of Madagascar, I didn’t particularly really feel I could write that type of big-band, swing music. It wasn’t something that I listen to, and I had a lot of fun, and we’re all very proud of that film and what musically happened. Yeah, I think it’s all a learning curve, and I think that probably I’ll be proud of something that I’ve done in about twelve years time. Until then, I’m searching.

Alright, would you say that Hans Zimmer is your biggest influence or are there other composers that have influenced your work, style, certain composer that influenced your style over the years?

Look, your influence comes from one as a child, and I think that reason seems to be some things, what we subconsciously absorb musically as a child. There’s something where there’s – when I listen to the other British composers, I kind of hear sound, and I hear certain chord progressions, and I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about it, and I think that as a child, I was surrounded by lots of music and lots of choral music and orchestral music and Vaughan Williams and Elgar and that was absorbed into my being, and I think that I obviously have a lot of [inaudible] because I worked with him for a long time, and it’s not just that music. It’s the way you actually are like a filmmaker. It’s the way you look at a scene and analyze it and help the story continue. So influences, strangely enough, many of us don’t, I don’t listen to film music. I listen to commercial music or classical or other forms of music because I know what happens when I hear a piece. If I listen to track four of a soundtrack album, I know there should be pictures up there, and that means it’s been edited. So I tend to be the same way when I watch films. I always listen to the music, and I sometimes miss the dialogue because I’m listening to it. A bit of a problem, but it’s a tricky one, and it’s like anything. We’re trying to write, and also we’re trying to find our voices. Some people find it immediately, and some people, it takes a while. I think even today, I’m looking at a scene on a project, and I’m not necessarily playing but I’m spending longer trying to analyze the scene. And that I wouldn’t have necessarily done five years ago. I probably would have written the music and said, “Well, that’s it. Isn’t that great?” It’s a bit more complicated.

I really, I just can’t get over you guys. This decade alone, the scores for the films, and yes, I agree that each of you has your own unique voice. I think when you guys join forces and collaborate on something like Kung Fu Panda, it meshes all of your styles into one great adventure, and I just can’t get over it. Most of the stuff on my iPod is scores, mostly from the Remote Control group, including yourself, and you know, actually, when I listen to something like “Zen Ball Master” from Kung Fu Panda 2, I just envision, like, certain scenes. Like, if I’m on the subway, I just create the scene in my head.


I do! I’m not gonna lie. Hans Zimmer and company, some of the best composers working today, if not the best.

It’s lovely to hear that. I hear “Zen Ball Master,” I hear “hard work” constantly. [laughs]

Another day at work for you, right?


For me, it’s just great.

Listen, it’s for escapism, and it’s that feeling, I’m going to dare make a single comparison with what I’m saying, but you had when Bowie died, and people said that was the soundtrack to their lives. A soundtrack doesn’t necessarily belong to the score to some people. They listen to it, and that’s their memories of it, and that’s their journey in life. Like Black Tie White Noise by Bowie. I remember that, and I remember that was five months of my life, listening to it, and every track I hear, I can follow it, and when I listen to Stewart Copeland’s score for Wall Street, that to me, I just have fantastic fond memories about that music. And the same as for theme for The Goonies. As soon as you hear that, you go, it’s a timeline.

That was Dave Grusin?

Yes, yes, yes.

The opening jail break-out –

Oh, fantastic!

You know, so many people think that was John Williams, but it does kind of sound like it, and Spielberg did produce the film, so it had a very strong Williams/Spielberg, but it was an awesome track. Do you have a top five or top ten list of favorite scores or soundtracks?

If I had a paper, I could put them into an actual order, but I don’t, so not in any particular order, it would be The Goonies, Wall Street because I just remember thinking it’s music but it’s not traditional, and it was taking back that time of music to do the sampling, and I thought it was an amazing album. And then I think because again, it’s all around this period of time when I think I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do musically, so Rain Man was just very important to what I was enjoying. And then basically everything pre-fifteen, twenty years ago, and I think also not necessarily analyzing these but just feelings, E.T.

An utter classic.

And I went to the Hollywood Bowl last year to see it, and it’s amazing. It puts us to shame. (laughs) I gave up trying to figure out how the woodwinds were being orchestrated. Just enjoy it and don’t analyze it.

Was Williams there? Did Williams conduct?

No, it was David Newman.

Okay, because actually, David Newman is going to be conducting Williams’ music in May in New York at the New York Philharmonic.

Oh, fantastic!

Yeah, I’m trying to get a press ticket to that, but FYI, if you’re in town in New York in May.

Absolutely. What are your top five scores?

My top five scores? Okay, it’d be a mix I guess, so maybe Jurassic Park is up there. My personal favorite Hans Zimmer score is The Rock, and I love anything by Jerry Goldsmith, so maybe Rudy and now, the late great James Horner, probably Apollo 13.

Yes, yes.

And Kung Fu Panda 2.


So that’s basically where I’m coming from. That’s my musical tastes right there, and yeah, any time I hear any of those tracks from any of those scores, it’s corny, but it takes me to a different place.

There’s nothing corny about it. It’s exactly what it’s meant to do. Maybe it’s uncool, but it doesn’t really matter. To me, music has always been about escapism and wonder, and it’s a joyful thing that’s around us.

Right, I agree. Totally agree, and we need more fine gentlemen such as yourself to continue in that tradition.

We’re trying!

Well, thank you so much for your time.

It’s been lovely talking to you.

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