Everybody Is A Weapon

March 8, 2023

Scoring ASSASSIN with Composer Mark Tewarson

Interview by Randall D Larson

Composer Mark Tewarson

Mark Tewarson is a film composer living in Los Angeles. Mark has had a long and diverse career, beginning as a touring and session guitar player in NYC, where he played and recorded with artists like Patti Smith, DJ Spinna, Falguni Shah, Escort, and Topaz. He was a winner of the prestigious BMI songwriting competition in 2000. He was also a part time member of the musicals Jersey Boys and Fela. Mark gradually began to shift his focus to composing and got his start scoring numerous commercials for brands like Apple, Google, Budweiser as well as a few Superbowl commercials. This led him to the pursuit of film and the city of Los Angeles. In 2018 Mark’s score for the HBO documentary “MOMENTUM GENERATION” was nominated for a sports Emmy for outstanding musical direction.

On March 31st, his latest film score will be heard in Saban Film’s pulse-pounding sci-fi action thriller ASSASSIN, starring Bruce Willis, which marks the final film in the illustrious career of screen icon  following his retirement last year due to aphasia (see flickering myth) and co-starring Andy Allo, Dominic Purcell, Eugenia Kuzmina, and Nomzamo Mbatha. The film is directed by Jesse Atlas in his feature film directorial debut, written by Aaron Wolfe, and is based on Atlas and Wolfe’s short film Let Them Die Like Lovers. When revolutionary, experimental human drone tech falls into enemy hands, it is up to the leader of an elite C.I.A. group (Willis) and his team to draft a black-ops soldier into service to retrieve the weapons system at any cost. But when the agent is killed during a secret mission, his wife, Alexa, must take his place in an attempt to bring the man responsible to justice.

The soundtrack to ASSASSIN was created with modular synthesizers, strings, piano and percussion. There are background textures made up of warbling synths, and distorted voices that are punctuated with emotive piano and string melodies. There are thundering, submerged sounding drums, pulsing synths, and free radical string jabs. Here, we discuss the creation and configuration of Tewarson’s ASSASSIN score.

Watch the trailer for ASSASSIN:

Q: What initially brought you into scoring films, in general?

Mark Tewarson: I have been a musician my whole life. I was a professional, then I went to school for jazz guitar, then I was a New York City session musician/jazz musician and at some time I started doing sessions for a friend of mine who was doing commercials and TV stuff. So, I started seeing the world. I would go to these studios, and I also got a set-up for myself at home and was starting to learn how to produce. I’d always liked writing music, so then this idea of scoring really took hold of me, and was like, “Oh, I want to do this too!” It took a while for me to break in and find my feet but I eventually got a start in commercial scoring. That led me to films and that’s where I am now.

Q: What kind of experience did you get from those early short films and documentaries you scored?

Mark Tewarson: It was the first step of learning. Unlike a commercial or a TV type thing, where it can be a shorter film, learning how to get used to 90minutes of music, and everything that comes with that – that you’re playing a long game, particularly for the documentaries. In the shorts, like for instance this film, ASSASSIN, there was a short version in 2018. And so that was my first narrative science fiction work and it started me down the road of, perhaps a little bit more than documentary or TV since I love science fiction, but when you’re writing to narrative your soundtrack is part of the story, and I learned that you can’t give things away, you can’t lead people here or there. It started to give me that taste of what scoring is, where it’s just as much storytelling as words, and it’s not just music, you really have to think about that angle, and that’s what it taught me the most.

Bruce Willis as Valmora in ASSASSIN

Q: What brought you into scoring the feature length ASSASSIN for Saban Films? Was it a challenge from the kind of projects you’d been scoring previously?

Mark Tewarson: Jesse Atlas, who was a good friend of mine, had brought me in on the short because we were just friends, and then when it came time for the full production, I knew that he wanted me in on it. Of course once it gets to a feature, there are producers and other voices, but it turned out they were good to go with me. There were challenges in that it’s a lot of material, but for me this experience was just fantastic. Mostly it was Jesse the director and I, just getting creative, and he would come by the studio and watch and listen and we would talk about the story, about characters and story points, all these things, so I just had a great time with it. The challenge is always, of course, it’s a lot of work, you’ve got to get it done, there are deadlines, but in this particular case I was so happy to be doing it so it didn’t bother me.

Q: What was your instrumental palette for this score and how did you decide on that mix?

Mark Tewarson: It was rooted in modular synthesizers. Those are individual units and you put them all in a big case, and then you wire them together yourself on the fly. You might see lots of multi-colored wires sticking out of a box, so it has all the different elements – samplers and  synthesizers. When I first started with the film I was really excited to get going. So I tried two different things right off the bat – I got a rough cut, and one thing I did was sit down with my synthesizer and all these weird samples and start just making soundscapes. Not even really to picture, just stuff I thought might fit, and I was trying to emulate a sound. In the movie, the minds of these assassins, through technology, are being put into other peoples’ bodies. So that was my first idea – being disoriented. You’re out of whack; you’re out of your own body. So I was trying to create all these sounds that, to me, would reflect that. So I made this big palette and then the second thing I did was try scoring the scene in a more traditional, orchestral/action-film sense. Then Jesse came over for the first time and I played them both, and for him there was no question it was the synth thing – that was the sound that he wanted. So that’s what I focused on. I created all the textures and soundscapes, and some of what you might call a beat or a pulse; and then I used those as the basis for a lot of the scenes. On top of it, I’m a string player, so I played my viola, often layering myself so that it felt like a quartet or an octet, and played some piano and a little bit of drums, but that was basically it. It was a lot of these textures and then using more melodic instruments just to give some melody where it felt like it was necessary.

Dominic Purcell as Adrian in ASSASSIN

Q: How did you musically depict these operations when the assassins are inhabiting the minds of other people to enact their maneuvers?

Mark Tewarson: My theory was that, if you’re inside someone else’s head, it’s like the feeling of being dizzy or like you’re looking through goggles or something. I took all these samples of vocals and strings and different instruments, and gave them a subtle wobble, almost like you’re on a ship or something. Whether it was a pitch, or the timbre, or the tone – just kind of waving very slightly back and forth. That was what I tried to put in a cue, like, ok now they’re in someone else’s body. That also helped with the story telling, so you can figure out, oh, they’re on a mission right now, they’re in this altered state. That was the main thing, and then I put in some more traditional things like using pulsing synths and drums to elevate the moment; if it was going to be violent or there was going to be a fight, just something to raise the temperature up a little bit. I tried to be subtle, and I think that’s Jesse’s style too, to not hit people over the head with it, but to just raise their alertness a little bit.

Q: When you used orchestral instruments such as your viola, piano, and the drums, were you using samples or actual instruments, and how did that mix with your synthetic material?

Mark Tewarson: The viola was live, piano was live, drums were a mixture – there were some samples, but I did also break up a drum kit and use some toms. My son has one of those baby drum sets and I used one of the toms from that too. And then sometimes I took some of those tom sounds and put them through a sampler and pitched them way down, so it just makes this big, boummmbing sound. But a lot of it came live.

Q: You’ve kept your music mostly to short cues, at least as far as the soundtrack album goes. Was this a restriction for you or how did you apply your score without using extended musical sequences?

Mark Tewarson: I opted to do that myself when I was preparing the cues for the album. A lot of them did string together, but I wanted to try and let the album have some stand-alone cues that someone might play-list or listen to more. I thought if it’s three-minutes or under it might make for a better stand-alone listening experience outside of the film, as opposed to a 14-minute cue. Most of the cues contain a little space somewhere, or a pause, and I opted to make that a separate track.

Nomzamo Mbatha as Alexa in ASSASSIN

Q: How would you describe your thematic design of the score and how these are interfaced through the arc of the story? “Alexa’s Theme” is especially melodic and affecting…

Mark Tewarson: I wanted to have a few themes. Alexa’s Theme was probably the most significant theme that I wanted to have, because there’s a relationship right off the bat between these two characters. I know that, for Jesse and the story, that’s a big part of it. Even though you don’t see a lot of it, it is based on this idea of a love story and the relationship between these two characters. I wanted to have that and I knew it would come back throughout the film. That was the main theme, and then there were a couple of other themes that came up, like when people are recounting missions, for instance, or conversations that go on between characters. Those are a little more incidental; it was really “Alexa’s Theme” that was the one that was my main thematic piece.

Q: How did you combine your electronic elements with your orchestral elements to make a progressive fluidity of sound throughout the film?

Mark Tewarson: I would say it was through a lot of experimentation at times, and trial and error to some extent. It’s funny, just like making a record, you start experimenting and then you find this happy medium and once you sign off and once the director signs off on a certain level of electronic and real instruments and a tonal palette, then that becomes the book for the movie. It becomes easier then because you know how things can go, like these kinds of electronic timbres, this much of strings, this much of drums, and that’s pretty much where we’re going to go with it. So then you have your palette and you know, ok I’m not going to go way more electronic, I’m not going to introduce flutes all of a sudden. That happened fairly early on, and then I had my toolbox.

Composer Mark Tewarson

Q: What was most challenging or rewarding about composing the ASSASSIN score?

Mark Tewarson: I would say it was probably that thing I was mentioning about the story telling element in the sense of not giving away too much. Because there are some twists and turns in the story and that’s what Jesse really helped me with so I don’t foreshadow that this person might be a bad guy or a good guy. Where to leave things out, I would say, is the hardest thing, where you want to provide some musical support, but you can’t say too much. Finding that balance and remembering to pull back was probably the biggest challenge. And from a personal standpoint I just felt really proud of the score. It’s music that I really like, it has some ups and downs and some different stuff and hopefully things that people will enjoy listening to on their own, too.

Q: What’s next up for you, and where do you hope to go from here in your career?

Mark Tewarson: In more practical terms, I have another film coming out in the Spring called ICEMAN, it’s a documentary on the NBA star George Gervin; that’ll be a Netflix thing. But, yeah, I would love to do more science fiction/mystery/thriller/fantasy stuff. I love fiction and I love storytelling in music, so I would love to do more of that. I released a record a few months ago called Coastal, which is in line with the scoring of this film – for instance, it’s a little bit musical, and I want to keep doing that. Creating my own music, my own sound, and my own scores. That would be great.

For more information about the composer, see his website http://www.tewarmusic.com/about-om

Saban Films’ ASSASSIN premieres March 31, releasing theatrically along with the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from Filmtrax Ltd.

Special thanks to Kyrie Hood and Yefan Zhang of White Bear PR for facilitating this interview.

Mustafa Shakir as Sebastian and Nomzamo Mbatha as Alexa in ASSASSIN
%d bloggers like this: