Composer Alex Wurman talks music, movies, and a film called Talladega Nights

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is currently racing at the top of the box office, and the film is fueled by a score by composer Alex Wurman – a man familiar with working on big blockbuster film scores, and what kind of music is needed to match a Will Ferrell comedy.

Wurman recently took some time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer a few questions for Monsters and Critics and share his experiences in scoring films, and working on Talladega Nights

M&C: Tell me how you got into composing for films?  I think it runs in the family doesn’t it?

Wurman : I grew up in a musical family, in Chicago.  I played piano very early.  My father had a recording studio and a relationship with Robert Moog – he had the Modular System, serial number 2.  Walter Carlos had serial number 1.  They were getting parts as they were being built!  With my father’s classical training, he did amazing recordings – he had a record deal with RCA. He was reading scores like Nutcracker and Chopin’s works, and executing them perfectly on this Moog – reading all the dynamics and tempos.  He was very conscious of creating music that had the same depth as orchestral music, but using a synthesizer- the first synthesizer – to do it. 

He was an accomplished pianist and accompanist, and my brother (a very good cellist who studied with Jacqueline duPre) and he were playing wonderful music in the house- everything from the Shostakovich cello sonata, to the Cesar Franck violin sonata. I studied French horn for eight years, but I headed off into the world of contemporary jazz music, as a pianist.  I played a lot of funk and blues in the ghettos of Chicago, during High School.  In my later 20s and 30s, I’ve headed back to my classical influences.  I’m still going in that direction.

I studied at the University of Miami for six months before they kicked me out.  They kicked me out because I wasn’t studying my jazz piano, I was actually writing horn band charts, and things like that.  They should have said, “Hey you’re not a jazz pianist, maybe you should think about composing!”

But they didn’t do that.  I think educators need to be a little more conscious of what their students are doing even if the students don’t know what they’re doing.  So I left Miami, and went back to the Conservatory of America in Chicago for six-seven months. I’ve had odd, short bouts with education. Shortly after I got back to Chicago, I started playing some gigs with Booby Broom and Stanley Turrantine.

M&C: Who were your influences?

Wurman: Ennio Morricone is very high on my list because at an influential time when I was studying film music, in my early 20s, I saw “Bugsy,” and bought the score. Those melodies are gorgeous. Shortly after that I got “The Mission,” and it blew my mind.  I’m still learning from that one.  Jerry Goldsmith is another one.  James Newton Howard is a more contemporary guy that I thought was doing some really cool stuff.

I could identify with the music I heard in “Grand Canyon,” so I learned a lot from that.  Other than film composers, I’m influenced by a lot of classical composers that I can’t really name, but I know their music. At this moment, Ravel and Debussy and Gabriel Faure are right up there.  I love romantic music because it’s meaningful, it’s heartfelt, and it’s not flashy in any way.  If you don’t feel the passion of what they’re doing from the melody and the harmonies, then it’s unsuccessful music. There’s no confusing whether or not it’s working.

M&C: I see a mixture of different genres in your credits, do you think that one genre (say comedy, etc.) is easier to compose for than another?

Wurman: The set of skill sets for one are unusable for the other. They overlap, but not to the degree of making one easier than the other.

M&C: I also see that you have composed for television and movies, do you prefer to compose for one over the other?  Is one easier than the other (I assume the deadline is tighter in television)? 

Wurman: The only television projects I’ve done have been HBO films and feature length movies for television. Basically, the amount of time and the approach are identical. If I were writing for a sitcom or a series, it would be an entirely different thing.

M&C: When composing for a comedy is there a “make the music funny” directive or are you just given free reign and the director chooses which to use?

Wurman: It’s very interactive. There’s usually discussion and talks about different kinds of references. But typically in the kind of comedies I’ve done, the music is taking the “straight man” approach.

M&C: Do you think that you’ll be typecast as the composer of “Will Ferrell movies” since you also did Ron Burgandy?

Wurman : Part of the strategy that I’ve been applying while developing my career is to protect myself from being pigeonholed so that I’d be in the exact situation I’m in. People are comfortable hiring me to do things they’ve never heard me do before and I get a chance to do things that I’ve never done before.

M&C: Listening to the sample disc that was sent, I found a lot of different influences/themes on it to my ear.  For example, The Ricky Bobby theme has a Spanish feel to it, Lap Time has a definite action movie feel, Girard theme reminded me of James Bond for some reason, and Mental Breakdown reminded me of a Noir or Hitchcock film.

I also felt some Sergio Leone in there.  Did you do that purposely or are my ears deceiving me? 

Wurman: That’s the joke. Look for “Westside Story” in “Anchor Man.”

M&C: It can’t be a Nascar movie without some country music in it.  What musicians or songs are heard in the movie?  Did you have any influence regarding the picking of those songs/musicians?  I know the trailer uses AC/DC.

Wurman: In this case, those guys really know what they’re doing. They may ask me if I laughed when I saw it or if I thought it was cool. I’ll chime in on that, but usually they’re the ones picking the names out of the hat.

M&C: What future projects are in the works for you?

Wurman: I’ve got a lot of projects going on. There’s a British film, where I can’t wait to work with John August. He’s the writer behind “Big Fish,” “The Corpse Bride” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” among others.

I’m also very excited about a Laotian documentary that I’ll be doing at the beginning of next year. I’ve got a mixed bag of tricks and it happens to be more full now than it’s ever been. 

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby is now out in theaters. Visit the movie database for more information on the film.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.