Geoff Zanelli discusses the music of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and its approach to Dark Fey culture

Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL.
Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL. /

Emmy-winning composer Geoff Zanelli discusses the music of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and how it relates to Maleficent’s struggles and her Dark Fey heritage.

Musician and composer Geoff Zanelli has written for music all across the entertainment medium, for film, television and video games. Recruited by Hans Zimmer in 1994, Zanelli has composed for over 20 films and contributed to those of over 30. His credits include Disturbia, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Traffik, and the Steven Spielberg produced miniseries Into the West which granted him an Emmy in 2005.

His latest work will be featured in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the sequel to the 2014 film Maleficent. Read our recent chat, below!

Hidden Remote: How did you get involved with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil? Who contacted you and what was it exactly about your music that interested them?

Geoff Zanelli: I had worked with the director, Joachim Rønning, on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. We kept in touch after that and once he got Maleficent: Mistress of Evil started he invited me to come talk about the film, and what the score could be. We knew right away that we were going to do it together, there were just too many good ideas flowing from the start, plus we already have a great relationship.

Joachim told me that he knew from my prior work that I was able to combine instruments and styles from non-orchestral music and that was definitely something that interested him as an approach for the Dark Fey culture in Maleficent. I’d imagine he heard my work in Into the West, for instance, where that approach was used.

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HR: Music is an important part of any film; it captures the tone and expands the mood past visuals. The first Maleficent had its dark moments but for the most part was a Disney adventure with themes of betrayal, retribution, and hope. An inspiring story about a woman who overcomes those who wronged her. How much of that transitioned into Mistress of Evil?

GZ: Well, the world of Maleficent really does want to hold on to its roots as a classic Disney fairy tale, so some of that definitely holds over from the first film. That happens either by using some of the themes from the first score, which was brilliantly written by James Newton-Howard, or just by using my own approach that honors that. I had the phrase “timeless, not trendy” going through my head while I wrote this score.

By that I mean that I want the score to feel relevant ten, twenty years from now. I think that can’t be said of every film score, but certainly the first Maleficent‘s score will hold up as a classic sound for years to come, so that’s where I was coming from with it.

HR: Is the sequel darker than the first film? The music played in the trailer was electrifying as the stakes appear to have been raised for Maleficent.

GZ: Yes, the stakes are definitely raised for Maleficent in this one! This is a much larger story, a much bigger world in a sense, and the music reflects that. It’s darker at times, I’d say, because it deals with a clash of cultures, both human vs. fey on a grand scale, and mother vs. mother on a more intimate scale. The story really does expand the world greatly!

There’s also an exploration of Maleficent’s heritage. As you can see from the trailer, she discovers that she’s not the only Dark Fey. There are in fact a great number of her relatives living in exile as the humans are taking over the world, so that aspect of the story, the whole idea that there’s a marginalized culture living on the fringe of civilization comes into play this time.

Photo: Geoff Zanelli.. Image Courtesy Piper Ferguson
Photo: Geoff Zanelli.. Image Courtesy Piper Ferguson /

HR: How did different characters inspire your composing? Did you tap into their emotions and motivations when piecing together a song?

GZ: Absolutely. Every note I write is driven by the story. David Koepp one time told me that anyone who works on a film should have “assistant storyteller” on their business card, and I take that to heart in all my work. Characters and story arcs are the things which inspire my writing.

The Dark Fey, for instance, have a whole culture of their own which needed a musical treatment. An invention, really. It needed to sound slightly exotic and different from the mainly orchestral world of the humans, so I was using instruments from all around the world to create a new musical language when I could.

HR: Was there anything in particular you drew inspiration from?

GZ: The story is always enough to inspire me. It really is, especially in a good film like this. But I drew on instruments from around the world, as I said, sometimes using percussion from many different cultures, plus a lot of woodwind instruments that aren’t orchestral made their way into the score. And a few plucked things as well.

HR: You’ve been composing for quite some time and you have worked on big budget films before. How has your style changed over time and how different is it composing for a large studio film as opposed to a smaller one? Is there less freedom?

GZ: I wouldn’t say there is less freedom, actually. On a film like this, Disney allows me to hire any musicians I want to get the work done, so in that sense there’s a freedom in the writing that isn’t constrained by things like budget, or time. It’s just different, but having an open door like that, where I can go exploring and bringing in musicians and instruments I wouldn’t otherwise have at the ready is actually a freedom I take advantage of when I can.

Stylistically, I couldn’t really say how I’ve evolved to be honest. I don’t really go back and listen to the things I wrote before, so I don’t really know. I’m sure I write differently over time, because I still usually finish a film feeling like I’m a better composer now that I’ve done that work than I was before, so I can feel a growth of some sort, but I’d have to leave it to other people to decide how I’ve actually evolved.

HR: One thing I always love to do was sit down and listen to each sound inside a film’s soundtrack. What instruments do you prefer composing with or what are your favorite sounds to work with?

GZ: Ah, good question! I write by hunching over a keyboard which is connected to a bunch of computers with all my sounds in it, so I can mock up an orchestra, for instance, or really any instrument that exists. For this film, most of the score is orchestral which means I’d usually start by writing either on piano, or with some synthesized string section, and then I’d orchestrate from there.

But each film actually drives its own writing process. On The Odd Life of Timothy Green, for instance, most of that was guitar driven, or at least folk instruments, and a lot of that was actually in the performance, so that was more about microphones and guitars and 2:00 in the morning recording sessions with me in a booth and my poor assistant hitting record until it was “just right.”

HR: Just out curiosity, if you had complete freedom what type of music would you create and for what project? Films like Psycho and 1933’s King Kong were famous for their unconventional scores, would you one day wish to do something similar?

GZ: Sure!  I actually get to do very unconventional things in some of my other scores. For instance, The Intruder, which I scored last year. On that, I was chanting into a microphone to try to map some cues out, and I eventually ended up leaving those vocals in because I couldn’t find anything that worked any better. And I bought a cello to play screechy noises on for that as well. I can’t play the cello, but that didn’t stop me!

I’ve also got this thing in my studio that I call The Cacophony Cage, which is really just a giant PVC cube that I can stand inside, and dangle all sorts of bizarre percussion instruments on to smash around when I need to. For The Intruder, which was a home invasion story, I actually went to Home Depot, which is a home improvement/construction store, and bought a bunch of vents, metal sheeting, pipes, wood planks, just bits of actual home building materials, and hung that on the cage for my percussion section.

So I get to play around like that sometimes. It doesn’t quite fit into Maleficent, but it does work for my thriller scores. I’m using similar ideas for You Should Have Left, which is David Koepp’s thriller that I’m finishing as I write this.

For that one, I bought a few Welsh instruments which I can barely play, but as the film is set in Wales I wanted to have those sounds represented in the score, even if they’re unconventionally played.

HR: Halloween is coming up and after listening to the music you composed for Disturbia I think you would make some amazing sounds for a horror movie. Is that something you’d be one day interested in?

GZ: Yes, of course! I think You Should Have Left and The Intruder are both examples of thrillers which converge a little with horror films. They certainly get scary! I love writing like that. It’s a little less tuneful, a little more about sound design and sonic choices, but I love the exploration I got to do in those films.

HR: Did you enjoy working on Mistress of Evil?  What are your takeaways from the project?

GZ: Absolutely, I loved it! I grew up on fantasy and adventure movies, so this is really right in my wheelhouse and I feel at home doing films like this. Clash of the Titans, The Beastmaster and Krull were all big films for me when I was growing up.

HR: Last question, do you have any upcoming projects you can talk about?

GZ: Yes, I have a thriller coming out the week after Maleficent, which is called Black and Blue.  That’s a story about police corruption, and a very different score from this one! That and You Should Have Left are both in my near future, plus a comedy-horror film called The House Next Door. So I’m staying busy!

More information on Zanelli can be found at his website HERE.

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil will be playing in theaters nationwide on Oct. 18. Early reviews for the film have already come out and they’re very positive.