Interview: Composer Frank Ilfman on the Music of ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’

Frank Ilfman has partnered with director Navot Papushado since his first film, Rabies. In Gunpowder Milkshake, audiences are treated to a film that mixes different sub-genres of action, and its score is no different, blending different types of music along with the film’s aesthetic choices. During our interview, we spoke on blending different genres and styles of music, alongside working on the film during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read the interview in its entirety below.

Maxance Vincent: I have a few questions to ask about your score because I think it’s very unique. The movie blends a lot of sub-genres of action. And the score does the same thing as well. I would say some of it is a little familiar. Some of it recalls Ennio Morricone, if you will, like his spaghetti western tracks for Sergio Leone’s films. And I feel as though Morricone seems like a big inspiration for you to craft the score. But did you have other musical inspirations that also guided you to blend different types of music and different types of action movies, in your score? I don’t know if that’s clear or not?

Frank Ilfman: Yeah, that’s true. From day one, we said that part of the score would be a bit of that kind of infused, you know, spaghetti western, because, especially Scarlet [Karen Gillan] is kind of like a gunslinger. So, and, and if you’ve seen the film, some of how it was staged was almost that kind of like, spaghetti western, over the top kind of standoffs, and so on. So it kind of landed in itself in that direction on one side. But for me, besides inspiration, Morricone was also like, through the years, when I had a chance to have chats with him, almost like a mentor. So it kind of felt very natural to try and, and go about it and infuse that kind of spaghetti western, but not trying to create it as if we’re doing like a spoof film, you or that kind of slapstick joke. Okay, well, there’s a standoff, what are you going to do? You’re going to put the kind of, you know, melody line from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or some sort of a version of it? So it was kind of important that if we do go in that direction, it won’t be in that kind of spoof way, but to pay it like a quiet, respectful homage to that person. And that was important to try and recreate some of these kinds of old spaghetti western sounds in the most authentic way that we can. And then so he was a big inspiration.

And then we also had other Italian composers, so we had Stelvio Cipriani that we used as a reference in some of the cues as temp as well. And we had Henry Mancini. And some Nino Rota at some point I think we kind of played around with it. Se we were trying to infuse a lot of these elements in the score. And then we were also looking at French pop from the 60s. Another style we were going for was Anton Karas, Bernard Herrmann scores from the late 50s, and those spy movies that you had in the 40s and 50s. So the film is a genre blender, which Navot does all the time. And we did it in Big Bad Wolf as well, so it was important to try and create some sort of identity with the music for the film, but then also to pay homage to all these kinds of separate styles, but still kind of make them work within the film. So a lot of the elements coexist with one another. So you might have like the big fight at the end of the film where we go full orchestra and it’s very modern and almost like feels like a Marvel film. But then you have all these kinds of spring reverbs, and choirs that I’ve used on the western types of music, they still show up in all the big fights, for instance. So it’s a blending of all the elements as we go and progress within the story.

MV: How hard was it to blend different types of music in a way that seems seamless for the audience. Are there any particular challenges that arose in composing this film?

FI: Yeah, I mean, that’s quite the hard thing. I’m kind of used to it with Navot. Because he always works like that. So he will create a playlist of lots of music that we think would work for the film. And it will be like anything and everything, even songs, and then we’ll kind of start going through them and see what works, what doesn’t work and we’ll make some sort of playlist that we think “okay, that’s the playlist for the film.” That’s kind of what we think the inspirations might go for or what will work in the film. And then the music editor, obviously, adds stuff on top. And it was the same with with Gunpowder. We started with a playlist and we had like, you know, a lot of these. We had Stelvio Cipriani, who plays a lot. And it was played on the set as well for the actors.. And so we had a lot of those kind of things. But then the film was also temped, I think, with some Hans Zimmer and some other films that, through the test screening, they were just like, “yeah, this is totally not the direction.”

And the challenge is always how do you take these different elements, and you do create some sort of an added character, which is the music, to go along with the film? Because the music is so loud in the movie, it has a lot of room. Navot prefers sometimes the music over, say, sound effects. And so there’s always room, there’s loads of slo-mo where there’s loads of quiet places that the music has a lot of presence. And the idea is like: “How do you take these styles, and that’s a challenge, and create one kind of voice that will work out? And it won’t sound like you’re just doing 101 needle drops?” Yeah. And I think for Gunpowder actually, that was the idea from the start is that a lot of the musical cues will be needle drops. Yes. But there’ll be scores. So like the bowling fight, or the the mariachi band in the clinic fight, and some of those ones, they’re like needle drops, but they’re actually written in the picture and that’s what took kind like the longest to try and match because of the editing. And then I had to conform the music to fit but still make it sound as it’s a needle drop. And so people don’t know if it’s a track, or if it’s actually part of the score. And the same was actually for the Janis Joplin track. You know, it was edited to picture and not the picture to the song in parts. So that was I think one of the, I would say, positive things, maybe to be locked down in the pandemic that we had the time to experiment. And to create those kind of fake needle drops with the score, which I think I’m not sure if we had, under normal times, we would be lucky enough to experiment so much and make it as tight as it is now. So, the challenge is how you create those themes, and then make them more, but it’s just a process.

MV: So you’ve just mentioned the pandemic Was it different to work and in such a setting like this, compared to normally? How more challenging was it to work during the pandemic, where everything is shut down?

FI: Well, I think for most composers and editors, or sound people, I think we’re always locked in some room. One way or another, you know? So I think, for us to be confined is fairly easy. It was funny, because I know a lot of friends and colleagues who, weren’t working, and I actually was working on Gunpowder Milkshake every day before the pandemic, but was still going, throughout all of the lockdowns and all the major stuff. And we had to postpone recording a few times because everything was shut down, so we couldn’t actually record. And then our idea of putting this kind of indie rock band together in a studio and record everybody live, couldn’t be done, sadly, because of the restrictions. We had to do that remotely, with musicians separately, so the drummer will be in one studio, with guitars, bass, singers, they’ll be in their own studios, because we we were not allowed to put them all in one room. So that had to be done quite kind of early because once we had those temps with with the original score, they started editing more stuff into the test screening when they could, I think they did in Vegas or something. And so they were editing and then we recorded more musicians remotely, so we can kind of progress with the editing of the film. And then finally, when we were allowed to record, then there was more of the orchestra and, like the big sections that we were able to record. But it was just weird to go to work, or your set up at home, because we weren’t allowed to kind of travel at first. And you just worked on that, you know, when people are at home, not necessarily working on stuff. But it has put a lot of restrictions. But I think we kind of managed with technology.

MV: So was most of the score recorded virtually?

FI: No, only the soloists. The orchestra, we had to strive so we had to record in person. We had quite a big orchestra and choir, but we had to record them in sections, because we were still limited with distancing and the amount of players you’re allowed to have in the room. So instead of say, a 95 piece orchestra, we had to record him in sections so we were only allowed 50 players at a time. So we only had strings for a few days, and then winds and so on. Because we couldn’t put everybody in the room, sadly, since it’s part of the restrictions.

MV: I think you’ve worked with Navot since his first film, Rabies. What was different this time around? Or, since you’ve worked with him for so long, have you developed this partnership that it becomes very easy for you to work with him? Or how did crafting that score differ from making Rabies or Big Bad Wolf, for example?

FI: With Rabies, funny enough, I wasn’t the original composer. So I came in and it was a quick it was quick rescue job, which was done, I think, in like two and a half weeks or so. As it was quite quick, you know, we didn’t have much time to play around and experiment and all that kind of stuff. So when I came in on Rabies, I think they already temped teh score with some music that I’ve done for a film film called The Ferryman back in the day. And so Rabies was temped with that film, which I’ve sent over and they thought it worked. So a lot of it was temped with that. And then I just flew in and we set up like a small rig and stuff and we’re just like hacking everyday for longer hours just to get it done. But on Big Bad Wolf, that’s kind of like when I think we started with that kind of a playlist where Navot would come and start playing stuff. So I think it was like a combination of Bernard Herrmann, Michael Kamen, and some music from John Williams at some point. And then I would say “Okay, I can see where you’re going. How about those cues? Or how about those?” And then when we did the ABCs of Death segment, it was quite easy, because we already started in that direction. So Gunpowder was fairly easy, because we’re we’re also good friends besides being colleagues. So we’re always in touch and I would know, on projects he’s quite upfront on what he wants. So he will start sending ideas, or as he’s writing the scripts, he will start listening to music and it will be anything. And whenever he thinks this will work, he’ll describe it to me and I’ll say “Okay, so if you go in this way, have you heard this album? Have you heard about this composer? Have you tried this?” And then that’s how we started to get the ball rolling quite early, which we did as well in Gunpowder.

So from Big Bad Wolf, we kind of started doing that shorthand. And yeah, it hasn’t changed with Gunpowder. Funny enough that there was the same playlist, but you always go on a certain journey because he needs to discover music and he’s very hands on, through all aspects of filmmaking. So you always go through this journey of suggesting cues or the music editor will be accused, and then we’ll try it. And then, somehow, you always go full circle, and then you end up on the original playlist where we say “Oh, you know, that’s a good direction. Yeah, that will work”, and so on. So it’s always like a journey, and we kind of circle back to the first ideas sometimes.

MV: All right, well I don’t have any more questions, you’ve answered pretty much everything I wanted to ask. So thank you so much for for the time.

FI: My pleasure.

Gunpowder Milkshake is now available to stream on Netflix.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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