By Joel Delgado ’12, MS ’17
Have you ever thought about doing film music?
FIU alumnus and award-winning music composer Carlos Rafael Rivera ’96 had always thought about it. But it wasn’t until film writer and director Scott Frank brought it up one day after a guitar lesson that it felt like a real possibility.
Rivera, the teacher, and Frank, the student, had become good friends. Frank knew Rivera had won awards and recognition for his work in orchestral, choral and chamber music. He had even done some demos for Frank on some of his previous projects.
And as a doctoral student at USC, Rivera was being mentored by film composer Randy Newman (“The Natural,” “Toy Story,” “Monsters, Inc.”), attending recording sessions with the Academy-Award winner and getting an inside look at how the process worked. Aware of Rivera’s credentials, Frank encouraged him to be more proactive in seeking an opportunity in film.
Rivera has just completed his first musical score for a movie – “A Walk Among the Tombstones”, starring Liam Neeson and written and directed by Frank. Record label Varese Sarabande released Rivera’s score on Sept. 16 with the movie opening in theaters nationwide on Sept. 19.
“Scott told me that all I had to do was tell him I was interested,” says Rivera, 44, who graduated from FIU with a bachelor’s in music in 1996. “I was supposed to be his teacher, but over the last few years he’s taught me more than I ever taught him.”
For Rivera, it was the realization of a childhood dream – and a roller coaster of an experience that he hopes to one day ride again.
“Whenever I tell people about this, I feel like I’m lying,” Rivera jokes. “I know how lucky I am to have this opportunity to score Liam Neeson throwing a punch.”
‘I COULDN’T STOP READING’
In 2012, Rivera was scrolling through IMDb.com when he saw a news story that said Frank would be directing an upcoming film starring Neeson. Rivera sent the director an email to see if it was true.
“I told him that if it was, I’m going to be involved no matter what – even if it was just writing a temporary score,” Rivera says.
In June of that year, Frank sent him the screenplay for the film, which was adapted from a series of bestselling mystery novels by Lawrence Block. The story follows Matt Scudder (played by Neeson), an ex-NYPD cop who works as an unlicensed private investigator.
“Scott is one of the great Hollywood screenwriters out there. I’m not a big reader, but I started reading the script and I just couldn’t stop,” Rivera says. “I started writing music to the screenplay immediately.”
Putting the script’s scenes and cues on different slides using iMovie, he began to write a score entirely based on the text of the screenplay. Frank warmly received the music and Rivera was tentatively attached to the project.
“There was no contract or agreement. I was just writing a pseudo-fake score to a real movie that hadn’t been shot yet,” Rivera said.
Production began in February 2013. Rivera was flown out to the set of the film in New York to meet with many members of the crew with whom he’d be working.
He considered that to be a good sign in terms of his involvement in the project – but having mentored with Newman and hearing stories of movie shakeups from Frank, Rivera knew not to get too comfortable.
“You don’t know you’re on the movie until they fire you,” he says. “It’s a crazy business and it’s difficult on the central nervous system.”
As he flew back and forth from Miami to New York to work on the score, he realized that the music he had written for the screenplay was not working with what was happening visually.
After the initial screening of the film, more changes to the film were made that would require Rivera to start from scratch – again.
“They realized that some characters weren’t working in the film so they cut them from the script and they changed the way the storyline worked. I know without a doubt that the movie elevated in every way as a result,” Rivera said.
At that point, Rivera was unsure of his status with the film, thinking that the filmmakers would bring in another composer to write a new score for the film.
But after sending Frank his new main theme for the film, the director asked him to write 40 minutes of music in a month’s time – about a minute and 10 seconds of original music per day.
“I have never done that ever,” Rivera said. “The pressure was insane. But I got into a zone and realized there was no turning back and before I knew it, I got to the end and everything was approved.”
ALL ABOUT THE STORY
The tone of the film serves as the foundation of Rivera’s composition. To match the tone of the score with that of the film, he worked closely with Frank to determine what his vision was for the film.
“This is a noire film that should have been made in the 70s. It harks back to that kind of storytelling,” Rivera says. “What I set out to do is write an elegant and intimate score – that could be big if it needed to be – that serves the film and the story.”
Rivera’s score integrates acoustic instruments – such as the harp, guitar, celeste and waterphone – along with a choir to create a dark, haunting score that embodies the dangerous landscape the film’s protagonist navigates through.
“There is a traumatic event that Matt Scudder goes through at the beginning of the movie that keeps getting alluded to in the film, so we were looking for a sound that would be representative of the trauma,” Rivera says.
Rivera has been composing music for more than 15 years, but creating a movie score proved to be a challenge that was unlike any other project he has been involved with. But despite the pressures and bumps along the way, no project has been more rewarding than this one.
“The process is completely collaborative. It’s not about you, it’s all about the story,” Rivera says. “If you hear the music and it reminds you of the film, then I did my job. My hope is that the score works for the film and that the story is only elevated by the work and that it helped tell the story in a better way.”