Fresh off the Disney blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, composer Geoff Zanelli’s latest project is the exact opposite of the pirate adventure, it’s a human trafficking thriller written and directed by Deon Taylor titled Traffik. The film follows a couple, Paula Patton & Omar Epps, who travel on a romantic getaway to the mountains only to be terrorized by a vicious group of sex traffickers with whom they become locked in a desperate struggle for survival. Every great thriller needs to have a great score that forces the intensity to rise a few decimals and after speaking with the Emmy winner, Traffik makes no acceptations. Read our exclusive interview with Zanelli below and make sure to check out Lionsgate’s Traffik when it hits theaters April 20th.
How did you become involved with Traffik?
Deon Taylor, the director of the film, reached out to me. Our first conversation was about my score for Disturbia, which Deon was a big fan of so he already knew my music.
Also, I had worked with his editor Melissa Kent before and she was able to talk to him about the way that I work, how involved I get with the films I score, and how specific my writing is for each film I work on. I think that was enough to get him excited to reach out to me.
We hit it off right away. I loved his movie and thought the topic of human trafficking wasn’t being discussed enough in public so it was the right project for me to get involved with. I think we’re starting to see a little more awareness about the realities of human trafficking these days, and part of the reason for that is movies like this which, while being works of fiction, can at least start conversations about what’s actually going on in some of our communities. That’s step one. Action is step two.
How would you describe your score for Traffik?
Well, the bulk of it is very dark. One of the words that kept popping into my mind when I thought about people being abducted and forced into modern day slavery was “disgust.” I mean true disgust, the kind that causes stomach upset or other physical reactions. So for the thriller aspects of the score I started looking for sounds which were, frankly, disgusting. Out of tune, gritty or gross seemed to apply, and I was very specific in my avoidance of anything comfortable or melodic for those parts of the story.
Some of that sound was created during some studio experimentation. I bought a cello, having never played one in my life, and I was able to make tense sounds with it. It takes a cellist years to learn to play beautifully, but you can get right to some primal, gutteral sounds on day one. So a lot of the score is actually performed by me, in a studio, with some electronic mangling after the fact.
There’s a whole other side to the score, though, which is the love story between John (Omar Epps) and Brea (Paula Patton). I was using cello and violin there, but played beautifully by some fine musicians. The idea was that the string sounds I was making were mirrored in a positive way in the love story, so it bridges the two halves of the score. John and Brea have a real love in the film, and that’s what the tragedy is set against.
How is the Traffik score different from your last score, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales?
Oh, it’s almost the polar opposite! Pirates was grand, orchestral, and very melodic! There were tunes going through the whole film in that one.
But Traffik, that one is the antithesis of Pirates in a lot of ways. There are few melodies to latch on to, because they make the audience comfortable and I don’t want people feeling comfortable at all with human trafficking. Traffik is also much more personal sounding, or intimate. It’s about personal struggles and tragedies, things that actually happen to real people every day.
You are working with Traffik director, Deon Taylor, on another film titled Motivated Seller starring Dennis Quaid. How did this come about? Did you all get along so well on Traffik that he brought you on to his next film?
Yes, that’s really it. We started strong and we’re going to keep a good thing going.
Deon is very prolific. I think he has three or even four movies going on right now, and I wish I could score all of them! Motivated Seller is a thriller as well, though a very different one from Traffik. We’re heading in a different direction with that score, which is nearly finished, but it’s a very intriguing film, and you’ve never seen Dennis Quaid in a role like this before!
Your last few projects have been comedies and fantasy films. Is it hard jumping into another genre like thriller?
Actually, it’s exciting for me. One of the reasons I work in film as opposed to, say, song writing or even long TV series is that I get to change hats all the time. In any given year, I may work on five or six films, and each one being different helps to keep my work fresh. I can’t rely on formulas, I have to keep pushing myself into new territory.
It helps when the movie is engaging, like Traffik, of course. I don’t find it hard to stay inspired.
Do you have musical ideas in your head that you’re just waiting for the right opportunity to use, or do you start from scratch for every project?
I’d say a little bit of both. I mean, I’m dying to one day do a big band score, but those don’t really ever happen!
In reality, I find I always really focus on writing something specific for the film I’m working on, so in that sense I do have to start from scratch every project, to go be inventive or open up the laboratory doors for a while as I’m writing.
And my music gets so connected with the material it’s written for, I don’t think you can really take it out of one movie and put it into another.
What would you say is your favorite genre to score?
Usually, my favorite genre is “the next one,” which is just to say that I need to have a new challenge on each film. So when I finish a thriller like Traffik, I want to get into something different if possible. I went from Pirates to Traffik to a video game called Star Citizen: Squadron 42 all in a row!
I really feel at home doing fantasy, adventure and thriller movies. But really, I find a way to connect with any project I’m doing. When I scored Into The West I had never scored a western, but that one turned out to be a very well-received score. Maybe because I hadn’t ever done anything like it!
What other projects are you currently working on?
Motivated Seller is still going, though it’s nearly done. I’m also scoring an animated film called Red Shoes and the 7 Dwarfs, as well as some more work on Star Citizen: Squadron 42, another animation called 10 Lives and by the looks of it, another thriller at the end of the year but let me wait until that all gets set in stone before I talk about that one! There are a few other projects floating around that I may get involved with as well, but it’s a little early to say. Things have been very busy since Pirates!
Before I go, I do want to say thanks for reaching out to me to talk about Traffik. It’s been a pleasure!
You can learn more about Geoff Zanelli at http://geoffzanelli.com/
Many thanks to Geoff Zanelli for taking the time for this interview.