Interviews · Movies

‘Bill & Ted’ Composer Mark Isham Literally Faces the Music

We talk to the Oscar-nominee about his latest score.
Mark Isham Bill and Ted
Mark Isham
By  · Published on September 11th, 2020

The Oscar-nominated composer Mark Isham has dealt with vampires, surfers, and vicious clouds of mist during his three decades of film scoring, but his newest challenge is probably his biggest: saving the world while balancing score and songs in Bill & Ted Face the Music.

“I think it was important to give a really solid base to Bill & Ted because they’re just nuts and bolts guys,” Isham says with a smile on his face. “There’s not a lot of subtlety here. There’s not a lot of room for innovation. That’s not what this score’s about. This is about telling their story elegantly, but also as traditionally as possible.”

One thing Isham retains from David Newman, who scored the first two installments of the series, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1988) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), is a sense of grounding. That may sound strange, especially with all the truly insane things that happen in the films, but it’s actually important for that reason. And because these films are comedies. Something the great Elmer Bernstein pioneered in the ’70s and ’80s is the idea of playing comedy music straight as if it’s not for a comedy at all. This is a theory that Isham certainly subscribes to.

“The idea was to not try and play funny music to make it funnier,” he says. “In other words, we know this isn’t Pacino and De Niro being directed by Scorsese or something, you know? It’s what it is. But on the other hand, these characters are pissed off when their daughters get sent to Hell. They care. They love their wives. They adore their wives. They’ll do anything to save their marriages. So you want to have the score represent these emotions that these unreal guys go through.”

There is a certain amount of unreality, of course, but Isham recognizes that in spite of this, you still want to go on that emotional journey with them, and that makes it funnier. “When they’re arguing with Death to please come back in the band,” he explains, “you want some of the pathos there, you know? And it makes that reunion even more absurdist and humorous. Especially under [director Dean Parisot]. Dean’s filmmaking has a little more maturity, you could tell right from the beginning. I think what’s interesting about this film is it has a little more maturity, which fits the characters, and therefore the score needed to follow suit.”

Isham knew that while Bill & Ted Face the Music has many weird setpieces in all sorts of places and times, the film would be visiting two locations that had been seen in the previous films, namely the future and Hell. “For Hell, I went very on-the-nose: dark brooding strings,” he admits. “I think that’s one of the things that I discovered, I didn’t want to get too clever on the score.”

For the future, Isham went with a very simplistic feel: “as if you’re describing the future but from the point of view of almost the ’60s,” he explains. “It’s taking a sound borrowing from the late romantic period when harmony first started shifting and placed in a ’60s film music vocabulary, a sign of futurism. And then you take that through the eyes of guys who were iconic from the ’80s. Somehow it all makes sense.”

Isham felt like in the Bill & Ted world, this is how the future would be represented. “It has a little bit of a throwback feel,” he says. “It just seemed to work, this big brass chorus but with the sort of harmonic sense that feels sort of futuristic because there’s a hint of fantasy in there as well. And you stick big choirs in there and the next thing you know, you believe it, wholeheartedly. It’s that idea of retro-futurism.”

One of the difficulties of working on a rock and roll picture like Bill & Ted Face the Music is the combination of score and songs. Not just source music, like the tunes that the Wyld Stallyns and others play, but also songs that effectively act as score. For example, when Bill & Ted are first called to the future, the track that plays while the booth travels through the circuits of time is, appropriately, a song called “Circuits of Time” by the band Big Black Delta.

However, while that source track was placed into the final film, Isham had also originally scored those sequences. This approach meant working closely with music supervisor Jonathan Leahy to figure out what was best for the film at any given moment. And that’s a place with little room for ego.

“Fortunately, Jonathan Leahy is a very bright guy, a funny guy, and a very creative guy,” Isham affirms. “I can’t say we didn’t tussle over a few cues, but at the end of the day we’re both there to make the best story we can, and he does what he does really well and I did a pretty good job on my end. So, I think ultimately, the product of both our work is pretty strong. I actually scored all the ‘circuits of time’ cues myself because we weren’t sure how that was going to go. And I think there’s one or two that are still mine, but then there are several that are his. There was a mandate from the producers, I think, to put a certain percentage of rock and roll in the whole film, and that played a part in who got to do what and, at the end of the day, what got edited out and what got edited in.”

As with many of his scoring gigs, Bill & Ted Face the Music was another step in his development as a composer. “I have been doing this a while, and I take certain projects as learning experiences. Certainly, A River Runs Through It. When that came around, it was my first one-hundred-percent acoustic traditional score, and I knew that I really had to step up and learn something because I’d never done that before. And there are certain landmark scores along the way in my career where I said, ‘Boy am I glad I’ve closed this film; now I have to figure out how to do it.”

That’s the reason he loves his job. “It offers you an opportunity to do something from a different point of view,” he explains, “and for me, just to learn something more about music. Here’s something that I don’t know, there’s an attitude, a concept, a style here that I don’t know much about, I get to learn about it. How fun is that?”

Isham confesses what he learned while working on Bill & Ted Face the Music: “Just to keep it simple and to keep it very direct and not to ever laugh at [the characters], just play with them,” he says. “But then, in this case, to make sure that I didn’t oversell it because as soon as I take it too seriously, then you’re almost starting to laugh at them. It was always a matter of pushing and then pulling back and pushing it and then pulling back and overall just making it fun.”

Bill & Ted Face the Music and its soundtrack are now available digitally. 

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Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)