In 1987, when Devo got the opportunity to write the musical score for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, the band didn’t have much going on. It had been seven long years since their breakthrough hit “Whip It” and after the back-to-back flops of 1982’s Oh, No! It’s Devo and 1984’s Shout, Warner Bros. severed all ties with them. “We were in limbo,” says frontman Mark Mothersbaugh.
Turning their attention to a film score made sense, especially since it was for a movie where the main characters are huge Devo fans. The only problem is they’d never attempted anything like this before and didn’t really know what they were doing.
“We started it kind of like how Devo wrote an album,” says Mothersbaugh. “That meant we were doing it so slow that we ate up all the time we had to write the movie until it was two weeks before I had to deliver a final score and we only had about five or six minutes of the thing done. I finally had to stop working with the band and just go in at nights and score the whole film myself in two weeks.”
Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise may not be a great film, but creating the score by himself was a revelatory experience for Mothersbaugh. “I realized you couldn’t score a movie by committee,” he says.
Devo would limp ahead through two more disastrous albums on the indie label Enigma (1988’s Total Devo and 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps), but Mothersbaugh was already devoting more and more of his time to creating film and TV scores. And when the band called it quits in 1991, he was able to concentrate on that work full time.
He’s since become one of the most successful television and film composers in Hollywood, though he still plays the very occasional gig with a re-formed Devo. His most recent project is the new Netflix animated film The Willoughbys, which centers around four rich, neglected children who conspire to send their parents away on a long vacation. To celebrate its release, we spoke with Mothersbaugh about 10 key films and TV shows he’s scored over the years.
“Jocko Homo” (1976)
This short film was ground zero for Devo. Our song “Jocko Homo” has odd tempo measures so that you couldn’t really dance to it in any normal way, but it kind of became our theme song. We played these little clubs in 1975, 1976, and 1977 to people not expecting to hear original music. They thought they were showing up to a bar after work to listen to Foghat and Kenny Rogers or whatever, but instead they were getting inflicted with Devo that night. The song became something where we could keep the “Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!” chant going on and on. Eventually we could become a lightning rod for hostility before the evening was over.
Then we made a movie because we didn’t really think of ourselves as a band. We were artists and we are an art movement. We thought we were Art Devo and our intention was to be more like agitprop and to be related to the futurists in Italy or dadaists in France and Germany. We loved all the art movements that were going on in Europe between World War I and World War II. We just wanted to have an updated version and that was Art Devo.
Chuck Statler directed this little film. There was nowhere to show it, so when we played places like CBGB or Max’s Kansas City or places around Ohio, we would hang a sheet in front of the band before we came out and we would take a 16 mm projector out of the Akron Public Library and say, “We need it for the weekend. We’re going to show some 16 mm films.” Then we’d take it in the van with us and we’d put a sheet in front of the stage and come out into the audience and project it and show it. That was our opening act.
Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986)
Paul [Reubens] had asked me to score Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but Devo was still touring at the time. But when the TV show came out a year later he said, “OK, you turned me down for the movie, but would you do my TV show?” I thought, “Well, I can do that.”
Working on that changed my whole perception of scoring. I was used to being in a band where you’d spend three months writing 12 songs and then you’d go in a studio and record them for another three weeks and then you’d start working on a live show and you’d make a video and design costumes and choreography and you’d go out and do a live show and tour the world. About a year later, you’d start another album.
We did that for five or six albums. And then when I got the Pee-wee show, they sent me the tape on Monday. I wrote 12 songs’ worth of music on Tuesday, Wednesday I recorded it, and Thursday I put it in the mail because there was no Internet then you could do much with. And Friday they’d mix it into the show and Saturday we’d watch it on TV and then Monday they’d send me another tape. I was like, “Man, sign me up for this job! I love the idea of getting to write an album every week.”
My direction for the music in the first season came from director Stephen Johnson. He said, “Mark, my only direction to you is when it’s funny, make it really funny. When it’s sad, make it really sad. When it’s scary, make it really scary.” He never came back and changed anything. And I went through the whole first year before the editor in New York called me and said, “Hey, Mark, how come you never send me timecode with any of your music?” I go, “What’s timecode?” And so I learned about things like timecode the hard way. The next season was much easier.
I had already done some TV when I got a call from this guy named Gábor Csupó, who is this East European artist that smuggled himself across the Iron Curtain. He showed me all of these cartoon characters he was working on. And then lead character, Tommy, his head looked like a gonad or a tumor. It looked like if it had been a ball at one time, but it had dents put it in or something. And the kids weren’t really cute. Their spindly legs were all kind of freaky looking.
But it was a pretty good show and it ended up appealing to kids, but it also had an adult edge to it. I said, “Let me write you something for the theme.” And I did. I sampled voices and different things to create bass sounds. It was back in the early days of sampling. So I was having fun with an Emulator and a Fairlight to write a lot of that show.
At first, I just thought it was another show. And then one day they said, “We are doing a feature film. Do you want to score the feature?” And I go, “Of course. How come people want to see a feature of Rugrats, though?” They said, “A study just came out a month ago where they found out the Rugrats characters are the most recognized characters in the whole world, more than Disney characters and any of the stuff over at Looney Tunes.“
The theme song is kind of Pavlovian. Little kids can be in another room and they hear that fake flute or fake guitar off a Fairlight they go, “Oh! That’s my show!” And they run back into the room so they can watch. I figure that for a certain age group, if I’m homeless someday, about anywhere in the world, I can find somebody that’ll recognize that melody and let me sleep in their garage.
Bottle Rocket (1996)
This was the first of five movies I made with Wes Anderson. It was a little bit awkward because James Brooks produced it and he did not understand the movie, I don’t think. He certainly freaked out on the music I was writing. He would come over to listen to the music once every few weeks and then have his secretary send me another copy of the movie Big with Tom Hanks, which had this jazzy, playful, warm, water-enema score to it. That’s what he was imagining was going to be in this film.
But Wes is a real hands-on guy. He’s a real artist. I haven’t worked with him on his last couple films, but I don’t think that has changed. He told me once, “I finish shooting the film and James saw it and said, ‘This looks like the version of it you shot when you were in school and you did a small teaser for the movie you wanted to do. But this is costing us 4 million dollars to make.” Wes says, “What did you expect it to look like? Of course it looks like the thing I did before.”
They had a little bit of an awkward relationship and Wes was an awkward guy. He was a true artist, though. That’s what I always loved about him. I remember him trading away his royalties on the films to keep artistic control in areas where the director has nothing to do with, like marketing and things like that.
There’s a lot of British Invasion music on this soundtrack and the score had to compliment that. Wes is very particular, though, and he wouldn’t let me use low-frequency instruments. I had to use an upright bass on his first movie. It was pretty much the same with Rushmore. He wouldn’t let me use a full orchestra. I had to have players come in a couple at a time to record in small groups.
I liked that, though. Everything was important to him in a movie, like the sets and the costumes. He’s involved with all of it. I think he wishes he could play an instrument because he’d pick stuff up and try to play along with it. I’d sometimes record him and use some of his performances in the score.
He knew what he wanted and I thought that was kind of refreshing. There’s always this thing with directors that by the time they get to the music, the movie is in in post-production and they’re feeling so beat down. They are just like, “Whatever it takes to finish the movie. Just get it over with.” They are already onto their next project. You’re trying to play them music and they’re in the back of the room talking louder than the music to someone about the next movie they’re working on. Wes has never been like that.
When I finish scoring a movie I really like, like something with Wes, I’m often like, “Oh, no, I’m done!” And so I’d start over at the beginning and go, “OK, what’s a whole other way to think about it?” And I’d use a lot of the same instruments and use different melodies or change instruments and I’d score the film a second time. On his films, I scored every movie at least twice, if not more. I have all this other music that, to me, is Wes Anderson music, but I’m mostly the only person that ever hears it.
21 Jump Street (2012)
That was the third film that I did with Phil Lord and Chris Miller. We’d done two other films before. When I met them on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs they went, “Do you remember us?” I went, “No.” They go, “We met you one time on Klasky Csupo. We were doing storyboards for Rugrats, but we were so terrible they fired us the day after you and I met.”
They ended up becoming these moguls. When they told me about 21 Jump Street, I said, “What is this? A TV show?” They said, “Yeah, go check it out.” I thought to myself, “What’s the theme song sound like?” I remember going online and being like, “Oh, my God! This is the lamest TV show that was ever made! How are they going to make a film out of it?”
But they are very creative guys and were fun to work with. I’m working with them again on a film now. They are executive producers at something over at Sony I’m going to finish up next month if we can figure out how to record it since we’re not able to go to Abbey Road.
Anyway, the tough side of those guys is they keep getting ideas the further on they get into a project. They get more heated up. In places where you’d normally be done with the picture, they’re still cutting it. They are still adding new dialogue. I’m still doing things hurriedly before I need to send it to the stage for the orchestra to play. They are always working to the last minute on their films.
The Lego Movie (2014)
That’s another Chris Lord and Phil Miller movie. I’m actually the one that introduced them to the owners of the Lego franchise. They came to me with a different idea for the movie and they said, “Hey, will you help us do a sizzle reel to sell this to Warners?” I read the script and it was totally different. They said to me, “We don’t know exactly where we’re going or how we’re going to do it.” And I said, “I’ve been working with these guys Miller and Lord, you should really meet them.”
I suppose they are probably thinking in the back of their heads, “Yeah, we probably owe Mark an agent’s fee on everything we’ve made off of Lego. I guess we owe him about a trillion dollars.” They haven’t said that out loud yet. They have kept it to themselves so far.
I really loved working on the movie. It was a visual overload. Everything was made out of these little bricks and it made me think about the music differently. And when I scored the film, I scored it with an orchestra and also I scored it totally electronic. They ended up mixing a hybrid together. On the electronics, I wound up using a lot of 16th and even 32nd notes just to try and get you to feel the feeling where there’s a billion bricks and an ocean-wave Lego brick and a Lego cloud in the sky and a Lego-brick ship in the ocean and Lego-brick cannon blasts exploding. I just really enjoyed working with Legos.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
I’ll be honest with you. I never had a big interest in Marvel movies before doing this one. I remember going to see one that had come out, Captain America, or something. I don’t even remember. About 15 minutes in there’s this music going “doom doom de de doom doom doom doom doom doom.” I kind of dozed off and about 20 minutes later the music was still going, “doom doom de de doom doom doom doom doom doom.” It was the exact same cue.
When I met the people at Marvel, I took the job not because of them so much. I took the job because of the director, Taika Waititi. What We Do In the Shadows, I thought, was so clever for a vampire movie. I had just watched it accidentally. I was flipping through the channels one night. I thought, “That is really great. Who did that?”
I then got a call and they said, “There’s this guy Taika. He wants to hire you to score his Thor movie.” Once I realized he did the vampire movie, I wanted to work with him. He was also eccentric in his own way. For him, it was a big deal to do a studio film. He was an artist who was used to doing everything himself. And then all of a sudden he had 100 people in every area doing things. At first, he was a little bit thrown by all that.
The first time I saw the movie, it was three hours long. They cut almost an hour out of the film, Marvel did. He had all this crazy stuff in it that it made it more like the movie Flash Gordon. I had all this other music, all this electronic stuff that I had written just for the planet where Jeff Goldblum is emperor and they cut it way down, small.
There were also scenes where Anthony Hopkins had some crazy acting where he just went off the page before he gets destroyed early in the film in that back alley. There was this whole big scene that he had where it’s really, really cool and shocking. I’d love it if they’d ever do a director’s version of that film. I know they never will. If they did and you got to see all this other footage, I think people would find it fascinating because you get more insight into Taika’s brain. I enjoyed working on it.
What I figured out I didn’t like about Marvel movie music is they were used to doing this thing where they would have the composer write suites, which meant you wrote seven-minute-long battle scenes and they would cut them in the picture. They did a pretty good job of it, but if you have six or seven suites you’re writing and it’s not exactly to the picture because you’re scoring it ahead of time, it sounds like wallpaper. They took a lot of shit for that. Luckily when I came in I said, “Look, I’m just going to write music to every scene for that scene. I’m not going to write suites. I’m going to score every moment.” I think that helped the score sound a lot better than it would have otherwise.
Tiger King (2020)
I almost didn’t take this, but I met the guy they brought in to direct it after the original director dropped out. I had met him for something else, some project with Vice. He just seemed like a really likable guy. I looked at a little bit of it and was just like, “Oh, man. Can I do seven episodes of this?” The guys at my company all said, “We’ll work on it.”
I remember every episode would come in, one a week, and we’d be like, “That’s weirder than last week.” I think it’s one of the coronavirus success stories. It timed up just right because people need some insane angle of life on planet Earth.
We made a library of music for that it because in documentaries, music is wallpaper. Basically, you’re putting in different moods and different tones, but you’re not scoring the picture so much as you’re creating an atmosphere to surround what everyone is paying attention to, which is the narrator and the characters and the action. You’re not, like, enhancing laser blasts. That would make it too contrived and scary.
The Willoughbys (2020)
I met [director] Kris Pearn when I worked with him on Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. He’s a really great guy and he came back to me and said, “Hey, I got another movie.” And I looked at it and loved the animation. It looked like it was definitely not from this present time. It had a retro look to it.
At the beginning of the movie, the kids are still living with their parents and the music is sort of like late 1950s, early 1960s sophisticado. You can imagine it being in a Jack Lemmon movie from that period with Shirley MacLaine. Once you get to Commander Melanoff and his chocolate factory, the music gets electronic. I just love the way it all turned out.
I went to screenings where they brought in kids. They’d get to the point where it would say, “We’re going to get rid of our parents,” and the kids would get quiet. They’d be like, “This isn’t the typical stuff you’re allowed to watch, that they let kids see.” Because kids know that they are being manipulated by adults; especially in movies, they know it. When they saw that the guardrails were down, kids loved that movie in the focus groups. They were really interested.
It’s amazing to me how Netflix has turned into such an influential powerhouse. It’s definitely impacting where everything is going to go. Maybe in the post coronavirus world, we’ll all be in little cubicles watching Netflix 24 hours a day.