Gemini-nominated composer Dave Klotz is one of the prized “guests from the West” in the Hong Kong film industry. Much like Xavier Jamaux, he’s an international composer whose talents Johnnie To and his Milkyway Image partners have called upon repeatedly, often alongside Guy Zerafa (before his untimely death). Among other achievements, it could be said their score to Exiled is an integral part of that film’s artistic success, and one of the most memorable of its decade in Hong Kong. A performer, an arranger and a music producer in addition to being a composer (for film but also for TV and for dance choreography), Klotz also struck up a lasting professional relationship with the great Ringo Lam, right up to his latest film, Sky on Fire, now out in China and the US. He graciously agreed to answer our questions.
Can you tell us about your academic background, and how you came to be a film a composer ?
Initially I was a self-taught keyboard player. Now I was no virtuoso, rather I was the guy who could play a little bit on every instrument. Fortunately, I had many understanding and supportive music teachers throughout my public and high school years. After graduating high school, I was rejected by several universities, despite perfect scores on the ear tests, due to my lack of training on my principle instrument and no classical repertoire. I was, however, finally accepted at York University in Toronto, where I eventually received a BFA Music degree, specialising in Composition, Ethnomusicology and Avant-Garde Electronic Music.
Though my first love has always been film scoring, over the years I was a bit of a jack of all trades. I discovered synthesizers in my teens and began a torrid love affair with them. I’ve played in dozens of Rock, Funk, Blues, Goth and World Music bands. I was also fortunate enough to learn the art of audio engineering via the hands-on approach. After a few years of gigging, recording bands and some smaller film gigs, I was eventually hired as a score engineer for a TV series by a fellow named Guy Zerafa. Though I was initially recording, editing and mixing, that didn’t last long. Within a year we were co-composers on a ton of projects. Sadly, Guy passed away a few years ago. I am, without a doubt, indebted to him for launching my composing career.
In 2001, you and Guy Zerafa worked for the first time on films by Johnnie To (Fulltime Killer) and Ringo Lam (Replicant). Were you personally already a fan of Hong Kong cinema, and was there a conscious plan to make part of your career in Hong Kong films?
To be honest, it was more about circumstance. As often is the case, it’s a domino effect. If someone likes your work on their project, it can generate referrals on their next one and so on… If memory serves, we were finishing a series as well as a couple of American films. One of these generated a submission for Replicant, which is where we first met David Richardson, who was the editor. I believe he used some of our music on the temp track while editing Fulltime Killer, which we eventually got as well. Note that editors can be your very best friends in this industry!
Both these films were eye openers. Neither of us were very familiar with Hong Kong directors at the time, but I certainly developed an appreciation for their style immediately. After Fulltime Killer, we didn’t get the opportunity to do another Hong Kong film for a while. I had relocated to Los Angeles for a few years, and returned in 2006. Our good friend David Richardson struck again, and Exiled launched a fairly steady diet of Milkyway Image films over the next few years.
Exiled is probably one of the most beloved Hong Kong soundtracks among fans. Can you tell us more about its creative process? What instructions did Johnnie To give you? And will you ever release it commercially?
Wow, that’s nice to hear! I love that movie. It’s funny how directors’ approaches can be so diametrically different. Some are uber-controlling and some just let their composers run free. Johnnie To definitely falls in the latter category. We were basically given a few stylistic samples as an initial direction, and told to get busy. As often was the case with Milkyway Image films, the schedule was rather tight, so Exiled was approached in a rather linear fashion, on the fly so to speak, cue by cue and reel by reel. As far as our collaboration goes, by the time we got to Exiled, we were splitting everything down the middle, regardless of delegation of creative or business responsibilities. We shared the same vision, which is what made it into the scores we created… This one however, was definitely in my wheelhouse so to speak, so I enjoyed a ton of creative freedom. As far as a soundtrack album goes, you would have to ask Milkyway: they and/or their co-production and distribution companies own the publishing rights, which means they control where and how the music is used.
How was working with 3 different directors on one single film, Triangle? How did you handle the film’s particular structure?
Actually, it wasn’t all that different from other projects. We received the entire movie as a single entity and treated it as such. While the differences between the three section are quite significant, our job was to tie it all together, which is not all that different a strategy for a composer on a film.
Did you speak to each director individually? How much director input do you usually get when working on Milkyway films?
Most of our discourse was through either the editor, David Richardson, or Yuin Shan Ding, the production supervisor. The directors disclosed their vision to them, and they in turn, did so to us, partially for simplicity and as well, for translation. Neither Guy or myself spoke Cantonese.
Direction on the Milkyway films was generally pretty sparse. We would submit drafts as we went along; usually receiving feedback only if something wasn’t working, suggestions for start or end point adjustments, or ideas for additional locations for existing cues.
Last year you scored Ringo Lam’s comeback film Wild City. How different is it to work with Johnnie To and Ringo Lam?
Quite different. I believe I alluded to the varying approach of directors towards their composers. If you think of this differential as a sliding scale between hands-on and relaxed, Johnnie To would be leaning towards the latter whilst Ringo Lam, the former. Now I’m definitely not making a judgement call, both are great, albeit different experiences.
While Johnnie’s approach allows for much creative freedom, the danger is no safety net: In the end, you must satisfy the director, and with such free rein, you run a greater risk of missing the mark. Ringo Lam on the other hand has a very specific idea of what he wants to hear, and where. Throughout its development, he becomes very intimate with the score. It is an evolving process for him and thus he often changes his mind, which definitely makes things exciting. What I love about both these directors is that they are visionaries. They know what they want, and regardless of the process, giving it to them is a very rewarding experience.
Looking back on your fifteen years of Hong Kong film scoring, of which score are you the proudest, and which was the most difficult to work on?
I suppose I’m proud of all them to a certain extent. Each one is different, presented different challenges and represented a different point in my evolution as a composer. I suppose Exiled is particularly special to me. There is something quite unique about that film and the score. The marriage of the two I think is really special. Having said that, I also love the score for Eye in the Sky and Triangle contains some of my all time favorite cues.
As far as the most difficult? Well they all had certain challenges. Exiled came to us with no subtitles – we did have a detailed story line – Triangle had its trinity of directors and Punished had a very short deadline. I suppose the biggest challenge was that of Linger, a Johnnie To film with virtually no action, no guns and a shocking absence of death and carnage. Instead, the score was required to relate romance, poignancy and loss.
What are your upcoming projects? Any Hong Kong films among them?
Actually I’ve just been through a very busy year and I’m just finishing up the last bits before looking forward. I’ve just finished the 2nd season of the TV series Make it Pop and am waiting to hear on a renewal. I’m also in the final stages of a very cool documentary, and I hear Ringo Lam has a new movie coming out soon…
Heartfelt thanks to Dave Klotz for taking the time to answer our questions.
HONG KONG FILMOGRAPHY:
Replicant (2001 – Ringo Lam), musician for Guy Zerafa
Fulltime Killer (2001 – Johnnie To), additional music for Guy Zerafa
Exiled (2006 – Johnnie To), with Guy Zerafa
Eye in the Sky (2007 – Yau Nai Hoi), with Guy Zerafa
Triangle (2007 – Ringo Lam, Johnnie To & Tsui Hark), with Guy Zerafa
Linger (2008 – Johnnie To), with Guy Zerafa
Punished (2011 – Law Wing Cheong), with Guy Zerafa
Wild City (2015 – Ringo Lam)
Sky on Fire (2016 – Ringo Lam)