To celebrate the movie’s 30th anniversary, composer Alan Silvestri is staging a showing set to a live orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. We talked to him about the movie and the role travel has played in his work.
With over 35 years as a composer and conductor for the big screen, Alan Silvestri is the man behind the music for pretty much every movie you’ve ever known and loved, including the Back To The Future films, Forest Gump, and The Walk, the recently released film about high-wire artist Philippe Petit.
To mark Back to the Future’s 30th anniversary, Silvestri teamed up with the film’s creators to stage Back To The Future in Concert—an orchestral performance of his Academy Award–nominated music set to the original film. The production has been circling the globe since May and hits Radio City Music Hall in New York City this week.
T+L talked to Silvestri about his illustrious career as a composer, how his travels have inspired his life’s work, and his second career as a vineyard owner in Carmel, California.
What was it like when you first got into the movie business?
My experience working with Robert Zemeckis started with Romancing the Stone; that was a very important film for all of us, in terms of building our careers. And along with that came a tremendous amount of internal pressure. I remember wanting so badly to do it beautifully and for it to do well. It was a little bit terrifying, but I think that’s how it is for everyone when they’re trying to get started in a career—it feels very risky. You don’t want to fail, and yet there has to be a sense of playfulness, and a sense of abandon. With Romancing the Stone, it was a bit of a rollercoaster, so for the film to come out and be successful was nothing short of miraculous. That was an indescribable feeling.
Let’s talk Back to the Future. Take us back to 30 years ago. Did you ever imagine that these films would be as popular as they were and still are today?
I don’t think anyone could even think such thoughts back then. Back to the Future was my second film with Zemeckis (I think The Walk might be our 19th film together, so the relationship was young), and it was just amazing. Back to the Future was beautifully written, and when it was finally previewed I think we all had the sense that this could be a successful film. And then of course it came out and it was a successful film. But what’s happened with Back to the Future is extraordinary, and I don’t think there was any way for us to predict it. What we’re seeing is that this film continues to new young audiences, and it’s very uncommon for a film to have a lifecycle like that.
T+L: It’s a pop-culture phenomenon that’s just as relevant today as it was back then. We don’t have flying DeLoreans or self-lacing sneakers, but some of the predictions about life in 2015 were pretty close!
We were pretty close! It’s been a lot of fun watching the Chicago Cubs this season, because they were predicted to win the 2015 World Series in Back to the Future 2. I don’t think they’ve won since like 1902, so if they win this year that would be amazing.
What we can expect from Back To The Future in Concert?
When I was approached about this, the one caveat was that there wasn’t enough music in the beginning of the film to have a viable concert performance, so I was asked if I would write additional music for the film. The idea of being the one to change something that is a pop culture icon was a little bit scary, but I went to Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the directors, producers, and co-writers—the godfathers of Back to the Future, so to speak—and they loved it and told me to do what I needed to do to show it beautifully in that environment and venue. So I added almost 20 minutes to the original score of the film. For instance, there’s music all through the main title of the film, which wasn’t in the original. I did an overture, which is fun, and we did an entre-act because we needed to have an intermission. I’ve seen it quite a few times now, and it really is a fun night out. It’s a satisfying musical event and a satisfying cinematic event, so we’re really pleased with how it’s been accepted by audiences all over the world.
Tell us about your creative process. How do you get started when you’re writing a piece of music for film?
My process sometimes starts with a script, but in order for the real work to begin it usually involves sitting in front of a film, even if it’s not anywhere near its complete, edited form. Part of the job is having a sense of the story, a sense of the character, and a sense of the movement of the character. So when I sit down to score a film, I start to imagine music and I begin with some kind of representative or substantial theme in the film.
Your work has taken you all over the world—has anything you’ve seen or anywhere you’ve been along the way inspired you or inspired the work you’ve created?
When you approach the writing of a score—just like with writing prose or poetry—it really is connected to your entire life experience, which of course influences who you are. My wife, Sandra, and I have done a fair amount of travel, and it’s always enriching to come up against another culture and see how other people get through their daily life. A while back we went to Piedmont in Italy to visit the place of origin of the Italian side of my family, and that has become a very regular trip for us. There’s just something amazing about being back in a place where one’s family has originated. It’s all in there, and in some way affects how I see the world.
When you think about everything you’ve worked on over the last 30 years, is there one film, one piece of music, or one score that stands out the most?
I have different reasons as to why different films are special or memorable. For instance Romancing The Stone was my first big studio film, so it felt like, Now I’m in the movie business, and it was thrilling because of that. Back to the Future was the first film that financially enjoyed the level of success that it did, so that was very memorable. And then we cut to a film like Forrest Gump, where people who hadn’t been to a movie theater for 50 years got out of their houses and apartments and went to see this movie, and it was embraced on that level worldwide. And even beyond that I learned new things on every one of those films. There’s always a challenge, sometimes it’s technical, sometimes it’s creative, but all of them are special in that way so there really isn’t one that stands out. They’re all fantastic and they’re all completely different.
Tell us about Silvestri Vineyards, your vineyard in Carmel Valley, California. How is the winemaking business different from the movie/music business?
We’ve found this to be an amazing counterpoint to the music business. In the music world I basically spend my life in a dark room every day, whereas in the wine business, we spend lots of time out in the food and wine world. It’s just been a fantastic experience for us. The vineyard is in Carmel Valley; we planted the first vine in 2000 and produced our first vintage in 2003. We started off with a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, and a Syrah, and we’ve added quite a bit more varietals—we have a beautiful tasting room right in downtown Carmel. We’re having fun with it. We just want to make the best bottle of wine we can from the dirt where we live.