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When Black Widow is finally unleashed, it will come complete with a musical language that Natasha Romanoff can truly call her own. Nat (Scarlett Johansson) has had small motifs in some other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but composer Lorne Balfe is gifting her with a bespoke musical identity once and for all.
Balfe is a newcomer to the MCU, but he’s no newcomer to composing music for films, television, and games. He assisted Hans Zimmer for films such as The Dark Knight and Sherlock Holmes before taking the reins himself on films that include (but are not limited to) Terminator: Genisys, The Lego Batman Movie, Pacific Rim: Uprising, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Gemini Man, 6 Underground, and The Tomorrow War. For the smaller screen, his work can be heard in Marcella, The Crown, Pennyworth, and HBO's smash adaptation of His Dark Materials.
SYFY WIRE caught up with Balfe before the release of Black Widow to discuss Natasha's musical identity, the journey that the film took, and how story rules all no matter what medium you're working in. We also talked about His Dark Materials, which recently began production on its third and final season.
After all this time, Natasha doesn't just have her own motif. You gave her an entire Russian-influenced musical identity. Would that be fair to say?
I'd say I'm glad that you got that from the music. Yes. When [director Cate Shortland] and I first started talking, that was the whole point of understanding her background and telling her story which had not been told properly before. What I said to Cate, in the beginning, was, "Look, I was interested... what's the music that those sisters would have listened to when they were children?" I said, "What's the folk music? Or what are the nursery rhymes? Or what's the traditional music?" Lots of traditional music has made it into modern culture. With Russian music, you've got the Tetris theme, for example.
So I thought, what I'll do is I'll write a fictitious folk tune. So basically we're creating something that could have been something they listened to when they were children. And that's what the first track on the album is, Natasha’s Story… a piece of music that could have come from her childhood. Musically, I was just listening to a lot of Prokoviev, a lot of Stravinsky… Russian music is fascinating because you don't necessarily need the instruments to make it sound Russian… you look at classical music and they're not using balalaikas. It's a westernized orchestra, but it feels Russian. So it was about trying to go back to the origins and look at those types of composers that wrote music like that, and that was the basis. And that's what Cate and I talked about a lot, was about what's the heritage? What is Natasha's heritage? What's Yelena's heritage? But also, musically, what is the heritage that they would have been introduced to? So I'm glad that you got that.
It's also a spy thriller in many ways, did your previous work in the Mission: Impossible series guide the way at all in terms of that feel?
No. To me, Ethan and Natasha have just got different journeys. They’re different paths musically, but also story-wise. No, I never felt that connection… the one connection is that I think what was fascinating about The Avengers and the story of Black Widow, is that we never treated it like a superhero piece of music. It was a real person. So I suppose that is a connection to do with Ethan. It's a real person. But no, to me it was a different way of writing. It was a very more classical way of writing, and a different way of storytelling.
But look, the fact is, every single project I do I learn from it, and I learn something that comes into the next thing. There's got to be, because if you're not learning something, then you're John Williams, you're a god. You're always learning something. It's always interesting. If I work on a romantic comedy, weirdly things that I learn [about] different ways of storytelling help me working in different genres, whether it's an action movie or a horror movie. It's all about storytelling.
We already know before this movie that Natasha is no more, at least as far as we know…
Oh, don't ruin it.
Apologies, but Yelena (Florence Pugh) is teed up to be in the MCU for the long haul. Do you think the musical base that you gave Yelena will be something we’ll be hearing again?
I hope so. I'd cry if it wasn't. Alan Silvestri has written a theme that I think now is part of folklore. There's a handful of themes that is set into daily lives whether it's the television or radio… the Avengers theme is a part of it. I always do research, and when I started to do the Mission: Impossible movies I went right back to the beginning of the TV shows and watched all the box sets… just finding the DNA in the codes and it was the same with Black Widow. I found that there was a motif for Black Widow in the prior films, there's a short motif.
It features a couple of times in the film… but then it's like the Avengers theme. Not to give it away, but I did use it. It was a case of finding when to do it. There were several more places, but then it became a cheap trick and it was just finding the right place story-wise and that's always the thing. When I worked on Terminator: Genisys, it was finding when you do that iconic drum rhythm so it doesn't become a novelty. It's putting your head in the space of the audience. When is it going to work story-wise so that it feels good?
It's well over a year since we were originally set to see this movie and hear this score. In that year, did the score stay as it was, or did you go and tinker with it at all? Were you allowed to? Did you want to?
Tinkering happened. Tinkering always happens until the last minute. We were the last recording session before lockdown happened. We literally were recording at Abbey Road when everybody started sanitizing their hands and elbowing everybody as a greeting term. It was the weirdest concept. On the first day, we didn't really know much. Then, halfway through, everybody's elbowing.
So we were working right to the end. The recording side stopped, but then there was the whole production side that had to continue. It was several months of mixing the music. It's a big score, as you know. There's a massive choir and there's the orchestra. So there are lots of factors to deal with, so we spent several months mixing. Due to COVID, like all of us, I've lost the concept of time. I know that we finished recording, but we still then worked on it for a few months after that.
This is not Black Widow-related, but I can’t not bring up your work on His Dark Materials. Just the opening track alone manages to somehow conjure the entire three-book saga as I remember it when I first read it.
I guess the only question is something like, how the hell did you manage that?
Well firstly, it was not the first version. Let me assure you of that. I think that was maybe version 30. It took time. I went to them for the project because I loved the books and I loved the fact that I had a daughter and it totally changed my way of thinking in life, and always projects that interest me because I'm looking at, "God there's got to be good role models out there. It's got to be positive." I didn't know that they were making the show, and when I heard about it I just went, "Right. Get me a meeting. I have to have a meeting about this show."
The type of storytelling and musical storytelling in His Dark Materials is very different… it’s a different way of musically speaking. So it was basically, it was one of those passion things. When I got the job... Composers are always very late to the party, normally. It's very difficult because you get brought in and writers have been living and breathing this script for years and directors have been on it for years. And you come in near the end, and then have to say, "Here's the soundscape," and that's tricky.
But when it's based on literature or something like Mission: Impossible where there is a heritage to it, I think then you've got a head start as a composer. With Lyra (Dafne Keen), her performance tells you what the music is going to be. To me, that's where the inspiration comes from. The same with Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson), my god, she's just an unbelievable character, and Ruth's portrayal of her is just fantastic and amazing. It comes from having lived with it for several years, I think, because then it gets under your fingers.
You're watching Lyra and Mrs. Coulter, it comes from that. If you're watching Natasha and Yelena, is it a similar kind of thing?
Yes. Because if not, then it just becomes bland. I think the relationship between Yelena and Natasha is that bond, is the sisters. That connection is something that... I'm an only child so I can't relate to that unique bond, but I see it with my children. I see that they've got this bond now... you can remove them and separate them, but the bond is there.
When the story is perfect, and the acting is perfect, in one respect it makes it a bit easier for us to write music because the storytelling is helping you. Instead of if it's bad, you're trying to save it, or salvage it, and that makes it... if the emotions aren't there, nine times out of ten, you get told as a composer, "Push the music. Make it more. Make it more." And the audience is wise to that.
It sounds like for you, whether it's a film, TV, a game, whatever, story is king.
It's king. It’s also the people making it, because the thing is it's all very well saying, "Well it's a great script. I'll do it." Scripts change. I think it's important, as filmmakers, to try different things. I think if you just did big action Blockbuster scores, I think you'd get tired. Your ears would at least. It would become repetitive. We're all trying. We're all learning. I spent such a long journey working for Hans [Zimmer]. I worked for Hans for about 15 years. I was always learning. We'd work on… The Dark Knight, or something, and I'd feel, "Okay, I understand this." And then we'd start Kung Fu Panda 2, and I'd have to look at the music and I'd go, "Where on earth do you begin?" It was lots of learning curves.
That's the thing with Black Widow, it was a different type of orchestra writing. It's a new bow, I think. But it was just a great experience, and also a great experience working with Marvel. They're just a great team. They live and breathe this world and that's just always an honor. I'm very proud of it, and the whole team. I think also, because of COVID, it was the last session that all these musicians got work. We had 118 musicians sitting at Abbey Road in Studio 1, and we still can't do that now. The most amount we can get is 48. We're losing musicians. They're changing careers and going to other industries because they can't provide for their families, and it's not necessarily changing at the moment. It was an honor to be able to record an orchestra like that, because it's going to be a while until we can actually do that again. That's sad talking about it, but it's true.
It's a big team that made this album, this soundtrack, possible. There were a lot of musicians, the mixing team, and the prep team. So many people that never get full credit, but it was a great experience and fun to do it. I'm looking forward to going to the cinema to watch it. Very rarely do I do that, but this one I'm definitely excited about.
Black Widow comes to theaters and streams on Disney+ Premium beginning July 9.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.