Composer Interview: Marcelo Zarvos (Extant, The Affair)

Marcelo Zarvos is a composer with a very interesting career, beginning in Brazil and leading him to New York. He’s worked with directors such as Robert De Niro and Barry Levinson, and has scored a great array of character-driven and psychologically minded films such as The Words and The Face of Love, not to mention intimate comedies like James Gandolfini‘s last turn on the screen, Enough Said. His work can be currently heard on the hit TV shows The Affair and Extant (executive produced by Steven Spielberg). We got a chance to chat with the man and get behind his process.

Thank you for this opportunity to pick your brain, Marcelo! So, from Brazil to New York and writing music for the screen – how did that happen?

Well, that was quite a journey. But the short of it is that I always wanted to write music for the screen, and New York is a town I loved even before I set foot here. I found a very welcoming community of filmmakers and artists, both in and outside of the realm of TV and Film. For the first few years out of college in NY, I played a lot of different types of music and was able to soak up a lot of wonderful inspiration. I also started by doing indie films, and NY continues to be a very fertile place for independent film-making.

Your career has included a great number of wonderful films, featuring collaborations with many fine directors of different persuasions. What would you consider central and crucial to any director-composer relationship, from your experience?

My job is to intuit what a director wants, whether this is expressed in words or not. Directors are almost invariably extremely articulate people, but it is also true that, for the most part, music is a foreign language to them. I think of it as a dance, and you most definitely have to be able to interpret the signs as a composer and dance according to them.  At its best and most fulfilled, a director-composer relationship will expand each other’s perspective of music and story telling. I love when a director pushes and challenges me to think in a different way about the music, and I also get a great kick out of showing them something they might not have thought about in their story.

How did you make the move into writing for TV (while still continuing to work on film scores)?

It’s been a very seamless process. For me it’s all story telling really. That was my first attraction, in a way even before film. I used to  write compositions inspired by books. And if there’s one thing the current state of the industry tells us, it’s that the format of those stories can now be anything. So in many ways, the approach is similar. And of course, we are living what many consider to be the golden age of television. There really are so many wonderful shows of every shape and size. The main difference is really the pace you have to go and how much music needs to get done in TV. It used to be that stylistically, film and TV were separate, but I’d say at this point that the audience very much expects a fully fledged film sound to any TV show.


What went into creating the score for the TV series, The Affair? Did the showrunners have a very particular vision for the music?

Yes, they did. The music needed to be very psychological and emotional, but also have an underlying tension that kept the audience coming back for more. TV tends to be very much about exposition and plot, where things go and take turns, but this show was also very preoccupied with exploring the feelings and thoughts of the characters. In a sense, the role of the music and was to make everything even quieter so we could really get inside their minds. And always shine a light on the non-obvious – what is NOT in the screen. What layer is missing or could be added on?

Many of your scores have been to projects that have dealt with the psychology of their characters. How does the psychological aspect factor into your music for The Affair?

Psychology is very interesting to me, and is also what music can illustrate the best, in my opinion. Music is emotion, and what better way to express that? I feel that music helps to trick our brain into accepting that experience we watch on a screen as emotional reality, even if it’s a comedy or an action thing. It creates a psychological bond.

Keeping with the psychological aspect, how does it play within the science fiction universe of Extant and your approach to the score?

Extant was much more about plot and exposition. The themes it explored were more about what is being human and also what constitutes a family. But there were serious action and thriller elements to it as well, of course.

Do the science fiction, action, and mystery elements of Extant significantly change how you would normally approach creating the soundtrack, given how different it can be from many of the projects you’ve worked on?

Yes. It allows the music to be much bigger and thicker at points. Stranger and more disturbing textures too. There is quite a lot of action and scares which are great fun to score. But also, there’s a surprisingly large amount of family intimate moments. The producers wanted the music to be both about emotion and action, since it’s also about a mother and son relationship.


The topic of temp music is always passionately debated among media composers. Some would consider it positive when the picture is temped with their own music, and may even primarily work in that way with directors. You interestingly have a different outlook on this.

Yes I do. I find it the hardest temp to deal with to be my own. I understand why people use my scores, and, of course, many times that is even reason I am doing the job in the first place. But I feel it can be a very boxing thing for a composer if people start to want you to reference your own music all the time. I find it much more exciting when it’s something I have not done and have to reach for creatively.

So much of your music contains a particularly beautiful sensitivity, the kind I would associate with composers like James Newton Howard and Thomas Newman. Not that I’m asking you for your “secret sauce”, but is there a key to how you imbue your music with these qualities?

Well, those are two great composers you mentioned. I think the key is to be yourself in everything you do. While I have done a pretty wide range of scores, there is also a through line of a certain thoughtfulness and subtle quality to the music. I love to score quiet and delicate scenes, which is certainly something those two guys you mentioned to amazingly well. But it’s mostly about the music expressing something on its own. Capturing the mood without being too specific, so it doesn’t feel like it’s imposing a point of view all the time, and letting the viewer reach their own conclusions.


You’ve got a number of films coming up in 2015 and 2016 that you’ve scored or are working on. What can you tell us about your music for these projects?

There are some exciting ones for sure. First up is American Ultra, a whacky action comedy that can be described as a pot smoking Jason Bourne type character, brilliantly played by Jesse Eisenberg. The score is mostly action packed electronic stuff. Also, Our Kind of Traitor is a phenomenal spy film (one of my favorite genres to write for) based on a John LeCarre movie. The score is quite elaborate with a big orchestra and tons of weird Eastern European instruments and electronics. And there are 80 minutes of music. Wonderful performances by Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard. Finally, marking my fifth collaboration with the great Barry Levinson is Rock the Kasbah. A hysterical war comedy starring Bill Murray as a disgraced music manager who finds himself in Kabul, Afghanistan. The score has a lot of Middle Eastern influence, but also a classic Western cowboy type sound.

Given your lifelong love for the instrument, would you consider your piano the most important element of your studio? What else do you consider essential to your creative space, whether it’s used to create music or not?

The piano is definitely the closest thing to my voice (a good thing because I am a terrible singer!). So , yes, it plays a really crucial role in my work. A lot of my most subtle and quiet work is piano based, almost always with me playing it. But I also like to write on a computer use the amazing technology that is available to us now.

What do you get up to outside of the studio, and how do you maintain a balanced life?

Well, it is a very time consuming job. I do have small children, so what little time I have is usually spent with them. I try to live a balanced life, with work and family. There is an unpredictability about schedules that can make it hard to plan things. But after a lifetime doing it you hope to figure at least a little bit of it out.

Many thanks to Krakower Poling PR for their role in making this interview happen. More about Marcelo Zarvos can be found on his IMDb page.

Written by: Meena Shamaly

Meena Shamaly is a composer, artist, multi-instrumentalist and performance poet based in Melbourne, Australia. His music covers a wide range of styles and sensibilities and often intersects with his poetry. He is part of international production house EON Sounds, working on various film, TV, video game, and production library projects.

  • Marcus Rasseli

    Nice, Marcelo is an inspiration. :-)

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