Residenz: United States of America
: (updated 2009-07-18)
A classically trained concert composer with an advanced degree from Juilliard, Theodore Shapiro never set out to become Hollywood’s praised “King of Comedy” composer. It is a title he has been reluctant to wear, but with over a billion dollars in worldwide box office receipts and a lengthy résumé of hit films including I Love You Man, Marley & Me, The Devil Wears Prada, Tropic Thunder and Old School, the composer has proven himself to be the go-to musician for directors seeking scores for comedy gold.
“Writing a good comedy score has a lot to do with having a good sensibility about what’s funny, where you want to push the comedy, and where you want to let it alone,” offers Shapiro.
Shapiro’s latest project, Year One, the pre-historic comedy starring funnymen Jack Black and Michael Cera, debuted on June 19, 2009. It was Shapiro’s first project with the legendary writer and director, Harold Ramis. Because of the film’s picaresque quality, and its setting at the dawn of man, Shapiro (pronounced “Sha-PIE-roe”) had the opportunity to stretch his craft. Ramis set out to make a film that isn’t just the beginning of man, but tracks the evolution of man. The music needed to follow the same epic journey.
“Year One was sort of an interesting and unusual process, in that the music does make an arc,” explained Shapiro. “It starts off with a very primal sound—percussion, didgeridoos, very primal instruments—and when the characters leave the village, it changes. My initial approach was that it gradually got into a more Middle Eastern sound, then ultimately into a more epic and Biblical sound.”
A collage of eclectic music, including electric and Middle Eastern guitars, woodwinds, and drum loops, Shapiro began referring to his score as “’Odelay’ Goes To The Middle East,” in homage to the breakthrough album from rocker, Beck.
“The movie has a great, really loose, homemade feel to it,” said Shapiro. “And when the music started underlining that, it really was exciting.”
The score for Year One reflected a new approach to scoring; one Shapiro had developed for his work on Ben Stiller’s epic comedy, Tropic Thunder.
“I think I threw everything, including the kitchen sink, into the Tropic Thunder score,” laughed the composer. “It’s got a very large orchestra, and Taiko drums, and a rock band, and the techno stuff, and electronic. It was a very maximal approach.”
In an effort to get all of the appropriate, worldly sounds into these two films, Shapiro began his scoring process by sampling musicians working with the unusual instruments. This stands in stark contrast to his earlier work and that of many composers, who use pre-made samples to create melodies and harmonies, and later orchestrate for other instruments. This new approach allows Shapiro to create what he calls a “sonic palette” for each film he scores.
“The first rule for me is that the music is completely serious. You’re writing the same music for a comedic scene as you would if it was a dead-serious scene,” Shapiro explained. “And the comedy is just coming out in the distance between what’s on the screen and the seriousness of the music.”
Despite his role as the musician with a funny streak, “serious music” is part of Shapiro’s extensive and varied background. He began playing music before age five and was composing music before the age of ten. From an early age, Shapiro was keenly attuned to film scores.
“I saw Chinatown for the first time at sleep-away camp,” Shapiro explained. “Grant it, it was weird movie to show a bunch of eight year-olds. But even then, I was aware that there were colors in Jerry Goldsmith’s music that were setting the mood for a film that is incredibly evocative.” The other favorite score from his childhood was Raiders of the Lost Ark. “The tune was so great and, let’s face it, I wanted to be Indiana Jones. I didn’t want to be John Williams at the time. Your heroes have a way of changing with age.”
Shapiro began composing seriously when he attended Brown University for his undergraduate degree. While at Brown, Shapiro wrote a musical and provided incidental music for several of the school’s theatrical productions. Shapiro also worked with several of his other musical classmates; among them the future pop stars Duncan Sheik and Lisa Loeb. After graduation, Shapiro went on to Juilliard, for his Masters.
While at the famed conservatory, Shapiro focused on modern classical music and concert music. The education bolstered his natural technique, and the school’s location, in the heart of New York City, allowed him to collaborate with other art and film students in the city. While in school and shortly after, Shapiro worked alongside several students, one of whom landed a role on the MTV comedy show The State, whose cast members included Reno 911’s Tom Lennon and Kerry Kenney, Michael Ian Black, and Michael Showalter. Writing music for the series was Shapiro’s first professional scoring job.
Having worked with writing and directing talent of the likes of David Mamet, Ben Stiller, John Hamburg, and Rawson Marshall Thurber, Shapiro’s scores cover some of the most acclaimed comedies in the past decade. Credits include: Blades of Glory, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, 13 Going on 30, Starsky & Hutch, Along Came Polly, Wet Hot American Summer, Safe Men, and Mamet’s Heist and State and Main.
The goal of a composer, as Shapiro puts it, is to “help a director achieve his vision, and maybe even getting them to view the movie in a way that they hadn’t seen before, perhaps with different shading.”
It is Shapiro’s goal, he says, to one day score a film his children can actually see. He and his wife live in Los Angeles and have a four year-old daughter and two year-old son.