SXSW is usually an incredibly streamlined and well-organized film festival, with everything working with the smoothness of a Swiss watch. But yesterday must have been an “off” day, as a panel centered around beloved film composer and Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh started about ten minutes late and (for some reason) a retrospective video for Mothersbaugh, produced back in 2004, played for another 20 minutes. Meaning that the tight hour that was allotted for the composer was actually more like 30 minutes. And while we wished it were longer, it was worth sticking around for the stories Mothersbaugh shared.
His early career in Devo was inspired by film technology, he recalled. Mothersbaugh said that he was a student at Kent State and in the same anti-Vietnam protest that claimed the lives of several of his peers, and that Devo was partially a gonzo response to that. But the real crux of the band was formulated a few years later. “We saw a Popular Science magazine in 1974 and it said ‘This Christmas everyone will have laserdisc,’ ” Mothersbaugh recalled, referring to the vinyl record-sized discs that predated DVD (they annoyingly had to be flipped over halfway through the movie). “And we thought, ‘Wow, that’s awesome – it’s got music and visuals on the same disc.’ ” Inspiration struck the band. “We thought that we want to make content for that – and this was pretty far before MTV,” he said. “So back then we’d make these little films and we’d go from Ohio to New York and we’d play CBGB’s, and projected our films, and people were confused because we would show a movie of a song we were about to perform.”
From the sound of it, though, Mothersbaugh was always a movie nut. “My favorite films, I would put my answering machine up to the television set and hit record,” Mothersbaugh said. “I’d tape my favorite movies and then I could go back and listen to them again. I only had the soundtrack, I didn’t have the visuals. But I think it made me really pay attention to the soundtracks.”
But as much as he loved soundtracks and movies, it still took Mothersbaugh a while before he dipped his toes into composing. “At one point a friend asked me score a film [that film would end up being ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure‘ and the score would end up being produced by another former member of an influential ’80s art-pop band, Danny Elfman] but I was on tour all year,” Mothersbaugh said. “And then a year later he asked if I wanted to score his TV show [‘Pee-Wee’s Playouse’], I was stuck with a record company which was going bankrupt, so I thought it was a pretty good idea.” He loved the quick turnaround with television: “It was amazing because you’d score it on Monday and see it on the air on Saturday. It was a good process.”
And while Mothersbaugh would move on to a varied career as a composer, working on everything from “Thirteen” to “The Rugrats Movie” to “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” his collaboration with one particular filmmaker has proved to be endlessly fascinating to film fans. That filmmaker is Wes Anderson.
“I got a call from Sony one day about this really interesting filmmaker who is freaking out and he’ll only talk to one person,” Mothersbaugh said. And it’s pretty easy to picture a young Wes Anderson, his eccentricities and neurosis yet to be accepted, demanding something totally bizarre. “I remember it was a screening of ‘Bottle Rocket‘ and a number of people walked out. It was a screening for high school students and they were writing on the comment cards things like, ‘She should have showed her tits.’ ” Not exactly the best experience for the audience or the studio, although Mothersbaugh had an inkling of what was there.
“Even with the temp music I thought that this guy has an interesting vision, and when I met him he was very articulate and he was under a lot of pressure,” Mothersbaugh recalled, noting the producing superstar that got behind Anderson’s debut feature. “Jim Brooks had seen the short film version of ‘Bottle Rocket,’ and he said, ‘Let’s do a film!’ So James saw that first rough cut and he went to us and said, ‘Why does it look like THAT? We gave you a bunch of money and it looks just like your short film!’ And Wes said, ‘What did you think it would look like?’ ” Brooks, a notorious tinkerer (just read the tremendous oral history of “The Simpsons” that came out a few years ago), asserted his power in post-production.
“Jim would try to help in the post-production process. And every time Brooks would listen to us talk he’d go to his office and tell his assistant to send us the score to ‘Big,’ ” Mothersbaugh said, referring to the airy score by Howard Shore. “I asked him, ‘What do I do with this stuff?’ And Anderson said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of Brooks.’ “
Mothersbaugh noted that Wes’ musical preferences have widened over the years. “Wes was interesting in that he had a very particular palette – he didn’t like bass sounds, he didn’t like brass. He didn’t like any low sounds except for an acoustic bass,” Mothersbaugh said. “Every movie I watched his palette broaden and more orchestral [sounds] came in.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of directors, some of them you wouldn’t really attach the word ‘artist’ to their name,” he said. “There’s this thing that Hollywood wanted to control directors, they’d pull people out of the commercial world. But I’ve worked with a bunch of artists, too. And Wes is one of those guys.” This statement was particularly poignant given the often reportedly contentious dynamic of their relationship. Anderson’s last three movies (“The Darjeeling Limited,” “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and the upcoming “Moonrise Kingdom“) have been without his early collaborator, although the nature of their purported falling out has never been completely illuminated, and wouldn’t be answered here.
Before Mothersbaugh left though, he made note of some filmmakers he is thrilled to be working with. “Chris Miller and Phil Lord are really exciting,” Mothersbaugh said, obviously quite proud. Mothersbaugh had scored the duo’s animated “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and their “21 Jump Street” (which played the festival the night before). And they’ll be working together again soon. “Now we’re going to do ‘Lego‘ together. They really love really crazy electronic music and I’m hoping ‘Lego’ will be the vehicle where we get to do that.”
Like everything else Mothersbaugh does, we can’t wait to see and hear the results.