Marcelo Zarvos is scoring big in the independent film world these days. The thirty-five-year old Brazilian-born Zarvos, who has made New York his home for the past twelve years, has composed music for a handful of independent films, including Tully (2000), Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), and this year’s The Door in the Floor—all award-winning and critically acclaimed.
Zarvos discovered his passion for music and film at the age of ten, when as a child growing up in Brazil he was given the extraordinary opportunity (the details of which Zarvos is vague) to work as a piano player on the score for the classic 1973 film, The Sting. At thirteen, Zarvos started playing music professionally in local nightclubs, and a year later joined a band called Tokyo, which was signed to the CBS record label and went on to enjoy moderate success in Brazil. Zarvos’s experience with Tokyo allowed him to write his own music for the first time, but unlike most boys his age he did not dream of rock stardom—he already had his heart set on pursuing a career in film scoring.
“I think the main attraction [of film scoring] was the possibility of experimenting and combining a wide variety of musical styles including rock, without the constraints of a three-minute song format or preconceptions about genre,” Zarvos says.
Zarvos ventured to the United States when he was eighteen to study film score composition at the well-regarded Berklee College of Music in Boston. When he first arrived, Zarvos found some obvious contrasts between the United States and Brazil: family plays a larger role in Brazil, while in the United States, work and career tend to take center stage. Zarvos also immediately recognized the dominant social gap here, whereas in Brazil, “a larger majority of the country lives in very precarious conditions.” But today, having spent nearly half his life here, America feels like home to Zarvos. Naturally, Brazil remains a very strong source of inspiration in both his music and personal life.
Rather than going to Berklee as planned, Zarvos decided at the last minute that focusing exclusively on film scoring right away might not be the best move. “I just had the feeling that I should be exposed to more types of music, and [needed to] live music more before I focused on film scores,” he says.
Zarvos ended up at CalArts outside of Los Angeles, where he studied composition as well as classical music and jazz. During that time he wrote and performed a combination of classical, jazz, chamber, and Brazilian music with his band Marcelo Zarvos + Group. The group recorded three albums for MA Recording—Dualism, Labyrinths, and Music Journal. In 1998, ten years after his arrival in the United States, Zarvos was offered the opportunity to score his first film.
As it happened, the Brazilian director Paulo Machline had heard Zarvos play at the Knitting Factory in New York, and felt that Zarvos’s style was just right for his short film, Soccer Story (Uma Historia de Futebol, 1999). That short film became a hit on the festival circuit and even went on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film in 2001. Not exactly a bad way to start a career in film scoring.
“I was kind of feeling that one way or the other I would wind up doing film music, and that’s exactly how it happened,” Zarvos says.
After that, things began rather quickly to fall into place for Zarvos. Soon after Soccer Story, the film’s editor Affonso Gonçalves approached Zarvos with Tully (2000), a small independent by Hilary Birmingham that he edited, which also went on to win major accolades and awards at various film festivals. “It was interesting,” remembers Zarvos, “because [Tully] was a completely independent film and he asked me if I wanted to score this film, no distribution or nothing.”
Then came Kissing Jessica Stein, the 2001 indie darling already fast approaching cult classic status. Zarvos composed the score for that film in just ten days. Long nights and countless shots of espresso later, the film was off to the Los Angeles Film Festival where it was awarded the Audience Choice Award and picked up for distribution.
Of his scoring process, Zarvos explains, “[The film score] helps convey so much that goes beyond what’s on the screen—[it’s] really able to capture the sort of invisible elements that are in the film. [The composer] is one element of a large multimedia collaboration, and music can be more or less important.”
“I think what music can do is express the world of a character in a way that words cannot. Great actors can do that with how they look and their body language and all of that—but with all the things that go beyond words is where music starts and does its best job.”
In terms of working with directors, Zarvos feels the most important thing is that directors know in a profound sort of way, the story they want to tell. “I don’t think it’s essential that they tell you in very specific musical terms what needs to be done,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s even advisable. You can talk a lot about things, but nothing beats being in the room with the director when they first [hear] something, and you just watch their reaction and their face and their body language. That can tell you a lot.”
For a pivotal scene from The Door in the Floor where Ted Cole (Jeff Bridges) is being chased by Evelyn Vaughn (Mimi Rogers), Zarvos recalls feeling like director Tod Williams was directing him more as an actor than as a musician. In instances like this, Zarvos says, “you’re not a hundred percent sure where you’re going, but the director is giving you his notes and you kind of just trust.” For that scene, Zarvos scored the music less to fit the action on screen than to express the way the character was feeling internally.
“[Bridges played] a total megalomaniac who is very romantic and feels that the whole world is after him,” Zarvos says. “He deserves every bit of anger from this woman, but we were playing with what was inside him and not necessarily what was on the screen. [Fields] just kept saying, ‘bigger, bigger, more, louder.’ Until finally one day he heard the music and he said, ‘Okay, that’s what I’m talking about.’ It was great. And then I could take a step back and say, ‘Wow. He was right.’ And I understood the effect he was going for, but again, it was not necessarily in very musical terms, but more about drama and texture and just size and scope.”
In Zarvos’s score for Door in the Floor, he succeeds in fashioning a bleak, melancholy world with slow and heated sounds of piano and strings, reflecting the characters’ emotional journey in a world that appears to be vanishing.
One thing that Zarvos says he has learned from his experience is that every director is different. “I’ve been lucky to work with very bright directors and very different ones, and they all had very unique ways of talking about music,” he says. For example, Zarvos learned that Michael Burke, whom he worked with on The Mudge Boy (2003), had his own special way to gauge how well the music worked in a scene. He called it his “gut test.” Burke would watch a score, listen to the music, and if he had a reaction, would write the letters “ER” on the sheet of paper. Luckily, Zarvos discovered quickly that “ER” did not stand for Emergency Room, but rather Emotional Response.
Inspiration, Zarvos says, comes from that collaborative aspect of filmmaking, not just in terms of partnering with a director, but also the idea that so many different media and art forms are coming together to create a film. “[Film is] all the art forms: drama, music, painting, theater, choreography, design,” he says. “So I think it’s the synergy of all of that that makes it so mesmerizing. Cinema is a very recent art form compared to the other classic art forms. Music has been around for a long time. I find that there’s a real magic to it in how it works and why it works together.”
All of Zarvos’s work so far has been on independents. And while he says he’d be happy to work for a huge Hollywood paycheck (and really, who could blame him), Zarvos maintains that he is “fully committed to continue working on smaller, more personal, independent films.” It’s the task of evenly combining music with all those other art forms mentioned above that is especially mesmerizing for Zarvos. “I really feel that for anyone involved in filmmaking, everything is a means to an end, and the end is the film,” he says. “As a film composer, you are a part of something bigger than yourself.”