Brad Fiedel interview: composing Terminator 2’s iconic score

Composer Brad Fiedel talks to us about his stunning music for The Terminator and its sequel, T2...

Across a varied and illustrious career, New York-born musician Brad Fiedel has conjured up some unforgettable sounds. He was the keyboard player for soft rock outfit Hall & Oates in the 70s; as a composer, Fiedel’s career spanned 20 years and an eclectic mix of film and TV: cult horror classic Fright Night, hit drama The Accused, 90s sci-fi action thriller Johnny Mnemonic to name a few.

But for most movie geeks, Fiedel will be most closely associated with his unforgettable music for James Cameron’s Terminator and Terminator 2. By turns percussive and melancholy, his electronic score encapsulated the themes of Cameron’s nightmarish chase movies as eloquently as the images: the off-kilter, metallic rhythm suggesting an unstoppable cyborg on the rampage, the minor-key melody evoking the last flicker of a species on the cusp of being destroyed by its own creation.

More than a quarter of a century on from Terminator 2: Judgment Day’s release in 1991, both the film and its music remain highlights of the sci-fi genre – which is why, earlier this year, a restored, stereoscopic edition of T2 appeared in cinemas, looking as sharp and thrilling as it always did.

As that remastered version of Cameron’s milestone arrives on its home release, we were excited to chat to Brad Fiedel himself about his thinking behind his killer score – and how a happy quirk of 80s technology gave rise to its disturbing rhythm…

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It must be strange for you that your work for The Terminator is still so popular all these years later. 

Yes it is! What’s interesting is that people ask me certain questions, and for a while it was completely out of sight, out of mind. I guess when it really first started to resurface was pretty much when social media started. Because I really did my work, sent it out there and never really thought about its impact on people, that it meant something to people. Hopefully the music supported the film, you know? But anyway, social media came about more and more, and I started to ask me questions more and more, and find me on Facebook one way or another. So I’ve kind of had to recharge my memory cells, and I remember a lot more, interestingly, as I’ve been talking about it over the last decade or so. 

Terminator 2’s interesting in particular, because obviously the film itself was so, so much larger in scale and budget than the first, but that didn’t necessarily have to follow into the music. 

Well, there were two elements. You know, necessity’s the mother of invention. I think originally, we hadn’t decided for sure what the palette would be – whether we’d translate with the size to a large orchestra. Two things happened: one, it became clear that Jim was pushing so hard on the envelope, what was possible with CGI and the rendering time of computers, that it became clearer and clearer as we went along that I wasn’t going to get the finished scenes until the very last minute.

At that time – it’s a little easier now because everything’s digital – but at that time, recording on analogue was pretty hard to commit to an orchestra and then have to change things. Because, you know, it’s action and things have to fit exactly. It’s not like mood music, where hey, if it’s six frames off over here then it won’t matter. It did matter. So as I was developing, I had a nice early start on T2, so I was on the project as they started shooting or a little bit before that. I was really able to develop the full library, at that point, of sounds. Like the sounds of the T-1000, and all these different elements – a particular kind of orchestral string sound that wasn’t a real sound, you know.

Most of the sounds in Terminator 2 actually originated organically – they were organic, acoustic sounds that I [compiled] through the technology that had become available. So I was cutting edge with the music technology the same way Jim was with the CGI technology. It seemed to blend well. At some point we realised that I was about to do the music for the most expensive film ever made at that moment – in my garage, basically. So we made that decision, and I think it served the film well. It’s a bigger, richer sound, mostly because of the technology – Terminator 1 was mostly all oscillators and synthesizers, just coming out of the wall socket, you know? A lot of the sounds in T2 were generated by real things – real air moving in a room, of something being played but then twisted. 

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Could you give me an example of what you used to create the sounds for, say, the T-1000? That sounds interesting.

The T-1000 was a crazy sample of a room full of brass players warming up and just playing. It sounded like craziness. It sounded like a bunch of brass players went in a studio and you told them, “You’re an insane asylum. You’re a Bedlam of instruments.” That’s what the sample sounded like. And then I took it down into a speed and a pitch that was not recognisable. When I played it to Jim, or trying to describe it, it sounds like a weird machine room somewhere, but with monks. Like, artificial intelligent monks chanting in a weird chapel or something. 

There’s that part right near the end where the T-1000’s melting in the furnace, or the molten metal, and that sounds like what you’re talking about: that cacophony of brass.

Yeah. Well, that’s there from the minute you see him, and then it really flares out in some of the fights, where the Terminator splits him in half and all that stuff’s happening. And actually, it’s so atonal and avant garde, when I first played it for Jim, he said, “That’s too avant garde for me, I’m not into avant garde”. Right? And I said, “Well, you know Jim, you’re creating something that people have never seen before, and it ought to sound like something people have never heard before to support that.” Rarely can you do that. Jim hears something and he likes it or he doesn’t like it. But that one, I was able to kind of help him into accepting it – let’s put it that way. 

I remember reading that you didn’t get onto making the music for the original Terminator until you saw the rough cut. Is that right?

Yeah. That’s actually pretty common. It was a smaller film. Many of the projects that I’ve worked on – in fact, I’ve worked on some projects, like Serpent And The Rainbow, where someone had already done a score, and it didn’t work for the producers and the director so they threw it out. I didn’t come out until the film was basically finished, and I was doing a replacement situation. So yeah. Unfortunately, it was rare – T2 was one of the few times [that I came on early]. It was true of John Hughes and Jonathan Kaplan, because I had a relationship with him, that I got to come on early. But a lot of times, it was just seeing the rough cut, or seeing something that wasn’t locked, but was pretty close, and they were showing it to test audiences. Around that time. 

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What was Cameron’s brief to you? Did he even give you a brief?  

You know, I was really lucky working with Jim, because he’s so on top of every department and every detail. And yet, my memory is, on the first Terminator, I requested to see the film with out of that temp music that they plug in to make the screening bearable. I requested to see it without that, which was unusual at the time. He supported that, and that’s kind of the way we worked together. I don’t remember Jim giving me much other than showing me the film. One of the reasons I had to win that freedom was because able to come up with a suite of music, showing what my choice of direction would be – my vocabulary for the music, how it sounded, what the melodies were, quite quickly. We were lucky on those three films [T1, T2, True Lies], right out of the box, he was 99 point nine percent in agreement. There were always some scenes that he wanted to treat a little differently, and of course he was usually right because he knew the film better than anyone. There were scenes like that in both films.

There was the love scene in the original Terminator that I did mostly with acoustic piano, and he was like, totally shocked when he heard it, because he had a temp piece that was very different than that, and I hadn’t heard it. He said, “I’m glad I didn’t play the temp, because I really like the way this works, and you might not have done this if you’d heard the temp music”. With T2, we knew something had to shift, and we weren’t quite clear, and we just got set on a loose kind of way – “Well, of course this is bigger.” And in a sense, it’s warmer. The story – all of a sudden there’s the kid, and the Terminator becomes a hero. You know, there’s a different kind of feeling to it. So I just went off and did experiments, and when he had a chance to come over, I would play him, “This is what I think the main theme would sound like now.” And “This is what I’m thinking the T-1000 sounds like.” “These are the percussion sounds I’d like to use.” We kind of worked on it that way. 

It’s interesting you saying the second one’s warmer, because the first one’s kind of a horror film in some ways. The Terminator’s a grim reaper, unstoppable. I wondered if that was in the back of your mind when you came up with the theme.

No. Actually, the theme for me really came from the bigger picture. Although Jim was making something very tense and very tight, that part I got, but there was this other thing. It’s very sad. When you cut to the future, and you see the people huddled around a broken TV set with a fire inside of it, images like that, those are the images that dictated the harmonic melody. The melody in the minor key, the feeling of the scene. The pulsing underneath was the unrelenting Terminator feeling, which I think people end up remembering: everyone can go dun-dun-dun-duh-dun, you know? But you ask people to sing the melody, and less people would know that. But when it came together as a theme, it worked. I think it had the drive and the impact, but it also had the larger [theme of] the ruin of humanity by the artificial intelligence that it created. 

It’s an interesting time signature, too isn’t it? Quite unusual.

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Yeah. It was unusual in the way that I wrote it, but it became even more unusual, because it was all a little experiment that I literally did the day after I saw the film. Jim and Gale Ann Hurd had come to see me in my studio, and I started working on it the next day. I pretty much wrote the main theme on the piano, but then started to play… “Well, how do I get this metallic heartbeat?” The technology at that point was limited. It wasn’t all MIDI, where you can just tie together… you can do it all on your laptop now. Back then, it was individual keyboards.

Some of them did have internal rhythm clocks, or the Prophet-10 that has that main “ba-bong-a-bong-a-bong-a-bon-BOM!”, that part, was on a little tape loop inside the keyboard, and it didn’t quantize – which means it was just a manual thing where you played something, you hit stop and the thing that made the time signature particularly weird is that I’d hit stop on that machine at less than perfect completion of the loop. So I thought, “I didn’t hit that right.” Then I’m listening to it and I think, “I love that.” Because it’s kind of falling forward – it’s a machine, but it’s not a perfect tick-tock clock. It kind of goes “tu-tuh-tu-ta-kah”, you know? I thought that Jim’s main objective was to just keep the film moving. So it was a combination of those wonderful mistakes that make things work.

It’s an amazing serendipity, really, because it throws you off slightly, that rhythm. It’s off-kilter.

Always, anybody writing music, most music comes from some form of improvisation. It’s whether it’s just in the imagination of the composer, or sitting at the piano or whatever. It’s something I was improvising musically, but also technically with new technology. There was a little glitch, and I thought the little glitch really served the film.

-Your Terminator score also does something we see less of in movie music today, which is that it responds to what’s happening on screen. So for example, a Terminator rises from a burning truck at the end of T1, the synth jabs match the movements of the cyborg. For me, I don’t see that so much in action films anymore.

Yeah. There’s different choices – I don’t think there’s a wrong or right. I would look at every film and every scene, every moment, every frame individually. It seemed like, here is this stuff that’s being created – whether it’s a combination of computer generation and wonderful mechanical actual creations that Stan Winston did – all that stuff is coming together, and it was really an instinctual thing for me. We had to work it out between me and the sound effects, and they did some great sound effects, and it all sort of came together to make something that isn’t real feel real. In Hollywood sometimes, if you score something too specifically, there used to be a derogatory term called “Mickey Mousing it”, because it was like cartoons – the music was very structured. Every moment is telling you what you’re seeing, kind of. In this case, I thought that it gave this life to something mechanical was what the film required, you know? 

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What are your thoughts on modern film scores in general? Because you’ve got composers like Trent Reznor and Hans Zimmer, and they use a lot of synths and electronica.

Sometimes I see a film, not to get specific, where the score just really takes me out of the moment, or it’s overwhelming the image. I also know from my experience that I don’t necessarily blame the composer, because sometimes they’re being directed to do something. But most scores that I see these days, the technology gives such freedom to composers, which was already happening when I was working, but it’s just gone further and further. So I know it’s easier to make adjustments as the film changes and all that stuff. The one thing that’s interesting to me, but it’s almost a little bit more in song production than it is in scoring, is that, for me, some of the sounds in the original Terminator, it’s all we had. When I listen back to those, it sounds a little, quote, cheesy to me.

There were certain sounds in the 80s that were not, in my mind, desirable as a composer, because they kind of called attention to themselves in a nuts-and-bolts kind of way. Like, “pee-owww”. Oh, there’s that sound again, you know? A saw-tooth synth sound. But I really think that our job is to use whatever exists in the world, or even create an instrument for a score because there’s nothing in the universe that sounds like what your imagination is wanting for that film. Electronics and computers help that, but sometimes, literally, you have to take a piano string and string it across some kind of open box and bow it with a cello bow or something. You have to come up with a new sound, and that’s always fun. 

But I have no, you know [adopts authoritarian voice] “Oh they’re screwing up now.” I think there’s a lot of talent out there, and a lot of good stuff going on. Especially with this new golden age of television – it’s amazing with the schedules and budgets that some of the scores are quite wonderful.

You probably get asked this a lot, but have you been offered more TV and film score work? Is it something you’re tempted to go back to?

Not really. I have to say, part of it comes out of my answer to the last question, which is, I think there are certain changes in the technology that I haven’t kept abreast of. And I think there are people out there – it’s nothing to do with the age of the composer because some of them are as old or even older than I am – but I think there are people that are doing such wonderful work. And I think it’s something you have to keep your chops going at. One of the reasons I did all kinds of work – television and film – because I always wanted to keep developing, keep moving, keep working. And since I haven’t done it in so long, I’m kind of confident that there’s someone else who can come along and do as good or better job than I can. I’m really devoting my creative time to conceiving characters.

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I’m writing a musical at this point – I’m writing the lyrics and the music, and I’m telling a story I want to tell, and I’m developing it all from the ground up. It’s very exciting, and it’s a luxury that I don’t, at this point in my life, I can just take time with commercial concerns, and just create.

Brad Fiedel, thank you very much. 

The new, restored Terminator 2: Judgment Day is out now on 2D and 3D Blu-ray.