Mission: Impossible – Fallout Composer and How to Reinvent a Classic Theme Tune

We sit down with composer Lorne Balfe to discuss how one reinvents a classic theme, as was the case in Mission: Impossible - Fallout.

When I sit down to speak with Lorne Balfe, the composer of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth and arguably best of the Tom Cruise spy movie bunch, we have to pause midway through the interview. It’s not something that happens very often, nor is it something that, generally speaking, Balfe or I would prefer, but a funny thing was happening during the interview: Lalo Schifrin was on the radio discussing how much he loved Balfe’s reworking of the “Mission: Impossible Theme.”

For those who do not recognize Schifrin’s name, he was the composer who realized an awesome baseline was the secret to one of the greatest espionage themes of all time in 1966. It was a theme that Balfe also rearranged the harmonies of for a reinvention of Fallout’s opening credits. It was one of the many ways Balfe and writer-director Christopher McQuarrie shook things up on the action sequel. Still, Balfe had been too nervous all the way through production and even release of Fallout to share with Schifrin his score. So hearing that the legendary composer loved Balfe’s own version of the theme let him realize “I can die a happy man.”

The general good nature and relief in Balfe’s demeanor underscore a Cinderella rollout for Fallout, which many have hailed as the series’ best. And a big part of that are the chances Balfe and McQuarrie took. The latter previously directed the then-best reviewed M:I movie, Rogue Nation, yet in coming back elected to have an almost entirely new creative team, including composer.

Balfe, who has worked on some big franchise films before including Terminator: Genisys and The Lego Batman Movie, was given relative free rein to reimagine things, including by creating what became the film’s signature theme, an original piece highlighting Ethan’s isolation and loneliness. You recognize it as the music that plays in the opening scene of Ethan’s nightmare about what the fallout of all his good intentions will bring. That plus a more tonal, aggressively muscular allowed Balfe to be part of a departure for the series that has paid off beautifully.

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In our below interview, we discuss trying to reinvent the wheel of the “Mission: Impossible Theme,” as well as Balfe’s own contributions from the new theme to an emphasis on percussions and bongos in the score (he apparently was a failed percussionist). We also consider just what the word “trilogy” could mean…

How did are you first approached by McQ and this production to join the Mission: Impossible team?

Lorne Balfe: We’ve got a lot of mutual friends and colleagues, Jack Myers, who produced Dunkirk, and the whole franchise family and the whole Paramount family. That was the initial connection, and then I started having a lot of breakfast with McQ talking about the film, and before I hadn’t ever seen anything, the way he kept talking about Ethan’s character in this movie, and how it was a a different side that we haven’t seen in the prior movies, and I think after the third breakfast, I locked myself in the studio and I wrote down the music to give to Chris to basically say what I felt I was getting from him about Ethan’s character, and also a lot to do with the famous theme, which I think everybody in the world knows about, so that’s how it all began.

That’s interesting, because I know McQ has said he really wanted this to feel entirely different from the last movie in the series which he directed, Rogue Nation. How did he specifically articulate that to you, and how did you think you interpreted that as an artist and musician?

He never said you’ve got to do the opposite of what Rogue Nation did. We never had that conversation. It looks different, the movie felt different, the colors of it were totally different. I think it naturally happened. The other great thing is it didn’t use temp music. So the first time I watched the movie [in post-production], some of the scenes I watched actually used music that I had written beforehand for the movie. It was a totally different way of working. There was no agenda with the music to make it dramatically different, I think it was a case of how do we change these melodies and scenes, and incorporate it into something new.

If there was no temp music, is some of that early music you wrote after meetings in the final film?

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Quite a lot of it. I think that the whole exchange cue, when they’re in Paris, that was one of the pieces that I first ever wrote.

The armored car scene?

Yes. That was one of the first scenes, so yes, that was quite a lot other scenes where there were initial thoughts where it fits the music that I had evolved it or changed. I think the first piece that you hear during the wedding, that was again a piece I had written, and Chris and me had been talking about the different characters in the movie.

I thought one of the most beautiful and interesting pieces of music in it was in the wedding scene Ethan dreamed, and specifically the way you use it when Luther is telling Ilsa about Julia. I was curious about what do you hope audiences take away or feel when they hear that piece of music?

I hope they take away that Ethan is a human, he’s not a superhero. He’s a human being, and I think the whole point of that scene was really to show his flaws in one way. And I think musically, you’ve got one of the best themes ever written, the Mission: Impossible theme, and the plot theme that comes from the TV show. And I thought they’re as good of themes as any. [Laughs]

They complement each other very well. And I think with your original piece, it is much more earnest and yearning than what you usually associate with typical motifs for spies like James Bond.

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Yes, and I think also with this movie, I personally never felt that there was never a sense of parody or a nostalgic feeling to the genre of Mission: Impossible. [And using that theme] is just giving it a cherry on its head, really approaching it as a modern theme and not trying to sound retro, which you easily do. But the color of the movie is not like that. It’s a very honest looking movie and feel, the same way that the sound effects—You know, I wish I could say that one of the best action fight scenes I’ve ever seen in my life, that bathroom fight. I wish I could say that I contributed to it, but alas I can’t. But it was real and raw, and I think that comes back down to McQ’s excellent tastes. He knows when to use music and when not.

It’s all much more visceral when you don’t have music telling you what to think. You just feel the desperation of the characters.

Yeah, and also it’s more barbaric and more real without music accompanying it. You can smell the fear from the men as they fight.

Is there any trepidation in approaching a beloved franchise with such an iconic theme like this?

Yes. Yes and yes. [Laughs] It’s unbelievable. I mean when I first watched the first Mission: Impossible, I was in college, and I remember falling in love with the franchise, I remember seeing him on the train, and just every one, every sequel to it, has just been part of my growing up with movies, and I think that that theme is so iconic, when you sit down and you’ve got two things going on in your head. One is I try to be aware of the audience and the fans. And I tried to do that the same with Terminator, to be respectful to that theme and use it when it means something. Because it’s not just the fact that it’s a good theme; it’s a memory that people will associate. It’s very intimidating.

At the same time, do you ever find yourself thinking, I might be using the theme too much in this sequence, or consciously trying to maintain its reverence? Do you find yourself trying to avoid it at certain times where it might be easy to insert it for any action beat?

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Yes, but I think it comes down to what feels good, and the fact that it’s Fallout, but it’s also Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I can easily start writing new themes, but I feel that [the theme] makes you feel connected to certain characters. It just is a perfect little theme that people will say it’s overused and some people feel it’s underused. You can never win, all you can do really is think about the person watching that movie and does it feel right when you hear those themes.

You have to make it your own too, and I think you do some really interesting work in it, in terms of percussion in the movie.

I’m a failed percussionist, you see. [Laughs] I studied percussion as a music student, and I didn’t have the best of timing, so I could never make it as a professional, unfortunately. But percussion is always very important to me but also the whole concept of the bongos, and bongos have that very nostalgic feel from the TV show, and to experiment with a different sound and different players throughout the movie. Sometimes there’s solo bongo players, then I go to 12, and then the sound changes the same way the colors of the movie change.

Did you go back and watch a good portion of the series and let that influence how you approached this film?

Yes, I think I always knew that it wasn’t going to be a reference point. But I think it’s important to know the whole history of it. It’s important to know the pedigree of where everything has come from. It was a huge learning curve, because the TV show wasn’t a part of my generation, the movies were. But for me it’s important to know the heritage of these notes.

And when you hear those bongo drums in the show, you still say, ‘Oh, I know where that’s going into the next film!’

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But also I think that the beginning of the movie, I think it was, we start off with the bongos, which it wasn’t originally going to be that piece of music, but then working with the musicians, as soon as you hear those drums, you feel connected to something. I think that was something else that we wanted to try to introduce without being retro. It’s just a sound that triggers a memory.

At the same time, do you feel like you’re offering a slightly less overt signal to audiences during the action than they’re used to from the franchise in the past?

Absolutely, but the thing is the movie is different from the other movies in the franchise, so I think that it needs to capture them all, and I know that some feel it should be pretty traditional, but I always feel that if you look at it that way, and you don’t change—the filmmakers change and so should the music. [It’s like saying] ‘we should not have gone into color, black and white was perfectly good.’ And I think it’s the same with instrumentation, that violin section, the brass section, to me is the same as a mood synthesizer. It’s creating a color, and it helps create a different tone to the story. To me it may be different, but the DNA is all connected back to that original theme. There may be less woodwind in this one, but to me it’s still honest to the original music that Lalo had written.

There does seem to be a trend in film scores for action movies to rely less on leitmotifs in favor of what I would call more tonal soundscapes, do you see it evolving that way?

No, I still believe it’s 50/50. I think it depends on the movie. I think that purists may regard the ‘80s and Jerry Goldsmith being the quintessential example of film scoring, but that was also a very prominent type during a time when soundtracks were purely songs, and there was very little score. So I think times change, and if I’m working on an animation like Lego Batman, it’s very orchestral, it’s very melodic, but that suits that type of story that’s being told. I think it has gone down in a less hybrid tone in Fallout than the more classical tone from Ghost Protocol. I don’t think it would’ve matched the mood of story and the color of the movie.

[The interruption where Balfe finds out Lalo loved his work]

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Could you talk about what you just heard on the radio?

It went a bit too quickly, but I don’t know how they had this phone number, but [in the previous interview], I talked about the stress that I had throughout this whole process I was trying to build up the courage to send the music I had done on this to Lalo. And I kept chickening out, basically. I kept coming up with a reason not to. And then especially how the new opening titles to Fallout, it’s so different than any of the others. It’s a different harmonic way of presenting things, which hadn’t been done. So it was a big jump.

But, anyway, I was petrified sending it to them. And doing this interview, they said, ‘Has he heard it yet?’ And I said, ‘You know what? I just sent it to him about four days ago. And you know what? I’m just basically petrified to get his reaction from it.’ And then they literally, I think an hour after we talked, they phoned him up and did an interview and then played the music from the film…. So it was very touching. He loved it. I can die a happy man now that I’ve got the blessing of Lao.

That is a huge vote of confidence, because I know we were just talking about the importance of how do you incorporate it. Sounds like he was a real fan of how you reintroduced it in this film and played around with it.

Thankfully, thankfully, David. But anyway I think now I can politely call my mum and she’ll be happy. That was her dream come true.

Could you talk about how you readjusted the harmonies in the theme for the opening credits? And why you were worried about Lalo’s reaction to that?

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So I think that it’s respect. I think that when you’ve got something that’s so iconic. It’s like you are in a band and you have a version of a Beatles song. It’s on such a high pedestal, it’s damn difficult. And I think that when working on their new titles, we just need to have a voice left for the movie. By doing it in the original way, harmonic, looks and feels right.

McQ has told me how he let the locales help him find this movie and write this script. Were you allowed to enjoy that free-flowing process?

Yes, I’m basically coming up to probably a year now to when we first started talking and I think that any opinion that you have as a composer when you start Mission is different by the end, because, and I think McQuarrie said this, Mission has a life of its own. And it does. It’s very interesting. I know that whilst halfway through writing a few of the action scenes, you get more and more comfortable with these melodies and they’re suddenly in your hand and then after a while, they’re on your fingertips and then they become mental. And then you start thinking of new ways to reinvent them.  So it constantly evolved.

And also, the same as the film, musically, sometimes after a screening happened we’d sit back and see and realize the music just was not working, it wasn’t right. So you’d rewrite it. And I think that the mission music was one of the hardest scenes to write musically, because it’s such an iconic scene, him being given his mission, and you’ve got to be aware of the dialogue. And that cue, I lost track of how many times I wrote it.

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You said you’ve been on over a year, so after Tom Cruise broke a bone in his foot, did that delay affect your process or give you room to reimagine this stuff?

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It did. It gave me a break. During that break, I went and worked on Pacific Rim: Uprising. So, it gave me a break for a while. But having distance from something gives you great retrospect, and I think it was interesting being able to have that distance from the movie, because then you’re able to kind of really step back and judge what I’ve done. ‘Is that the best? Am I giving the best I can?’ And I feel very [pleased] with this movie. I really feel that I’ve given it the best I can to come help tell a story.

How does your experience on Mission: Impossible differ from entering other franchises with their iconic themes, such as Terminator Genisys and even Lego Batman?

Well the whole working process was very different. My writing room was right next door to McQ’s. So we were right next door to each other for a long time, so whilst he and Eddie Hamilton were editing, sorry, I was writing next door. So normally when you speak to a composer, their lives are spent in a dark dungeon… So we were able to constantly be expanding different scenes and different pieces of music, and it was, yes, it was a very unique way of working, but I think it was a great way of working.

I know they try and reinvent it every time, but would you be interested in coming back to Mission Impossible in the future?

Never say never. I’ve loved it and it was a privilege to be part of this family, and I’ve learnt a lot from McQ and Tom also, and I think that it’s just been amazing to be part of it. You never know. I mean, it’s pretty epic. I don’t know as a composer, musically, what direction one could go into. So it would be a very hard task. Yes, it would be a joy but, again, I think as a movie, how do you beat this? They say that every time when they make a movie in a franchise, but I think that they have really made a stunning film.

I have my fingers crossed after these last two McQuarrie ones that he wants to do a trilogy, but we’ll see.

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I hear the word trilogy used a lot. [Laughs]