You might not recognize Alan Silvestri in a crowd — he’s the tall and lean older gentleman with a distinguished-looking mass of salt-and-pepper hair, FYI. But that’s fine by him. He’s iconic because he values sound over sight.
For more than four decades, the New York-born, Berklee College of Music grad has provided the music for some of the biggest movies of all time. Go ahead and hum a few bars of the crescendo from Back to the Future when Marty McFly gears up the DeLorean to 88.8 miles per hour. That was Silvestri. Now think of the feather floating in the air to the gentle orchestrations at the start of Forrest Gump. That was Silvestri too. He’s also responsible for composing the music for highly watchable modern classics such as Cast Away, Ready Player One, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Polar Express, The Abyss, The Parent Trap and even that blaring bassline in ‘70s TV drama CHiPs.
But the two-time Oscar nominee and Grammy and Emmy winner, 69, says he’s never undertaken a project quite like Avengers: Endgame. “It was the longest movie I’ve ever done, and the sheer amount of material really makes a difference,” he notes of this year’s $2 billion-dollar-grossing Marvel superhero extravaganza. “Quantity-wise, we recorded 200 minutes of music and I wrote well over that. That’s daunting.” Silvestri, who also composed the score for the original Avengers and Avengers: Infinity War, used a 97-piece orchestra that he conducted himself.
Silvestri spoke to Billboard from the 22nd annual SCAD Savannah Film Festival, where he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Composing on Sunday. The festival runs through Saturday.
In terms of musical inspiration, what did you glean from visiting the Avengers: Endgame set?
That didn’t do much. You see the actors and the green screen for a few days but there’s not really a whole [lot] you can get up there. It was just great to see the incredible effort from the thousands of people that worked on this kind of film. What helped me was seeing the film come in so I could have pictures to work with. That’s how you get a sense of pacing and the facial expressions and just the whole scope. I felt like the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, were in this relay race and they passed me the baton, and I liked that. I was ready.
When we re-watch Endgame, which scene should we specifically focus on in terms of the score?
The portal scene after Captain America [Chris Evans] is basically defeated by Thanos [Josh Brolin]. He’s helpless. He’s all alone. And then, all of a sudden, he hears his sound on the radio, “Cap, on your left.” And then they just start bringing in every character in the history of Marvel coming to help Cap defeat the bad man. Joe and Anthony said to me, “We’ve got to get this right.”
And how did you proceed?
Musically, we tried a number of approaches in the spirit of getting it right. And what you see in the film, we all felt that yes, that’s what it needed to be. But it was a tremendous challenge and a lot of pressure. There was a new theme in the film that wasn’t related to anything we had heard and it had to be new because this was an event in the Marvel universe.
Is there a difference in your output when you’re scoring for a big-budget superhero movie?
When you’re in a franchise environment like The Avengers, the themes become assets because you bring it forward to the next installment. But a superhero film compared to another film? I don’t draw any distinction. It’s storytelling. I wrote the score for Cast Away and that’s anything but a superhero film. But Tom [Hanks]’ character was still heroic. I don’t compartmentalize. I’m not off on my own bringing my own vision. I have no interest in that.
You introduced the 25th anniversary screening of Forrest Gump here. When you read the script, did you realize music would play such an integral role?
That’s an interesting one. A few weeks into the movie, [director] Bob [Zemeckis] called me and said that he didn’t think there would be any score in the movie because he used so many pop and rock songs. So we were kind of sitting around and waiting. But then we met and it turned out to be the easiest session because his filmmaking was so clear. When Forrest says, “I’m going to Vietnam, it’s this whole other country,” like, that’s a needle-drop right there! We just followed the movie.
In that sense, has your job changed at all since you started in this business?
No, not in the sense of good storytelling. But the technological side is monumentally different. Think of the growth of electronic sampling and the recording process. We recorded on tape back in the day! An edit that used to take me an hour to do now takes a few seconds.
The Back to the Future theme is probably your signature work. What can you reveal about the upcoming musical?
This started at a lunch 11 years ago. And now it’s opening in previews in Manchester, England, on February 20 and the world premiere is in March. If we’re allowed to continue, we will go to London or Broadway. Glen Ballard and I have written 16 new songs and we’re availing ourselves to all the score from the original Back to the Future. The book has been written by Bob Gale, and Bob Zemeckis has been there every step of the way. It’s Doc, it’s Marty, it’s Jennifer and they’re all singing and dancing. It sounds crazy, I know.
It’s just that the movie is perfect. Why do this?
Here’s the thing: The mandate from the first day was if this isn’t ringing our bell then we don’t have to do this, we don’t want to do this. But we’re all very excited about it. If folks want to see the movie, then see the movie. This is different. But it has every bit of the fun and excitement and the spirit of that movie. We really believe that.