Avatar composer, Simon Franglen, was at the Red Sea Film Festival (RSIFF) to give a Masterclass on Music in Film. Simon’s career has spanned record making, film composing and much more. He has been involved in films like Moulin Rouge, the Avatar franchise and Titanic. After the Masterclass we sat down with the award-winning composer to find out more.
What stage are you at with Avatar 3?
I’m actually writing Avatar the third one at the moment. I will be doing other things as well. But I have got a good chunk of stuff I’m just sending Jim (director James Cameron), new themes for new characters and new places. Avatar 3 is amazing and no I can’t tell you anything about it but the things that have been publicly said – the Ash are everything the Na’vi are not expected to be. They’re very cool.
Where are you drawing inspiration from?
It depends. There are different things that you can take inspiration from. The physiology of something. Like Payakan, the whale, has two swim bladders and we talked with whale experts from the University of California who talked to us about how whales sing and talking to them then allowed me to think about how I would create singing for Payakan if he ever sang or if the Tulkun sang then that evolved into the theme, so we can get into the weeds. For the Metkayina who were the sea tribe I changed the vocal sound to being this long, tone singing which is more nomadic but which is also based on polynesian and South Sea Island vocals. I used singers from Vanuatu and the Cook Islands and I used percussion that was made from bamboo and wood that you would find on the sea shore and clay rather than anything else we might have used in previous things. There was an active attempt to try and change those things. I’m trying to create an atmosphere. I’m trying to give you a sense of place as much as the feeling and heartbeat of the film. Then in Pandora, we have a different planet so I have to give you a sense of the culture which is different.
What was it like working on Moulin Rouge?
I was responsible for the singing on Moulin Rouge in terms of getting the performances from Nicole and the other actors. It was important that you believed it. It’s a musical with a dramatic theme. I think one of the things that Moulin Rouge gave was a sense that you could have drama and a musical and be hip and cool and interesting as well. It was important for instance that Nicole could act her vocals as much as sing her vocals.
What are your musical guilty pleasures?
Apart from ABBA… I grew up a punk… My guilty pleasures are Snarky Puppy and Wet Leg. Those would be the things. Coming from records, I did a lot of different music and I think I’m pretty omnivorous but most film composers seem to be. We’re spice merchants and we’re grabbing spices from all over the world.
How has the transition to net zero affected your line of work?
I’m part of the Avatar series. Everybody in the whole thing, coming from Jim and Jon Landau, the producer, we try to make sure that everything in there is as close to net zero as we can get. Obviously there is a problem because it also involves a lot of travel but I know that there is a dedicated part of what we’re doing in terms of trying to improve. You can’t have a film that talks about ecology as one of the hearts of its messages and not be aware and not be trying to do something about it.
Has this shift to sustainability and sustainable storytelling been translated into any of your other work or projects?
This will sound sort of rather strange but I think covid was remarkably useful in one thing which was that the concept that a person had to travel around the world in order to be in front of a producer or a director or whatever evolved to the fact that actually zoom could help.
Another thing that has happened in the last few years is the concept of the zoom meeting is now acceptable in a way that it wasn’t in the past so that where we were jumping on planes left, right and centre at all times now we have tools that allow us to collaborate consistently and I and my team all live and work in our own individual houses and we collaborate. We meet every so often but we also collaborate 90% of the time virtually. That is an active choice because why bother.
How was your Masterclass? How has your experience at the RSIFF been?
The Masterclass was great, really enjoyable. They invited me here to talk about the idea of how you use music in film. It’s obviously a massively expanding market. I was very pleased to meet young composers from around the whole region. You can see that there are creators from all over the place here. I think it’s very exciting what’s happening. It’s my first time here, my first time in the region and it’s more international than I was expecting. But I think you can see there’s a wish to develop homegrown talent rather than just building things and hoping that people will come.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) is located in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on the shores of the Red Sea, this rapidly growing MENA region film festival attracts and nurtures worldwide talent.