Geoff Zanelli on Expanding the Musical Themes of ‘Maleficent: Mistress of Evil’

We chat with the film composer about his latest Disney blockbuster and the challenges of articulating music.
Geoff Zanelli Photo
Piper Ferguson
By  · Published on October 18th, 2019

Sequels are where you get down to business. They get a bad wrap, but if done purposefully, the follow-up feature has the ability to shake off the laborious world-building and the trepidation of an untrusting audience. Can Angelina Jolie pull off the wicked fairy attitude? Hell yes, she can. Now, let’s have some fun.

Director Joachim Rønning took the helm on Maleficent: Mistress of Evil as he did on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and brought composer Geoff Zanelli with him. The two clicked on their swashbuckling adventure, hunting for a theme that was timeless, not trendy.

Fairy tales have been around for thousands of years, and their beats are baked into our DNA. This can be a curse for the modern storyteller, but it’s also a gift. As the sequel explodes with new characters and realms to populate them, the two filmmakers were afforded ample opportunity to expand on the vibe of the original film. Here truly is a fairy godmother, unlike any other you’ve seen before.

When you board a sequel as a composer, you are forced to build off the notes previously established in the last film. The musical themes of Maleficent (Jolie) and Aurora (Elle Fanning) were firmly in place. Zanelli knew the score. He’d worked in similar conditions on Dead Men Tell No Tales and appreciates the constrictions a sequel binds his artistry as well as how it forces him to latch onto the new characters.

“The first thing we did when I sat down with Joachim,” the composer tells me ahead of the Maleficent sequel’s release, “was to determine if there’s thematic material from the first movie to apply to this one.”

An audience member doesn’t want to sit down before The Empire Strikes Back and not hear John Williams’ main theme from the title crawl. “Star Wars is strengthened by having continuity in the themes,” Zanelli says, “So is Harry Potter and Jurassic Park to some extent.” To ignore the previous film is selfish and a betrayal to the folks shelling out the money for the experience.

With the building blocks at the base, Zanelli focused on the new of Mistress of Evil, and the challenge became constructing original music that fell in line with the legacy score. “There’s a whole bunch of new characters,” he says. “Maleficent discovers she’s not the only Dark Fae. There is, in fact, a whole culture of them. They’re a ripe playground for a composer.”

From their earliest conversations, Zanelli and Rønning zeroed in on Maleficent’s secret culture. “Basically, they’re refugees,” Zanelli explains. “They’re a marginalized group that are in hiding. They’ve banded together multiple tribes, and they’re unseen by the humans who are taking over the world at this point in time. So, that suggests a lot of different things.”

Maleficent and Aurora are rooted in the classic fairy tale, and in an effort to lock them into that timeless headspace, the score operates in a traditional manner. The arrival of the Dark Fae freed Zanelli to explore a myriad of musical options. “It doesn’t need to be a purely orchestral thing,” he says. “With them, all bets were off, and I could look all around the world to find a sound that is very exotic to us here in the West. These are local instruments from parts of Asia or Africa or India or Japan.”

Considering Maleficent’s magical origins also narrowed down the tonal vibe of the characters. “She is allergic to iron. It hurts her. So, that actually takes some instruments off the table,” Zanelli reveals. When the Dark Fae are on screen, you won’t hear a single pang from a tool forged of that singular metal. The sound has to appear indigenous to their culture.

Zanelli implemented 80 different drums to accompany the Dark Fae. Something about the power and the force of their wings implied a rage of percussion. “These are winged creatures,” he says. “They live on the wind. So, wouldn’t it seem like that would be what they’d start with for their own musical inventions?” In their imagined culture, Zanelli found their voice.

Rønning is a bit of a musician himself with a strong grasp of the piano. Zanelli discovered this talent while they were deep into production on Mistress of Evil, but they never communicated in musical terms. “Rønning speaks of music in a very macro fashion until it’s to a place he wants, and then he can go into the details,” says Zanelli.

Together they focused on the emotions of the refugee experience with a determination to keep the sound timeless, but not trendy. “There are words that I’m drawn to and that inform the music,” confesses the composer. “Joachim might say, ‘Well, I wish at that moment we played more of how she’s luxuriating in the power she has right now rather than playing the fear of the people she’s fighting.'” Rønning would never dictate the necessity for a B-flat or whatever for a particular scene. That’s just not his mode of communication.

Describing music is a lot like explaining a smell. “Sometimes you get lucky and the smell is citrus, and everybody gets what it means,” Zanelli says. “Other times, the smell is like the inside of a basketball and who knows what that means?”

Conveying the idea of a film score between artists is often an incredible challenge, and comfort only occurs after a director and a composer have built a relationship over multiple films. “There’s a little bit of a psychologist’s couch going on,” he adds, “and you’re trying to help them arrive at the information that you need to write the music to help them see their vision through.”

The communion between Rønning and Zanelli evolved through dozens of chats in which the two tossed darts at a dartboard. Their bond required countless whiffs before they started landing bullseyes. “Often the director will use a phrase that doesn’t mean what they think it means,” Zanelli says. “The skillset of a composer is finding a way to talk about the music that makes people feel comfortable saying what they’re thinking, even though they know it’s not exactly correct to what they’re trying to describe.”

To land that film score, a barrage of thought and experiment is essential. Whether its a shouting match over a game of darts or a confessional trip to the therapist’s office, the composer must find a way to enjoy the trial of articulation.

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now playing in theaters.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)