As a singer and musician, I have enormous appreciation and admiration for composers and lyricists. So, I was thrilled to get the chance to interview Heitor Pereira.
A Brazilian musician and composer who played guitar with Simply Red from 1988-1996, Heitor was tapped by Hans Zimmer to write some music for “As Good As It Gets,” and a new career trajectory for him was born. His latest work is the score for the new hit animated film, “The Angry Birds Movie,” but he is perhaps best known for the scores for “Minions,” “Despicable Me,” and “Despicable Me 2.”
His other original film scores include: “The Smurfs,” “It’s Complicated,” “Curious George,” “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” “Illegal Tender,” “Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights,” and “Ask the Dust,” among others. He has been the recipient of three ASCAP awards, for “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” “It’s Complicated,” and “Despicable Me.”
His main theme for “It’s Complicated” is one of my favorites. Heitor’s work is incredibly diverse. Obviously, he not only has an exceptional musical range, but also a broad emotional range to draw upon. This is exemplified by the fact that he has also contributed music to the scores of movies like “I Am Sam,” “Mission Impossible II,” “Black Hawk Down,” “August Rush,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and “The Dark Knight.” Quite a difference from “Minions.”
Besides dramatic films, Heitor sometimes scores documentaries. As a devoted environmentalist, he was happy to write the music for “Sonic Sea,” a documentary that just aired on the Discovery Channel on May 19, 2016 and Animal Planet on June 8. You can now stream it on Discovery onDemand, Discovery.com, and Discovery Go. Narrated by Rachel McAdams, the film sheds light on how noise levels are negatively affecting marine life.
Heitor has also released three solo albums of his own music, and has either arranged music or played with such artists as Sergio Mendes, Alejandro Sanz, Caetano Veloso, Ivan Lins, Jack Johnson, The Chieftains, Bryan Adams, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Shania Twain, Seal, Nelly Furtado, and many others. In 2005, he won a Grammy for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist” for his collaboration with Sting and Chris Bottie.
Before my interview with Heitor, I had been told he’s an avid bird watcher. Since I’m a birder as well, we bonded over our mutual love of birds and spent a fair amount of time talking about them. So, I’ll begin the highlights from our conversation with the following comment:
Heitor: I put birds in all my scores, even when the directors don’t know. [Laughter]
Melanie: Well, they were the original musicians, I think. I’m sure they’re why we started making music.
Heitor: Right, right! Exactly. You listen to that, and you want to emulate….
Melanie: Speaking of birds and music, talk about how that love of birds informed what you did for “Angry Birds.”
Heitor: With them, first, it came from the video game. They [the Angry Birds] didn’t talk. They didn’t have a personality per se, all the characters. And as they [the filmmakers] developed these characters and told a story, I felt that they humanized, obviously, the animated characters so much – as they do, and they have to do so that the audience can relate to them – that I think in a certain way, they took the bird out of the bird.
So, in my little subversive way, I had hours and hours of, for example, mockingbirds and woodpeckers, and I sampled them. Then, I have beautiful wooden bird whistles from Brazil, bird calls, and I created many grooves, many rhythmic and small melodic sounds with these birds in the samples and these whistles. The woodpecker became like a cowbell. I recorded birds walking on paper with a microphone underneath – that rustling.
Then, I would drop octaves down, and then, it becomes like a texture. So, I just brought the birds back into the movie but not in a very obvious way….
Melanie: I’m going to really look forward to hearing that.
Heitor: As I said, some of it is distorted or goes through like a wah-wah pedal. So, it sounds everything but like a bird…. It’s there, but because of technology and the computers and the crazy pedals and stuff that we have nowadays…you can pass all these birds through all these filters and make them become other things.
Melanie: But the inspiration is still birds.
Heitor: Yes … but as a musician, I know that it’s material that forever will be welcome in the tapestry of film music, because it [film music] accepts anything if it works with the storytelling, completes the storytelling. And that’s one of the things that fascinates me the most about being a composer of film music.
Lately, I cannot call myself a composer for the sake of a composer because I don’t have time to compose other music. So, I’m a composer of film music. I used to be a composer before I became a composer. [Laughter] I used to write for myself, my feelings, and my friends’ feelings about occurrences.
But now, I’m a composer for the movies. It’s different. You have to support the arc of the story and how you build those things, and I’m fascinated by all of this and by the fact that you can use any sound that makes that storytelling more entertaining, more enticing, more fun….
Melanie: Do you find that you surprise yourself a lot as you’re working on a film?
Heitor: When I don’t, I worry!…
Melanie: I love that. When you work on an animated film, do you feel like you have to put yourself in a childlike place compared to when you work on a film like “The Dark Knight”? Or is it really the same?
Heitor: I think it’s different. I just came from Krakow [Poland], and we had a panel over there. They played some of my music and other composers’ music, and we were asked a question like that. And I was amazed that I was the only one who said that it’s different. Everyone was so adamant saying, “No, it’s the same….”
Then, in the end, a reporter said, “What I don’t like about animated movie music sometimes is the fact that it gets a little cartoonish.” And I looked at him and said, “You know what it is, man, it’s because it’s not made for you….” I’m not there to please him.
There’s a certain demographic age-wise. There’s a certain range and frequency that after a while, if it gets too much of this or too much of that in a child’s ear, it kind of hurts them emotionally. There’s a musician’s responsibility – the care for not scaring them…. I think I try to feel a little bit like how I felt when I played with my kids….
Melanie: I know that Hans Zimmer was sort of a mentor for you. Is that the correct word to use?
Heitor: Yeah, [but] not musically. A friend of ours introduced me to Hans because they needed some Brazilian music for “As Good As It Gets,” so that’s how it started. So, I already got to know him as me being a guy who writes music. I didn’t start as like a trainee or something…. I wish I had more training from him because he knows a lot!
But what I learned from him – first, his kindness. He’s a very kind man. And also, he said, “Put the guitar down, and write your melodies. You’re welcome to try to fit them in my movies if they fit in my movies.” He was so gracious that he gave me this opportunity, but then, I would have to answer for them with the directors and the producers and be in the meetings for years.
In the beginning as a musician or a collaborator with him, I would be in every meeting with some big shot. And I never was afraid of speaking my mind, but I was always also aware of when I had just to shut up and listen because this is a master class – not only from him but from all the filmmakers that I met….
Hans brought Pharrell [Williams] here to my studio, and Pharrell said, “I want to find somebody to work with me on ‘Despicable Me 1.’” He had worked with other composers, and it wasn’t working out for him. And Hans brought him over here, and he brought me one melody. And he said, “Just go for it.” And I just closed my eyes and said, “Come back tomorrow.” And I just put my heart into it. It was music for the three girls, and then, I wrote the second part for it.
Next day, he says, “Man, where have you been?!” And then, he moved in, and he brought his gear here. And I asked the same thing to him because he was so inspired, so instant, so in the moment. I’m very thankful to him and Hans for having trusted in me. And after he wrote the songs, the company says, “Now, please write the score,” and then, the second one, I wrote all the score. Then, I did all the ‘Minions.’” So, it started there, and it started out of somebody asking me to be myself.