How to score a high-octane movie thriller – with ‘Ambulance’ composer Lorne Balfe

Lorne Balfe is Michael Bay’s go-to guy when it comes to scoring his tense, action packed and emotive movies. Here, Balfe shares his insider tricks

In association with Universal Pictures

Lorne Balfe’s ears are ringing. The British composer just attended the London special screening of must-see new thriller Ambulance alongside director Michael Bay and stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jake Gyllenhaal and Eiza Gonzales, and between Bay’s explosions and his own movie score, he was blown away by the sound. “It was my first time in a cinema in two years and my god that was loud in there,” he says.

Two days later, the experience is still giving Balfe the tingles, “like a live band that’s thinking, thank God, we’re all back to reality now. We got used to watching movies on our phones but a film like Ambulance is made to be enjoyed in the cinema. And what I loved about the screening in London was the fact that Michael [Bay] wanted to watch it with the audience. He loves film and he loves seeing people enjoy his films.”

Born in Inverness, Balfe comes from musical stock – his father is a songwriter, and Lorne was raised in a family home attached to a residential studio, meaning he spent his childhood seeing the likes of Ozzy Osbourne turning up to work. “My main memory of that is my father continuously asking his group to stop swearing,” he says. Most of all, it showed him that music “is just like a normal job, albeit one that starts later because people get up at lunchtime – so it seemed like something I could do.”

Realising he wanted to work in music – but not necessarily be in a band (“I’m a drummer, that meant I had to be the first one there and the last one out at any gig”) – Lorne set his sights on the movies and cut his teeth in Hollywood working under Hans Zimmer, a cinematic great and a mentor for Balfe. Zimmer introduced him to key industry contacts, including Michael Bay. “There are three reasons I’m doing what I’m doing in life and it’s [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer, [Ambulance director] Michael Bay and [composer] Hans Zimmerman. These guys are the reason why I fell in love with cinema: Bad Boys, Armageddon… I’ll still cancel plans if The Rock is on TV!”

Here, Lorne shares his insider tricks on scoring big, action-packed thrillers like Ambulance.

Lorne Balfe attends The Game Awards 2018 (Leon Bennett/WireImage)

Find out what the director really wants

“I remember the first meeting about Ambulance; it was Christmas time two years ago and Michael called. He was talking the story but he spent longer talking about the concept of the first responder than the plot of the film. I realised that was the nut that had to be cracked. It really was about trying be respectful to the concept of the first responders and what they face every day.”

Learn from the greats

Working under Hans Zimmer was an education – but not in composition. “It wasn’t about learning about music, it was the exact opposite,” says Balfe. “It was about filmmaking.”

Don’t be sniffy about the movies you work on

“The idea that some art is more valid than others is just something that’s just illogical to me.”

Establish character themes and recurring musical motifs

“Sometimes a director doesn’t want themes because they feel they can distract the audience, but I do like to establish a theme for each character. It’s the hardest thing to crack because you are trying to represent somebody’s life story in 30 seconds.”

Find the sound inside the characters’ head

“When I was working on [2016 Michael Bay movie] 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, It was all about one question: What are the soldiers’ soundtracks in their heads? What are they living and breathing and how do we, how can we give the viewer an essence of what these people go through?”

Avoid the usual thriller cliches

“I think if you follow a rulebook, you can’t reinvent things. And I think the master of reinvention is Hans Zimmer. Look at what he did with [2001 psychological thriller] Hannibal – he treated the score as if it was a love story, musically, which is very, very clever and very unsettling.”

Write for the movie, not for the CD score

“I’m a filmmaker first and a composer second. And the fact is that there’s many times something might not make the best listening experience on an album, but, story-wise, it fits.”

Keep searching for new sounds

“Michael’s taste is he likes things evolving, musically. There’s a lot of influence from techno music in the Ambulance score, and the trick is making an electronic score that doesn’t necessarily fall into a song format. You don’t want the audience to start tapping their foot, because then you’ve lost them to a song.”

Don’t compete with the explosions

“It never should be a competition between the music and the sound effects – it has to be hand in hand. I learnt that early on because I’d spent about a month writing up a big piece of music for a movie; then I watched the film and they had taken it all out because there were explosions everywhere. And then I learnt – that’s called filmmaking.”

Ambulance is in cinemas now – don’t miss it