Lorne Balfe is a multitalented film, television and video game composer hailing from Inverness, Scotland. He has worked on major films such as the recent Ghost In The Shell (2017) in collaboration with composer Clint Mansell, and successful video game franchises such as Assassin’s Creed Identity (2014). Balfe has also been involved in scoring for animated feature films and documentary features. His versatility and passion can clearly be felt in The Lego Batman Movie’s score, which has both a fun and engaging sound while still managing to respect the darkness of the Batman world.
Using both orchestral, rock and electronic music, Balfe’s astounding score provides a well-structured narrative that follows the particularly dense rhythm of the film. A heartfelt hommage to the different Batman cinematic universes and completely unique at the same time, the spin-off to the 2014 hit The Lego Movie is a real delight, just like its music.
Affable, funny and passionate, Lorne Balfe took the time to talk with us about his work on The Lego Batman Movie and about his relationship with the famous superhero from Gotham City.
Score It: You’ve been working with Hans Zimmer on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. How did you approach The Lego Batman Movie?
Lorne Balfe: When I actually started writing on The Lego Batman Movie, I stopped thinking of it as a Batman movie. I started thinking of it as a live-action film with Lego characters.
It’s been quite fascinating as people have been asking about what musical references I put in The Lego Batman Movie from prior Batman films. I didn’t put in any references from the original films. I put a reference from the original TV show, Neal Hefti’s theme. I’ve always thought it would be great to hear it in the film. On whatever Batman I’d be working on, I’d always think: Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if we could put the TV theme in there. I thought that was a nod to the past.
But to me and the director Chris McKay, we always looked at it as a serious movie and not just writing typical animation music that you would associate with a film like that.
You have so many musical influences in the score: some rock influences, some classical music – we can hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at some point, alongside music by Bach.
The whole concept of Batman was very gothic and I really felt connected to that when going to that classical music world. On the other hand, you had the total opposite, with the likes of the Joker, who I always looked at as a great progressive ‘prog’ rock, and that type of music. So, you had The Joker’s zany world, but Batman was very classical, and deadly serious. His theme, I would happily put into a live action Batman film.
Were you a fan of the first Lego Movie? How did Chris McKay get you on-board for this spin-off?
I loved the first Lego Movie. I got involved because Chris McKay had described it the sequel as a mixture of About a Boy, which is the Hugh Grant film, meets director Michael Bay. When I heard that, I thought that this was something that I definitely wanted to be a part of.
Firstly, I love animation directors, I think that they live on another planet. They are crazy and so passionate that that’s always fun to work with.
The best thing about the Lego world is the concept and the songs, and the fact that there is something real to it, even though it is done as an animation. I have memories as a child of playing with Lego, making sound effects and singing the music whilst I was making the Lego and creating scenes in my head. So it’s a wonderful thing to be able to be part of that world, now.
Do you think you’re living on that same planet as animation directors, since you also work a lot with animation? Do you feel closer to the world of animation than live action movies?
Well, I think that with animation, anything is possible. You can change the characters’ facial expressions, you can change everything constantly and you have no limitations. That’s what is exciting about animation: it makes you push the music even more, because I don’t think you could get away with some of that music in a live action film. It’s so over the top. Take ‘Lava Attack’, for instance.
Whenever the choir is singing, they’re always singing in Latin, but they’re always singing the titles of all the original Batman comics! You get to have fun like that. Introducing a scene with ‘The Phantom Zone’ is something you can’t really do in a real film, but with animation, anything goes.
As a British person, how excited were you when you saw the Daleks?
Oh, probably not as excited as when I saw the Gremlins. Because to me, you could have only beaten the Gremlins by having the Goonies in the film. That would have been the only cherry on the cake for me. The Daleks were there, but the Gremlins were the winner. And also Gentlemen Ghost, who was my particular favourite.
So you didn’t sneak in a reference to the Doctor Who theme?
Well, you’re going to probably tell me that I did! But I didn’t try to, no. That’s also the difficulty with so many characters. If Condiment King had its own theme, we would’ve just lost concept with how many themes there were and who’s who. I had a theme called ‘The Coming Together Theme’ which represented all of them, and I think that’s really the safest way to do it instead of doing individual themes.
Also, apart from the Daleks, I think every other character had multiple themes. Catwoman has had multiple variations, and goodness knows how many themes there were for Batman. Apart from the Daleks, all the characters had multiple themes.
Tell us about your collaboration with Chris McKay. Did he give you directions or did you have free reign over the score?
No, thankfully I am never left to my own devices. And I also have a supervisor looking after me! Chris adores music, and if anything, he pushed me to a different musical vocabulary that I am normally used to. Which was great, because that was always pushing me to try to get more into the scene. When I thought I couldn’t, I found out that I was able to, weirdly.
There was a lot of trial and error. The first thing I ever wrote for the film was the Robin theme that ended up being the song ‘I Found You’. That was purely just based from talking to Chris for several months and not writing a note, and just talking about Robin’s character. I think Robin has always been ignored thematically in the films. We always forget the main connective tissue of Robin and Batman: the fact that they’re both orphans. They have got that connection, which is very sad. So it was nice to be able to work on that theme for Robin.
How do you find the balance of being fun and engaging while still managing to respect the inherent darkness of the Batman cinematic world?
I think playing it serious makes it funny. I seldom laugh at comical music. I can’t think of the last time I have heard music, unless it’s very bad, that has made me laugh. If it’s purposefully ‘trying to be comical’, I don’t find that funny.
So, we really looked at it as not writing comical or childish music. The tracks are not patronising or stupid. Musically, for something like animation, you shouldn’t all of a sudden write anything cheaper or less than you would for an adult. We also used silences to help support the dialogue, instead of the making the music trying to become a Looney Tunes cartoon. That’s how we really looked at it.
Can you tell us more about Chad Smith from The Red Hot Chili Peppers coming in and playing on the score?
Firstly, Chris McKay is a massive fan of the Chili Peppers, and I am a fan of them too. When I had written the Joker’s theme, we had been thinking about the sound of it, and the drums in particular—because I’m a failed drummer! I love drummers! Chad is one of the best in the world, and thankfully, he agreed to play on the score. What I find very weird is that he said that his kids finally thought he was cool after being part of the film. I thought that was amazing. When your father’s a rock star, he doesn’t have to do something like The Batman Lego Movie to be cool!
To me, Chad really brought the score alive. He was just an amazing human being, a great musician and just a legend. All of the musicians were fantastic. We had the luxury of recording in Australia. I was writing as well as recording, and it was fantastic. It was fantastic: we probably had over a hundred musicians and singers singing on the whole score. A lot of people!
Tegan & Sara and The Lonely Island did not come back this time, but the film still has a song that gets stuck in your head for days: ‘Friends Are Family’. Did you intervene in the creation of this song or on the great cover of ‘Man in the Mirror’ ?
No, it was somebody else. I wrote ‘Who’s the (Bat)Man’, which is the opening song. ‘Man in the Mirror’ was amazing because they got Glen Ballard, to the original composer, to work for it. But no, there are not enough hours in a day to be able to work simultaneously on songs and a score, unfortunately. But Chris and Niki Sherrod from Warner Bros found amazing songs written for the film. I think ‘Friends Are Family’ is an amazing song.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects?
At the moment, I am doing a TV show about the life of Albert Einstein called Genius, created by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Then, I’m moving onto a show that I did last year on Netflix called Marcella, and then also season two for The Crown, which is another Netflix show. I think that’s it for the moment… And with a child at the same time, it always makes it difficult!
Who is your favourite Batman?
There’s only one answer: Will Arnett! I always thought he was before he even was Batman!
The Lego Batman Movie is available on DVD and the soundtrack is available at WaterTower Music.