This weekend marks the theatrical opening of Paramount’s animated feature Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank. Inspired by the iconic Mel Brooks’ classic Blazing Saddles, the film features an all-star cast led by Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Cera, Michelle Yeoh, Ricky Gervais, and the legendary Mel Brooks himself. I was honored to collaborate closely with the film’s producer and co-director Rob Minkoff (co-director of the original The Lion King) to compose the score and produce two songs for this hilarious family adventure film.
My journey on this film actually began six and a half years ago, which these days feels like a lifetime ago. I recall leaving the offices of Bad Robot on a crisp, windy afternoon in February of 2016, having just attended the final dub mix of 10 Cloverfield Lane, wondering where my career path would lead next. At that moment, I got a call from my agent who told me that producers of a new animated feature were looking for composers to submit demos. By the time I got home, they had sent ten minutes of footage, mostly pencil animatics with some fully produced CGI to my email inbox. Despite the rough form, the energy and comedy were palpable, and I caught myself laughing watching Samuel L. Jackson’s Samurai cat and Michael Cera’s helpless dog spar.
Knowing that the film was inspired by Blazing Saddles, I initially assumed that the producers would desire a musical personality to evoke the comedic stylings of John Morris’ score for that film, itself a parody of the type of scores my mentor Elmer Bernstein was famous for, such as The Magnificent Seven. While I saw the trappings of the stereotypical western, I was instead struck by the footage’s homages to classic Chinese martial arts films, as well as the spaghetti westerns that flooded out of Europe in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Replacing Bernstein’s brassy fanfares, my imagination suddenly overflowed with the vibrant musical colors of Ennio Morricone, and the jazzy rhythms of Lalo Schifrin.
I dove in, and scored ten minutes of the footage, indulging in my love of 1960’s and 1970’s cinematic music production. I combined this with my knowledge of traditional Asian instrumentation developed over years of research, beginning with scoring Battlestar Galactica. Although I was only expected to turn over a mocked-up conceptual sketch for the demo, I was so excited by my ideas that I booked recording sessions to track my cues with live players. I brought in an orchestra, a big band, an incredible rhythm section, as well specialty soloists to handle instruments such as the shamisen, koto, biwa, shakuhachi, and taiko drums. The day I spent tracking this demo was among the most fun I’ve ever had at a recording session. I submitted my music to the producers and moved on. With no other animation credits on my resume at that time, I did not expect to get hired.
To my surprise, my rep called a few weeks later and told me the producers wanted to offer me the job! I was thrilled and ready to roll up my sleeves. But ultimately several years would pass before the time would come to actually begin scoring the film. (A similar lengthy process unfolded on Animal Crackers, an animated feature I took on around this same time.) Not until 2021 was the film was ready to be scored. Only now… the world was in the grip of pandemic.
I had been in complete and total lockdown for a year, and I found myself in a very different creative headspace. The only mental escape I found in that time was with my personal music projects, and the occasional score such as This Game’s Called Murder or Masters of the Universe: Revelation. To get started on Paws of Fury, I returned to the demo I had composed in 2016 and found, to my surprise and delight, that it was bursting with pre-pandemic energy. Listening to my upbeat and playful throwback to my favorite scores of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I could feel the wind filling my creative sails. Suddenly, I was ready to dive back in!
The scoring process began by walking through the film scene by scene to discuss what score could and should be doing. I worked closely with co-directors Mark Koetsier and Rob Minkoff, who were both clear in their vision, and a joy to work with. Collaborating with Rob, in particular, was a dream come true. Besides co-directing The Lion King, Rob had been involved in several of my favorite animated features, including The Brave Little Toaster, The Little Mermaid, and the Roger Rabbit animated shorts that I had loved as a kid.
I vividly recall one morning when Rob was describing the laborious process of animation, saying that it required absolute efficiency, without a wasted frame. He said every scene in animation was like a haiku. His comment resonated profoundly with me, and actually changed the way I thought about approaching the medium musically. I am always grateful for the chance to work with experienced filmmakers who are willing to share their wisdom, because I feel like I become a better filmmaker in the process, almost through osmosis. Every time we spoke, I felt like I was getting a master class in animation and storytelling.
As scoring began, I wanted to acknowledge the stylistic parodies, while always staying focused on wringing as much comedy, emotion, and narrative clarity as possible out of each scene. While the score draws from many inspirations, the works of Ennio Morricone and Lalo Schifrin seemed to loom large.
Ennio Morricone’s impact on the sound of the western genre cannot be overstated. Paws of Fury is, in part, a parody of the western genre, but I did not intend to trot out tired musical quotations of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as this has been done in pop culture repeatedly for decades. I was inspired by Ennio’s unique ability to place unique sounds boldly before of the audience, in effect daring the listener to have an emotional response to the weird and unexpected. Morricone scores such as Exorcist II: The Heretic, My Name is Nobody, and Duck, You Sucker were looming large in my mind, because they all possessed an undeniable musical voice.
Whenever I close my eyes and imagine tight drums, funky bass, wah-wah guitars, sexy synth leads, and unforgettable melodies, the music of Lalo Schifrin in the 1960’s and 1970’s comes to mind. Perhaps my favorite Schifrin score of all time is his slick score for the 1973 Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon. I also love the effective emotional immediacy of his gentle score to Cool Hand Luke, which manages to stay cool while also imbuing its central character with depth. Schifrin’s ability to balance those musical traits, to keep it cool while maximizing emotional impact, has always been one I admire. I hoped to achieve something like this with Paws of Fury.
We recorded orchestra in Nashville, which helped us achieve that tighter sound I was hoping for. The trumpet players there, in particular, are able to bridge the gap between orchestral fanfares and tight pop brass sections seemingly effortlessly. The true stars of the score, however, are the various soloists who performed on unique instruments. These included Hong Wang on shakuhachi and dizi, Zac Zinger on shakuhachi, shinobue, and penny whistle, Mike Penny on shamisen, and my long time friend and collaborator Doctor Osamu Kitajima on koto and biwa. The rhythm section was comprised of Andrew Synowiec on electric guitar (bringing the iconic wah-wah sound to the score), Pete Griffin on electric bass, and Hal Rosenfeld on drum kit.
I had spent most of the last decade of my career striving to achieve a huge, modern film music sound with my music. But for Paws of Fury, I went the opposite direction! I worked closely with our recording and mixing engineers to ensure the score production evoked a 1970’s feel. We pushed our mics closer to the instruments, to get that tight sound of the era. We recorded with a smaller orchestra, in a slightly smaller room, to achieve that iconic close-mic’d string texture, more evocative of Al Green singles than John Williams overtures. We used vintage instruments wherever possible, including guitars, clavinet, and Wurlitzer electric piano. Our brilliant mixing engineer Casey Stone brilliantly captured the spirit of the era with his mixes, pulling back on the reverb for a vintage sound. Working on this project, I felt like a kid who had just unboxed a new collection of toys!
In addition to contributing original score, I was honored to collaborate as a producer on two songs written for the film by the brilliant songwriting duo Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner. Alan and Michael were eager to blend their music and lyrics with the unique orchestra and soloists I had assembled for the score. For the opening title track, “Blazing Samurai,” we were thrilled to collaborate with lead singer Michael K. Lee, and for “The Coolest Cat,” we were honored to work with Broadway star Adrienne Warren, as well as backing vocalists Wendi Bergamini and Raya Yarbrough.
After years of work, I am thrilled that Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank is rolling out theatrically to a wide audience. To help celebrate, Sparks & Shadows is releasing the soundtrack digitally, available now at all your favorite platforms.
I am hopeful that, as listeners emerge from the pandemic and return to the theaters, they will enjoy the zany energy radiating from this score, music conceived long before we went into lockdown.
1. Blazing Samurai (feat. Michael K. Lee)
2. The Coolest Cat (feat. Adrienne Warren)
3. Samurai for Dummies
4. Kakamucho Under Attack
6. The Shogun
7. Hank’s Escape
8. Hank Meets Jimbo
9. Signing the Contract
10. Fireside Flashback
11. Enter the Sumo
14. Torn Contract
15. Jimbo’s Sacrfice
16. The Battle of Kakamucho
17. Showdown on the Super Bowl
18. Samurai Hank
Scoring a film is a team sport. I’m honored to be a part of this project, and grateful to everyone involved for the opportunity to join in the fun. First of all, thanks are due to co-directors Rob Minkoff, Mark Koetsier, and Chris Bailey, as well as everyone at Paramount, especially Areli Quirarte, and the team at Aniventure, especially Adam Nagle. Thanks to Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner for letting me help splash color on their amazing songs. I would like to thank everyone in my corner at Sparks & Shadows, who put in tireless hours to produce this score. Thank you to my reps at Kraft Engel Management, especially Richard Kraft and Laura Engel, to Joe Augustine for co-producing the soundtrack album. This score could never have been completed without the help of my longtime S&S friends and creative partners Sam Ewing and Omer Ben-Zvi, who contributed additional music, and helped me explore these musical ideas. Thanks to music supervisor Chris Douridas, and our music editor Michael Baber. I want to thank all the incredible engineers, orchestrators, copyists, soloists, singers, and orchestral musicians in Nashville, for lending their paws to this particular legend.
Raya and I took our daughter Sonatine to see the film last night, which she had been looking forward to, ever since I showed her the pencil sketch animatic of the film two years ago. Due to the pandemic, she had not been in a movie for the last third of her life, and so it was even more meaningful to take her back to the theaters to see a film I had scored. She cackled and applauded throughout the entire movie, and at the end of the screening proclaimed that Paws of Fury was her new favorite movie of all time.
Obviously, my eight-year-old was completely oblivious to the film’s references to Blazing Saddles. Nevertheless, when The Shogun’s first scene arrived, she leaned over to me and whispered “That sounds like the guy from Spaceballs!” Her eyebrows bounced up when I whispered back that the voice she was hearing was actually was the same guy who played Yogurt and President Skroob in her favorite comedy. Now I felt like the coolest dad on the planet! Seeing my name splashed on the big screen, a few titles after the legendary Mel Brooks himself was a dream come true that I would never have dared to dream when I a kid.