Time to read : 13 minutes
Today I have the honor to talk with world-renowned composer Ivan Martinez Lacamara. His most famous work was featured on the Netflix series – La Casa De Papel (Money Heist) and Vis a Vis (Locked up), but he is also composing for various advertisements and movies, which we will talk about later. Ivan, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview!
So, as a start, can you tell us, how you ended up being a musician? How did it all started?
Music has been around me since I was born. My father was a singer and music teacher, and my mother was also a music teacher. I started playing the piano when I was 4-5 years old. I loved music and studied music from my childhood to my adulthood. When I was 14 years old, I became interested in synthesizers and computers, and my grandmother gave me a keyboard. From that moment I knew that I wanted to be a musician and a composer. At that time I wanted to be a rock musician, with my band, writing songs and touring. He was not a good lyricist, so he only composed music. Many of my songs remained instrumental, so I decided to compose instrumental music. That was the first step to being a film / television composer.
When starting out in the movie industry, did you have any fears of not succeeding?
The truth is that the main fear that one always has is not getting projects to continue living. At the end of the day this is a job that your finances and your family depend on, and achieving stability and a continuous workflow is very complicated. You always have that little fear when you finish a project, there will be a next. Now is a time in which that fear is forgotten, and I have not finished a project yet when it is already waiting for the next one, or in many moments I have to simulate several projects, or even say no to other proposals, due to lack of time.
While mentioning that, can you share with us how your first placement felt like?
The first professional job I did was to make music for advertisements and promotions for a Spanish national television station (Tele5) in 1997. It was very exciting and it was what made me decide to compose music for audiovisuals.
How was the coordination between the composer and the director? Did you ever have any chaotic situations in which you wanted to quit the project?
It depends on the projects, but assuming that everything on television is for yesterday, the rush and short deadlines make communication and coordination limited. I’ve been working with the same directors and producers for many years, so that helps a lot since we know each other quite well. The usual thing when starting a project is to meet and comment on the previous ideas that the director and executive producer has, as well as the initial approach that I make to the data that I know about the project or the scripts that I have been able to read. In some cases, I compose a small suite as a declaration of intent to set style and sounds, but many times it is not until the editing of the first chapter that the composition begins.
Once the production is underway, the rush and deadlines do not allow us to talk and comment as much as we should. In a series like “La casa de papel” there are four directors per season, with their personal tastes, and ideas about what the series is, which makes it quite difficult to maintain a musical editorial line. We have to fight to maintain that musical coherence, also attending to their requests. In all these years, I have found myself in situations of wanting to leave a project due to a lack of understanding with a director, but I have managed to weather the storm and not get to leave it. It is a fairly common situation that all composers go through sooner or later.
Can you share with us your average workday? How do you organize, plan and prioritize your tasks?
I am quite methodical and smart, and I try to set certain hours to work. I usually start around eight in the morning, stopping at noon to eat just enough time, to continue until eight in the afternoon. I try by all means not to work on weekends, but there are times when, due to the calendars, I cannot afford it. I have no assistant, no orchestrator, or sound engineer. All the work is done by me. It has its good part, and its bad part, like everything. The good part would be not having to depend on anyone, supervising, having to reject someone’s work because it is not what you want, etc. On the bad side, not having help, and having to do everything, having to attend to so many fronts and lack of time is the main problem since due to the tight schedules of about 12-15 days per chapter, I have to compose 40-45 minutes of music. At some point, I have considered at least having a sound engineer, but due to the tight deadlines, and then to the comebacks and changes that are sometimes requested from the musicians, there would be no material time to make those modifications, having to redo sessions of the parts, resynchronizing or transferring the session from my Cubase to Protools, which is the usual software that most sound engineers use. As for the way to face each chapter, as I have said I am very methodical and squared, and after having seen it, decided where the music is going, and identified the plot music, I start with the first sequence, going in order until I reach the final. I don’t like skipping sequences and leaving some behind.
When composing, how often do you find yourself stuck in a creative loop? Do you have some kind of ritual or best practice that helps in most cases? Really curious about this one!:)
I don’t have time to creatively block. Sometimes it happens that a sequence gets stuck and you don’t move forward. Lately, more than usual has happened to me, partly due to the exhaustion that I have dragged on over the last five years, in which I have been chaining one series and season after another, without having time to rest, suffering quite a marked creative exhaustion. The problem is that with the deadlines we manage, I can’t afford a lot of creative bottlenecks and I have to keep moving forward. I don’t have a way or ritual to do it. Sometimes I leave the studio and go out to get some fresh air in the garden, other times I look at the mail or do something totally unrelated to work, now in summer I jump into the pool ….. there is no fixed way.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a composer?
The versatility. Being able to compose music of many different styles is paramount to being a good film and TV composer. One day you may be composing orchestral music, the next electronic music project, and the next funky music.
Regarding the previous question, you’ve composed music for various TV advertisements, movies, and series, one of them being the most famous on Netflix – La casa de papel. Would you love to tell us some of the best, but also the most challenging moments while composing for that series?
In La casa de papel I have come across a problem that is usually found in many current productions. The series is directed by several directors, with their personal tastes. The use of temp tracks exacerbates the problem by having different musical styles in different chapters. One conductor prefers orchestral music like John Williams, another prefers something more hybrid like Zimmer, and another prefers electronic music in the style of Trent Reznor. Getting all of that together, giving it meaning and coherence, and also giving it its own stamp is very complicated.
The series has such amazing actors on board, each with a unique personality and temper. So, my question is – who is your favorite character in La casa de papel, and why? Tough question, I know!:)
My favorite character is Berlin. He is a character that you hate for his dark side, but he also makes you want. He is a very well-built character and one that Pedro Alonso masterfully interprets, giving the character a seductive aura.
What are one of your favorite movies/series that you worked on?
Of all the series I have worked on, I have a special fondness for “Un paso adelante”, since it was my first series as a composer. From the last I’ve done, possibly I’ll stick with “El embarcadero – The pier”, which for me has been a musical oasis, since I have followed many series of action and thriller, and this series still has an important component of mystery, it allowed a much calmer musical development, with more melody and less intense than other series such as “Vis a vis” or “La casa de papel” where there are moments that border on schizophrenia.
I would also love to ask you, at which point in your musical career you figured: ” okay…now I’m famous!” ?
I don’t think it is, really. In any case, if it is true that the exhibition of series such as “Vis a vis” or “La casa de papel” has made many people take an interest in my music. If it is true that the premiere of La casa de papel on Netflix was a turning point in my SoundCloud and YouTube channel, triggering the reproductions of the musical pieces that I had uploaded.
While listening to your work, you’ve done a lot of action, synth upbeat and epic music…but I also felt the calmness and passion in your drama music? Especially in your classical compositions with the cello. Would you love to share with us some of the insights on how you find the emotion in those songs?
The cello for me is the most beautiful instrument, the most expressive, and with a rounder sound. I am a pianist, and at a certain point, when I was studying at the conservatory, they offered me a scholarship to study cello. I couldn’t do it due to a lack of time. I had just started college and with my piano studies, I didn’t have time for more. I have always been very sorry not to have done it, and I think that one way to make up for that is to use the cello regularly as the main instrument in my compositions. The tandem formed by the piano and cello work emotionally, in a fantastic way. Besides all that, being able to have the sound of the “Tina Guo Cello” makes it very easy to compose for the cello. It is true that it has its technical limitations, but it sounds so round and beautiful that it is inspiring
You’re a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist! For those who don’t know, you play guitar (electric/acoustic) and piano. But are there any instruments that we don’t know about?
Do not believe it, my main instrument is the piano, and I play the guitar very lightly. Almost all the guitars that are heard in my music are programming, or in some unusual cases played by a guitarist.
Is there an instrument that you always wanted to learn, but seemed too hard?
Like I said before, the cello. It is my pending subject.
And regarding to the previous question, is there any advice that you would give to your younger self?
I would give two tips. First, be very versatile and control many styles and sounds. And second, leave the ego parked. When you compose music for film or TV, you are at the service of the image, of what the director wants, etc. Your music is not an isolated work with its own exclusive entity. You must understand that you work for the common good.
Do you think you’ve accomplished your dream goal as a composer?
I don’t usually set goals. When I started, I didn’t pretend to be a composer who made successful series, just like now I don’t set the goal of making the leap to Hollywood. Whatever comes, it will be welcome.
Who are your top 3 composers that you admire and also your biggest inspiration?
Alan Silvestri, Thomas Newman, and John Powell for me are the most complete, each being a true master in their field. Alan handles the orchestra in a masterful way, the melody and the lyricism, and not only that, but with his contribution to the saga of The Avengers, he has struck the table, before the new generation of composers, who in many cases double in age. Thomas Newman is Thomas Newman. He has created a style and way of composing that makes him completely recognizable, and that is imitated by many. John Powell is a genius with action. He is powerful and resourceful, and like Thomas has created his own style.
If you had the chance of collaborating with any composer, who would it be and why him/her?
Here is one interesting question, what do you think is your greatest strength/superpower that not many composers have/or didn’t master?
I want to think that versatility
What were the worst days in your career as a composer? Were there any?
In 2014 there was a bump at work. After a series that didn’t work out, I spent almost a year without working, without composing for other projects, except for a short film. It was a tough time that made me rethink many things, including where to live.
I also wanted to ask, what are the biggest mistakes that composers make when trying to be noticed in the film industry?
I think the main one is to seem like you do many things, that you are everywhere when really your activity is not so much. In the end, those things are known and they leave you in a bad place before the profession.
And lastly, do you have any advice that you would like to say to young composers that struggle to achieve their dream?
I repeat myself again, but being versatile I think is the best advice.
Knowing that over the course of your career, you’ve probably given many interviews, and some of them you heard dozens of times, so I want to take a moment and thank you once again for this wonderful interview and I wish you a lot of success and even more projects in your musical career!