Interview Henry Lai

Henry Lai is one of the best soundtrack composers in Hong-Kong, and his new collaboration with director Daniel Lee gave birth to another interesting score. We had the opportunity to meet him in his studio in order to talk about his work as a soundtrack composer.


His Debut
  François : Could you please introduce yourself briefly ?
  Henry : My name is Henry Lai, I’m a music producer. I like music. I score films and I do jingle music. I do music !
  François : Did you begin to do music by playing in a band or by writing soundtracks ?
  Henry : Originally, I had a band. Many years ago. That was when I first graduated from university. I had friends who had just formed a group and who had a record deal. So they asked me to play guitar, and we formed this group, for which I played the guitar and wrote some songs. And then, as in all bands, it didn’t work very well, we had conflicts, etc, and we disbanded. And then I was doing some free-lance jobs, like writing and producing music… I wasn’t very experienced at that time, so I didn’t get many jobs. But then I met this guy who had a movie and he wanted music for it. That was "Kung Fu Scholar", a Kung Fu film with Aaron Kwok and Dicky Cheung. That was my first movie.
  François : Were you interested in movie scores or was it just a new opportunity for you ?
  Henry : Before that, I had no experience. That was my first time scoring movies. It was fun. And then I discovered the joy of scoring films. It’s something from the air. There is something you can write to, the mood, etc… And that fascinated me. That was my first attempt and then, afterwards I did some more jingles, etc. I got more into film music.
  François : You worked in a band before. How would you compare these two creative kinds of work ? Are there important differences ?
  Henry : There is a big difference between writing a song for a band or a solo artist and writing music for movies. Let’s face it, with commercial songs, we’re talking about commercial songs… 3 or 4 minutes and then you have the first chorus. It has to be a very catchy tune, It has to have punch, punchline, I mean it’s got to appeal to you. And it doesn’t last very long. Because it is so commercial you can relate it. Usually you may like the song but after you’ve listened to it 20 or 30 times, then it becomes less appealing. But movie music is different. Movie music is more about scoring to mood, and about enhancing certain scenes. Or maybe, if the director has a hidden meaning under a scene, for example in a kung fu sequence instead of using a punchy fast tempo song, you can put in a very nostalgic song, and it brings the flavour of what’s underneath that scene. It’s all about interplaying with different moods, different ideas. It’s more challenging than writing commercial songs.
  François : Is it more difficult because you have to fit to the mood of the scene ? You canno really do everything you want. Is it more difficult to find the right mood, the right rythm ?

Henry : The rythm is usually in the editing and in the way the director pans his camera or whatever. The movement of the characters in the movie, that has a tempo. Usually you can find the tempo pretty easily. If you fit in a different tempo, it just looks awkward and sounds awkward, it’s quite easy. As for the mood, or the underlying meaning of that scene, that depends on the director. He has to communicate to you. Sometimes you can see it in the film, or sometimes he has to tell you what he wants for a particular scene. So it’s good for me to talk with the director, discuss about it. Sometimes I read the script, but most of all I like the director to tell me the story, because he can tell me something more than just written script. I know what he wants behind the story. It’s easy for me I mean.

  François : Usually how do you work ? Do you have a first version of the movie to work on ? Henry: I have worked with both situations
  Henry : Usually the director would call me during the editing stage, and say : « I’ve got this movie, can you do the music ?». After that I get to read the script, watch some clips, some rough edits, and then I try to come up with a theme or whatever. But sometimes when I work with Daniel Lee, he wants music before he shoots, and before he even edits, because he wants a tempo he can work with. So sometimes he would describe the story about how long he’s gonna edit it, if it’s an opening scene of a fight or whatever, he wants the mood to be somewhat like that’s… maybe two to length, that’s like three minutes of three and a half minutes. And how he wants the mood to build up, so I can write something, and he just edits to the tempo before adding it to the music, that’s how it happens.
  François : And do you sometimes work with the editor of the movie ?
  Henry : Most of them work with the movie directors. I mean, editors tend to stick to the directors. So basically it’s working with the director. Of course afterwards, we’ll discuss matters like… the editor wants this part to be a little longer, he wants this part to be more punchy or something like that, and I just rearrange the music to his requirement.
  François : What is a good Movie Soundtrack for you ?
  Henry : A good movie soundtrack ? Of course it’s got to fulfil its purpose. If you’re scoring a moody scene, you’ve got to serve the purpose, you’ve got to enhance that scene. At the same time, a lot of directors would look for that kind of characteristics... It’s a theme they want. A lot of successful musics like the James Bond themes (he sings), you recognize them immediately, they’re very successful… Indiana Jones (he sings) those are very successful, they’re easily recognizable ; a theme carries through the whole movie, it becomes an integrate part of the movie.
Henry Lai and his studio
About soundtracks and soundtracks composers
  François : Is it easy to use these themes several times without repeating yourself too much ? In some of your work, there are some distinctive themes, one for each character, like in « Moonlight express », is it easy to renew yourself each time you rewrite these themes ?
  Henry : Actually I think there shouldn’t be too many themes in a movie. We talked about different themes for different characters. Some times it works some times it just doesn’t. A movie is not just about ABC characters. Sometimes they interact, sometimes they always interact. When you have AB or BC, or ABC together, so if you intentionally write for one character, you’ll be in trouble. I would say unless there are some very distinct characters, you have to write different themes, otherwise it’s more like a variation. It’s something which should care for the whole film. It’s like an alignment for the whole film. It shouldn’t deviate too much, otherwise it sounds like a compilation of songs for one movie.
  François : What are your favourite soundtracks or music composers, in the whole world ?
  Henry : I like John Williams. He’s a maestro. What he did with « Catch me if you can », wow, that was a superb soundtrack. He was going up at the Henry Mancini field. Henry was really really good. What he did for « Pink Panther », he was really good. These are great masters. Hans Zimmer is more calculated. Too calculated.
  François : But he is a king of rythm.
  Henry : Yes, he is, he uses a lot of electronics plus orchestra, but sometimes he’s just too Hollywood maybe. And then the guy who composes for Almodovar,… I forgot his name,… but he’s good.
  François : What do you think of the soundtracks made in Hong Kong. There are not a lot of famous movie scorers in Hong Kong. James Wong maybe, and a few others, but not so many.
  Henry : I think it has improved a lot. James Wong has done a great job. He scored the Tsui Hark movies, all the action movies… That was very good, the way he widened, before his special group with the Kung Fu movies or the Wong Fei Hung movies. Compared to Hong Kong, like 20 or 30 years, when music movie wasn’t so developped, apart from one or two instances. It has improved quite a lot. Especially now that the directors realise the importance of a good soundtrack, they will dispense more on the orchestra, the instruments. It’s not only MIDI or digital. It has improved a lot.
  François : Don’t you think it’s a waste, because it’s impossible to find most of the old soundtracks in Hong Kong. Even for recent ones by Raymond Wong, it’s impossible to find them. You can’t imagine the questions I have concerning the « Hero never dies» or « Running out of time » soundtracks, people want to buy it, but they just don’t exist. That’s the same for some old scores by Raymond Wong or by other people. They were never published.
  Henry : Yes it’s quite a waste, but the thing is Hong Kong is a very commercial city, I mean, there aren’t enough consumers to support a market like that…
  François : And people don’t like soundtracks.
  Henry : They don’t like soundtracks very much, unless you have some very good songs in it, commercial pop songs. Then they would buy it, but in general, soundtracks just don’t appeal to people.
  François : Is that why they sold « Fighter’s blues’» soundtrack with an album by Andy Law ?
  Henry : That was a commercial decision actually. Personnally I object that idea. I agreed about the idea but at that time he had this new album out, and he wanted bonus material. But I think maybe I will publish a tune myself. I don’t want to see it bundelled with some other album.
  François : And what do you think of pop music in Hong Kong ?
  Henry : Again, this is commercial-oriented… It’s all based on market and strategy. If say next week… No, not next week, now ; RNB songs hit in Taiwan, a lot of artists sing RNB, they all want to get up and do RNB albums. There is a lack of variety.
  François : This is probably why western viewers buy more soundtracks, because they listen to all kinds of music.
  Henry : Exactly, and bands in America, Japan, and even South East Asia, I mean Thailand for example, they’re big hits. In Hong Kong, they couldn’t survive. Because commercially, they’re not radio-friendly, they don’t broadcast. The company would say « Oh, you’ve got a band of five people », that’s bad profit, they can’t make a lot of money. And a lot of performance venues think that hiring a band means putting extra money for setting up the equipments, and they don’t want to do that. And so they get singers that sing in MMO (Editor's note: music minus one, meaning that the singer is singing on pre-recorded music), may be they bring along two dancers, to make things easier. That kills all the bands, but the bands are the most innovative in the music scene, I think. They always write very original material.
Two of his numerous guitars
His Work with Daniel Lee
  François : About Daniel Lee, you can be considered as his regular composer. Could you tell us more about your collaboration with him ?
  Henry : I started working with Daniel maybe like (he thinks)… many years ago, that was before Wong Fei Hong…
  François : The TV series ?
  Henry : The TV series, yes. I first did the music for him. Before that I was composing trailers for him. Because he used to be an editor for trailers, a director for trailers. Danny Lee Sau-Yin got a new film out at the time and he wanted someone to bring a new trailer or teaser. He called Daniel, and Daniel would always go to me for an original teaser music. That’s how we started working together. And then he got his first movie… (searching for the title in english)
  François : What Price Survival…
  Henry : Yeah, for that one he used a Taiwanese composer. At that time, the Taiwanese composer was in Hong Kong, and there was an extra cue that Daniel wanted to do. And he was looking for a studio. So he came to my house to do the music. That’s how I met his assistant producer, and then we started a relation. So we started the Wong Fei Hung movie, and then afterwards started working on Till Death Do Us Part…
  François : Is it easy to work with him ? He’s known as a very artistic person, he’s also a painter. Is it easy for you to work with someone with such an artistic taste ?
  Henry : He’s very demanding. That’s true. He has a lot of beliefs, He knows exactly what he’s doing. He listens to a lot of music. When he wants music from me, he can always describe it in a very detailed way, like : « this is the kind of music, this is the kind of mood I want ». In a way it’s easy to get his mind. But at the same time it’s not very easy because he’s got that standard you need to achieve. Because of his knowledge of music, he always wants more from me. So it’s pretty difficult working with him.
  François : But challenging as well ?
  Henry : Yes, very challenging, that’s for sure.
  François : About the opera song in Till Death do us Part, in the scene on the roof, who did decide about that ? Was it you, was it Daniel ?
  Henry : Yes, that was Daniel. The song for that part had to be very emotional, because it pushed to a climax. It was the only way we could achieve that. At that time we could not afford a real orchestra and all that. And it’s something you simply couldn’t create with the technology at that time, with MIDI and digital music, you know… So he wanted to put opera music there.
  François : Do you feel the responsibility of your music on this kind of scenes ? Without your music the scene would really be different, the music is really building something.
  Henry : Yes of course, music is very important in a situation like this. It can enhance or build up the film. I feel responsible, yes of course. And the thing is, to integrate it in the movie is the most important part.
  François : Still about this soundtrack, there are some "painful" tracks to hear, as they underline painful moments for the characters. Is it easy for you to write this kind of music?
  Henry : No. Everything must go with the movie. If it’s right with the movie, I don’t care how it sounds taken out of that context. It has to improve the movie.
  François : Before that, you used to write songs for a band, so the music was more "enjoyable". Did it change your way of working ?
  Henry : Not really. It is part of creativity, I have no problem working with that. Pumping out commercial songs is one thing. Actually doing commercial songs has never been my strongest point. I’m more comfortable doing soundtrack music. I feel like I have more freedom. I don’t have to fall into that category of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo, you know… That kind of constraint…
  François : Now about Fighter’s Blues. Was it easy for you to also adapt your music in order to make it sound Thai ?
  Henry : It’s probably because I’ve always liked ethnic music. Even with my band, I did a lot of ethnic songs. I enjoy working with different cultures.
  François : I read that Daniel Lee was fascinated by the sound of the gong, and you used it in the soundtrack. Did he come to you and say « I want this sound to give the rythm at one moment » ?
  Henry : No. He didn’t mentioned it to me. It’s the first time I heard he liked the sound so much. But I’ve always liked using bells and that kind of ethnic instruments. I just felt it was right. He never told me about it.
  François : Same for the car accident in Moonlight Express? There is only music, no sound effects. Did Daniel come to you and say : «you have to prepare a music knowing there will be no sound effect… »
  Henry : No, actually that was my suggestion to remove the sound effects. Because I think if you want to emphasize that car crash, that kind of tragedy, the best thing is to take away everything, and it’s like you’re watching from Heaven. I’ve been in a accident before. And my experience was that I heard nothing. It was totally blank. That was the most realistic way to express it. So with a car crash scene like that we removed everything, and it felt very real to me, and scary. That’s why I suggested him.
  François : What about the songs in your soundtracks, usually is it your idea?
  Henry : Well, I would propose to Daniel, and he decides of course (laughs).
  François : But do you have some constraints from time to time because of the producers and investors? Like they arrive with some popular songs that you must include in the soundtrack?
  Henry : No, Actually I wrote most of the songs. The only songs that are different are the ones by Andy Lau, because he insists in putting his music in there, he was an investor, of course… But Daniel and I actually don’t like the song, because it doesn’t fit with the culture. We’re deliberately doing something that is not in the conventional Cantonese and commercial movie sense. And this song just bring it back to that track. That’s why we objected it. But these songs remained , for a lot of political reasons. However with Fighter’s Blues, the Thai songs were right for the environment and the Thai culture, they were right so we chose them.
Star Runner
  François : And about your new movie, Star Runner, what kind of movie is it?
  Henry : Action movie and there’s a love story line. The theme song sounds very Mexican, because there is a scene where the two main characters fall in love in a party, a wedding party. And there’s this Mexican band playing the song so it becomes the theme song of Star Runner. That was actually recorded in Mexico. We had a South-American singer singing it. And then another character in the movie is the Bond's grandfather, who is played by David Chiang. Bond was brought up by his grandfather, and his grandfather used to be a soldier in China. He was injured in a battle and he was saved by this nurse. He fell in love with her but because it was such a rundown time, he thought it might not be a good time to develop a relationship. So he gave up and they got separated. And then after the war he thought about it all the time and he regretted not to have stayed with the girl and shown her his love. So it’s been the regret of his life. And he tells this to his grandson. The grandson is a boxer who falls in love with his korean teacher. He is so afraid to develop a relationship again because she’s this teacher and anyway he remembers what his grandfather told him. So he doesn’t give up with the teacher and he fights his best in his fights. That is basically the storyline. As the grandfather used to fight against the Russians at the time, a part of the music is very military, there’s a Russian feel to it. That’s the main style.
  François : I don’t know if the movie is shot completely but are you working with some images ?
  Henry : Yes. Actually it’s done. It’s the third or fourth version, so it’s pretty finalized
  François : So this time you are creating the music according to the image rather ?
  Henry : To the image, yes, but I had to compose some music before the editing, as Daniel wanted some music for the shooting. Like the Mexican song and the opening for the fights at Star Runner. That's a very rock plus military style. This time it’s appealing to the young audience, Vanness Wu is a teenage idol, so we want something rocky and energetic for certain parts.
  François : But do you prefer to work with the images ?
  Henry : Yes of course. It’s more intuitive. More inspiring.

Listen to 13 extracts of the
Star Runner soundtracks!

Star Runner Soundtrack

Rambling Questions
  François : About the CDs’ package, do you work on it ? I’ve got the « Till Death Do Us Part » CD, and the package is a really nicely designed cardboard one. Did Daniel or yourself work on it ?
  Henry : I think Daniel did the design for that. The record company had its own design but he rejected it.
  François : Because this movie was such a personal project ?
  Henry : Yes. Actually he takes all his projects very personally.
  François : Even Star Runner ? This one seems a little more commercial…
  Henry : It is more commercial but still he wants his footprint on it of course (laughs).
  François : And for your fifth collaboration with Daniel, are things easier for you ?
  Henry : No it hasn’t been easier. Not really. First each film is different, has different requirements. Secondly Daniel knows you have to achieve things, and he always tries to go higher each time. He’s always pushing the limits. So that hasn’t been easier… That’s harder sometimes !
  François : Do you have other projects with Daniel ?
  Henry : Not at the moment, no. I think he’s working on a martial arts film for next year. I’ll probably have to do that one.
  François : So you’ll keep working together ?
  Henry : I hope so.
  François : And do you have projects with other directors, for other movies ?
  Henry : Not at the moment.
  François : So in the meantime between Star runner and the next movie, what are you going to do ?
  Henry : I’m working on different projects altogether ; first of all I’m working for this soundtrack for an online game, on my website. That one is finalized. Secondly I’m working on a new system. This movie is sponsored by a system called SRS, which means Surround Sound System. It’s a new system. What they’re doing is using a matrix system to collapse the surround sound into a stereo file. That’s very easy, you can draw it on a CD, you can stream it down the Internet, and the good thing about it is you don’t need to use a DVD to listen to it. DVD needs a lot of compression… It’s a true full broadband music, using a matrix system to collapse sound into a stereo file. So I’m working with them, I want to produce some music with them, and I want to propote that system to singers in Hong Kong, doing remixes for them, and even applications in concerts. And I’ve got to mix « Star Runner » in surround sound.
  François : You mean that the Star runner (soundtrack) will not only be in stereo but in 5.1 ?
  Henry : Surround 5.1, yes. But the good thing about it is if you collapse it and you’re using an ordinary CD player you can still listen to it in stereo and there’s no difference.
  François : And for you is it more creative to have not only two channels but six in total ?
  Henry : Oh, yes of course. It’s something that makes it difficult to go back to stereo. If it’s getting really popular, it’s gonna change the way people mix music.
  François : And your Internet website (, is it important for you, does it bring you some calls, interests from people ?
  Henry : It does. It brings all kinds of question, technical questions or questions about music, one time I even got clients coming for me from Jakarta, who wanted me to do some jingle music for them. I’m a very low-key man, I don’t promote myself or whatever. I think Internet is a good way for me to communicate with others. Otherwise, I’d hjust stay home and work and die here !
  François : Well thank you Henry
  Henry : You’re welcome.

All our thanks to Henry Lai for his availabity and kindness at a very busy period.

  • October 2003