Interview Peter Kam

Peter Kam is one of the good music composers in Hong-Kong, and got rewarded recently with the Hong Kong award for the best soundtrack on Lost in Time.We talked with him about the job of music composer, and his collaborations with famous directors like Teddy Chen, Edmond Pang or Peter Chan.
The career of soundtrack composer
Could you please introduce yourself briefly?

My name is Peter Kam, I was born in Hong Kong, I'm 42, and I have started working in films about 8 years ago. So before that, I was basically doing mostly pop songs, christian pop songs. When I came back to Hong Kong from the States, I met a local composer, a quite famous jingle and pop song composer, I worked as an inhouse composer in his production house. It's there I start to write music for visual images, commercial, things like that. I met a friend who is an actor, Simon Liu, and he and I are different kind of people, but we both like films. So we talk about films a lot, so when he had a chance to get involved in the production of a film, he asked if I want to do the soundtrack. So I said "sure!". It was all very simple. It just happened like that you know.
How did you find the job, compared to pop song writing?

Both jobs are difficult, in different aspects. I wouldn't say it's more difficult. I would say there are times when it's more time consuming, yes. And there are times when you work with certain directors, you have a hard time to communicated with them and get the ideas of what they want. Then yes, it would be a little more difficult. But nowadays, when you write a pop songs, you try to write something that will become a "hit". And you still have to go through other people, like the producers, the marketing, etc.. So it's not really that much different.
How do you work usually? With a first cut, or before the movie is shot?

I always work with the image. I'm one of the few fortunate music composers in Hong Kong that can actually get the script almost half a year before the film is being shot. So I have the benefit of reading the script, first. And then, I might come up with a few short pieces for the director to listen, just to get an idea. But those are not usually the final. So I work with the music when I got the final cut.
Isn't a bit restricting to work on a movie? You have the images, you must follow them, you don't have a total freedom?

I don't think it's not a restriction. That's just part of the demand on writing this kind of music. Everything has restrictions. If you write a pop song, you have to write for a singer, with a style. Even when you make a movie, you make a certain type of movie. Once you say you make a certain type of things, I think the restrictions and limitations are a benefit in my opinion. So I think it's actually a good thing to have those images, it's almost like a laying down a ground rule. The idea is to be creative inside this perimeter. That's the challenge.
To you, what is a good movie soundtrack?

I think a good movie soundtrack is something that can bring another dimension. Most of the time, it's good enough when it's underlying the content of the images. I think it's great when it's bringing in a dimension that it is NOT on the screen. That's not spoken, but you can feel something, the music kind of tells you "this is what is behind all those dialogs".
Soundtracks were never really considered as an very important part of a movie in Hong Kong cinema, don't you think?

It's better now. It depends on the mixing engineer, on the producers also. Some producers still have the ABC kind of mind set: A for dialog, B for sound effects, C for soundtrack, with the importance in that order. It's getting better now. You can't just say "music is important". You have to see music as an organic part of the whole thing. There are times when it needs to be soft, there are times when it needs to be loud. So I think a lot of us are still using the ABC approach. But some directors are getting better. I worked with Aubrey, on her latest film, Hidden Track. She purposely leaves room for the music during some scenes. It's not like who is first. It's how the pieces fit together. The music is quite important in this movie. To me, the interesting thing about this movie is that I get to write different kinds of music. It needs to fit the film in different ways, because there are many scenes about montage, there is no dialogs. It's all about music. The music has to convey many things. That's a challenge, but it was fun. For me, it was another step, something I have never done before.
Who are your preferred composers?

In Hong Kong, we are not so many (laughs). I like Raymond Wong's work. I like what Comfort Chan Kwong Wing is doing. They do both good work. Another composer I like, but he does not do a lot of things: Tsui Chang Hei. I worked with him. Outside of Hong Kong, there are just too many. I would say Danny Elfman for his creativity, for his "off-beat" approach, he often finds something that is outside of your expectations. John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith for the standard big sounds, and Hans Zimmer for his energy, and Morricone for his heart. I think Morriconne is one of my favorite composers. Everything he does, it touches you at many different levels.
You have worked several times with the same directors. Does it help to have a better collaboration?

I don't think so. Each time is different. Any can happen and can make the work suffer. The benefit to work with the same people again and again would be that you could sense their working method a lot better. You can come to an understanding better. But for the movie itself, I think it really depends. The same director could do a very good movie on time, and then a so-so the next time.
What about your CDs? It's hard to find most soundtracks.

I don't feel too bad about it. It's just the reality. Not every single CD sells that much. I wish the record company has more faith in movie music. Although it's a small market in Hong Kong, they might be able to sell some. Hopefully it will improve. In the future, I will try to publish some myself, because now I hold the rights on my soundtracks. But it's time consuming.
A best of maybe?

Yes, that would be easier. Per movie, that's a bit hard.
What kind of music would you like to do?

I like to write music that touches people. I like to be creative, but going back to Morricone, he did many different kinds of movies, westerns, love stories. I want to write melodies that touches people. Eventually, something more epical, or a movie talking about a person's life, that kind of story you can write themes closer to the heart. But still, I like doing all different kind of things.
Teddy Chen
What about Teddy Chen, were your collaborations interesting?

I worked for Teddy on three movies. I like working with him, coz he gives me a lot of freedom. What we try to achieve is like a circle. For him, once your music is inside the circle, it doesn't really matter where you stand, he is OK with it. But if it's outside, then he is not OK with it. Some directors, even if you are inside, you have the right direction, they still try to go "eeeh, maybe you should try to go here, or here... " . Teddy gives you a lot of freedom. He works on a very deep feeling. "This character, he is like a vampire, this character is sad, tragic". Once you get the tone of the character, he is fine with it. On Purple Storm, it was kind of special. Purple Storm was one of the movies, or maybe the only one, I had to compose something before the film was shot. There was supposed to be a cambodian folk song that some of these terrorists sing. He wanted to film a scene where those terrorists are moving some weapons in the dark and they start singing this folk song. Because they want to go home. So I did a lot of research, I found that cambodian folk songs are not like anything we know. I have a feeling that cambodian folk songs are more melodic asian type of song. So I listen to a lot of cambodian music, and I found out it's nothing like what we expected (laughs). So I kind of made one up (laughs). It was kind of funny. I had to find a cambodian to compose the lyrics for me.

So it has been interesting working with Teddy. His next project, Dark October, is a very interesting one. It's his biggest in scope, and in ambition. I read the script three times already. There has been some changes. He told me the kind of feelings he wants on it: a traditionnal chinese feeling with western orchestra. And also, the colonial Hong Kong. So it's a mixture of all three. There is some kung-fu, so it's chinese. The orchestra is here coz it's a very big Hollywood type film, and then the colonial meaning, maybe backpipes, things like that. He did mention he wants me to write something before. Not a lot actually, maybe one or two themes, so he can listen and get the feeling. Except on Downtown Torpedoes, he starts early. Right before the script is done, he says "if you don't have time to write it, at least find some references, and we can all discuss and listen to it".
Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung

François: About your work with Edmond, both musics are very interesting, they are fitting the world of the movie. The first one was more cheerful, with this very funny song in the middle « You shoot I shoot ». And the second one is much more dramatic, like the Godfather. So could you tell us about these two experiences ?

Peter : These two experiences were happy experiences, because I liked their creativity. Pang Ho Cheng is relatively young, I like his humour. He’s not the Hollywood type « 1-2 punch ». He’s more like a running gag. He creates this crazy situation that is absolutely funny. You Shoot I Shoot was so funny. I get to do all kinds of music, one or two things didn’t work that well, but some of the scenes were just absolutely funny. By thinking of them afterwards, we would all laugh. It was a happy experience because he basically wants to find that magic between the music and the scene that is not conventional, and it was happy for me, because I get it. I do get him. I understand him. We’re pretty much on the same wavelength. He doesn’t worry about the music too much. and same thing, he does not say « I don’t like this note, I don’t like that note. » It will be the whole thing, and once it goes to the pictures, if it works, he will laugh outloud, and then you’ll know it works. So yeah, You Shoot I Shoot was fun, and I got to write the main title, which doesn’t happen too often.

That main title was like a 1960's Hollywood Film, with animations, and things like that, it was great.
Men suddenly in black, that’s another crazy thing. He liked doing a film about infidelity totally as a cops and robbers genre, and again, fortunately I get it. So some of the scenes are so far-out, but I think when you put over-the-top dramatic music to it, it is just absolutely funny.

F: And do you think that with the same cast, they are great actors, same kind of story but with real thiefs, I mean, real cops, real robbers, and your music, It would do a good dramatic movie…

P: Yeah, yeah, It would work, it would still work. But of course I mean, If they were for real, some of the music would not be so over-the-top, I mean, you could hear the purposefulness. You know, it is like ridiculous. (laughs) The scene that I like the most is when Eric Tsang, when the guys meet the first time, in the billard place, in the pool hall, and they start talking about what happened five years ago, honestly it is so ridiculous (laughs)

F: Talking about the sacrifice of 9th Uncle, it is so dramatic…

P: Yes it was great !

F: Everything is really going in the same direction

T: To me, this movie was a very special experience because the music takes a very special place, because some of the gags… The gags on screen, I mean the gag is not there. It’s not there ! The music is telling the audience, you know, « don’t take this seriously » (laughs).

Other directors
You work with Peter Chan on Golden Chicken also, even if he is not the director.

Peter Chan is a very scrutinizing producer. He is in every single shoot, he is everywhere. He is a very good producer. I worked with a korean composer on "Three: Going home". There is a bit of a story behind it. Because, initially, it was just him. He is a very famous korean composer. But I think he needed more time, to communicate with the director. But I don't think they have reached this level yet. They have reached a good communication on certain cues. On some other stuffs, they have not yet reached a good communication. I came in a little bit later to work on that.
What about Jingle Ma and the spanish-like soundtrack of Tokyo Raiders?

The way he shot and cut his movies is a bit like music video. The location is Tokyo, and the action scenes look like a dance sometimes, the way he shoots the silhouettes fighting. So at the end there was spanish flamenco, modern dance music with a little Tokyo local music mixed to it. So that's another one of my favorites, a very creative project. On Silver Hawk, it's also not the conventionnal Hollywood type action hero. It's also a bit of a wink. It's supposed to be big, but it's quite humurous as well, like a cartoon type action hero.

All our thanks to Vince to get us in touch with Peter, and to Peter for his kindness and availability.

  • October 2003