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Interview with Tony Riparetti (Cyborg)

Santa Barbara native Tony Riparetti first started out with the Los Angeles-based Sue Saad and the Next, who gained minor acclaim during the heyday of New Wave, before being recruited by B-movie director Albert Pyun to assist in the scoring for his 1985 feature Radioactive Dreams. This soon led to a prolific collaboration between the two that would include the sci-fi action flick Alien from L.A., and in 1988 he was approached by Pyun to work on the score for his latest project, Cyborg. Originally proposed as a sequel to the big screen He-Man spinoff Masters of the Universe, one of the many fantasy-themed pictures produced by Cannon Films during the 1980s, Cyborg would eventually be reworked into an original script by Kitty Chalmers.

The movie was developed as a project for rising action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose breakthrough role in 1986’s No Retreat, No Surrender would be followed by the home video success of Bloodsport and Kickboxer. While he would ultimately be replaced in the title role of the action horror Predator, Cyborg offered Van Damme another foray into the world of science fiction. But there was tension behind the scenes and Riparetti’s music was eventually abandoned in favour of a new score by Kevin Bassinson. Recently, the original cut of Cyborg was unearthed and is set to re-release, thus allowing fans to witness the movie Pyun had intended to make.

Tony Riparetti talks about his work on the movie and finally seeing his score released after over twenty years.

Your collaborations with Albert Pyun first began with 1984’s Radioactive Dreams, following a song from your old band being used in one of his movies. How did he first approach you about composing a score and why do you feel you both connected so well?

One day, while working on a song for Radioactive Dreams, Albert called and asked us if we had ever scored music to picture. Of course, we said we had, then proceeded to write some shorter cues which were quite a bit harder to do than I thought it would be. Not being able to sync to picture made it a two-man operation; one person playing and the other operating the tape machine reverbs, echos and synthesiser patches. We got really good at it by our third film. After that we finally were able to afford the gear needed to sync everything. As far as connecting, I think Albert heard something cinematic in the songs we were writing with the Sue Saad Band. Jim and I were always jamming and those would sometimes turn into these long, drawn-out songs with lots of changes in them that would work well if you put it up to picture. Also, Albert loves female rock singers. Most of the songs written for Albert’s films – around twenty – have been with female singers.

Was the transition from being in a group to becoming a composer a difficult one and were you able to put into practice what you had learnt through your band?

I didn’t think it was too difficult at the time but as I’ve done this for a while I’ve learned it does take time to become a good composer. The musicianship and songwriting chops definitely helped but learning how to let the music have an undercurrent of character development and doing something opposite of what the film is showing takes experience. Also, the big sounding and long action cues (six-to-ten minutes) that Albert Pyun uses a lot of took some time to figure out how to make all the hits work and still make musical sense.

Earlier in your career you shared a studio with the Beastie Boys, what do you recall of this?

At the time I had a studio which had a large room where we recorded bands. This guy (Mike Diamond) walks in one day and asked me if he could rehearse a band for a few months in the big room. I said sure, ’cause I was doing more scoring at the time and didn’t require the space. A few months go by and Mike asks if he can put a studio in there too. I said yes, but wondered, who are these guys. So I asked someone who was working with them and he said, ‘Don’t you know, they’re the Beastie Boys?’ It was a very exciting time.

They bought in lots of well known musicians and actors. I was a fly on the wall most of the time and I must admit I didn’t understand the way they created their music. Then one day a light went on for me as I thought I should be sampling and manipulating sounds for scoring. At the time I was working on Omega Doom, which was quite different for me musically than my earlier films. A couple of years ago I went to take a look at the studio and, although the Beastie Boys are no longer there, I could still see the wheel marks from skateboards on the 16ft high ceiling. I learned much from them and they’re still a great innovative musical force.

What kind of specifications did Albert give you regarding the kind of music that he wanted for the movie and what were your main inspirations during the writing?

Albert asked for a dark, powerful score. Jim played drums and keys and I played guitar and keys, we went to work. We’d go into the studio and one of us would have an idea, so if Jim was playing keyboards I would engineer and record until he finished his idea/parts, then we would switch. Very much a collaboration.

Was the film always intended as a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme or was it originally envisioned as something else entirely?

It was a vehicle for JCVD but, in Albert’s directors cut, he was a much more flawed character. He was haunted by things in his past, almost suicidal. Much more doubting of himself and his abilities in Albert’s cut.

One trapping of the action genre is that many movies resort to generic scores, often to fit the generic characters and plots. How did you approach bringing something new and exciting to the formula?

Because we never studied scores, we just did what we thought was correct for the film and in doing so we took chances creatively. We had some some beautiful/somber cues and then hard driving ones with lots of FX incorporated into the music. I also think the score has a sound because we had three synths, DX7, a Casio FZ1 and a Korg (which I can’t recall the model) for the synth bass sounds. With such a limited palate you go for the gusto, drums, guitars and then whatever the best sounds you can find on the synths.

How long did it take for you to compose the music and were you given the completed movie to score or were you working with a sequence at a time?

I think we had four or five weeks and we started in the middle reels because they were locked first, meaning they were the final edited versions, then the beginning reels and finally the later reels.

Is there one specific piece of music from the score that you feel best represents your intentions with the movie?

I think as far as the battle between good and evil, rage and despair and bringing all the components and themes together, it would have to be Fender and Gibs Fight.

Once you had submitted to the score to Albert and the producers, what kind of feedback were you given?

Albert heard cues at different times during the process and he thought they worked great.

At what point was it decided that your score would be jettisoned and replaced by Kevin Bassinson?

As Jim and I remember, we had stayed up for a couple of days and nights at the very end and we dropped it off to Cannon Films in the morning, totally beat but happy. We handed it in to who I think was the head of the music dept. He took all the masters and said thank you but by the way we’re not using your score. And no, we weren’t offered to rework the score. Albert was pulled off the film, so was the editor and anybody else that was working with Albert. We were devastated to say the least.

What were your thoughts when you saw the final cut of the movie and how did you feel about Kevin’s score?

I have never looked at the whole final cut. I just remember how hard we worked on it so I couldn’t watch. I was sent a YouTube video of the opening four minutes, which set the tone of the film and our score was more thematic and darker than his. Our music stands on its own and other people, besides us, will be the judge.

Albert Pyun and Tony Riparetti

Albert Pyun and Tony Riparetti

The movie is set to be re-released next month as a previously unseen director’s cut with your original score. How after over twenty years has this been unearthed and were you enthusiastic about finally having the chance to show your work?

I was in the process of moving my studio to a new location when I found a VHS tape of Cyborg, which had Albert’s cut and our music on it. I am excited about getting it out there but I wish the director’s cut was a more polished version. It was done quickly with missing sound and FX and levels between music and dialogue pretty rough. You still get a good idea of Albert’s vision of the film.

This alternative cut is rumoured to be much more violent and darker than the theatrical release. Can you elaborate on the differences between the two versions?

Not having seen the entire theatrical version I can’t really comment on the differences but Albert’s version is violent.

Cyborg was savaged by critics upon release. How do you feel about the movie all these years later and are you proud of what you achieved?

Oh I’m sure there will be critics of what we did and Albert’s vision of this dark future. It’s still one of my favourite scores, because we wrote what we thought was right without thinking about trends, what other composers were doing at the time and musically taking lots of chances. I’m a big fan of Albert’s vision of Van Damme as a reluctant, doubting, internal hero and Vince Klyn as Fender is still one of the most badass villains ever.

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