Ronald D. Moore’s FUTURE-KILL (1985) faced illustrating a large story with a limited budget. A big part of its success in demonstrating a bleak, near-future vision was not what you see, but what you hear. Film composer Robert Renfrow’s electronic score perfectly complimented the on-screen action. Unlike many composers who start working on films after they’ve shot, Robert was on-set serving as sound sound assistant and 2nd boom operator during the production. Retro Slashers had the opportunity to speak with him back in November of 2006.
Retro Slashers: What was your background leading up to Future-Kill?
Robert Renfrow: I played keyboards in rock bands throughout junior high and high school and got a Roland Juno 6 synth when I was attending film school at the University of Texas at Austin. I did the music for my own projects and for a group project at school, and other students began to approach me for their projects. At the time, electronic music was popular in feature films. Georgio Moroder’s “Cat People” score is one of my favorites from that era. I was also a fan of the “this-character-has-this-theme” approach that John Williams took, as well as Bernard Herrmann’s technique of limiting the instrumentation to get a certain sound, although I was never able to sell that one to any producers. I did consider myself a student of the craft at the time, as well as a fan.
Retro Slashers: How did you get involved with the production?
Renfrow: Having grown up in Dallas, college in Austin was quite a change of pace. My way of expressing it was to say “My heart beat’s slower in Austin.” Upon graduation, my impulse was to linger, and the production (then known as “Splatter”) was the perfect excuse to remain in Austin. My good friend Jim O’Kane was producer John Best’s roommate at the time, and director Ron Moore was a movie memorabilia dealer, buying and selling collectible one-sheet posters. I had no professional crew credits, but I was known by many of the crew who had also recently attended UT film school, and was tapped as Sound Assistant, who is sort of third banana on the set recording crew, behind the recordist and the guy pointing the boom mic. My job was to keep the cable between the mic and the Nagra deck from tripping anyone, and clearing a path when the boom person had to walk/run backwards.
Retro Slashers: What was it like on-set during the shoot?
Renfrow: I was surprised at the intensity of a film set. It seemed like everyone was determined to get the absolute best result for their particular task, but there was also a lot of effort toward cooperation between different departments, and between crew and cast. As you can see in the film, 80% were night exteriors, so typically we were showing up at dusk and breaking at dawn. Changing lighting setups and camera positions often caused a bit of “hurry up and wait,” and one of the many catchphrases popular among the crew was “If you’re waiting on me, you’re lying down.” To this day, I’m not exactly sure what that means, although my best guess is that it means “you are mistaken in the belief that you are waiting on me.”
Retro Slashers: Do you remember anything about the punk band Max & the Makeups that were featured prominently in the dance club scene?
Renfrow: Sadly, I remember little. I know they were playing a lot locally at that time. Austin, even way back then, was literally crawling with bands. I don’t know how it was that they were selected, although it may have been the hot female singer. I think the venue we shot in was Club Foot, a converted warehouse on 4th Street downtown. We were able to get a lot of coverage, and editor Leon Seith did a really nice job of cutting the scene to the songs. I see from Google that the band broke up later that year, but their performance lives on and on through the wonder of cinema.
Retro Slashers: How did you approach scoring the film and what resources did you have?
Renfrow: I recorded a demo of the main theme (which ended up as the 2nd selection you hear under the film’s tail credits) during the initial production by bouncing layers between 2 cassette recorders. All I had at that time were the Juno 6 and a TR-303 drum machine. When I got the contract at the beginning of post-production, I was able to buy a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 synth. My former band mate and buddy David Castell was engineering and producing bands in Dallas, and we recorded the score on a 1″ 16-track Tascam machine in a private studio David had installed. In addition to the mono mixes of the cues we pulled for the film mix, we also made a ¼” stereo master. I will have to look under my bed to see if I still have it. Although the new Subversive DVD release of Future-Kill is really sweet packaging and extras-wise, I am really disappointed with the audio quality. It sounds like they used some kind of gate/limiter effect on the audio channel to reduce noise, and there are many places where the background music comes and goes with the reading of the actors’ lines, because the music is below the gate threshold, but the voice is loud enough to open it, and the music comes in only when they are speaking. Of course reassembling all the audio elements, if that were even possible, and doing another mix for the DVD would have cost a fortune, and I doubt Subversive is pressing that many copies of this release.
Retro Slashers: Your next credit – 1987’s Murder Rap – seems to be your last. Why did you switch gears?
Renfrow: Throughout the mid-to-late 80’s, all the time I was hanging out in studios with bands and recording my own stuff, I always had a day job. The thing that made scoring jobs available to me in the first place was based on the economy in Texas at the time. Post production (editing, rerecording, and finishing) was taking place here locally in Texas. The main reason for this was because Texas money was financing the films. There were a lot of instant millionaires due to real estate and oil deals that would later turn into the Savings and Loan collapse and buyout. Too many Bozos with too much money on their hands. When that environment went away, there wasn’t any more post production happening in Texas. I spent a year in Los Angeles in 1989 with my demo reel and my banjo on my knee, but the only opportunities I encountered there were for spec work (you work for free and pay for your own studio time, and maybe we’ll pay you if there’s anything left). I came back to Dallas in ’90 got married and started a family, and have been too tired since to do anything but go to Little League games.
Retro Slashers: Looking back, are you happy with your work on Future-Kill?
Renfrow: Watching the DVD was quite a trip down memory lane, having been there during the shoot and having spent so much time in the editing room and in the studio. Aside from the audio problems I mentioned, I think for the most part that my work was a good fit for the movie, and I’d like to think a part of the audience’s experience.