Mark Mothersbaugh, like many creative people, keeps a list.
“There’s these people out there that I like, and you hope someday that you’d work with them,” Mothersbaugh, a sometime rock star and longtime film composer, said in a recent phone interview.
After seeing “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” a charming comedy from New Zealand about a crotchety old guy (Sam Neill) who takes his foster child (Julian Dennison) into the wilderness to avoid authorities, Mothersbaugh put the director, Taika Waititi, on his list.
“I was really impressed with the way he used music in that film,” Mothersbaugh said. “It was like a total juxtaposition. I think the music was just so ironic. It’s all this lush, kind of Amazonian outback, in New Zealand. It’s beautiful, green, nobody around. And he used this ’70s minimalist synthesizer soundtrack that was jarring at first. … At first, it almost feels like it doesn’t work, but after 30 seconds, you buy into it, and you go, ‘This guy’s a genius.’”
The admiration was apparently mutual, because a couple of weeks after seeing the movie, Mothersbaugh got word that Waititi had requested the composer to work on his next movie: the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe entry “Thor: Ragnarok” (which opens nationwide Friday).
Mothersbaugh has some 200 movie and TV credits under his belt, from early work on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and writing the “Rugrats” theme to comedies (“The Royal Tenenbaums,” “21 Jump Street,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Brad’s Status”) and animated films (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” the “Hotel Transylvania” movies and “The LEGO Ninjago Movie”). For many, he’s still remembered as the songwriter and leader of the pioneering ’70s-’80s New Wave band Devo.
“Thor: Ragnarok,” though, is the first superhero movie for which Mothersbaugh has written the score.
“It’s not a secret that [Marvel has] taken hits in the last year or so, people have criticized their scores for being underwhelming,” Mothersbaugh said of past scores for Marvel Cinematic Universe titles. “We decided we wanted to up the ante with [this] score for Marvel. … We decided to take the challenge to add some new material to it.”
The playlist Waititi gave Mothersbaugh of the types of music he liked “was wide-ranging, but none of it was orchestral, which was kind of funny,” Mothersbaugh said. “No matter what else you do in a Marvel film, you have to pay homage to superheroes. And there’s nothing better for that than a 100-piece orchestra.”
Beyond that, Motherbaugh went into his basement studio and considered synthesizer tracks in the spirit of Bryan Eno, early Roxy Music and even his old Devo work. “In the script, there were perfect entries into this,” Mothersbaugh said, citing the futuristic planet ruled by the Grand Master, a character played by Jeff Goldblum who throws disco parties and even DJs his own dance tracks. “That gave us a perfect excuse to find a whole new sound.”
One of Mothersbaugh’s favorite scenes comes when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is forced into gladiatorial combat with the Grand Master’s champion — who, it turns out, is his fellow Avenger, The Hulk (performed by Mark Ruffalo).
“My intention there was to make you feel like you were in the middle of the coliseum with Thor and Hulk,” Mothersbaugh said, crediting his engineer for “wrapping the horns around us, and wrapping the drums around us, so you felt like you were in the middle of it.”
The most dynamic moment in “Thor: Ragnarok,” musically at least, isn’t one of Mothersbaugh’s compositions. It’s when Thor and company face off with the devil-like beast Surtur — and the music that plays when he appears is the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
Mothersbaugh said he has no problem with that, both as a Zeppelin fan and as the guy who licenses Devo’s music for other filmmakers to use.
(By the way, Mothersbaugh’s favorite use of a Devo song in a movie was when “Working in a Coal Mine” played in the 1981 animated sci-fi classic “Heavy Metal.” When the song was included on the soundtrack album, he recalled, “we thought we were going to get a free ride along with all these metal bands. The joke was on us, because our song was on the top 10 and none of the other ones did.”)
“I understand the value of music that comes from another place, that you attach a meaning to when you see it in the film,” he said.
Working with Led Zeppelin is tricky, Mothersbaugh said, because “you don’t let anybody do anything to their songs. You can’t edit it, you can’t change the arrangement, you can’t put other music over it. We did throw it out there, like ’What do you think if, the second time, we put the London Symphony behind it to give it some extra punch.’ … They said, ‘No, we don’t let anyone do that, ever.’”
The good news, though, is “they like the movie. They thought the movie was cool enough for ‘Immigrant Song.’”