Erran Baron Cohen

Erran Baron Cohen’s music has soundtracked his brother Sacha’s films Borat and Bruno and helped them become huge global hits. He tells us how he got a foot in the door of the film industry…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 24 Oct 2013
  • min read
Borat, Ali G and Bruno – actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s name is the first which springs to mind when you think of these film and TV hits but there’s another sibling behind these cinematic and television success stories.

Erran is another creative member of the Baron Cohen clan but instead of film, his artistic leanings took him into music. He enjoyed some success with his band Zohar, an outfit which fused Jewish and Arabic dance music, before working on music for film.

He’s collaborated closely with his brother and his projects over the years as well as branching out into children’s TV and more classical pieces. M spoke to Erran over the phone about his music, his creative relationship with his brother and the various routes into the industry…

How did you get into composing music for the screen?

I was originally signed to Miles Copeland’s label in a band called Zohar. Then my brother started doing the Ali G show which obviously ended up being quite big. I was writing the music for it which went alongside my album material.

TV became movies as I did a film with David Baddiel called The Infidel. Ali G became massive and that got me properly into movies. You could say it’s all about personal contacts. And I obviously know my brother quite well!

How did you first find writing for the silver screen?

Borat was my first Hollywood movie and there was an audition even though I’d been involved since the start.

I had to do the Borat theme and the Kazakhstan anthem. It ended up being played when someone from the country won an Olympic gold medal. They played my version of the anthem instead of the real one.

But getting into the industry is very much about relationships and an element of luck. You can do some projects for a low fee because you hope it will improve your show reel and the people you’re working with go on to other things.

So contacts are key?

Yes – if you write music for an advert, that director may move onto a short movie. That’s when nurturing your contacts will pay off as they should remember you. And it’s all good practice even if it doesn’t lead to Hollywood or any money.

It means that when you do get the call, you’ll be ready, able to adapt and deal with any opportunity that comes up. If you’re not, then you risk losing the job that could make you.

Do you approach each of these projects differently from a compositional perspective?

Well I’ve done three artist albums where you have no brief other than one you’ve given yourself. But when you compose to picture you have a brief from a director or producer.

You approach each project differently but at the end of the day you’re still writing music which has to fit a brief and fulfil certain criteria. Those are set by the producers and directors. The problem is feeding in comments from different stake holders. This can be another challenge in itself.

I like the fact that when I’m writing music to brief I have a structure before I’ve even begun. It speeds up the writing process for me as I have a framework in place rather than a blank canvas.

How would you advise composers to get a foot in the door?

It’s about doing as much work as possible. Something may lead to another project. Or people you’re working with will call you up again. People use people they know so this personal relationship aspect is incredibly important.

When starting out, it’s about being versatile and trying different things outside your comfort zone. Versatility is incredibly important in this field. I’ve been asked to do everything from orchestral scores to gay house music. I have an interest in many of these areas but you have to be able to immerse yourself in each of them very quickly. And be able to write in almost any style. That takes a bit of practice.

Are there any other areas of opportunity for composers?

Video games are becoming bigger than films in terms of budgets. So that’s a good area.

My feeling is that the movie industry is in a big of bother at the moment. There are less films being made in both the UK and Hollywood. It’s increasingly difficult to get work as there is less of it. I would say do other things as well. TV in US - that’s where many of the more adventurous projects are. In Hollywood, many of the movies they’re making are sequels. The composers writing the music for these projects are established people like Hans Zimmer.

I wouldn’t restrict myself to just trying to do movies. I’m writing a musical at the moment with David Baddiel. It’s another thing which is potentially a money making opportunity.

So TV is where the innovation for composers is at?

Yes there are more opportunities in TV.  But there are a lot of different areas opening up. You need to do the best job you can on every project regardless of format. We’re all trying to earn a living and compete so you always need to perform to the best of your ability.

In terms of building a career, what is deemed artistic is subjective and I think irrelevant. If you don’t do the best, then you’ll get sacked. If you like what you’re doing, hopefully they’ll use you again. That’s the most important thing whether ti’s Teletubbies or a Hollywood movie. It doesn’t matter.  People who are snobby abut the medium are restricting their opportunities. There’s no simple career path with music. But getting the chance to compose and be paid for it is a great thing.