INTERVIEW: Composer Rendra Zawawi Put The Music In M For Malaysia

The 2018 Malaysian general election featured the return of a 92-year-old former Prime Minister, and is documented in the film M for Malaysia where composer Rendra Zawawi digs into his roots to create a soundscape worthy of controversial country-spanning historical events.

Mahathir Bin Mohamad was the Prime Minister of Malaysia for 22 years, beginning in 1981 up until his retirement in 2003. But after 15 years of what was likely blissful retirement, the “Father of Modernisation” got back into the often brutal ring of politics. M For Malaysia documented the events as directed by Dian Lee and Ineza Roussile and was the official selection from Malaysia for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

PopAxiom flew to Malaysia to speak with Rendra only to find out he lives in L.A. So, we came back home and called him to talk about life making music, video games, and the process of scoring M for Malaysia.

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Other Side Of The World

Rendra was born and raised in Malaysia to parents who were both academics. “My dad is a professor of anthropology. But my dad dabbled in music too.”

Naturally, Rendra was going to be a musician from the start. “I was a civil engineer before this.”

Music was just a hobby for Rendra. “I told my dad, ‘Can you teach me some guitar chords just for fun?’ I went into my room and wrote a song. The next day I played it for my dad, and he was impressed. When people would come into the house, my dad would say ‘Perform! Perform!”

Rendra was a “… a singer-songwriter first while pursuing a civil engineer degree in the U.K.”

At this point, music was “… a professional hobby.”

However, the pro hobby was taking over. “After civil engineering, I went to Berklee to pursue music professionally.”

Some naysayers think Rendra wasted time studying civil engineering. Still, he views it in a completely different way, saying that the two share similarities, mainly being fundamentally about vital structures. The knowledge he gained “… contributes to making music.”

About M For Malaysia

Getting connected to M for Malaysia was a degree of friends. “I got connected by a mutual friend who had a friend looking for a composer for a feature documentary.”

Rendra spoke with one of the directors of the film. But his familiarity with scoring a doc was minimal. “I’d done one documentary before.”

The composer began to learn more details about the project. “It’s about the Malaysian elections in 2018. I was following it from afar. She [producer/director] had all this footage from behind the scenes … privileged access. She sent me some of the raw footage for me to watch.”

Rendra was surprised by what he saw. “It was so much behind the scenes of the future Prime Minister at home with his wife. The narrator [and director] was his granddaughter. That’s when I realized the film’s narrator [and director] and the woman I spoke to was Ineza Roussille, the Prime Minister’s granddaughter.”

“That shifted my view …” Rendra says about the close and personal point of view. And despite the potential bias, Rendra explains, “… the documentary was painting the Prime Minister in both positive and negative lights. I thought his granddaughter was brave for doing it this way. The documentary is very neutral.”

Neutrality and avoiding a political lean was important for Rendra. “I didn’t want to be part of a sort of propaganda thing. I believe in the power of the people. I thought this would be a good way to give back to the country.”

Temps And Anthems

Early discussions about the music for M for Malaysia revealed that the filmmakers “… wanted a documentary with cinematic scores. ’We don’t want it to be too mellow. We want traditional instruments but also contemporary. A local taste … a sprinkle [of Malaysian tradition] on top.”

As with any film, Rendra received a cut of M for Malaysia with temp tracks. “A lot of the cinematic temps they used was stuff from like, Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, and John Powell. There was a Man of Steel reference in there. It was a lot of the sort of usual temp music a lot of movies use these days.”

For Rendra, the temps were an exciting point to start from. “I get to reinterpret those temps into a Malaysian voice. I used some traditional instruments like the Kompang and the Bamboo Flute. Later down the road, I proposed the idea to use the Malaysian National Anthem as a sort of a motif to weave things together.”

About using the anthem, Rendra says, “It’s a very familiar motif that every Malaysian knows. No matter what your political affiliation, everyone knows the national anthem.”

Watch the music video for the Original Song “Bermula Kita”
featuring Malaysian superstar Yuna …

Wrapping Up

I ask Rendra what movie remake would he want to score, but it becomes a two-part answer. The first part involves video games, which is something the composer dearly loves. “Final Fantasy is my biggest video game. I had the pleasure of having dinner with Nobuo Uematsu.”

Shifting to film, Rendra speaks to the power of inspiration from what’s unarguably the most celebrated film composer of all time. “The first composer I fell in love with was John Williams. His melody, same with Nobuo … that’s how I kind of approach my scores and have layers of melodies.”

As for the movie remake, he’d love to be a part of? “The movie I would love to do is the movie Hook.”

What’s next for Rendra? “I’m going back to Malaysia for a few weeks, to write for one of the biggest companies in the country, but I can’t reveal the name. I’m doing a brand song with a 70-piece orchestra. I have something for early next year, a feature film, but that’s under NDA for now. And I’m working with Mac Quayle (Scream Queens, Mr. Robot) on a project which I can’t really talk about, but it’s a cool video game.”

Thanks to Rendra Zawawi and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.

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Ruben Diaz
Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.