You started out as a musician. Did you intend to become a composer? And how did you make that transition?
I always wanted to get into composing for film and for stories. It just took me an incredibly long time to get to do it and to get through the ranks. I started out making tea in a recording studio in 1998, and I’ve pretty much done every job in film music in the intervening time, so it took a long time to get there. It was all good experiences along the way.
Does being a musician gives you a different perspective on composing? Do most composers have a background as musicians?
I think most certainly play something to some extent. For me, it’s a crucial part of my life and it always has been. I started playing guitar when I was five-years-old or something, so I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t noodling away and annoying people. There’s a lot of instruments in my home and around my studio, so even if I’m not in the studio there’s some kind of music going on. It’s always been a part of my life.
You’ve worked with acclaimed composers such as Hanz Zimmer and James Newton Howard. What would you say were some of the greatest things you learned early on from these great composers?
I got really lucky! The opportunity to sit in a room and watch these people work, be it watching them write or seeing them sit with directors and talk about the process. The main thing I learned from all the good experiences along the way is that these people, as much as they’re musicians on paper, are really filmmakers who are trying to make the film as good as possible, so nothing is not worth trying. You have to keep trying and going to see how far you can push every idea. The great composers I have worked with have shared that. Until the film is finished, you never know if you can come up with the extra melody that pushes the project up a level. I’ve been lucky enough to have been around that mentality and I’ve tried to take that into my own work.
You’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with great directors such as Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuaron, Edgar Wright and beyond. Would you say each one has a different style of working? Is there one particular style that you prefer?
They’re all very different honestly, but the one thing they’ve shared is that it is this constant dissatisfaction until you’ve pushed everything as far you can. I remember with Alfonso [Cuaron], especially, I would take something that I had sweated over for days and days and that I thought was as good as it could possibly be, but the note would always be let’s see how far we can take it. Even when I thought it was the best that it could be, there was still a place it could be taken. There’s always somewhere you can go, and through that process you come up with the next idea or the next experimentation. To see people who are always questioning their own work and all of the work around them, that’s when it gets exciting. I remember saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” but that’s a good thing because then you come up with something you wouldn’t normally have done. The great directors I’ve worked with are the ones who kept pushing me.
How early in the process are you generally brought in? And how early do you prefer to brought in?
My first film as a composer was called “Attack the Block,” and that was relatively late. I had four or five weeks before I recored the score. Looking back it was quite a terrifying schedule, but at the time it was very exciting. But then something like “Gravity” I was on it for over a year. And “Fury,” which I just completed, we were talking about it this time last year and I just finished it last week. The concentrated work I probably started in March, so it’s been something like six months. They all find their own pace. There’s no correct way of doing it. Whatever you’re doing, you kind of just keep working it until it’s done. Certainly on this film, “Fury,” the score has evolved as the picture has evolved. Some ideas came up in the first week are present in the final cut, but other things I didn’t come up with until the final minutes of the scoring session.
Do you ever come up with any ideas before seeing any images? Just based on the screenplay, or the concept or just from discussions with the director?
With “Fury” absolutely. I read the script first in October and then I visited the set a couple times, so I had some images from them shooting things and could tell what [David Ayer] was after. It’s a very authentic, and quite brutal and visceral. We got talking about it, and I started fiddling around with some melodic ideas at that point, but that was just up my sleeve. I never played anything for David at that point. Once you have the meeting you can’t help but start thinking of a few things, and then suddenly you find yourself at a piano having a little play. Suddenly you develop a little group of ideas that you can explore. I don’t really get down to it until the picture is there in some form and I can respond to it. But the project starts as soon as you talk with the director.
Do you tend to work with a live orchestra or with live studio work? Or does it vary on the project?
It totally varies on the project and what is needed. On “Gravity,” it was a real musical combination of organic elements, be it solo voices or processed orchestral music. It was recorded in individual lines so that I could have control over everything I wanted to do. “Fury” is actually a very emotional story, and very character-driven, so the use of the orchestra here, which is comprised of people who have played together for a long time and not just a group of musicians assembled for the project, felt right so that the melodic lines could play as one. It felt right to have a unified group of musicians to make the music for a film about a unified group of tank operators. All the ideas come out of the story and the film and then the music has to capture that.
When working on “Gravity,” did you have any idea that it would become such a worldwide phenomenon, let alone would earn you an Oscar?
No idea at all. I remember on the last day of mixing the music, just sitting there having no idea what people would think of it. It was really odd. A lot of what was in the film and in the score was quite strange, and the experience we tried to create of this immersive world was a very odd thing. Until the premiere, I had no idea if people would like it, let alone if it would become the thing that it did. You’re always proud of it, but you can’t really tell what will happen once it goes into the outside world. I’m very grateful that it went quite well.
As far as projects that interest you, is there any commonality or does it just depend on the script, director, etc.? Is there any genre that interests you most?
What I’ve been enjoying these past few years is that everything has been so different. I’ve had to start from scratch each time and throw out the palettes I’ve been using to start over. When I was growing up watching film, it was the film scores, and music in general, that sounded really unique and that felt like they really belonged to their respective films. The great thing for me about all these projects is that you can go from a space film right into a World War II film. You throw away your tricks from one project and try to find new ones for the next, which is the excellent thing. The great thing about doing film music is that you get so many chances to try something new, and I kind of hope that continues. I don’t know what will come next, but it would be nice if it keeps this process going.
As far as “Fury” is concerned. It’s a World War II film, so did you go back and explore past WWII films? Or did you not want to do that and be overly influenced by them?
Well when I first heard about it that was my first thought, to go back into this massive library of WWII films. But as soon as I met David [Ayer] and read his script, it became clear that he was going about it from a very new approach. This very authentic, visceral approach to what the War was like and what the horror was like. These people are in Hell pretty much, and have been in Hell for years, and are stuck in this cycle of constantly going forward without ever knowing when it might all come to an end in a flash. So as soon as I saw what he was doing and spoke to him about what he was doing, he wasn’t trying to romanticize the War in any way, he was trying to do something fresh and I had to do the same with the music to honor that vision. I had to do it in a way that didn’t feel like a classic old film, but that would compliment what David was doing.
Was there anything in regards “Fury” that was noteworthy in terms of the process?
It’s really like nothing I’ve ever done before. There’s a big orchestral element to it, and it’s very thematic. David has written a film that is very character-driven, and that’s given me a lot of scope to be thematic and to develop themes over the course of the film. The film is obviously about this crew in the tank, and one of the big themes we talked about was how there was this mechanization of war, and within that are these humans, so the score has this combination of a grinding score with machine like rhythms and than more emotional, thematic melodies. I get a feeling that many people don’t know what the film is yet, but it’s a very emotional journey. Hopefully it all goes down well.
You mentioned earlier that you grew up paying special attention to the soundtracks of films. Were there any in particular that inspired you or stuck with you?
I grew up in the 80s with all these sort of escapist family films. “Back to the Future,” those distinctive notes at the start of each of those episodes, or “E.T.” back in the day. Those films, which are now considered the classics of the era, had big music moments and it was just so exciting. The sweep of those sorts of things carried you away.
Do you have an advice for aspiring composers?
The funny thing about meeting aspiring composers is that everyone story is different in terms of how they got into it. The only thing that worked for me was making myself useful for years. No matter what was needed on the project, I threw myself into it, and through that came a lot of opportunities and a lot of lessons. It’s certainly different for everyone, but making yourself useful is a great start.
That’s probably good advice for life too.
Exactly! Try to be useful and smile. If you can pull those off you’ll do just fine.