Isobel Waller-Bridge Used Elizabeth Debicki’s Actual Heartbeat to Score ‘Vita & Virginia’

The "Fleabag" composer let the rhythm of Debicki's heart set the pace of the lesbian romance's symphonic electronic score.
"Vita & Virginia"
"Vita & Virginia"
IFC Films

She may share a last name (and genes) with the hottest woman in showbiz, but Isobel Waller-Bridge is a fiery talent in her own right. Not only has the musician and composer scored both seasons of her sister Phoebe’s 11-time Emmy-nominated “Fleabag,” she’s lent her melodic ear to an episode of “Black Mirror,” scored the entirety of BBC One’s “The Split,” as well as Amazon’s critically lauded “Vanity Fair” limited series. Her latest film project hits theaters this weekend: the lush period romance “Vita & Virginia,” which chronicles the intense and intellectual love affair between Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and the writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton).

“I’m such a Virginia Woolf, kind of, obsessive. And the idea of delving into her love affair with Vita Sackville-West… even though I’ve already done it, I think about it, and it’s like the dreamiest thing,” Waller-Bridge said during a recent phone interview.

“Vita & Virginia” stars Debicki as the notoriously troubled writer, in a performance that critics have called “fearlessly original,” “ethereal,” and “on another level altogether.” Well-documented by their extensive epistolary relationship, the romance between these two writers was passionate, long-lasting, and conducted completely out in the open and with the full knowledge of both women’s husbands. The film is adapted from the stage play by actor Eileen Atkins, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Chanya Button.

Somewhat anachronistic to the rich period costumes and melodramatic dialogue, Waller-Bridges’ score is synth-heavy and electronic. The contrast, she says, was entirely deliberate.

“Chanya had a really clear vision. She said there shouldn’t be any pianos in the score… anything that roots it to the period. Because what’s happening to these women is so timeless, it happened then as much as it happens now,” Waller-Bridge said. “There’s a version of this score that is really soft and beautiful and just does that one thing. That made us so angry every time we thought of it. [Woolf and Sackville-West]… were making up their own rules, falling in love and following their instincts. They were iconoclasts. The music… needed to reflect that.”

Isobel Waller-Bridge (Composer/Sound Designer) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge'The End of Longing' play, After Party, London, Britain - 11 Feb 2016
Isobel Waller-Bridge and Phoebe Waller-BridgeDan Wooller/REX/Shutterstock

Along with Debicki’s enigmatic and aching performance, Waller-Bridge’s score is an undeniable highlight of the film. Playing like a synth-heavy soundtrack to longing itself, the music thrums with the pulse of desire. Amazingly, it was Debicki’s actual heartbeat that inspired the film’s rhythm.

“Elizabeth Debicki was wearing a mic that was really close to her heart. And it picked up– you could hear her heartbeat. So I asked for the recordings of that because I really feel the heartbeat through this. It’s their hearts beating together and also separately. So I put that in, and then I said, maybe I should transfer that and make it a kick, and let’s start making this electronic,” said Waller-Bridge. “I took the tempo from her heartbeat. Of course it changed, because you gotta make it fit. But we definitely, for the opening, I think that’s the tempo of her heartbeat.”

Trained as a classical pianist, Waller-Bridge’s work spans many styles and genres, but she’s never afraid to get experimental and think big. In Season 2 of “Fleabag,” she initially used a children’s chorus during the church scenes, then transitioned to a full-throated adult chorus for the finale to mirror Fleabag’s emotional journey. For “Vita & Virginia,” she took inspiration from Woolf’s “Orlando” and modulated a woman’s vocals to sound deeper and more androgynous.

“It’s a female vocal, but I manipulated the vocal so that it doesn’t sound like a woman anymore. So there’s an androgyny to the voice,” she said. “It has moments of feeling beautiful and feminine, but it’s also in the midst of this pulse, and sometimes feeling very deep, and sometimes a bit masculine. Just trying to be true to the spectrum of those feelings.”

With a slew of impressive TV credits to her name, Waller-Bridge’s next film project could launch her into another echelon of film composers. She’ll next score Focus Features’ and Working Title’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn and directed by photographer Autumn de Wilde. Though cautiously mum about sharing too many details, Waller-Bridge promised to “bring [her] swoon.”

“It’s definitely strings and piano, it’s not gonna be anything like what we did [on ‘Vita & Virginia’]. It’s going to be true to period, which is good, because it brings me an opportunity to do my swoon. I’m gonna bring my swoon.”

“Emma” won’t hit theaters until early 2020, but Waller-Bridge praised an early cut. “I don’t want to say too much. But if you’re familiar with Autumn’s photography, imagine that moving. It’s unreal.”

IFC Films will release “Vita & Virginia” in theaters on August 23 and VOD August 30.

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