Directors And Their Composers
Mike Leigh and Andrew Dickson and Gary Yershon
by Stephan Eicke
In this series, we will examine the relationship between directors and their composers. Via interviews, prominent filmmakers will detail how they work with their composers and use their compositions in their films. Composers will respond by sharing their view of the creative collaboration and how they see the working-relationship with directors.
Mike Leigh is the most-acclaimed British director working today. Over the course of half a century, he has directed multiple celebrated, award-winning television films and motion pictures. Among his most famous works are Naked with David Thewlis, Secrets & Lies with Brenda Blethyn, Vera Drake with Imelda Staunton, Happy-Go-Lucky with Sally Hawkins, and Mr. Turner with Timothy Spall.
Leigh’s approach to his films is unique: After assembling a cast of actors, he starts improvising and rehearses with them for many months. Out of these rehearsals, a story eventually emerges that is then refined and filmed. The script is written up by Leigh around the time of filming. Because of his approach, composers can only start working on his films after shooting. Over the course of his career, Mike Leigh has worked with Carl Davis, Rachel Portman, Andrew Dickson, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Gary Yershon, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on Mr. Turner.
In the first part of a series dedicated to the music in Mike Leigh’s films, the director shares his experience of working with composers.
Mike, why use music at all?
(chuckles) Let’s talk about [my first film] Bleak Moments as the film in question. At that stage I was taking quite a purist view of what kind of film I wanted to make. A number of my films – and Bleak Moments is one of them – contain live music, something within the action. The first sequence in Bleak Moments, where you hear the guy in the garage playing guitar, his playing becomes atmospheric film music as the girl walks from the rehabilitation center back to the house. Any number of films that I had seen was in one way or another inspired by music, not least the likes of 400 Blows and Jules and Jim, both of which are memorable for their scores. I wasn’t against a score. The trajectory of music comes in during the period of TV films. In the first place it was Carl Davis, who composed the music for The Kiss of Death and Home Sweet Home and eventually Topsy Turvy. Nuts in May didn’t have a score. It seemed very natural not to do that. The next film – The Kiss of Death – was the first time I had a score. It was by Carl Davis. That was good.
What had changed your perspective on music?
We are talking about it from the specific perspective of music or not music. It seems like that becomes a kind of creed. The truth is every time I make a film in all kinds of ways I want to challenge my status quo. It just felt that that film invited music. At that point I thought, ‘Actually, it’s about time I made a film with music. Let’s see what that’s like. Let’s do it.’ It’s part of the ongoing experiment of making the films, as much as anything else. The Kiss of Death is about the relationship between a young undertaker’s assistant and a girl. It invites it. It was shot in the north of England with working class characters. Carl Davis’ music is a Weberesque string quartet. From there on in some films didn’t have music and some films did until I made the feature films. They did have a score. One shouldn’t make too much of it as a kind of creed. The last film with no score is Grownups, and in a way it’s the best example of a film with no score. It was more a matter of, ‘No, I don’t need a score’, rather than it being a statement against scores.
In Bleak Moments, it’s music that brings people together. It’s the diegetic music.
Absolutely. That’s right. That just seemed the natural thing.
How did you choose the songs?
As a matter of fact, the core action of the film was originally a play in the theater. Most of the songs he sings are known songs, Freight Train not least. The song he sings in the house was a Bob Dylan number in the play. But there was no question of using that for copyright reasons. [The actor] said, ‘Look, I can write a song as though I had written it.’ That’s what that is. Here is an interesting anecdotal side story involving Freight Train which is quite famous. Some fool said, ‘I’ll check the copyright.’ I said, ‘No, it’s traditional.’ The film was released in the States and a bill for only $1000 was sent to us. Now that I think about it, it was quite cheap. Actually the song was written in 1948. In Another Year, toward the end of the film Mary comes round to the house and the old guy is there. Eventually they go into the summerhouse for a smoke and she asks him what kind of music he likes. He says, ‘Elvis.’ And she says, ‘I’m all shook up.’ That cost us 10.000 GBP. Just this one line. We found the money for that. The Elvis estate, as we know, is terribly short of money.
Didn’t you also use an Elvis number in your stage play Abigail’s Party which later became a TV film? The music says something about the characters because that’s the music they listen to.
We had two songs in the play Abigail’s Party; one was by Elvis and the other was by José Feliciano. The song by José was replaced by Demis Roussous because the BBC had this crackpot thing that when they sold it to the States it would cost them a lot of money. But they never did sell it to the States, so that was a daft thing. It was a huge compromise, especially replacing Elvis with Tom Jones. But the irony of the change from Jose to Demis Roussous was that Abigail’s Party became indelibly associated with Demis Roussous after it had become very popular as a result of it having been on television. Now when people do it I give them permission to use Demis Roussous, even though that is not the King James’ version, as we say.
Incidentally, Abigail’s Party sits outside my canon. It’s not that I don’t like it – that would be disingenuous. I like the piece, but not the TV version. It’s a mess. It’s awful. That’s not the point. As a stage play, which was recorded in a five camera television studio, it sits outside any disciplined discussion about my films and film music.
To answer your question: I would suggest that things are going on in my films on different levels. One thing that’s important to me in the broad sense is the cultural specificity of people, how they live, in what kinds of environments they live in, what their tastes are, what they drink, what they eat, etc etc. Music is part of that. In Abigail’s Party there is a whole discussion at the end about art and taste and the vulgarity and obscenity. It’s all about that. In Another Year, here is an old guy and when you look at him you think, ‘Back then he would have been an Elvis man.’ It’s about his youth, about what he remembers.
Can an instrumental score help these people communicate by expressing what they themselves are incapable of expressing, then?
No. You could argue that in some implicit way it creates a sound environment, an atmosphere which may enhance our sense of their communication. But to say the score helps them to communicate would be wrong. Obviously the music is there. Music for me has to be organic and serve the action and not run counter to it. It can’t have its own self-indulgent existence. It’s there to bring in the flavor and create the emotional context. In that sense it’s about how the characters are feeling and interacting. Music helps that or informs that.
Do you talk with composers about where there should be silence?
Yes. I have worked with – in order – Carl Davis, Andrew Dickson, Rachel Portman, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Gary Yershon. All of those composers certainly brought intelligence, sensitivity and an ability to engage emotionally with the film to the job. Therefore, we have had discussions about, ‘We should leave this alone, this demands music, this may be helped by music, this certainly needs to breathe without music.’ There has never been a problem with any of these composer because you are on the same wavelength with them.
Music can bring intimacy, warmth and a certain atmosphere…
I should let you finish – but that can be the case. But if you take a score like Naked, it doesn’t necessarily do that, I would suggest. There may be warmth, but that is only one thing that it can do in some context.
In some of your films we see people having an intimate conversation. Subtly, music comes in. Can music destroy intimacy?
It is exciting sometimes to be a bit radical and not have it when you think you should have it.
Is there a reason for your stance on electronics?
It is personal. If I made a film where we seriously thought, ‘Actually, this is really a case for experimental, electronic music,’ I would embrace it. But it hasn’t cropped up. It hasn’t been an issue.
You started working with Gary on Happy-Go-Lucky. Was it difficult to say goodbye to Andrew Dickson who you had worked with since the early 80s?
It’s a difficult one. It really is. I didn’t say, ‘That’s it, it’s all over between us.’ No, I mean, it’s a hard one to answer but apart from anything else, I have developed a good healthy personal relationships with all of them. When I worked with Andrew, I had to stay with him because he lives in the middle of nowhere in Dorset. It’s a personal question. I have got into the habit of working with Gary. Gary lives a few streets away from me. I first met him because we needed a musical director for Topsy-Turvy. Carl Davis agreed to do the score because he knows his Sullivan. We told him we needed a musical director to work with the actors. A whole lot of people came into the room and there was this guy who was very open. It was Gary. What he doesn’t know about Sullivan isn’t worth knowing. He is an expert. He is brilliant at getting actors to sing and directing people at instruments. He agreed to do that. Then Carl said, ‘I have to meet him.’ They met. Carl was rather offhand and grand, really. My eldest son was about to go to university the next day. We were running around, everybody was screaming at each other about what he was going to take with him in the car to Manchester to study illustration. The phone rang and Gary said, ‘I don’t want to do this job.’ Then I phoned Carl. Carl said, ‘Look, I don’t even know if he can play the piano.’ I said, ‘He’s experienced. He’s composed.’ Carl said, ‘Yes, but I haven’t heard him playing the piano. Unless I hear him play the piano, I don’t think we should have him.’ ‘This is ridiculous.’ I said, ‘Come on, guys.’ Gary phoned Carl up and played for him on the phone. It’s so insulting. Carl did a very good job of a score drawn almost entirely from Sullivan’s themes. Retrospectively it’s perfectly obvious, but Gary could equally well have done the score as well. Then for some years I thought we should get Gary to do something. I didn’t get round to it until I was doing a play and then it seemed appropriate for various reasons. These things move in chapters. I can’t explain it. I can’t say Gary is better. Well, he is nearer. He is more adjacent.
Both Andrew and Gary did not have any previous experience of working in film. Do you like new, fresh voices?
No, I don’t think it’s relevant, frankly. Carl had plenty of experience with film, Rachel hadn’t. Gary had actually composed scores for some cartoon films. The first thing Andrew did was Meantime. He did a remarkable score for that. I went to see a production of Caucasian in Sheffield and it had this incredibly Balalaika score. It was extraordinary. It went from there. There is a difference because Andrew doesn’t do film scores. He does community theater. Gary has a lot of ongoing professional music experience. The particular characteristic of both of these composers, Andrew and Gary, is that they both originals. They are both eccentrics. There are composers for film who do actually rattle out bog-standard film sounding music, even their own bog-standard standards or general bog-standard standards. The great thing about Andrew and Gary is they are originals.
You mean they share a sensibility?
Definitely. And a sense of humor of well.
Meantime is interesting because the film is obviously very bleak yet the music gives it humour. With a different score it would have been a much different film.
It’s the right music for the film. No more eccentric a suggestion has there ever been than Andrew saying, ‘I am going to use a tack piano. I put drawing pins in there.’ And he recorded it with the lid off the piano. All that sort of stuff.
Whose idea was it to devise upbeat music for that film?
I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. It was a long time ago, 1984. Even as regards the film we just made recently, Peterloo, I look at it and think, ‘How did we do that? How did we arrive at that scene?’ In the heat of the creative process communication and rapport and stuff happens and you can’t really remember how you got there. That’s in the nature of the creative process. That question particularly answering 100 years later comes out of what we share with each other, I guess.
Have you thought of switching composers again? How do you choose the composers for a new film?
That’s a personal question with no answer, really. I didn’t think about it. I haven’t thought about it at all. Mr. Turner just seemed natural one for Gary to do.
Career Girls is the odd one out in that the music was written neither by Andrew Dickson nor by Gary but by Marianne Jean-Baptiste. How did that come about?
I was in the States with Marianne Jean-Baptiste, doing press for Secrets & Lies. We flew from New York to Los Angeles. We were just chatting away and she said, ‘I would like to write some film music.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you do this film?’ We made Career Girls immediately after Secrets & Lies. It was a simple as that.
Do you think her female sensibility helped?
(laughs) You know what? In the current climate, you can ask whether it helped that she was black. You didn’t ask me that. Quite frankly, I refuse to answer that. I had already worked with another woman composer. I have made a whole bunch of perfectly respectable feminist films. No question about that. It’s a daft question.
Next one, then: Did you ever use temp-tracks?
No. We don’t use them. Actually, John Gegrory, the editor who has cut a lot of Hollywood films and who worked on Peterloo, said, ‘What a joy we don’t have a temp track.’ Amazon, who backed Peterloo, said, ‘Where’s the temp track?’ ‘We don’t do them, they are distracting.’ To me it seems like the most ridiculous and ludicrous of all conventions, really.
Are there any budgetary constraints that influence decisions about music such as size of the ensemble?
No. I mean only in the sense that if we said, ‘We really want a 100 piece orchestra,’ the answer would be, ‘Out of the question.’ But there is always a good allocation for music in the budget which goes a little bit for live music in the action. The job is to work within the budget. That’s fine, that’s a discipline. It’s never had a negative impact. The budget for Mr. Turner was larger than for Another Year, but I don’t think that the line up for Peterloo was especially larger than for the previous two films. Gary will tell you that. The biggest line up we ever had was when we needed an actual orchestra for Topsy Turvy. But again, that was in the very nature of the film and it was budgeted for that.
Peterloo is a larger-scale film than your previous ones. Despite the nature of the film, the music was written for a small ensemble.
Actually, there is no music at all in the massacre scene. Apart from people playing bands, and that is one of the reasons for it. To have the kind of music you are imagining, it would diminish the power of what happens and would make it like a conventional movie. As soon as the shit hits the fan and it kicks off, there is no score until the end credits.
Thank you very much for your time.