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.
Andrew Dickson had never thought of venturing in film music before he met Mike Leigh. Dickson worked as a teacher, performed at fringe theaters and wrote music for various stage productions when he met the director who then was only at the beginning of his promising career in feature film. In 1983, they worked together for the first time when Dickson provided the idiosyncratic music for Leigh’s Meantime. The score for saxophone and tack piano is highly eccentric and a prime example for the music Leigh would from then on utilize in his work. For High Hopes, Dickson developed a score for recorder, saxophone, harmonica, viola and bass; for Naked it was harp, viola and bass; for Secrets & Lies the small ensemble consisted primarily of brass instruments plus few strings.
Dickson does not provide grand gestures. His compositions for small ensemble are minimalist, repetitive even, often centered around one or two themes as Naked as a prime example shows. Both film and score were so successful, Dickson was offered the chance to score Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Reluctant to travel to Los Angeles and work away from his family for many months, he was happy when the producers eventually decided against him. Fame and success, as society understands these terms, do not mean anything for Dickson, who lives in a village in Dorset, England. He enjoys his quiet life, taking long walks and working for small community theaters. Rarely has one come across a person less pretentious and ambitious than this sunny, carefree fellow from the countryside.
In the second part of a series dedicated to the music in Mike Leigh’s films, Andrew Dickson shares his experience of working with the director.
Andrew, how did you get into music in the first place?
We had a lot of music in the house. Both my parents played, and so I grew up with music. It was a natural thing for me to do. I was brought up to believe I could do anything. My parents were Quakers. That was the attitude. I was encouraged to do anything, so I could. I wrote songs from a very early age. When I was at college I didn’t do much work, I just learned to be a folk singer. I had a girl who sang with me. That was how it started, and I quite enjoyed showing off. The guitar was my main instrument and then I taught myself to play the piano. I started playing the ukulele when I was eleven and then went on to the guitar about a year later. I went to the Spanish Guitar Centre in London for about a year. It took them that amount of time to discover that I was doing it all by ear and not reading the dots. That was the only formal training I had.
You then worked as a teacher, then performed in the theater as an actor, writer, composer. How did you meet Mike Leigh?
I met him roughly about the same time as his wife Alison [Steadman] was in the company in Nottingham. She was playing Desdemona in Othello and I was in that, playing some music. We met then. A good friend of his was in the play The Caucasian Chalk Circle for which I wrote the music. Soon after that the possibility of work came up with Meantime. We met up and chatted and that was that. I worked closely with Mike and we would go through the whole process of me writing a few tunes that I thought were appropriate for the mood of the film and then spotting, which is going through the scenes where I thought music should go and where Mike thought music should go. Then agreeing on that and selecting instruments. I like to work with a small ensemble, and sometimes I like the idea of different instruments representing different people. Then working very precisely, which I had never done before, of calculating down to the 25th of a second to fit in with the frames of the film. That was the first time I did that.
How intimidated were you?
I don’t remember being intimidated at all. It sounds like arrogance, but I don’t think I was particularly arrogant. I kind of assumed I could do it. I knew I could write good tunes. The hard work was fitting the tunes into the film. It’s a very precise business. When I look back at some of the scores, it looks like baby-writing, and even know I don’t ever use time signatures. With Mike, I got some of the best co-workers in the business, copyists for example. It was a luxury.
Meantime is an especially interesting score because the film itself is quite somber and gritty whereas the music is surprisingly jolly…
Yeah, it could have been more somber. I am better at writing miserable music than jolly music, strangely. Meantime is quite jolly, though. It just came from looking at the film. I get a very rough edit, sit down, watch it, sit down at the piano and just start playing. That theme just happened. It felt right. The basic way I do it is I get a few tunes and use them and bits of them in different mixtures throughout. It didn’t feel particularly jolly for me then. Some of it is quite bouncy.
We went for using the tack piano, which is a piano with a bar that drops down, so the hammer hits the metal and that hits the string. It felt the right kind of noise for that film. Then we had a rusty saxophone playing. I used the saxophonist from The People Show, George Chan, who is a brilliant improviser. It was quite a struggle because I had written some very tricky stuff. Writing tricky stuff is sometimes my strength. I didn’t know the rules, so I wrote stuff that was impossible for people to play. I played the piano on it and I am not a good piano player. It worked for that film, partly because it does sound a bit rusty. It was very hard work because Mike was very particular. He knew George made a few mistakes and we had to rerecord many, many times, and it still wasn’t quite right. That rough edge quality was intentional, but not that intentional. I played within my limitations. The bouncy bits are quite jolly, though. I really like the humor of it, but hopefully not laughing at the characters.
Your next film was High Hopes. You used the harmonica in a rather unusual instrumentation…
I forgot to mention that the only thing I like owning is instruments. I have hundred and hundreds. Over the years I have done many workshops with people with all types of instruments, and I like to try and use them. I teach guitar and have taught a few instruments that I don’t play because I teach people to play by ear. I do like to use all the instruments that I can. I am aware of different instruments, and usually I try to play them myself. I play them averagely. I am not a brilliant player. I have an interest in different noises. Quite often, the first thing I would play turned into the main theme. It’s an interesting process. Talking about High Hopes, the harmonica felt like an urban sound to me. It fitted with the motorbikes at the beginning of the film. I played a bit of blues harmonica. I picked up the harmonica, and the first thing I played was the main theme for the film – just by chance. We had the world’s best harmonica player, Tommy Riley, who wrote books about playing the harmonica. He was brilliant, but very old-school. He could read and play beautifully, but he played pure notes all the time. That wasn’t what I wanted. In the end we got him to record everything because some of the stuff was quite complicated. Then a very good friend of mine, who is a great musician by ear, played blues harmonica really well. We superimposed some of that on. Quite often it’s a mixture of the two. It sounds like one but it was just cleverly put together so that we could have the real notes that were written and the semitones and going from major to minor, which is difficult on a harmonica, and the bend notes of the blues that my friend put in. My friend also played a recorder in a slightly bluesy way. I have always said I don’t much like jazz, but a couple of the pieces in High Hopes sound to me a bit like jazz. There was also a great improvising saxophonist.
Did you usually prepare several themes for Mike?
Yes, I start off with half a dozen different ideas of tunes. I work on a chordal basis, having learned guitar early on. Everything is chords. I have a chord sequence and then I sing or play something along with it. I present Mike with six tunes. He would pick one or two of those and I would work on those and have a dozen variations on that one. We do the same process three or four times. In the end I had written hundreds of tunes, but all starting from the same two or three pieces, probably. That was a process that I enjoyed, too. He quite often went with tunes that I didn’t think were the better ones but turned into the better ones.
It always felt very equal with Mike. He would quite often point out where he definitely wanted music, and then he was quite open to me suggesting other places where it might work. It always felt like an equal collaboration on that. Sometimes he would suggest instruments. He had just been on holiday somewhere where there were two guitarists playing in the hotel lobby. He was struck with that and for All or Nothing, he said, ‘Why don’t you use two guitars?’ So we did. It was fairly successful. We had a bit of a nightmare because one of the guitarists couldn’t read notes very well. He was a brilliant improviser but couldn’t read. So we had to change guitarists mid-recording session. Then we got a brilliant flamenco guitarist and he did quite well.
After Meantime and High Hopes, did you get a sense for where Mike generally likes to use music in his films?
Definitely. It’s sometimes the opposite of where there would be music in a normal, commercial film. When there is a tender love scene or a moment full of angst, the anguish works much better in silence. We tend not to use music as a build-up to an emotion. It should always work in parallel to what’s going on rather than telling you what’s going to happen. The beginning of Naked was a problem. I remember when he first called me up. I was having not a fun time teaching at the Dorchester prison every week and I had a phone call from Mike saying, ‘Do you want to do a film?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, it’s a film with lots of sex and violence in it because they told me I should put more sex and violence in my films.’ He was joking about that. When I first saw it I wasn’t that keen, but I grew to love it. It’s my favorite film of all of them. For me, it was the greatest achievement musically. I thought I had invented was everybody else had been doing in serious music, Philip Glass for example. I didn’t know anything about that. It was all about playing a riff and then using that riff many times but with different chords underneath it. It worked really well because it was about the relentless drive of that character, so it’s this relentless riff in the music. I have always loved the harp anyhow. I chose it, partly because the lighting was amazing in that film. The poster is Johnny wandering about in a bomb side area with incredible lighting, and it had a very classical feel to it. It was the opposite of what it was about. The idea was that the harp is usually used in a grand, classical way. It worked very well for that. The beginning was tricky, when you see the rape in the back alley. There is a drum beat, not a melody as such. We knew we wanted something there. I just couldn’t think what to do. It didn’t want to titillate in any way, or make it into melodrama. I had this big military base drum. I think it was my wife who said, ‘Why don’t you just bang that?’ I did that and it worked really well as a build-up to the riff when he starts driving. The first thing you hear is the drum beat. It doesn’t really say much, but it gives a sense of foreboding.
You mentioned that you struggled with Naked initially.
As soon as I got the idea of that riff, it became quite easy. I thought I had invented this method of using riffs. I wrote 100s of them. Originally I had melodies going on over the top, but we pared that down. Mike thought the idea of the riff was great. He said, ‘Why not use just that?’ Most of the music is just that. I felt that that really worked once I had found that. That idea is used all the time in film and television now. We decided to tone down the melodies quite early on, when I was mucking about with ideas. I had one main theme in A minor. Then I was starting to do a more interesting bass line then was necessary. We ended up just using the root notes. Then I played the same thing with the same chords but with a tone higher, and then it goes into G minor. At that stage I was thinking of putting tunes in, but it went fairly quickly. There are other tunes in there. One of my favorite bits is the one where he has the encounter with the woman he sees across the way. He goes to her flat and sees the map of Ireland on the wall. That moment with her is my favorite bit of music. I don’t know where that tune came from. It was slightly Celtic, slightly Irish. The other favorite bit is where they put up the posters in one of the few lighter moments in the film. It was always his driving, his relentless nature. I couldn’t believe that he or Thatcher’s Britain could be so horrible. There are other monsters in the film.
Did Mike have any specific musical ideas for Naked?
No, I don’t ever remember him saying anything before we started. I think he might have said it’s quite dark or that Johnny is a difficult character. He lets me develop my ideas first. Then he adds his ideas. We had an amazing harpist for that called Skyla Kanga who was the best harpist around. She couldn’t do it to start with. It’s really complicated with the harp because the harp has pedals. We had to double-track some of the cues, but again she saw it as a challenge. Some of it was just relentless. Sometimes there were tiny changes in the music, which was difficult to play with the pedals. She kept some of the pieces because she wanted to use them as exercises for her students.
It’s interesting that in Mike’s films music is often used when you least expect it and it is missing when you expect to hear it.
Definitely, yes. He does it for very good reasons. Music isn’t there to ease you through things. It’s just part of the film-making process in the way that lighting and the costumes are part of the process. You don’t suddenly think, ‘Oh, what an amazing costume,’ because that would stop you thinking about what’s going on. You don’t suddenly think, ‘Oh, what an amazing tune!’ It’s a subliminal thing. A lot of people, having seen films I had done the music for, would say to me, ‘It must have been good music because I didn’t notice it.’ I want people to notice it, but in a good way. Definitely with Mike, the first film I did for him there were up to 40 music cues. On average there were 40 minutes of music for the earlier films. By the time we got to Vera Drake, that had 14 minutes of music. That shows a development. We used less and less music. When Mike asked me to do Secrets & Lies, he jokingly said, ‘We want somebody to write some soppy, emotional music. So we always call on you, because you can come up with the goods.’ I went to see one of the rehearsals of that, which I hadn’t done with any of the other films. I went to the big one when they have the meal and various secrets are revealed. It was great to meet the actors, but it wasn’t an advantage. It could have been a disadvantage. In a way, the way he works is by improvising and then by surprise. Vera Drake is a good example. They all improvised and they didn’t know Vera was an abortionist. It was revealed very late on in the rehearsals when the police were knocking. They get that experience, that shock within that situation, so they know how to reproduce that. The same thing happened to me. I didn’t know she was an abortionist until I watched that scene.
Why do you think Mike uses music at all?
I don’t know. I do remember saying about Naked, ‘I don’t think it needs music at all.’ I might have said that about Vera Drake as well. Definitely it’s very useful in All or Nothing because it’s a very long film and it may have its longueurs for the average audience. The strangeness of when Timothy Spall takes off and goes to the coast has a surreal quality. The music helps to make that not as surreal as it would be without music. The music ties everything together.
I was always very careful with Secrets & Lies. I don’t remember that specific scene, but I can remember other moments. There are a few points in the film when revelations happen, and then there are the touching scenes towards the end. There were a lot of other things at play. I am not quite sure where the tunes came from. Some of it was based on a chord sequence from a love song that I wrote when I was 15. The only time that the tune happens is in the slightly celebratory moment when they come out of the cinema. That was the tune that a lot of it as based on, but most times the melody wasn’t used. I remember the very beginning, the funeral. I just remember thinking, ‘I got to use brass for that.’ I had the idea of a New Orleans funeral march. So I used a soprano trumpet for the beginning of that, and it’s written down ¾ and then 4/4, but it was really 7/8. I did that intentionally so that you couldn’t quite relax. It’s that kind of music when you got a slightly weird time signature. It was quite soothing, but at the same time quite edgy. That was a conscious decision, but a lot of the decision are unconscious. It’s all about intuition, really.
You frequently use music during dialogue scenes in Secrets & Lies and also shortly before and after a cut, as “transition music.” In fact, I think these brief stingers have become somewhat of a trademark of yours…
That’s interesting. I was always very conscious of putting music under dialogue, but when it felt it could do with it. I would calculate every semiquaver so that when the characters are saying important things there is a sustained note. That’s all worked out very, very precisely, so it isn’t just about banging that piece of music there. I was always more scared of doing that, but I always enjoyed the process of making subtle changes with the shot changes. It was usually just adding an instrument or taking an instrument away. I like the subtlety of that and the way it works when you change the scene. The average audience wouldn’t know this was going on at all. Their awareness alters slightly to a new location.
Was the budget ever an issue?
No, I was paid extremely well. I would do a film and that would subside my work for community theaters for a year. The most I ever used was eight instruments. If I had wanted a whole orchestra they would have probably accommodated me. I never considered it, though. I always did all the parts myself, and maybe I couldn’t face the prospects of writing for more than eight instruments, because everything was based on chords and most chords have only three notes. How do you involve a whole bloody orchestra?
Were you disappointed when he started working with Gary Yershon?
No, I wasn’t. I remember the moment when Mike told me. I was out for a walk and he phoned me on my mobile. That moment I thought, ‘Oh, bugger!’ I kind of knew, though. There are always long gaps and there was never any promise. I was amazed each time he offered me a film. I never expected it. I was disappointed initially. I knew he was less mobile, after he had his hip replacement. Gary lived down the road. That made it logical. Gary was certainly a lot better than me at certain things, particular like the period feel for things like Topsy Turvy. As I got to know Gary, I was very pleased. He is a really good composer. At the time I was deeply in some community play anyway. I sensed that [Vera Drake] was the last one. I felt my usefulness was over. It’s strange. I have never done it precisely, but the films always fitted in with what was going on in my life. When I did All or Nothing we were having a real problem with my son in that he couldn’t handle school. He hated it. Then seeing this film about this awful kid who tells his parents to fuck off all the time. Then later on it became more “angst.” My wife left. That was bit dodgy for a year or so. Vera Drake was when we were just about splitting up. There is always a bit of a timeline. I think I knew that Vera Drake was the last one. I sort of covered the circuit of types of films I was useful for.
Thank you very much for your time.