Directors And Their Composers

Mike Leigh and Andrew Dickson and Gary Yershon
Part III
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.

Following his internationally acclaimed film Vera Drake, director Mike Leigh started working with Gary Yershon as composer. Yershon, born in 1954, succeeded Andrew Dickson, and had already participated in a Mike Leigh venture: he had served as musical director on Topsy-Turvy about Gilbert and Sullivan. The musician would go on to write the scores for two theater plays by Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year, A Running Jump, Mr. Turner – for which he received an Oscar nomination – and Peterloo.

What Yershon has in common with his predecessor Andrew Dickson is not only their background in theater but also a keen interest in unusual instrumentation. Happy-Go-Lucky, for example, prominently features a euphonium, Another Year was written mainly for plucked strings, A Running Jump is noteworthy for its heavy use of percussion, and Mr. Turner is a deliberately anachronistic score with, among other instruments, saxophones rubbing off of each other. What Yershon and Leigh have in common, certainly, is a natural curiosity, the eagerness to explore territory previously unfamiliar to them. But that is not the only reason why they work so well together.

Gary, how did your passion for music develop?

I was brought up in the lower middle class milieu of Ilford in suburban London, in Essex. That had the most incredible and well-funded example of local authority musical education. I became the beneficiary of that. I also had a very good music teacher at school and fell for somebody who was musical. All those things drew me towards music. At school I had a natural talent for acting, performing. I was doing all those things and I carried on doing them when I left for university. I got my first professional job while I was still at Hull University. I carried on from there. I was very lucky.

You worked as an actor as well, didn’t you? I seem to remember you saying you made the conscious decision to quit an devote yourself solely to music.

I made the conscious decision not to act again in 1991. It was to do with the director Phyllida Loyd who I had been working with for some time. She said, ‘If I had a company, you would be the only composer. As an actor you wouldn’t even be on the D list.’ She was just very honest. Even my first agent had said, ‘You have got to give up the acting.’ It wasn’t that I was bad, it is just that if I didn’t find the character instantly I wasn’t going to get better. There was a kind of musical comedy solidity to it. I was okay as a performer, and I was happy with audiences. I found character work really distressing; pretending to be somebody else was not easy for me. There were two or three really good productions where I got the character, but the rest of it was very hard, and I wasn’t comfortable with what I was doing on stage. When I was singing or dancing I was fine, but even then I used to get bored doing the same thing every night. But I had already done a TV cartoon series in the 1980s, called James the Cat. That had helped sustain me over a period from 1981 to 1991 when I was still an actor and when I wasn’t really working as an actor for months. I had royalties coming in and taught, though. I have never not taught. There was another TV show after James the Cat, called Painted Tales, and one called Ebb and Flo.

Your first professional encounter with Mike took place as he was preparing Topsy-Turvy. You worked as musical director and can even be seen in a cameo as a pianist in a brothel…

That was completely mad. I was living in Bristol. My then-agent phoned up and said, ‘Mike Leigh wants to see you.’ I said, ‘Do you know what it’s about?’ She said, ‘It’s got something to do with Gilbert and Sullivan.’ It wasn’t until I got in to see Mike that I found out what had happened. Mike had seen an unknown number of candidates for that job. Many were highly skilled people. But his then personal assistant, Deborah, had either on his instruction or on her own initiative phoned a theater or two. She didn’t really go to theater. But the one around the corner was the Donmar Warehouse. I had just been working there, so they gave her my details. It was on the basis of that that I ended up in Mike’s office to be interviewed as a possible musical director. Of course it was a gift! I was so obviously the right person for the job that even if I hadn’t gotten it I would have been the right person, because he needed somebody who knew about acting and who had spent a lot of time working with actors and who also happened to be an expert on Gilbert and Sullivan. That was me. By that time I had been working with the director Phyllida Lloyd for a dozen years and her working methods are very free. When I came to be interviewed by Mike, it didn’t bother me that I didn’t know what was happening. Again, that was helpful because I didn’t know what the job was and he didn’t really know when it started what the job was because he didn’t know what the film was going to be.

When did you (and Mike) find out that Topsy-Turvy would focus on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado?

He knew he was going into the story at a certain moment. Once I was contracted I got on with helping him to audition. All these processes, such as auditioning – anything that’s going on – contribute to the clarity. It’s slow, but it begins to filter through, things begin to slightly crystallize. You find out as he finds out. It’s not secretive. As soon as there is anything to share and he thinks he can share it, he shares it. That was what happened to me. We knew we were going to do something about The Mikado; because we were doing The Mikado, everybody who was concerned with that company needed to know all the earlier operettas, so I set about rehearsing them. As individual characters developed, they would come to me and say, ‘Well, this character was trained in Italy,’ so we would go through a whole lot of Italian operas. The research was sculpted to a certain extent around their character. Moreover, my job was to make sure that I could let the actors rehearse themselves. There were Allan Corduner, Stefan Bednarczyk, and Mia Soteriou, who is playing Mrs Russell, the accompanist. They were massively accomplished people. I just needed to get them to a stage of their knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan where they could take a rehearsal. I did that. Once we got them to a stage where they could run a rehearsal, they could rehearse in character, as if they were doing it in a scene. This is the great thing about Mike’s method: everybody is developing as they go along. It was great. I was, really, honestly, never happier. It was just such a pleasure every day.

When did Mike ask you to perform as a pianist in screen?

Mike phoned me and asked me to come up and do it. Of course this was the last day of filming. He said, ‘I would like you to do this scene.’ I had to practice doing the intro to the dolls song from Tales of Hoffman. I had to learn the French. I must have had a couple of days of warning, but I was familiar with it anyway. He must have phoned three days before. We did the usual stuff. There are lots of people who come in to do a day and you just do a very compressed version of the thing that Jim [Broadbent] and Allan [Corduner] were doing over weeks. It was huge fun. Allan had no idea that I was going to be there. That was quite funny. I got on very well with the late Katrin Cartlidge. She was great.

Since there wasn’t a script, how did you develop your character in Topsy-Turvy? It’s a very small role, but you mentioned that actors in Mike’s films develop complex, full background stories for even their most minor characters.

It was as complex as I wanted to make it. But he had a life. I knew who he was. In fact, in terms of the character I didn’t really do it until the day. He was Russian. At that time my Russian was very good. He was in Paris, dispossessed and making a cheap living in brothels, playing the piano. This was a very easy character to do. Katrin [Cartlidge] and I had a thing going where she owed me money. It never made it into the film, but I was always after her for the money. I discussed all of it with Mike. Katrin and I invented it, mentioned it and got on with it. People are developing things all the time.

Before you worked on another movie with Mike, you wrote the music for his play Two Thousand Years.

That was the first time I composed for him. It came about because I was very established as a theater composer. When the National Theatre asked him whether he wanted a composer, he asked me to do it. I don’t know whether he had anything beyond that in mind, but he was not taking a risk because I had been working as a theater composer for 30 years. I was completely reliable. Again, I didn’t need to come in until the last minute. I came in the week before we went into the theater. For many people this would be very late, but there wasn’t anything for me to come and see before that. There was no point. I came in and saw it. Then I came back with a few suggestions and we talked about it. It was very simple music. He was great, very good at editing. I find his capacity for clarity to be really great.

Why do you think Mike uses music at all?

I can point to one thing, which is an absence: he will never use it to sentimentalize. Forget that. That marks him out from 95% of all other filmmakers.

There is, for example, no music during the battle scenes in Peterloo.

We both knew that it would be a disaster to do that. Finding the music in Peterloo was tricky because we had to be so careful about the tone of it. We share that, we just don’t want to have a toe-curling moment where the music is being used to press buttons in an audience who are likely to be absolutely exhausted from having their buttons pressed, in particular a film with this historical, political approach. It would have been lethal! The consequence of it is there is not enough music for a soundtrack album, but the integrity of the choice is 100% correct.

As a composer, the first thing you see is the rough cut. You then develop ideas, present them to him, he makes suggestions and you go from there. Correct?

That’s exactly right. That’s pretty much the way it is with everybody, talking about the approach. He was talking to me on the phone earlier about having mentioned to you the absence of a historical approach to Mr. Turner. I don’t think there is a historical approach to Mr. Turner at all. In Mr. Turner, he is using a different kind of narrative approach, a cumulative approach where you show a scene and another scene and another scene. You gradually absorb through the accumulation of these things everything you need to know, everything he wants to tell you. Peterloo is different because it’s to do with historical events that lead up to a particular other event. It’s causal. This leads to that. Mr. Turner is completely different from that, and that’s why the music to Peterloo is like it is and why the music to Mr. Turner is like it is. Happy-Go-Lucky has both elements. It has an element of accumulation in the scenes where Poppy is not having anything to do with Scott. There are both things going on in that film. I don’t think either he or I rationalized it at that time because the film is still molten when we are discussing these things. There is no film. There was certainly no Mr. Turner because that film underwent a lot of changes in the way that things happened in the film.

Are you an intuitive composer?

Well, I was aware that there were two strands. I had written so much music that at that point I began to start organizing the material. For example in Mr. Turner, I became aware that I didn’t want to use the high saxes anymore after a certain point in the film. It was just too much. It needed a new idea. Originally, that one big cue [conceived for Mr. Turner leaving Mrs Booth’s home] was the halfway point and everything that followed it was different because it was the halfway point. That cue got removed. I still had all that material that rationally was after the halfway point, so I began to organize it in my head as being everything that comes after what was now the missing half point. You can’t help it. You just begin to rationalize what it is you are doing. Another good example is the opening music to Mr. Turner, which has these cascading sliding strings. I deliberately kept the cello out of that, so that when that music came back at the end I could put the cello in. That was basic compositonal structure. I left the cello out, knowing I was able to put it in later. I didn’t know where and, as it happens, it came in right at the end of the film.

How do you discuss the music with Mike as you are developing ideas?

The first part of the conversation has tended to be what kind of ensemble we want. The first thing that happened on Happy-Go-Lucky was that Simon Channing Williams told me what my budget was. That immediately gives you something. It tells you something about how big your ensemble can be and you start thinking, ‘Okay, I can do an hour of music for this number of instruments.’ You begin thinking in purely pragmatic terms. It’s a starting point, but when you don’t have anything else it’s as good a starting point as any. Restrictions are good. I don’t really share those with Mike because I don’t think he would want to be hemmed in by the budget in terms of talking about ideas. But as a starting point for my ideas it can be very helpful. I presented him with a series of things for Happy-Go-Lucky and I was constantly not hitting it because it was really concerned with her character, the stuff I wanted to get. Getting her was really tough, and eventually it came down to finding an instrument that would do it. That was the euphonium. We talked about it. Mike was around here and we sat, unusually for us, by the piano. He said, ‘Let’s just improvise and let’s talk our way through it.’ I said, ‘Well, I can always do something like this or that.’ I came up with something that had a wide range and that was good. He liked the idea. The euphonium tune that begins Happy-Go-Lucky is not particularly pretty because it has got a wide range and is pretty unexpected and has funny leaps. That immediately suggested a very small number of instruments that can do that and they are all bass instruments. I could have used a clarinet, but it felt really common.

Do you bring in instrumentalists to try out ideas before you record?

Yes, I have done that a number of times. It’s Mike’s film and I want him to be 100% committed to the music. There is no point in me saying, ‘You trust me, this euphonium is going to work.’ It’s not like that. I want him to feel confident that when he walks into the recording studio he has got a real physical sense of what the music is going to sound like. He comes around here, he listens to me doing digital instruments. If it’s something really distinctive like that, or the saxophones in Mr. Turner, I don’t want him to go naked into the recording studio. I want him to feel that he’s heard it. On Happy-Go-Lucky I got somebody round here to play the opening theme on the euphonium for him. We didn’t need to do that on Another Year. On Mr. Turner I got the saxes to demo for him because not only was that weird, but all the things they were doing were weird in the writing. I needed Mike to be sure that that was the right thing to do. On Peterloo, I wanted to use a particular pairing of instruments throughout, and I wanted to make sure that he would be happy. He listens to the mock-ups when he is here. I don’t send them to him.

Is his process of working with you similar to the way he works with actors?

I would say it’s identical. I don’t think there is any difference with anybody. The whole thing is so organic because that’s how he works. He works on the basis of his idea, his very inchoate, formless, initial impetus, meeting everybody. Everybody has got a stake and that’s just how he does it. I don’t see any difference between what I am doing and what Sally [Hawkins] did. We are all doing the same thing.

The primary focus in his films is on the actors, so the priority is what they are doing. How will the music impinge upon the acting? The actors in Mike Leigh’s films are of such a high standard, the work is so detailed and so uniquely authentic, they just don’t need us. They don’t need us to help them or signal things to the audience. We don’t have to do the jobs that other films ask composers to do. Mike just needs to let these actors loose.

Your music for Another Year is brittle. Did you have a concept for that score?

I am trying to remember what my musical agenda was for Another Year. My musical agenda was to do with my interest in the nature of plucked strings, so the music for Another Year is largely about listening to the difference between plucked harp – what else are you gonna do with it? – plucked guitar and plucked strings. Forget anything else to do with the film. That’s four out of the five instruments. If you listen to the harp and the guitar, they often alternate bass notes. That interested me for no other reason than to listen to the quality of those instruments do those things. Sometimes they would alternate with a plucked cello. I just became interested in that as an idea. I would also try to include that in a cue when the cue was capable of sustaining that interest. There was one cue we changed quite a lot in the recording session. It is the cue where Mary drives the car to the party. What I wrote was far too subtle and Mike wanted something more definitely funny there. In fact, he just intervened in a very positive way at the session and we altered the string parts. The payers were great and just responded. There have been a few interventions when he asked me to change something. The scariest was in Happy-Go-Lucky when I had to rewrite six to eight bars of a cue while Terry [Davies] was conducting. We stopped doing the cue we were doing and I rewrote these bars. It was my first film score and I was absolutely terrified. But it was fine. What he objected to is absolutely right. He said he saw something suddenly in the studio that he hadn’t clocked while we were watching here. He was at pains to make sure I was alright about it. He was concerned about it. If you come from a theater background you do these kind of things all the time. Really, the only thing on Another Year was only that, the nature of the plucked strings.

What happens is we have a conversation. We agreed on what the ensemble would be for Another Year and that’s largely a matter of emotional color for Mike. We auditioned the instruments. They are like actors. What’s the quality they are going to bring? What’s the part they are going to play? They are very real and have a vivid identity. It’s really after they were in place that I started to think about what to do with them. Four out of five instruments were strings. How interesting to have a guitar and a harp together in an ensemble! The challenge becomes how you can make them have a dialog with each other that’s meaningful. That’s quite separate from the film. It relates to the film because the music is going to go with that image, but the only music that passes is the music that Mike likes. He is not interested in the dialog between the plucked strings. There is no particular reason for me to discuss it with him. I write music he feels contributes to the overall thing. I went for modal harmony because it seemed to be a pastoral film. So I went for pastoral music.

I get the impression that you use films to explore musical ideas and concepts that have always interested you.

Point A: Mike is a very sophisticated listener. Point B: I like to write music that interests me. You put those two things together. I work on the basis that if it interests me it might interest him. I am a sophisticated listener, so I want to try and interest myself. I take it for granted that if I am going to interest myself, it will interest him. It’s an interesting question. I don’t think that my response is just of writing music for Mike. I think it’s generally true that I try to write music that interests me. I haven’t always succeeded, and sometimes the music I want to write is vulgar and repetitive and funny or broad because I like that stuff as well. I like innocent music. I like for example Papageno’s music for what it is. It nails that innocence and naivety. You get the sense that Papageno isn’t sophisticated because the music isn’t. The music is beautiful and simple. That direct utterance I have a great deal of respect for. There is a challenge in it, which is to be as unsophisticated and as natural as that. It’s very hard work. I want to surprise Mike when it’s appropriate to surprise him. I don’t want to surprise him for the sake of surprising.

Thank you very much for your time.