Directors And Their Composers

Mike Leigh and Andrew Dickson and Gary Yershon
Part IV
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.

Acclaimed director Mike Leigh worked with composer Andrew Dickson from the early 1980s until the mid-2000s. They worked on such acclaimed as Naked, Secrets & Lies, and Vera Drake. In the previous two instalments of our series, we featured interviews with both Leigh and Dickson. For the final part of our series dedicated to the two artists we present an analysis of their working-relationship. The next parts of our series on „Directors And Their Composers“ will then be dedicated to different artists.

Mike Leigh is one of the most revered film-makers in British cinema. Over a span of nearly 50 years, he has garnered 7 Oscar nominations, 14 BAFTA nominations (winning four), a Palme d’Or, a Golden Lion, and countless other prestigious awards. Roger Ebert, in a review of Vera Drake, called him “the most interesting director now at work in England”. Born in 1943 in Greater Manchester, Leigh studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before attending the Central School of Arts and Crafts, the University of the Arts Camberwell and the London Film School. His first major stage play, Babies Grow Old, celebrated its premiere in 1974. Even before then, he had devised a method of working which he would stick with: when work began on his theater piece The Box Play in 1965, Leigh didn’t write a script for the actors to perform but instead worked with them separately by building individual characters. For the rehearsal process, it was important to the director that the actors participating in his play were completely oblivious to anything their characters wouldn’t know. Instead, they react naturally to their counterparts’ action, giving the play a raw and natural feeling for which Leigh’s works have been lauded ever since. It is a way of working which requires patience and a lot of hard work. The well-known barbecue sequence and the ensuing revelations in Secrets & Lies, Leigh’s financially most successful film to date, were based on a twelve-hour improvisation. After such an improvisation, actors sit together with the director to talk in detail about their character. By way of refining and distilling, hour-long improvisations can become ten- or twenty-minute long scenes as seen in the film. Only after a rehearsal period of about six months do the cameras start rolling – with a script based on months of grueling work.

Bleak Moments was Leigh’s first feature film. Released in 1971, the tragedy about loneliness explores a topic the director would time and again come back to: the failure to communicate. In Bleak Moments, the only thing which can bring the characters together in brief moments of joy is music, when a desolate young activist starts playing his guitar in the main character’s garage. Music has always been an important part of Leigh’s films, even before he began to commission an original, traditional score. In fact, his feature film debut wouldn’t have the powerful emotional impact it does had it featured a non-diegetic musical accompaniment – it is, after all, the friendly communist and his guitar who bring solace to a bleak, desolate existence.
That, however, was not the primary reason Leigh didn’t employ a score, as he explains: “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.” Leigh’s view on film-making evolved. Nobody was willing to finance a further feature film for another 17 years since the director didn’t have a script to show. He therefore went into television and developed various films mainly for the BBC.

His “purist view” changed. Some of his films required music, as Leigh found, and he was eager to experiment: “The truth is every time I make a film in all kinds of ways, I want to challenge my status quo. 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.” He would work closely with Carl Davis who supplied music for two of Leigh’s BBC productions. In 1981, he met a man who would prove important to his career: Andrew Dickson.

Born in 1945, Dickson grew up in a musical household, started playing ukulele at a young age, taught himself guitar and later picked up piano. After teaching emotionally-disturbed children for two years, Dickson decided to combine theater, music and education, explaining: “I went into something called Theater in Education, which was a big movement. We started the first company in Scotland, at the Edinburgh Lyceum. That involved researching, writing programs and then taking them out to children.” From there, Dickson moved swiftly to performing in fringe theater – both as composer and actor. In the 1970s, he performed alongside Helen Mirren in Teeth ‘n Smiles, then toured through Borneo, Malaysia and Singapore with an education company. In 1981, he wrote music for a performance of Bertold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Crucible Theater. Mike Leigh attended a performance and was immediately intrigued by the music, scored for balalaikas, bouzouki, guitar and percussion. Leigh loved idiosyncratic music – being a huge fan of Kurt Weill’s and his “odd” instrumentations – and Dickson’s approach was idiosyncratic in the best sense of the word, utilizing a small ensemble of instruments which are not often heard playing together. When Leigh’s then wife, actress Alison Steadman, appeared in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello in Nottingham, a production for which Dickson supplied the music, he and Steadman’s husband met properly for the first time.

Shortly thereafter, they worked together for the first time on Meantime, a Channel4 television film. They soon noticed that they were on the same wavelength. Providing a score for the director’s film was an experience Dickson cherished, as he describes their way of working: “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.”
For Meantime, broadcast in 1983, Dickson chose to use a tack piano and a saxophone. The composer has always liked the idea of different instruments representing different people, and piano and saxophone somehow worked for a film about two brothers. The film was inspired by Leigh’s anger and frustration about the huge rise of unemployment in Great Britain at the time, as well as by reports of two young, unemployed men who had both committed suicide. Despite its grim subject matter, Meantime is one of Leigh’s jollier films. Although the director takes his characters and their suffering seriously and treats them with respect and dignity, he also finds room for humor in an environment that is anything but funny. Dickson devised some appropriately spiky music for the two punks in the center of the film. His composition is raw and rough around the edges, deliberately “off” and offbeat. Originally, Dickson wanted to employ a cimbalom but couldn’t find a musician. The piano served as alternative, as the composer explains: “I had done it with my piano at home. I had put drawing pins in the hammers. That makes it sound quite metallic. 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 Khan, who is a brilliant improviser. It was quite a struggle, because I had written some very tricky stuff.” The main theme accompanies the characters in the film throughout, and it was a theme that Dickson found quite naturally while improvising at the piano. Dickson was successful at providing a rusty feel to the score and therefore to the film. In the course of a discussion between Jarvis Cocker and Mike Leigh, released as part of the special features on the Criterion Blu-ray of Meantime, Cocker remarks that Dicksons’s score has a remarkable Eastern European feel to it. That was, however, completely unintentional, as the composer points out, and had nothing to do with drawing parallels between unemployment in Great Britain and the working class behind the Iron Curtain. However, other interpretations are available.

17 years after Bleak Moments, Leigh would develop his next feature film: High Hopes, one of his funniest films in that it is partly a satire on the British upper class, juxtaposed with Phil Davis and Ruth Sheen as a young couple inspired by Karl Marx’ philosophy. When Dickson first saw the film, a harmonica came to mind immediately, as he explains: “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 became the main theme – just by chance.” Dickson presented the idea to Leigh who was happy with the theme and the choice of instrument. However, there was one challenge to overcome as Dickson would soon notice: the part he had written for that particular instrument was tricky, and he didn’t want the notes to simply be played. A musician should always give something of his own – his own interpretation, some improvisation if suited, a rawness that Dickson wouldn’t get from Tommy Riley, one of the world’s most celebrated harmonica players.

Dickson remembers: “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, Nico Brown, 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 bent notes of the blues that my friend put in. My friend also played a recorder in a slightly bluesy way,” despite Dickson not liking jazz very much. However, his music, which won him the European Composer of the Year award in 1989, provides the fitting illustration of urban life.

Although Mike Leigh relied on Rachel Portman as composer for his next feature film, Life is Sweet (after he had worked with her on Four Days in July in 1984), he and Dickson reunited for Naked, one of Leigh’s most celebrated films which has become a cult classic. David Thewlis gives his strongest performance to date as Johnny, an aimless young man from Manchester who decides to visit his ex-girlfriend in London and, like a wrecking ball, tears down facades of the people he encounters in due course. The call for Naked came at a time when Dickson was teaching at Dorchester prison every week – an experience he remembers without great fondness: “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.” Mike Leigh is inclined to agree. Naked is a relentless score, driven by a recurring ostinato played on harp. The music is as relentless as the character of Johnny, driving him forward, onward, downward. It was also a difficult score to work on, despite the fact that Leigh had pretty clear ideas as to what the music should be like. The director explains: “During the course of the development of the context of the film, the so-called rehearsals, I will reach a point when I got some sense of the conception of the film, the spirit and style. At which point I share it principally with the cinematographer. In the case of Naked, I was able to say, ‘This is nocturnal, this is a lonely guy, this should be monochromatic and dark.’” For Dickson, it was clear that minimalism was the way forward. Portraying the relentless drive of Johnny, the composer developed a riff which he repeated several times with different chords underneath it. On the one hand, harp seemed a logical instrument to use for the riffs, on the other hand, its delicate nature seemed to go against the action in the film, as Dickson elaborates: “I have always loved the harp anyhow. I chose it, partly because the lighting was amazing in that film. The poster is him wandering about in a bomb site 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.” A heavy drum beat for the opening sequence worked equally well, although Dickson had considerable problems finding a musical approach to Johnny raping a woman in a back alley. It was clear to him and Leigh that the sequence needed music. But what kind of music? Dickson was aware that it would have been very easy to titillate the action on screen or even turn it into a melodrama – something he wanted to avoid at all cost. It was his wife at the time who had an epiphany and suggested to her husband, a collector of musical instruments, to simply beat his big military bass drum in order to give the scene a sense of foreboding. The drum also functions as a lead in to the riff over the opening credits. The introduction serves as a prime example for how Leigh likes to use music in his films. The director explains: “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.”

Consequently, Dickson’s score for Leigh’s next feature, Secrets & Lies, works in the same way. Like he had done when he had called up his composer to commission him for Naked, Leigh couldn’t help but make an ironic comment when it came to Secrets & Lies, as Dickson remembers: “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.’” Unusually, Dickson even went to one of the rehearsals for the well-known barbecue sequence and its aftermath. As he had to find out, though, it didn’t give him any advantage. Inspirations came from different sources for the story about a lonely, middle-aged woman who, after decades, is contacted by a daughter she had given up for adoption. Secrets & Lies is in an incredibly rich film, giving Dickson a lot to draw on. For example, the celebratory theme, which accompanies Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as mother and daughter coming out of a cinema, is based on a chord sequence from a love song the composer had written when he was 15 years old. Since the film opens with a funeral, Dickson decided to use brass, as he remembers: “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 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 decisions are unconscious. It’s all about intuition, really.” Secrets & Lies was nominated for five Oscars, three Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs and countless other awards. Brenda Blethyn won a Golden Globe for her outstanding performance as a destitute mother who is given a second chance in life.

All or Nothing – along with Career Girls from 1997 – is Mike Leigh’s least appreciated film. It sits between Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake, two of Leigh’s most acclaimed films, which opened to rapturous applause, and were showered with awards worldwide. All or Nothing seems to stand in their shadow. Although critics reacted well to it, it has never had the international appeal that both Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake enjoyed. Considering the many strengths of All or Nothing, this is especially regrettable.
All or Nothing tells the story of a family whose members spend their days working at essential and yet low-paid jobs. Penny, played by Lesley Manville, is the main breadwinner as a cashier in a supermarket. Her partner Phil, played by Timothy Spall, drives a cab around town after years of unemployment due to his crippling depression. Living in a council flat with their two children Rachel (Alison Garland) and Rory (a young James Corden), Penny and Phil have resigned themselves to their life on the treadmill. There is little tenderness left between them; in fact, they hardly interact with each other. What were once lively conversations over tea are now mere grunts in front of the television set, while their thankless children have equally little love to give. Failure to communicate, though present as a theme in all Leigh’s films, is explicitly portrayed in All or Nothing – as it is in Bleak Moments, his first feature. Roger Ebert raved about both, calling the film from 2002 one of Mike Leigh’s best films. Indeed, Leigh portrays his characters with great love and tenderness. His understanding of their struggles and his refusal to judge their actions is what makes All or Nothing a treat.
Filmed in washed-out, muted colors, the stark portrayal of the desolation of the disaffected, of the isolated and lonely, is further enhanced by Andrew Dickson’s music. When they started working together on All or Nothing, Dickson and Leigh had already established a fruitful and successful relationship. Meantime, High Hopes, Naked, and Secrets & Lies are all the results of a composer and director working in harmony and complementing each other. When Dickson first saw All or Nothing, it immediately struck a chord with him. The composer and his wife were worried about their son who, at the time, was struggling at school. As a young rebel, he couldn’t stand sitting in a classroom, submitting himself to an education system he despised and couldn’t relate to. Seeing James Corden as the disagreeable Rory who causes his parents grief in more than one sense was especially touching to Dickson.
With his music, Dickson chose to enhance the somewhat desolate nature of some of the characters, as he describes – an approach that didn’t go over well with one the nation’s most best-known TV personalities, Jonathan Ross. In his column in the Daily Mirror, Ross implored people not to go and see the film, stating that as soon as he heard “that miserable cello” groaning away, he knew he was in for two hours of “misery.” Dickson remembers the review with a chuckle: “It wasn’t a cello. It was a viola.”
The composer uses a violin, viola, double bass, flute, bass flute and two guitars. The idea to use two guitars wasn’t Dickson’s, but Leigh’s, as the former explains: “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.” Although Dickson is pleased with the music itself, he always struggled with the guitar parts since he had envisioned the instrument to feature more prominently, blaming his own writing. The composer had also hoped for a brighter sound in the guitars, but since the replacement guitarist was primarily a flamenco player, the sound turned out to be more percussive.
The main theme for All or Nothing is derived from a musical phrase Dickson had written a few years earlier for a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Applying it to All or Nothing provided the key that unlocked the project for the composer. Although he is fond of the film, he felt music could complement some of the scenes, especially in the first half of the rough cut.

Vera Drake is a very different film than All or Nothing, albeit they share a working-class milieu. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is a cleaner in post-war Britain, while her husband Stan (Phil Davis) works in a garage. Although they don’t have much money, they are optimistic. Having survived – and won – the Second World War, things were looking up for the United Kingdom. The worst seemed to be behind it. However, Vera keeps a secret from their family that eventually threatens to destroy their bond. For many years, the unassuming cleaner has helped women who found themselves “in trouble.” Without accepting money for her service, Vera Drake performs abortions – an action still deemed illegal in the United Kingdom until the introduction of the Abortion Act in 1967.
Shortly after the film was released in 2004, the right-of-center-newspaper The Telegraph worried Vera Drake could “trigger abortions” in a clickbaity headline. Of course, Vera Drake didn’t trigger abortions but acclaimed reviews. At the Venice Film Festival, it won the prize for Best Film before it was nominated for eleven BAFTAs, one Golden Globe and three Oscars. Especially Imelda Staunton’s performance was lauded as a staggering portrayal of a woman who only wants to help but has to pay dearly for her altruism.
While Vera Drake is hailed as one of Leigh’s major works, it is also the crowning opus of Andrew Dickson’s film career. By then, he and the director had already worked together for more than 20 years. They had refined their approach, which also meant they had developed a sensitivity when music was essential: “On average there were 40 minutes of music for the earlier films,” Dickson explains. “By the time we got to Vera Drake, we had 14 minutes of music. That shows a development. We used less and less music.” Vera Drake is sparsely scored, making the moments in which the music does appear even more powerful.
For the first time in their films, Dickson and Leigh decided to use a choir. The composer says: “When we had early discussions about the music, Mike talked about voices. Funnily enough, I had thought about voices as well. He talked about children’s voices, the unborn children that were crying out. Then it gradually turned into six high sopranos, singing some clusters. We had a tryout, because we weren’t quite sure how it would work. I wrote some awful stuff, clusters. These amazing singers sang it. God knows how they did it.” Since it proved too difficult for a children’s choir to sing in the clusters both Dickson and Leigh had in mind, they settled on an ensemble composed of women. That aspects of the music wouldn’t be everybody’s cup of tea became clear when they rehearsed the choral compositions in a studio in the shadow of the Battersea Power Station in London and producer Simon Channing-Williams did think the vocal music was overly discordant. Hence, Dickson smoothed some of the edges.

It was the right approach for the film though. Dickson’s music for choir works less like a lament for unborn babies by making their voices heard – for Leigh does not condemn abortions; nor does he judge either his characters or their actions. Instead, the music amply expresses the anguish of women who find themselves in circumstances that put an unbearable strain on them. This very much includes Vera Drake, since the choir accompanies her as she is being led to her cell following the sentencing.
For the folk-like main theme of the film, Dickson used the germ of a sinister song about a fairground he had written previously and which had been performed by a 15-year old P.J. Harvey, a Mercury Prize-winning singer with whom Dickson performed in his local band in Bridport. The composer remembers: “The theme just came. I think I found myself singing it while watching the film.” The composer develops many variations on his warm, gentle main theme which acts as a musical description of the Drake’s home life.
Vera Drake would be Leigh’s and Dickson’s last project together. While working on Topsy-Turvy, which came out in 1999, the director had met Gary Yershon who acted as musical director on said film and developed the music for Two Thousand Years, a theater play by Leigh. Yershon would write the music for all of Leigh’s films following Vera Drake. The change in composer had nothing to do with any form of animosity, as Leigh assures: “I didn’t say, ‘That’s it, it’s all over between us.’ Apart from anything else, I have developed a good healthy personal relationships with all of the composers. When I worked with Andrew, I had to stay with him because he lives in the middle of nowhere in Dorset. These things move in chapters. I can’t explain it. I can’t say Gary is better. He is nearer. He is more adjacent.”
Andrew Dickson is nothing if not understanding, remembering the moment when he was told he would not write the music for Leigh’s next film: “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. Gary lived down the road. That made it logical.” Andrew Dickson and Mike Leigh remain friends.