An Interview with Christopher Gunning by John Mansell
When you begin to work on a project, where do you start, do you work in order of the films running, i.e. main titles through to end titles, or do you tackle small cues first etc?
It varies. But usually I like to “feel” my way in – I’ll probably work on a scene which I feel to be the emotional core of the film, so as to get the emotional tone right. If there’s going to be a main theme, I’ll work on that. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes not. I don’t think I have ever started at the beginning and worked through to the end, and I think I have nearly always tackled complex action sequences right at the very end, because by then I’ll have some musical material from earlier cues to work with.
What would you say has been the most difficult project for you to work on?
The first feature film I composed, GOODBYE GEMINI (aka TWINSANITY) was unbelievably hard and stressful. The producer, Joseph Shaftel, would call me night or day to insist that “this will be the greatest godamn score ever” and that didn’t help my self confidence at all. Several times I felt like giving up and running away to the seaside where nobody could find me. In particular there was a ritual murder sequence, and for days on end I couldn’t get past the midway point. I grew increasingly desperate and consulted some friends as to how they thought the music should develop. In the end, John Scott, one of my very best friends and an extremely gifted composer, helped me finish the section by FORCING me to write instead of dither interminably.
Touch wood, I haven’t had any major composing blocks recently, but the memory of that film still lingers…
WILD AFRICA contained a number of ethnic instruments; do you research all of these instruments and sounds yourself before sitting down and writing them into the score?
Quite honestly, the answer is “no,” although I’ve gained some knowledge of percussion and wind instruments over the years. Before starting work on WILD AFRICA I went to Tanzania and Morocco to soak up some local influences, but when I sat down to compose the score, I decided that the percussion in WILD AFRICA would mostly be programmed myself on my Apple computer. That way I could be certain of getting precisely the rhythm patterns I wanted, as well as the sounds I had buzzing around in my head. It was good fun, but extremely time consuming. I took some other “ethnic” sounds from samples too, and from time to time I had Phil Todd play his EWI (electronic wind instrument) to simulate African flutes. I preferred to work this way rather than with real African instruments, partly because Western instruments are far more flexible as regards keys, ranges, and scales, and partly because within the confines of a restricted TV budget it would have been virtually impossible to do it any other way.
Have you ever turned down an offer of a film or project for any reason?
Yes, plenty. When I was working flat-out on Poirot I had to turn many interesting films and TV productions away, because it was as much as I could do to keep up with the Poirot schedules – usually I had about ten days in which to write a whole episode. Also, round about then, I said “no” to several TV detective series (some of which are still on air now) because I wanted as much variety as possible in my work. It’s always hard saying “no” though – one never knows if there’s going to be another job or not…
You recently won the BAFTA for LA VIE EN ROSE, a wonderful movie and a very emotive and romantic sounding score, how did you become involved on this movie?
I was telephoned by Edouard Dubois, the music supervisor. He had heard a lot of my music, and recognised that I have an affinity with some French music, especially that of the early twentieth century. Also, in addition to the incidental score, there would have to be arrangements of Piaf songs, and Edouard had heard my scores for Mel Torme and other singers. Edouard then persuaded Olivier Dahan, the director, that I was the right man for the job.
Prior to working on the film, I knew very little about Piaf. Yes, I knew some of the famous songs (Milord, Non non rien, La Vie en Rose, etc) but Piaf wasn’t my favourite singer at all. Like most British people, I disliked the characteristic French vibrato and preferred to listen to American and British singers. As I became more and more involved with the film I grew to appreciate Piaf and French singing generally, and of course I realised that I was working on a marvellous film with lovely people. It was the happiest working experience I’ve ever known.
A few years ago you scored a TV series called THE LAST TRAIN, the score was magnificent, alas its never been released, does this frustrate you, that your music is not issued onto compact disc, especially when collectors are going mad for it to be?
The situation regarding CDs of my music is impossibly bad at the moment. I am forever answering emails from collectors and others who have found my website and want copies of POIROT, FIRELIGHT, WILD AFRICA, COLD LAZARUS, and many other scores. Usually I have to tell them the CDs are unavailable, and that’s dreadfully frustrating. The problem is that unless a CD sells a bare minimum of 1000 copies, no company is willing to invest the cash necessary to clear the rights and manufacture it.
Are there any genres of film that you would like to work in that you have not yet?
Yes, plenty. I’d like to do a really big action movie. I’d love to do a period movie again. And I’d always be happy doing something with sensitivity – I’m really quite an emotional person, you know, and I think I react well to films with a big emotional range.
POIROT is making a return to the screens in the UK soon, are you involved with this new series?
No. And I’m fed up about it. I was not able to do the last four (my most recent were Death on the Nile, Sad Cypress, the Hollow, and Five Little Pigs) because my wife was extremely ill and simultaneously I had been diagnosed with a heart problem. Happily, we’ve both made full recoveries! But when the new films came up, my agent received an exceptionally terse email from one of the producers to say they were going with the person who did the previous four (Stephen McKeon). I have received countless emails and letters from POIROT fans asking why the tune has been completely dropped, and when you consider how well known it has become it does seem pretty contrary. I suppose I can’t complain, having composed about forty episodes but the manner in which the change was made was about as insensitive as one could imagine. The film/TV businesses can be extremely hard and some executives (thankfully not all) horribly ruthless.
What do you think is the purpose of music in film?
It’s obvious to say it, but music is a language complete in itself. It can express the full range of human emotions. The purpose of music in a film is to heighten emotion, or even express emotions not immediately apparent in the film itself. At its most mundane, music is sometimes used to paper over the cracks in unsatisfactory sequences. At its best it can be a vital “third force” which expresses the very heart of it. Again it’s obvious to say it, but the use of music in film is limited only by the imagination of the composer and the director.
How many times do you like to view a project before you begin to get any fixed ideas about the type of score, and where the music will be placed etc?
I like to live with the film for a few days at least, and maybe weeks, before making big decisions, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Nowadays I always have the film on my computer at home, so I get to know it really well, and I am able to judge how my music should progress through the course of the film.
You have worked in both TV and also for the cinema, apart from the budget what are the main differences when working in the two mediums. Or do you approach them both in the same way?
I don’t recognise many major differences between composing for film or TV – the challenges are likely to be common to both media. But there can be differences in scale. Huge orchestras often feel unsuited to TV productions, whereas in film they are common. However, there are no rules; you use the forces which feel suited to the project and, inevitably, to the budget.
Do you orchestrate all of your music, and do you think that orchestration is an important part of the composing process?
I normally orchestrate all my own music. On two occasions I have had help from Geoffrey Alexander just because the schedule was too tough for me to do absolutely everything myself. For two series of POIROT, FIACHRA TRENCH would come to my house and stay for two to three days helping with orchestrations. In that way, I managed to get all the music written – just!
Orchestration is an integral part of my own musical thinking. My themes and ideas always come fully clothed in orchestral or instrumental colours. I absolutely love writing orchestral scores, but the manual effort of writing by hand or entering all the notes into a computer is a fantastically time consuming process.
When a soundtrack CD is being prepared do you have any input into what tracks are to be included etc?
Normally, yes, and I would expect to compile the tracks myself. However, with LA VIE EN ROSE, nobody consulted me at all, and I’m rather disappointed the end title music was omitted.
When do you prefer to become involved on a project, at the start with a script, or is it better for you to see the rough cut of the film and start from there?
I’d like to see a script first, and have a brief discussion with the director as to the nature of the project and what might be involved in the music. Some vague ideas might start to suggest themselves at that point, but I’d far rather leave the nitty-gritty of actual composition until I have some film to work with.
Have you a favourite film score, either of your own or by another composer?
Yes, a lot! In no particular order, FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD and NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA (R. R. Bennett), THE MISSION and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (Morricone), LA CONFIDENTIAL and ISLANDS IN THE STREAM (Goldsmith), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, CHARADE and WAIT UNTIL DARK (Mancini), PSYCHO and TAXI DRIVER (Herrmann), and far too many more to list. In my own work I would mention THE BIG BATTALIONS, WILD AFRICA, FIRELIGHT, and LA VIE EN ROSE.
Do you think a good score can maybe help a bad movie?
It can help – but not completely rescue. There are lousy movies with good scores which sink without trace. There are also plenty of good movies with ordinary or even lousy scores which are very successful!
Temp tracks on films! These are met with mixed opinions by composers, what are your thoughts on the use of a temp track by a director?
I don’t altogether object to the use of temp music if it helps a director to explain to a composer what he wants the music to be or do. The great worry is that all those involved in the post production process become so completely obsessed with the temp music as to lose sight of what new and original music can do. It can happen that a composer’s efforts are rejected simply because the director cannot remove the temp music from his or her mind.
What was your first scoring assignment?
A commercial for British United Airways, an airline which ceased to exist, hopefully not because of my music! The sung line was ‘The Jetset are here’. At the tender age of 24 I attended a meeting in a plush advertising agency during which my only contribution was “shouldn’t it be ‘The Jetset IS here?’” This did not go down well, probably because the creative team had spent months and months devising the script. I was then taken out to a very posh restaurant for lunch, and being totally unused to drinking alcohol in the quantities proffered, immediately got completely plastered. I remember walking away from the restaurant clinging onto the railings by the road and wondering how the guys I had been with were still alive.
I then proceeded to spend three weeks writing my thirty second masterpiece, worrying every minute of each day that the whole thing would be a catastrophic failure. Amazingly, it wasn’t, although I had to cut out several bars in the studio to make the music fit properly. I then went to sleep for two days before submitting my invoice for £150 – an absolute fortune in those days for someone used to earning £3 a night playing in pubs in the Old Kent Road.
What is your opinion of film and TV music today, compared with say 20 years ago?
Unfortunately, I think the general standard, especially in TV music, is declining. There are many reasons for this, but it’s not accidental that, simultaneously, computers and electronics generally have come to the fore. It’s easy to turn out an average score in your front room with equipment that’s pretty cheap to purchase. It’s not easy, and never will be, to compose great music. The major problems include producers tend not to realise what a fantastic contribution music can make to their work, opting for cheap and quick rather than excellent, and a worrying trend for composers to think that composing for the media is so radically different from composing in general that the same standards don’t apply. Music which is harmonically and melodically tedious is tedious whether it’s for a 15 second commercial, a pop song, or a massive orchestral opus.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have just finished recording my 3rd and 4th Symphonies and my Oboe Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and my daughter, Verity, played the solo part in the Concerto. For the past ten years or so I have been mixing my media work with music designed for the concert hall. This is not a new interest – I set out in the beginning to write concert pieces, but have been rather late in getting around to it. In some ways my concert music is quite different to a lot of my TV and film music – and that’s because when composing in long spans you have to use quite different processes. In particular you have to come up with long musical shapes that make dramatic sense in their own right.
Right now I’m embarking on something which I think will be Symphony no 5 (I’m right in the early stages!) and also enjoying myself with some arrangements for Colin Blunstone, a singer with whom I first worked about thirty-five years ago.