An Interview with Craig Armstrong by Ford A. Thaxton
Edited and Transcribed by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.81, 2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Ford A. Thaxton
While he has been actively involved in music since the 1970s, it’s only been since his involvement in Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET in 1996 that Scottish composer Craig Armstrong entered the world of film music, and soon began to gain a degree of personal notoriety as a composer. His atmospheric orchestral music for THE BONE COLLECTOR and BEST LAID PLANS, both in 1999, and their subsequent release on soundtrack in the USA (Decca and Virgin, respectively), and his music for the current Jet Li hit, KISS OF THE DRAGON, have given Armstrong varied opportunities to develop his skills as a film composer and gain further notice. Armstrong’s orchestral underscore for Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE earned him a Golden Globe Award for best score. Soundtrack Magazine caught up with Armstrong this last January and asked him about that honor and his experiences working on these films.
MOULIN ROUGE must have been a massive project for you. How early on where you involved in it?
I was involved at the start. The first job was really the arrangement of the songs, so I went out to Australia. I was involved in the project for a year and a half and I went to Australia three times. On the song arrangements, I worked with Marius De Vries, who was the music director. That was one of the first things that we had to do, because they were being filmed.
So you had to supervise all the pre-records?
Yes, we had to do all that first. Marius was actually involved in recording Nicole and Ewan and he did a great job on recording them while I was concentrating on the actual arrangement side of things; the orchestral work.
So, basically, there was a pre-record situation, and after that they engaged you to become the score composer for the film?
That’s right. I have a certain kind of orchestral sound and I worked with Baz on ROMEO + JULIET, so he knew my work quite well. Baz likes the sound I’ve got so he just asked me to do the score.
How difficult was it for you to deal with all the arrangements and all the songs and getting them ready for the pre-records?
I had done a lot of arranging before I started writing for films and so the arrangements of the songs were quite straightforward. Baz Luhrmann, the director, had a vision for the whole film, including music. Baz is very musical, even though I don’t think he can play an instrument, so Baz really was heading the music department, so to speak. He chose the songs, and once we had worked through them all and had them recorded, I had to write the score for this movie. Baz actually came over to Glasgow, where I’ve got a little recording studio, not big enough to record orchestras, though, and he was involved in the score as well. The challenge there was how to work in-between the songs.
You had to be the mortar to connect the songs…
Exactly. Baz said something nice on the night of the Awards – he said, in a way, my score really gives the film its heart. That was my job, really, to tie it all together. Because everything is quite disparate and because the songs are leading the story, what happened in between actually became quite important, so the listener and the person looking at the movie never felt interrupted.
How much original score did you actually write for the film, notwithstanding the songs and such?
There’s a lot of music in MOULIN ROUGE – in fact there’s hardly a minute without a piece of music. I think there’s about 40 minutes, which is actually more than THE KISS OF THE DRAGON and some other things that I’ve done. KISS OF THE DRAGON also had songs in it.
Well, congratulations on winning the Golden Globe award for MOULIN ROUGE. Now, my understanding is that under some arcane rule at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, you are not eligible for best original score for an Oscar?
That’s correct, I’m not eligible. They’ve got rules, and if that’s the rule, then that’s that. I’ve been a musician since I was 17 – I’m 43 now and in a way, when you start out you think, I hope I can get a job, and then you think, well I hope I can rent a flat, you know, and then everything’s just kind of cumulative. In film music, you only get a job when someone hears your last film, so it’s just very incremental. So it’s lovely to get an award, but I do this because it’s part of my life, you know?
You mentioned ROMEO + JULIET and I want to touch on that for a moment. This was really a breakthrough film for you.
It was the first time what I did, orchestrally, was heard by more people than, say, just in Europe.
What’s interesting about your score for ROMEO + JULIET is that there are two distinct albums from the film – there is the original song-driven album, and then they came out with a subsequent, ‘More Music’ album which included a good amount of your material, but they put dialog over a good chunk of it, something a lot of people were not very enthused about.
I heard about that, yeah. The idea at the time was to just tell the story of the film through the album – it was an artistic decision. But I do understand that a lot of people would have liked to have heard the balcony scene, for example, from beginning to end, without the dialog. I understand that, but it’s a bit late now, isn’t it?
What’s ironic about that score for you, is that one of the pieces from it, the big choral piece, which I think is heard in the opening helicopter scene, has become a favorite for people doing trailers. I know they’ve used it in the X-FILES movie trailer, for example.
That’s true. And also, there’s a film that didn’t do anything in the States called PLUNKETT & MACLEANE; that score gets used an awful lot on TV in Europe. It’s really nice that music you wrote can have another life and has obviously inspired someone else to use it. For me, being recognized in ways like the Golden Globes, is quite a new thing, really. In many ways for the last 20 years, I’ve just kept going, kept writing. People will have heard my music but not known it’s me, you know what I mean?
Right now, as we’re talking, you have your own album coming out on Virgin Records, called ‘As If To Nothing’. How would you describe this in relation to your film work?
This is the second of my solo albums. There are actually three things that I’ve ended up doing. There’s the film work, there’s my album work, and also in the last three years I’ve gone back to doing classical commissions, and I would honestly say now – and I don’t think I could have said this five years ago – but all of the different strands, between the classical music and the album music and the movie music, it’s quite obvious that it’s all coming from the same area. In many ways I strive to do that. I got into the films late in life, but when I was doing the early film work, I did sort of separate it all. I thought, well, the film music’s different, and then my album music is different, and then if I write for the theater it’ll be different, whereas what I’ve really tried to do over the last five years was to pool everything together. In everything, now, I’m just being a composer.
That seems to be more of a European sensibility. Over here in the United States, composers for films are not as well regarded as those in the orchestral / classical world, and they are not as able to slide back and forth between the classical world and the filmscoring world…
I’ve heard that. To be honest, it can be difficult in Britain as well, but I think the attitude’s changing. And, of course, there’s been quite a big history of people in classical music doing film music as well.
One of the films that you did after ROMEO + JULIET, which was very successful actually, was THE BONE COLLECTOR, a cheerful piece of family entertainment.
I was a fan of Phillip Noyce’s DEAD CALM, and when he asked me to do THE BONE COLLECTOR, I felt it was quite mainstream, and I wondered if I should do it. But then I realized, as opposed to ROMEO, where there wasn’t a lot of money – there’s quite a lot of money to deal with a big, big score – I just felt that I would learn a lot from doing huge orchestral sessions. Before it was like, “how many string players can we afford for ROMEO + JULlET?”
ROMEO + JULIET had a tight budget, musically?
Yes, it did, actually. THE BONE COLLECTOR had a much bigger budget. I just tried to do what I do for every score, which is try and address the dramatic elements of the film but at the same time try and write music that’s strong enough to be heard on its own. That’s my philosophy. I like music that’s got its own life apart from a film, that isn’t just underlying the drama, which is obviously a bit of a job in itself, but it’s got some sort of purity in its own so that it has a parallel life from the film. I think the theme from THE BONE COLLECTOR is like that, quite strong.
And now KISS OF THE DRAGON is about as mainstream as you can get.
One of my reasons for doing that film was to work in France. I’ve never recorded a film anywhere apart from Britain or America; when Luc Besson phoned me and asked if I’d like to do it – and I really like Luc’s movies, although he was only producing it – I realized it would be an opportunity to work with a French orchestra. A lot of people in Britain don’t work an awful lot in Europe, and I really wanted to have a chance, because it’s so near – Paris is only about two hours away on a plane from Glasgow – and I wanted to work with French musicians and just see what it was like to work abroad, and maybe find another base to work. One of the reasons I also did it was because ROMEO + JULIET and THE BONE COLLECTOR are kind of romantic and quite heavy, and I just wanted to do something for fun!
You just wanted to do something that would kick some ass! How much music did you write for that film?
I think it’s probably about 40 minutes, like MOULIN ROUGE.
How much of it ended up on the album?
We did some extra stuff for the album. In that album I tried to make it like a symphony, and we played around with the music. That album was not really a literal representation of the film score, the way that something like THE BONE COLLECTOR was. We adapted the music from KISS OF THE DRAGON for the album. “I like music that’s got its own life apart from the film, that isn’t just underlying the drama, which is obviously a bit of a job in itself.”