An Interview with David Arnold by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.65/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
David Arnold came seemingly out of nowhere in 1994 with a massive orchestral score for Roland Emmerich’s STARGATE. Two years later, he repeated the favor for the director’s patriotic pastiche, INDEPENDENCE DAY, and Arnold found himself writing another splendid Save-The-World adventure score. In between the two he composed Tab Murphy’s lost-tribe drama, LAST OF THE DOGMEN. With 1997 serving up one of the best James Bond movies in years, David Arnold proved to be a more than capable musical counterpart to 007. Awarded the role due in part to his CD rendition of Bond music, ‘Shaken And Stirred’, Arnold provides TOMORROW NEVER DIES with an agile and appropriate musical tonality that is perfectly in keeping with the musical demeanor created by John Barry 36 years ago. Interviewed in February, 1998, just as he was embarking on the score for Emmerich’s new invocation of GODZILLA, Arnold describes his attitude toward film music and his proclivity toward Bond.
How did you get involved with STARGATE?
That assignment was a very peculiar story. I’d only actually done one film before that. I’d been working with film a lot, obviously, putting music to moving images, but it was all student projects, and I hadn’t actually done anything that had been released other than this one British film called THE YOUNG AMERICANS. I flew out to America with a copy of THE YOUNG AMERICANS with the idea that I was going to come over here and find an agent or a studio or someone who was interested in perhaps giving me a job on the lowest budget, some killer robot/monster movie, and I’d cut my teeth on that kind of thing for a few years and hopefully work my way towards a B-feature, and perhaps it’ll be a few more years at that before I’ll get a big movie. So that was the plan. I came over here with a copy of THE YOUNG AMERICANS, and everyone I invited to the screening didn’t turn up. No one from the studios, no one from the agencies! So I went back to England.
One of the executive producers on THE YOUNG AMERICANS had some money in Canal+, the French video company, which along with Carolco were financing what was becoming STARGATE. He got Mario Kassar of Canal+ to listen to my score for YOUNG AMERICANS. I was actually applying for a job in a video shop, just to try and get some money, and I got a call from Carolco saying, “We’ve got this film called STARGATE and your score’s been recommended to us, and we’d like you to meet with our music supervisor.” So the music supervisor flew over to England and we spent an afternoon talking about The Ramones and punk rock and had a good time, and he flew back and I thought that’s the end of that.
A week later I got a phone call saying they wanted me to fly out and meet with Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. So they flew me out to Los Angeles, and sent me a copy of the script, and after I pitched what I wanted to do they said I had the job. I didn’t even have an agent! It was amazing the way it went, because that’s not the way it was supposed to happen. The way it’s supposed to happen is you spend 20 years working for other people, doing things you don’t really want to do in an effort to get to that stage. But for some reason I leapfrogged. That film, obviously, did quite a lot of business around the world and the score was very well received, so I was very lucky.
What kind of background did you have in music? STARGATE seemed like quite a mature orchestral work.
Initially I’d been a woodwind player, and moved onto pianos and guitar as I got a bit older. I’d applied to the National Film and Television School in London, but I’d got turned down because I didn’t have an academic background. A friend got into the National Film School as a director, and he’d let me score his student exercises. As I was there I met a few more people and began to score their films. By the time I actually got round to doing THE YOUNG AMERICANS I’d been writing music for images for about seven or eight years, I’d learnt a lot about films. I’d sat in on every process at the Film School, so I really understood the skeleton of filmmaking – how it worked and where everything went. For me, that was the best way to learn, to try and understand how a film breathes and how it lives and how it works and what it needs. I did that by doing it rather than by being taught, because I wasn’t officially a student there. No one was deconstructing my work – I had to do all that personally and have an understanding of how things work and why things didn’t work. I still think I’m doing that. I’ve done five films now, and that’s not a lot, really, but they’ve all been high-profile films. I continue to be on a learning curve, and it happens to be very much in the public eye, so I guess it’s all being scrutinized and I’m being judged on everything that I do. I guess in reality I should still be doing that robot/killer cop stuff!
Is your background in classical or pop?
I grew up in Luton and I studied classical music when I was in college. I was classical clarinet player. But in 1976, the whole punk rock thing happened in England, and that just took my head off completely. I got hold of an electric guitar and everything else went out the window! Then I was writing songs and performing in bands and doing that kind of stuff. I was kind of learning about films and writing film music at the same time I was going out and playing all the groovy clubs in London with electric guitars and spiky hair! So it’s been a peculiar hybrid. But I learned how much I love films and how much I love British contemporary music. There’s a reason I don’t do that many films, because I’d like to get back to England and get involved in the music scene over there and continue to work with artists that I get excited about.
Coming out of your interest in modern British music, your capable handling of the large orchestral forms of STAR GATE was quite notable.
That came about because it was just what the film needed. It was new to everyone else, because no one knew who I was, and that’s probably still the case in the majority of people. But I’d been working with film for 8 years at that point, and, if you listen to some of the things that I’d done previously, there was always a kind of grand sense of melody. It was always dramatic music. Looking at STAR GATE, that was obviously what it needed, and I just really did what the film asked of me. Believe me – if it needed an electronic score, that’s what it would have gotten!
How about INDEPENDENCE DAY? That was a very Americana type of score. Was that problematic for you coming from a more British musical sensibility?
I don’t know if it makes that much difference. The only British sensibility I bring, I think, is sarcasm, because sometimes I do have my tongue in my cheek! The thing about INDEPENDENCE DAY was that it was cliché-ridden from the start. The whole thing was: how many more people can salute each other?! When you’re confronted with that kind of thing, you’ve got to go whole hog – it wasn’t exactly subtle! But everyone was aware of that. We knew what kind of film we were making, and I knew that it was a stand-up-salute-and-rip-your-shirt-off-and-Save-The-World film. It was daft! All these films were about Saving the World. STARGATE was about Saving the World.
How did you become associated with your orchestrator, Nicholas Dodd?
I met him when I was demonstrating a sample in one of my part-time jobs in a studio. Nicholas used to come in and buy equipment. He was doing some adverts in England, and I was working at the studio while I was doing the student movies. I demo’d this sampler to him by playing him the John Williams SUPERMAN theme, and we both discovered that we liked exactly the same things. I originally asked him if he wanted to orchestrate this graduation student movie that we did but he wasn’t available, so I did it myself. Then when we did YOUNG AMERICANS I asked him again and he got involved in that, and we’ve worked together ever since. It’s been great, because we’ve got a very good shorthand and a very good understanding. We’ve gotten over the hump of getting to know each other and knowing what to expect, and he actually saves me a lot of work, and I save him a lot of work because we’re very aware of what the other one does, and that works perfectly.
How did you land the coup of getting TOMORROW NEVER DIES?
Was it a coup? Someone had to do it! I know they originally asked John Barry and for whatever reason that fell apart. I’d been to see Barbara Broccoli a couple of years previously, actually, after STARGATE came out, just to say, you know, “I’m a fan of Bond and always have been, and if ever you need someone, consider me.” And I’d been sending her bits and pieces from Shaken & Stirred, the album I did. So they were aware of what was I doing. They gave me a call when the thing with John fell apart, and I went in and met with everyone and I said “this is the way I think this score should be. This is the way I think a Bond scores should be,” speaking as a fan of James Bond and the music, and they asked me to do it. It was very exciting for five seconds, and then you realize that you’ve got thirty five years of history to deal with, and the whole world’s asking “what are you going to do?” Probably more than any other film, unless there’s a sequel to STAR WARS where John Williams isn’t doing it, a Bond movie has the highest expectation.
Especially considering the fact that virtually all the other non-John Barry composers who have tried to do Bond have fallen considerably short of the mark. And suddenly you come out with this tremendous, quintessential Bond score. You’ve really grasped the essence of Bond, musically.
You’re very kind to say that. It’s just like if you got the presidents of the James Bond fan clubs from every country and put them together in a room, they could probably come up with a brilliant James Bond score, because they know what makes it work. And that’s what I am, I’m a bloke that stands in line and queues up to see it, and always have done. So I was scoring it from a fan’s point of view. It’s like, what would I want to hear at this point? Most of the time, you just want to hear James Bond music, you don’t want to be taken in a different direction. You don’t want to feel that someone’s trying to impose their view of what James Bond music should be, because James Bond music is what John Barry created. You can update it if you want, you can have a crack at doing something different, but ultimately unless you come back to what John did, you’re going to fail the film. You’re going to let it down. So I very much kept one eye on the past. All I did really was buy a new set of clothes and take it out for dinner!
So here you are. You’ve just got the project and you’re putting on the new suit. What were some of your initial impressions as far as thinking, I’ve got to do this, and I’ve got to be true to my own musical interests and yet provide what is right for the film. How did you launch into that?
I wasn’t really thinking, “I’ve got to keep my own musical identity.” I don’t think a Bond movie is a place to be necessarily saying “I’m going to be making it mine,” any more than Pierce Brosnan was saying that. Pierce Brosnan, I think, was very smart. He knew what works best for the character, and I think there’s enough of the historical aspect of James Bond in what he does. He complements that with his own touches, a lot of what he does is unique and new, but the rest of it is something that we’re familiar with. I don’t think he ever thought that he should go in and create something new.
For me, with the music, it was: “what does this film need?” I didn’t actually see the whole film from start to finish until I saw it at a premiere, because they didn’t have it finished. I was scoring it one or two reels at a time. The first thing that I saw was the opening sequence, the bit before the song started, and it was temped with some Mark Mancina, I think it was SPEED or SPEED 2. What I learned from looking at that was: to put this kind of music on this film makes it an action film, and not a James Bond film. It made me realize how important the music was, the old style music, the approach and the attitude. Someone says “you’ve got the job,” and it’s like you’re excited for 10 seconds and then you realize that you’re at the bottom of a mountain, staring at the top, and you’ve got to get up there somehow.
Because I’m new I wanted to incorporate John’s style because that was the style of the character. I’d pretty much had my themes worked out in the song that I’d written anyway, which came first. It was just a matter of adapting that. Then, I wanted to go through stages with the score. Initially, in the first third of the film, I wanted it to feel like “Bond was back!” And you feel comfortable that you’re in familiar territory and you can relax and just enjoy the character and enjoy the movie. And as it got through the second third of the movie and he gets to Germany and it starts to get a bit more high tech, that’s when I wanted to bring in those techno elements, the electronic stuff and the drum loops and the synths and everything. But all the time I still had the orchestra alongside it, so you never felt too far away from the core. And then in the last third, where he gets to South China, I went for a whole kind of Chinese percussion-driven finale alongside that orchestral big band feel that kind of makes the whole thing rock. That was the arc that I wanted to create, so you felt like you started somewhere familiar and then you went through these different elements of it and made you feel like you knew where it was going now.
Did you have to go back and study any of John Barry’s scores or was that pretty instinctive by now?
No. I’d lived with those things for a long time. It wasn’t really about lifting anything – there’s a couple of staccato phrases from the opening title sequence of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE that I used a couple of times, but it was more what it was like listening to those scores rather than going back and taking this bit and taking that bit. It’s like doing an impressionist painting, it was my image or my memory of what the music was like.
You mentioned the K. D. Lang song. What happened with that?
I was really pleased with that. It was something that I’d always, always wanted to do. I figured Don Black was the guy for the lyrics because he’s legendary. It felt like the song was totally Bond and kind of in the pocket of what I wanted, it had that kind of classic Bond feel and at the same time I felt it was contemporary enough to live in the ‘90s without it feeling like it was out of time.
What happened as far as that getting bumped to the End Title instead of the front?
That kind of decision was made by MGM. I didn’t really have anything to do with it. I did that song and handed it in – obviously I would have liked it to be the Main Title, it was written with that in mind – but these kind of decisions are driven by the marketing guys and the executives at MGM.I didn’t have anything to do with the Sheryl Crow song.
What were some of the technical challenges you faced on this project?
Guessing what came next! There were lots of rewrites, so every day I was getting new pages, and I was trying to write stuff not knowing what was going to be on the next reel. It was quite tricky having to second-guess where the film was going and hoping the stuff you’re developing in the beginning was going to actually make sense with what was happening at the end. The way it was coming in with bits and pieces, you couldn’t actually get an overview of the film, so it was difficult to judge the dramatic arc of it, to make sure that you weren’t blowing it all too early, and that you had somewhere to go at the end.
How closely did you work with Roger Spottiswoode on developing the score?
Roger was so involved in the making of the movie that he actually left me alone for the bulk of it. He came over for the recording of the pre-title sequence, which was the first thing that we did, and he hadn’t heard anything at that point. I’d wanted to do it initially as a sort of demo idea so he’d feel comfortable with what I was doing, and once we got through that session, he pretty much left me alone. Every four or five weeks I’d pop over and we’d go through the film and talk about what we were going to do for the next three or four reels. I don’t know if it was because he trusted me or felt comfortable with me or that he was just preoccupied with all the other things that are involved in trying to get a film that size out in a very short amount of time. If I was like one or two degrees off course, he’d just move the rudder, so he pointed me in the direction that he felt was right in the film. He talked generally in atmospheres and feeling, rather than getting into the bones about what the music should be.
How much time did you have to score the film?
I took quite a long time – I think about five months – doing it. I was doing other things in-between, because there was nothing to score some of the time. We’d have four weeks of really intense writing, then we’d record for a couple of days, and then there’d be nothing to see for another two or three weeks. It was a bit strange, a bit disjointed like that.
How big or an orchestra did you use?
About 80 or 85. It wasn’t enormous.
I’ve got to tell you, I really think you nailed the film. It works just beautifully.
Well, you’re very kind. I realized that the Bond fans and the soundtrack people would be the ones who would be the toughest, because if it was me, I’d be there tearing it to pieces same as anyone else would who’s got an opinion! But it was a huge relief, from what I’ve seen on the Net and in magazines, that generally it’s been received in the way it was intended. That was a huge relief, because there was a lot of expectation with this movie.
Have you gotten any feedback from John Barry about it?
Yeah, he loved it. He said in a couple of interviews that he thought that] was very generous in obviously relating to what he’d done before, but for me it’s just common sense. Without John Barry, you don’t have James Bond.
Moving on to GODZILLA. I know you’ve just started it. From where you’re at now, what do you feel your approach might be? What is the direction you’re thinking of moving in?
It’s sheer blind, bloody panic! I have no idea what I’m going to do yet. We haven’t spotted the film yet. I got it a couple of nights ago so I’ve been looking at it a lot. It’s one of those things where I’m very reluctant to talk about what I’m going to do, in case I don’t do it. When it’s over I’ll be quite happy to talk about it, but at the moment it’s a big bastard lizard in New York!
It’s not quite the same as James Bond, but GODZILLA comes with its own sense of cinematic history and musical history as well.
I’ve never seen a GODZILLA film! So, in terms of reference, I’ve got no idea. I know, from looking at the GODZILLA Web Site, there are people saying “you’ve got to be using this or that.” The thing is, this GODZILLA isn’t a guy in a rubber suit. The thing that’s really different about this one is that it is a completely different creature. It doesn’t look the same, it doesn’t act the same. With Bond, obviously, you’re dealing with sequels. You’re dealing with 35 years of musical heritage that are very well-ingrained in people’s minds. With GODZILLA, it would be almost like, in Tim Burton’s BATMAN, if they’d have used the music from the TV show for that, it would have been stupid. It’s that different. It’s not like that. So if you’re talking about comparisons, it’s Tim Burton’s BATMAN versus the Adam West one.
When is the score due?
I think it’s got to be done right around the second week of April. It’s not that far off.
Your career has moved very quickly and very favorably. Where do you think you want to go with it?
I should quit while I’m ahead! Just stop! Well, I’m certainly not going to stop, but I’m certainly going to think very carefully about what I do next. After this, I want to go back to England and make a record, which will have nothing to do with film. That will probably take me up to the end of the year, and then I’m going to write a big symphonic work for the end of the Millennium, for a big fireworks show, which will probably take me through to April, so I probably won’t do any films for a year. After that, who knows? I’ve been offered a few things, but there’s nothing that I’ve said yes to at the moment. I want to think very carefully. I’m very aware that these very, very big American movies have a particular approach, and I don’t want to wear myself out by doing the same thing again and again. I am acutely aware that GODZILLA is a film whose score is not going to be a million miles away from INDEPENDENCE DAY and STARGATE. It’s the same writer, same director, same producer, so there’s a similar style, and I’m very aware of that. I’m glad that the Bond film came out, because it shows that I can do more than Saving The World movies. But this is another huge film that I’ve got to deal with, and after that I’ll probably want to do something completely different.
You did have a little bit of a break with LAST OF THE DOGMEN, which was a more intimate score. What was your approach to that score?
I loved doing that. I didn’t have any ideas until three weeks before we were supposed to record it! Again, sheer panic. It was a small movie about big feelings. I liked the fact that it was about people, about how they felt about each other. I would certainly welcome trying to find a film that was about people rather than about aliens or space ships or giant lizards. I love the kind of movie that I’m working on – don’t get me wrong. When f go and see movies, I will go and see INDEPENDENCE DAY. But I won’t go and see every other science fiction film to the exclusion of everything else. I watch a lot of European films, or I’ll watch SCHINDLER’S LIST as well. I need to vary the diet a bit. I’ll always come back to these kind of things when they come up and when they’re appropriate, but I think in the meantime I’ll probably jump on the old skateboard and go off in a different direction.