An Interview with Debbie Wiseman by Jonathan Broxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.68, 1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Jonathan Broxton
How did you become involved with TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN?
It was quite interesting the way I got the job because the director, Willard Carroll, had temp-tracked the film partly with WILDE. He had used a lot of other composers, Bernard Herrmann and others, but I think I was the only composer on the temp-track who was still alive! So I was in the film before I’d even actually gone after it, or knew about it.
Because he temp-tracked it, he contacted me and asked me if I would come and have a meeting with him, and I did, and we got on really well, and so I ended up doing the score. He’s a fantastic director, because he’s a real film music fan. Willard loves scores. I think he said he’s got one of the biggest collections of film scores in America. He loved working on the score, so it was a really terrific film to be involved in.
What kind of score is it? It is similar to the kind of work you’ve done before?
It’s a full orchestral score with a lot of music in it. A lot of the music is Tom exploring in the garden, so there’s a lot of music that isn’t with dialogue – him just rushing round the garden, finding out and discovering things. The scoring’s a bit like how you would score a ballet, following his movements. It’s very full of movement, full of life, because he’s this young, enthusiastic kid.
The score starts being very child-like and playful, but there’s a lot of dark stuff in there as well.
Dark stuff, exactly. Because, at first, when he moves into his aunt and uncle’s house to stay, he doesn’t know whether something really weird is going on, he doesn’t know if he should be scared or not, so there’s this whole front section of the film which is quite scary and quite moody, but when he gets in the garden everything’s fine. It’s full of life and fun, so it’s a mixture of the two. It also sort of hints at a kind of love theme as well. There’s tons going on. It’s the most music I’ve ever written for a film. I think there’s about 85 minutes of music in it, which is a lot.
It’s another period piece. WILDE and HAUNTED were both turn of the century scores. Do you enjoy composing that kind of music?
Yes, I love writing period pieces, but also what happens in those types of films is that you have a great opportunity for a score, in the full sense of the word, rather than using lots of contemporary songs. It would have been completely inappropriate to have had contemporary songs in WILDE, or TOM & VIV, so you get a chance to write a real score, and that’s really appealing. I can write themes for characters, and develop themes and all that sort of thing, and that’s wonderful.
Would you like to branch out into other genres? Can you see yourself doing an action film in the future, or something?
Yes, absolutely. I was trained classically, but I’ve always played keyboard, so I’ve had a lot of interest in writing pop and jazz, and I’ve written that kind of music for television. I think it’s just harder to get those gigs when you’ve done a lot of orchestral work. I think it will take time for people to say, “OK, maybe we’ll give her a chance of doing something a bit more action-packed”.
I’d like to ask you about HAUNTED. That’s another great score, but one thing I noticed very much about that score is that you were experimenting with a lot of dissonance in that, especially at the start, with the synthesizers. That’s something quite new for you, isn’t it, that you haven’t done very much of?
No. It’s interesting, because you can get away with that sort of writing in horror movies because it is quite dissonant, it’s quite hard to listen to. People can only take so much of it in a concert setting but, in a film, you can get away with a lot more dissonant music, and because you’ve got the visual images it’s easier on the ear somehow.
It accentuates what you’re watching.
Exactly. But, then again, HAUNTED wasn’t really an all-out horror film. It would have been wrong to have done that throughout. It was really a love story, and you didn’t find out that they were ghosts until right at the very end of the film. It would have been wrong to have gone completely Hammer horror on it, and scare everyone, so I had to mix the two, really. Mix the horror score and the love score.
Synthesizers, again, are instruments that you don’t use very often. You used those to create all the water effects.
That’s right; they were used to create the slightly atmospheric effects, and all those weird sounds. I think that’s where synthesizers come into their own, really. I don’t like them to pretend to be orchestras. If I can’t get an orchestra, then I’ll use them to back up a small ensemble, but I don’t like them to pretend to be flutes, or to pretend to be horns, or whatever. I like to use the real thing. When I get the opportunity in a film like that to use something slightly atmospheric, or slightly dark or spooky, then that’s perfect. And if I was doing an action score, or something more rock-based, then I’d use them a lot more. But, again, it’s the film that dictates what you do.
Do you play all the synths yourself?
Yes. I’ve got lots of samples and keyboards at home, so I usually program it all myself and get it all prepared before the session, and then just take it in.
You have done some other scores as well. FEMALE PERVERSIONS was one. What kind of score was that?
That had a small band; piano, some strings, a little bit of brass, and a lot of female voices. And the director really wanted to use female voices throughout, not singing words, just singing “Ah”. It was a quite individual film, and didn’t get a huge release here, although it did quite well in America, and in fact was number one in Italy for about two weeks.
Probably something to do with the title!
Yes, exactly, I think the title got a lot of people in to the film, thinking they were going to see something really racy.
It was all about office politics, or something, wasn’t it?
Well, a little bit about office politics. It was a very convoluted story about a lawyer who tried to find out about her own sexuality, and where she’s going. It’s a mixture of stuff. Very, very, complex. Sort of a psychological drama. Lots of layers, lots of inner meanings and things like that. But it was an American director, and I went over to America to do the spotting, and spent some time out there when they were editing, and then I came over here to record in England. It was an interesting film, but it just didn’t get a great release because the subject matter was so difficult.
How was Susan Streitfeld to work with? Did she know what she was wanting from the score, or did she just leave it to you?
Well, it was her first movie. She was absolutely adamant that she wanted voices, so we had to find a way of using them in the film. The thing is, when you’re using dialogue and when you’re using a lot of other voices in the film, to have them constantly shouting at you in the score is very difficult. Quite off-putting. So we needed to be quite careful how we used them, and we only really used them in the big sequences, and the rest of the time was just general score.
Have you got anything coming up next? Have you got anything lined up?
Yes, I’m doing a TV series called DOOMWATCH, starring Trevor Eve, and I’ve also been given a commission from British Telecom. This is my first concert commission, and it’s to write a piece for full orchestra for their BT celebration series, which premieres in January at the South Bank, I think at the Festival Hall, with the London Symphony Orchestra. I get a chance to write a ten-minute concert overture, and it gets performed by about 80 orchestras throughout the year, so it’s really exciting!
Does something like that give you more freedom, as a composer? It can be about anything!
It could be anything, exactly. You know, you were talking earlier about finding yourself being typecast, and finding your own voice as a composer, and so I think it’s been a really good experience for me. On this, it’s the most like what I really want to write, but haven’t always perhaps had the opportunity with the film, which has dictated something different. You know, it’s just something that definitely comes from the heart.
It’s almost like pure classical music. Because, as you know, with the film, you’re very much constrained by what you see on the screen. You’ve got to hit certain spots, high points and low points, but you can just flow with this.
Absolutely. You can just flow with it, and it really tests your own writing skills, actually, because you can’t fall back on the fact that the scene changes so you don’t have to develop a theme. With films, you get in your 20 bars of something, and then you can go somewhere else. With this, you really have to get your own voice going, you have to develop it, and it has to work without pictures.
With thanks to Jan Novitzky, Paul Tonks and the wonderful Debbie Wiseman.