An Interview with Edward Shearmur by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.17/No.67/1998
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Edward Shearmur, acclaimed for his music for 1997’s WINGS OF THE DOVE, began in England through an association with Michael Kamen, whom he met shortly after completing school in 1988. Kamen took on the young musician as an assistant, and Shearmur got his musical feet wet orchestrating, programming, and playing keyboard on such films as LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD.After several small British films, Shearmur’s music for WINGS OF THE DOVE won a nomination for the British Academy Award for best film music. An assignment to score SPECIES II, the sequel to 1995’s successful horror film, brought Shearmur to Hollywood. His latest score, THE GOVERNESS, demonstrates a more lyrical tradition, as will his next score, JACOB THE LIAR.
You started out working with Michael Kamen. How did that apprenticeship, as it were, prepare you for what you’re doing now in film composing?
It’s one of the best ways of learning scoring from the inside out. You tend to learn stuff they really can’t teach you at film school. Part of the art of scoring is the collaborative nature, with a director, with a producer, and that’s not really anything you can learn in the classroom.
It’s like taking the theory you got in the classroom and learning to apply it.
Exactly. The art of showing somebody your material, of doing a demonstration of what you’re doing, is one of the major elements of the job, aside from the nuts and bolts of writing the music. It’s a real collaborative endeavor.
From that, how did you get involved in your first film score, THE CEMENT GARDEN?
That was being produced by a friend of mine. There wasn’t a huge amount of money to spend on the score, and that was where my break came from.
That was in England?
Yeah. Luckily, it was a film that lent itself to a very interesting score. We recorded the score in Munich; in fact we recorded the entire thing in a day, and then mixed it all in a day. So there wasn’t a great deal of time, but an interesting score came out of that. Just having spent that time with Michael, I wasn’t too fazed by the pressure of the score.
How did you get the assignment to score SPECIES II?
That came through working with Peter Medak. Michael had scored THE KRAYS for Peter, which was a fairly successful film in the UK, and then we collaborated together on a film called LET HIM HAVE IT, which Peter directed. Michael had written a lot of material for that film which I then developed and finished, so Peter and I had already established a working relationship, and then we did a film called THE HUNCHBACK, which was a TNT Movie of the Month.
Oh, that was the version of Hunchback of Notre Dame?
Right. So having done that, that was a very successful relationship and we just continued that on into SPECIES II.
Okay. Now, take yourself back a year or so. You’ve just gotten the assignment to score SPECIES II. You may or may not be familiar with the first film or its music, but what was your initial impression and how did you figure out how to approach that project?
I had seen the first film when it came out. I didn’t go back and look at it when they approached me to do the sequel. I think Christopher Young’s approach was a very, very interesting and innovative approach. I remember being very impressed by the score. This was another film entirely, the interplay of the characters was different, and I think they were looking for maybe a slightly sexier approach in this film. Sometimes it’s quite useful to wipe the slate clean and just approach what I’m working on with fresh eyes, which is what I tried to do.
How much direction did Peter Medak give you on the type of music he wanted?
We discussed a lot of different approaches; I was very keen to incorporate as much electronics into the score as we could. He was very keen to have a large orchestral palette, so it was just a question of incorporating those two elements as much as possible. And into the bargain, as is common with that type of film, you have to fight with the huge sound effects. Maybe some of the subtleties in that score got lost on account of the Helicopter That Ate New York…
What was your approach to the horrific aspects of that score? What are the elements that music plays in a film like this, not only to enhance the suspension of disbelief that a fantasy film needs, but to increase and heighten the tension and suspense. How did you approach that?
This is the first film in that genre that I’ve done. When you’re dealing in genre there are certain elements that the audience expects, and there’s no getting away without that, no matter how much you’re willing to push the envelope, as it were. There are certain nuances that just work. To a large extent, the gorier aspects of that kind of film speak for themselves, and you want to fight against over scoring that material, because it plays itself. We were certainly trying to make the Eve character a much more sympathetic character than she’d been in the first film, so she actually got a much more lyrical treatment than she’d got in the previous film. It was great writing chase music, that’s something I’d not had the chance to do before, that was huge fun.
I like the way you’ve combined the large orchestral palette with the electronics and merged them into an interesting texture for the film. How would you describe those musical nuances you spoke of, that help achieve or balance the horrific aspects of the film?
These days, the borderline between a purely orchestral score and an electronic score, those boundaries have broken down. I always fight against trying to use electronics to replace or to recreate things that you can do with the orchestra. I have a classical background, but I also have a huge training in rock and roll as well, and my listening at home ranges from very, very serious 20th Century classical music to very obscure electronic artists. So I was very anxious to bring that kind of language into the film. It’s very difficult, if the people you’re working with aren’t familiar with that kind of material, to convince them it’s useful! Some of that stuff got through, but some of it didn’t.
So how have you integrated the thematic interplay, such as the lyricism of the Eve Theme, into that musical texture?
It was a very conscious thing when we sat down and looked at the film. She wasn’t the same character that she was in the first film, and we had other antagonists. If she had just been a fairly two-dimensional horror cipher, the film wouldn’t have worked at all. There had to be a little more depth than that, and hopefully that small melody helped to expand that character.
How much music did you compose for the score?
It was fairly wall to wall. An hour and fifteen minutes or so.
Was the film temp-tracked, and how did you deal with that?
I didn’t see the film with a temp score. They had used one for some of the temp screenings, but if at all possible I try to avoid it. It takes you down avenues that are not useful.
What was your biggest challenge on this project?
Because it was an area of scoring I haven’t worked in before, as a composer, I think the challenge was just in generating that excitement, and generating the pace. I knew that I wanted to combine these electronics, and it was just weaving that material together so that you don’t feel the gear changes. I don’t think that anyone who was working on the film regarded it as being any threat to CITIZEN KANE, so I think we knew what the audience wanted. Bearing that in mind, you tailor what you’re doing accordingly.
Moving to an entirely different type of film, and an entirely different type of music with THE GOVERNESS. How did you get this assignment?
I was brought to the picture by the producer, Sarah Curtis, who was a very good friend. She’s married to lain Softley, who directed WINGS OF THE DOVE, so we’ve known each other a long time and she knows my work. When she first described the film to me, it just seemed like a great opportunity to investigate a musical tradition I wasn’t particularly familiar with, namely the whole Sephardic Jewish tradition. We knew that we wanted to have a very special vocal element to the score, and luckily Ofra Haza was available to work on the score for us.
How did you hook up with her? I love the texture she’s brought to the music through her voice.
Most people know her for her more contemporary stuff, and sometimes they’re unable to see beyond the sheen that contemporary Middle Eastern music has. I was very keen not to use any of that, but just present her voice, which is a remarkable instrument, in the most stark way possible. I’d sent her some of the material that we were already using, and then she brought some Yemenite melodies which proved very, very powerful in the score. She brought an awful lot of depth to the music.
How did you use the score and her components of it, thematically and texturally, to accent the film you’re scoring?
It was a fairly small budget film. In addition to her material, we put together a palette of different ideas, working with recorders and the small ensemble that we used, and brought all that material back to my studio and patched it together like a quilt.
How closely with you work with director Sandra Goldbacher?
Very closely, in fact we sat down at length, and went through a lot of existing recordings of Sephardic music. She knows that material very well, and we went through hours and hours of material just to really get a feeling for the period. She was very keen that the score was not film-score-y. It didn’t really approach the film in terms of pressing various emotional buttons for the audience. We weren’t trying to nudge people and say, this is a sad moment or to delineate characters. It was really to create the mood for the entire film. A lot of the film takes place on an island in Scotland, but we did not want to do a traditionally Scottish score. I used a lot of Egyptian and North African percussion to give a perfume, if you will, to the score that maybe you wouldn’t readily associate if you saw Scottish vistas.
Did the score require any research to acquaint yourself with Hebrew and Arabic music?
It wasn’t a tradition that I was overly familiar with, as I’ve said. I think, if you ask people to talk about Jewish music per se, they’ll almost automatically describe the Ashkenazy tradition and Klezmer music, so it was a real thrill for me to discover there was another side to Jewish music, which came principally from North African Jews who wound up in Spain for two or three centuries, and developed a mixture of the Spanish troubadour tradition with Arabic music, and then got sucked back into North Africa after they were thrown out. It was a history lesson as well as a music lesson.
What was toughest about scoring THE GOVERNESS?
Actually, it was a real pleasure for me to do. When you’re working within small budgets and you’re trying to make those dollars stretch as far as they can, you’re inevitably forced into making creative decisions that you wouldn’t make otherwise. Sometimes those kinds of decisions can be very beneficial to a score. When you have a very limited palette you really stretch that palette as far as you can, and sometimes just the discovery that a solo recorder will play an entire scene is a very rewarding discovery! But if you went into a spotting session with a director and said, “It’s going to be solo recorder and triangle,” they’d look at you like you were mad!
What do you have coming up next?
I’ve just finished scoring a Robin Williams film called JACOB THE LIAR which, coincidentally, is another big Jewish thematic score. It takes place in a Polish ghetto towards the end of the Second World War.
How would you contrast that with what you’ve done on THE GOVERNESS?
It’s a much bigger palette. It’s a big orchestral score, and I’ve used an interesting instrument called a tarogato, which is a Hungarian Gypsy clarinet, and there’s a lot of accordion and zimbalom and dulcimer in that as well, and then a big, beefy orchestra supporting all of that.
Where do you see your career going from here? You seem to have so far avoided becoming pigeonholed by one type of film, which is common in Hollywood.
I think that not being pigeon-holed is very important. I’d like to be able to use as much of the rock and roll side of what I do as much as possible. WINGS OF THE DOVE, JACOB THE LIAR, THE GOVERNESS all have large, traditional components to them, and people may not be aware that I toured with Led Zeppelin or that whole side of me. If I can keep combining those two sides, I’ll be very, very happy.