An interviewed with Julian Nott by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.80, 2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
The name Julian Nott, when it is recognized in film musical circles, is usually in connection with his music for Aardman Animations’ delightful series of claymation shorts involving Wallace And Gromit. But Nott has written dozens and dozens of scores for British television and in so doing has amassed a significant discography of varied and attractive content. We had the opportunity to interview Julian Nott and ask him about them – and his efforts for Wallace and his pal.
How did you get into film music and eventually hook up with Nick Park?
Although I studied music at Oxford University, it never occurred to me I could earn a proper living or even have a fulfilling life in music. I thought a life in music probably meant teaching kids to play the piano, so after I left Oxford I took a job as a management consultant, working in banking and corporate treasury. Then I worked for a while for The Economist magazine, writing a book for them on the capital markets in the City of London.
But after a few years of corporate life, I wondered whether all that stuff with suits and ties and boardrooms, and the whole formal lifestyle was really me, so I gave it all up and enrolled at the UK’s National Film and Television School. I was the one composing student they took that year. It was a wonderful place then, because there was virtually no tuition! They just gave you money and equipment and the students pooled their budgets and made films. When the films were finished everybody analyzed them and we learned by our mistakes. The feedback was merciless but invaluable. I must have scored about 30 student films there, and it was brilliant practice. Also, all the students took the same course no matter what their specialization. So I learned with the other students how to load camera magazines, how to edit, did a bit of directing myself, basically gaining experience of absolutely everything about the filmmaking process. I produced quite a few films there also and technically actually graduated as a producer. I feel different from most other film music composers because I’ve had that wider education and interest in filmmaking. I feel very much motivated by serving the needs of the film, being a member of the wider filmmaking team, rather than seeing myself as a composer of fine music who graciously allows some of his magnificent work to be used on someone else’s soundtrack.
One of the great things about that school was that when the directing students left many of them almost immediately went into good jobs. The theory was that the directing students might take some of their fellow students with them, finding professional employment for sound recordists, editors, camera people, and even composers they had met at the school. My generation at film school included Peter Hewitt (director of BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, THE BORROWERS), John Roberts (WAR OF THE BUTTONS, PAULIE) and Suri Krishnama (A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE, NEW YEAR’S DAY). And of course Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit.
I got hooked up with Nick Park quite simply because he needed a score for his student graduation film, which was the first Wallace & Gromit adventure A GRAND DAY OUT. Another composer was going to do it but got too busy and I took over at the last minute. So I was very lucky. But at the time, it was just another film school graduation film that had to be finished by a certain deadline. Nobody in any way envisaged what would happen to Wallace and Gromit, just how popular and famous they would become. (I should just say that Wallace & Gromit are absolutely huge in Europe. I know in the States that Wallace & Gromit are getting better known, but they’re still nothing like the stars they are in their home territory and the rest of Europe).
After I left film school, for a few years I found composing work very hard to get, as everybody does, so I set up shop as a documentary filmmaker and did quite well in that.
During this time over about 5 years, I did a few small composing jobs. Nothing much; my focus was still on making documentaries. Then one day Nick phoned and said the BBC wanted to finance another Wallace and Gromit film, and would I like to do the score again? I said of course, and then before I knew it THE WRONG TROUSERS became a big hit and I started getting lots of composing offers.
THE WRONG TROUSERS, really showcased your work and benefited from your music, not only in providing a delightful and memorable theme for the W&G series, but in your serious and beautifully-Hollywood style of scoring, with its Bernard Herrmannesque chords and everything that made Nick’s amazing sets and animation come to life in a way I don’t think we’d seen in clay animation before. How did the two of you work together to come up with the musical design for THE WRONG TROUSERS?
I’m afraid to say things were a little chaotic in the music process. There was very little time to get the music completed, Nick would be busy doing other elements of post-production since the workload on the director on a lightly-crewed animation film is very heavy, so there wasn’t all that much opportunity to discuss the music. We certainly talked about broad principles and chose together where the music would go, but basically I just did it, and a week or two later Nick came back and heard what I’d done and reacted to it, either favourable or unfavourably (in which case I’d have to re-do the cue).
Nick’s main note for the first film, A GRAND DAY OUT, was he wanted, as much as possible, a brass band feel to the music. Brass bands are very traditional in the area of Northern England where Wallace and Gromit come from, and Nick wanted the score to reflect that. We had two problems in the execution of that. First of all since A GRAND DAY OUT was a student film, we had no money and certainly couldn’t afford a brass band. So in the end I had to make do with a small group of brass instruments. The second problem is that brass bands aren’t very good at doing more functional film music. They make quite an obtrusive sound, so for very supportive musical work in the film I had to resort to the rather nasty sound of late 1980s synthesisers and samplers. That was A GRAND DAY OUT anyway. In some ways it was an experiment, useful for designing the musical strategy for what came later.
For THE WRONG TROUSERS and A CLOSE SHAVE we took the view, in general, that the music should be the kind of thing that you might write for a drama with real actors. It shouldn’t be anything compromised for a cartoon comedy or for kids. Above all, the music should avoid trying to be funny, or suggest the film was a comedy using comedy-scoring clichés. I believe this was vital. By doing that we were helping suggest Wallace and Gromit were real characters, real human beings even, in real jeopardy situations. The result, I think, enhances the comedy massively because that approach actually creates an interesting comedic tension – everything what the film is telling you about itself is that it believes its two central characters are real and the audience should treat them as such, yet when you look at the pictures for yourself you see two lumps of plasticine moving around the screen. That absurdity makes for an intriguing comedy set-up I think.
Also, Nick was keen to play with various film genres and references. So the music had to help with that and refer back to whatever reference Nick was exploring. For example, in THE WRONG TROUSERS, a kind of 1950s thriller feel was sought. What could be more suggestive of that than something Herrmannesque? So that’s what I went for. In A CLOSE SHAVE, the romance between Wallace and Wendolene refers back mildly to a British film of the 1940s, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, that famously used part of Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto as its theme. So I did something reminiscent of that for the Wallace and Wendolene love theme.
That was the theory anyway. Sometimes it didn’t work and then I resorted to straightforward comedy music. For example, the train chase scene in THE WRONG TROUSERS puzzled us. Our principle initially was to suggest the train chase was real, that Wallace and Gromit really were in serious jeopardy, and only escaped death by the skin of their teeth. So I wrote some very fast and thrilling chase music. But it just wasn’t right! We discovered the sequence needed out and out comedy music, maybe because it’s so farcical, but anyway by a process of trial and error we abandoned our normal principle and went for a blatant comedy music approach.
What were the scoring conditions on THE WRONG TROUSERS? How much time did you have to compose and record it? How large an orchestra would the budget allow (was this sufficient for you)?
I much prefer writing music to the final cut of the film if possible, and that’s what happened on THE WRONG TROUSERS. The downside is that you don’t get much time to do the score and orchestrations. I think I had about three weeks, which actually wasn’t too bad for a short film. I think I sailed through most of the music score in no time at all, but then floundered a bit on the chase sequence at the end, trying to find the right tone for the music. If you look at that sequence now it seems so effortless, but actually it was a bit of a struggle getting there. I was running out of time in fact so I had to find an orchestrator to help me, which was the first time I’d ever employed one – I was introduced to Nic Raine (who does many of the European scores for John Barry, Maurice Jarre, Gabriel Yared and others) who I have stuck with ever since.
We recorded the music in Abbey Road in London, a wonderful studio. I always tend to get as many musicians as possible, but we had a limited budget, and to afford those 45 musicians we had to record all the music in just one session (that’s about 23 minutes of music recorded in 4 hours). In London you can usually get away with that, but it’s a bit nerve-racking. Of course that’s not a lot of musicians if you want a full orchestral sound, but with some clever orchestration and a studio like Abbey Road, which fills out the sound, I think we got away with it.
What were the toughest challenges about composing THE WRONG TROUSERS?
To be honest, apart from the chase at the end, it was one of the easier jobs I’ve done. The film lent itself very well to music. It had plenty of cinematic moments that always makes writing the score easier. I tend to struggle more when I have to score something very naturalistic (like a European social drama) where I might be underscoring endless dialogue. There was also a producer on THE WRONG TROUSERS who was very good on music, and although at the time it’s quite irritating to get too much interference from the executive side, in the long run you see how much you can benefit from an objective set of ears, providing they know their stuff.
How were your experiences on the next Wallace and Gromit film, A CLOSE SHAVE?
When we got to A CLOSE SHAVE, Wallace and Gromit had now become stars and that changed things. For a start there was more money (we had an orchestra of about 65) and also there was more involvement from the producers and financiers. I can’t remember exactly, but maybe there were about six people who had their say on the music, all who had to be satisfied, and that complicates things quite a bit. This kind of group decision-making is always quite interesting on any film and it often seems to fit a stereotypical pattern, at least in my experience! There’s usually one powerful executive whose opinions are utterly daft, there’s often one person who likes to dissent from the group view and cause trouble on principle, there’s often a peace-maker in there who thinks keeping everybody happy is the main priority, there’s probably going to be somebody in there whose main priority is to make themselves sound good particularly if the boss is around, usually there’s somebody who remains absolutely silent throughout and agrees with what everybody else says, and so on. I’m being a bit cynical of course! But anyway, whatever the group dynamic is, in those situations the composer has to be something of a diplomat. Part of the composer’s job is to agree with everybody, make everybody think they’re getting what they want, even if they’re not, and make sure the whole process remains good-humoured and doesn’t spiral out of control. I can tell you it’s a lot easier working for a dictator!
On A CLOSE SHAVE, I have the feeling Nick Park found so many views on the music uncomfortable. He would often remain silent until a split second before it was all too late and then put his foot down in a surprisingly forceful manner for a man who usually appears so very gentle and polite.
What have you found most difficult and then most rewarding, about scoring the Wallace & Gromit films?
Nothing’s been difficult. The whole thing has been a pleasure from beginning to end. I don’t know if rewarding is quite the right word, but it’s pretty strange being in a train in Russia and suddenly hearing a bunch of kids spontaneously singing the Wallace and Gromit theme tune. A friend of mine heard kids in the Australian Outback doing the same. The weirdest thing of all, though, was a few years ago I was browsing through an English newspaper when I came across a story by chance about a young boy who had been in a coma and his parents played him the Wallace and Gromit theme tune and he immediately woke up!
You have, of course, composed music for much more than the Wallace and Gromit films, including a number of series for BBC television. Do you find that short-running series such as THE CAZALETS and THE VICE pose their own challenges, versus one-off features like GENTLEMEN’S RELISH or A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE?
The one-off films, whether for theatrical release or just for TV, do tend to have higher budgets, for a start. But the main difference for me is that the TV series tend to be rather naturalistic in conception over here in the UK, usually heavily dialog-based, and often with several storylines running simultaneously in a rather Soap Opera-like way. For some reason it can be quite hard to squeeze music in to these types of dramas. I think these slice-of-life UK dramas often work on the basis that you’re almost supposed to believe what is being acted out in front of you is reality and the cameras are merely recording that reality. So when you add music, if you’re not careful the music can seem very artificial and alien to the tone of naturalism that’s been created, and manipulative also. The one-off films tend to be more fantastical, more clearly entertainment, and so it’s very much easier putting music on them. Of course, it’s a bit different in the States. Your TV series tend to be more fantastical like BUFFY or The X FILES, or whatever. Our TV series in the UK are more likely to be about teenage suicides, single mothers or any kind of social tragedy you can imagine!
What are some of your other favorite works and can you describe your experiences – and any particular challenges you overcame – in scoring them?
I have favorite pieces rather than works. But I find when I play people a favorite, something I’m extremely proud of, they don’t seem that impressed and suggest I take it off the showreel. And then they get excited by something I’ve written that I think is really mundane! I once did a comedy pirate drama and had to do a huge amount of 1940s pirate music in Errol Flynn/Korngold mode. Now that’s hard. Writing swordfight music in that style is very taxing, in many ways it’s an art that’s been lost, and I’m proud of having achieved it. But that doesn’t mean anybody would listen to it just because I think I’ve been clever.
Many of your scores have been for comedies. What is your approach at scoring comedy films and accentuating the timing and direction of comedy through music?
I think scoring for comedies is a rather technical and exacting process. I’ve worked on many comedies, but it’s quite hard to articulate theories about it. It’s really about experimenting, trying out different kinds of music, different places where you start and stop the score, and you usually do succeed in finding ways of using music to make something funnier. Of course if something just isn’t inherently funny at all, then there’s nothing you can do about it, no amount of music will reverse that.
If I have to state a theory, I’ll give it a go on the lines that the most important thing the film-makers have to do is signal to the audience that something coming up (and indeed the entire film) is intended to be comic. Audiences need that. A kind of expectation of a comic moment or a gag coming has to be created so the audience is ready and waiting to laugh, and then they will laugh more readily when it arrives. Music can help this process very frequently by stopping just short of the comic moment, with exactly the right amount of timing, which creates a kind of comic expectation. Obviously there are many other ways of doing it. Also it’s extremely important to announce the tone of a film at the start so your audience are put in the right frame of mind. This is particularly important in comedy. If you don’t have any gags at the start of a comedy film, the music certainly wants to signal by its style and tone to the audience that they’re in a comedy, otherwise when you get to the gags later on (particularly if the gags are on the weak side) the audience may operate under the assumption they’re in something rather serious and conclude they’re not supposed to laugh, so they don’t. How all this works is so complex and really defies talking about.
What can you tell me about your TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode? Was this – being a dark subject unlike the dramas and comedies you seem to have done – an unusual exercise for you?
Dark and spooky music is probably the easiest music of all to write! Anyway, that job was fun, done a long time ago now. But it all happened in the UK with an English director (Peter Hewitt) so it didn’t seem any different from other UK TV jobs. A couple of years ago I did an ABC Movie of the Week for Disney called H-E DOUBLE HOCKEY STICKS with the director Randy Miller. That job introduced me to the American way of doing things. The biggest difference I found was the incredible unionisation of film music in Los Angeles, it was all very strict, very rule bound. America is said to be the land of capitalism and free markets, and we in Europe are supposed to have got ourselves bogged down in socialism and social democracy. But we only have a fraction of the union regulation where I come from! I’m not complaining about it, but it is a significant cultural difference.
Was there any particular reason you did not score the Aardman animated feature CHICKEN RUN, after providing temporary tracks for it?
Obviously that was a disappointing episode for me. Nick Park and his production company Aardman put me forward to score CHICKEN RUN and for a short while I was going to do it. But, quite frankly, Jeffrey Katzenberg and his team at Dreamworks (the financiers and co-producers of the movie) preferred to work with the team they had used before on ANTZ, a couple of composers who are part of Hans Zimmer’s composing conglomerate Media Ventures. There’s a lot of commercial interests at stake with these big Hollywood films, a lot of politics goes on, and I can’t engage in that five thousand miles away in the UK, and in any case I don’t have the status to be a political player. So I was blown out of the water without much difficulty!
In fact I had a couple of meetings with Hans Zimmer, and I remember him telling me he found my style of music a bit old-fashioned. He recommended I modernise!
At first I was puzzled by his opinion, but the more I thought about it I did begin to wonder whether there was something in what he was saying. Like many other film composers, I have been writing in that very classical, almost John Williams inspired, style for some time. Maybe that highly-trained traditional symphonic style is sounding a little tired now. Maybe even the symphony orchestra itself, if used in a traditional way, is starting to sound a bit tired on film soundtracks! Sacrilege, I know! But it’s quite interesting that some highly sophisticated composers like Thomas Newman seem to me to be slowly adopting harmonic and melodic idioms, and choices of sounds, that almost seem inspired by the music of untrained synth composers, yet the result seems fresh and exciting. I think we’re seeing a slow but real evolution in the language of film music. Almost a dumbing-down from the point of view of classical tradition and technical perfection in a conservative sense, but I don’t think this is a problem. Myself, I’m also exploring a bit more and experimenting with some of my more recent work. And at the same time, I certainly think we should all be resisting those dreadful Hollywood clichés, that are just as tired, which Hollywood factory music adores, those awful sudden key changes to manipulate excitement, and all those annoying orchestral whooshes and wheezes and gran cassa (bass drum) thumps that are shoved in at the slightest excuse.
Would CHICKEN RUN have been very different if you had scored it?
Inevitably, I suppose. John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams did a brilliant job scoring the film I thought, and I really mean it. Their score was very Hollywood, high-octane maxed-out writing, very large scale and thrilling. No doubt Dreamworks wanted that and asked for it. If you’re asking me to say what would have been different if I’d been lucky enough to get the job, maybe my score would have been a bit smaller. I don’t know. Their brief probably was to enhance CHICKEN RUN as an action adventure film. Maybe I would have been thinking a bit more about drawing out the comedy as an approach, trying to maximise our enjoyment of the irony that there was there in watching some rather wonderful plasticine chickens operate in a sort of 1930s screwball comedy. So sometimes I would have gone for slightly more delicate music to help that. That very big Hollywood action/adventure sound does have a tendency to wipe out the detail and subtlety of what you’re watching because it has such a relentless and over-powering logic. But then CHICKEN RUN was a Hollywood film and no doubt by saying what I’ve said I’ve only confirmed the view I was the wrong composer for the project! Anyway, Dreamworks and Jeffrey Katzenberg knew exactly what they were doing. After all, the film was a resounding success in every way, and I loved it.
I never got as far as writing for the film proper. But I wrote quite a bit of demo music for “Chicken Run,” including a theme they used for their promo reel selling the film to distributors and other commercial entities. I’m itching to record it and release it one day. I’m very proud of the music. Whether I’ll ever get round to it or anybody will want to listen to it of course is a different matter!
How closely do you normally work with directors to establish the placement and style of music for their films? What kind of rapport do you prefer to have with a director on a project?
Every director is different. Some like a very detailed involvement and some are more hands off. I’m happy to work with both schools of thought, although it can be quite tricky if a director sits with you all day and effectively co-composes (which has happened to me a couple of times). After scoring for ten years now, I’ve realised that much of the composing job is about making the scoring phase an enjoyable and stimulating part of the film-making process for all concerned and to do that composers have to adapt willingly to the personalities and working practices of the producers and directors around them. If the composer resists his employers everybody has a horrible time.
Now you’ve become a director yourself, with WEAK AT DENISE. What can you tell us about this new phase of your career? I understand you’ve also scored this one – how did you enjoy working for yourself, for a change? Were you a kinder director to your composer than some others?
It’s not a career change – I just did it for fun. It was a self-financed no-budget independent movie [Details on www.weakatdenise.com]. I have no ambition to be a professional director although I very much enjoyed making the film. What was fun about it was I could make exactly the film I wanted to make, be fully in control, and not worry whether anybody liked it afterwards. Real directors don’t have any of those luxuries. Also it was good for me because I learned something about the emotional state of being a director, which should make me more considerate and sympathetic to directors in the future.
I only scored it myself because it seemed a waste of money to get somebody else to do it. Actually I would have loved to work with another composer. It might have been good for me to see things from the other side of the fence. Mind you it probably would have been awful for the other composer, having me looking up and down their scores. Don’t they say doctors make terrible patients? Well I’m sure composers should avoid working for other composers if they want to keep their sanity.