An Interview with Laurent Eyquem by John Mansell
Composer conductor Laurent Eyquem, is a relative newcomer in the realms of scoring motion pictures but in a very short space of time the composer has created some of the most beautiful and melodic soundtracks for television and cinema. His most recent assignment is COPPERHEAD, an American Civil War drama directed by Ron Maxwell who also was responsible for Gettysburg. The soundtrack will be issued on compact disc by Varese Sarabande soon.
You were born in France and began your connections with music when you were just six years of age. Your father was a musician in the Bordeaux Orchestra. Even at this early age were you attracted to the idea of writing music for film or was it at first essentially an attraction for music in general?
My first attraction was to melodies. I remember my father telling me ‘‘you have to come to the concert this Saturday, we are playing Strauss, and Bizet’’. And sometimes it was Gershwin or Stravinsky, but I always remembered the melodies and their musical structures. Putting notes together is easy, but creating a melody that the audience will remember always fascinated me since I was a young child. At around 11 years of age, I started to become aware of the role of music in film, and that was it – I knew that this was the direction I wanted to go.
What music and composers would you say might have influenced you and maybe had some influence over the way you approach a film score?
Definitely Vladimir Cosma (for the French comedies); John Barry (I remember talking about the theme of The Persuaders with Tony Curtis – the series was a cult classic in France); the beauty and subtlety of Ennio Morricone’s writing; and of course, the beauty and joy of George Delerue’s melodic scores.
After your first encounter with music what musical training did you receive?
I started music theory and piano at the age of 6 in a music school close to Bordeaux which later became the Conservatory of Merignac. Over the years, I had a variety of music professors from this conservatory and from the Bordeaux Conservatory, until I decided, at the age of 16 to quit and to play in a semi-professional orchestra where I started re-orchestrating the top of the charts pop hits.
You only recently have begun to write for film. Before this you dedicated yourself to helping others. Can you tell us about this?
I knew from a very young age that I would be scoring films and writing music, but I had many other interests – most notably medicine and communications. So while studying music as teen, I decided to also get degrees in my other areas of interest before fulfilling my army requirements, which was mandatory growing up in France. With degrees in communications and certification as a paramedic, I decided to move to Canada to spend a few years ‘‘giving back’’. So I became the director of communications for humanitarian organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross and travelled and worked around the world to promote the importance of humanitarian and relief work.
Your first scoring project I think was a film called, MOMMY’S AT THE HAIRDRESSER, how did you become involved on this picture?
The 7 years prior to MOMMY’S AT THE HAIRDRESSER were the darkest years of my life. I lost my younger sister in the crash of the Concorde (Air France) in 2000, and then my dad developed an aggressive cancer. Unfortunately, he lost his battle in 2003 at the age of 57. Three month later, I survived what should have been a deadly, 30 foot fall from the roof of my home. I was left with an arm that should have been amputated and 2 damaged legs. It took 3 years of daily physiotherapy and surgeries in Canada and France to regain the use of my arm, play piano and compose again. During my rehabilitation, I was writing music, as an escape from those dark years, as an outlet to process the pain, and simply because it was the only way I could rebuild my elbow and the movement in my arm to make the long hours of composing possible again. I started writing orchestral music in late 2007 and in December 2007, Lea Pool heard my music and asked me to score her film. The soundtrack got what the Canadian film industry calls the triple crown a few month later, with nominations for the Genie Awards (Equivalent to the Oscar or BAFTA), the Jutras (Film music industry awards in Quebec), and the ADISQ (equivalent to the Grammy).
One of your recent assignments is COPPERHEAD, I have to say that this is a very emotive and touching score, how much time were you given to compose the score and then put the music to the film?
For Copperhead, Ron Maxwell asked me to write the first cue before the shooting of the film. We had to create a song based on a poem from Emily Dickinson for one of the actors to sing on screen. Shortly after this cue, Ron became very excited and very eager to get his first themes, so he asked me, while he was shooting, to write the main theme working from the script. Otherwise, I had around 6 weeks to write the balance of the 65 minutes of score.
At what stage of proceedings do you like to become involved on a picture. Do you like to see a script before shooting starts or do most of your assignments begin with the rough cut stage of the picture. If so, how many times do you like to see a film before beginning work on the score and do you immediately begin to think of what music is going where or where music will be best placed and the kind of instrumentation that you will utilize etc, or do you go away and think it through?
I’m usually involved before the beginning of the shooting and I get my first ideas from the script. For some projects, the directors ask me to write some themes specifically related to a scene so the editor can start editing the rushes directly on the mock-ups. But aside from one or two main themes, I do not like to write much before I get the picture lock. When I compose for dramas, my music has a lot of rubato, rallentando and it needs to be written to the image, to get the best natural feeling. If the scene is not final and is re-edited (made longer or shorter) it will affect the tempo and therefore, a cue that would seem right if the first case scenario, could seem rushed or too slow if we have to re-adapt its tempo to fit a new length.
You wrote the music for the biopic WINNIE (which stars Jennifer Hudson) and your score utilized the Soweto Gospel Choir. In fact you have scored a number of movies from South Africa. How did you become involved on these and what are the differences between Johannesburg and Los Angeles regarding recording facilities and the availability of musicians and, when working on a South African movie, how much research do you have to do regarding instrumentation etc?
The string of South African films was really just a case of one thing leading to another. After positive first experiences, the South African producers and directors have kept asking me back to work on subsequent projects. My first South African movie was A Million Colours, a sequel to a famous South African film named E Lollipop. When I finished the score, the main producer, Andre Pieterse, came to my studio, and while listening to the score, was really touched by the impact of the music on the film. He was also the main producer of the movie Winnie, and he decided, while listening to A Million Colours, to ask me to jump in and score Winnie. Working with the Soweto Gospel Choir was a delight, as I had the chance to write many cues featuring them within the score, a first for the Choir: they sang with Peter Gabriel on the end credit song of Wall-E, but they never recorded as a part of a full soundtrack. Then, Darrell Roodt the South African Director of Winnie, called me last fall to help him for a movie he was shooting: Little One. The film is a beautiful drama and was the official selection of South Africa for the 2013 Academy Awards. It is always an adjustment to work with musicians from different countries, as is very hard to find musicians and singers that have the experience of the L.A. or London artists, but often we can find musicians and singers that compensate the lack of experience by their tremendous gift and talent.
The score for COPPERHEAD is available on Varese Sarabande. Were you involved in the sequencing of the compact disc or indeed did you select the cues that were to be issued?
For COPPERHEAD, Ron Maxwell will release the Director’s cut of Copperhead with Warner Bros next year, but he wanted to be sure that the public will be able to listen to the entire soundtrack right away. So the final 60 min of score are on the soundtrack, in the same order that the public will hear them during the film.
What size orchestra did you engage for COPPERHEAD?
I had a 67 piece orchestra to record the largest cues like the main themes and for the rest of the score, I had a 57 piece orchestra. There are only 2 or 3 cues with solo instruments, such as the piano and the fiddle, but the rest of the score is entirely orchestral.
When you are working on a score do you prefer to create the central theme first and then build the remainder of the score around this or do you tackle the score and then create the theme out of elements of the score?
I really write scene by scene. So I will start with what I believe will be my main scenes and main themes. When the music comes in my head, it is fully orchestrated, I can hear all the instruments, counterpoints etc, so I work first on the main 4/5 themes, and after, like a canvas, I will compose some scenes around some melodies and counter-melodies from my main themes.
Do you perform on any of your film scores?
Absolutely. So far I have performed on all of my film scores. In fact, I have two requirements when I approach a score: I always conduct and I always play the piano parts on all my scores and compositions.
Do you orchestrate all of your music for film or because of deadlines etc sometimes have to use an orchestrator? Also do you conduct all of the scores or do you have a conductor on occasion. If so, is this so that you can monitor the scoring process more closely from the control booth?
I have a very different relationship with my orchestrators than some composers. Since the music comes into my head fully orchestrated, I do not give the orchestrators a lot of freedom to change or add anything in the score. Depending on my deadlines, I write and orchestrate between 95 to 100 % of all of my music. So I send the parts of each instruments to my orchestrator, each counter-melody, divisi etc. His or her role is mainly to ‘dot the “i”s and cross the “T”s’, and to prepare the first version of my conductor’s score. At that point I have some exchanges with my orchestrators. I correct the final score and we have some discussions around getting the right texture depending on where we are recording and which orchestras I will be working with. I always conduct unless I have to record in Eastern Europe where the musicians do not speak English (then, the process can get too long). In those cases, I work hand in glove with the local conductor. The reason why I choose to conduct is simple: I write each note, and I’m extremely picky and demanding with the musicians, because I really need to record what I heard in my head. So I do not want an intermediate between me and the musicians.
For you, what is the purpose of music in film?
In my view, the music is like another character. It adds the atmosphere and is there to help the audience go on a journey. It is like the dress on a bride, it helps her to look beautiful, without taking anything away from her, from who she is…
The temp track is something that composers love or hate. I always ask composers about this. Do you find a temp track helpful or distracting when you come to score a movie. I ask because at times composers have told me that the director has more or less fallen in love with the temp track and it is hard to convince them not to use it?
To be very honest, I never listen to the temp. I need to be free to create a music that will have it’s own signature, to create my own themes and my own musical identity. The only use of the temp for me is to get the tempo map, to respect the changes of scenes / frames. But very often, I surprise the directors by proposing some cues that are not in the same place or that are not following the same pace as the temp, and very often, it works very well, because it is written to the image, to the emotion, to a look, a smile or a silence, something that a temp can never achieve.
Away from film do you compose music for concert hall performance?
There are two answers to this question: I am always, always composing and have a huge bank of music that is waiting to be developed. But, generally speaking, I do not have a lot of free time to compose outside of what I am doing for film right now. However, this is one of my priorities for the next year. I have many pieces that I’ve started to write (always in the melodic line) that I want to finish. My pleasure is to write and conduct, so I really hope to be able to start concerts that will play both my scores and some of my very melodic symphonic pieces.
It was reported that you will be scoring TOKAREV, which will star Nicholas Cage. When do you begin work on this project?
I just recently made a decision with my agents to pull back from this project and not participate.
Your score for FEAR OF WATER, evokes many memories of Jerry Goldsmith’s BASIC INSTINCT. It is brooding and dark in its overall sound. What size orchestra did you use on the score and what percentage of the score was performed by synthetic elements?
For this film, the challenge was the budget… I recorded with 24 strings, one French Horn and one wood flute. So 80 % of the final sound is from the live strings, supported by light use of sample strings in the background to the final result some breadth of sound. 75 % of the overall score is orchestral, and the remaining 25 % is comprised of drones and percussions coming from sample libraries since we are dealing with a thriller kind of score.
What is your opinion of the increased use of electronics and technology in film scoring?
In my opinion, there are currently two schools of thought: the school that considers the score as an extension of the sound effects, and the school that considers the score as another character. For the first one, the addition of synths, drones, strong hybrid drums, hybrid brass is essential to create that sound effect that we hear in many Hollywood actions films today. Even if I occasionally have to deliver those sounds on some films, I prefer to be able to achieve the musical effects with my writing and with the play of the musicians, instead of always counting on electronic sounds and samples. I’m not crazy about the fact that so many action scores all sound the same today.
When writing a score or at least sitting down and working out the themes, how do you arrive at your musical solutions; via piano, or do you utilize anything that you think is appropriate to get the correct result?
I always start at my piano. I have a sort of very personal relationship / communion my grand piano. When the music comes, it comes fully orchestrated, so I quickly record the melody while I’m at the piano and then I literally run to my studio to put down all the parts, melodies, counter-melodies for all the instruments that I have in my head.