Nick-Glennie Smith on Scoring Attila

An Interview with Nick-Glennie Smith by Ford A. Thaxton
Transcribed and Edited by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.77/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson

Nick-Glennie SmithIn January 2001, USA Network premiered a 4-hour epic mini-series that examines the facts and legends that surround the infamous Attila the Hun. Filmed in Europe, ATTILA starred Powers Boothe, Tim Curry, and Scottish newcomer Gerard Butler as Attila. Composer Nick Glennie-Smith gave ATTILA its sense of broad rhythm and scope with an atmospheric score for large orchestra and choir. A soundtrack CD is available through Supercollector. Interviewed in February, Glennie-Smith described his experiences scoring the mini-series and recording it in Budapest.

ATTILA was a different kind of subject matter for you to tackle, because most of the films you seem to have done, with the exception of THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, have seemed to be kind of contemporary. What attracted you to this project?
I’d always heard of Attila – I’d always thought it was something you used to turn the vegetables in the garden! Well, actually, I’d heard of Attila but really didn’t know much about him. So I asked them to send me a script, and they did better than that, they sent me a film, and I thought, oh, this looks pretty cool. Of course I knew I was letting myself in for a lot of music, but it seemed like something that was well made, the people all seemed nice, so I thought, let’s go ahead and do it. They actually had three composers in mind, and they all had to pass muster up at the “Powers That Be” at Universal. I had a conversation with [director] Dick Lowry, producer Michael Joyce, and editor Tad Feurman. We all seemed to get on well on the telephone, and they phoned back and said if I chose to accept the mission, it was mine.

Musically, what was the most difficult thing about this project?
After I saw the rough cut, I did what I normally do, which is to just write a bunch of music, different themes for the film, rather than to the picture – trying to get an emotional overview of the whole thing with some themes for different characters.
In this case I wrote a bunch of different battle cues, because I knew there were going to be a lot of battle scenes and they’d all need music! I did an Attila theme and I did two romance themes. Attila had two different wives, although they were played by the same actress. In the story line they looked incredibly similar, which is what drew him to his second wife, even though she was a plant by the Romans, so I wanted to treat them as almost identical themes, with a sort of modified version of the theme for the second wife. So I sent those in, they liked a lot of it; they weren’t completely enamoured of my Attila theme, but I knew it was right, and at the end of the day they came to me and said, “Thank God you didn’t change it!”

Now, at the point where they sent you a tape, had they temp tracked it at all?
Yes, they had a wonderful temp track.

What did they temp it with?
A bunch of different stuff, some contemporary, some not-so contemporary, quite wide ranging. Some very ethnic material. It was quite a mixture, but it was well temped. That is one interesting thing, working in TV they don’t go and do test screenings and all that sort of marketing that they do for major motion pictures, so they don’t tend to have a musical editor on board for nearly as long of the process as they do with a film. The film editor normally ends up picking the music for the temp. I think Tad did a very good job.

Some people have remarked of your ATTILA score that there’s a kind of vibe of GLADIATOR in it, just certain little details, like vocal writing, and things like that. Hadn’t you at some point been part of that team? I know you have done some work with Hans Zimmer in the past.
Yes, I helped him on GLADIATOR. They are elements of that, I suppose – battle scenes where they just want lots of percussion and lots of dramatic stuff. I suppose one could draw parallels!

In the case of ATTILA, although it does have many battle scenes, it also has a lot of emotional music, like gypsy violin music heard in the opening of the program, for the young Attila.
I wanted to make a difference between the music of the Hun Camp and the Roman Camp. The Huns tended to be more ethnic in their instrumentation, whereas the Romans were more brass and choir oriented.

There’s also a bit of ethnic source music, like the Bacchanal heard in Rome.
That was sort of ballet to me. They had a well-known operatic classical piece in there which Dick Lowry always had in his mind when he was shooting it, and it always had to be something very different from the rest of the score, because it really was just about the hedonism of Rome. We talked about whether they wanted to use that piece of opera or something like it. I eventually came out and thought we should just try something different, and I played it for them and they liked it. That was a lucky one!

How much music did you ultimately compose for ATTILA?
I think it was 128 minutes.

Ouch! And what was the time frame you had to produce that?
It was about six weeks – although it actually went down to five, but then they managed to get me an extra couple of weeks, so it turned back into seven, including pick-ups and everything.

Did you have to do synth mock-ups or demos of everything and then have them approve that before you went to the stage? How did that work for you on ATTILA?
I did. I think it’s far better to have the director or the team, or whoever it may be, involved in the whole process, and have them be confident that they’re going to be pleased with everything before you go to the sound stage. There have been horror stories in the past of people getting ready to record their cue and then a director or whoever says “but I don’t like that for this scene!” And everybody sort of stops and hurriedly decides what they’re going to do. That is the sort of pressure that, working this way, you can do without. Also, it means that you don’t have musicians sitting around doing nothing, and in these days of shrinking budgets, one can afford to have musicians sitting around doing nothing less and less!

So with a film like ATTILA, with such a short time frame, was that just a case of doing critical scenes and then once you had the vocabulary set, just go?
To a certain extent, yes. I started at the beginning on that one and then just worked chronologically through to the end. And then we had two sessions where we came back to do any fixes that the director wanted me to do. So everything was covered – they knew everything that was coming on the scoring stage, so it all went very smoothly. We recorded all that music, I think, in ten sessions. Five days or something like that.

You recorded the score in Budapest. Now, Hungary had been a popular place to record films in the late ‘80s, but had kind of fallen out of favor, for a variety of reasons. As far as I can tell you’re one of the first major film projects to go back there and record with the Budapest Film Orchestra. How did you come to choose that group?
It’s a group that my recording engineer, Malcolm Luker, had worked with several times before. This was quite a low-budget thing. Obviously there’s a lot of music and most of it all had to be pretty orchestral, and some of it had to be quite large, so it was really a fiscal limitation where we could go to record this amount of music without me ending up subsidizing the film, rather than getting a living from it! Since Malcolm had worked there with other people, he suggested we go to Budapest, and that worked very well. I was very pleased.

When you were recording this, what was the largest group you had to work with?
I think we had about 65 people.

Did you record the choir there as well?
Yes.

I have heard that there was a small technical problem involving the chair…
Yeah! They weren’t hearing things right. I don’t know how it happened, they were in a room, they all had headphones, and they all had one headphone off as is good studio practice, so they could hear themselves live as well as the backing track that they’re singing to, but it came out flat all the time. I was beginning to despair, and all of a sudden a little light went on, and I thought, well let’s send the headphone feed through a harmonizer to make it sharp, and then they can sing flat to that, and it’ll end up in tune! Which is what we did, and it’s worked very well!

Were they chanting a specific text or was it just oo’s and aa’s?
It was oo’s and aa’s except for one cue, after the first major battle, when Attila goes to Rome. There’s a wonderful sort of Return-To-Rome visual on the Appian Way, as they come down with a cast of thousands, throwing flowers and everything, and so we actually had some victorious Latin lyrics for that one.

This was a pretty enjoyable experience for you.
It was a bit of a time crunch, but most things usually are in this business! Once we were off and running, we had some really good times. Recording was a pleasure in Budapest, and then we came back and mixed it all in LA and that turned out really well also.

Another project that you have done for the sci-fi channel is a fantasy series called THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF JULES VERNE, which is a fanciful way of showing Jules Verne as this great inventor who had all of these incredible adventures. Most composers, who are doing feature films, as a rule, tend to shy away from doing episodic television. What attracted you to this project?
I had a look at the first thing they had done, and I thought the main characters were very good. It seemed like it could be a fun project to do. Again, I’m very glad to have done it.

Are there any particular episodes that stood out for you, musically?
It’s all a blur! It was ten and a half hours of music for that show. There are some nice bits in every show. There was a new-featured character for every show, so each time I wrote a different theme or used different instrumentation. I enjoyed doing them all in their own different way.

Your new project is a feature called THE NEW GUY. What’s that project about?
That’s a youth-oriented film. It’s about a kid in high school who doesn’t do well in that school, gets expelled, learns in prison to build new character, and goes to another high school where he becomes a wonderful inspiration to everybody. I guess it’s aimed at 15-18 year aids, so it’s got lots of songs, not so much score. The score, really, is just to make those moments more emotional that songs cannot do.

In other words, the tissue that holds it all together?
Well, it’s like pulling out the emotional stops, where a song won’t quite do that. Filmically, there’s quite a lot of parody in this, and that, again, is going to be a lot of fun to do with an orchestra.

Is it going to be an orchestral effort?
What I do will be orchestral, but that’s only about a third of the score. And actually some of the stuff that I do is going to be more band oriented as well.

Do you have anything else coming up after that?
No films at the moment, although I’ve got a very interesting gig in France to do. It’s a theme park, although to call it a theme park and put it in the same bag as Disney World would not be fair. It only grew up to be a theme park in the last thirteen years – the whole thing’s been going about 22 years. It’s in a very peasantry region in Western France, and the guy who runs it had this idea of using a local 13th Century castle with a beautiful moat in front of it, and doing something like a “Son et lumière”, but with actors as well. He got the local villages all involved, and since the first performance 22 years ago, where they had 300 people and the only lumière they could afford were auto headlights, it’s now turned into – well, I’ve never seen anything like it. The set is so wide you can’t see it all without moving your head. They have 14,000 people at every performance, and they do two performances every weekend for 15 weeks in the summer. They have a cast of up to 850 people doing these sorts of moving vignettes, and 70 animals, horses, village sheep and pigs and all that stuff, and it tells the story, from medieval times through to the 2nd World War, of the area. It’s an incredible place, so I’m really looking forward to doing that, because on doesn’t get asked to do that too often!

That’s going to be an ongoing project?
Well. I’m going to have to finish off writing it, and then I’ll go there and we’ll talk through the way that they have staged it. They have staged it pretty much the same every year. They’ve used Georges Delerue up until now, for the last 21 years or so. It’s more like working with a ballet company or an opera company, where you have to choreograph what’s going to happen, and then we’ll finish writing everything by November of this year. I think it’ll premiere in March.

Will there be an album to it, do you envision?
Yes, I’m sure there will be a CD.

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