An Interview with Rachel Portman by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.20/No.78/2001
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
Rachel Portman’s music for THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE maintains a simple sense of innocence and achievement, blossoming with melody and feeling through a rich weaving of strings, winds, and brass. Achingly beautiful combinations of flutes and violins accented by trumpet describe a heartfelt sensitivity and tenderness. A subdued choir opens into a breathtakingly triumphant arrangement of the main theme. Tying the score in with the omnipresent period source music are several jazz-based motifs that blossom out of the mix to generate a very fine attitude of delight. The music for BAGGER VANCE joins such emotionally rich and powerful Americana-styled scores as THE NATURAL, LONESOME DOVE, and BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY in its simple sense of joy and humanity.
The score is the latest and one of the greatest in a long string of heartfelt and emotive film scores composed by Rachel Portman since she started out as a composer in England some 15 years ago. But it was during the 1990s that her music generated a degree of recognition; particularly with her first American film score, USED PEOPLE, in 1992. A series of respectable dramas and romantic comedies films followed, including BENNY AND JOON, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, SIRENS, ONLY YOU, and A PYROMANIAC’S LOVE STORY.
In 1997 Rachel made cinema and film music history by being the first woman to win a music Oscar, with her score for EMMA. She has since continued to develop her work while investing in projects like ADDICTED TO LOVE, BELOVED, and last year’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, with a strong degree of emotional depth. Interviewed in late November, as she completed work on her new score for CHOCOLAT and prepared to journey into musical Napoleon territory with a new film titled THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES, Rachel described her experiences on BAGGER VANCE and her thoughts about surviving the Oscar.
How did you first come into THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE?
Robert Redford invited me out to where they were filming back in December of last year, to meet and see if we wanted to do it. From my point of view, I was very keen to work with him, but he was undecided. He was very keen to get a composer on board early. He said quite rightly that, although the film doesn’t pretend to be anything terribly complex, it’s actually got a lot of quite complex and different themes running through it, and musically it needed someone who was going to take care, and time and trouble with it. And I really, really enjoy going deeply into film commissions, so I relished the opportunity to spend a lot of time. It was great, and I got something out of it as well. I feel my music is better. I feel my music has had a chance to grow more.
Do you know what led him to seek you out?
No, I don’t, but I do know that he did try a couple of times before and I hadn’t been free.
Did being on the set help you in terms of visualizing the feel of the film or coming up with the approach you wanted to use on this score?
I think it probably did, actually. I don’t think it was crucial, but I think that somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew what it felt like there. But actually I find that being on the set is often not that helpful, because you’re only seeing a teeny tiny bit of it, you don’t really know what’s going on, there’s no continuity.
I spent a week when I was working on BELOVED, that was with Jonathan Demme, who really wanted me to be involved – I was involved very early on that, for a long time. I spent a week or ten days on the set there, and that definitely was a lot of help. I actually saw quite a few different scenes, and I felt the life of the film as it was.
It’s allowing your thoughts about the film to congeal, rather than having to go straight away and start working on it. You could at least think about it for a while.
Yes. And it sort of goes somewhere into your psyche a little bit earlier, and that seems to be a good thing.
What element of the film or the story first touched you as far as determining the kind of music that was needed?
The emotional part of it is what interests me in any project. That’s the bottom line. If there’s an emotional core to a film, that’s what attracts me. And in this film, I feel the emotional core is not the love story. For me, it’s the spiritual journey than a man can undertake, losing everything and then finding it again within himself. That’s the line that was most important for me, the one that was hardest to crack, and the one that was most important to get right. And it’s that travelling, it’s the whole thing of letting go and finding wisdom, and going deeply into one’s soul, and letting go in a funny sort of way.
From that starting point, how did you develop the structure or the architecture of the score as you began then to bring it to life?
I don’t come up with a structure; the film is really the structure. I work in a very instinctive manner. I make several attempts at every single piece of music in a film that I do, so I tend to keep it as an ongoing process as I work on it, and then I gradually refine it until it becomes one thing. The shape is brought up slowly by working at it from all sides, in a way. I find that the best way of doing it. It’s when a film runs into problems, then it’s hard to do.
How would you describe the thematic interplay that you’ve used in this score?
I love to have thematic interplay between different areas in the music of a film. It’s wonderful to be able to do that, so that one theme might be the flip side of another theme, and it doesn’t matter if people are conscious of that or not, or even whether I am. In the end, all the music that comes from me, for one particular film, needs to feel as if it comes from one family, in a way.
What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this score?
The biggest challenge for me, actually, was my own personal fear at writing a score for Robert Redford, if I’m really honest. I responded to the film very naturally, and when I started writing for it, I just was so impressed by him as a person, as a human being. He’s a really wonderful and a very intelligent man, and he gave so much time to talk to me about the story and the characters and everything. And so I felt my biggest challenge was really in writing something that I felt was good enough for him. I’m very critical of what I do, and a lot of it was thrown away, until I felt that I’d got somewhere that would be okay for him. He was actually very easy to work with once we got going.
How closely did he involve himself in the music? What was the working relationship with him on this score?
He was always available to me if I wanted to clarify some point about why I was doing this or why a particular scene needed to go this way. I came up with ideas, and I flew to New York where he was editing at the beginning, and I played him the very first, initial ideas at the piano. He said, “I like the way you’re going on that, you maybe need to do this a little bit more”, but he didn’t weigh in too heavily about anything. And then I went away for a stretch of time and I came back when I had much clearer ideas and I was much happier with them. When we met in New York and I was playing him stuff, I was working with a very early cut of the film; it was more like an assembly. When I flew to San Francisco where he’d been editing for a while, we were mostly concerned with tailoring music to a scene as opposed to deciding on themes, because he was immediately happy with the themes. And then it becomes much more craft like. He was very involved in the crafting of it, and he was also very involved in the inspiration for writing it, because he sat down and talked to me for so long about what this film was about, so he set me off on the right path. Then I wrote the themes in response, and we sort of crafted it together after that.
Were you responding to the spirit of the story versus responding to very strict timings, which are obviously part of the craft you have to do…
I never respond to the timings! I don’t use click tracks, I’m very old fashioned! I’ve no idea what tempo I write anything in, I write it in free and I play it free against the picture when I record it, and then I determine whatever tempo it is, so the music always remains very fluid! I obviously do consider very much the rhythm of the editing, but I don’t map it out as such. I don’t look at the scene, divide it up into eighteen bars of whatever and work it out by that. I tend to do it very much free – unless it’s a montage that needs a very fast up-tempo piece of music.
Does that cause any complications at the end when you’re at the scoring session, trying to get everything to fit properly?
No, absolutely not. I’ve worked many years here with a conductor named David Snell, who knows my music very well, and loves having a chance to do some actual conducting, because normally he’s just conducting to a beat that he’s being fed on a click track. It doesn’t ever cause any problems, because we’ve already determined exactly what tempo everything is for him on the score, so he knows where he needs to get slow and where he needs to move faster.
How did the aspect of the film’s use of jazz and the period music come into play with what you did in the score? Did that have an effect on what you were writing?
I didn’t go into that too deeply, actually. There was quite a lot of Fats Waller, which l love. I guess in the small amount that I did that was jazz-based, I was really looking for a spirit of fun, and I wasn’t particularly trying to be in period or anything. I just wanted something that would blend with my score and also with the other source music that they had.
You’ve also achieved a kind of Americana sensibility to the style and tone of the music.
Good, I’m glad that came through. I was very attracted to the whole idea of the Savannah needing a hero, in the days when their sporting heroes were so important to them, and how far they got by the whole notion of having someone from Savannah win, and the town being stirred up and being excited. I wanted to have something that felt of that period, even though it isn’t of that period, I wanted to evoke it.
About how much music did you compose for the film, all together?
Oh, loads! I must have written at least an hour. I don’t know if it all went in, I think maybe 50 minutes, 55 minutes went in.
What time period did you have in which to do that?
I started in mid-January and I finished mid-June.
So you had more than sufficient time to work on this score?
It was plenty of time! I’ve just finished a score for a film called CHOCOLAT. I had three and a half weeks to do that, and there’s about 45 minutes of music in that! Doing it like that really doesn’t suit me, but there really wasn’t any other way, the film’s coming up so soon.
Was the film temp tracked at all?
How did that work out for you?
It’s just an awkward thing altogether. There was a lot of my music in the temp track, and there was one piece of mine they were really, really keen on having me do something quite close to. I sort of did something that was similar in feel and then I developed it an enormous amount more in a completely different direction, so it was fine. That’s one of the advantages of coming on quite early, because you can help with the temp.
Is it easier or tougher when it’s your own music you’re competing against in the temp versus someone else’s music?
I think it’s harder when it’s somebody else’s music, especially when they’re very fond of it. I remember there was a piece in the temp score for CIDER HOUSE RULES that was taken from EMMA. It was the most emotional part of the film, and this piece of EMMA worked so well over it that right up until the end we were redoing it and trying to change it and get it better. Eventually, obviously it was better, but in the end, that felt to me like a piece of music by another composer, because I couldn’t beat it! It was very difficult!
What was most satisfying to you about this assignment?
The writing, definitely. Just feeling the writing coming through. I guess that’s what it should be, that’s why I do it.
Does that give you more of a reward, the actual composition, versus hearing it from the orchestra?
They’re both good. It was a big high hearing the girls’ choir and putting their bit on at the end. I’m always very worried using choir, but I loved using just the little bit of the girls’ voices. It is very exciting, but the most exciting is really that minute when you crack the melody. When you’re sitting and you’ve been waiting a long time, and in my case, about six weeks before I felt I had a really decent idea on that. That’s the big high.
Is it still exciting after that, when you’ve got to go through the mechanics of making it fit and developing it out?
It is, it’s very exciting. It’s not so exciting at the end when there are lots of picture changes, when you’ve done the work and you’re having to undo it, and there was quite a lot of that. But I’m very patient, and I’m very flexible about things. I understand that that’s the nature of the business. I’m there to tit the picture – the picture comes first.
How do you think this score fits in with your overall canon, if you will, where you’ve gone so far as a film composer?
I think it’s an important one for me. Partly because I spent a long time on it. That’s why I mentioned BELOVED, because I spent nearly a year on that. Although the film sadly didn’t do as well as it might have done, for me it was an enormous personal growth, just in writing music and realizing what I thought I could do for myself. I’m tremendously grateful to Jonathan Demme for giving me the job and pushing me to such extremes on it. This one is similar, in a lot of ways, because I spent a long time on it, and it was a large project, and I pushed myself in directions that perhaps I wouldn’t have done.
Of the scores you’ve done, you tend to get more of the heartfelt dramas, the introspective type scores, which seem to appeal to you, from what you are saying. Are there any other kinds of films that you would like to do that you haven’t had a chance to explore yet? Do you feel that you might be pigeonholed in these types of films the way some other composers may be pigeonholed in action films and the like?
No, I’m very happy, as long as I can keep doing fresh material. I don’t think I am pigeonholed. About five years ago, I began to feel that I’d done a few too many romantic comedies, and now I don’t have that at all. After I did BENNY AND JOON I got offered so many films like that, although in fact BENNY AND JOON was quite off-beat, and I love doing off-beat films! But I’m less interested in doing mainstream, romantic comedies. What I’m really interested in is emotion, and doing things that are hard. I want to be stretched! I want to do new things that I haven’t done before, things that I find difficult, because then I grow. That’s what I’m looking for, and I feel I’m enormously privileged to be able to look for projects like that.
The Oscar you received for EMMA put you in a slightly different position as a composer, and certainly as a female composer. It shouldn’t make any difference, but with Hollywood liking to put people into little boxes as they do and with the whole gender issue, how has that affected you in terms of the kinds of projects you are offered now?
I don’t know, it’s sort of like growing up, in a way. Suddenly I feel like I’m being treated like a grownup who has been in the industry for a long time, and I’m much more able to pick and choose. It’s an enormous advantage, and it’s all right for me to work at home, from London, which is actually more practical anyway. I used to spend long stints in L.A., five weeks, six weeks out there while I wrote the score for something, and it was always enormously stressful for me to set up a studio out there each time. I think I write better music back here, and I’m extremely happy to leap onto a plane and go and play my ideas to anyone, which is what I did on BAGGER VANCE, and that’s been an enormous advantage. I’ve got a family now, so it suits me better not to have to take them all out with me all the time.
There’s also the whole sense that you’ve legitimized the idea that women have a place in film music just as much as men. Your Oscar I think has helped bring about a change in attitude, or acceptance. Years ago, we had virtually no female film composers, and few female composers at all. There was Elisabeth Lutyens in London who did some film scores in the ‘60s, but that was about it for a long time. Your being honored with the Oscar is helping to make people take notice that this isn’t just a man’s craft. I mean, as an artist it really shouldn’t make any difference, and yet we live in a world where it does…
I know, and it does. I can’t deny that it wasn’t incredibly nice to have won it, it was incredibly nice! And if it made a difference now, and if women are more accepted, it’s fantastic and it’s about time.
So your new film is CHOCOLAT. What do you have coming up after that?
I’m doing a film that my husband’s producing, directed by Alan Taylor who did a film called PALOOKAVILLE. It’s about Napoleon, called THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES.
A period piece! Well, this is going to be a whole new sensibility for you.
Yeah, it’ll be great!