An Interview with Simon Boswell by Jonathan Broxton
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.19/No.73/2000
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
Over the last decade or so, composer Simon Boswell has emerged as one of the great new talents on the British film music scene. Boswell’s career to date has spanned every conceivable genre. From his early work on Italian exploitation movies, to contemporary thrillers (HARDWARE, SHALLOW GRAVE, PERDITA DURANGO), horror flicks (OUST DEVIL, LORD OF ILLUSIONS), romances and character studies (SECOND BEST, JACK & SARAH, COUSIN BETTE), science fiction (HACKERS), dramas (DAD SAVAGE, THE WAR ZONE), fantasies (PHOTOGRAPHING FAIRIES) and literary classics (A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM), Boswell brings to each new project an energy and distinctiveness that stems from his unconventional background and his own admission that he lives in a ‘musical vacuum’. From his home in north London, Simon talks exclusively to Soundtrack about his life in film music, his career to date, his upcoming projects, and his peculiar encounters with Dario Argento!
The last couple of years have seen you really rise to the forefront of scoring, with critical successes like A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. How did you first become involved with that project, because originally I understood that Wojciech Kilar was due to score it?
Yes, that’s right. The producers first approached me about doing it back in the summer of 1998, but they had also approached Wojciech Kilar, and I believe they actually started working with him. My agent in America, Vasi, who is very tenacious, kept an eye on the project, because he knew they were having a few problems. To cut a long story short, I eventually got a call asking me to fly over to Skywalker Ranch, where they were editing, at just a few hours’ notice, to talk about doing the music, and they gave me the job. I remember seeing lots of vultures circling around the grounds of the ranch, and I speculated with Michael Hoffman that that was where Wojciech was buried (laughs).
There is a lot of classical music used in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – was that because you came onto the project late, or was it already in place when you got there?
No, it was already in place. Michael Hoffman had quite specific ideas about what he wanted to use. How much of it they were going to use they weren’t sure, but they knew they wanted it to be “popular” Italian opera of the day. That was the thought behind it. The thing Michael was concerned about the most was finding some kind of voice for the fairy world, and especially the music that the fairy band would play. That was really the key thing.
I thought the fairy music was fascinating. In the liner notes of the CD you say you used Indian, Bulgarian, and Syrian influences. How did you come up with that?
Well, we didn’t want people to think it was relating to the Shakespearean period at all, and we felt that it should be rather dark, and not airy-fairy. We discussed somehow making it a kind of pan-world sound, using influences from around the world that were actually downright peculiar!
What kind of instruments did you use?
There were some medieval instruments, like shawms, bombardes (Renaissance oboes), dulcians (bassoons), chalumeau (clarinet), Russian lur (cornette), and flageolets. There were also Arabic instruments, and ancient Persian percussion, and many other things. It was a lot of fun.
One of the things I found fascinating about the fairy music was the fact that the scene in which your music is played was filmed before you had written it, so you had to write music to fit the finger movements of the actors. That must have been incredibly difficult. How did you do that?
Yes, it was very difficult. We had to exactly decide the start point of the scene, where you first hear the music off-screen, before you see any finger movements, so that I could then map out tempos to make it synchronise later on.
Just going back to the classical music selections – did you ever feel you were in competition with Mendelssohn? His music is so famous and so inextricably linked to A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, did you ever wonder how you were going to top it?
Well, having heard the piece they were using on the opening titles, I admit I was quite intimidated, but I am not a great expert in classical music. My classical education and training is incomplete, and I’m simply not familiar with a lot of music. I made damn sure I didn’t listen to Mendelssohn, apart from the pieces they had already put on the movie.
That’s something I carry right through. I don’t listen to much music at all, and I desperately steer clear of anything I think might influence me. I’m about to start doing JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS for Hallmark in the USA, and although I saw the film twenty or so years ago, the one thing I am not going to do is listen to Bernard Herrmann’s score. I can’t remember what he did, and I don’t want to know, because that would be tremendously intimidating.
How much music did you write for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM in total?
About 30-35 minutes of original music, plus we also re-recorded a lot of the classical tracks. The orchestral parts of the pieces with Renee Fleming were recorded down the road in Hampstead at Air Studios, and then Renee did her vocals in New York. Like the “Ebony and Ivory” thing with Paul McCartney in England and Stevie Wonder in America – the same kind of logistics. We video’ed the conductor conducting here and played it for Renee so she could get the tempo right I recorded a lot of the percussion and ethnic woodwinds in my studio downstairs.
Were you happy with the way it turned out in the end? It’s quite a departure from the majority of your other works.
I was very happy with it, yes. It doesn’t really sound much like anything else I’ve done, but I guess it depends how much of my stuff you have heard. I try to do different things with almost every film, which, from a career point of view, is sometimes not to my advantage. But it was a departure, I had a big budget, and it felt like a major studio project.
The other major project from last year was THE WAR ZONE. That was a very difficult film, with a very challenging subject matter. The way it was filmed reminded me very much of Gary Oldman’s NIL BY MOUTH, almost like a documentary style, and I would imagine that you had to be very careful not to detract from the realism of the film by the overuse of music. How did you approach writing music for that project, and how did you avoid having the score detract from the intensity of the movie?
It was very difficult. Any kind of music you put on a film is almost designed to sensationalise it in some way, or is bound to do so. That is the way movie music is generally used. Tim Roth and I were very concerned about not wanting to manipulate people’s feelings. We kept stripping back and back and putting less and less music on it – I mean, there was no way we were going to score the incest scenes themselves!
The content of the music was intentionally very repressed, very bare, and very minimalistic, with not even much of a theme, except for one which I felt was suitably ambiguous. Tim and I didn’t want the audience to feel as though they were being made to cry, or anything like that, until the very end, where we wanted some kind of cathartic release. It was hard, because I had to fight my normal instincts as a film composer, which is to dramatise, and to make it more intense. We were very aware that whenever it seemed like the score was directing the feelings, the music had to go. I’ve actually had quite a big response to this score, probably because the film touches certain repressed feelings in people very powerfully.
Why was there no CD release?
Quite simply, I didn’t feel that there was enough music to support an album.
Just looking back a few years, you actually started your film music career working with Dario Argento. How did you get from England to working on Italian horror movies?
Well, my route into film music is probably the oddest of all the British composers. I had no intention of doing it at all. I was classically trained on the piano from the age of 5 till I was 16. When I was 10, I taught myself the guitar and later started playing in bands. Then I became a record producer, and the road led me to Rome, where I produced a bizarre variety of Italian pop stars. I met Dario at a party. I had no idea who he was – I had never seen any of his films because I actually don’t like horror movies. But Dario had seen my band, Live Wire, playing a gig a couple of months before, and he asked me if I would help Goblin do the music for this film PHENOMENA, because they were up against it. I was rather blasé about it and said “Yeah, yeah, fine, I’ll do it,” but then suddenly it became serious because there I was in a studio and I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do.
Of all the people I have worked with, Dario remains the craziest, most unbalanced person I have ever met! It was quite extraordinary. The very first scene of the very first movie I ever scored was of a girl being chased by a psychopath down a tunnel, and suddenly she falls into this pit filled with body parts, and all sorts of gunk and disgusting things, and I seem to remember there was some kind of beheading in there too. I had no idea what to do, so I used some violin harmonics and the sound of a plectrum being scraped down the strings of a guitar – the film music equivalent of fingernails down a blackboard, and it was horrible to listen to. I remember Dario came in and I was very nervous, but he sat down and watched this scene and listened to my music, and when it was finished he leaned back and said (in a thick Italian accent) “Is beautiful!” (laughs).
All the time he was watching this he had been playing with something in his hand, which he dropped on the floor. When I picked it up to give it back to him and I saw that it was a tiny, naked plastic doll. He grabbed it from my hand and held it up like a crucifix, and started backing out of the room, waving this doll at me and shouting “Good luck! Good luck!” And that was my first day on the job (laughs).
That sort of explains the nature of some of his films! (laughs)
It does! I think he’s a brilliant film maker – he’s been very influential in the horror field, and Italian horror has grown to become almost a genre of its own, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into. So, then Dario made another film and he asked me to do all the music, and then a friend of his made one and I did that, and gradually I became this guy who did Italian horror movies. I did about twenty; at least, before I did anything else, but the ironic thing is that I didn’t even do them in Italy. That first one of Dario’s was the only one I actually recorded there. All the others were done in our little place in Clapham, where we lived at the time. I had no idea that these films were going to video all over the world, and after a period of time people started picking up on them as cult items. Sadly, they didn’t pay very much…
But I suppose the experiences gave you a great grounding in how to do the job.
It did. And eventually it wasn’t just horror films either. I did this Rambo rip-off thing, and I did a kung fu movie, and a comedy, and a soppy love story. I was churning them out, like one a month. There were occasions where they would just send me the movie over on video and I would send them back some music, and that would be it! I never met anybody involved with the production or anything! There were even a few films where they took my score and used it on other movies without asking me. Eventually, people here and in America who were into that stuff, people like Quentin Tarantino, started picking up on it, and I eventually got my first British film – HARDWARE – as a direct result of the Italian work.
How did you find working in the British industry on HARDWARE, as opposed to the Italian way? Were you given more freedom? Less freedom?
It was certainly more fun, simply because I was more involved in the film and I was on board whilst they were shooting it. They shot HARDWARE at the Round House in Camden Town and I was able to go down to the set and watch what was going on. Unusually, the director, Richard Stanley, decided that I should write some music on the basis of rushes and on the script, and plays it to the cast whilst they were shooting, to show them what might be happening when it was all finished. That hasn’t happened to me on any film since. Actually, I think it’s quite a good idea. There was that famous quote by Bette Davis, where Alfred Hitchcock is directing her to walk up a flight of stairs, and she says “Will I be going up the stairs with or without Mr. Herrmann?” (laughs)
Often the music that you write can change the scene, or at least the way it is read by an audience, and if the actors have an idea of what kind of music is going to be in the final mix, they can almost tailor their performance.
Yes, that’s right. I think that actors sometimes need to know that they are going to get that kind of support. So, that was a slightly different experience from the Italian films but it was still low-budget, which I seem to specialise in! (laughs)
I suppose you’re not in any way tainted by the whole film music scene. Because you don’t listen to anything else, you will always retain your own voice.
I hope so. That’s also why I don’t get asked to do Hollywood action movies, and to be honest I don’t think I really want to. I don’t like the idea of churning out ‘orchestral music by the yard’. It doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve churned out other music by the yard, for horror films!
I suppose the first film that got you noticed on an international level would have been LORD OF ILLUSIONS. That’s a score which has got another good reputation, not only because of the music, but because it was the first mainstream horror you did outside Italy. What kind of experience did you have on that film?
That was an interesting experience actually, because it was the first one I did in America. I got that job, again, because Clive Barker was a fan of Dario’s, and it was good to do because I decided to do it the opposite way from how you’re supposed to. We recorded it in a rock studio called Bad Animals Studio in Seattle, and we crammed a 65-piece orchestra into this tiny room, and it was – and still is – my intention to get the orchestra to improvise in a certain kind of way if they can. There is something about being in a band that, if you need to make last minute changes, you can do it easily by saying “well, let’s just go from here to there, and do this and that.” Because of the way rock musicians learn, they can do that quite easily. Orchestras can’t do that.
My own personal favorite of yours is the dark comedy COUSIN BETTE, which is yet another different genre you have explored. As well as the score, though, a lot of that was to do with adapting music by Pierre de Béranger. Were you involved with that?
No, I wasn’t. That was something they did before I became involved, because they had to shoot the songs with Elisabeth Shue beforehand. The American arranger Danny Troob worked with the director, Des McAnuff, on those. I took what Des and Danny did and changed it again because I had to work with Elisabeth to re-record the vocals, but that was afterwards, so like on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM it was again a case of making my music fit the on-set miming. But doing COUSIN BETTE was good fun, and even though the de Béranger parts weren’t my arrangements, I did adapt one of de Béranger’s themes into my main title.
You very rarely write a “big love theme” on the scale you did on COUSIN BETTE.
I would if I was asked to! I’m glad you like that score because I’m really quite proud of it. Sadly, the film didn’t do anything, nobody paid any attention to it at all, but I love working in a classical atmosphere, even though I don’t listen to much classical music. It seems almost sacrilegious to say that…
But yet you are able to write in a classical style.
I don’t know how I do it. It just seems to happen. Take the Mozarty parts of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM – I haven’t properly listened to Mozart since I was a child, so I just reconstructed in my head what I thought it should be like. I don’t sit down and study Mozart and rip it off.
The other recent score of yours which has been very well received is PERDITA DURANGO, which I also like very much. It’s dark, percussive, almost Herrmannesque in tone.
I’m glad you like it. I like that one too. I like the film as well. I like quite extreme films because they give you at least the scope to do more experimental things with the music.
There are very few composers who work on European-made pictures like PERDITA DURANGO as often as you do.
Well, that all stems from doing the Italian films. I just enjoy films which have a different spin to them. I think I would rot if I was just sitting in Hollywood doing DIE HARD 9. Some of the music that gets written for these films, it’s just wallpapers. You can’t hear it anyway, underneath all the shooting and the cars exploding. You know, I have this theory that the only times people remember film music is when it’s set in space or in the desert. (laughs). Obviously, there are holes in this theory, but the films with the most memorable music – things like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or 2001 – because it’s in space or in the desert, the films are shot differently. The camera moves much more slowly, and they take longer over scenes, and, of course, there aren’t any screaming tyres. Things like PARIS TEXAS, those iconic soundtracks, all have to do with the environment.
According to your filmography, you have two films coming up: ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE and THE DEBTORS. What is happening with those?
I did ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE nearly two years ago. It was a half-hour segment directed by Danny Boyle of what was going to be a trilogy.
Quite what has happened to that I don’t know? It was supposed to be released in 1998, but Miramax picked it up and I have no idea what they have done with it since. It was a curious thing with Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham, and Courtney Cox – the most extraordinary cast. Similarly, I did THE DEBTORS over a year ago, which is a film starring Michael Caine, but no-one knows what is happening with that either.
So what are you working on the moment?
At the moment, I am working on a film called CIRCUS, which I actually finished just last night. It stars John Hannah and Eddie Izzard, and it is one of the many British gangster films being made in the wake of LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS. It’s a totally electronic, almost techno type of score, with the exception 01 several bits where I use a psychotic saxophone. I’m about to start a film called THERE’S ONLY ONE JIMMY GRIMBLE, which is the new Robert Carlyle feature, and is about this kid who wants to play for Manchester City football club. It’s going to be a contemporary score, and I’ll probably do it as a band, with a lot of guitars. Basically, I’ll be doing with pop songs what I did with the classical selections on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, weaving in and out of the things you recognise. I’m going to suggest to Robbie Williams that either I write a theme and I give it to him or I take a theme from his music and turn it into my score, just so that there is some thematic consistency right through a movie. I always think it’s a more interesting concept for people who buy soundtrack albums, so they have something that actually bears some relation to the music they hear in the film.
You seem to get short-changed quite a lot when it comes to the final album – I seem to remember you only had one cue on the THIS YEAR’S LOVE CD, a guitar piece.
Yeah, I wasn’t happy with that at all. HACKERS was the one which pissed me off the most. They have now made two soundtrack albums, and there is none of my music on either of them, yet I probably get more requests for that score, from the Internet and other places, than any other score I have written. I get really fed up when that happens, but it’s a marketing thing, and you have to go into it with your eyes open. I’m probably getting into a position where people might want to use my stuff more. You have to build a platform for yourself.
And then the other new one, as you’ve mentioned, is JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
Yeah, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. They’re still shooting at the moment, but they should start feeding me scenes very shortly. That will be a big, orchestral score. An adventure score. That’s something I haven’t done too often, so I’m really looking forward to it.
We’ve talked a lot about the eclectic nature of your work, so who does influence you in a musical sense?
The person who has influenced me all along has been Jimi Hendrix, who most people think of as being this guy who smashes guitars up on stage, but who I still think is the most lyrical guitarist there has ever been. He has been my influence ever since I taught myself the guitar and used to listen to his records. Bernard Herrmann, who was a genius and Ennio Morricone are the only two film music composers I would cite as being influences. Morricone mainly, because I think he invented sampling twenty years before it happened, with the gruff voices and the twangy guitar mixed with the choir and orchestra. It’s exactly what kids do with their bank of sounds and their sample CDs today. He was tremendously innovative and influential, not just on me, but on music in general. In the back of my mind, when I was asked to do film music, I think I thought of it as my chance to try to emulate him. One of the great freedoms of film music, above all other things, is that you can mix and match genres, and so long as it’s effective and suits the film no-one really bothers.
Of classical stuff I have sat down and listened to, I would say Stravinsky. It’s all very obvious stuff I’m afraid. I don’t have a great working knowledge of either pop music or classical music. I’m in a bit of vacuum. Of course, people play me things all the time, and films arrive with temp scores attached to them…
How does that affect you? Are you ever influenced by the temp track?
You can’t help but be influenced by it, because if what they have put on is right for the scene then you know that’s the direction you’ve to go down.
What is your view on that? Would you prefer them not to have the temp scores or do you think they’re necessary?
No, I think it’s quite good to have temp scores because at least you can see what does and doesn’t work. You have to collaborate on a film – you don’t work in isolation, and you have to take input from directors and producers – so you might as well see what’s in their mind. I think it’s helpful.
Do you ever get directors suffering from “temp track love”?
All the time, but that’s just in the nature of the job and you’ve got to try and put up with it and do better. On LORD OF ILLUSIONS, for example, the temp score was the most intimidating thing in the world! They had Jerry Goldsmith, and John Williams, and bits from the most expensive, lavish, fantastically successful scores in the world. And then they’d go “Here’s your budget, go and do that!” (laughs)
But, you know, I think it’s a good way for a director to do it and to see how a scene is working. It does give rise to occasional problems for a composer, but I don’t mind it that much. I just hope I haven’t ripped anything off too much! Nowadays, it’s not unusual for them to use my music as a temp. And, of course, the temp track comes in useful when they show the movie to executives, and for test screenings. Did you know the only movie I’ve ever walked off was because of a test screening?
No! What was that?
That was THE EIGHTEENTH ANGEL. I spent six weeks in Los Angeles working on the film with the director, William Bindley, during the course of which they had a test screening for a bunch of fourteen to seventeen year olds. The script was quite interesting – it was written by William Peter Blatty, who wrote THE OMEN, and it was kind of a supernatural thriller – but after this test screening all the kids who watched it wrote down a load of really helpful comments like “Didn’t fucking scare me!”, so they went away and reshot a lot of scenes. So before, people had simply fallen down some stairs, but now they fell and they were impaled on something. I really did not want to do another horror movie. It was a spooky film before, but it wasn’t in any way gory, and they turned it into that, and I just thought’ “don’t want to get involved in this”, so I left.
The other film I turned down was my first ever American film, which would have been TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III! It upset me so much, but I just couldn’t find it in my heart to write music for those scenes.
I suppose that’s a problem if you become typecast to a certain genre – employers have certain expectations of you and what you can do.
Yes, that’s right. After five years with Italian horror, I’d just had enough of it.
You don’t conduct your own scores. Is that because you’re not classically trained, or are there other reasons?
Partly that. I’m not trained enough to do it well, put it that way. I think it’s an incredibly demanding job, and one that doesn’t get enough focus on it. It’s really hard to do well. Plus, as I’d come up from being a record producer, I was used to sitting in a control room and hearing how it really sounds over speakers. I think a lot of film composers end up not conducting simply for that reason. Ultimately it’s going to end up coming through speakers, either in the cinema or on CD. I do feel I have more influence over the way it’s going to be when I’m sitting in the control room. I have conducted stuff – on THE DEBTORS I did some – but I’m not good at it, and I don’t feel confident enough to do it properly. I know my limitations.
So how did you hook up with Terry Davies?
I met Terry through a friend in Los Angeles. Terry was the musical director at the National Theatre, and we have a long-standing collaboration now. He gets involved and looks at what I’m writing so he knows the material well before he conducts it. He also orchestrates.
One specific question I wanted to ask: why was PHOTOGRAPHING FAIRIES never released?
That’s a good question. I made a whole album, and I even went and recorded extra tracks for it, because I had a deal set up with Varese Sarabande. Then, for one reason or another, the movie went straight to video in America, so they pulled the plug.
That shouldn’t affect the CD though, should it? Varese have released other scores of films which went straight to video.
I felt quite let down by it all, actually, not to mention out of pocket – not just because I went in and recorded the extra tracks, but because I had a mastered album ready. PHOTOGRAPHING FAIRIES is a score I’m quite proud of actually. I got my inspiration for it after someone played me some Lutoslawski, and I thought he had a fantastic sound.
Was there anything else you wanted to mention?
Yes. I don’t know if you know this, but I spent a couple of months last summer collaborating with Elton John on the score to his company’s first feature film WOMEN TALKING DIRTY. The movie stars Helena Bonham Carter and Gina McKee and is set in Edinburgh. It was interesting working with Elton, who is obviously more used to writing in song mode. Curiously, after we recorded with the orchestra, the themes which he initiated sound more ‘filmic’ than the cues I wrote alone, which have a more band style. I also got to produce two icons of the music world for that movie: Dolly Parton and Marianne Faithfull, performing, new versions of ‘Jolene’ and ‘Wonderful World’. That was a real blast.
The other thing I wanted to mention is that soon I’m planning to perform some of my music live. It’s going to start out mainly with the early horror stuff, where the groundswell of interest is. I’ve put together a band of friends and we’re going to do some shows with interactive video. We’re talking about venues, but it’ll be more in the rock setting than anything else, mainly because I can’t afford to put on an orchestra.
I’ve also found this software that I’m trying to develop where, on a MIDI keyboard, you can assign a different video clip to each note and as long as you keep your finger on the note for long enough, the clip will play. So, essentially, by playing a keyboard you can re-edit a section of a movie live. In a sense, this is the revenge of the film composer, because now I’m going to make the pictures fit my music rather than the other way around! (laughs)
One final thing: did you know that your score for A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is currently the biggest selling CD in Ogden, Utah, according to Amazon.com?
I did not know that! (laughs) Apparently it’s done very well, especially in America, so that’ll be a first for one of mine. It’s great that people show an interest, because I really do feel that I have been outside the whole fraternity of film composers for most of my career.
A lot of people would like to see you more towards the inside of it. I know I would.
Well, we’ll see about that. I’m certainly not going to write my way there with conventional crap.
- With thanks to Stephen Kear, Sam Richards at Storm Management and Simon Boswell and his kamikaze cats.