How to write a movie score

Remembering Maurice Jarre last week we looked at his working partnership with David Lean. But of course there are many long composer-director relationships, sometimes spanning whole careers. Steven Spielberg, for example, has been working with John Williams since Sugarland Express in 1974, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman (with a couple of exceptions) since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985 and the Coen Brothers with Carter Burwell since Blood Simple in 1984. At their best these lasting partnerships create an extraordinary shared aesthetic, in which images and music become absolutely fused. When you think of Tim Burton, for example, I bet you have something like this sound in your head:

Or when you think of Hitchcock, the sound of Bernard Herrmann:

One of the best known of these collaborations is between David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, whose work on Blue Velvet and perhaps most of all Twin Peaks helped cement Lynch’s lush, romantic paranoia in the public consciousness. Here’s a fascinating (and ever so slightly disturbing) clip in which Badalamenti explains how he and Lynch worked together to create Laura Palmer’s theme:

And here’s an interview with John Williams about creating the music for Indiana Jones:

Are movies better than they used to be?

In my annual top ten list for 2008 I quoted a conversation with my friend Paula, who had suggested that films overall were getting better. Last night, on the other hand, my co-producer was bemoaning the fact that a movie star nowadays, by comparison with the Seventies, has far fewer opportunities to produce intelligent, politically engaged work: we were comparing the careers of Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, who starred in a string of provocative pictures, including All The President’s Men, The Candidate  and Three Days of the Condor.

So which opinion is correct — or is there room for both? Certainly there are plenty of film fans who talk about the Seventies as a vanished golden age, when audiences flocked to gritty adult dramas like The Conversation, Serpico and Midnight Cowboy, rather than today’s gross-out comedies, cheesy musicals, tired sequels and superhero movies. Let’s look, then, at the US box office from exactly thirty years ago. Here are 1978’s top 5:

1. Superman

2. Grease

3. Animal House

4. Every Which Way But Loose

5. Jaws 2

Ah. But then, a lot of people date the decline of movies from the phenomenon of Jaws, which set the template for today’s wide release summer blockbusters. So let’s take the year before Jaws, 1974. Here the top 5 looks like this:

1. The Towering Inferno

2. Blazing Saddles

3. Young Frankenstein

4. Earthquake

5. The Trial of Billy Jack

Admittedly, The Godfather Part II comes in at #6, but I think it’s fair to say that popular taste hasn’t changed that much over the years. But of course, in this awards season, popular taste isn’t all that counts. How about the Academy Awards? Here are last year’s nominations for Best Picture, the winner in bold:

No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement, Michael Clayton.

And here are the winners for the other years we’ve looked at:

1978: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman.

1974: The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno.

By any standards, 1974 makes a strong case for the Seventies: this is a Best Picture list as good as any since the all-time best year, 1939, whose nominations included Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. But in truth there have always been good years and bad years; the box office has always been dominated by crowd-pleasing genre entertainment; and each new generation of film-makers includes a few great talents who will produce outstanding, lasting films. Any period that can offer directors as varied as Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Boyle, Fernando Meirelles, Alfonso Cuaron, Tsai Ming-Liang, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Shane Meadows, Thomas Vinterberg, Lukas Moodyson, Jonathan Glazer and James Marsh just for starters has no need to fear for the future of cinema.

What is depressing about the current crop of English-language movies is the lack of passionate contemporary drama, particularly set against that Oscar list from 1974. The current box office is dominated by super-hero movies, the awards shows by self-consciously artistic period films. All the more reason, then, to applaud the triumph at the Golden Globes by Slumdog Millionaire, which is largely subtitled, has no movie stars and engages with one of the great changes of our time, as the axis of the world shifts eastwards. That alone is cause for optimism as we look forward to the year ahead. 

My favourite films of 2008

The film year is a slightly stretchy one. Different release dates means that different movies qualify for BAFTAs, BIFAs and Oscars. But, with a little licence, and in alphabetical order, my favourite ten films from 2008 were —

Oh. Wait. What does favourite mean? I mean the movies that I’ve talked about, thought about, argued over and looked forward to seeing again. They’re not necessarily the most artistic, or the most significant, or the most ground-breaking, although I think there are films on this list that count as all of those. They’re the films that have had the most effect on me — and the ones I wish I’d worked on. So —

FROST / NIXON I saw this on stage and thought that Frank Langella gave a fine performance; then I saw it on screen and thought it was one of the best I’d ever seen. Langella looks very little like Nixon, but he absolutely inhabits the man and, with the help of Peter Morgan’s script and Ron Howard’s direction, he makes you feel deeply for him, without ever diminishing the scale of his crimes. While the play felt very much a two-hander, the film gives the whole cast room to breathe: there are terrific performances too from Kevin Bacon, Oliver Platt, Toby Jones and Rebecca Hall, who brings a radiant, sly intelligence to her role. And Michael Sheen’s Frost is fascinating: his performance is a kind of cubism, looking at the man from every angle without ever quite seeing the whole. I’ve written elsewhere about Peter Morgan that he makes every story a thriller, and watching last week’s hushed, tense audience at the Curzon there was no doubt that he’s done it again.

HELLBOY 2 I’m not a big fan of superheroes, partly because they’re super. When you have a character who is virtually invincible — and guaranteed to win — it’s hard to create a story in which anything really feels at stake. But with Hellboy 2 Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth, has created another beautiful, dark fable, in which the future of mankind hangs in the balance. Like Tim Burton, del Toro is often dismissed as a “visual” director, as if this were somehow detrimental to the craft. What matters, and what both Burton and del Toro have (as opposed to imitators like Gore Verbinski or Brad Silberling) is a deep knowledge of art and symbols, and an uncanny understanding of the emotional power of images. Del Toro, too, wears his heart on his sleeve; where Burton can drift off into irony, del Toro’s films feel intimate and heartfelt, even when he’s working on a truly epic scale. This is a Hollywood summer blockbuster that loves its villains as much as its heroes (and mourns their eventual defeat), and is confident enough in its pacing to detour, in the middle of a hundred million dollar movie, into this

MAN ON WIRE I called this “the best superhero movie of the summer,” and I still think so. You can check out my review of it here.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN I’m not an uncritical fan of the Coen brothers; I found Burn After Reading perhaps the most joyless comedy ever made. But I’ve thought a lot about No Country, which sits alongside Miller’s Crossing and The Man Who Wasn’t There: beautiful, sombre, slightly supernatural stories that search for meaning in a brutal world. I wrote last year about the overlap between No Country and The Seventh Seal, and another look at the film only reinforces that impression. The film’s denial of a sense of closure — the murderer is never caught and the climactic killing is offscreen — is a key part of its philosophy: we search for structure, narrative and purpose, but life tends not to offer them. Does this make it irredeemably bleak? I don’t think so: what it suggests is that there’s no point in being shocked by the world’s brutality, but that equally there’s something to be won by standing up to it. It’s just that you have to find your solace in the battle, because there’s not going to be an end to the war. 

PERSEPOLIS and WALTZ WITH BASHIR Two very different movies, both reinventing animation in a brilliant and satisfying way. You can see what I wrote about them here

QUANTUM OF SOLACE The most tonally daring, most artistically innovative, most faithful to Fleming movie of the series — and the most successful Bond movie at the US box office to date. Do you think the audience might be trying to tell us something, Hollywood? Let’s hope that more producers take the same kind of risks, and with the same kind of success. My original review is here

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE Check out my review above.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY Along with Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir, this was one of the films last year that most felt like innovation in cinema, and made me hopeful for its future. The bold decision to trap the audience within the single eye of its hero, Jean-Do Bauby, for the full first twenty minutes of the picture was a risk that paid off brilliantly as the film developed and we got to know and love him more. It also features my single favourite performance of the year, by Max von Sydow, still mesmerising at 80, as Bauby’s father, conveying more emotion in a look than any lengthy speech could show. It’s wonderful, uplifting cinema.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD Not quite so uplifting but exhilarating in its way, this is a fable torn from American soil, a monumental origin myth told on an epic scale. Propelled by Jonny Greenwood’s extraordinary score, it’s a film of unstoppable momentum, from its first long silent sequence to its last, exhausted gasp; and it’s dominated by Daniel Day Lewis, whose performance comes as a reminder of a older, richer school of acting than today’s drab “realism”: you’re reminded of Charles Laughton, Robert Mitchum, even Gregory Peck, alongside of course John Huston and his role in Chinatown. I wouldn’t call it a date movie, and it’s certainly not an easy watch, but it’s a rare historical movie — The New World is another, even better — that feels absolutely rooted in its period, and changes how you view the time. 

I was talking to a friend the other evening who said, “I think that films are getting better”. And she’s right. Yes, there’s too much of the same old cynical product — is there anyone whose heart lifts at the poster for Bride Wars? — but there are creative people out there who are as good as any in the past. The movie business is simple: they make the movies they think will make money. So all we have to do as the audience is to turn up, pay for the good stuff — rather than downloading it for free — and send out a clear message: if you make them, we will come.

No Country for Ingmar Bergman

In No Country For Old Men, when Chigurh visits Llewellyn Moss’s wife to kill her, she says, quavering, “You don’t have to do this.” to which he smilingly replies “Everybody says that”. Compare this to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, when a much more literal representation of Death appears to the knight Antonius Block:
BLOCK. Wait a moment.
DEATH. You all say that.
Bergman’s Death, with his games of chess, his dark humour and his unremitting sense of purpose, is surely an ancestor of Chigurh. The Seventh Seal was Bergman’s response to the horrors of the nuclear age, just as No Country is McCarthy and the Coens’ response to the age of terror. Both films use historical settings as parallels to the evils of their times; both, too, are reminders that evil is not unique to ours. When Ed Tom Bell goes to meet his uncle towards the end of the film, saying that the world has become too bleak for him, his uncle reminds him of equally horrendous killings from the turn of the last century. Our horror, both films remind us, is not a condition of modernity; it’s a condition of humanity.

Good and bad ambiguity

Alexander Mackendrick is one of the greatest and least known figures in British cinema. Director of films as diverse and brilliant as Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers and The Sweet Smell of Success, he is also regarded as one of the best — if most idiosyncratic — teachers of film-making that there has ever been. He was a hard task-master, one of whose cardinal rules was that “Student films come in three sizes: too long, much too long and very much too long”, something that anyone who’s been to a short film festival will understand.

Another mantra was that “Ambiguity does not mean lack of clarity. Ambiguity can be intriguing when it consists of alternative meanings, each of them clear”. I was reminded of this when watching the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men, the ending of which has provoked a mixture of admiration, frustration and sheer fury from critics and viewers alike.  The debate (leaving aside who killed Llewellyn Moss: it was the Mexicans) is focused on the motel room scene, in which assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) appears to be hiding behind the door when Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, channelling Droopy) comes in to search the place. But once the Sheriff enters the room, sitting on the bed with his head in his hands, there’s no further indication that Chigurh is in the room. So: is he in the room or not, and if he is, why does he not (given past form) take the opportunity to kill the Sheriff? Or: is this, in Mackendrick terms, “good” ambiguity or “bad”?

The Coen brothers themselves, of course, have no intention of clarifying the ambiguity. Like David Lynch, their answer is, in essence, “it means what you think it means”. It’s actually perfect Mackendrick, in that it can be read either literally or allegorically. Literally, it appears that Chigurh is indeed in the room, and allows the Sheriff to live — but the experience (was he offered the coin toss?) nonetheless prompts the Sheriff’s early retirement. Allegorically, it presents Chigurh as Death: the inevitable assassin waiting for each of us. The film supports either reading, but the Coens, and Mackendrick, give us the clue: he is both, because that’s what stories are for.