Wednesday 24 June 2015

David Arnold: The Qs and the As

Unless you're blind or have just been ignoring me (understandably), you'll have seen me wanging on about doing a Q&A with five-time James Bond film score composer David Arnold at London's Prince Charles cinema last week. The evening came and went without any major disasters (although I wore a waistcoat in an attempt to smarten myself up and promptly spilled olive oil down it just before the interview, and that shit does not budge) and Mr Arnold was in fine fettle, spilling a small amount of beans regarding his work on Casino Royale - a screening of which followed the Q&A - and other films.

If you weren't among the many millions of people who crowded into the 285-seat auditorium that evening, I've handily reproduced most of what Mr Arnold had to say below; I had to edit out all the bits where he went on at length about how much he loves The Incredible Suit because it got embarrassing.

Your score for Casino Royale is a lot more organic and less electronic than previous Bond scores…

That's correct.

So how did that decision come about? Was that you, or the producers or the director?

It was me. I think with Die Another Day, someone said that some of the music was a bit over the top, and I was thinking, 'would that be for the scene where the guy who was a DNA-changed villain who became Korean – no, he became western, he was Korean – tried to kill James Bond with a space laser operated by a remote controlled arm-device while they were escaping from a melting ice palace?' That film had levels of extremity of all sorts of things in it, and the music has to react to what we're seeing.
Really can't see why people found this silly

When I read the Casino Royale script we hadn't cast Daniel, so it was really interesting reading the script and thinking 'I've got no idea who James Bond is going to be'. With Pierce, you kind of knew the inflections, you knew his mannerisms and the style and you could kind of picture the way it would be. I was on set while they were filming Casino Royale, and [my music] was largely informed by the way Daniel moved. He's a very physical, alpha male James Bond, not as eloquent and educated – you know, the idea of knowing which wine would go with what sort of fish – slightly less of that, more that you believe that if he hit you it would really hurt. And he wasn't James Bond yet: obviously he had the name but he hadn't become the character, so it was really doing away with the comic aspect of it and trying to make it a bit more muscular, as he was, and to make it a little more aggressive, but organic, because the refinements didn't come till later in the film.

So you couldn't write the same kind of music for Daniel as you did for Pierce?

Well you sort of can in a way because he's still James Bond. This is part of the problem with coming back to the series again and again, it's the same character in very similar situations: there's conflict that he has to resolve, you know there are going to be chases, you know there are going to be fights, you know there's going to be action and even though you have to believe he's in jeopardy, you know that at the end of the film he's not gonna die. So it's a matter of trying to take what people know and expect of the character, moving it on a little bit and introducing other aspects of it, as the films do.

The Bond theme is hinted at throughout Casino Royale but doesn't appear in full until the end credits. Was it hard to resist sticking the Bond theme in?

I've always said that a James Bond film without the James Bond theme is just an action movie; there's something you're missing at the heart of the character. With Casino Royale, Sony were quite worried about not having the Bond theme in the score because they were worried it'd be like watching Star Wars without the theme: there's an expectation that you want to hear it. But my argument was that he wasn't James Bond yet, so if you play any of that music when he's doing any of the things he's doing – you know, he makes a lot of mistakes in this film – then he becomes the Bond that we know, but he hasn't done that yet so you can't get ahead of the audience. So there were a few sequences in Casino Royale that tried to create a balance we thought would work: every time he acquires something of the Bond canon that we knew and recognised, I put in a hint of the Bond theme to start sowing the seeds of it as we go through. So when he wins the Aston Martin DB5 in the game of cards you hear it for the first time; when he tries on the tuxedo in the hotel room and we see him adjusting himself in the mirror, that's the second time, and so on until you get the iconic phrase right at the end of the movie. By that time you're so ready to hear it at full pelt, that's when we cut to black and shabam, it seems incredibly exciting.

In terms of the theme songs, how much say would you or any composer have in the choice of song or singer?

Ideally the composer of the film would be involved in the composition of the song, because I think the DNA of the score should be in the song and vice versa. That's not always possible though; there might be an artist that says "I've always wanted to do this, I've written a song and this is what it's going to be," and that happens more often than not. But they let me have a crack at a couple of them. The decision about who does the song is made between the producers, the director and the studio but the composer does get involved. It's a bit like casting: I think you should cast the singer as you would cast the character, so it always felt like if we had people who could almost be in the movie it would work. In trying to find someone for Daniel's James Bond, I was thinking about male singers: was there a contemporary Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant? Singers with bollocks really, people like Paul Rogers, who sound the way that Daniel was, that James Bond is in Casino Royale. Chris Cornell has a very masculine voice but also an incredible gift for melody and words, so it was a really easy choice to make. Also writing the song with him was really easy and quick; we sort of wrote half a song each. We met up and talked about it and I'd got some ideas and he'd got some ideas so we sketched our ideas out, and two or three weeks later we played each other our ideas and kind of went from one to the other. It sort of became the song without having to do much else. It's quite odd; we'd both written one half of the same song.

Would you consider doing another Shaken And Stirred album? Because there are plenty more Bond songs that could be covered there.

Well there was a bunch of songs that I ended up not doing: I did Goldfinger with Skunk Anansie and I started talking to Debbie Harry about doing it as well, and I did You Only Live Twice with Björk but didn't use it because she wasn't happy with it, she didn’t think it was better than the original. There are a whole bunch more songs - I mean there's been another six since that album came out - but I think that's a record perhaps someone else should make, because I feel like I've done it.

You must have written a load of potential themes that never saw the light of day – you started a song called I Will Return for Die Another Day

Sometimes you don't always know if you're going to get the gig actually writing the song, but I always start off by writing a song, because I like to have some sort of thematic material to base the score on. Sometimes if another artist is writing the song, like in Die Another Day, I didn't hear it until I'd almost finished writing the score, so you've really got no way of incorporating it. I thought what would be interesting is that at the end of every James Bond film it says "James Bond Will Return", so I thought, well, how about calling the song I Will Return, basically saying that exact same thing.

How far did that song get?

It got a verse and a chorus written. The melody of it is in the [Die Another Day] score, the verse melody, and the bridge melody is in [a cue called] Peaceful Fountains Of Desire.

[Audience question] Do you think your music has influenced current action scores like John Barry's music influenced you?

Well this isn't false modesty, but I think whenever music appears in a James Bond film it ends up appearing in other films because they're so popular and the music is still a big part of it. The thing I hear more often than not is the electronic aspect alongside orchestral stuff. What's interesting with the sound of John's scores is because they were recorded in smaller spaces, and they were generally just stereo, not surround, there's much less competition for earspace in those earlier films. If I go to a dubbing theatre where Bond films are dubbed now, there are 15 or 16 ProTools stations: that one's doing dialogue A, that's doing effects 1, effects 2 – there might be hundreds and hundreds of tracks. It's incredibly easy to make a film loud, and there is an awful lot of loud in a Bond movie, whether it's cars or gunshots or punches or helicopters or building sites. So the competition for actual aural space is quite high, and John's exist in a place where there wasn't as much sound and they just allowed the music to play more out front. The tendency to do that has changed now, and music is sometimes required to perhaps energise the scene more than it was in the older films. I've listened to some contemporary scores and obviously you can hear bits of John's work and now bits of mine, but I'm really interested to see what Tom [Newman]'s gonna do with Spectre. I'm fascinated with that, as I am with the film. I've always been a fan of them and it's really nice now to be able to sit back and watch one and not worry about, you know, 'why did I do that?'

[Audience question] To what extent are you constrained by the 1960s style of the Bond theme?

Well the Bond theme, I think, has endured dozens of interpretations: Marvin Hamlisch's disco version, Bill Conti's and Michael Kamen's, Éric Serra did it just on timps, so it's obviously a very sturdy piece of music. There's something about that recording that John Barry did with quite a small orchestra which is so swamped with atmosphere, there's something about the energy of it and the essential ferocity of it which is impossible to match. It would be weird to think you were constrained by it, I've never wanted it to sound like it was from the sixties. I don't think my scores sound like John's scores; I mean obviously there are stylistic nods, combinations of instruments that evoke the character. It's what John created, it's the blueprint of it. It was the same when I did Shaft: Isaac Hayes created a blueprint for that character and I didn't want to ignore it, but you just sort of move it on a little bit, so I was really happy to take advantage of the brilliance of that and add to it and move along. You don't want to feel like you're treading water stylistically, so sometimes that means people really don't like it and some people really do like it, but… just keep moving.

Éric Serra's score for GoldenEye is, let’s say, quite unusual – do you ever watch the film and wish you'd done it?

I wish I'd done all of them to be honest! But not that one in particular, no. I thought that was the boldest move that's ever been made in a Bond movie and I don't think you can criticise him for that. You can not like it, that's fine; I do like it, I think some of that stuff was electrifying, and I know the reaction to it was mixed. Being selfish I was quite pleased, because if he'd have carried on I wouldn't have got a look in!

It's really not that bad.

[Audience question] Did you change the music for the increased violence of the newer Bonds?

The thing with Bonds is that you never see blood in bullet holes or anything, so even though it's violent you won't see bullets going in or out or blood splattering from people due to the violence because they want to keep it a 12 certificate. So perception of what's violent and what's shown are actually slightly different things. I think the job of a film score is to kind of hold your hand and take you through the experience and hopefully explain and help to guide the film as we would like you to perceive it. The sequence where Le Chiffre has his knotted rope and, er, works James Bond's - you know - that's very violent, but a lot of that was cut, and in fact the sound of contact, the 'thwack', was turned down by about half because when we screened it for the first time it was excruciating. In fact the censors wouldn't let us have it, they said we had to turn that down because it sounds horrific. There's no score in that sequence, so the sound of James Bond's bollocks being battered was turned down because we didn't want to offend anyone's sensibilities in that respect.

OK, I've got a round of quick-fire questions to finish with. They're based largely on your own tweets, so I'll warn you now, you've only got yourself to blame.

Is it based on my Twitter feed or is this when you asked people to send questions in on Twitter? Because someone said "What’s the circumference of a cat?", but they spelled "the" wrong so I'm not going to answer that. [Yep]

No, I've had to cut all those for time. So here we go: an OBE or a lifetime's supply of Skips?

[Long, thoughtful pause] Skips.

Drums or a drum machine?


Benedict Cumberbatch or Martin Freeman?

That's cruel. I think Martin's the heart and Benedict's the brains of that combination, I think without either of them that show wouldn't work. Martin is the way into Sherlock and I think the audience wouldn't find their way in without him; I think he brings so much humanity to that, it's absolutely extraordinary. The pair of them are rock stars now, it's amazing. So I plead the fifth: both of them. They're both brilliant.

CD or vinyl?


Shaken or stirred?

[Thoughtfully] Stirred. Apparently you’re not supposed to shake it.

No, you're not, that would be terrible. Biscuits with chocolate content or biscuits encased in chocolate?

Encased. There’s a whole VAT issue around that that's very frustrating.

Jaffa cakes: cakes or biscuits?

Oh, they're cakes. The clue's in the title.
That's that settled then

Éric Serra or Thomas Newman?

Oh, that's rotten! That's professionally rotten. I love the pair of them.

The slide whistle in The Man With The Golden Gun: genius or madness?

Madness! Along with the double-taking pigeon.

And finally: are you doing Independence Day 2?

I haven't been asked, is the honest answer. But would I if they asked me? I'd really like to see the script, firstly.

Would you not just say yes, if they phoned you up and said there's no script but will you do it?

[Pause] Yeah. But they would have to phone me up and ask me, and as yet that hasn't happened.

Well I'll tell them you'll do it. David Arnold, thank you very much!

Thanks to Oliver Holden-Rea for the top photo.

1 comment :

  1. Ooh thanks for the write-up, I'm always happy to hear film composers talking about their work and 'unpack' what goes in to making music for films.

    Reading the 'Martin is the way in for the audience' comment makes me think... that's a bit like what film music can do too I suppose.

    Also people in Birmingham or Nottingham - David Arnold's doing two concerts there this weekend: Fri 26 June (Symphony Hall, Brum) and Sun 28 June (Royal Concert Hall, Nott). I went to the London one last week and it was ace. He's good fun and you get to hear all that lovely music performed live (loved hearing A Night at the Opera then seeing QoS a few days later again at the PCC) :)

    Here's a Youtube vid of him conducting that piece