By Hemanth Kissoon
The BAFTA conversations/masterclasses are, so far, of a universally high standard. Cinephiles, and filmmakers at the beginning of their careers, should seek them out. Cinematographer John Mathieson and casting director Des Hamilton were superbly informative about their crafts.
On Thursday 9th May 2012 in the Elgar Room of the Royal Albert Hall, film composer Rachel Portman answered questions for nearly one and three-quarter hours. Understanding what a composer needs to hear, and needs to say, to a director that does not have a musical education is potentially fascinating.
The room was packed, to hear what Oscar winner, BAFTA nominated and OBE garlanded Portman had come to say. Beginning at the beginning, Portman started learning the violin and piano around eight years old, writing at 14, and read music at Oxford University. While an undergraduate, she composed pieces for theatre, and did a short – was her way into film. Received her break through David Puttnam. Portman at the age of 21/22 went to a talk with director Alan Parker, and handed him a demo tape of her work, and who in turn passed onto Puttnam. A strong lesson for any aspiring cinema composers!
Portman did a lot of television in the 80s, including ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT. A clip of it is shown, and there is talk of the orchestration. She says she is not conscious of a style (and neither am I actually), and attempts to be different – though people say that they knew it was her, which could be down to the melodies or intervals. Portman is always searching for something new. Talking about Mike Leigh on LIFE IS SWEET, he was supportive, though it was hard to find a melody he liked. One of the hardest to work on was RATCATCHER. It was so realistic, she found the music false; so pared it back. It is somewhat easier to do a period film, something romantic.
We are then shown a clip from BENNY & JOON. The sequence was fun for Portman because of the musical sweep, didn’t have to score the action. Asked about different styles, she learns by absorbing music. With THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE director Jonathan Demme originally wanted a Hitchcockian in your face score, but ended up not wanting what he thought he wanted. Then Demme articulated a desire for something “viscerally frightening” – Portman tried to write what would make her scared. She didn’t go back to the original film’s score. We are shown a clip from the film. Demme gives you freedom to experiment. Portman has worked with interesting directors. Feels her job is to serve the film, in particular the director, and the producer, but really the director. It is the hardest job for the director to give away, because they don’t know what you will do.
Portman then talks about the process. After being signed up, sits with the film on her own and gets to know it inside out, back to front. She read the book with NEVER LET ME GO. Gets to be part of it; naturally feels music within her and wants to add. Portman thinks about the themes of the film, and the questions NEVER LET ME GO needed to ask. We are shown the same clip three times: Without music (Portman sits at the piano shows us the theme); then we see the piano version – this would be what the director and producer would’ve heard 10 years ago, but now a mock-up with a real cellist; and the final version fully orchestrated. So much a part of the composer’s job is to pace the film. It’s happened on a couple of films where Portman’s music has not been used; it’s not too traumatic, she understands. And Portman has replaced others. Winning the Oscar for EMMA was an amazing experience, a total surprise. She is not fussed by being the first woman to do so, doesn’t think of herself as a “female composer”.
Advice from Portman for composers:
- Get as much experience as possible – student films, theatre.
- Don’t give up. She spent a lot of her 20s with patchy work.
- Can study it now.
Portman likes writing melody, but there’s not much melody in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and enjoyed that too. She thinks there’s too much music in films. Music budgets were wasted, e.g. having several music assistants, but has been scaled back dramatically. Have to work harder – paid less so have to accept more work. Her rescore of CHOCOLAT was the fastest she ever did – three and a half weeks – did enjoy the challemge. We see a clip. Portman doesn’t go to the cinema to gauge audience reaction to own films. She has seen the film so many times. But attends the cinema a lot.
The audience pose their questions. Portman doesn’t conduct, she requires a good conductor. Ravel and Bach were her influences, none in films; though she does admire John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. Is selective, important to work with interesting directors and projects that matter. Even small budget over big; though admits to occasionally doing it for the money. The next up is Diablo Cody’s directorial debut. Portman spent a year researching African instruments on BELOVED – Demme said no Western instruments – was great. Three adjectives from a director are usually enough. Unintentional that melodies in THE CIDER HOUSE RULES and MONA LISA SMILE were very similar. Asked about temp tracks: helps editor and director, but is a fine line of being helpful for her – could ruin it for her, she finds them scary. Opening titles should hint at themes, and closing credits have expanded versions of themes – nice to write a proper piece.
Much was discussed. Rachel Portman was charming, with a smile on her face throughout.