Film Music on the Web
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger: Len@musicweb.force9.co.uk
George Fenton talks to Paul Tonks
"It's about boy meets girl, and the fact that they couldn't be less likely through circumstance to ever get it together." In a nutshell, that is composer George Fenton's take on 'Ever After' - the new cinematic version of the classic 'Cinderella' fable. Immediately there is the sense of love conquering all in that simple précis. The reasons for his choice of words become apparent as George talks about the scoring experience.
His first exposure to the picture came during a hiatus in the schedule of his latest project 'The Kiss'. "I suddenly had two months free, and had just done a picture for Fox. They had a composer drop out on this, so they asked me. It was very fortuitous timing. They sent me the script, but I couldn't really get the tone of it from that. Besides which I prefer to react to what I see rather than what I read. That's part of a composer's job really. The director came over and showed me the film in his hotel. I could tell there would be a lot of music to do in a short space of time. To be honest I'd prepared myself to say 'no'. I thought I was just going along to be polite. But I was so knocked out by the film; and by him. He's completely unpretentious about it. His sense of enjoyment is in the picture. I know it's a cliché from composers now to say 'oh I only had...' But on this I had four and a half weeks to do 88 minutes. I knew it would be a lot of work, and I was a little frightened by it ! So I just sat myself down and did it. When you know that there isn't time to come back to a project you put a lot of pressure on yourself."
That hotel room viewing clinched the assignment despite "sections that I thought would be a horrendous amount of work". So what persuaded him ? "Overall it wasn't any musical thought like 'oh yes, I know what to do with this'. It was just that I found the film so moving. It completely took me by surprise. I was crying all the way through it. There are moments that are so touching. I was like a baby ! It's genuinely funny as well. I found it enchanting. I thought how churlish not to want to be part of this beautiful, positive thing."
MUSIC FROM THE SOUL
George's career demonstrates a trained eye for what will be beautiful in film. From 'Ghandi' and 'Dangerous Liaisons', through 'Shadowlands' to 'Dangerous Beauty'; so many of his projects are a choice visual feast. Another recurrence is the theme of romance through many of his films. The direct inference of the type of score he writes gave the composer pause for thought.
"I can only say that writing is very solitary. I write quite slowly - that is to say I have a rapid output, but write slowly. If you have a romantic soul in terms of loss as well as gain and tragedy, disappointment or whatever, it's not hard to get in touch with in writing music. There's a degree to which it's not a social activity, it's very lonely. In those quiet hours, your mind drifts through lots and lots of events in your life. Regrets and happiness that inevitably come out. I also think there's a degree to which music should be there to allow people to feel things that they can't necessarily touch without it. It allows you to indulge in your feelings. It's like a licence to indulge. Just as it's a licence to let you dance. I do have a capacity to take my sense of romanticism to various depths, and it's something I learn more about not only as I go on writing music, but as I go through life. Of being able to separate levels of emotional depth, and romantic depth. At the end of the day this is a fairy story, not one of the great true tragedies in literature. It's something that has a happiness. I feel I try to make music tell the truth. A director said to me when I first started: 'when you spot a film, you've got to remember that the audience is relying on the music to tell the truth'. You have the responsibility not to sell the film short. Nobody's ever said I write romantic music before ! But it's absolutely true..."
Inspiration to express that romantic soul was something he didn't have to look hard for in the film.
"The Prince and Danielle are fascinated by each other. Every possible object is thrown in their way, yet their love triumphs. It's set theoretically in the Renaissance, but there isn't a shred of that in the tone of the film. Certainly not in the score. I've done a lot of period music before, and used period instruments. I like using them. Like when I did The Crucible. It was absolutely not on the cards for this. Although I did use a selection of period end-blown flutes and recorders. I think it's potentially for quite a young audience, and rightly they don't like the idea of blinding them with science. It's huge fun. Leonardo Da Vinci's a character in it. In fact he's the fairy godfather ! He is on his way to the court of the King of France, and is party to the meeting between the Prince and "Cinderella". He becomes the catalyst and the voice of truth. She's born of lower noble birth. Her mother died when she was little, so her father brought her up. She's a bit of a tomboy. Her father goes away on busy, comes back with a new wife who has two daughters - that's Angelica Houston. The father goes away again and dies of a heartache. So Drew Barrymore is left in the care of the step-mother, who is a terrible tyrant. She basically turns her into a slave girl, and is incredibly condescending towards her. Then Danielle meets the Prince, as do the sisters. It's quite close to the original fairy tale set-up, but all the characters are in it all the time. It's not about her stuck in a kitchen and one day someone waves a wand. She has various meetings with the Prince. She pretends to be a noble in order to get some servants released that Angelica Houston has sold. Every time she sees the Prince again she has to pretend she's that noble woman. It's almost farcical at times."
A SOCIAL SOUNDTRACK
The number one session orchestra in London, made up of the best session musicians came together to record at Air Lyndhurst Studios. The engineer was John Richards, who George has worked with for years since the breakthrough score for 'Ghandi'. Complementing the orchestra were The Choir of Magdelene College, Oxford. "That was about 96 instrumentalists then on my first day. The rest of the time between 70 and 85. I had a lot of horns. I wanted the score to have a lot of strings. Because you need it for that sound. The sound of a big orchestra is about strong and weak. You get this effect of strings recording in London too - the string playing is the best in the world. We would never have got that sound anywhere else. I have the greatest respect for the musicians in Los Angeles. In many areas they are the best in the world. But the sound isn't the same. It's not the way they like to play - more likely the way they are asked to play. I did the asking again on this. I always conduct for two reasons. It's the only performance I get to give ! Also I'm so familiar with the film, that I don't really have to think about it. I feel there are nuances in the cutting rhythms of the picture that no-one else will get. The players are very forgiving - that's not just in London, but in any city. If they don't feel you're there to give them a hard time, they'll forgive you any lapses in style. I know I've got better at it. Now that I realise I do write romantic scores I can say that I record in a way that very few people do any more - without a click track. I basically run the picture and wave."
"I had a week of sessions. 6 double days. They went incredibly smoothly. The director flew in on the day I started recording. He arrived half an hour after I started and he hadn't heard one note. He walked in and we were about to play the main theme. That was the closest I've come to vomiting with nerves. There were almost one hundred people around. If he didn't like it I was stuffed ! I'd asked him if he was going to be OK not hearing it, and he'd said he knew me and knew it would be fine. They were incredibly easy sessions. It was simply great. Musicians like to pretend they're not interested in things, but you can always tell from the session if you're doing something worthwhile because they start to watch things. They got a good feeling obviously. They were into the whole thing. It was almost like a massive social event." Also in on the party were the band Texas, who has a song ('Put Your Arms Around Me') in the film.
"I always knew there would be a song at the end. I was around when they made the decision. It wasn't anything to do with me though. I like Texas, and she has a fantastic voice. They came to the sessions. But I didn't meet them because I was in the studio. They were very enthusiastic, and seemed to be nice enough folks. I do like that song very much too."
GETTING A LITTLE ACTION
Having dwelled upon George's romantic leanings it has to be said that 'Ever After' does feature some moments of rollicking adventure. "There are quite a lot of fun action things in the film. I was asked to, and I tried to write what I would call a traditionally romantic score. In a rather classic way. So even the action cues to a certain extent owe something to Korngold. That's because it is what it is. It didn't want to suddenly turn into 'The Terminator' or something ! But with a different director it could have. Andy was very clear about it." Presumably there haven't been any other directors wanting that blockbuster boisterousness from George ?
"I haven't done an action film. That's not because I didn't want to. The few times I've been asked, I've not been able to. People think that getting me for an action score is a bit too much hard work. All they basically want is a roaringly rocking score. I'd love to because it would be different. In a curious way when you start you imagine you have no particular style. As the years go by you realise that you do. Given a certain set of notes, you will always arrange them in a certain way. It's how people know who writes what. Sometimes I curse it actually. Yet I can't help it. Some of it's because I'm English, not American. Or Male, not female. Everything in your life tends to imprint itself. You look back and realise that actually you did write things certain ways."
With that acknowledgement of style, the next inevitable realisation is of inspiration. "A good example is 'Shadowlands' which was in many ways very personal to me. I don't mean in terms of similarities in events in the story, but a lot of my background is there. I started in church music. I went to school in Oxford. I lived in the northern hills. That's where Elgar lived." All potent source experience to tap into. Musically though, George evolved into the writing more than the performance. "I'm not really a keyboard player now, although I think it's handy. It's all very well sitting down at a table to write, but a keyboard brings you face to face. It gives you an instant response. I used to play guitar for a living. Anything with strings on. Now I don't play at all except for a laugh."
As he stated before, the only performance he gets of any kind is with the orchestra at the recording stage. Strangely he's never been keen to advertise the fact. "I've always had the choice of having a 'composed & conducted by' credit in a film's main titles. But I've always just been happy with 'music' ! The other would seem along the lines of the director getting 'thought up & dreamt by'.
I'm a great believer that most people aren't interested, and if they are they'll look into it. Anybody can have that full credit though. Ennio Morricone at one point must have suffered from a massive bout if insecurity. He had 'music composed, conducted, and arranged by' I remember." So what's the reward ? Where's the applause ?
"All the fun of this job is when you get a good film; one that doesn't let you down. 'Ever After' was like that. Every aspect of making films is very tough I know. The tremendous payback is when you have a really great film, a great director and your orchestra plays the big theme for them - that's fantastic. For someone who wanted to write music for a living - that's my big buzz. The other bits I don't really care about. If the album's taken care of properly that's even nicer. In the time you're writing and have the orchestra - it's your picture. It's in your grip. That's the biggest kick."
George's next picture will be 'You've Got Mail' - a romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. You can almost hear the romantic souls' silent reflection from his writing studio...
© PAUL TONKS 1998