Film Music Interview

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


Debbie Wiseman has been composing for television since the 1988 drama-documentary A Vote For Hitler, and for feature films since Tom and Viv (1994). Debbie Wiseman also writes concert music, with such works as Four Love Poems of W.H. Auden and Conversation for Orchestra. In 2000 she had three new film scores due for release. This interview was conducted in anticipation of the albums for all three movies appearing to coincide with the UK release of Lighthouse, The Guilty and Tom's Midnight Garden. Ultimately the films were commercial failures, with Lighthouse and Tom's Midnight Garden gaining only the most limited of releases, The Guilty sitting in distribution limbo, presumably to appear on video eventually. More happily, the release of a sort of companion to the 1997 film Wilde, a programme of Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales, has been released to considerable acclaim. Gary Dalkin, Deputy Editor of Film Music on the Web, spoke to Debbie Wiseman about the new soundtracks, and also about some of the other highlights of her composing career.

GD: At what point in your life did you know you were going to become a composer, and did you always want to write for film and television?

DW: I knew I was going to be a composer almost from day one of learning to play the piano at 8 years old. I was fascinated by the piano and would sit for hours just picking out tunes. Although I loved learning the classical piano repertoire - particularly Mozart, Debussy and Beethoven - I was always more driven to making up my own pieces and playing those.

I only knew that I wanted to write for television and films after quite a few years studying composition at music college. I found it quite natural to write melodic music and I felt that I would get the most opportunities to write that kind of music in films.

GD: Does that mean that there is less difference between your film music and concert music than with some composers, who often have a quite different style between their music for the screen and their 'serious' music?

DW: I believe there is a small difference in style. My concert music tends to sound more 'dense' - there is no dialogue to think about - no sound effects, and therefore the music can take centre stage in a way that film music must occasionally avoid. The harmonies in my concert music are also at times more complex. In a concert hall, the music is the only thing for the audience to focus on - within the environment of a film, the audience has to absorb many other factors.

GD: You wrote the music for the BBC series Absolute Truth, a documentary about the Catholic Church. It's a very beautiful, at times intensely dramatic score. With the Western classical tradition essentially developing out of church music, was this an opportunity to write television music closer to your 'classical' style?

DW: I certainly think that the music for Absolute Truth was one of the most 'classical' scores I've written. The music needed to have an atmosphere of powerful religious Church music - with the same intensity as, say, a Bach Mass - and so I was keen to write a dramatic choral score. The choir is such an enduring religious image, and I was extremely fortunate to have the BBC Symphony Chorus perform the music.

GD: The choral writing in Absolute Truth flows seamlessly out of the Church choral tradition, while at the same time your own musical personality is clearly evident. You conducted Absolute Truth and played the piano part, which is something you often do. How important is it for you to conduct and perform your own music?

DW: Conducting my work is a real joy - it's the treat at the end of the composition process. It's important for me to conduct as by the time the score is ready to be recorded I know exactly what I want to achieve from the orchestra's performance. Every dynamic has to work with the pictures, and I, with the director, have worked on all those key elements of the score. It's very natural therefore for me to conduct the score. As far as performing goes, it's usually a case of practicality. If it's a large orchestra it won't make sense for me to play piano as well - there's quite enough to concentrate on with the conducting! However, if I'm using a smaller ensemble then I will often perform the piano part - it's cost effective for the producer too!

GD: Do you ever feel limited by having to be 'cost effective', or can it inspire more imaginative scoring. I'm particularly thinking of Warriors, where a few instruments or voices had great emotional impact.

DW: Budgetary considerations are always a factor in film scoring and we all have to work within them. However, producers know how much orchestras cost and generally they will have made provision for it if it's the kind of movie that would definitely require an orchestral score. Of course, not every movie requires a full orchestra - often, as you rightly mentioned in Warriors, a few well chosen instruments are all that's required.

GD: Apart from the haunting melodies, one of the things that makes Warriors work so well is that it catches the attention by sounding so different. The women's voices in particular are so striking. How did you chose the sounds you were going to use?

DW: The director of Warriors - Peter Kosminsky - achieves extremely naturalistic performances from the actors in an almost documentary style, and we felt that the music should feel as natural too; almost as if it could be heard by the soldiers in the streets. So we decided together that I should compose a central theme, which you first hear when they arrive in Bosnia, that sounded almost like a Bosnian folk song. Women's voices to sing that song seemed fittingly poignant when juxtaposed with scenes of massive tanks, armed forces and a vicious civil war - and they sang in a style that evolved as I composed; slightly strained and harsh in character. It was the counterpoint of the horrors of what we were seeing and the simplicity of the human voice that inspired the whole score. I also used ethnic flutes and violin - again to feel part of the landscape of the film.

GD: In 2000 you were supposed to have three very different feature films coming out. Of these, although you scored the supernatural drama Haunted (1995), Lighthouse was your first all out horror movie. What new challenges did the film bring?

DW: Lighthouse is a very dark horror movie about a serial killer, and the first challenge was to find a musical "voice" for the killer - Rook. I decided to use heavy, powerful percussion - in particular the metallic sound of an anvil. There was no room for anything remotely warm or "small" in character, so I used no woodwind at all and instead scored for a large string section, brass, percussion and electronics. The music for this kind of movie also has to take into consideration the sound effects - much more than you would do when writing a melodic score for, say, a costume drama. There is also little dialogue, so the music has to be powerful in the action sequences and provide pace and tension where needed.

GD: To go to the opposite extreme there was also Tom's Midnight Garden , which is a very English romantic, melodic score, perhaps in a similar vein to Wilde (1997). How easy is it to have to constantly switch between such very different projects?

DW: I personally love the idea of composing a full orchestral horror score, and then going straight into composing for a quiet intimate drama. It keeps me fresh, and it's part of the excitement of the process.

GD: And somewhere between the extremes of Lighthouse and Tom's Midnight Garden, is The Guilty, which is an American legal thriller. This marks your first big mainstream Hollywood feature. How different is it working on a major Hollywood feature to what you've done in the past?

DW: There is no difference - every project is unique in its own way and my job is to find that unique individual voice for the music. It's all about the collaboration process with the director, and using your skill as a composer to realise his or her vision of the score. That applies whether it's a major Hollywood studio picture or a small independent release.

GD: None of us have had a chance to see the film yet, so how would you describe your score for The Guilty?

DW: It's a dark, exciting, psychological thriller and I composed an orchestral score, with a female choir, and I also used weird and wonderful non-orchestral electronic sounds for an "otherworldly" effect. There is a lot of music in the movie - probably the most I've composed so far for a feature. I really enjoyed working on it as I had the opportunity to compose for fast-paced, action sequences as well as quiet, intimate scenes. Overall I would say it's one of the darkest, moodiest scores I've written to date.

GD: If you could write music for any film, real or imaginary, what would your dream project be?

DW: I suppose my dream project would be an epic drama of Gone With the Wind or Dances With Wolves proportions! I love writing powerful, emotive themes, so an epic drama would be a very welcome commission. Other than that I also love writing songs, particularly when they can relate to something thematic in the score. I had the chance of working with lyricist Don Black on Tom's Midnight Garden which was a wonderful experience. We wrote the end title song together - "After Always" - which was sung by Barbara Dickson. So I'd relish the opportunity of composing a score which also included a number of songs too.

GD: And finally, this might be something of a Sophie's Choice, but which scores mean most to you of those you've written to date, and why?

DW: This is such a hard question, as there are lots of different reasons why a score means something special to me. My first feature film commission Tom & Viv has a special significance; my first horror score Lighthouse - the list would continue in that vein I'm afraid! Of course...the most important score is always the one I'm about to compose!

© Gary S. Dalkin 2000

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