Alex Moreland chats to Christopher Willis about The Death of Stalin, his work with Disney, and more…
So, first of all, how did you come to be involved in The Death of Stalin?
Well it grew out of working with Armando [Iannucci, director of The Death of Stalin] on Veep. We’d been working together on Veep since the start of the show, and after that finished, we were still in touch, and had a lot of interesting musical and cinematic conversations. Conversations about music and film and all that, and lucky enough for me he asked me if I’d be interested in working on Stalin, which he was planning on working on next.
Can you tell us a little bit about the music and the sound style of the film?
Absolutely, yeah. The starting point was thinking about Soviet music from the 1950s, of which there was a lot, you know, there was a whole stable of Soviet concert composers who also wrote for movies in that period. Shostakovich being the most famous, and also Prokofiev who was slightly complicated one, because he came and went, and Weinburg. In fact, there’s a large number of others who are not so famous. And we were thinking for a long time about the tone of it. There needed to be something that would give you the nervousness of the film and genuine danger, but also not tap into a straightforward drama. And going forward, funnily enough, most period dramas are known to tend to limit the sound of the music on the set, so there was something very interesting in getting closer to that sound.
It was a lot more extreme, more emotionally extreme, a lot louder and faster and more extreme than other music you’d have in a drama about the same period. But we not only managed to add lots of music from that period, we were going forward talking about things we liked and why we liked them. There’s a manic quality to a lot of music from that time, Shostakovich and Weinburg, it sounds like it’s trying to be happy but it doesn’t seem to manage it! There’s a sort of manic quality, so we thought that would be very appropriate for the sound of the film.
Click here for an exclusive listen to the soundtrack for The Death of Stalin – available from iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon Music by Gaumont
What’s your process like, from when you first start working to the finished product?
I generally start working at the piano. I’ll sit at the piano and start trying to work out the most basic materials. I won’t really be happy until I’ve got something that feels like a traditional theme most of the time. Even if the score ends up being very non-traditional and we don’t hear the theme very often. And I try to be not too violently self-critical at that stage, I’ll write themes down even though I have lots of misgivings about them. So, I might come up with a whole page of motifs and melodies and I only need one or two. Some, very often, the ones that I didn’t use, will turn out to be useful later, but they will be slightly similar, they will be related and that’s mostly so there’s work that wasn’t wasted.
Eventually I’ll move over to working in my studio on a set of computers, so I can gather the music up and show it to who I’m working for. If it’s for orchestra, which Stalin was, give them a version of orchestra that’s rendered up. Later on, when we’re happy with everything, we forget the computers and we orchestrated it, and when it came to Stalin we recorded in a Galaxy Studios in Belgium and we had a huge orchestra, very much like the ones, Soviet orchestras of the 50s, an unusually large orchestra. Very intensive. Where a normal film orchestra now has three flutes and one oboe and two clarinets, we had four flutes and four oboes and four clarinets. Many, many more parts. Much more paper to set a very big, capacious sound.
Do you find that, using that kind of Russian style orchestra, adds to a level of authenticity to it?
Yes. Yeah, I think that’s definitely a part of it. We even spent some time in a studio and in the mix thinking about perhaps not letting it sound acoustically too much like a film score, there’s something very transporting about actually mimicking the microphones and the horns that you might commonly hear in classical recording. Especially a slightly older classical recording. All that stuff helps to put you in the time and place. The film looks very authentic too. The look of it is fantastically, and feels, fantastically vintage.
Now, you also work on the Mickey Mouse shorts. I was wondering how your approach to those differs to the Death of Stalin and other pieces?
Yes. Right, right. Well in cinema it’s as far as nowadays you always need to care about your research before I start anything. And I wouldn’t have expected that that would be the case. I was actually a musicologist before I became a composer. It’s strange that that’s become the pattern, that I actually kind of use some of that training every time with Mickey Mouse. We’re travelling around the world and we’re doing an episode that’s, an episode in Brazil where I’ll have to research the samba traditions. Now Stalin, it was the Russian stuff I researched. I stayed up all night looking at the Russian music before I felt I was able to write anything that felt kind of authentic. Sorry, you asked for the difference to it, didn’t you?
I mean, that a part of it as well, isn’t it?
Well the starting point is different, because in a cartoon, you expect to be ‘in’, you expect to be leant on, if I can call it that. You expect to do a lot of the work in scenes where there’s no dialogue. And I think when I’m doing a comedy, particularly one with a man who knows where he’s coming from with it, I tend to seem not needed most of the time. Because you’re concentrating on what people are saying and the silence is very eloquent. But as you develop ideas, sometimes you end up having to meet in the middle. Sometimes you do get out of your way in cartoons, and sometimes you find, even in Armando’s type of filmmaking, that you end up in and taking centre stage quite a lot. There’s only a few moments in Stalin that are very stylised and when music does grow suddenly, suddenly takes centre stage. So, it certainly wasn’t too anarchical, like a single camera kind of a movie.
Do you find you have a preference between scoring for television or film?
I can’t say that I do actually. They both have their own challenges and delight. The great thing about doing a TV show is consistency, that you really get to explore the material that you’ve done, that you’ve put in place. I did another show for Disney called The Lion Guard, it’s a spinoff of The Lion King, and that’s a show where the language is basically the same each week, except when they’re telling the character something new that’s being introduced. And it’s amazing to me the way after 2 or 3 years, and I’m still finding that the original material can be turned around in new ways and slowed down, darkened, brightened, all these things. Which of course, if it had just been a film, then you would never have discovered all of that.
I was also going ask – who would you say are your musical influences?
Well, I grew up very much on classical music. I think a lot of composers are wary of saying they admire Mozart for one reason or another, I think because it can be so intimidating. I think Mozart is just incredible, I listen to and think about Mozart a lot. But I also grew up listening to a lot of bands. I’m a big, big fan of Queen, I think Queen are amazing.
I did not grow up really listening to film music, per se. That was it. I would say I was a film nut, I was really obsessed with films kind of on the side, you know. But I was mostly thinking about music all the time. But I wouldn’t, sort of, buy film music and listen to film music; it was only much later that I realised I loved music out of films and thought it would be great to put the two things together.
I suppose, leading on from that, what would your desert island discs be?
That’s something you couldn’t ask an American composer, because they wouldn’t know what it meant! Desert island discs? Um, I suppose I should – is it still Sue Lawley who does it? I’m not sure, maybe it is. Anyway, I would have to put Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations on there, because I can’t sleep without listening to that recording. I’d definitely put Star Wars on there, because John Williams is one of my absolute heroes. Do you want me to think of 10 different Island discs for you?
I believe five is traditional…?
Oh, that’s not very many is it? There’s another composer that’s particularly well known that I love, that’s Scarlatti. Horowitz playing Scarlatti is amazing, one of my favourite records ever.
I suppose two more?
Oh, I see, I’m sorry!
I mean, if you can make do with three… I’m sure three’s enough for a desert island.
Oh, I see. Uh… what else? I’d have to choose… maybe put Night at the Opera by Queen on there. That’d be super. I’d wear that out for sure. Maybe some Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Oh, and that’s five!
Two records, 2 CDs and piano music. I might start to find that a bit tedious. Maybe I’ll take Glenn Gould off there, because I know it well enough to destroy it. Maybe instead of that, I’d have something like, maybe… Alpensinfonie by Richard Strauss. That would keep me immersed for hours, eating my coconuts. Do you know, I used the German name there, but the English name’s An Alpine Symphony.
Just a final question then – what would you say is the most important thing you’d like someone to take away from your work, from your music?
Goodness… I think, like any really creative film composer, the most important thing for me is the story that you’re watching. I want to feel like what I’m doing highlights those interesting details; that what you’re listening to supports what you’re watching. Otherwise the whole exercise, you know, falls down
Christopher Willis, thank you very much!
The Death of Stalin is in UK cinemas now.