Sean Wilson talks to composer Ilan Eshkeri about his work on the BBC’s new David Attenborough nature series, A Perfect Planet…
Engrossing new BBC series A Perfect Planet envelops us in an awed sense of reverence for our home world. Narrated by David Attenborough, the series, a collaboration between BBC Earth and Silverback Films, is attuned to the beauty of nature, on both a major and minor scale. From the stately immensity of humpback whales off the coast of Alaska to the remarkable lifestyle of the fig wasp (which approaches something out of science-fiction), the film unfurls delight after delight. Yet the ongoing narrative of the series is underscored with disquieting sobriety, as the effects of man-made climate change threaten the natural wonders that we hold dear.
Amidst such a visual and thematic feast, how can the accompanying film composer possibly compete? What musical insights can they bring to the picture that will further illuminate our understanding of Earth’s astonishing biodiversity? Noted film and TV composer Ilan Eshkeri (Stardust; The White Crow) was the person tasked with this formidable challenge.
I caught up with Ilan to discuss the challenges of capturing nature in musical form, what it means to be awed by Earth’s natural beauty, and how he decided on his instrumental and thematic choices.
Firstly, Ilan, I love your work, particularly Stardust and Swallows and Amazons, which have delightful themes. That’s something that seems to have gone out of the window in recent years. I really enjoy talking to film composers because it seems like I’m shining a light on the backroom processes of the industry.
It’s funny you say that because little of my work in the last five years has been in film or television, really. I’ve really stepped away from that towards more of my own personal projects in dance or live shows. But once in a while, something that’s too good to turn down comes along, like this David Attenborough project.
When you’re pursuing projects such as dance, is that more liberating? Can you put your own personal spin on things without producers or directors trying to shape it in their own way?
Well, it’s interesting because you mentioned films not having themes. In my own opinion, I found that the film and TV industry was asking me for music that was very craft-based. Directors and producers, partly for safety, partly for control, didn’t really want an artistic collaborator, in my experience. And that’s OK, because there are incredible craftsmen out there, right? Just think of furniture in a house. But, nevertheless, it’s craft that serves a purpose. It doesn’t serve itself, it serves a function. And music for the sake of functionality is not why I got into this.
Of course, there’s an element of craft. You’re part of somebody else’s vision. But I always wanted an artistic collaboration. So, when that stopped happening, I stopped wanting to be involved in the projects, and instead sought to express myself in other ways. When I chose to do film projects, it will be with, for example, Ralph Fiennes. I’ve done three films with him and over the years he has become a very dear friend.
When I work with him, it’s genuinely an artistic collaboration. I hope I inspire him as much as he inspires me. Whatever crazy idea I like to throw at him, not only does he dive off the deep end with me, but he drags me down even further! He ensures that we stay the course. I love that. You create a set of rules or a particular concept, and you try to stick to that, for the sake of artistic integrity. That way, you’re able to create something with artistic worth, I think.
I decided that I didn’t want to be a craftsman. When I do film now, I always emphasize that at the very start of the process. This is what happened when I first met A Perfect Planet producer Huw Cordey. He asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said yes, but this is the way that I want to do it. I want to take a very contemporary approach and not in the way that one would traditionally tackle a documentary of this sort. If you don’t like that idea, then please don’t hire me. If you want to come on this journey with me, and do something different and interesting, then let’s do it.
I’m fortunate that I’m far along enough in my career that I’m able to say those things. I’m able to pick and choose a bit. But I believe that if I do good work, then more good work will follow. And Huw and everybody else in the team at Silverback Films really went for it. Every idea that I threw at them, they embraced. They went on that journey with me and I feel it resulted in something that’s not just a great programme but something possessing great artistic integrity. I’m really proud of it.
How did Huw and the Silverback team initially approach you to write the score?
There were three directors on the project: Nick Jordan, Ed Charles and Huw Cordey. Huw, as I said, is also the series producer. Nick Jordan I had worked with before. In fact, I’ve known him since my early twenties, back when I did my very first feature film that nobody ever saw. We’ve only worked together one other time but, 20 years later, he suggested me to Huw. I’d done shows with David Attenborough before, and this would become my fourth. Huw, it turns out, liked what I said, and I liked what he said, too. I believed we would have a good creative collaboration.
Clearly, the documentary invites us to revel in the awe-inspiring beauty of planet Earth. An affinity for nature and wildlife often sets in with people at a young age. Do you remember having a formative experience, or experiences, like that?
I wonder if I can answer this question through the eyes of my five-year-old daughter. Huw, the series producer, said from the start that this is a celebration of our planet. I really took that to heart. That’s what inspired the main theme. That’s the other thing, by the way. I said, at the very start, that I want a theme that we can come back to, again and again. Often, these programmes just roll on and on and can seem musically rudderless.
I wanted this really strong, repetitive theme, sometimes in major, sometimes in minor, but it keeps coming back with choir, arpeggios, piano and so on. I wrote this piece of music that was really joyful and a celebration, but it’s also about hope. I realized that you can see all of these incredible things in nature, but when you think about how we need to look after the planet, that’s redolent in very simple ways.
David Attenborough talks about education all the time, and I’m inspired by him. We have to make a difference, but we also have a duty and an obligation to teach the next generation. It really made me think about things I do around the house, like telling my daughter about what goes in the recycling, which then prompts questions from her. Growing up, I was born in the 1970s. Most of my childhood was in the 1980s. We didn’t have anything like that. We didn’t know about recycling! No-one talked about that. The closest thing we had to do with climate was acid rain.
So, I started thinking about all this from my daughter’s point of view. After all, this generation of children will grow up to become the next scientists, the next business leaders, the world leaders. They will naturally have a different world view about all of this stuff because it will have been ingrained in their DNA from a very young age. It doesn’t absolve us from starting to make a difference now, but I think we’ll see a significant shift.
Looking at the world through my daughter’s eyes makes me remember what it was like when I was a child. During the lockdown, I’d be sat writing in my studio, which is located in the garden, and before long I’d see her lying on the grass looking at a daisy. At that age, four or five years old, that daisy is every bit as wondrous as the wildebeest running through the plains in Africa. It’s great to remember that, and I think the programme is trying to reinforce that. Every bit of nature around us is precious and incredible.
I love the way that your music is relative to the scale of what we’re looking at, ranging from epic sweep to something more intimate.
I recorded the score with a contemporary ensemble, partly because I wanted to appeal to a younger audience. But also because I wanted to be intimate. Large-scale orchestral stuff can oddly seem quite far away. A piano playing a melody, a guitar playing a theme – these are very intimate sounds that people relate to more easily. Alongside that, there are symphonic moments, but I really wanted to root the score in this intimacy.
One of the scenes demonstrating that approach really well is the desert rain frog in episode three. You use pizzicato strings and oboe to capture this really endearing creature. It shows how music can craft, and also reinforce, a sense of physicality relative to the object or character we’re seeing.
Like so many of the pieces, that one started on guitar. I used a lot of guitar and Wurlitzer, an electronic piano. And then I added in the pizzicato. There’s also ukelele and hand percussion in there. The whole band ethos underpins the entire score. Then, you add a bit of harp, a tiny section of strings here and there, and finally the lead line in the form of the oboe, because it seemed like a sort of croaky, reedy instrument to depict a frog. That seemed like a good lead voice for it.
What was the ensemble that performed the score?
The keyboards were pretty much all me, and the guitars were Tim Wheeler, from the band Ash. He’s a good friend of mine and I always like to get him involved in projects where possible. He’s an incredible guitarist and an extraordinary musician all round. We’ve written film scores together so it’s a very easy collaboration.
However, on this occasion, I was in lockdown and Tim was meant to be on tour. But he’d got stuck in Ireland staying at his mum’s place in the countryside. [laughs] He was really quite bored so he played the guitars on all of it! [laughs] We had a fun time doing that. A lot of the basses are Marli Wren, who’s worked with me for many years at the studio, a talented young composer. The drum ensemble is Tim Carter out of Kasabian. We recorded a bunch of the score here in London. All the soloists were recorded in London, but we needed to record the strings remotely in Iceland, because we couldn’t put a London orchestra together during lockdown.
Then my friend, and brilliant composer, Atli Örvarsson, conducted remotely for me in Iceland. The list goes on and on. There were some brilliant people involved. It caught the spirit of the programme: different people from different places in the world, coming together to do something better. Ultimately, it all fell on the shoulders of my brilliant editor and producer Steve McLaughlin, with whom I’ve worked since the beginning on everything. He had to take these many, many musicians from across the world, put them all together, and make them sound in time and in tune.
I’ve interviewed several composers now, including yourself, who’ve had to put their scores together remotely while in lockdown. I’m just astonished that it can come off. It reinforces the importance of a great mix, recording something remotely to make it sound like everyone was recorded together in the room organically.
The technology exists now that allows us to do it. It sounds like a technical job but actually, it’s a really artistic job. It’s all about the vibe. When the right sounds at the right levels with the right EQs, the right amount of gubbins all come together, it springs to life. Sometimes you listen to these things, they can sound flat. But in the hands of the right person, it’s like magic. I’ll put it in front of Steve and he’ll hardly do anything, he’ll just move a few faders, and all of a sudden, it’ll sound incredible. There’s something about the exacting detail in the microscopic chemistry in those fingertips on those faders. That is artistic.
How involved is David Attenborough himself in the music for A Perfect Planet? Does he take great pride in that?
Well, the thing is David isn’t the producer, nor is he the director. So I’m not working directly with him on the music. But, of course, if he’s recorded his narration first, I’m inspired by the rhythm and the pace of his words. When I’m writing the music, he’s like my lead singer, right? There are times when I’ve written the music first and he’ll listen to it as he’s making the recording. He loves his music and apparently he’s a really talented pianist. If he didn’t like the music, he’d let it be known, I’m sure, but the feedback was pretty good on this one.
I had actually hoped he was going to play a bit of piano on this soundtrack. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be due to lockdown and everything. The title piece, ‘A Perfect Planet’, begins with piano only and I thought it would be great if David played that, after which everyone else joins in. That fits in with his message, right? Then, when I was working on this piece, my daughter started singing it. I was a bit daunted at first because simple tunes often sound exactly that, like they’re overly simplistic.
Bear in mind that my daughter is absolutely not my number one fan. We were on a plane once watching the Shaun the Sheep Movie, and when I told her that I’d composed the music, she switched it off. [laughs] But back to A Perfect Planet. She started singing the tune, making me realise that I’d composed something catchy enough for young kids to sing. I also got several school choirs to sing on it, and those kids at the time had no idea what it was for. When they later found out, they were so inspired. In some lofty way, I really hope that the music can inspire children to take more of an interest in climate change and sustainability.
What are the challenges inherent in scoring objective, documentary reality versus something fantastical like Stardust? Are there shared principles?
For sure, yeah. There are shared principles across any kind of storytelling through music. Whether it’s a ballet, a video game, a TV show, film, whatever, they all present their unique challenges. Early in my career, I did quite a lot of medical documentaries and those are very difficult. Because if you pushed too hard, the audience felt manipulated, but if you didn’t do enough, it was tedious. If the audience felt manipulated, then they stopped trusting the authoritative narrative of the programme.
So you had to get the emotion bang on, in that instance. Whereas, if you’re doing Stardust, then the audience wants to be emotionally manipulated. The whole thing involves the suspension of disbelief, and you take the audience on a ride. They buy into that. In the case of A Perfect Planet, it’s a bit like a cartoon. You’re imposing emotion onto the animals. When you see people in a documentary, you’re naturally attuned to that. But when you see, for instance, a fox trying to eat an otter, you earn a certain degree of poetic licence.
Where it got really difficult was in the fifth episode, where we are focused on humans. I really needed to hold back on the music and I talked a lot about the filmmakers. I said we really mustn’t over-dramatize this because we will undermine the authority of the message. The other thing that’s challenging about a series like this is you’re essentially writing 50 short films. Each animal character is its own story. It’s a marathon, for sure.
It must be a fine line between anthropomorphizing the animals through music, and yet making them dramatically engaging at the same time.
The thing is, David reminds us that they are animals, and we don’t necessarily relate. But the things we see these creatures do are things we can relate to. This animal is giving birth, this animal is mating and so on. These are things we do relate to, right? This animal’s hungry, this animal’s scared and threatened. So we can relate to those emotions and we have to try and be as truthful as possible.
One final question. If you could select one film score cue, not your own, from cinema history, and put it on the ultimate film composer playlist, what would it be?
Here’s one that I love. The very first film to have a proper score attached to it was King Kong in 1933. It’s by Max Steiner. There’s opening title music, as one would expect. But the first proper cue in the movie is a work of utter genius. They get on the boat, including Fay Wray, they leave New York and they’re heading towards Skull Island.
For the first 20 minutes of the movie, there isn’t a single note of music. Then, this mist descends and the boat heads into it. They’re all lost, but there still isn’t any music. As the boat comes out of the mist and they see Skull Island for the first time, it marks the moment where you’ve left reality and entered fantasy for the first time.
At that moment, you get the first bit of film music ever. It’s a great bit of music, but there’s also something incredibly poetic about that music being cued up at that moment. All of the ideas encompassed in that are foundational ideas as to how film music works. Max Steiner is very often not revered enough. For me, it’s him and then Bernard Herrmann. It’s a pivotal moment in cinematic history but one that’s under-remembered.
Many thanks to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time for this interview.
A Perfect Planet is showing on BBC One, and all episodes are now available on BBC iPlayer.