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Composer Talk | Composers
Interview James Seymour Brett
The son of a professional flautist, British composer and conductor James Brett ventured into the film scoring world shortly after graduating from The Royal Academy in 1997 when renowned film composer Michael Kamen hired him to be his assistant. James collaborated with Kamen on a number of projects including X-Men, The Iron Giant, and the mini series Band of Brothers. Around this time, James also assisted as a musical director for the famous concert featuring Metallica and The San Francisco Symphony — a truly groundbreaking event.
James has also scored a number of films and TV shows, most notably the animated film ‘Planet 51,’ and the TV series ‘Crusoe.’ He has also helped in the orchestrations and arrangements of other film scores including 2012 and AVP: Alien vs. Predator.
James’ music does not only live within the film and TV realm, but more importantly, in some of the most successful world arena shows. 'Walking With Dinosaurs,' which is still touring around the globe, featured animatronic dinosaurs choreographed to over 80 minutes of music composed by Brett.
More recently, James composed music for the critically acclaimed arena spectacle, 'Batman: Live,' currently playing in the UK. This show is scheduled to tour North America in the summer of 2012.
James, first of all let me thank you for making the time for this interview.
To start off, I would like to discuss your musical background and musical influences and when you first started showing interest in film scores.
I learnt to read music in a very old fashioned and traditional way – at my local church choir aged 9 onwards. I loved all the music and back then (80s) it was still a viable route to gain live musical experience, discipline etc.
My father is a professional flautist and used to do regular sessions for John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry – all the greats and so he was a great route into the fringes of the music world as a kid. I remember hearing him in an orchestral rehearsal when I was quite young and being amazed by the sound; I knew I wanted to have something to do with that world but didn’t know how on earth I’d manage it. Then, when I was at secondary school the composing bug started to bite and I started to pick out chords and tunes on the piano, but the key: knowing how to notate it down, thanks to my choirmaster when I was 9 and 10 years old.
Your first introduction to the film scoring world was in the late 90‘s when you began assisting Michael Kamen on a variety of projects. Can you discuss the extent of your work and what was it like to work with one of Hollywood’s most renowned composers?
I was really flying high having just finished a degree at the Royal Academy Of Music in London – I was top dog and very cocky and confident. In your own naive way when you are 22 years old you actually think that you could write Spielberg’s next film score there and then – you know no fear, you’re bulletproof. Of course the reality is that you are about to get on a new ladder right at the bottom rung again!
I was very lucky to meet Michael due to a mutual contact (his orchestrator was my head of studies at the Academy) and I enjoyed some wonderful years alongside him. In many ways, assisting Michael was a perfect job for a guy like me as he was quite chaotic in his work method and it gave me an opportunity to make myself indispensable. He’d improvise a lot of his music and was not the greatest at file keeping, cue sheets etc., so I tried my best to get on top of all that and I think he appreciated my efforts. In the beginning I was getting the coffees, filing, running errands – really glamorous stuff like that — but over time I progressed to spotting meetings, managing sessions, dealing with studios, liaising with the contractor and eventually orchestrating and conducting as well as some ghost writing on a few projects. As you can imagine, this was the real education and a perfect apprenticeship as a film composer. The other huge benefit was gaining REAL confidence as to how things were ACTUALLY done – Michael was a legend to me and really took me under his wing, he got me started.
Certainly, it is worth noting that aside from your major independent projects, you’ve played a big role in various productions as an arranger and musical director. The 1999 Metallica concert with the San Francisco Symphony comes to mind. Can you talk more about your role in these?
The Metallica project was pure Michael Kamen. As I’m sure you are aware he was the big Rock’n’Roll guy who perfectly straddled the classical and rock worlds and had collaborated on many seminal works including ‘The Wall’ with Pink Floyd. As such he had worked on the Black Album with Metallica so when they were a little restless and in search of a challenge he was asked to work on a live album with orchestra.
So, suddenly, I was handed a grubby bit of paper with a list of songs that had been hastily jotted down in some Vegas hotel room and charged with the task of locating all these tracks. At that stage in my life I was listening to film scores a lot and some old classic rock and a bit of chart stuff so had no idea what Enter Sandman, Battery, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Master Of Puppets were…. just names on a bit of paper. The tracks blew my mind and we had a brilliant few months working out the arrangements and then the concert. I can assure you it was quite an experience for an English grammar boy with a church choir background to go on stage with Metallica surrounded by thousands of their fans!
Now, James, let’s talk about the quite remarkable music you wrote for the movie Planet 51. This is a beautifully orchestrated score for a very enjoyable film. Having worked with Kamen for The Iron Giant (1999), did you feel more confident and knowledgeable about the genre?
I think working on The Iron Giant did give me an insight into how animation works. There was an immediately different feeling on that movie compared with the live action stuff we’d worked on. Similarly with Planet 51, I knew that the experience was going to be special from the moment I walked into the studio and saw all the mood boards, concept art, legions of geeky guys round screens working on the smallest details – it is a creative person’s perfect scenario. I really don’t think there is the same degree of love and affection for every frame anywhere else in our business – is it because they spend so long making these films? I don’t know, but I like the geeks – they are cool in their own way!
This score features everything from comedic to sentimental to some great action music. Do you feel like only an animated movie can give you this much freedom as a composer?
In short no, but I understand what you mean. My mantra is to provide colour and interest in music wherever possible and there is no doubt that there are opportunities in animation to do this. However, why should this be the case? I mean, look at Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri and of course John Williams, these guys are known for wonderful writing that covers every emotional high and low and they do it all with colour, orchestral skill and a great deal of sophistication. There are directors out there who will allow a bit more musical scope but the fashion these days is more and more towards “less is more”! I believe the reason that scores are becoming less and less adventurous is that certain styles have taken a generic stranglehold on the collective perception of what “music does in a film” – this has suffocated a lot of talent and musical ambition unfortunately. It is a shame but I see myself as “old school” and am happy to try to keep on with as adventurous a symphonic sound that I can.
Many of your cues just hit so many things on screen while retaining a cohesive and well developed form. Did you find yourself creating complex tempo maps for some cues, much like cartoon composers have been doing since the Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley era?
This is good question and the short answer is no again. When I was starting out I was obsessed and quite seduced by the computer driven aspect of film scoring. It was amazing to me that you could calculate hit points and perform all sorts of complicated tricks with the tempo track. What I have learned however, is that actually 9 times out of 10 you can find a tempo that works with the scene overall and just by changing meters and paying attention to the orchestration you are able to shape the music around the scene effectively. It is interesting that you bring up the classic composers of cartoons as, in modern times “mickey-mousing” (i.e. overuse of hitpoints) is considered a big no-no, but you would be amazed how many things you are in fact asked to do within a short space of time musically. The trick is to try and find a fluency and through line of momentum so the music doesn’t feel too stop-start. Also, never mention Mickey Mouse in a meeting.
It’s really such a shame knowing that this score did not get a soundtrack release. Do you know if this could change in the near future? Really, this would be a must-have album for any film music fan.
It is very kind of you to say that about the score. Certainly I would love to have had a full release but unfortunately I ended up with a small orchestral suite on the song album. I’m not sure how these things work, who does one lobby? It is always remarkable to me that in this day and age companies who have paid for the product (in this case a full and very expensive soundtrack) do not just get it out there, even with the relatively small sales that there are in this portion of the music business. Getting an album up online is easy and inexpensive and they’d be recouping something….
I do update my website with promotional material from my scores for anyone interested.
Before we start talking about Batman: Live, can you briefly discuss Walking With Dinosaurs, a show that has been hugely successful worldwide and, more importantly, which has been incredibly important in creating this new form of family entertainment spectacle.
Walking With Dinosaurs was a big BBC franchise for television which had done wonderfully well but ultimately was on the shelf having been thoroughly exploited. In 2005 however, I was approached to do a “live” show and initially wondered what on earth they could mean. It turned out that a team of Australians had developed technology that would bring back the dinosaurs, full scale, life sized and just metres from audiences. The technical challenges were immense as I had to work out how to construct a score that would work with “creatures” that were performing via three operators live every night. The dinosaurs are not on tracks, they are not pre programmed, they are manipulated by highly skilled puppeteers and you would be amazed as to how life like they are – audiences literally scream at the big ones and reach out to touch the friendlier ones.
The music was pre-recorded by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and took about three months to compose with a further month in rehearsals editing and tweaking till I had something that worked in performance. Ultimately it is like a ballet in many respects as the dinosaurs follow their choreographed journeys around the stage and hit “marks” in the score as the music is played back. There is also a narrator who works live – in fact most of the show triggers off sync points in the score.
I think that this arena show was popular due to the universal nature of the dinosaurs; after all, no one country can lay claim to this part of the earth’s history and absolutely everyone from young to old seems interested in seeing the majestic scale of it all.
Interestingly, both shows share the same executive producer. Would you say the discussions regarding the requirements — deadline, musical tone, budget, musicians — considerably differed for Batman: Live at the time you were first briefed about this new endeavor?
I went into meetings on Batman knowing that we would be in similar territory and, based on the success of the first show the producers felt I was a good fit. I was over the moon at getting a chance to work in this medium once again as these shows are incredibly expensive, not to mention risky to put on. As I already mentioned the scoring process is very different from either film or conventional theatre so we had a head start as to how to take on Batman from many fronts.
Did you have to produce mockups for the producer and director before recording with the 90-piece orchestra at Abbey Road?
Whether we like it or not, modern media composers have to mock up their music. I can’t say I love the process as it takes a long time and is very technical. I write the actual composition on the piano (or more accurately a piano plug-in) which I then print out and scrawl over to create a short score for the orchestration. Then I mock up a full orchestration which roughly translates into about 70% of my time on a cue. This ratio always feels back to front to me and in my head I convince myself that all the other composers are quicker and more efficient at it or have large teams of elves that “make it all happen,” but the truth is I rely on the mock up as much as the director. Not only do I change things as the cue comes to life but I can live with the demos as the whole score evolves and that gives great confidence as to what I am creating.
Interestingly on Batman, I was working with a director that is also a renowned choreographer. There were some sequences in the show where I did turn up to a rehearsal room with him and a couple of dancers and actually played a real piano as the section was blocked out. I edited there and then with a pencil and paper and then went away and orchestrated. It was fantastically old fashioned and thrilling when it all came together, no computers used at all — apart from the scores and parts being printed, the click tracks, the pro-tools rigs to record and playback…..er, well you get the idea.
The music is simply outstanding. The orchestral arrangements are extraordinary and the tone adheres perfectly to the world of Batman. What were your very first ideas regarding Batman: Live and the tone needed for the score?
The initial thrill of being hired as a composer on something set in the Batman universe was quickly replaced by a large amount of fear. Obviously I was aware of much of the material that had gone previous and I soon learned of lesser known works also. The central dichotomy that presented itself was that my score needed to relate to this Batman world but had to be original – you know, the same but different. My approach was to allow myself a few days to listen to all the scores I could get my hands on that were directly from Batman – films, TV shows, games – anything. After that I put them away and dared not revisit them as I didn’t want to create a diluted version of Goldenthal or Elfman or any of the other names that had gone before me.
I then spent two whole weeks trying to find a main theme that would work for the show and once that was done I expanded it into a six minute overture. I must say that this is always the hardest part of the entire process as it is filled with self doubt and an enhanced sense of pressure due to the fact that you are aware the whole score will be fabricated from these early building blocks. Also, I always remind people that the listener never hears all the hundreds of discarded ideas that don’t make it in and that even the composer needs time for the material to “grow” on them and mature.
While at moments you certainly evoke the music we’ve heard in other Batman productions (film and TV), in my mind this sounds closer to the dark scores Shirley Walker and Dynamic Music Partners provided for the animated series in the early 90’s. Was the latter influential at all in your compositions?
I wouldn’t say that I was directly influenced by any one composer; however, I was keen to conjure a sense of the 1940s and elements of film-noir in the colouring as the whole show leans towards a classic comic book feel as opposed to trying to be a movie. Visually we are able to stylize effects using lights, a video wall, comic strip backdrops, off scale sets etc. So musically I wanted to reflect that this was not just an attempt to recreate the movies on a stage as well.
Your chord progressions are quite remarkable and very well-suited for the Batman world. Would you say that one of your goals was to differentiate your music harmonically from everything else we’ve heard in Batman films and TV?
I think that only a very small number of composers get to do this stuff regularly and they are nearly all grounded in Hollywood. Whilst I love movies and have been lucky enough to have worked in that side of the business, I really saw this as a chance to do something more and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity. Unlike being attached to a major studio film this Batman production allowed me to collaborate with creatives from more theatrical backgrounds. There is no doubt that the respect I received from the production was enormous, they allowed me to get on with it with little interference. In fact, there was almost no micro-managing and note giving and where that did occur it was at a technical level, never artistic. As such I had the creative freedom to conceive and deliver a rich and diverse score, one I doubt would have happened in a studio-picture scenario but one I dearly wanted to do.
In more specific terms, my music always leans toward harmonic and orchestral colour as that is something that really interests me. If I can add something a little bit different into the language then that is certainly something I strive to do. This comes back to the idea of what has become generic and acceptable in films musically – unfortunately we are besieged by very bland and rather unambitious music all the time.
In the score we can also hear some very rich themes. Walk us through how the themes are used and how they evolve during the show.
Thematically I wrote themes for various different situations. Most notable perhaps is the main Gotham theme that we hear at the outset. This underscores the moment Bruce Wayne transforms from a happy young boy into the darkly driven man that becomes Batman. After witnessing his parents’ murder his life is forever changed and this story point gave me the opportunity to write something gothic and brooding, something to encapsulate the flavour of Gotham city’s heart.
Coupled with the Gotham theme is Batman’s main “heroic theme.” This is designed to cover all the really upbeat, swashbuckling moments when Batman enters on a zip line or beats up the bad guys. My thinking here was to treat the audience to a few “rock ‘n’roll” moments and to make a distinction from the moody, minimal and industrial approach of the Chris Nolan films. We want our audiences on their feet cheering, our Batman is certainly more Harrison Ford than Christian Bale.
Other themes worth mentioning are the Joker - a deranged circus waltz with dizzying, arpeggiated calliopes and clanking percussion accompaniment. Catwoman – slinky bass flute and vibraphone, Alfred – genteel strings and harpsichord, and a heartfelt theme assigned to Dick Grayson (Robin) that aims to make a connection with him and Bruce — the closest thing we have to a love theme in this particular story.
While this is not a musical, it is my understanding that all of the live performers had to learn your music since the score was pre-recorded. Can you talk more about this process and how it relates to you (the composer) and also to the performer?
As I mentioned before, the music did have to be learned by almost everyone on the production as practically everything is cued or triggered from it. There are many intricately choreographed scenes for the fights, circus and batmobile sequences so, as with the dinosaurs, there is an almost balletic approach to the way the performers had to hit their marks — albeit with a kick or punch rather than an actual dance move.
Some of this was worked out retrospectively to the composition other segments were written to working videos or storyboards.
Batman: Live is described as a two-hour show that’s really divided into two acts: 50 minutes for the first one and 45 minutes for the second act. Did you compose this much music or are some cues used more than once? Did the duration of the acts change at any point when you were composing or recording the music?
Basically the whole show is scored but the process of finalizing the content carried on till the very last minute. For this reason I had to leave certain areas flexible so that we could perform edits on the rehearsal floor to elongate or trim cues. When I was in the studio I just made sure to allow myself some leeway — like old fashioned “vamp till ready bars” in a musical.
Batman: Live is currently touring parts of Europe and will soon make it to North America (summer of 2012). Noting the very positive reviews and warm reception for this show, can the film music fans also expect a soundtrack release of your magnificent score?
I am delighted to say that there will be a full soundtrack album available from Water Tower Records in time for the North American tour.
Something truly admirable is the fact that as a musician you’ve not only embraced different projects in different formats and genres, but also different roles other than a composer. If you were teaching a film scoring class for young composers, would this be a key message in your lessons — to be on the lookout for other opportunities other than films?
I do teach as a matter of fact and I would say that a common misconception with youngsters is that they think that they are fully rounded composers too soon. They believe, as I did, that they are ready to score a feature film because they have bought the samples and they have the sequencing software and a few chords under their fingers. As I’m sure many of your previous subjects have already attested, building a career in the music business is a long road and I believe there is no substitute for mastering as many elements of the scoring process as possible. Orchestration is an obvious area for much attention and I think those who study it seriously will be better composers because of it. I also don’t think it is enough to listen to film scores in this regard either. We work in a severely self-referential idiom, I mean, who decided that this or that device equated to scary, heroic, sad, tense etc? Refreshing your memory with some of the classical masters of the past is always a boost for me, as well as trying to keep an ear out for new guys.
Apart from anything else it is just important to keep writing and to keep going through all the knockbacks and maybe not worry too much about what everyone else is up to. Their careers always look good to you because you just see the entry on imdB or the self-aggrandizing interview in a film score article!!!
Finally, are there any upcoming projects for you that you would like to discuss with our readers?
2012 is looking to be exciting as I have finished a film for Stephen Frears called Lay The Favourite about betting scams in Las Vegas, a European drama called L’Histoire De Nos Petites Morts (The Tale Of Our Little Deaths) about a husband and wife’s sexual fantasies. In the summer I score Pixar’s latest movie called Planes and this Christmas sees the release of an animated musical called Saving Santa, starring Martin Freeman.
Thank you once again for your time, James. We wish you all the best.