- Wed, 2010-06-09 11:36
Simon Boswell began his musical career playing in bands before moving behind the desk as a producer in the early to mid eighties. Despite enjoying a good deal of success in the field, he wasn’t content to sit still, and proceeded to become a highly successful composer of film scores for a quarter-century, earning BAFTA and classical BRIT nominations along the way. Having turned his hand to art in recent years, he is preparing to take his project BLINK! to Hong Kong for its biggest showing yet.
I Like Music spoke with Simon about his project BLINK!, the collaborative process of scoring a film, the impact of technology upon his work and why there’s more to writing a soundtrack than simple musicality.
“I Like Music because…I can say things with music that I daren’t say with words!” Simon Boswell
ILM: Your project BLINK! is going to be a part of the Hong Kong Arts Fair. Could you tell us a bit about the project itself, and how it’s going to appear in Hong Kong?
Simon: It’s something that’s been a passion of mine, rather than my job. I’m principally a music composer for films, and have been for twenty, twenty-five years. I should explain this; as a film composer it’s my job to manipulate people’s feelings with music when they’re watching a movie and to try and occupy some sort of unconscious territory in their heads. Music, as we know, is a kind of universal language that gets underneath the logic that people may have when they’re watching a film. It’s almost subversive in that it manipulates the way you feel in ways that you’re not necessarily aware of, or that might be contrary to what you’re watching on screen. That’s my day job. That’s been my training and my life for twenty-five years.
ILM: How did you move on to BLINK! ?
Simon: I became very interested in the news, mostly by accident. I was watching in Los Angeles and they left the music that introduces the news running through an actual news clip. It sort of became ‘the news + music score’. I thought it would be interesting to try and see how far I could push and change people’s perceptions of the news and what it’s supposed to be – the ‘truth’ – by taking very famous moments in news history and writing different types of music to the same clip. So I began by writing music for 9/11 in the style that it looked like; an action movie, like Independence Day. Then I took the same footage and wrote music to it as if from an unrequited love story, which was just fantastically sad. It made everyone cry. It was actually deeply upsetting doing it, I have to say. But I was just trying to make a point about the power of music to change your perception of the truth, or however it is that you feel about what you’re watching.
ILM: How did that evolve in focus toward actual celebrities?
Simon: I found much more interesting moments in the footage that I was watching where world leaders, politicians and celebrities – very, very famous faces – just looked at the camera and blinked. We all blink, and we can’t help blinking, and it’s just this moment when celebrities let the real world in through an involuntary action. So I slowed down moments of them blinking. They’re not talking, trying to sell you their latest product or their political idea. I take away their voice, effectively. They become a silent movie, blinking. Then I wrote music for what is happening in their faces. It’s literally about taking the little muscular movements and turning them into my own movie and writing music for them.
ILM: You're about to show BLINK! in Hong Kong, but it's not the first show...
Simon: No, no. When I first showed it at the ICA in London, it was a mixture of politicians and celebrities. Last time around I had Tony Blair, George Bush, Osama Bin Laden mixed up with Victoria Beckham, Muhammad Ali and many others. The idea is to contemplate very famous faces extremely large. It was on four cinema-sized screens at the ICA.
ILM: And in Hong Kong?
Simon: It’s even bigger! It’s about four or five times the size of the biggest cinema screen. It’s enormous. It’s an image fifty metres across! This one in Hong Kong is more exploring celebrity than it is politics. We’re showing it against the side of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon, facing across the bay. There you will see Michael Jackson, David Beckham, Kate Moss, and some of the old ones like Muhammad Ali. This is being mixed, at the request of the Hong Kong Chinese Government, with local Hong Kong celebrities, of which there are some notable ones. Bruce Lee is probably the most famous. Bruce’s daughter Shannon became fascinated with the whole BLINK! idea and gave me some very rare footage of Bruce being interviewed, which I used. So there, in a nutshell, is BLINK! They are video portraits with music.
ILM: How have you decided to approach the musical accompaniments for the Hong Kong show?
Simon: It’s a very interesting process anyway writing music for a film. I never quite understand what I’m going to write until I literally sit in front of the image with a keyboard, or sometimes a guitar. I just react to it in the way that a musician playing for a silent movie would. It goes in through my eyes and comes out through my hands. I don’t know what I’m going to write. The very big faces come with baggage. Michael Jackson, who I did before he died, seemed to me to have an awful lot of sadness, particularly in the loop that I’d created of his face. It comes partly with my pre-knowledge of the personalities, so sometimes it expresses something that I feel about their life. Sometimes, though, it’s just quite an ambient, hypnotic device, which is just to keep you looking at and contemplating the picture.
ILM: How did you work with Bruce Lee?
Simon: When I watched the video of this interview that his daughter Shannon gave me he seemed like the most intelligent man. The image we have of kung-fu, fighting and kicking and all that, doesn’t correlate. To him it’s not just about punching. It’s a complete philosophy of life: part religion, part sport, part entertainment. He’s such a smart man, and such a hero. In some ways the music I’ve written relates to Lawrence of Arabia. He’s the most romantic figure, so that’s what I’ve done with the music. It’s very moving, very grand and orchestral.
ILM: What is the process like when you’re writing music for film as opposed to the BLINK! project? When does it begin?
Simon: In an ideal world you work to the finished edit of the picture. They know that this is how it’s going to look and you write music to it. The practice is a bit of a two-way street in that they may give you an edit that they’re still working on and I’ll write some music and give it back to them. That might change their view about the edit. So there’s a bit of interaction, but of course, movies are a collaboration. There’s a long discussion to be had with the director about how he sees the music adding to the film and what he wants it to do.
ILM: How would you describe the purpose of music in film?
Simon: Music in film is very complex in that it’s in and out of your awareness. Most of the time you shouldn’t be aware of it; it’s just playing quietly under the dialogue and almost subliminally entering your unconscious. Then there’s music which is very much leaping into view as it were, when you get the grand Star Wars-type scene. In that case it has to stir you. It’s making the film bigger and more exciting, or it’s making you cry, or it’s making you laugh. It’s a collaboration with the film maker, and in that sense it’s very, very different from writing pop or rock songs. I’ve worked with a lot of pop and rock musicians, and written a lot of pop and rock songs myself, and it’s an incredibly different skill. Those kinds of songs have to stand alone. Music for film is part of a sandwich. Sometimes it’s a leaf of lettuce, and sometimes it’s part of the meatier filling!
ILM: What are the most challenging aspects of writing for film?
Simon: Well, it isn’t my film. It’s not a film that I’ve made, but one that I’m helping to achieve its full potential. The most challenging moments are movies that you do and there are bits of it that you don’t quite like! You have to be inspired. I cannot write music unless I’m inspired by what I’m watching. So if it’s not a great film it’s very hard work. You have to manufacture emotion…which is part of the job.
Action movies are curiously difficult. You have to write incredibly complex orchestral music for long periods of time, but which is never going to be heard beneath the squealing tires and gunshots and stuff. It’s a very functional thing, a lot of film music. I’ve steered clear of the Hollywood movie in general, because I think my music is a little bit more esoteric, or sensitive. I get more opportunity to write more interesting music in European cinema. Clearly there are American indie films, which are great, but given that it’s a collaboration I like to try and avoid cliché, and a lot of the bigger American movies are just asking for cliché. It’s all they want: “we’ll now have an hour of pompous sounding orchestral music.”
ILM: They want it to sound as people would expect.
Simon: Exactly. I think that’s treating the audience like they’re stupid. People are actually telling them the same thing twice.
ILM: Do you remember your first film score?
Simon: Of course! The very first movie I did was Phenomena, by Dario Argento, which is not the best movie in the world! I think it was called Creepers in America and the UK. That was a fantastic experience for me because I had no idea what to do. The first scene I had to write was of Jennifer Connelly being chased down a tunnel by a psychopath and falling into a pit of body parts. I created a completely unlistenable collage of horrible sound, full of grating harmonics, and got the singer of a band I’d just produced called the Sex Gang Children to moan and wail over it. It was a horrible sound! I’ve often described it as equivalent to running a finger down a blackboard!
I was very nervous of the director Dario’s judgement when he came to listen to it, but he looked at me and said “it’s beautiful.” That was the moment that I realised that in film music you can do whatever you like, provided it works. There are no boundaries in terms of instrumentation or harmony. As long as it serves the film you can do what you want. There was an explosion in my head when I realised that I could use all the things that I like! I’m a big Jimi Hendrix fan, and I can use feed-back guitar and combine that with an orchestra; why not!
ILM: Which other projects have been memorable for you?
Simon: One of the movies that stands out is called Santa Sangre. It’s a very cult film, and the closest thing to a work of art of all the films that I’ve done. It was a wonderful thing to be associated with. The director, Alejandro Jodorowsky is a genius, and as a genius isn’t allowed to make that many movies, because people won’t watch them! They’re a little obscure.
ILM: What was it like working with Danny Boyle?
Simon: Working with Danny Boyle on Shallow Grave, which none of us knew was going to be a hit, was great. It was sort of a cottage industry production. We didn’t have much money to do it, but I could tell that there was something quite special about it. That was a highlight when it really exploded and launched Danny and Ewan McGregor. I honestly regret when I listen back to my score for that how terrible and cheap it sounds! I made it in my little bedroom in Clapham! There was no money, so it’s me playing everything. The entire soundtrack is just me, as it had been on all the Italian exploitation films that I did before that. It was just me tinkering around on guitars and keyboards, creating sounds. That was what was fun. It was sort of like punk in that way.
ILM: How has the development of music software and the onset of the digital world impacted your work?
Simon: My film and music career coincided exactly with the development of synthesizers and computers. I did my very first movie using a Commodore 64, which had 64 kilobytes, not even megabytes! I had the earliest synthesizers and samplers as well. I had the very first sampler, which was based on a very old Apple computer. The development of technology has changed everything. It’s made it so much easier to synchronise the picture with the music. When I started that was an impossibility. I used to bring VHS videos back from Rome to my little bedroom in Clapham and watch it, playing the music in real time to the picture! But that’s what it had been like throughout the history of film. People would have an orchestra sit in front of the real film and they’d record the music as they played it, and the conductor would just have to damn well hit the spots.
ILM: So technolody has had a positive impact?
Simon: Well, yes and no. I think now the music is too closely associated with the image. You can change any parameter to fit the picture. Just because you can doesn’t make it work better. It just makes the music have a slightly less independent life of its own. The first twenty or so movies that I did were Italian, and they approached it very differently. Sometimes they’d even ring me without sending a movie to me and say “we’re doing this film, could you do us an action scene? Make it five minutes long,” and I’d send them the music! They would put the music against the picture, and when it stopped working they would just cut it into something else!
ILM: Haha! Freestyle!
Simon: And so relaxed! When I look back at it now, it’s like them doing a gigantic Picasso painting. There are much broader strokes than what one does now. I think it propelled people through the film. That’s why people like Tarantino picked up on all these Italian exploitation films. They had real balls and style. When the music stops working you cut, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the middle of a beat! I love that! It’s got a lot of attitude. It’s a different way of working. All the computers and sequencers we have now make it too easy to transition from one piece of music to the next smoothly. That’s not necessarily in the interests of making a really snappy, energetic movie.
ILM: Who are some of the biggest influences on the music you make?
Simon: There are film music heroes that I’ve learnt about. When I started writing I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in it. I didn’t know who was who. I’d maybe seen Lawrence of Arabia as a child and noticed the music but I hadn’t thought about it. Two real greats are Bernard Herman, who did all the Hitchcock films like Psycho and North By North West, and whose last movie was Taxi Driver, and Morricone. He did all of the Spaghetti Westerns. It’s my view that Ennio Morricone invented the idea of sampling twenty years before the technology existed. If you listen to those scores he will take bits from here and bits from there and mash it all up, just like DJs do now. Morricone had twangy electric guitar, then he had someone grunting, then he had a harmonica, then a choir… That patchwork idea has been a huge influence on music.
ILM: How do you push yourself to evolve as an artist?
Simon: It’s difficult not to repeat yourself. Everyone does. You are the way you are. Listen to John William’s stuff and a lot of it’s very similar, but that’s a good thing because we like what he does. It’s rather like people like Elton John. What you get from Elton John is Elton John! So to push myself I just try to do something fresh. I get bored very easily. I don’t want to have to do the same thing again and again and again. That’s why I’ve diversified within movies. I very much like doing different genres of films, which has probably worked to my detriment in the industry. Just as they want Bruce Willis to play the same character over and over again, they want the same from their film composers. “Let’s get that guy who does the big epic films.” So I try to keep fresh by doing different kinds of films, and also by getting some input from the film that gives me a kick.
I just think very intuitively. I very often trust my first response. I don’t want to have to go back and rethink the whole thing over and over. That’s not why I’m doing it. It’s very much like a performance art for me in that respect. If you go and see someone playing, you get what you saw on the night. You don’t get something that’s refined endlessly in the studio. It’s just a different thing. So I try to make sure it has some spontaneity.
ILM: Do you do the majority of your work from home?
Simon: Well until two years ago, or eighteen months ago, I had done everything in my career from a home studio. I have a little boy called Jimi, named for Hendrix, who is now six, and there came a point about two years ago when it became very difficult to work from home, sweet though he is! So I now have a separate studio.
ILM: What’s your advice to any aspiring film composers?
Simon: It’s a very difficult question that I get asked a lot. I suppose it’s a little bit like asking Paul McCartney “how do you become the Beatles?” or Mick Jagger “how do you become the Rolling Stones?” Not that I’m making that comparison! But they had no idea; they didn’t know that they’d last more than a couple of years. By the same token, I had no idea that I would have a career as a film composer. Now everyone sets out to be something. They say “I’m going to be this,” or “I’m going to be that,” and I find it very hard to advise them.
All I would say is that you need to make friends with someone who’s making a short film or making a movie. Just try and prove what you can do. Put your music to some images and try and get it to people. It’s a very difficult career path. It’s very difficult to break into. They’re suspicious of giving the job to someone who’s never done it before. It’s a chicken and egg situation. Hang around with people who go to film school. Just try and build up something you can show if you ever get the opportunity to speak to someone who’s doing a proper movie.
I would encourage people not to listen to too much other film music. I’m famously a hermit in that respect. I don’t like listening to lots of music, which may be a failing in me. I don’t want to be influenced by other people’s music, and when I’ve been writing all day I’d rather watch the Simpsons! It’s not a precise career path. It’s something you’re as likely to get on in by accident.
ILM: So you should just practice and follow your intuition, as with most creative disciplines?
Simon: That’s definitely true. The one thing that I would add, and that I’ve thought about a lot, is that I didn’t study music. I didn’t go to college to study music. I had learnt classical piano and taught myself to play rock and acoustic guitar, but I studied English literature at uni. That was a much better training for doing film music, because to write a film score you have to understand what it’s about. You have to analyse it the way that you would a novel. That is a more important training than knowing what it takes to create Mozart’s whatever. You then use your musical talent to translate your intuition about what the film’s really about. You need to make it happen for yourself in words, and then write the music.
ILM: What are your future plans? What remains undone that you’d like to do?
Simon: Well obviously I’m going into other areas with BLINK! I’m beginning to film people, myself included, in high-definition and I’m lighting the pictures like Rembrandt’s beautiful portraits, and then writing music for those faces. We want to develop the BLINK! thing and take it to other cities, including London. I was also nominated for the classical BRITs for this rather bizarre album that I did with the Pope. It’s something that makes me rather uncomfortable! I’m not a Catholic and not religious, but it’s been a wonderfully uplifting experience, recording the Vatican Gregorian choir in St Peter’s at night and then writing music for the Royal Philharmonic to go with it. It’s been a very odd experience. We’re planning a new album that’s based around, not necessarily the same thing with the new Pope, but the Vatican. I can’t name names, but we’ve got four of the biggest-selling classical artists in the world, who are going to do a track each.
ILM: Is that underway now?
Simon: I’ve already written two of the pieces. We’ll be recording over the summer for a release in October or November. And then more movies! I’m waiting to hear from one or two movies. So I’m keeping busy!