INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER WILLIS

soundtrack cover

What a great start to the New Year! The first soundtrack I listened to this year was Christopher Willis’ score to The Personal History of David Copperfield directed by Armando Iannuci. The score is sweeping, symphonic joy and superbly played by the award-winning Aurora Orchestra and has already received praise.

“…the forward rushing camera’s momentum underscored by Christopher Willis’s shamelessly neoclassical (and, honestly, disarmingly lovely) string-heavy score
                                                    Filmmaker Magazine

“…all of it set to whimsical, soaring score courtesy of Christopher Willis”
                                                                   Film

                    external-content.duckduckgo.com

Composer Willis was born in Australia and grew in the UK. He now resides in the US. Christopher composed the music to the Emmy Award-winning show Veep plus contributed to a number of major Hollywood movies including The Twilight Saga:Breaking Dawn Part 2, X-Men First Class and Winnie The Pooh.

I am delighted that Christopher was able to discuss the Copperfield soundtrack with me.

I very much enjoyed your score, it’s beautifully symphonic and in parts quite majestic.

Thank you very much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

Given that the film is a ‘re-imagining ‘ of one of Dickens best-loved stories, was there an urge/thought to compose in the style of ‘modern’ music?

Yes and no. One of the very first things Armando said to me about the film was that, to the characters, the world of the story isn’t “period” or “Dickensian” but simply their own world, and that we should feel the vividness and modernity of that world. That ethos is immediately clear from the production design and the cinematography: there’s no sepia tinge, the paint and the clothes characters wear are vibrant and fresh. And musically, too, we quickly found that this feeling of vibrancy was going to be all-important. If the music leant too far towards the actual period of the story, the ear would instinctively hear it as being “old”, as being at one remove from us. On the other hand, we still felt that the music should be orchestral and somehow symphonic in tone.

 Did director Armando Iannucci have any ideas about what he wanted for the score?

 Yes: I’m very fortunate to be working with a director who’s extremely well-versed in classical music. We tend to get the ball rolling on a movie by sharing playlists and references with each other. By sharing like this, you can convey an awful lot to one another, so that when you actually start discussing things in words, you already have a frame of reference. What’s nice about using all kinds of music, and especially concert music, rather than, say, referring only to other pieces of film music, is that the references are not always straightforwardly cinematic but more like a mood board or a brainstorm. Each thing has found its way onto a playlist because it has some quality or other that one of us likes, but that doesn’t mean it could simply be dropped into the film. They’re a stylistic jumble, and it’s up to me to process it all and try to distill something out of it. I think if we built our playlists out of film music, each thing would be much more film-ready, but there’d be less room for me to create something new.

Early on, we talked a lot about British symphonists of the early-to-mid 20th century: composers like Elgar, Britten, Arnold, Rubbra. As the writing progressed, though, I found myself catching up with the present day in a way, listening to and responding to more and more recent concert music, almost like I was composing a new British symphony.

 Last Days Of Innocence is a very measured cue, poignant and with sadness to it. In fact, with all the emotions running through the film you must have felt there was enormous scope for your score? Did you find it overwhelming at all?

Early on there was a stage when I was struggling with how it was all going to fit together. I had pieces I was pleased with but I wasn’t convinced they were going to add up to a whole. Eventually, I realized that in fact, I had too many building blocks. I needed to discard a few in order for everything to fall into place.

Another thing that really helped me was figuring out that in most cases, this score didn’t benefit from becoming more and more harmonically overwrought when the emotions were very big. Instead, I found I could draw things out over long phrases, as in “Last Days of Innocence”, or actually let the music wrestle with one single dissonance for a long long time, which happens near the end of the film: there are several very minimalist cues that essentially have one harmony for minutes at a time, building emotion through tension.

 The Murdstone’s really intrigued me, obviously, there are very dark tones needed for these characters, but it also has the feel of a 1930s/40’s soundtrack composition in its structure in this and other cues – which was a nice surprise. Could I ask which composer/s you have been influenced by?

 Much of the time, the music isn’t really commenting on the characters’ eccentricities but acting as a unifier, joining experiences together. But yes, as you say, I felt with the Murdstones that this was one area in which I could go a little more melodramatic and channel older film music a little bit. Dickens draws his nastier characters with such bold strokes that I felt I had to get sucked into that sometimes. This probably grew indirectly out of my listening to the British symphonists I mentioned. Many of them were also film composers, such as Walton, for instance, or William Alwyn, so they definitely had a lot of darker emotions at their fingertips.

With 33 tracks/54 minutes long, did you envisage this being a longish score?

 We had an instinct early on that the total mass of music would be about 50-60 minutes, and although it looked from time to time like it might grow or shrink based on the picture, it did actually end up at about that length. I like having this kind of scope: it allows me to think of the score as being somehow symphonic – it’s not a symphony, of course, but symphonic perhaps like a tone poem, with recapitulations and memories and a kind of developmental energy running through it.

 The character cue Uriah Heep also has dark notes signifying his sycophantic character but there is also a sorrowful violin running through it that surprised me, I felt it worked quite well but wondered what it signified?

I think of the violin perhaps as being “wheedling” like Uriah: sort of sickly sweet like his hollow compliments. Also, I think Ben Whishaw does a wonderful job of conveying the fact that Uriah is in many ways a tragic figure: a lifetime of humiliation and want have played a big part in making him the way he is. So there was always something mournful about the ideas I had for Uriah.

 A stand out track for me is Adventures of a London Gentleman, which bustles along but retains Copperfield’s striving through its violin playing. Would you say this bustle/sweeping refrain is the score’s leitmotif as it pops up several times and what was the motivation for this?

Thanks very much! I love that you used the word “striving”. The first texture I worked on for the film was the pulsating texture in “My Own Story”, the very first cue, which “London Gentleman” is based on, and in some ways, I would say I was trying to capture something I got from the novel (which I read for the first time just before I started working on the movie) even before I saw the film. The book is so fresh and so modern, sometimes startlingly so; and one of the key feelings I get from the book is the sense that simply existing, simply being alive, is this thrilling, almost exultant thing. And at the same time, David is in this search, this very open-ended quest, to find his place in the world. So yes, I did feel that it would make sense for us to return several times to that texture throughout the film.

Love the music hall feel of Mock Turtle. Did you have fun putting this cue together?

Thanks! It was nice to be able to use a different kind of musical voice for that cue, but still to nod at some of the motifs and shapes from elsewhere in the score. Something very fortuitous happened with the recording of this cue actually. I was supposed to record it myself at Air Lyndhurst in London after the orchestral sessions were over – it would have been the very last thing. (It’s a piano solo.) But the scoring process had been absolutely exhausting. I was finishing the last few fixes right up to the last minute, and in fact, I wrote the end credits cue in the middle of the night before the final day of recording. I’d slept only a few hours in the three days I’d been in London. And I hadn’t practiced “Mock Turtle”. I had made it through all the orchestral sessions but when everyone left I was just totally zonked. The recording engineer (Jake Jackson, who did a wonderful job) was feeding me chocolate bars and cups of tea, trying to get my energy up for just long enough, but I just couldn’t do it. So we called it a day and went off to the pub. That meant I just had to record it back in LA later. But what’s fortuitous is that the piano sounds quite different from the piano in the rest of the score as a result, and I rather like the effect: as you say, it sounds a little music-hall, a little bit like a movie pianist.

Thank you very much, Christopher.

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