By Junsui Films | August 2012
The Composer chats exclusively to Junsui Films about his musical progression from the band Tindersticks to film composition, how he relates instruments with theme, and tells us all about his new film, SHADOW DANCER…
Junsui Films: Let’s start with your transition into film composition and what it was that attracted you to the medium.
Dickon Hinchliffe: I’m fascinated by the way in which music and images come together and create something unique. Since I was very young I’ve been drawn to the power of music in film and how it can generate particular emotional states that images alone are not able to.
JF: You previously enjoyed great critical acclaim with the band Tindersticks; how did your experiences with the group help shape and prepare you for film composition?
Film composers like Bernard Herrmann, Morricone and John Barry had a big influence on early Tindersticks recordings. Many people compared our music to film scores so it was a natural transition to start writing for film. The first film we worked on as a band was Claire Denis’ Nenette et Boni and it was very much a hybrid of band music and film score. With her next film Trouble Every Day the balance shifted more to film score and from then on I started to compose independently from the band. I learned a lot about studio recording techniques and working with orchestras while in the band which all helped with my transition into film composition.
JF: You’ve experimented with a variety of genres throughout your career providing the scores for such films as Last Chance Harvey, Winter’s Bone and Project Nim; how do you go about selecting a project and once committed, when do you typically start writing?
I like to start getting ideas together as soon as possible. Sometimes I’ll start writing after reading the script. Usually only some of these ideas end up getting used in the film, but it’s a way of writing that is free from the technical constraints of edited images so its great for starting themes and getting basic approaches to the sound of the score underway.
JF:. Talk us through your choice of instruments, are there any in particular that you feel typically lend themselves to a certain genre or theme?
It depends very much on the film. In Last Chance Harvey I wrote a more traditional piano and strings score which felt apt as the Dustin Hoffman character in the film is a pianist. In Winter’s Bone I used instruments common to the Ozark region – fiddle, banjo, guitar – but played in a more distressed and abstract way. In Project Nim there are many different kinds of cues some influenced by ’70s psychedelic rock, others by modern classical music, so I used everything from backwards electric guitar and hammond organ to orchestral strings and woodwind. Rampart features quite minimal electric guitar lines and feedback that engage with the bitter loneliness of Woody Harrelson’s character whose constantly on the brink of a violent outburst.
JF: How much creative freedom are you afforded when working on a film, and how challenging is it balancing an ‘industry brief’ with your own musical sensibilities?
On the whole I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors and producers that have given me a lot of creative freedom particularly in the early ideas phase. I try to write as many ideas, themes, motifs as I can before becoming too involved in the minutiae of individual scenes. This gives me a broad base of material on which to draw across the film and stops the music becoming too rigid or mechanical in its response to the film. It also gives the score a coherent sound and identity. Some films such as Project Nim require such a diversity of music that I had a lot of freedom in writing whereas in James’ [Marsh] latest film Shadow Dancer the score needed to be much tighter and more controlled as it engages in a structured escalation of intensity and dramatic tension.
JF: You also scored the recent Paul Abbott series, Hit & Miss, how does scoring a TV show differ to that of a film, and do you tend to operate episode to episode or try to establish an overriding theme?
The actual process of writing isn’t much different except that you have less time to experiment and develop ideas. There wasn’t an overriding theme as such, but the instrumentation and general feel of the music established in episode one set the tone for the rest of the series. Having said that there were two different directors involved who had slightly different approaches to the score and also as the series developed the music evolved too. In the early episodes the music helped to establish characters and locations more while in the latter episodes the focus shifted more to emotional and narrative developments.
JF: Shadow Dancer marks your 3rd collaboration with director James Marsh, how did the creative partnership come about and what has made it so enduring?
I first worked with James on his film Red Riding – 1980. He knew my music from Tindersticks and the Claire Denis films I scored. We have very similar tastes in film and music and a similar experimental approach which is why I think we’ve continued to work well together.
JF: The spy genre relies on a subtle, yet mood-setting score; how did you approach the task of scoring the film and what were the biggest influences on your musical choices?
To begin with I was probably overwriting in the sense that I was trying to make quite bold statements with the music when in fact the “less is more” approach was actually the right one. It needed to be a subtle, but calculated and structured approach to emotional and dramatic tension as this was how the film was created through the acting, cinematography, production design and editing. Early on I asked James to help me by getting him to say what he thought the music should have at its heart. He said one word – “betrayal” – and that became the emotional core of the score. There is fear, suspense and desire, but betrayal is at the heart.
JF: Which of your scores would you say you are most proud of?
There isn’t one in particular. I think each film I work on has something that is unique or special to me in terms of how the music relates to it. Sometimes it may be a particular piece of music and at other times it’s the score in its entirety. But overall it’s the times when music and images come together and something emotionally powerful or unexpected happens that I feel most intrigued by and that’s the nature of collaboration.
Shadow Dancer is out now.