Sunday, 25 March 2018

On the trail of the Hellraiser house

In 1987’s Hellraiser, Clive Barker sets his story (based on his novella The Hellbound Heart) in 55 Lodovico Street, a three-storey property somewhere in London. We know this, because shortly before visiting the property, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is seen by the old cranes on the docks at the Thames.

That property still exists in 2018, though in a more up-together condition than the run-down house that Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) and wife Julia (Clare Higgins) inherited from brother Frank, who has mysteriously disappeared… or so it seems!

Its actual location is 187 Dollis Hill Lane, NW2 6EY, in Dollis Hill, an area in North West London in the Borough of Brent, close to Willesden Green and Cricklewood. The area is mainly residential Edwardian terraced and 1920s/30s semi-detached houses. The house has been substantially improved since autumn 1986 when Barker shot the movie – the front wall was then shown to be collapsing.

In an article in Time Out it’s revealed that the house has been modernised and divided into five flats. “Landlord Michael Fisher, whose mother owns 187 Dollis Hill Lane, says ‘It’s something fun to associate the house with’ – adding that starring as a portal to hell hasn’t had any effect on the property’s value.”

Barker shot both interiors and exteriors at the property, with only the special effects in the attic being created in the nearby Cricklewood Studios (now a health club). As this is a private, gated property, it is not possible to go inside the house, but you can still get a good view of it from the public main road outside.

I wouldn’t suggest buzzing any of the residents and asking them to let you in as I would imagine it looks very different inside. The distinctive stained windows appear to have been replaced, apart from the ‘Hillcrest’ window above the front door. Even in October 2015 Google Street View shows the stained glass panels on the front door which have since been replaced.

You can get an idea of what one of the flats looks like from these rental agent details.

Nearest train station: Cricklewood (Thameslink) 1.1 miles (22-minute walk)

Nearest Tube station: Dollis Hill (Jubilee Line) 1.1 miles (23-minute walk)

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Remembering Jóhann Jóhannsson

On Oscar night, February 28 2016, I Tweeted: “My heart says that Jóhann Jóhannsson should win Best Score for Sicario, but my head says it will be Morricone.” And so it was that Ennio Morricone won his first original score soundtrack for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but my disappointment was tempered by a Retweet and Like from the composer’s account. Nobody resented the Italian Maestro finally getting that award, but we all knew that the score for Denis Villeneuve’s thriller was something special – visceral, brutal, pounding soundtrack that perfectly propelled the drama.

While I was already aware of his work on Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (first Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win) it was Sicario that put him on the map for me, and I was doubly-thrilled to hear that not only was he scoring Villeneuve’s sci-fi opus Arrival, but also the follow-up to Blade Runner. And it was with this enthusiasm that I contacted his ‘people’, requesting an interview for publication in Film Score Monthly. Less than 24 hours later I was Skyping him in Berlin, and he was in a buoyant mood. He had every reason to be – in addition to the sci-fi projects, he’d been employed for Darren Aronofsky’s then-unnamed next film (mother!) and had been signed up by prestigious classical music label Deutsche Grammophon.

Of Arrival, he told me: “The film is about communication and language, so that immediately led me to using vocals on the score. The second idea was to use tape loops; I was intrigued by the circular way of working and thinking. For the vocals I worked with a number of different singers and vocal ensembles. There are almost no synthesisers on the score; it’s digitally processed, but it’s all from analogue.” And it was that curiosity to play with different sounds, textures and instruments that showed a desire to find that unique voice.

Of the original Blade Runner he shared: “I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best science fiction films ever made. For many people of my generation Blade Runner was a really seminal film. When I first saw it as a teenager I was entranced by it.” And of the still-untitled movie, which was still a year away, he said: “There are many film scores composed in much shorter a time than a year, so it’s actually a privilege and a luxury to have so much time to work on it.”

In fall 2016 he toured North America and Europe with his non-soundtrack solo album Orphée, and I had the pleasure to be in the front row at London’s Barbican Hall. Things were looking good, particularly with the prospect of Blade Runner 20409, which would be his biggest project to date. And then in summer 2017 it was announced that Jóhann had left the movie, being replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Initially there was nothing official being said about this change, thought Villeneuve would later go on record to say “…the movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Jóhan [sic] and I decided that I will need to go in another direction — that’s what I will say. I hope I have the chance to work with him again because I think he’s really a fantastic composer.” Sadly, they would never work again on another movie, and if the last-minute change of composers was plannedd to help the film perform better at the box office, this didn’t come to pass either.

At least we had mother! to look forward to, but then it was confirmed that the score had been removed in the latest re-cut, with the composer now taking a credit for music and sound consultant. You may be wondering why I’m lingering on two of what must have been negative experiences for the Icelander, and yet, I’m not surprised this happened. He was never conventional, he was too daring for many – he was avant garde, he was unique. 

This year we have Nicolas Cage horror thriller Mandy to look forward to, of which Roger Ebert said: ''[director] Cosmatos is the dominating force for #Mandy's avant-garde horror first half, relishing demonic synth music cues (from Johann Johannsson) & establishing many characters as mysterious, rambling beings of an insidious universe.'' He also scored Colin Firth sailing drama The Mercy for his Theory of Everything director James Marsh, the soundtrack just released by Deutsche Grammophon, and it’s beautiful. And later this year, watch Garth Davis' Rooney Mara-starrer Mary Magdalene, co-scored by Jóhann and Hildur Guðnadóttir (who has also scored Sicario 2: Soldado).

Manager Tim Husom confirmed to Jóhann’s 47,000 Facebook followers: “It is with profound sadness that we confirm the passing of our dear friend Jóhann. We have lost one of the most talented and brilliant people who we had the privilege of knowing and working with. May his music continue to inspire us.” I’ve written this piece within hours of the news and I feel a little raw and terribly sad. I can’t imagine how his close friends and family feel, but collectively we have all lost a great talent. Thankfully his legacy will live on through his beautiful, brutal, epic, quiet and daring music.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 edition of Film Score Monthly Online, the industry's premiere film music resource.  

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Broadchurch: The Final Farewell - A spoiler-free review of the Bridport screening and Q&As

Bridport's Art Deco theatre, the Electric Palace, arguably hadn't seen a queue like this on a Monday night for some time. Snaking far along the street outside, long before the doors opened, such was the determination of Broadchurch fans and locals to grab a seat in the best spot to watch the last ever episode of the show, which had been filmed primarily in and around the Dorset market town. Appropriately, this was a fundraiser for Dorset Rape Crisis and The Shores (Dorset SARC).

Bridport and its coastal community West Bay have been benefiting from 'The Broadchurch Effect' since the show became a ratings and critical hit for ITV in early 2013. The second series finale was screened at the Electric Palace following a concert by the show's Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds in 2015 and it seemed only right that the show that had adopted the town (or has the town adopted the show?) would spend its final hour in the company of friends and family.

Chris Chibnall, creator, writer, show runner and absolute top guy (he has a 'no wankers' policy in the workplace - amen to that!) introduced the world premiere of a 20-minute documentary that will feature on the DVD boxset. And then the episode started... 20 minutes early! Displaying the universal hand signal of 'cut!', Chris and his producers jumped in to stop the episode being screened ahead of the real-time broadcast. Imagine if the audience found out who the mystery assailant was ahead of time!

Time for a final pint or chat with the crew and then it was the live feed at 9 PM. The commercial breaks are all part of the show, giving Chris and his team the opportunity to throw in cliffhangers, and it was great fun sitting in a crowd that audibly gasped as the plot twists were finally revealed - no spoilers here if you haven't seen it yet.

Photo (c) James Dawson

The panel then took to the stage, interviewed by ‘real life Maggie’ Maddie Grigg (she used to edit the local paper The Bridport and Lyme Regis News). She was joined by Chris Chibnall (creator and show-runner), Jane Featherstone (Executive Producer), Julie Hesmondhalgh (Trish Winterman), Andrew Buchan (Mark Latimer) and Arthur Darvill (Rev. Paul Coates)

Chris immediately thanked the audience for the support and welcoming arms that the community has shown the show over the three seasons. He related how the people in Waitrose were telling him that ‘Trish’ and ‘Mark’ had been in the shop earlier that day, such is the identification that people have with the characters rather than the actors. “It was on the front page [of the papers]! I can't process anything of what's happened - you feel like you're in the eye of the storm."

Julie had stayed the previous night in West Bay with her husband and was soaking up the ‘Broadchurch effect’. Chris then went on to praise the work of the real Rape Crisis Team, making then stand and take a bow. He relayed how they had worked closely throughout the production and had given him their blessing to tell such an important story, including the detailed procedures of the aftermath. “They are the people that deal with this every day and make a difference to people’s lives.” Julie fully understood the responsibility she was taking on with the role and has become the patron of Dorset Rape Crisis.

“We must keep the pressure up…these services are being massively cut… Change does not come from above, it comes from the ground, from people working at the coal face…what they’re doing is incredible,” she stated to a full round of applause.

Reference was made to the final shot of the series which zooms in past Hardy and Miller and across the sea towards the cliffs. Chris had this shot in mind from the outset and it’s the advent of drone technology that has made this possible. Of his most memorable moment in the show he was particularly impressed with the night-time vigil in Episode 7 where local women poured onto West Bay quayside at a cold 2 AM in support of Trish (possibly some were in the audience?)

As to the use of certain locations for this series, Chris reveals it wasn’t just about having a canny location manager – Trish’s house was located in West Bexington because that’s where Chris’ acupuncturist is, and the waterfall scene of the crime was first discovered by his wife at Little Bredy. Andrew confirmed that it was indeed him floating in the water at the end of Episode 7, but that it was carried out in a sheltered bay in Bristol where they had to create waves, but still requiring him to spend four hours in the water. A personal highlight? “Probably every single second with Jodie Whittaker,” his screen wife Beth.

Asked whether such serious matter makes for a depressing filming experience, Arthur Darvill clarifies: "It's actually quite the opposite! It's a real joy to turn up. We take it very seriously, but in-between everything, the most bleak moments, we become a real family.” Chris reveals that Jodie Whittaker ordered a life-size cardboard cut-out of Arthur from the internet as Rory from Doctor Who. Somehow it ended up in Olivia Colman’s hotel bathroom and it was last seen, in half, by the bins. Such is the fickle nature of showbiz!

I ask Andrew and Arthur whether at any point in series 1 or 3 they thought they might be the murderer or attacker. “No, we had no idea!” reveals Andrew. “In series one I was getting quite worried. There was a window during the night that was unaccounted for. David Tennant's character says 'Where was Mark between 1 and 4?' and I thought: ‘I hope that’s not going the way I think it’s going!' In this one [Series 3] Again I didn't know, but this time I felt pretty certain it couldn't be me - we couldn't put the Latimers through any more.”

Arthur adds: “When we did the first series almost no-one knew whodunit when we filmed it. There was a moment when people turned up to set to announce it and we said: ‘Please don't tell us - we want to read it.’” Andrew jumps in: “On the day you [Chris] came down to set to announce it, I happened to be away in Southampton doing voice-over and couldn't attend, so it wasn't announced; people thought: ‘It's Andy!'”

As to what control the producers have over the adverts shown in the commercial breaks, Chris clarified they have none – there was a concern from one audience member that one ad in a previous episode had objectivised women. One audience member asked Chris what he was up to next, oblivious that he’s about to be taking on the running of one of the biggest jobs in the world - Doctor Who.

One audience member was concerned that the scene where Beth meets Trish in the Watch House Café at West Bay was an unrealistic setting for a discussion about a serious assault, but Chris was adamant that this was realistic. “Because that's what happens. If you speak to our team over there they'll tell you the first meeting has to happen in a public place. It was absolutely based on research. Also, cinematically, you have the cliff, which is the shadow that is haunting Beth outside of the window as she's talking to Trish.”

Inevitably, Chris declined to answer whether Julie would make a great Doctor Who – this was probably his last chance to talk about Broadchurch before moving on to his new job. Of the question he said: "I'm not going anywhere near it. But thanks for trying!" he quipped.

And after nearly 40-minutes of questions, the cast and crew said goodbye to their adopted town, nearly five years after filming began. Happily posing for selfies and signing cast postcards, there was a real sense of pride from all involved, as well as the end of era. Pockets of change were also emptied into the collection buckets at the exit doors. We’d only paid £5 a ticket, and for such a great evening these worthy organisations deserved so much more.

I joked with Chris that his next challenge was to set a Doctor Who story along the Jurassic coast. “Wow!’ he laughed. “Now THAT would be a challenge. I’ll let you know how it goes!”

Find out more about the inspiring work being done by Dorset Rape Crisis and The Shores.

Friday, 10 February 2017

An opening night visit to Odeon BH2 in Bournemouth: The isense experience

The adverts

Tonight, 10th February 2017, Bournemouth opened up it's new Odeon cinema to the public within the BH2 complex. With my own Boy Wonder (Andy) at my side, we experienced The Lego Batman Movie in the isense auditorium. This is not a review of the movie - it's a review of the cinematic experience.

One other caveat: I am not reviewing the food here. I'm not prepared to buy cinema food or drink at the extortionate prices they demand. As such, i'm not best placed to tell you if the hot dogs, nachos, pick 'n' mix or fountain drinks are of a better quality or price than elsewhere. Personally, I take my own bottled drink and soft food (no crunching!). I do, however, think that taking pizzas into the cinema is a bad, stinky idea.

The trailers

My first observation is that the place is geared up to sell you food and drink. Having entered the main foyer there's a Costa coffee, drinks fountains, popcorn stands, nachos, sweets and more. You enter via an escalator if coming up from Bournemouth Gardens or at ground level if via the main road opposite the Moon in the Square pub. 

Immediately on your left there's a bank of 7 or 8 ticket machines for you to print pre-booked tickets or just to buy some from scratch. There were a few staff hovering around if you needed help; I'm not sure what you'd do if you wanted to pay by cash or couldn't work the machine  - possibly via the food concession stand?

Having bought your tickets and foods, it's through a ticket checkpoint and then up another escalator to the floor where the 10 screens are. It's very open-plan and space-age. The corridors are quite dimly lit but there are big numbers on each screen to help direct you. On this first floor you can also buy a drink from the bar and some 'pizza and plank' food. I couldn't see how much the food was but the pizza itself didn't look very substantial. There's a great view of the gardens from the window in the bar area. Kids were in there too, so I guess it's not an age-restricted thing.

The main feature

As I've already mentioned, we opted to  see the movie in the isense auditorium (facts are below). You access it along a curved corridor with a huge video screen on one side which was showing some sort of forest scene. When you enter the auditorium the size of the screen really hits you - It's BIG! We were five rows back from the front and any nearer would probably be a strain on the neck and eyes. We had standard seats rather than those fancy leather recliners as advertised in some of the online stories. We also had cup holders rather than tables and it was nice that they weren't sticky from too many Coke spillages.

The projection was, as you would hope, crystal clear and the enhanced sound VERY LOUD. When they did the promo ad for Dolby Atmos to show off its capabilities you really did feel the Earth move below your feet. Unfortunately, watching a U certificate film at a teatime meant we had chattering kids with legs swinging into the back of your seat, but I can hardly blame Odeon for that.

Is it worth paying the extra money for isense? You pay an extra £2.50 for the privilege. Honestly, I'd save it for the one or two times a year you want the optimum experience - the next Star Wars or Bond movie perhaps. For regular movies (and they were showing 50 Shades Darker next) I can't see isense adding much, unless you want your on-screen orgasms to shake your world that much stronger!

Fun Facts

  • BH2 is Odeon’s new 10-screen cinema, replacing the ABC and Odeon cinemas on Westover Road. 
  • It’s largest screen is in the 340-seat iSense auditorium, which has Dolby Atmos sound using 56 individually-controlled speakers. This means that sound is not just around you, it’s over and below you. 
  • The screen is approx. 55 foot x 23ft. 
  • In the screens that have recliners there is a £2 surcharge for these seats.

Final thoughts

It's a purely functional building, but it looks and feels fine. It's airy and light in the main areas and will hopefully be a popular destination for tourists and locals alike, being well placed near the beach and town centre. It's a bit sad that all the posters on the walls are now digital rather than the old fashioned paper quad posters clipped inside illuminated displays. But that's progress for you I guess. 

Friday, 3 February 2017

A farewell to cinemas on Westover Road: My Odeon and ABC movie memories

And as the lights are switched off at the Odeon Cinema in Bournemouth on February 9th 2017, it signals the first time since June 1937 that no cinema has been open on prestigious Westover Road, ‘Bournemouth’s Bond Street.’

It’s a bittersweet feeling, as the buildings are beautiful and I have so many happy memories of spending afternoons and evenings there in the ABC (later the Cannon in 1983, then the MGM from 1992 before reverting to ABC again in 1996) and the Gaumont (Odeon from 1986). On February 10th, the new cinema opens in central Bournemouth – a flagship cinema for the 21st Century, complete with luxuriant auditoria, pin-sharp projection, and in its premier iSense screen the latest immersive Dolby Atmos surround sound.  

Don’t get me wrong, I embrace new technology and look forward to the enhanced picture and sound, raked seating and being able to book a specific regular seat. The older cinemas have been deteriorating for some time – the conversion job of the Odeon from 2 screens to 6 was not entirely successful, with the walls being too thin and allowing sound spillage from neighbouring screens. Seats were past their best and the cinemas were strange shapes with poor sight lines. And yet the ABC Screen 1 was magnificent to the end. A perfectly shaped auditorium with huge curtains across its curving screen. 

My first film I recall on Westover Road was the inauspicious When the North Wind Blows starring Dan (Grizzly Adams) Haggerty in the mid-70s. Greater things were to come, and here are my magnificent seven Westover Road movie memories:

1. The Pearl & Dean adverts – It felt like they went on forever, and they were SO random, but the adverts that followed the catchy Pearl and Dean jingle are indelibly etched on my mind. From the politically incorrect ‘too orangey for crows’ Kia-Ora to ‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ to Vic Lawton’s Motor Body Repairs – ‘Oooh madam, we’ll soon have your body so bee-utiful again!’ they were a crackly, mismatched, block of 70s or 80s consumerism in one compact hit. They still show those awful ads for hot dogs (I think they were Westlers back in the day) but they still look horrible and cost an arm and a leg.

Image loaded onto by Len Gazzard

2. The underage viewing – Is there anything more exciting than watching a film when you’re not actually legally old enough? Instead of the ‘U’ or ‘A’ films, it wanted to see the ‘AA’s (14 or older) and for those ‘X’-rated treats – you had to be 18. My first underage film should have been Blade Runner in summer of 1982 – I was 13 ½ and you had to be 14 - but the woman at the ABC was having none of it. I had to wait many years for its re-release to finally see it in its widescreen splendour. Instead, I walked up the road that same day and was allowed to see the equally AA-rated Who Dares Wins (featured in the photo above!) a pretty ropey Lewis Collins SAS actioner. Other ‘illegal' AAs that year included Firefox, Conan the Barbarian and Fame (yes, really!). 
Frustratingly, a couple of months before my 14th birthday they increased the age from 14 to 15 with the introduction of the new 15 certificate – grrrr!  My first ‘18’ cert film was A Nightmare on Elm Street (the original) which I went to at the Odeon when I was 16. I brazenly lied about my age, smugly walked in, sat down, opened my glasses case and realised I’d left my specs at home! So, I sat in the front row, squinting my short-sighted eyes into some sort of focus as Freddy Kruger sliced his way through Johnny Depp and co.

3. The queuing up the alleyways – Back in the day, because you couldn’t buy your tickets in advance, either online or by phone, you had to queue up and take your chances. This meant that for blockbusters like Star Wars or James Bond movies you invariably had to queue up outside the cinema, which then snaked round into one of the alleyways that linked Westover Road with Hinton Road. And you waited. If you were lucky, you would get in to the next performance, but if you weren’t, you had to stay in that queue while the film played and hopefully got in for the next one. I remember queuing like this for around five hours to see The Spy Who Loved Me.

4. The double and triple bills – While this still happens in some rep cinemas, the double bill (or double feature) or triple bill is a thing of the past for modern cinemas, quite simply because you don’t make as much money. Sure, there’s the odd ‘marathon’ or over-nighter when a new film comes out in a franchise, but I’m talking about the Star Wars Trilogy or double bill – the first three Star Trek movies in one day -  and even more fascinating, the weirdly unrelated programmes. For example The Amazing Spider-Man TV movie and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, or Smokey and the Bandit and The Conquest of Earth (three edited episodes of Galactica 1980), and even Buck Rogers in the 25th Century along with Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack. Great value for money too! 

5. The non-smoking side – Even now, when I walk into a cinema auditorium I tend to favour the right-hand side. I think this is because from a very early age I conditioned myself to sitting there because that’s the ‘no smoking’ side. Contrary to what common sense and basic science would suggest, there’s evidently an invisible force field that sits dead centre of the auditorium and prevents toxic tobacco smoke from drifting across to the right side? Well, no actually, your clothes still came out stinking of fags until smoking was finally prohibited.  

ABC Bournemouth
(Image by Dusashenka from Flickr album ABC Cinema)

6. The restaurants/bars – Both the Odeon and the ABC had upstairs bars/restaurants. However, I really can’t remember being old enough to go in to them or seeing them actually open. The Odeon’s catering space was actually turned into a small 140-seat auditorium in 1995, six years after the downstairs was split into four screens. The ABC’s still existed as a redundant space right up to when it closed, typically only used as a reception area for events/premieres. 

7. The Continuous performances – Nowadays you watch a watch, the lights come up, you leave and the popcorn boxes are swept up. Back in the day you went in as and when you pleased. The performance times were more of a guide rather than clearing out times, meaning that you could watch the first performance of the day and stay in to watch it again, as I did on a couple of occasions (Battlestar Galactica and Clash of the Titans for sure). I also saw the last twenty minutes of Jaws 3D before sitting through the trailers and support programme and then the start of the film. I needn’t have bothered.

Like they say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, and I apologise if I misremembered anything. Of course, the greatest fun was raving about the movies afterwards and saying ‘Remember that bit when…?’ So a big shout out to all family and friends who made the trips even more exciting, with honourable mentions to fellow cinemagoers Andy, Richard, Michael, Jim, Craig and Claire.   

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Do Composers Dream of Electric Keyboards? Jóhann Jóhannsson hits the sci-fi realm with Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

Twice Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is having a busy time. When we catch up with him in the Umbrian hills of Italy he is preparing for the release of a solo album – Orphée – a concert tour, the release of sci-fi drama Arrival and possibly the most anticipated movie sequel since Star Wars Episode 7 – Blade Runner 2049. If he’s phased by all of this activity, he’s not showing it.

There’s also another big, important film score that I can’t talk about right now which is happening over the same time period… it's going to be a very busy winter! [Since confirmed to be Darren Aronofsky's next untitled project]

Do you work best under this sort of pressure or do you like kicking back and doodling?

Well, I haven’t had time to sit and doodle for 25 years, so I don’t know if I can answer that question!

The latest trailer has dropped for Arrival, featuring a snippet of your score. It’s your third film with Denis Villeneuve (after Prisoners and Sicario) before you both start working on the Blade Runner sequel Blade Runner 2049. It seems to have arrived with little fanfare. 

When I was scoring it, I didn’t feel that it was any less high profile than say Sicario. If anything, it’s a bigger film, I just think that the discussion surrounding Denis in the last year has been around Blade Runner, so this film has kind of been under the radar, so it has come as a surprise to many that it actually exists.

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

And of course many will be scrutinising this as an indication of what we can expect from Blade Runner 2049. Did the subject matter of the movie give you the opportunity to experiment in new sounds or textures?

Arrival is very unique. It’s a science fiction film that’s quite unlike any we’ve seen in a while. It’s very exciting, tense and suspenseful – so it’s very entertaining – but it’s also full of very interesting philosophical and metaphysical ideas. Like all great science fiction it makes you think about possibilities. This particular story is about the arrival of alien spacecraft on Earth and finding out their purpose here. Amy Adams plays the main protagonist, a linguist who is part of an elite team tasked with finding answers to this mystery, so she is tasked with trying to communicate with them.  

What was the dominant theme that you latched onto?

The film is about communication and language, so that immediately led me to using vocals on the score. The second idea was to use tape loops; I was intrigued by the circular way of working and thinking. For the vocals I worked with a number of different singers and vocal ensembles. Most notably I used Theatre of Voices, which is a prestigious classical and avant-garde vocal group, and several other singers from the worlds of both classical and alternative music who have carved their own sound. This included Robert Aiki, who also provided vocals for Sicario and someone who I collaborate with regularly. I also used the voice of the very eminent soloist Joan La Barbara, who is featured in one of the pieces. While vocals are a big part of the score, there is also a lot of orchestral writing and a lot of textural sonic experiments, but they are all very analogue in origin. There are almost no synthesisers on the score; it’s digitally processed, but it’s all from analogue sources.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind famously used music as means to make contact with aliens. Is this something you were keen to avoid, particularly John Williams’ popular score?

In Close Encounters that was an integral part of the story, but in Arrival it’s a very different story, so that was not an issue at any point.

Did you record the score in Hollywood, or in your current home, Berlin?

I recorded in many different countries. Theatre of Voices I recorded in Copenhagen and I did quite a lot recording in Berlin, London and the Czech Republic. I recorded in Iceland as well, so as is quite normal with my projects, I like to travel around to work with people face-to-face in in the studios where I can.

Image © Jónatan Grétarsson

Arrival is your third film with Denis Villeneuve. Have you now developed a shorthand with your director where you can second-guess what he’s looking for?

This was an interesting case because I had already written a lot of music before he started filming. I’d done a lot of the vocals and tape experiments in the weeks when he was doing pre-production so I was able to send him a series of ideas at the beginning. He asked me to take a couple of those ideas and develop them further – one of these ideas then became one of the central motifs of the film, which Denis was listening to throughout the filming. He had my music in his head and his ears – he had the score while he was filming the movie.

How important is to be there from the very beginning. Do you want to be involved at script stage or are you more inspired when the footage starts coming through?

For this one I wasn’t actually on set for reasons of scheduling. For Prisoners and Sicario I was on set and I really enjoyed that because the landscapes inspired me. But this film is more studio-based so it didn’t feel so important to get to the set. It’s very inspiring when you start seeing the footage but in this case the script got me thinking immediately, especially seeing some of the concept art. I got a strong idea of the mood right from the beginning. The fine detail always evolves throughout the process of creating the film, which comes from a really close collaboration between Denis, myself and Joe Walker the editor. There are some films where you come in during the last two months when the film is almost finished, but Denis likes to work in this organic way where every part of the film comes together at the same time. I love writing film music. I don’t prefer THIS method to any other method, but it helps you be bolder and more adventurous in the way you use music, to take risks and experiment with new approaches.

Bold and adventurous. That feels like a good segue into Blade Runner 2049. Congratulations on being assigned the enviable gig – were you the choice from the outset? 

Thank you. Denis told me at the beginning that he wanted me on board, but obviously it had to go through more people than normal to make the decision. It helped that it’s the same producers [Broderick Johnson and Andrew A. Kosove] that I worked with on Prisoners so it felt like a natural thing to keep the same team. Denis is as director who likes to create a strong team that he can rely on, so he likes to work again and again with the same editor, cinematographer and composer to create a working relationship that is lets creativity flow.

What is your relationship with the original movie?

For many people of my generation Blade Runner was a really seminal film. When I first saw it as a teenager I was entranced by it. I was a fan of the works of Philip K Dick, and read his the original book Do Androids of Electric Sheep? Over the years I have watched it and re-watched it – the various director’s cuts and the various amendments and changes that Ridley Scott had made to the film.

As you’ve grown older, have your thoughts changed about the movie?

No, I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best science fiction films ever made.  

The movie currently has a release date of October 6 2017, which is just over a year away. Does that timing feel about right, or is there never enough time? 

There are many film scores composed in much shorter a time than a year, so it’s actually a privilege and a luxury to have so much time to work on it. Of course I am doing other projects as well – it’s not my only project. I’m releasing a solo album in September called Orphée and there are concert tours and other projects.

[Orphée is Johann’s first album for Deutsche Grammophon, his new label, and is a meditation on beauty and the process of creation. It traces a path from darkness into light, inspired by the various re-tellings of the ancient tale of the poet Orpheus, from Ovid’s to Jean Cocteau’s.]

In October you’re touring North America and then December it’s Europe, before returning to the States in the spring. When performing live is it gratifying to get the instant reaction from the audience? 

Oh sure. I haven’t don’t a lot of touring in a while but that’s really where I come from. This is my origin as an artist. I started as an album artist that makes records and tours, and then film music was something that I gravitated toward as a result of film-makers listening to my solo work, so it’s kind of getting back to my roots in that sense – which I’ve never really abandoned. I’ve been working on this record (Orphée) for six years and even if the last four or five have publicly seemed like the bulk of my work was film-related, I have actually been writing a lot of non-film music as well. A lot of that music is will come out in the next couple of years. My aim is to keep a balance between the two – the film music and my own music – and the ideal balance is 50/50.

Will those coming along to your gigs get that same mix of soundtrack to non-soundtrack? 

The tour will focus on the solo album, with one or two pieces from films but it will definitely have a heavy focus on Orphée.

I can’t let you go without talking about your Oscar nominations, first for The Theory of Everything and then this year for Sicario. While I’m disappointed that your stunning score for Sicario didn’t win, I guess being in the same company as John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Thomas Newman does make a win more difficult?

Thank you. It’s a tremendous honour to be included in their company as my co-nominees, and that was enough for me. That was a tremendous and great pleasure and I was very pleased that this particular work was nominated and given this amount of attention and recognition. It’s a very individual score and I felt like it was a bold move on Denis’ part to encourage me to go in this direction and I’m very glad that the film-making community acknowledged that and gave us the support to continue in in our sonic explorations. It’s also testament to how Denis and Joe work and how to use music in film. It’s quite sparsely used – it’s not wall-to-wall music – so I was very pleased that our work was recognised in this way. 

For details of Jóhann’s upcoming tour dates (North America and Europe) visit

The score to Arrival is released in November 2016 by Deutsche Grammophon.

The full interview appeared in Film Score Monthly Online. Subscribe for the industry's premier resource on film music.

Jóhann is at London's Barbican on 9 December 2016.

Monday, 26 September 2016

John Carpenter: Taking the show on the road

Master of Horror John Carpenter is facing a tour schedule that would scare the fainthearted. But then, this is the man who brought Halloween mainstay Michael Myers into our nightmares and established a synth sound that still resonates today. He may be in his sixties but he’s pretty laid back about what the year is likely to bring and is looking forward to hitting the road to perform to his fans.

Take a look at the reviews of successful recent movies like It Follows and Midnight Special and you’re likely to find mention of the soundtrack channelling John Carpenter or being ‘Carpenteresque’. His is a style that’s synonymous with 80s synth sounds – repeating motifs overlaid with ominous chords – and not only did it influence his fans, it clearly resonated with composers who are now providing homage to this soundtrack sub-genre in their own work. And while one might reason that the resurgence in the distinctive sound might be down to the lack of new product, nothing could be further from the truth.

In February 2015 he unleashed John Carpenter’s Lost Themes, an album of tracks for movies that never existed. Quite simply, these were snippets and sketches from movies-yet-to-come, or would only ever live in your mind. A collaboration between the composer, his son Cody and godson Daniel Davies, the album made enough of an impact to warrant a follow-up a year later, and this time they’re taking the show on the road.  

While this might be his first tour, it’s not the first time that John Carpenter has been in a band. You might remember the music video to Big Trouble in Little China featuring a performance by Coup de Villes with Nick (The Shape in Halloween) Castle and Tommy Lee (Halloween III) Wallace supporting Carpenter. He chuckles at my suggestion that this new tour is really a front for getting a reunion of the group, conjuring up images of ‘The Blues Brothers’ antics in getting the band back together. “Yeah, that’s it,” he deadpans. But did the experience of working with the Coupe de Villes help ground his expectations of what the forthcoming tour might bring. “I have no idea what to think. I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he confesses. “I have no idea. I’ll just take it as it comes. It won’t always be perfect and it won’t always be great. It’ll be up and down… but we’ll see.”

We caught up with the composer in the week that La-La Land released its 30th anniversary edition of Big Trouble in Little China and his first gig on the tour officially sold out at LA’s Bootleg Theater. If ever he had any doubt that there was an audience for these gigs, this surely put that fear to rest? “Well, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.” It’s an optimistic caution that will be prevalent during our conversation. As we go to press, Los Angelinos still have the opportunity to grab a ticket to see the show at the Orpheum Theatre in June.

The tour is evenly split between major cities in the US and European venues including Germany, France, Italy, Iceland and Greece. Tantalisingly, the London gig falls on October 31st – what better way to spend your location for Halloween? – while the German gig is part of Oberhausen’s Weekend of Hell Festival.

Let’s pause for a moment – the composer has gone from never touring before to 30 gigs in a year. In fact it grew from 26 to 30 in the two days between me looking at the schedule and could well have grown by the time you read this. “That’s quite a schedule isn’t it?” Carpenter offers. “Quite a lot of time on stage, but there are interruptions along the way.” As opposed to the lengthy ‘living from a suitcase’ press junkets he’s previously experienced. “It’s not as intense as talking about the same movie, all day, every day. We’ll perform for a few days, have a week off and go back again. That should make things a little easier… I hope,” he chuckles.

International tours of this nature don’t just ‘happen’, so what was the catalyst? “It started off with my son and godson who said ‘Hey, why don’t we tour this?’ I spoke to my wife and she said ‘You’d better do it’ and then it just grew…and kept on growing… and here we are!” For someone who has always had a passion for music, it would be easy to assume that Carpenter had always held a desire to tour, and this might the last chance to do it. “On no, not at all,” He gently corrects me. “It was just an opportunity for me… at my age… to go out with my kids and play. And why not?”

It’s not unusual for a performer to bemoan the fact that the crowd are only there to hear a certain signature song, and that must be true for many of the fans who have purchased tickets to hear the main themes from Halloween and Escape from New York. But with a tour that spans seven months isn’t there a chance that Carpenter himself will tire of playing the soundtrack of a certain Haddonfield serial killer for the umpteenth time? “Oh no, I don’t see THAT happening,” he counters. “Hey, it’s going to be fun. THIS is all fun.” Ask him what tracks the band will be playing and he’s understandably tight-lipped, but does reveal the likely ratio split in the material. “I would say it’s 75-80% soundtracks and 20-25 % from the Lost Themes albums.”

Fellow band members Cody and Daniel are co-composers on the Lost Themes albums and by being one step removed from the original movie soundtracks they are able to be impartial and suggest improvements for the live performances. “They help with everything,” Carpenter clarifies. “They help adapt [the score] to make it work well live. Hey, we’ve got a six-person band on the stage.” Inevitably, concessions need to be made between what can be recorded in a studio and what sounds good performed live, but this doesn’t trouble him. “You have to adjust for a live performance – it can’t be exactly the same. You have to make certain changes, but it’ll be close – it’ll be as close as we can get it.”

Carpenter has a presence on social media, boasting active accounts on both Twitter (nearly 120k followers) and Facebook (over 260k followers). In a recent post he asked his Facebook fans to let him know what tracks they’d like to hear performed live. The 700 comments were a great way to confirm what he probably already knew were the favourites (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13), while less expected was the request to include the underscore from the deleted bank robbery scene from Escape from New York! “Ha, yes, I saw that,” he recalls. So does it amaze him that out of EVERYTHING in his oeuvre, that one track should be singled out? “Does that amaze me?” he repeats the question. “Everything amazes me now. I’m just so happy to be around doing this.” And of the immediacy of social media? “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s not going to influence what I do,” he confesses.

In April 2016, Sacred Bones released John Carpenter’s Lost Themes II, a follow-up to the previous album which re-established ‘the Carpenter sound’ to a chart audience. The composer recalls how it all happened “The story for the first one is that Cody, Daniel and I were ad-libbing some music that we’d put together and created what was a basically a score sampler.” The tracks were composed and compiled over a number of years. Cody had previously scored his father’s ‘Cigarette Burns’ and ‘Pro-Life’ episodes of Showtime’s Masters of Horror, as well as contributing music for Vampires and Ghosts of Mars. Daniel, among other projects, had co-scored horror feature Condemned. “I’d got a new music attorney who asked me if I’d got anything new,” Carpenter senior continues. “I sent her this stuff and four months later I had a record deal [with independent label Sacred Bones Records]. It was that simple,” he shares.

Popular enough to create demand for a sequel, the new release was put together at greater speed – something that Carpenter is used to (he famously had one day to score  Assault on Precinct 13 and three days for Halloween). He also directed the music video for lead track Distant Dream, his first directing gig since 2010’s horror flick The Ward. As with most contemporary releases, Lost Themes II has also been released as a limited edition vinyl – in raspberry swirl! The fact that both Lost Themes albums are sequenced with a Side A and a Side B I wonder if Carpenter yearns for the days of the 12-inch record, or is he happy to embrace the latest digital mediums? “I love ‘em all!” he emphasises. “Vinyl reminds me of the old days. But it doesn’t matter what the format is – everything’s good when it involves music.”

John Carpenter’s father, Dr Howard Carter, was a music professor and a founding member of The Nashville Strings. It’s little surprise that John has such a passion for music, which he has passed on to his son. “I grew up with music. It’s always been there,” he states matter-of-factly. I recall an incident the previous week on public transport where someone’s cell phone rang in a packed train carriage – it was the main theme from Halloween? Does he witness events like this, and what does he make of a 38-year-old improvised score still making its presence known today? “Yeah, that also happens to me! My wife (producer Sandy King) has it on her phone, but that’s fine - it’s ALL great.” But surely that’s just being too modest?

Disasterpeace’s score for It Follows and David Wingo’s for Midnight Special have a sound that critics are very quick to describe as ‘Carpenteresque’. Is imitation the greatest form of flattery and is he happy to take the compliment? “I’ll take any compliment anyone want to give me,” he admits. But is it lazy journalism to compare any 80s throwback synth score to Carpenter’s work. “Man, I don’t really know. I just do what I do, and that’s a particular sound on a synthesiser. Other than that I don’t really know what it [the comparison] means.”

Carpenter has frequently described his greatest music influence to be the great Bernard Herrmann. I ask him what that legacy was. “I think that everybody has learned THE Bernard Herrmann chord. Other than that, it’s that every one of his scores just was a signature for the movie. The only person close to him in modern times is composer Hans Zimmer; his scores provide a signature – he’s amazing.”

Looking back at his early movies in the mid-1970s it’s astounding to see that John Carpenter not only wrote the movies, he directed them and composed the scores.
Was self-composition out of necessity because there was no budget for a composer, or was it a choice job that he wanted to hold onto for himself? “I was there, saying ‘I don’t have any money for this.’ I could do something simple but make it SOUND big with the synths.” In much the same way that Carpenter uses anamorphic lenses to give his movies a widescreen feel, he used synths to make the films sound like they cost more than they really did. “That’s something you’re always trying to do,” he reasons. “It was just me trying to service those movies, to support the big scenes and give them some feeling.”

Official video for Distant Dreams for Lost Themes II

While Carpenter predominantly scores his own movies, on occasion he handed over duties to others – Shirley Walker for Memoirs of An Invisible Man, Jack Nitzsche for Starman and Ennio Morricone for The Thing. Was it hard to do this when he himself could have tackled the task? “I never thought like that. A lot of the time it was such a big project and I needed that help. In the case of Morricone… I got to work with Morricone!” The Italian maestro recently had two of his unused tracks from The Thing soundtrack used in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Does Carpenter feel that music should transfer between movies in this manner? “I haven’t seen The Hateful Eight. He used the same tracks? Hmm, he’s done that in other projects too.” So, it’s not something that he would do? “Who me? Oh no, that’s just not my style.” Being a huge western fan (and writer of TV movies Blood River and El Diablo), might we one day get to hear a western score by him?  “I don’t know.” Pauses. “There’s probably one resting in there somewhere.”

Our time is drawing to a close, so a couple of quick-fire questions. At the end of the tour, and after a well-deserved break, might there be a Lost Themes III? I couldn’t say one way or another. You never know,” he offers. What’s coming up next? “I’m working on several things but I can‘t share any of them with you right now,” he apologises. But he’s not planning on retiring any time soon? “I’m semi-retired now, but I’m loving life,” he laughs.

I sign off with the promise to catch up with Carpenter and the band at his London gig on Halloween, looking forward to hearing the date-perfect rendering of his seminal score. “Oh, really?” he mock teases at the suggestion he wasn’t going to play it that day. I warn him, in the words of Brit pop band the Kaiser Chiefs, that if he doesn’t play the track then I predict a riot. “Oh, OK, I’ll remember that,” he suggests, making a mental note, though somehow I think that Michael Myers’ theme was always going to be present and correct this October.

Official John Carpenter website

This interview original appeared on FSMO. Subscribe now to the industry's premiere film music resource.