February saw The Space kick-starting the creative new year with a truly golden Hollywood glow on its post-festive stuffed cheeks, with our very special guests, Oscar winning film composer Rachel Portman and Dan MacRae, the man responsible for the purse strings of Studio Canal, the film distribution house who have backed Oscar winning The Hurt Locker and Oscar nominated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Presented by Lisa Holloway and sponsored by the Brighton Film School, an informative night of melody and industry insight befell our cosy congregation at Brighton’s Komedia.
Rachel Portman: An ear for music
For an Oscar winner, Rachel Portman, OBE, gives a first impression of pure personable warmth, both on and off stage. When asked by an audience member about working with musicians, she recounted being asked to work on a track with Elvis Costello for the film One Day: “I had nightmares about it, I was so worried I was going to mess it up”.
Starting to compose music at the tender age of just fourteen, you could say that the art of beat, coda and cadenza was born into her. While discouraged from averting her musical gaze outside of the rigid training of classical composition however, it wasn’t until her days at university that Rachel got to experience the world of film, where her love of ‘the moving canvas’ as she so beautifully put it, was truly awoken: “There’s much more scope in screen than there is in theatre. I was just struck, watching the wonderful images against my music (watch Kieron Butler’s wonderful montage here), how it’s the most powerful thing you can do.”
But diversity also holds a key to perhaps where she stands in the grand scheme of the upper echelon of musical figureheads, trying her hand at other mediums, learning and honing the many elements required to produce heart-wrenching and expressive scores: “The wonderful thing about television in this country is that it is so close to film; so it was a really good way for me to learn on smaller scale projects…I tried to break into the Television scene just as Channel 4 started, it was terribly exciting. They made these series of really good films called ‘First Love’; it was a great way for me to learn my craft.”
But what makes a good composer? Obviously a good ear is paramount, but Rachel explained to us working on operas to a musical, television to soundtracks, a good dose of empathic aptitude is just as sacrosanct: “Everything you write as a composer is all based on your own instinctive intuition, your own response to the material. I think it’s very important not to overload the emotion. I’m interested in the bittersweet and scores that have a musical voice of their own, not necessarily about just what the scene is saying visually. I personally thought Never Let Me Go was extraordinarily well made and just beautiful; one of the most inspiring films I’ve worked on in years. It’s a very dark film. They had huge problems trying to find the right composer for it as the strange scientific side to it is that it appears quite a cold story when first read – but it’s actually not and never was to me; it always had a big, beating heart and was about love and how much time we have here; so I connected to it on that level.”
Parts of the process
Rachel had the incredible achievement of being the first woman composer to receive an Oscar, which she won for Emma. So from the world of glamour and glitz to the day-to-day, Rachel elaborated on the routine involved in comprising the likes of an Academy Award winning score: “Every film is of its own world. I start working on a film when it has been shot and already edited to its near final stage, so I’m working on the last 2-3 months of the making of a film's life. I get a copy of it and sit and watch it; I talk to the director and discuss where the music is going to go in a combined discussion. Then it takes about 2 weeks before I come up with any real good ideas because you have to take a film on board, enter its world until you are living and breathing it and you become part of it in a way, and the ideas start flowing. I feel I know what the music should be, like an answer; whereas at the beginning you can’t possibly know that. Like writers, once they know the world, it just flows.”
Sound of the underground
Stepping out from the giant shadows cast by the actor, director and producer categories, it seems 2012 has so far been the year for bringing the world’s attention to the importance of sound in film, or more the importance of the amount of it used, with The Artist sweeping the awards boards as a modern approach to a silent film (ironically nominated for a BAFTA in sound, which I still can’t quite fathom). I found Rachel’s personal yet professional take on the matter very veracious: “I think there’s a tendency to over use music now and it’s getting worse, especially in American studio films. There’s this insecurity to have anything without music and it’s so strong when you see a film like A Separation which has no music in it at all; it’s just so refreshing and a relief as we are bombarded with music everywhere. I’ve often told people I work with ‘Let’s have less music, or something really quiet, just not so much’ as it's very wearing for us as the viewer to have constant music. If you take music out, people’s attention is put immediately back in to the film again. Often where I take a cue out has as much a powerful effect as when it comes in.”
I urge you all to nip over to Rachel’s IMDB profile to see just how many astounding scores she is responsible for. Many a period drama such as The Duchess and Mona Lisa Smile, to modern pieces such as romantic drama The Vow and mystery thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Speaking of which, Rachel gave a wonderful anecdote about working with directors and the importance of communication to get the desired result: “A little knowledge can be a mixed blessing, it depends on the personality of the director and how good they are at explaining what they want. Roman Polanski was very good; he’s confident working with composers as he trusts them and knows what to expect when listening to your demos. But really you want a director who is happy to talk about a scene and to tell you what they want to feel. Just words can set things off. On The Manchurian Candidate, Jon Demme originally asked me for a Hitchcock film style; an intellectualised type of fear. So I was busy writing and he came back and said he said to me that it needs to be ‘viscerally frightening’ - that was all I needed to know. I had a litmus test of ‘am I frightened by what I’m writing?’ It’s about directors being able to give you the key to unlock what to write.”
Next on the agenda
With Patrick O’Connor as Director, Rachel is currently working on the film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book called Private Peaceful, who also wrote War Horse. But versatility is part of where she is today, and expressed with pep that she’s relish the opportunity to get her hands on an action film or a big western. So any Hollywoods bods – take heed and snap up one of the best of British composers our little nation has to offer.
As presenter Lisa introduces Dan on stage, she gets it spot on by describing Dan as a ‘film buff with a business acumen’. As she continues to read out Dan’s curriculum vitae, many an impressive film he’s been connected with causes many an ear to prick up; Attack The Block, Brighton Rock, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Carnage, Kill List to name a very mere few from film distribution house Studio Canal. Currently the Head of Development of Studio Canal, its Dan MacRae’s keen sense of what makes a good film from both sides of the screen that has him sitting in front of us this very evening. Both an avid film lover and evidently confident at making multi-million pound decisions, it’s a rare treat to have Dan allow us a peek in to the inner workings of the immensely yielding cinematic monopoly.
Education for the film-making nation
Conviction is a characteristic that has played a vital part in Dan’s charted professional success, starting out as a grass roots film fan, working his influence on the Scottish audiences as an Art-house cinema programmer: “For 6 years I imposed my tastes on other people. I offered a broad overview of contemporary, classic and art-house cinema as I have a real passion for them; and a sense of audience. One of the most important things about programming a cinema is thinking about what people want to see. You can’t impose your tastes all the time – you have to be very careful about the type and diversity of audiences out there, who want to see a whole range of different material. You get a chance to share some of your enthusiasm and perspective and the kind of repertory programming you can do.”
But it was Dan’s nurturing mettle for home-grown talent that sew the seed of his development expertise. Working in the public sector, Dan has been Deputy Head of the Development Fund & UK Film Council and played a green-fingered hand heading up various short-film making and writer-producer training schemes on his Scottish home soil: “It was like a golden age in short film making in Scotland in the 90s where schemes from anything up to £60000 were given to make a short film dependant on the production value… We fostered many new talent TV directors including Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire) and Andy Goddard (Downton Abbey, Torchwood, Doctor Who) who made their first shorts and all came through this huge buzz in Scottish cinema. One of the first short films we made won an Oscar; Franz Kafka’s/ Peter Capaldi’s It’s a Wonderful Life. It was so exciting - people from Scotland were getting global attention; people built careers on these short films… There’s clearly a film education that’s an important part in trying to nurture and foster an industry. It’s not just about the practicalities of making movies and the mechanics of storytelling; it’s very important to give people a sense of what cinema can do. You can only build on the past.”
Speculate To Accumulate
The financial onus is an equally generous ingredient in Dan’s day to day, having built up a proven track record from the positions mentioned above, as well as shouldering the responsibility for Working Title Films as Development Executive, on films such as Atonement and Hot Fuzz. Dan continued to explain to us in more detail just what it is that Studio Canal does, along with other elements his role as Head of Development entails: “I now find projects that will find a big audience. We are a financing and development body, but we are fundamentally a distribution company. Essentially we are making sure we deliver something to an audience to enjoy. From the financial point of view, the films we finance ourselves like Attack The Block and Brighton Rock, they cost millions and one of my jobs is to make sure that those films justify those millions to be spent on them. You try and make those decisions based on what you believe an audience is going to respond to and what will bring an audience into a cinema. This is a balancing act of the talent that’s involved, the brand recognition of the kind of film you are making (sometimes that’s simply by genre), a balance between what the film costs and therefore the kinds of talent you have in it. The more expensive the film, the more you need stars. Brighton Rock for example, neither Sam Riley nor Andrea Riseborough were household names, so it became important to get someone like Helen Mirren in the film… Being a distribution company, you need to release material films that will punch above its weight; you have big American movies out there every week and even if they are not narratively or emotionally satisfying, they’ll offer spectacle. It costs the same to go and see Inception as it does Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. It doesn’t matter which is the better film, so you have to be clever finding ways around that to allow an experience that will stand up to that.”
Studio Canal has many arms to it for generating revenue. Dan explained how they influence where a film ends up from many angles. They finance and make 4-5 films a year themselves, then back approximately a further 28 titles for theatrical release in cinemas, and have an extensive DVD arm for home viewing. Alas however, they can’t all be as successful as each other and Dan admitted there were educated decisions made that they couldn’t have predicted the real-world outcome for, including that of Madonna’s ill-fated, much criticised W.E. The 2010 remake of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is another title that came up, and I was fascinated to hear the thought process behind choosing the creative steer in a film and how it can be used to escalate the chances of it being made: “With films like Brighton Rock there’s often a sense that you shouldn’t remake something that’s perceived to be a classic film. I think some people felt that the appropriation of Quadrophenia wasn’t entirely successful, but the motivation of doing it that way from us was evocative and interesting. There’s a number of decisions you can make; do you do a remake of the same period, or is that too repetitive? Would it be perceived as slightly drab? Or you could make a contemporary version, which could be very unattractive as it would be very close to the gangs being knife-gangs and the crime is too prevalent. So you look to the 60s, with the opportunity to fetishize the period and a chance to re-write history with a gangster entrepreneur coming into the city buying up property. So that part of the story about old and new gangs is very much in Graham Greene’s book, so made that decision the best possible one.”
The future of film distribution
On a thoughtful leap into the realms of the relationship between film and technology, Dan highlighted where he thought our viewing experiences may end up: “There’s a future perceived that will break down the window between theatrical distribution, DVD, video on-demand, live streaming etc. whereby films are premiered internationally worldwide for one week, beamed directly and digitally into cinemas, and are then able to buy a week later. Cinema started out as an individual experience; peep shows, zoetropes etc. then somebody had the great idea of putting everybody into one big room to watch collectively. What has happened 100 years later is it's gone back to a solitary experience; people mostly seeing films at home, perhaps with 2-3 other people, but are generally viewing on their own. It could well be that the cycle comes round again… I think cinema will survive because people like that collective experience. The studios are all about summer tent pole movies, so spectacle will continue to exist. Digital film making is creating more opportunities to make small scale films that can be released individually and distributed online, which I’m sure will continue to grow. There is so much money surrounding the blockbuster, so cinemas and big screens will always be there, along with a diversity of audiences; the audience for Kill List is different to Atonement.”
So there you have it - with a combination of mindful mediation and a darn good knack for believing in the right people and ideas for the right audiences, we have been lucky enough that Studio Canal, with the very capable help of Dan MacRae, have produced for our eyes and ears and imaginations, titles of pure grit, to that of the whimsy fantastical. I’ll be keeping an excited watch on their future releases…