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INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTOPHER WILLIS

STRUCTURING A WEALTH OF MUSIC - Three years ago The Death of Stalin directed by Armando Iannucci took the world by storm. The satiric comedy about the death of the notorious Soviet dictator was signifi-cantly aided by a rousing, impressive and sometimes very Russian-sounding score by Christopher Willis. Director and composer reunited again for a modern adaptation of the classic novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Willis recently talked with Score about this new collaboration with director Iannucci, which produced another sometimes overwhelming score.

David Copperfield is one of the most revered works by Charles Dickens and depicts the life of the protago- nist from childhood to mature manhood when he is married and becomes a successful writer. British composer Christopher Willis (1978) read a couple of Dickens’ books like Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol in his younger years. Only recently did he read David Copperfield to prepare the scoring process of the film. Willis: ‛I really fell in love with it. You can begin to think of Dickens as just being a leatherbound, dusty volume on a shelf, and then when you pick it up and you start reading, it’s like sitting on a rollercoaster. He just grabs you by the scruff of the neck. His desire to excite you and to carry you through the story is so palpable and it feels like it could have been written yesterday.’

Willis grew up watching Armando Iannucci’s shows on TV, quickly becoming a big fan of the comedian. When they met for the first time to discuss the music for The Death of Stalin it felt very strange, according to Willis: ‛When I met Armando I knew some of the rhythms of his comedy, which always helps. But I think perhaps even a bigger thing that helped is that we discovered we had so much in common in terms of our love of classical music. We talked for ages and it was partly talking about comedy and partly talking about classical music and going back and forth between the two. And it’s been like that ever since.’

                                   Dev Patel as David Copperfield in The Personal History of David Copperfield.

Iannucci’s adaptation of David Copperfield is a modern take on this classic novel. Did that approach affect your composition? ‛Yes, Armando wanted everything to feel very fresh. He didn’t want there to be a sense that we are peering back through history but that it was a very vivid and fresh story that just happens. The costumes are brightly coloured and the sets are brightly painted. And so musically that meant that I went on a journey to try to figure out what that might mean. The British influence and all of its symphonists, they made it into the flavour of the score, but I was looking all the time for things that would feel fresh.’ What can you tell about the musical style of the score? ‛Armando and I were talking about British symphonists of the early twentieth century, so not necessarily music from Dickens’ time, but very British-sounding music. In the end there was a certain amount of practical minimalism in there as well.’

Structure

The score is filled with lots of compositions: short cues and longer pieces of music. How did you structure this wealth of music? ‛There was one thing that I was aware of in the early stage and that is that everything would be very vague at the start of the film, because David is a baby and he doesn’t know who he is. Things would then take a much more concrete shape at the end. Because he would become a writer, there would be this maneuver late in the film where he has been collecting scraps of paper with bits of quotations of people on them and he doesn’t really know why he does this. He also imitates the way they talk in his own speech. He doesn’t know why he does this and finally when he sits down to write he realizes that he can use this great wealth of stuff that he has. He always thought he was copying people and now, by changing it slightly and by drawing on it he has this great outpouring of writing fiction. When we get there we should have melodies and clarity and the music should be very clear and strong. And we should have been building to that point all the way through the film. At the end of the film, after he has been writing, but after everything has been resolved, there’s a cue called A Life Well Written where we hear all the melodic material from the film resolved in a sequence that makes sense. So that was my overarching idea.’

                                   Dev Patel as David Copperfield in The Personal History of David Copperfield.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is full of drama and humour. How did you balance both emotions? ‛I don’t worry too much about the humour with Armando’s things. I know that they will be funny with no music and I know that he rarely wants my help making them funnier. Let’s take the scene in the film when David is in love and everywhere he looks he sees the face of the girl he’s in love with. The direction from Armando was simply to do the romance but not to do the comedy. I think at some level I do, because, as I said, I grew up with his comedy. I don’t think I really help very much, but I know when to start and stop. I have some instinct about what to do, what makes it funnier or less funny. Finding the tone for the darkest things was a little tricky. One had to balance an instinct to do on the one hand Dickens in that full kind of almost childlike Disney-Spielberg kind of way by leaning to the characters and the darkness. And on the other hand to not do too much, because the film is not like a cartoon, it’s not like a Disney movie or even like a Spielberg movie. There are places where one could be very dark in the music and it was better to stand back. All of the experimentation went into trying to get that out.’

Christopher Willis trained principally as a classical pianist and musicologist, attending the Royal Academy of Music in London and completing a PhD in Musicology at the University of Cambridge. His love of eighteenth-century music led to his doctoral dissertation on the music of Domenico Scarlatti. After his move to Los Angeles in 2007 he mainly focussed on a career as composer for film, television, and games, receiving particular praise for his music for animated shows. One of your trademarks is energetic, rousing, sweeping music. We hear this in the beginning of the film. Where does this drive come from? ‛(laughs) That’s a great question! I think I am quite an energetic person. I subscribe to an idea that I first heard from Robin Holloway who is a concert composer and also a lecturer at Cambridge. He felt that composers have a sort of innate, unavoidable tempo that they bring with them and that they return to. I’m a big fan of Domenico Scarlatti and what’s strange about him is that his natural tempo is a tumbling skittish fast tempo falling over itself and full of asymmetry and perhaps even humour. Which is not something that we are very comfortable with as listeners; we are more comfortable with a composer like Bach whose natural rhythm is more solid. Perhaps that’s something about my basic energy that comes through in those faster things. It’s interesting as you compare the end piece from The Death of Stalin to the opening piece from David Copperfield. They are both rather high energy, aren’t they?’

Serene

On the other hand you wrote serene music, for example for David as a baby. ‛That was a lovely cue to write, I was compositionally in a similar state to the movie at that point. I didn’t really know yet what the melodies were going to be.’ One of the threads in the film is David’s aspiration to become a successful writer. Do we hear the main theme here? ‛Yes, right at the start of the film there’s a progression that’s not even quite a theme, but that turns into the melody that is the theme of the movie which expresses David’s hopes. Melodies are so incredibly useful to other aspects of the music, they’re not simply something to hum. They help to structure the music, because if you have something so easy to remember, then there’s a lot you can do to guide the listener and to make connections. I’m a big fan of clear melodies, even though I feel in myself this worry, that I know other composers have, about whether it’s too sweet or too obvious.’ And which may inadvertently distract the viewer from the film. ‛Right, there’s a general concern – if you take a long view in movie music now as opposed to movie music fifty years ago – to be subtle and vague enough to carry the film without cheapening it.’

There are many other themes that deserve a special mention. For instance the scenes in the factory where young David is put to work early in the film. The music makes you feel part of the goings on here. ‛Yes, I was having fun with ostinatos and I discovered one layer comes out while the other layers refuse to stop. Mostly it’s low but then there’s a thing that starts up that’s high and when the low thing comes out and the high thing continues it’s almost like being in a factory where there are multiple things happening and you desperately want one of the noises to stop. But then when it stops something else is happening.’ Equally innovative is the music for the dramatic shipwreck scene near the end. ‛The music actually gets completely stuck in one dissonant unresolved place. That is the sound of the shipwreck. We never manage to escape from that chord, which we spend four minutes struggling with. That was my solution to getting the score into a darker place: to have it get stuck.’

                                                                                          Christopher Willis.

Have you ever thought about making a suite of the music? ‛I would love to do that just as with The Death of Stalin. I actually sat down to do that with The Death of Stalin earlier this year and I found it was a little tricky because I had really spent many months getting myself into a certain mindset in order to write that score in the first place. I was writing the start of The Death of Stalin very slowly and I gradually got faster and faster until by the end I was writing really fast. All I could think of was Soviet-sounding stuff, so going back to them I think is going to be a little challenging. But I absolutely hope that I will do that.’

The music was recorded in Air Studios in London with Aurora Orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Collins, whom Willis knew from his student years. ‛Nick and I were students at the same time in Cambridge. When I was in my early twenties I taught him a little bit in harmony and counterpoint, so we have known each other for many years and I respect him enormously. It’s so natural to have him conduct the orchestra. I also played quite a lot of the piano parts; some of them were played by a great pianist called John Reid.’

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The recording sessions at one point turned out to be a hell of a job. Willis remembers vividly: ‛I was so exhausted at the end of the recording sessions because there had been some very last-minute changes. Armando was terribly busy finishing David Copperfield at the same time as working on Avenue 5, a sitcom for HBO, and everything was absolutely crazy. I was writing music in my Airbnb in London just before the sessions and then almost all the way through the night sending music off to Los Angeles to be orchestrated and then it was coming back to London just in time to be put on the stand. We went to the piano session which was after all of the orchestra things on the second day, and I did a few cues and then I just collapsed. We said, let’s just go to the pub! We recorded it later in LA and it was all fine.’

One of the themes Willis played on the piano was a fast, humorous piece for the turtle show in the film that sounded like slapstick for a silent movie. ‛That is one of the times in the film when it sounds like the nineteenth century. Almost like a piece by a composer that is not in the first rank, not like a Chopin or Schumann but somewhat simpler, almost a parlour room composition. And of course to wink once again at the themes of the movie, I tried to kind of tie things together in some way. So the piece starts as its own thing and then in the midst of the second or third phrase we start hearing echoes of other music in the film.’

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film’s release was delayed in the US after a healthy start in England. ‛In the UK it came out around Christmas and so the UK release was completely before all of this happened. The film was scheduled to come out quite a bit later in the US but the premiere in New York was canceled. There was a theatrical release later on, but I don’t think people are going to see it in great numbers. Interestingly it got a wonderful critical reception in the US. I think something about the pandemic has made the film resonate even more. It is so full of life and joy and the search for meaning. It feels all the more poignant and throught-provoking now that we are in this new situation.’

                                                               Christopher Willis and Armando Iannucci in Air Studios.

Did the Covid crisis affect your work in a negative way? ‛I’m in an extremely fortunate position this year, because all of the work that I had planned on my calendar was with animated TV shows and animated movies. It became quite clear in March and April that all the animators were going home and working on software on their own. It was an amazing thing to see and it’s been a little grim, but on Mickey Mouse for instance we have soldiered on, there have been hardly any delays. All of the recording of the music is done by people at home, so I have a big band, with every single member of the big band recording on their own. We even have a choir whose singers are recording themselves and recording many times over to create the effect of a choir and then piecing it all together in the Pro Tools. But I find in a more general sense the crisis really has a destructive effect on your mood and on your brain. It demonstrated to all of humanity what a social species we are. We need to be close to people and interacting with them in order to function mentally and in order to be happy.’

The scores for both The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield are very symphonic. What can you tell about the style of your next project, Lamya’s Poem? ‛This independent animated movie, which is set in Syria, is going to be more of a hybrid I think. I’m still figuring out the colour of it, but in order to convey everything that we want to convey in the film I’m going to need access to a different palette. It’s funny that I have now these two films that are completely symphonic and I love doing that, absolutely. But I also enjoy experimenting in a studio and working with modular synths and things like that. I hope that this new film will allow me to explore both of those together in a way that works.’

Paul Stevelmans