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INTERVIEW WITH EMILIE LEVIENAISE-FARROUCH

‛LEAVE YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR’ - Last year we celebrated 75 years of peace after the end of the Second World War. To commemorate this anniversary the big budget war film The Forgotten Battle (De slag om de Schelde) was scheduled to open in April, but due to the coronavirus pandemic the release was postponed to December 17. However, the pandemic prevented the public from watching this eagerly awaited monumental war film again. And so the public had to wait another six months before the film finally opened on Saturday, June 5th 2021. Now we can listen to the music French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch has written for the film. With Score she discussed her music in December 2020.

The Forgotten Battle depicts one of the biggest battles of the Second World War. As the title indicates, it concerns a battle that hardly anyone knows today. It took place from October 2 to November 8, 1944 and was one of the most important and fierce battles fought in Western Europe. The battle of the Scheldt was instrumental in securing the Belgian city of Antwerp as a port for the Allies. More than 10.000 people lost their lives. The film’s premiere took place in Vlissingen on Monday, December 14, and in the evening of that day Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the upcoming lockdown. Producer Alain de Levita declared on TV that he hoped the film would open right after the lockdown would be over in mid January, but the lockdown took another five months. The Forgotten Battle was directed by Matthijs van Heijningen jr. and stars Gijs Blom, Jamie Flatters and Susan Radder. Last summer London based French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (Paris, 1984) came on board to write the score for the prestigious project with a budget of 14 million euros. ‛It’s huge,’ she observes, ‛the battle scenes are incredible. You can see that it cost that much money, it’s very impressive and really really well made. I do think people, when they go see it, will be like wow!’

How did you get involved with this huge project? ‛The production hired Sarah Bridge, a music supervisor who knew my music and she had seen some of my work on previous films. She asked me to put together a selection of pieces from footage of the film. So I made this little selection of tracks and cues for the director and he agreed that this would be an interesting angle to score the film.’ What can you tell about this specific angle? ‛We tried to keep a certain rawness in the sound. I think one of the elements that’s recurring on all aspects of the film is to try to not make it glamorous and perfectly polished, not make war look or sound clean in any way. In the recordings of all the instruments we made it sound like it’s played by people rather than making this big lush Hollywood sound that almost feels unreal. We also didn’t want to go over the top emotionally and getting sentimental. We aimed keeping the sound rather modern, using some synthesizer sounds, because the main characters are young in this film that is trying to communicate with a younger audience. We’ve tried to create music that sounds youthful rather than going for the historical approach or for the very grand Hollywood sound.’

                                                                                       Jamie Flatters in The Forgotten Battle

What scenes did you compose music for? ‛There are huge battle scenes, very intense, gory, and very bloody. Then there are some emotional, intimate moments for some characters themselves and what they’re going through. It’s a pretty score heavy film, there’s quite a lot of music in it. Where we did it, a lot of the music is also underscoring so it’s less attracting attention to itself, and then you have the big musical moments.’ What style did you use? ‛I think it is minimalistic, it’s kind of an experimental score but with thematic elements. You have some soaring string melodies, just as some piano melodies that are quite recognizable. We used them very sparingly because we are not trying to tell people what to feel, we are just trying to go along with the emotions of the characters.’

Subdued

In a press release director Matthijs van Heijningen jr. wrote that the music had to support the dramatic threads in the film and should be subdued and not too bombastic. He also stressed the importance of the sound design. In what way did you collaborate with the sound designer? ‛I haven’t actually had a chat with him. There was one battle scene where I felt that my music is not the best way to tell the story. You hear a big explosion and lots of gunshots where, as a composer, you know there’s not much point in trying to bring a lot of drums because they will get in the way. And I think that Matthijs was very much aware of that.’ Did you work closely with him or with the producer or the editor? ‛I worked closely with Matthijs, who had a good understanding of the shape of each cue and how the music can affect each scene. Still he gave me a lot of freedom in terms of how to write the music and what sounds to use, which was super fun because you do end up having a lot of ideas coming from him and a lot of really interesting points that I may not have thought about. So that was a great collaboration.’

The composing proces took about three months. What instruments did you use? ‛We used synthesizers, we had a bit of piano, and in terms of the strings we had an 11 pieces string ensemble and also flutes, including bass flute and contrabass flute, which was an incredible instrument that is much taller than me and which produces a crazy sound. We had a harp as well, and all sorts of effects. Finally we used a lot of percussion. All these sounds are very textural. You can really feel the instruments, they were all performed by the London Contemporary Orchestra who have recorded many scores by Jonny Greenwood like Phantom Thread, the recent Suspiria soundtrack by Thom Yorke and all this kind of music. They are very aware of extended techniques and they use traditional instruments in a more unusual way.’ In these bizarre times, scores are sometimes recorded at home. What about this score? ‛There were fifteen musicians in the studio, so we couldn’t do that at home. We recorded at Air Studios in London, the sound there is great and the engineers are really great as well. There were quite a few logistical challenges like the rules in terms of how many people you can get into one recording studio. In order to record the orchestra we had to get a room that would be much bigger than what we’d normally need because of social distancing, which means that there aren’t many available. In the end it was very difficult to find a space that was good and available. It was a different way to work than it would normally have been.’

                                                                                         Susan Radder in The Forgotten Battle

Did any crew member from the Netherlands attend the recording sessions? ‛Well, that was very difficult because of the quarantines. There was a live stream of the recording and so they were able to talk with us within the recording booth, but even here we had to stick to the rule how many people could be in there. Some people who were working for the orchestra and would normally be in the booth with us, had to be in a little separate booth on the side. It was all very strange because you couldn’t just pop into the recording space and you had to disinfect your hands all the time. Unfortunately there was no way to have someone who hadn’t been in quarantine to come in and to check how the recording was going and give feedback.’ Did you conduct or play an instrument? ‛I played the piano and all the synthesizer parts and some of the droney kind of instruments, but I did not conduct. I want to be able to select the takes or make notes or make decisions and things like that.’ Will there be a CD or download available with the score because of the big amount of music? ‛That’s something I really like to consider, because it is a score that can be enjoyed outside of the film as well. We had no time to think about that yet.’

Did the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have any effect on your work as a composer? ‛No, although it’s kind of weird because we were never in the same room with the director, so the conversation had to be done via Zoom and things like that which makes everything a little bit complex. So it was not as straightforward as it would normally be, but we were both very happy with the results. It just takes a little bit of time to adjust to this new situation. I think people will be very happy to be able to collaborate in the same room again and I’m looking forward to that.’

Recording studios

Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch came to the UK in 2006 to study in London. What can you tell about your education in France? ‛Actually I didn’t study music in France, but I went to university and studied History of Art for a while. Back in those days there was a clear pathway for all the aspects of the classical music composition. But in terms of thinking about film music or working in the recording studio there weren’t that many options, whereas the tradition of film music in England is quite strong just as the pop music industry in general. I was so curious about how you make music in the studio, how you record and mix things and how you use the studio as a tool. In Paris and the south-west of France, where I also lived, there were less options to do so.’ Recording studios in London are world famous, lots of Hollywood film scores are recorded here just as scores by French composers like Alexandre Desplat and Gabriel Yared. ‛Both Air Studios and Abbey Road are amazing studios, and it’s just crazy how fast the musicians are; they have never seen the score before and just record it immediately. Also they take on board comments from one take to the next, so in terms of the recording music culture in England the level of professionalism is very impressive. The sound is really good and many scores are very traditional, classical sounding. If you want to experiment on the other hand, musicians here are very open-minded to play in ways that aren’t traditional. You feel they get excited about trying new things.’

Levienaise-Farrouch’s first steps into scoring were short films, the first of which dates back to 2009. ‛That is the most traditional way to get into film scoring, I would think. Often people who are just doing a little lowbudget short film asked me. Because I was based in the UK, they were mainly UK based directors.’ Then there was the documentary The Sheik and I (2012) by Iranian-American director Caveh Zahedi and her first feature film Tiger Orange (2014) by Wade Gasque. ‛I did a couple of very, very microbudget little features. Those are very good ways to learn the kind of craft that is going into making feature films, even though you might not yet be able to express your sound and stuff the way I did. Tiger Orange is definitely a film where the film makers were very passionate about the project and really careful about the story.’

                                                                                           Rocks by Sarah Gavron.

Then followed Only You (2018) by Harry Wootliff which was released in the Netherlands, and Rocks by Sarah Gavron which won praise in many countries last year including our country. Levienaise-Farrouch’s sparse score reflects the inner feelings of the adolescent girl Rocks who lives in a suburb of London and has to run a household by herself together with her little brother after their mother was taken into custody. ‛It was an interesting film because the main characters are very young. There was a lot of collaboration with the music supervisor because all the moments where the girls are together you hear lots of songs, and they really help anchor the film in where we are, what age group we are talking to and things like that. It was interesting because we had to find a language for the score that wouldn’t be jarring and feel stuffy but would be restrained. It was actually a very delicate balance because it’s very simple and minimal, but again it was one of those projects where, even if there is just a little bit of score, you want to do it. One of the biggest things you have to do when you do a film score is to leave your ego at the door. You can’t try to push music, when there is no need for it. I mean, if there is very little music, then a lot of the film is doing the right thing.’

Hybrid

The small original score for Rocks was recorded with a handful of soloists. ‛We only had one violin, one viola, and one cello, because that was something Sarah was very careful about. Everyone knows how much emotion you can get of strings and piano, but at the same time with those sixteen year old girls you can’t make something that sounds like classical music. That would just be silly; so we were finding a way to make a hybrid score having the best of both worlds, I hope.’ Together with music supervisor Connie Farr the composer was nominated at the end of last year for a British Independent Film Award for Rocks. ‛It was a surprise, I really didn’t think they would go for us. A bigger more traditional score would be obvious, but I guess we had something different: a mix between soundtrack and score.’

Would you like to work for a French film? ‛It depends. A lot of my favourite films are French, but in a sense I’m not really interested in the nationality of the film maker. If I see that people really care about the story that they are telling, then I get pretty excited about it. If I’m lucky enough to be in a position to work with one of the many great film makers we have in France, then sure, why not?’ Your next project is a British horror film called Censor. ‛Yes. That’s very different, I haven’t done this before. It’s a type of film that I really love: the old Argento’s, the old giallos, and films by John Carpenter. These films remind me of a very specific time when they were very elegant and visually beautiful. This new film is set in the eighties in the UK where the first VHS video’s of horror films were starting to come into the general population and the authorities were panicking about all these horror films getting into people’s homes.’ The score for Censor is filled with references to the music of Carpenter and Goblin, the Italian band that scored Profondo rosso (1975) and Suspiria (1977) for director Dario Argento. ‛That last score is amazing. It was a lot of fun writing the score for Censor. I had to watch Cannibal Holocaust as a preparation. That was too much for me, I’m more into the pretty Profondo rosso, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Don’t Look Now. That’s a great film too, and another one I’m getting completely excited about is a classic British film which we don’t reference to, but it’s very influential on every level: The Wicker Man.’

This conversation took place in December 2020, when the UK was still a member of the European Union. Do you fear Brexit for your work? ‛I’m French, but I’m also a settled person in the UK, so I actually get a little bit of both. It might not affect me so much. It’s probably more like an everyday effect than a career effect. But in terms of shooting in Europe the British film industry is going to have some adjustments to make. I know people who are filming in Prague, because they can get a fast track quarantine thing, but I don’t know if that’s going to be available for UK based film makers, so it might have a knockdown effect on the industry. But yes, it’s difficult to know.’

Paul Stevelmans