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INTERVIEW WITH AMIE DOHERTY

A DREAM COME TRUE - In 1998 Antz was the first DreamWorks animated film followed by Shrek (2001), Madagascar (2005), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), The Croods (2013), The Boss Baby (2017), to name but a few. Spirit Untamed, a spin-off film of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron as well as an adaptation of its spin-off TV series Spirit Riding Free will open in cinemas on August 4. The first Spirit film (2002) was scored by Hans Zimmer and for the latest installment Amie Doherty composed the music. With this film she made history by becoming the first woman to score a DreamWorks animation feature film.

Irish-born Amie Doherty was an apprentice in the Universal Composers Initiative, which started in 2018. Her first assignment was to pitch on two DreamWorks short films. Doherty: ‛I ended up getting the short film Marooned which was amazing. We went to Abbey Road in London where I recorded the score. And so I met a lot of the DreamWorks team at that time and worked with the Universal Film Music Department. The following year, when they were discussing a possible composer for Spirit Untamed, Mike Knobloch, who is the president of film music at Universal, recommended me. I met with the DreamWorks team and I read the script which I loved. Then I told them my ideas for the music and heard their ideas and we were very much on the same pitch. That was a really wonderful experience.’

Spirit Untamed is an epic adventure about a headstrong girl named Lucky longing for a place to belong, who discovers a kindred spirit when her life intersects with a wild horse. Spirit Untamed is the next chapter in DreamWorks Animation’s beloved franchise that began with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. How did you start this project? ‛The first thing that needed to be done was to write the lullaby that opens the movie. Because they used it to animate to it, I came on the film actually quite early. And then we talked about a couple of key scenes like the first time we meet Spirit and we worked on the themes. When they were all in place for the major scenes, the rest of the score fell into place.’

                                                                                     Spirit and Lucky in Spirit Untamed

The lullaby which dominates the score is called Fearless and is sung by three actors. ‛Eiza González who plays Milagro, Lucky’s mother, sings it in the beginning and then, when we’re through the movie, Isabela Merced who plays Lucky sings her version, and then towards the end of the film Jake Gyllenhaal sings it. We open with the song and we finish the movie with the song. I got to record these three actors singing the song and then I used that melody throughout the score.’ Fearless has both English and Spanish lyrics, as the film is set in an American frontier town with a Mexican community. ‛I don’t speak Spanish at all, so we brought on an amazing translator and we worked back and forth getting the essence of the lyrics that I had written in English to translate to Spanish, while still having the rhyming scheme working within its own language.’ The Mexican flavor can also be heard in parts of the score through the use of the guitar. ‛There are two different types of guitar that I used in this score. There is an acoustic guitar, because we wanted it to be Americana and have that Old West feel, but also to be modern. I also like the idea of a folk theme. My friend Bryan Winslow recorded all those guitars, and then on the other side there is the nylon guitar, played by Andrew Napier. We used that for those moments where we’re remembering Lucky’s mum Milagro.’

According to Mike Knobloch, ‛Amie Doherty delivered a beautiful, lyrical, tuneful, thematic, melodic score.’ Parts of the score have a truly energetic sound. Is that characteristic of you? ‛I think so. I have a lot of energy I love to embed into the score which is why I love scoring animation. I like to pick quick tempos. A lot of the scenes are very adventurous and action driven, so I like to kick it off with a good tempo. It helps with getting things on the screen within the music.’ Are there a lot of differences between scoring an animated film and a live action film? ‛There are a lot of things that are the same. But scoring animation is much more of a challenge I would say, in terms of jumping quickly from genre to genre or from emotion to emotion. You can have a very scary scene followed by brief moments of comedy and an emotional moment and then jump back to the action. So things jump very quickly and the music has to be quick too, in order to help tell the story and keep the momentum going, whereas in live action I think we rely less on the score to provide those shifts.’

Female story

Spirit Untamed is directed by Elaine Bogan with Ennio Torresan as co-director, the screenplay is by Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn, the producer is Karen Foster and the composer is also a woman. Doherty observes enthusiastically: ‛What I love about it is that it is a female story about a young girl who meets two young girl friends and the three of them come together and they support each other. I think it’s important for women to tell women’s stories and there’s an amazing sense of empowerment in this film that comes from so many women behind the camera. Even on the music team: my assistant is a woman, Ellie Cumming, and our music editor was a woman.’

                                                                                    Lucky and her friends in Spirit Untamed.

The score was recorded in the Abbey Road Studios in London earlier this year. ‛We had to record the sections separately due to Covid restrictions, so we did four days with the strings, two with brass, two with woodwinds and a day with percussion. I couldn’t go, I was here in LA in my home. The technology is amazing and the guys at Abbey Road just planned it so smoothly; we had not one single problem. I spoke directly into the entire orchestra, I gave notes from here to there and I was listening back.’ Doherty certainly was not the only one working from home. ‛It was incredible to see everyone’s resilience because the directors directed pretty much the whole movie from their living room. My assistant was in Sydney, she was supposed to come here, and we had a visa set up for her and then they shut down immigration, so she couldn’t come. She and I worked together for this entire movie with her in Sydney with a fifteen hour time difference and then we recorded the orchestra in London with an eight hour time difference. Everyone had this great camaraderie and positive energy, so it’s incredible that we made this happen.’ Looking back at the scoring process Doherty is very satisfied with the results: ‛I really loved scoring this film and it was like a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to score a big adventure animation film with all its melodies and themes. I am proud of the score.’

Amie Doherty has been based in Los Angeles since 2014. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Trinity College, Dublin and graduated magna cum laude from Berklee College of Music’s Masters program in Scoring for Film, Television, and Video Games in Valencia, Spain. Next she attended the intensive Sundance Institute Music & Sound Design Lab at the legendary Skywalker Ranch. Following the lab, she was among others chosen to participate in the legendary ASCAP Television & Film Scoring Workshop. Her scoring credits include Focus Features’ The High Note (2020) and Amazon Prime’s series Undone (2019). For DreamWorks Animation’s short film Marooned (2019) she received the ‘Best Score for an Animated Short’ award at the 2019 Hollywood Music in Media awards. Doherty’s other musical contributions include orchestrating and conducting tracks on Lady Gaga’s Chromatica album from 2020, and conducting the orchestra and choir with 50 Cent at Radio City Music Hall in New York for the Power Season 5 premiere. Other credits include the TV series Star Trek: Discovery, Fargo, The Night Of, Altered Carbon and The Umbrella Academy.

Musical family

At what age did you really know you were going to be a film composer? ‛I’m not sure about that, I always knew I wanted to do music. I started playing piano when I was really young and don’t remember ever learning to read music just like reading English. I come from a musical family, so music was always around me. I always knew I wanted to work in music and growing up I loved movies and movie scores. It just never dawned on me that I could do that. How does a girl from a small town in the West of Ireland end up in Hollywood? I would listen to scores as much as I would listen to pop albums and I loved them. And then I went on to study music at Trinity for a music degree. I majored in composition and then I decided actually I preferred music technology. So I majored in that and during my time in Trinity I decided: okay, can I figure a way to get to work both in movies and music?’

How important was Spirit Untamed for you? ‛It is a milestone that I am incredibly honored by. It’s insane to find out that I was the first woman to score an animated feature at DreamWorks. I didn’t even know I was the first female until a couple of months into the project Jill Hopper at DreamWorks let me know. It blew my mind, because I grew up being inspired by John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon, Harry-Gregson Williams’ Shrek, and Hans Zimmer’s Spirit score. I really hope that it’ll inspire other young girls somewhere who maybe see my name in the credits and think: oh, I can do that. And then hopefully again in a few years it won’t even be something that we give a second thought to seeing a woman’s name in the credits on doing the music. I think it’s a huge milestone and we’re moving towards a very positive change.’

Paul Stevelmans

Amie Doherty photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Photo Amie Doherty at Abbey Road, 2018: Amie Doherty