ScoreKeeper Chats With Composer David Julyan (MEMENTO, THE PRESTIGE)!!
Published at: Dec. 19, 2006, 12:19 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here presenting my latest illusion with film music magician, David Julyan. No, I will not be cutting him in half, rather I’ll reveal to you my latest interview with this emerging composer for the silver screen.
I was interested in interviewing David simply because I didn’t know much about him. Having burst on the scene with Christopher Nolan’s first studio film, MEMENTO (2000), he’s quickly making his mark on the industry with his incomparable scores for films like INSOMNIA (2002), THE DESCENT (2005) for director Neil Marshall, and most recently Nolan’s latest film, THE PRESTIGE (2006).
Julyan’s music creates evocative atmospheres for the films that harbor it and is only a matter of time before more directors chime in with bids for his services.
Now ladies and gentleman…Abracadabra!
ScoreKeeper: You worked with Christopher Nolan on several short films before collaborating with him on his debut feature film MEMENTO (2000). Can you talk about how you and Chris met in those early years. What kind of filmmaker was he and how it came about that he was able to keep you on board once MEMENTO rolled around?
David Julyan: I met Christopher Nolan when we were both in college. We got involved in the Student Film Society there. Before MEMENTO we did a very low budget feature called FOLLOWING (1998) made with no backing in the guerrilla filmmaking style. Its success got Chris MEMENTO and also got people like myself who were working on it involved with the subsequent film.
Back then Chris knew what he was doing even when he was making student films for no money. It is that trait that stands out then and now.
SK: As an audience member watching MEMENTO the reverse linear narrative is a lot of fun to experience but takes some mental work to process it all. Was scoring the film similar? Did you find it a greater challenge than your other films to keep the narrative straight in your mind so that it could be scored effectively?
DJ: MEMENTO is obviously very non-linear but the thing is, when I score a film, I very rarely score a film in a linear fashion. I don’t sit down with a film and score the first scene and then the second scene and so forth. There will always be two or three key moments, whether it be a big emotional scene or whatever, that draw you in. You find yourself watching the scene from some point in the middle of the film. In all the films I work with I jump back and forth on the scenes I’m scoring. So I didn’t notice the fact that MEMENTO is non-linear.
As with any film, you have to be aware of the structure of the film so you develop the themes in the right order. It was a bit harder with MEMENTO to make sure the score would progress in a manner that fit the film. But I’d say, if anything, it has a linear score.
SK: Being your first major feature film, were you particularly nervous during the scoring process. Was it stressful? How were you different then compared to when you score films today?
DJ: I still score films in the same way – by getting immersed in the atmosphere of the film and letting the music respond to that. I think what you’re really asking is about the stress of a first major feature film. Strangely enough, there wasn’t that stress. To me, MEMENTO felt like just me and Chris working the same way we did on FOLLOWING. Obviously, we had less time and there were other people breathing down our necks.
With MEMENTO we still didn’t have that much to prove. FOLLOWING had been an independent success and MEMENTO had more money and name stars, but when you’re making something like MEMENTO, you don’t know it’s going to be this huge cult hit. There was still no reputation to live up to.
SK: Do you see Christopher Nolan differently today than when you worked with him on MEMENTO or even the earlier films? How has your collaborative process evolved over the years?
DJ: Like everyone, we see each other differently because we both have more experience. But the basic process hasn't changed that much over the years. We still do the same sort of thing. He's more demanding of himself as a director and I'm more demanding of myself as a composer, but the same sorts of things happen.
SK: Upon first listening to the score for THE PRESTIGE (2006), one might think it belongs in a swarthy, urban, modern-day detective film rather than a turn of the century character mystery between two rival magicians. Can you elaborate on your approach to paint the film in such a manner rather than something more traditional?
DJ: One of Chris’s first notes to me on the film was that he didn’t want a period score. The way the film is shot, it’s a period setting but it’s not a period film. He wanted to reflect that in the score. Hence, the use of interesting electronics and an urban detective story feel. In some ways, THE PRESTIGE is an urban detective story. It’s just an urban detective story from 100 years ago.
SK: Was Christopher Nolan heavily involved in the scoring process? How do you exchange ideas?
DJ: Chris was heavily involved. The unique thing about working with Chris is that he doesn’t like using a temp score so I actually get involved quite early on in the day. For example, with THE PRESTIGE I had a copy of the script. From the script I had a couple conversations with Chris about the mood of the music and what he was trying to achieve. I was actually writing music from the script before I’d seen any footage. He took these early mock-ups of mine and used them as the temp score. So the flow of an exchange of ideas was a very productive way of working. Instead of “Can you copy the temp?”, it was “Can you keep moving the mock-ups in the direction I want?”
SK: I bet that’s nice. What were some of the things you were trying to accomplish with the music? What were some things you were trying to avoid?
DJ: We wanted a sense of anticipation that magic was about to happen. There was the tension of anticipation, as the movie is always building to something. This is why we settled on the effect that sounds a bit like an orchestra tuning up but wasn’t actually achieved that way, to give you that evocative feel.
SK: How did the permeating narrative themes of “The Pledge,” “The Turn,” and most importantly, “The Prestige” play into the music?
DJ: Dividing the score up that way on the CD was a nice thought that came as we were putting the CD together. It kind of fits with the acts of the film. It certainly works in that all thematic material has its own appearance and version in each of these three movements.
- image by Gemma Day
SK: How did you incorporate electronic elements into the acoustical framework of the score?
DJ: I’ve always been a fan of combining orchestra and electronics. You get the best of both worlds. With THE PRESTIGE I was using electronics to achieve effects I couldn’t get with the orchestra.
There’s a lot of stuff in tracks such as “Colorado Springs” where in the background there is a Shepherd’s Tone. That’s the audio equivalent of an optical illusion so that it appears to rise constantly. It’s a very nice effect that Chris and I settled on.
It also allows me to produce a very textural bed to lay under the orchestra.
SK: I saw that Hans Zimmer was credited with an executive music producer credit for THE PRESTIGE. How did he get involved with the project and what were his contributions to the overall production of the music?
DJ: This was the first project I recorded in Los Angeles. I ended up taking a writing room with his company Remote Control. It was good to have him around in the background making a few suggestions about how Los Angeles recording differs from London.
SK: What was the biggest challenge you faced scoring THE PRESTIGE?
DJ: With any film, the biggest challenge is making the music work. That’s all I try to focus on. When scoring a film, I would never worry about the background Hollywood politics or anything like that. To me, it’s just me, the director and the film.
SK: Were there ever any moments in the film where you had to fight for a particular idea you felt was important? If so, were you persuasive?
DJ: I never had to fight for any music in it. If you’re asking about rejected ideas – because I was writing before there was any picture and working from the script – some of the early things I did Chris would say wouldn’t work.
From the script I’d often write something and have it in mind for a certain scene and then find they had used it somewhere else. That’s an interesting form of collaboration, and if it works I never felt the need to fight for my original idea.
SK: Is there anything particular in this score that you look back upon now and would like to change or have a second crack at it?
DJ: Off the top of my head…No. With any project that’s being done to deadline, you’re bound to wake up in the middle of the night and think, “If only I had done that there.” That hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’m sure it will.
SK: Were you ever considered for BATMAN BEGINS (2005)? One can only assume you have a great creative relationship with Chris Nolan. It surprised me when I saw that you were not hired to score that film.
DJ: That’s not really a question for me.
SK: Any chance you’ll be working on THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)?
DJ: That’s a way off. Time will tell.
SK: How did you get involved scoring THE DESCENT (2005)?
DJ: I got an email from the producers saying they’d love to meet me…simple as that. It was also quite interesting because at the time Neil didn’t know about my availability. THE DESCENT was London-based and he didn’t know I was London-based when he contacted me.
SK: How did working with director Neil Marshall differ than working with Chris Nolan?
DJ: There are similarities in that they both know what they want from their film. The most obvious difference is that THE DESCENT was quite traditionally scored in that I became involved quite late in editing. They were very close to picture lock and they’d used temp score in the film. That’s the main difference.
The interesting thing – tying in both the previous question and this – is that Neil is a great film and also film scoring enthusiast. When he was writing THE DESCENT, he was listening to my score to INSOMNIA (2002). It seemed like his favorite score at the time, which is why they approached me. “Wouldn’t it be great if you could get me the INSOMNIA guy?”
SK: This is such a unique film. It starts off very differently than it ends. From the composer’s point of view, can you elaborate on the structure of the narrative as it relates to the context of your music?
DJ: The mood of THE DESCENT changes a lot during the course of the film and I did try to allow several themes to reoccur. I don’t think of THE DESCENT as a horror film. It’s got an emotional story at its heart. I basically used that story to try to tie the moods from the beginning and the end of the film together.
SK: Although the film is ubiquitously dark, at a definitive point, it becomes a horror film. How does the music early in the film compare and contrast to the moment where the film turns horrific?
DJ: I always think of THE DESCENT as a suspense film which is what I think makes it so good. Even in the early stages of the film, I hope the music conveys that suspense even in the more lyrical orchestral music. The audience knows they are going to a horror film and something bad is going to happen eventually. Earlier in the film the suspense is there and we just keep building it.
SK: There’s so much chaos and cacophony once the horror ensues. In what ways were you able to differentiate between the aleatoric moments in the score so that they wouldn’t grow stagnant from gag to gag.
DJ: I didn’t try to differentiate between the aleatoric moments. I just tried to be sparing with it.
In a horror film, it’s very easy to have a really loud orchestral stab every time something scary happens. I’m very pleased that director Neil Marshall was quite keen to back away from the obvious horror cliché of doing that. It wasn’t so much keeping the music from growing stagnant from gag to gag because half the jumps in the film have no music on them. The one that always gets everyone in the audience has no music on it.
SK: What film would you say has been the biggest challenge of your career?
DJ: I like the fact that all films are a challenge because it’s always working with different people.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest challenges was a film I’ve just done – OUTLAW (2007). It’s a gritty, urban film set in modern day London. You always want to try and top what you did last. I’m very pleased with OUTLAW. The score is completely different from THE PRESTIGE but equally as good. It was a pleasant new challenge to do an all electronic score. It’s probably the first score since MEMENTO that I’ve done something that’s been entirely electronic. I love working with orchestra but this was fun…felt like the old days.
SK: Right now the overwhelming majority of your scores accompany films that are dark in nature. Are you concerned about being typecast this way? Would you like to score the next romantic comedy or are you content, at least for the time being, remaining in the macabre?
DJ: Anyone who has a nice film about a kitten, please contact me. I do like the darker stuff. It’s the kind of music I enjoy but I wouldn’t like to end up as just the “horror film guy”.
SK: What would you say your strengths are as a composer? What are your weaknesses?
DJ: I think that’s almost a question for the directors I work with rather than me. I hope my strengths come from absorbing myself in the film, and not trying to copy what others are doing.
SK: Where would you like to see yourself ten years from now?
DJ: Still in a job! I’d like to think I’ll still be doing basically what I’m doing now. Like a lot of composers, I’ve got my non-film ideas I’ll eventually get around to doing but film is treating me pretty well right now.
SK: What projects do you have coming up?
DJ: We just mentioned OUTLAW. There are a couple of other things bubbling under for the beginning of the year, dark and moody of course.
SK: David, thank you for your time and I wish you the very best in all your scoring endeavors.
On behalf of Ain’t It Cool News, I’d like to extend a hearty thank you to David Julyan for his time and to Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.
Coming up next…I’ve got two more composer interviews to post before 2007 rolls around. Now if I can just find the key for this lock. Anybody know how to get out of a straight-jacket?