ScoreKeeper With Composer Craig Armstrong (WORLD TRADE CENTER, MOULIN ROUGE, RAY, And More!!)
Published at: Jan. 3, 2007, 8:25 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with one of my more interesting and thought provoking interviews to date.
Craig Armstrong is no stranger to music, however the world is only beginning to discover his talents in the field of filmmaking. A composer of both film music and concert music, Craig is most well known for breaking mainstream molds with scores for THE BONE COLLECTOR (1999), MOULIN ROUGE! (2001), LOVE ACTUALLY (2003), RAY (2004), FEVER PITCH (2005), and his most recent project, WORLD TRADE CENTER (2006) for Oliver Stone.
I strive to keep my interviews entertaining, enlightening, and enjoyable for anyone with at least a glancing interest in film music. This one is no exception, however, I recommend those who are studying film music or wanting to become a film composer to indulge in every word. Along with the UNITED 93 (2006) portion of my previous interview with John Powell, this interview forms a supremely stimulating study on scoring two very difficult films.
Craig’s insight, opinions, and perspective made this one of my favorite interviews of the year. Personally, I learned a great deal from our conversation and I hope others enjoy reading Craig’s words as much as I enjoyed hearing them.
ScoreKeeper: Thanks Craig for taking time to chat with me today. I’d like to talk with you about your most recent project, WORLD TRADE CENTER (2006), which was the second of two major studio releases in 2006 to focus on the tragic events of 9/11. Recently I was able to speak with composer John Powell who scored UNITED 93 (2006) and through viewing these two films and talking to John about his experience I wholly appreciate the daunting task it must have been to tackle such a project.
I’d like to go back to the beginning and ask you how you got involved with WORLD TRADE CENTER. Had you met Oliver Stone prior to being hired to score the film?
Craig Armstrong: Last November, Oliver invited me out to meet him in New York where he was filming the last scenes of the film. I met him and he told me about the script. Basically it was just a first opportunity to talk to him. I think he had a few composers in mind.
He gave me a script which I read. I suppose a lot of people, with Oliver Stone, you expected the script in a way to be more political. I responded to the fact that it was one story within thousands of stories that day. It was really just a story about people and the two men who survived that situation.
After I met Oliver, I sent him music. He knew of my work in MOULIN ROUGE! (2001) and RAY (2004). So I sent him that and also I sent him my classical music. He was quite interested to hear music I had written that was not film music as well. I think perhaps with the way he works, like the Barber music (“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber) in PLATOON (1986), he was quite interested to just hear music that wasn’t film music as well.
So I sent him my film music and my classical music. I also wrote a couple pieces of music just from reading the script which actually ended up in the film eventually.
SK: Do you know what it was specifically that convinced Stone to hire you for this film? Was it the music he heard, the words you spoke…?
CA: Well, I can’t really speak for Oliver Stone, but I think you have to meet the person to see if you can actually work together and have anything in common. Then it’s really up to the director to see if there is anything in the music that you send him that he responds to. Obviously he heard something that he felt could work in the film.
SK: Did the controversy surrounding Oliver Stone taking on a film involving the events of 9/11 cause any trepidation on your part for accepting the scoring assignment?
CA: I think the only problem was how sensitive the project was…How a lot of people felt very raw about a situation that happened not long ago. Also, there was problems in working on a film like that in that you couldn’t go down the normal course of dramatizing the picture because it was an historical event. You had to find another route to compose music for it. I think perhaps that was the same in (UNITED 93) as well.
The score I wrote was very elegiac in nature. I ended up writing music that worked parallel with the film. I think Oliver used the music very much like he used the Barber music in PLATOON. There were moments in the film where I had to write specifically to the picture but there are other moments where he just used the feeling of the music and placed it throughout the film.
SK: I definitely agree with you. If you’re looking at film music from an academic point of view, these two films are incomparable with anything that’s been done before. From that standpoint, all the conventional rules and usual courses are obsolete because of the unusual affect the story has on the audience. Everybody experienced this tragic event which is still relatively fresh in our hearts and minds.
CA: I was actually in New York on 9/11 working on a film called THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002) with Phillip Noyce, Anthony Minghella, and Sydney Pollack. So we were all caught up in Manhattan and like everybody else we couldn’t get out. We were stuck.
A few people have asked me if the fact that I was in New York on 9/11 did that really influence my writing. The way I started composing was from a broader more general viewpoint. It took on a more global view in a way in that any of those tragedies whether it was in London, or innocent Palestinians getting killed or innocent Israelis getting killed, or in Madrid, or wherever, I basically just focused on innocent people getting caught up in tragedies around the world no matter what their religion was or what their race was. It sounds a little bit corny but I just kept the whole of humanity in mind. I mean, for me personally, I’m a pacifist. I don’t think really anything gets solved through violence. So I focused on that.
I think having been in New York during that period…witnessing things that were very emotional and upsetting, instead of taking our experience and writing music based on that it was much more helpful for me to look at it from a much more global point of view.
SK: What goals were you trying to achieve with the music?
CA: I was trying to find parallel music to go along with this picture. You couldn’t dramatize it. It was already so dramatic. You couldn’t make it any sadder than it was. I just focused on this sort of spirituality of the people and basically just wrote a very elegiac score.
I got to know the two Port Authority workers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, and they were very happy with the music. That also helped that the fact that the people who were involved in the situation were part of the process of actually making the movie. That was very helpful and also helpful for me that they sanctioned what it was we were trying to do.
SK: What kind of score did Oliver tell you he was looking for when he hired you?
CA: I think with a lot of directors, it’s the same when I work with Baz Luhrmann (director, MOULIN ROUGE!), I’m quite lucky in that I get a lot of freedom, initially anyway, to come up with a direction. Really what I did at the beginning was just write a lot of music and Oliver auditioned it. There were some things he didn’t like and other things he liked a lot. It wasn’t really a process of Oliver saying I want this piece for choir or trumpet or whatever. It was more just me trying things out and working with the editors quite a bit. If I wrote a piece of music that felt should be in the picture, Julie (Monroe, editor), David (Brenner, editor) and Oliver would just find places it could work. Then Oliver would get very detailed and refine it.
I find it interesting because composers don’t talk to other composers. So you never really know how anyone else works. But I would say generally that’s how all my films have worked. You get a lot of freedom to just try anything you want. With WORLD TRADE CENTER it was probably more important than any other film to try and get it right.
SK: Can you outline for me the steps you took before composing the first piece of music? How did you eventually arrive at the right creative ideas?
CA: Well the first pieces of music I wrote were the “Piano Theme” and the “Cello Theme.” They’re both quite different pieces of music. The “Cello Theme” was a very classical piece of music. It was a whole piece around three minutes long. It generally reflected the emotional impact of the day’s events. The piano piece was a piece more written to the picture.
I found, like I have in other films, often writing music for a film at the beginning you have a thousand options to choose from and then as you carry on, you realize that there’s a small window of ideas that work. If you can, find a piece of music that can work anywhere in the film. If you can crack the emotion of the film you find that the piano piece could work in an area where the children and their mothers are waiting to find out where their loved ones are. It could also work on them being rescued. If you can crack the essence of the film musically, one piece of music can work in a lot of different areas. In that sense, you get into doing various variations on the main themes. After that, of course, there are moments where you really are writing to picture which is more of what you’d call a traditional craft of a film composer.
The WORLD TRADE CENTER music is quite a traditional score. There are only three themes in the whole film. Every single piece of music is based on one of these three pieces of music.
SK: Were these three themes specific to any symbolic parts of the narrative or are they used fairly interchangeably?
CA: This is also a personal thing. The thing I like about music is it’s not definable. One of the reasons that I wouldn’t like to be a writer or a film director and what I like about music is that different people can interpret a piece of music in a lot of different ways. Words are much more definitive. The “Piano Theme,” for some people, might make them think of something very direct that happened to them that day and for another person it can be a completely different thing. It could be a subtle thing or a very small incident. I think that’s the magic in music.
I’ve heard composers talk about they see colors and all sorts of stuff. I don’t. I actually like the fact that it’s abstract.
SK: Would you say that composing music for film allows it to remain indefinable or does it offer artificial restrictions that reduce it’s abstract nature?
CA: It’s an interesting question. When you’re working on film as opposed to writing a piece of music on a blank piece of paper…Obviously, film is a more collaborative process. If I’m writing a violin concerto or something nobody is going to say to me ‘I like that’ or ‘I don’t like that.’ All that’s going to happen is it’ll be played and you wait to see what the critics will think. With a film it is a collaborative medium. There is a bit more give and take. I actually enjoy that process.
There are some pieces of music in a film that can stand on its own. I think the “Cello Theme” and the “Piano Theme” can be pieces of music that you can listen to on the soundtrack and enjoy it as music. There are other pieces of music that are more structured around the visuals. Although they may be on the soundtrack people will think about the moment that piece of music was used and the visuals are part of that.
I divide my time now to writing concert music and film music. I recently just did a big work for orchestra and choir in my hometown in Glasgow (Scotland, UK). I find that when I spend a lot of time doing that I actually find myself enjoying the process of collaboration and vice versa. After six months of working on a film and collaborating with other artists its quite nice to be on your own again composing.
I find them both stimulating in different ways. I find that my concert work and my film work are coming a lot closer together. When I was a bit younger I would approach a film very differently like I would approach a concert work. I feel these days they’ve come a lot closer.
SK: It seems that the music for WORLD TRADE CENTER, specifically the motives and melodic phrases, all have an ascending quality to it. Likewise the harmonic progressions rise giving the music an ubiquitous uplifting feeling throughout the film. Even though sorrow is woven throughout the music, these ascending elements keep expressing a feeling of hope and optimism. Were you able to instinctively balance these disparaging elements throughout the score or were you more consciously aware from note to note.
CA: I think with WORLD TRADE CENTER you had to be careful. We spoke about the non-dramatization of the music so I think you had to be careful that the music wasn’t all dark. Obviously when these two guys are buried in rubble it’s a very dark place to be. But I think the music had to have a very redemptive quality to it…It’s very easy to empathize. It’s a part of being human to empathize with other human beings who find themselves in a disaster. What you focus on then is the human spirit.
I think you have to admire the people who had the spirit and strength to get out of that. I think there are a lot of people who couldn’t have done it. I don’t know if I could’ve done it to be honest. To be buried down there for so long to actually have the human spirit to survive. That is something to be celebrated.
I think it’s instinctive. It’s part of being human.
SK: When I was talking with John Powell about his score for UNITED 93 he expressed to me the challenges he faced while scoring the picture. He didn’t want to dictate the emotion but rather give the audience “a handrail” so that they could feel free to embrace their own emotional reaction to the events while feeling the shadow of a safety net that it’s still just a film.
WORLD TRADE CENTER on the other hand, does utilize emotion. I almost look at these two films as two sides of the same coin. UNITED 93 conveys the ‘what and when’ of the events in a very documentary-like fashion while WORLD TRADE CENTER represents a grand emotional collective as felt through the lives of the two Port Authority workers.
CA: I think they are quite different films. I actually only saw UNITED 93 about four weeks ago…intentionally, because I didn’t want to see anything that would influence me when I was in the middle of doing Oliver’s film which was done in early July. Then of course when it was over I watched it. They are very different.
SK: I really admire Powell’s “handrail” analogy concerning his score for UNITED 93. Using a word or phrase how would you characterize the overall philosophy behind your music for WORLD TRADE CENTER?
CA: I would go back to the UNITED 93 film. It was much more, from what I could see, it was much more documentary in scale. WORLD TRADE CENTER is much more…I’m trying to think of a good word…it’s not really poetic…it’s a much more broader emotional canvas that you’re really living a lot of WORLD TRADE CENTER through the families.
SK: Exactly. I think it personalizes the experience a little more for the audience. Instead of merely observing UNITED 93 you’re feeling and experiencing WORLD TRADE CENTER. That’s not to say that vice versa is inaccurate but these respective qualities do seem to resonate at the heart of each of these two films.
CA: Yeah. I felt that the scenes with the families were as important, in a sense, as the scenes with John and Will. It was an interesting way to see a disaster through a lot of people who weren’t in the buildings but you saw the devastating emotional effect it had.
They are also very different films in terms of pace. With Oliver’s film, there are moments in the film where it completely stopped liked when John has a flashback about his wife. It’s also an analysis…in the fact that a lot of people take a lot of things for granted. You really analyze everything.
In another sense, WORLD TRADE CENTER didn’t follow a timeline like UNITED 93 which was very much “A to Z.” WORLD TRADE CENTER stops and goes back a lot and reflects a lot and breaks up that timeline which made it harder musically but at the end of the day makes it more profound, I think.
SK: Were there any pieces in the film that you had to particularly fight for or try to persuade Oliver Stone to use?
CA: There was one piece in particular…the scene where Jimeno has a vision of Jesus. I wrote this piece of music that had guitar on it. The reason behind that, was because these guys were from working class backgrounds, much like myself. I wanted to use an instrument that was a real people instrument so the score wasn’t all choirs and symphony orchestras. There were moments where it became very personal and very ordinary.
I remember Oliver saying, ‘What’s that guitar doing in there?’ I explained him my theory. First he said, ‘No, no, no, no, no…absolutely no guitar!’ Eventually it went back to him and it worked for him.
I think a director as talented as Oliver Stone can teach you a lot. I certainly learned a lot from him. But I think it’s also your job to bring things to the table.
SK: One of my favorite pieces is the “World Trade Center Choral Piece” which really acts as an aural centerpiece for the score. You talked earlier about writing the “Piano Theme” and the “Cello Theme” fairly early in the compositional process. When did this piece come to fruition? Was it the result of development or did you develop from this?
CA: I wanted there to be choir in the piece but I wanted to be careful about how it was used. I didn’t want it to be seen as overtly religious – you know, choirs have an overtly religious connotation. So I wrote the choral music in a slightly different way. I wrote it almost as if the choir were just orchestral parts. Because there are so many people of different nationalities died in the towers, I didn’t want the choral piece to feel like it was denominational in any way. I just wanted it to be emotionally right.
I also think the fact that nothing choral really happens until well into the picture…I think that was also a device making sure the score didn’t in any way feel overbearing or overtly religious in any particular style. I don’t think it did. I think it worked ok.
SK: You did the choral composing and arrangements for WORLD TRADE CENTER and earlier you mentioned you did a large scale work for chorus and orchestra. Is choir something you have a real affinity for in your writing?
CA: I think the human voice in general…although in film it can be very overused…you know, the sort of GLADIATOR (2000) type thing. You’ve really got to be careful of going down that route.
SK: What role does form have in this film score?
CA: A score is a very structural thing. Audiences hate two things. The one thing that they hate is being manipulated which is a contradictory thing because to an extent, any piece of music makes you feel something. Maybe you should say they don’t like to be manipulated in a bad way. That’s got a lot to do with the structure of the score and how it makes sense.
The second thing is, I think audiences like music in films to act like signposts to give them something to hold on to…to make more sense of the narrative. That’s a structural thing you’ve got to get right.
I like everything, no matter what the film is, to be quite tight structurally so that you’re not doing a score like A, B, C, D, E, F, G, etc…You’re doing A, B, A’ (a variation), B, then B’ (a variation). So the whole thing feels like you really thought it through. You’re not just responding with sound.
SK: Do you think that way because of your approach to composition in general?
CA: That certainly helps. I think having knowledge of development…If you look back – who is the guy that does all the Hitchcock films again?
SK: Bernard Herrmann.
CA: Yeah. I like his scores a lot because they’re all very developed. I think my scores are quite similar. In some way that’s quite a traditional way to do it. It’s sort of a dying art form.
SK: I couldn’t agree more. Development is such a huge component of composition whether it’s for a concert hall or serving in a film. It does seem to be falling away from film music and I think that’s been one of the things I’ve craved most in modern film music…the development of ideas.
CA: I think at the end of the day the audience just responds to it emotionally. They’re not thinking, ‘oh, this is an interesting variation of the later half of the choral piece.’ I think they feel it which is the most important thing.
SK: Instrumentation is also an important aspect of film music. You utilized a lot of solo piano, solo cello, choir, rich divisi string writing, and you even incorporated some loop based samples. Can you elaborate more on your orchestrational decisions for WORLD TRADE CENTER?
CA: When I did my earlier scores, like ROMEO + JULIET (1996) and stuff like that, the electronic side of what I did was more to the fore. I don’t think it was any more to the fore than my orchestral work. I think it was definitely a combination of both.
From my recent scores like RAY (2004) and WORLD TRADE CENTER, if I use any electronics I try to make it as opaque as possible so it doesn’t date. If you use any obvious electronics it’s the first thing that will date a score. I didn’t use an awful lot (of electronics) in WORLD TRADE CENTER. I try and make it so it won’t date the film.
SK: Since I’ve been talking to you I may already know the answer to this but, why a lack of brass instruments, solo trumpet, or other ingredients to give it an Americana sound? Were you making a conscious effort to avoid those clichés?
CA: It’s interesting that you mentioned the trumpet. That was an option but I ruled that out very early on because I didn’t want to have anything militaristic at all. In the same way that a choir has spiritual connotations, solo trumpet has connotations of the military. That’s why I avoided it.
I really saw the score, and I think the film as well, as a celebration of humanity. Not violence or militarism.
SK: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Can you sum up for me the biggest challenge you faced composing the music for WORLD TRADE CENTER?
CA: The biggest challenge was to do something for such a sensitive subject and that it wouldn’t offend anybody who lost loved ones.
‘Is it a good idea to do this?’
I thought these things too.
SK: When you embarked on your journey to craft the score for WORLD TRADE CENTER, did you arrive at the same place you expected to when you started out?
CA: (long pause) I think in a way I’m quite happy with the music because it does have that general global feel about empathizing with the human spirit. I think the thing that I didn’t do, which I feel is good, is personalize it for myself. Obviously, like everybody else who was in New York that day, you have very strong feelings about how terrible that day was. I think it’s good I didn’t go down a more personal route. I really went down a much less selfish route to do something that was a little bit more removed. I tried to do that and I hope I’ve been successful.
SK: Would you like to work with Oliver Stone again?
CA: I would like to work with Oliver Stone. Oliver is thinking of doing a film that does reflect on the political background on post 9/11. I think everybody expects him to do that. I think he will do that. Yeah, I’d like to work with Oliver again. He’s a brilliant filmmaker.
SK: Do you think that these two films, UNITED 93 and WORLD TRADE CENTER have made it ok to continue to make films about 9/11? There will be more. Are these two the ice breakers that make them more accepting to the public?
CA: I think everybody has the right to make films about their history. Any country has its own right to do films…I’m Scottish so I sometimes can’t believe there hasn’t been a film made about the (Highland) Clearances in Scotland which is one of our biggest disasters. I would like to see Oliver’s take in the post-9/11 film. I think that will be a very different film.
SK: Is that something that he is working on?
CA: I think so. Oliver’s anti-war views are very well known and it was something that we both discussed at the beginning. We’ve actually got quite similar views. But at the same time we both empathized with the disaster that day…we’re in a very difficult period. It’s an artist’s duty to make art about the time no matter how difficult that is. I understand people’s sensitivities about the film and I share them. I hope we didn’t let anybody down doing it.
SK: Well Craig, you’ve been most generous with your time. I like your score for WORLD TRADE CENTER quite a bit and I’m fascinated by how daunting of a task it must have been to achieve. This is not an easy film to score and I think you did a great job. I appreciate your time and wish you the very best for the future.
CA: Thank you very much. It was nice talking to you. Take care.
I’d like to again extend a heart felt thank you to Craig Armstrong for taking time out of his schedule to talk with Ain’t It Cool News and also many thanks to Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.
WORLD TRADE CENTER is now out on DVD and the CD of Craig Armstrong’s score is available on Sony Classical.
Here’s wishing 2007 brings peace and prosperity to us all! Happy New Year!