Adrian Johnston is a composer who has had a strong presence on Cinema and TV screens since his earliest appearance in the mid 1990s. Right away he forged ongoing collaborations with directors, including Michael Winterbottom for whom he scored Jude and Welcome to Sarajevo, amongst other things. In 1997 he embarked on what has been perhaps his most important collaboration thus far, with writer/director Stephen Poliakoff, a partnership that continues to this day. Beginning with Food of Love, Johnston has gone on to score dramas such as Shooting the Past, The Lost Prince and most recently Gideon’s Daughter for Poliakoff, whose award-winning works have become something of an annual event on TV screens. Johnston is himself no stranger to awards, being nominated for a host of BAFTAs and taking home an Emmy in 2002 for Shackleton, Charles Sturridge’s dramatisation of the explorer’s 1914 expedition to the south pole starring Kenneth Branagh. Sturridge is yet another director with whom Adrian has enjoyed a handful of projects (including Lassie in 2005).
Julian Jarrold is a further collaborator with whom the composer has worked on a series of film and television projects, including the 2005 hit comedy Kinky Boots and of course this year’s delightful period romantic drama Becoming Jane for which he created music full of period whimsy and much romance. I caught up with the composer to have a brief chat about his most recent big screen outing, which is itself a very becoming score…
So Adrian, tell us a little bit about Becoming Jane; how would you describe your score?
Becoming Jane is a film based on a biographical detail that the young Jane Austen had a fancy for Tom Lefroy, a visiting cousin of the Lefroys nearby. The film speculates on an affair, and suggests that experience fuelled her fiction. The score helps define the milieu in the first half, dances and pastimes, town and country, then it shifts gear and becomes romantic, which saddens as the affair proves doomed. When I read the script I particularly liked the end which seemed a cross between ‘Brief Encounter’ and ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’.
It seems the film is being marketed with the recent Pride & Prejudice in mind; did that film/score have any bearing on what you were asked to come up with?
Well the film was temped heavily with Dario Marianelli’s score… which worked very well. But I obviously had to find another route.
Original music books from the Austen household were used as research material for the source music, were you involved in the sourcing process?
This helped me move away from the temp – I came on board the project pre-filming to choose all the source music, particularly the dances and piano music Anne Hathaway had to learn to play. When I learned that the Austen family music books still existed I called the curator of the house she lived in for the later part of her life at Chawton in Hampshire. Donning the white gloves I spent a couple of days leafing through the scrapbooks – some of them were beautifully copied out in Jane Austen’s own hand. They gave me a vital insight into her life. Certain pieces jumped out immediately – so, for instance, at the start of the film, when Jane Austen is doodling away at the piano as she’s writing a witty address for her sister’s engagement, I chose ‘The Wedding’, a piece written in her own hand, which has a wonderful peal of bells motif ideal for when she eventually lets loose and hammers away waking up the entire household.
What bearing did that original-era music have on the decisions that were made regarding the score?
I didn’t feel the need to remain in the same style – I did want to convey a feeling of ‘Englishness’, perhaps with a Celtic tinge, and towards the end I wanted a more modal appoach, stripping back melody to show the sinews beneath.
The album cues ‘Bond Street Airs’ and ‘The Messenger’ contrast greatly to the rest of the score, which is somewhat gentler; was it fun to be able to open up the score a little with these parts?
The energy in those cues was necessary for the film, and of course it was enjoyable to let loose. ‘Bond Street Airs’ contains a particular piece from the Austen family musicbooks that has often been noted by Austen commentators, called ‘The Irishman’. It has a rakish jaunt and seemed to fit with Tom Lefroy’s character.
There is a love theme that stands out on the album, but also of course other thematic material – could you break down what themes exist in the score?
The main love theme peaks midway, and later with an elopement, and is fuelled by less melodically driven ‘yearning’ motifs. There’s also a classical ‘writing’ theme which turns into ‘First Impressions’ (the original title of ‘Pride & Prejudice’) and a ‘meeting in the woods’ theme which turns on the comedy sparring between the two protagonists.
You’ve worked with the director Julian Jarrold a number of times, including the wonderful Kinky Boots, is this going to be a long-running collaboration?
It’s best not to presume a director is obligated to hire you – though in this case I know there’s a lot of ideas we’ve yet try out.
You had a run of films with Michael Winterbottom early in your career and of course you still work regularly with Stephen Poliakoff… what makes for a successful director/composer partnership?
Risk probably. Having the nerve to trust where ideas are heading even though they’re often contained in the merest sketch; and an ability to build on your previous collaboration yet also the trust to rip up the ground rules and make new ones.
Tell us a little but about your process as a composer, do you embrace new technology when writing or do you sketch with pencil and paper?
I started off playing live scores to silent films, and I still like to use that process, often just looking at stills or running the film in my head, or playing to the film freeform. I’ll often record ideas there and then, then develop them later in the computer, where I do I like using technology to arrange & orchestrate.
You didn’t conduct Becoming Jane, but you did have a hand in the orchestrations – are these conscious/important creative decisions?
The conducting decision is purely practical – I’d be no use at it. I prefer to stay in the control room where I can enjoy the conducting of someone who really knows what they’re doing. As for orchestration, it all adds up to being part of your personal sound rather than what is always musically appropriate. The so-called mistakes of orchestration become part of this personality and I relish that.
Who influences you… who do you admire, musically-speaking?
I started making a list but it just went on and on. I have a resistance to so-called ‘good taste’ and prefer to just let opposite music collide. If I was running out of a burning house I’d probably grab a pile of charity shop novelty records with some Morton Feldman.
Looking over your ‘CV’ there’s a lot of drama, costume or otherwise, also family-friendly films, like Lassie and The Mighty Celt… is there a genre you’re desperate to have a crack at?
I’ve always been a horror film fanatic, so it was rewarding to work on Billy O’Brien’s Isolation last year. The recording sessions were very experimental and it was a lot of fun.
You’ve been something of a constant on the British screen since the early 90s – of what are you most proud?
Playing live to Abel Gance’s La Roue, all four and a half hours of it, (though it was originally nine).
What’s on the radar for you next?
I think…an eight part Channel 4 series Cape Wrath (sort of Twin Peaks/The Prisoner), Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary- 2 films for Stephen Poliakoff, then a BFI commission to record a new score for DVD release of the Frank Borzage 1929 filmLucky Star.
Originally published at Music from the Movies.com