Since The Brother’s Grimm in 2005, composer Dario Marianelli has very quickly revealed himself to be one of the UK’s most diverse and interesting composers. That same year he brought us the dazzlingly beautiful, and Oscar nominated, Pride & Prejudice, as well as the deliciously anarchic V for Vendetta. Since that banner year, the Italian-born composer has gone on to compose a handful of varied projects for both the small and big screens, including the recent Hollywood thriller The Return, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Next week sees the release in the UK of Dario’s latest film Goodbye Bafana, an inspiring true story based on James Gregory’s account of the twenty years he spent guarding Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island. The film is directed by Bille August and stars Joseph Fiennes as Gregory and Dennis Heybert as Mandela, the man who would have a profound impact on the white guard’s life.
It’s a thought-provoking story, aided by a sensitive and engaging score. Dario very kindly took some time out to talk to me about his music for Goodbye Bafana, his sudden rise to the top, and his hopes for the future…
Dario, what was it that made you think ‘I want to score this film’?
I have been interested for many years in exploring different musical traditions. Although I have a few composer friends from South Africa, I had never had the pressure to really dive into South African music. So it was very much a matter of “I haven’t done this before, perhaps I should try it”. I also liked my initial conversation with Bille August a lot, and I felt it would have been a very interesting project to work on, with him directing it.
The story is very much about a man’s transformation, a journey if you will; how does the music echo that journey?
I think the most obvious transition in the music is a very slow and gradual shift in warmth, towards a sense of empathy. But I don’t think the score has turned out to be particularly linear, for a number of reasons. There is a constant tension between the various needs of the music: to accompany one character over his personal journey, but also to reflect the environment he’s in, and also to provide support to the dynamic of each individual scene. And since we follow the same characters over 30 years, the music is also used to bridge over considerable time lapses, and unify and help with the structure to the film.
Now while there are some ‘African’ qualities in the score, particularly in the solo vocal at the beginning, it doesn’t rely on what a listener might call cliché sounds or refrains… that was a conscious decision no doubt?
It was always the idea that the music should concentrate on a white man’s journey. However, as it is implied in his story that his childhood friendship with a black boy has left a mark, some of an archetypical African sound was appropriate. And for me, archetypical meant precisely the opposite of stereotypical. So, at the beginning of the process I started listening to South African music, I spent several days at the National Sound Archive in London, listening to old field-recordings, then I went to South Africa, and met with a few people there. It became apparent to me that, although not obvious, there still are traces of an older music, which predates the European melodic and harmonic influences introduced by missionaries. Unfortunately, it is not easy at all to find, and I could not find one single CD of that type of music in its pure form, except for some of those recordings in the British Library. It uses modal polyphony, and circular rhythmic structures, a little like our “rounds”. And the scales are not the major and minor scales you hear in practically every commercial South African recording: these scales are made of only five notes, occasionally six. There are still a few street musicians that will play the guitar or the concertina like this. It really sounds fantastic, they will take an Italian concertina apart, swap around the keys so that the scales that come out are old African scales, or retune the guitar, away from the normal tuning, and then they play and sing, producing truly polyphonic music which sounds completely unique. At some point I tried to convince Bille to let me use the concertina and the guitar in this way, but his association of the concertina as a Western (French or Italian) instrument was too strong, so that idea ended up on the floor. But I tried to bring some of those scales into James’ music, even when it’s done with Western instruments. And I recorded some elements with a great South African tribal artist, Madosini, who plays various African bows, and sings in the score.
Some of your past scores have been very thematic, bursting with melody; this seems to rely more on motifs and texture?
It was a slow process, writing as Bille was editing the film. I kept throwing music at him, and he acted as a great filter, allowing to get through only what was helping his vision of the film. And it became progressively clearer to me, and to him as well I think, that what the story needed was a very understated, minimal and simple score: no drumming, no choirs of African singers, no big sweeping themes.
There’s a device employed in places which is akin to a ticking clock, coupled with a militaristic snare, what was the idea behind those elements?
The clacking, ticking sound, is something I used to impart some momentum to the scene, at times when events seem to change gear, so it really is like a clock: time is pushing all the characters towards their destinies. But you could probably say that of most stories. However, this particular story has a very well known outcome, and Mandela’s unavoidable release from prison is like an appointment with history. The snare drum was a rare director’s request, very specific, to help with the increasing feel that a war is being fought.
The director hints in his sleeve note that you had many ‘brave attempts’; was this is a tricky film to pin down and find the right voice for?
Mainly, as I said, it was a process which involved stripping the music down to the bone, and simplifying it to the point where it comes down to the size of one simple character. Many of the “brave attempts” were my concerns that the film might need a more energetic and driving score, but in the end Bille was always more interested in the empathy side of the music. I think he was right, and I am pleased with the result. But I did write quite a bit of music that was discarded in the process.
What was the collaboration with Bille like? From his sleeve note I get the feeling he’s a director who likes to be involved on all levels?
Bille is very clear about what he dislikes, which is very good: not too many uncertainties. He was always very encouraging and supportive, and very constructive. He made me feel free to experiment, and never came down with pre-conceived ideas about what the music should do, always open to discussion. I felt all the time as if we were both discovering things together, as the work progressed.
You co-orchestrated and conducted this time, what made you take to the podium for this particular score?
I like conducting and being with the musicians in the same room. On more complex scores I have found that having a conductor helps me focus on the many layers of the music better, and it’s easier to handle. But on scores which are lighter or simpler, as this is, it does not make so much difference, and I have a lot of fun conducting.
What are you most proud of in this score? Do you have a favourite moment?
I like the arrival of the Gregory family to Robben Island. It is one of the pieces where I tried to combine a western instrumentation with some of the harmonic and melodic features of the older African music.
The Return was another recent project, what was your approach to that score?
It was a difficult one. Originally, I wanted to write an homage to some of the 1950’s thrillers, as the main character did remind me a lot of the women in Hitchcock’s films, especially Marnie, and Madeline in Vertigo. However, in spite of the director liking the idea of that type of approach, once the process started it became apparent that there were several different visions for the score: he saw the film more as a spiritual story, while the studio was pushing towards a horror movie. Not a particularly comfortable place for the composer. And again, the desire of the director to have a more minimal approach to the music, meant that the score became progressively simpler.
Is there a different process when scoring a Hollywood movie, compared to a smaller scale British or Irish production?
I’d say the basic process is dictated by the requirements of the story, rather than how much money it costs to make. However, there is definitely a different perception when it comes to silence. Long scenes without music are more accepted in European movies, I think, and I have generally found that the scores I have written for American movies are much larger.
Of course you’ve been writing for Film and TV since the mid 1990s, but in 2005 you suddenly scored 3 or 4 big movies; what has that transition been like, from jobbing composer to top of the UK’s composer A-List?
2005 was a good year for me. It feels like a door has opened onto larger productions, which is great in many respects. The main effect that this has had on the way I work is that I have gradually opened up to have some collaborators, and I have learned to manage large budgets and resources. When I started work on Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm I was scared, the size of it was really daunting. I feel like I have built quite a bit of muscle since, and in fact the adrenaline of working under that kind of pressure is quite addictive.
You’ve been quite fortunate in terms of the types of films you’ve been involved with, generically speaking. Is there a genre you’re yet to work in that attracts you?
Do you mean not been pigeon-holed in one genre? Yes I think I have been lucky, and I have been trying to look for things I hadn’t done yet. I’d love to work on an animated feature at some point. I have never done that, and it would be a great excuse to invite my kids to the recording sessions! Normally they are banned, as the films I work on contain scenes that are too violent for them. Come on Disney, give me a call… And a truly magical fantasy; I’d love to try expanding the territory I started exploring with Brothers Grimm.
You always seem to have something on your plate, what’s coming up next for you?
I am just starting work on The Meerkats, a feature documentary on the clever and funny small creatures inhabiting the Kalahari desert.
Goodbye Bafana is in UK cinemas from May 11th and Dario’s score is available on CD now from Varese Sarabande (VSD-6811). Thanks to Dario Marianelli, Lucy Evans and Helen Yates at Air-Edel.
Originally published at Music from the Movies.com in 2007.