Last month I was in the studio watching Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck work his magic on the musical score for Jadoo. Stephens music credits include Shakespeare in Love and Billy Elliot. Stephen’s wit, passion, and friendly persona made for a wonderful few days recording the Jadoo soundtrack. His music created an amazing vibe that was brought to life by his outstanding team and world-class musicians. While making the music for Jadoo I sat down with Stephen for an interview in Air Studios, which was started up by The Beatles producer George Martin.
-What is the role of a composer?
Well, to illustrate, there was a very nice moment when we did a film recording here [Air Studios] for a man called Roland Joffe, who’s probably most famous for a film called The Mission. He said, “Do you mind if I say something to the orchestra before we start?”, and I said, no of course not. Orchestras like it if a director comes and speaks to them because it makes them feel part of the whole process. He came in and said, I’ve created the flesh and bones of the film, now it’s your job to breathe the soul into it. That sounds kind of precious and I don’t want to elevate the music beyond its real status. But in a way it can be a short cut to some of the emotions which are probably suggested by what you’re watching and listening to – and then you see a sequence and the music adds a further dimension to it. A lot of films work really well without music, as you know! But I think this film benefits from the music intensifying all the emotions and various relationships.
-What was it about the film Jadoo that made you want to be a part of it?
I got a message to say would I read it, and I read it. I thought it had a very wonderful human dimension and it didn’t feel artificial at all. The next step, which is also very important, was meeting Amit [Director] in central London. That’s such an important relationship, the composer and the director. The fact that we got on well and that I liked him pretty instantly makes a big difference.
-With the musical score in Jadoo who’s perspective were you telling the story from?
I suppose the big single thing once I started looking at the film was the performance of the actor playing Raja, Harish [Patel]. I find it sensational and so multi-dimensional! The detail in his performance is amazing! I think as a composer you need a kind of way into the film and I think it’s through him. You know that the brothers have split up but you know behind that there’s still a huge amount of love and he’s not bitter. It’s so complex, what he plays! He was definitely my way into the film.
I think what you’re doing is sometimes telling it from a perspective, in a way revealing the heart… or trying to. It sounds a bit grand; you might not be doing anything except playing a succession of notes on a piano but you’re trying to open the heart, not surgically, of a character. Perhaps you might feel you’re starting from Raja’s point of view and in a way you need to empathise, so you need to start to imagine you can feel what he’s feeling. You then have to start empathising with the other characters as well. It would no good if you just wrote from Raja’s point of view. The film isn’t all about him. His brother for example, you might say he’s quite tense and quite brittle and quite annoyed about a lot of things. So he’s taken the breakup of the two brothers in quite a different way. But you can see if you actually play it emotionally with the scenes with him and his wife, you soften that, and behind the anger you start to feel there’s actually a regret and a sadness that that love and the closeness of the brothers temporarily, as it turns out, is over. You don’t want to go viciously with his anger and annoyance. You go against it and you play something which is about the warmth of the past, which they’ve temporarily lost.
-Do you write the music for a film in chronological order?
I don’t ever remember writing chronologically, expect if I really don’t connect to anything, then you might say I have to start somewhere, I may as well start from the beginning. But normally I’d start where it meant something to me. I’d think of a theme and think, well maybe I’ll try that theme against this scene and against this scene. You work in little islands and then maybe come up with another theme, and think that might be more useful for Shalini. So you jump from place to place, and then perhaps when orchestrating you might go in order. There are advantages with going in sequence at some point in the process, as you need to check there isn’t a horrible key jump or a tempo change between two bits that are close together. But mostly it’s not in story order.
-Why did you choose to record Jadoo’s score in Air Studios?
Most musicians or composers would tell you were they’d prefer to record. I suppose I have a list of favourite people I want to work with so my favourite engineer to work with is Nick who was free, my favourite room to work in is this one [Air Studios] and it was free. Not free in financial terms but it was available. Also, to an extent you choose something that is suitable for a project. This room wouldn’t be right for everything as it’s got a lovely natural acoustic, and it would be annoying for some kinds of music. It was the room I really wanted and it was available so that’s how it came about.
-How did you come up with the feel and colour of the score for the film?
That was a gradual process. I tend to write on the piano, and I said to myself and also Amit, I don’t think there should be any piano in this. Then little by little I thought, actually these places piano is quite nice. I wanted something delicate that worked with the piano. I liked the idea of guitar and then I played Amit a piece of music that I’d written for a film called “My Son the Fanatic” which is piano, guitar, tabla and soprano sax and he liked it. I said, those are the kind of colours I’m imagining. All those decisions come about not in a very organized way. I think I would like to use tabla… and then I know John Parricelli the guitarist has been working with a tabla player and he says, you should work with him. Gradually you start to say, that will be nice with that, maybe we should have double bass to give a bit of warmth, rather than electric bass, have a solo bass rather than just using an orchestral string player. It’s a little bit at a time, and also the whole thing is done within the constraints of a budget.
Richard, one of the producers, says, you can only have this much money, – and then you have a little bit of bartering, and then you have to say, I do want strings so this leaves me this much to spend on specialists. I suppose for this film it would be true to say I wouldn’t have wanted anything more than what we had. You don’t have to tell Richard that [Laughs].
Because the film’s quite delicate and personal – I’m not saying it’s slight, but it’s quite a contained story – the scale of the music can’t be massive. It doesn’t want to be a huge symphony orchestra.
-What was it about being a composer that appealed to you when you were first starting out?
Well, I think it was before I started, it was when I was a child. What appealed to me was that if you were supposed to be practicing the piano it was actually more fun to make tunes up than practice the scales. That’s what first appealed, and then there was a film club at school and the man who ran it, Mr Vaut, played us loads of French and Italian films of the 50s and 60s. The scores are so wonderful and characterful; you start to think this is a very interesting aspect and side to filmmaking. I suppose it started like that.
-What advice would you have for aspiring composers?
Just say ‘yes’ to as many things as possible. Of course there’re limits in terms of what’s practical and what’s not practical, but if somebody says, would you do a student film for nothing, do it! Don’t wait for a kind of massive opportunity. I think everyone should keep their musical imagination alive by playing with different people. Maybe play in a band, be in an orchestra, listening to all different types of music and ideally watching lots of different pieces of theatre or film. Try to keep everything alive and open. Be positive about the whole thing so that you don’t become either fixated on being successful and doing the next Batman movie, or too narrow in terms of being just a film composer. I think you need to keep all the other things happening.
-What have been the highlights of your career so far?
The last twenty minutes of the recording session for Shakespeare in Love when they played the end tune, that was probably one. Before I got sunstroke on the island of Kefalonia recording the scene in the square where Captain Corelli is playing the mandolin. I think that was pretty fantastic because there was also a really good tavern that everybody, actors, director went and all ate and drank Greek wine. It’s sort of unbelievably perfect really. A swim, a bit of filming, a bit of music, some wine and Greek food. It’s kind of perfect! So those would be highlights. Often doing gigs as well, sometimes it’s appalling – “God, how did I play so badly?” – but other times it can be very enjoyable!