by Dan Goldwasser
British composer Joby Talbot might not be a name many people recognize, but he's responsible for the music on the hit British television comedy "League of Gentlemen", and has just burst forth on the big screen here in the United States, with the theatrical version of the globally popular comedy book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. SoundtrackNet talked with Joby about his work on this film.
How did you get involved with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
I had worked with director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith on a commercial here in the UK, which was a sort of mini disaster movie. They'd worked with millions of great musicians over the years but never with a classical composer, and they wanted a big orchestral score, so they asked their friend Nigel Godrich, the producer of Radiohead, Beck and people, if he knew anybody. I had worked with Nigel on the Divine Comedy album, Regeneration and he suggested me. So Garth, Nick and I worked very closely for quite some time on it, and really got along great. When they got the call to do Hitchhiker's, they called me.
Were you a fan of the original works - the books, the radio play, the television show, etc.?
Oh God, yeah. I think I probably know the original radio series by heart! I know that in America it has a bit of a cult status, but over here, for someone of my generation, pretty much everybody knows it. From the very beginning, when I started getting into Hitchhiker's, I remembered word going around that they were going to make a film of it. And it took 23 years later…! But when I heard that they were finally going ahead with it, it was about the most exciting news I'd ever heard. And then when they asked me if I might be interested in writing the music for it, my heart nearly stopped! As you can imagine, it's a labor of love.
Usually when you start a project you have to do some research to get your head into the right space - but I didn't have to, since my head was already there! I had had twenty years to think about it! I rushed home and immediately started playing with ideas for the Vogons, and this was before I had seen anything! Then when Garth showed me the storyboards, and we had a few late night sessions just talking and talking about what it would be like, it all started to take shape in my mind.
I wrote a theme, which I imagined originally would be for the double sunset on the planet of Magrathea, but ended up being the music for the planet factory floor, when the characters go whizzing through another dimension where all the planets are being constructed. Garth was coming round for dinner and I wanted something to play to him and the tune just came to me as I sat at the piano. Garth is such an inspirational director – he has that sort of effect on people! [Play "Planet Factory Floor" MP3]
Some of the music is electronic - is that an homage to the original radio show?
Well the last two tracks on the album - they're bonus tracks really – one's a campaign song for Zaphod Beeblebrox's presidential campaign which I wrote and recorded with members of The Divine Comedy and Travis as an iTunes exclusive download, and the other is a rap song about Marvin that I had nothing to do with. Neither of these is in the movie.
The other electronic parts are for when we go into the Hitchhiker's Guide itself. Obviously the guide entries are such an important part of Hitchhiker's, with all of the existential rambling and thought-provoking stuff happening there - so it was clear they had an important role to play in the film. The problem with them though was that they were invented by Douglas Adams as a technique for telling you things you couldn't see in a radio play, really. It was a really neat way of justifying a voiceover. But when it comes to the big screen, you can see - you can see what a Vogon looks like. So what now is the point of a guide entry, if it's telling you something you can see with your own eyes?
Shynola, an animation team that Garth had worked with before, came in and did the animation for the Guide entries which have a very particular flavor - so we wanted music that was quite different from the rest of the score, but could be linked into it. My idea was that we might have orchestral score building to a moment where the Guide entry started and the music would morph into electronics and keep going so the audience would be taken to a different place without the film losing its momentum. I worked with Nigel Godrich on those sections - he helped me find the right analogue synth noises that were a bit of a nod in the direction of the 1970s, but wouldn't sound like some pastiche of that electronic music that they originally used. [Play "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" MP3]
You also used a bit of the Eagles' "Journey of the Sorcerer", which has been identified with the radio drama and television show...
Well, at the beginning we have this big enormous show tune, and a big opening title scene. Garth thought it would be fun that just when all those fans who loved the original theme were saying, "Damn, they didn't use the original theme", we have another mini-title sequence to introduce the first guide entry, and that's where we get "Journey of the Sorcerer". It's basically a little treat for everyone (like me) who loved the original title music. [Play "Journey of the Sorcerer" MP3]
We recorded the score at Air Lindhurst with the London Session Orchestra, conducted by an old friend of mine, Christopher Austin who also did the orchestrations. I've known him since we were at college together, and my second thought after being asked to do Hitchhiker's was that I had to get Chris involved. We wanted to give the soundtrack a real classic feel and I knew he was just the man for the job. I couldn't be more pleased with the arrangements – I think they're fantastic.
From the beginning we decided that we wanted timeless sounding orchestral music - like John Williams' score to Star Wars - not something with beats in that would date the film to 2005.
But the trailers are using those very beats to market the film...
I know, but trailers are a whole different culture unto themselves. Whatever gets people in to see the film. But beats with orchestra, it's very commonplace in scores now. Every action scene has full orchestra with programmed drums, and it does make a fantastic effect, but it pins it down to this particular era. If it's done well, that's one thing…. But Garth's film heroes are Steven Spielberg and Billy Wilder, and we wanted to make a soundtrack that could live and after plenty of time, sound just as fresh as it does now.
How did the musical number "So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish" come about?
That was originally Garth's idea. His reasoning: Douglas Adams spent 20 years trying to get this film made, the least we can do is give him a big song and dance number! Garth wrote the words, and Chris Austin and I did the music. The tune became the main theme for the film - luckily it turned out to be pretty versatile! [Play "So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish" MP3]
How does the material translate to the big screen?
Well, it's only based on the first book - and that first book is based on the first four episodes of the radio show. So in theory, you're trying to cut a 2-hour radio series down to a 100-minute movie. But it's not as simple as that, because the radio show was really constructed as a series of 3-minute sketches. Douglas Adams had started out writing sketch shows onstage at university and that's where Hitchhiker's started life. But you can't just show lots and lots of 3-minute sketches in a row and then call it a feature. That would be like watching two hours of a sitcom in a row – halfway through the second episode, you'd be sick of it!
So, working on the script, Douglas and Karey Kirkpatrick had to find a way to give it a large-scale shape. It took 20 years for the film to get made, but it also took 20 years for the script to be sorted out as well! And the music also had a big role to play in making it work, getting you from one situation to another. There is a four-minute cue in the film that spans three planets! I tried to make the music help you feel like you've been on one big journey, instead of many small ones.
How does the film work, for die-hard fans?
I think it's absolutely fantastic - I mean, I think it's a total triumph. What they've done is take an almost impossible task, and using all of their skills, make something that works on all levels. All of the salient ingredients are there - it's basically the same story. Some things were cut along the way from the original - some people might be upset that some dialogue was cut, and some of their favorite jokes aren't in there, but in place of those things are wonderful other things. It's a different thing entirely from the original which is how it should be.
With Hitchhiker's they didn't do what they did with Lord of the Rings, say, and simply put the book on the screen. They took the book and put all the important elements on the screen, and also make something totally different while doing it. So it's nothing like your imagination of how a film of the radio series would be. To me, that's not a disappointing aspect - it's just an addition to this wonderful book, and wonderful radio series, and wonderful television series - now a wonderful film - and they're all different. The film is probably the most different, but then 20 years have elapsed between all the other versions and the film.
Will they make a sequel?
Well, there's plenty more material, and I know that the guys really want to make another one, but it all depends on how many people go to see the first one! I know that to get my hands on some of the things in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe would be amazing!
You're also known for your work on the television show "League of Gentlemen", which is now being made into a feature film. How will that one work on the big screen?
For a television comedy, the show is very cinematic in style. The job of the music was to provide the emotion that you would expect from a film, and don't expect from a small screen - especially a comedy series. So I was always aiming high, even with the limited number of musicians we had for a television show. There was a Christmas special - an hour-long mini-feature - which had a very dramatic score. But my job when doing the film was really just more of the same - just bigger.
I had to basically score the whole thing to the unfinished film before I went on to Hitchhiker's, and then when that film was finished, I went back to League, and had to re-edit it to the final cut - but I only had one week! And the thing was, it was a ludicrous thing to take on, really. Because after Hitchhiker's, I was drained, as you can imagine - but then to go onto another feature right way... But after six years, three television series, and a special with these guys it would have been terrible for me to have had to walk away. The film is great - it's clever, funny, and I think it's the best thing they've done.
Will it work for people who haven't seen the show?
Yeah, I think it will! The script very cleverly explains all you need to know. I think it should work just fine. They certainly made it hoping that it wouldn't just play to people who were fans. Here in England we have a tradition of really bad films being made on the backs of really good television series. <laughs> But they worked really hard on the script, and for the fans it's a really big treat, and for people who aren't familiar with it, it'll be a big treat as well.
What are you working on now?
As I speak, I am working on a play at the National Theatre in London. It's a stage version of the old Vincent Price movie, Theater of Blood with Jim Broadbent as the lead. Then I've got to finish a big a choral piece for the City of London Festival that's being premiered in July. After that, I'm going to put my feet up and take a vacation!
Do you have any dream projects?
Well, Hitchhiker's was my dream project! I'm very, very lucky, and I can't think of anything I would have liked to do more. I really enjoyed doing this movie. I just hope I end up being pigeonholed as the guy who scores the sci-fi comedies!
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is currently in theaters, and the soundtrack is available from Hollywood Records. Theater of Blood opens on May 9th, and The League of Gentlemen's Apocalypse comes out on June 2, in the UK.
Special thanks to Dave Wong and Samantha Garry at Disney for their help with this interview. Photo by Claire Burbridge