[Interview - Dario Marianelli]

Italian-born composer Dario Marianelli burst onto the Hollywood scene last year, with his score to Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, and then his Oscar-nominated score to Pride & Prejudice. Later this week his music will be heard in V for Vendetta, and SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with Marianelli just after the Oscars last week.

Your first "breakout" score that drew the attention of an international audience was to Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm. How did you come on board the project?

Terry had heard of me from Tony Grisoni, the writer with whom he was working on the Grimm script. I had scored a film by Michael Winterbottom, written by Tony, who became a fan, and he got Terry to hear some of my music. One day Terry called me to his cutting room, where he showed me clips of the film; I took a few away with me, and scored them in my studio. Terry came to see me a couple of days later, he liked my ideas, and I was in. [Play "Dickensian Beginnings" MP3]

What was the situation like, having replaced another composer on that project, and did that add any extra challenges to the writing process?

There were plenty of challenges, but there was never another composer on the project. Terry had been in talks with Goran Bregovic, for a while, but realized quite soon that the "Balkan" approach to the story was not working so well, and Goran never even started. When I came on board there was a temp, taken from mainstream Hollywood fantasy movies, and the consensus was that it wasn't working so well. [Play "The Queen Awakens" MP3]

How did you come to be involved with Pride & Prejudice, and what were your influences for that work?

One of the producers, Paul Webster, remembered the work I had done for him on The Warrior, a few years earlier. He introduced me to Joe Wright, the director of Pride & Prejudice, and we hit it off straight away. In our very first conversation we ended up talking about Beethoven early piano sonatas: they became a point of reference, and their spirit (or my understanding of that spirit, at least) became the starting point for the score. A few pieces had to be written prior to the shoot, for scenes in which the actors are playing the piano: those pieces already contained the seeds of what I developed later on into the score, when I abandoned historical correctness for a more intimate and emotional treatment of the story. [Play "Darcy's Letter" MP3]

Do you think it's easier to be involved with a project earlier in the process (while they're shooting, if not even earlier) versus coming on board after everything is already finished?

Personally I find that there are many advantages in starting earlier, and only one drawback. The good thing is that the earlier one starts, the less one has to put up with temp score, temp love (the uncanny syndrome invariably affecting all films that perform well on early test screenings), temp interference in the creative process, etc.

Also, the composer has more of a chance to experiment different avenues, and the music can grow organically as the film is being edited. There is much more scope for the music to get under the skin of the film, rather than being something that is applied on top, at the end.

On the minus side, it is a lot of work, and one is forever re-adjusting cues to new cuts of the film. But I don't know if there are a lot of composers these days that work on a picture that is "already finished". Most people I know always work on cuts of the film that have not been "locked".

Did you visit the set as they were shooting Pride & Prejudice, to make sure that your piano pieces were performed properly?

My second daughter was born precisely at the time they were shooting the music scenes: I would have loved to be there, but my presence was required in the maternity ward... I got to hear a different kind of music, those few days! [Play "Mrs. Darcy" MP3]

How did it feel when you were nominated for an Oscar?

Pretty good!

How did you get involved with V for Vendetta?

The director, James McTeigue, had heard my music for In This World, and had liked my work. I went to Germany to meet him, and I also met Larry and Andy Wachowski, while they were shooting the film in Babelsberg. We had very interesting conversations, and I put forward my ideas for the score, which they liked. I think Larry and Andy gave Terry a ring as well, just to double-check: he must have said the right things, I guess!

How did you musically represent the British government as opposed to the character of V, and did you know from the start you would be using the "1812 Overture" for the big finale? If so, how did that influence the score as a whole?

I seem to have an antipathy for straight Theme/Character relationships, so my thinking ends up being a bit more lateral and convoluted than having a theme for each character. There is a motif that recurs at times when the government is doing its worst, but not completely consistently. I think the whole score is built out of four or five elements. One of them, if you write it out on paper, looks just like a V: it is used like a glue that binds all the others elements together. Another is an echo of the Medieval "Dies Ire", and is associated with punishment. There actually is a "government" theme as well which starts fairly calm, but by the end of the film has become very angry and edgy. And then a darker motif, which comes loosely from the first three notes of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture": you can hear the connection clearly at the very opening of the film. Finally, there is a series of four raising chords, they are my "freedom" chords, and they become more and more important as the music develops. [Play "Remember Remember" MP3]

I was interested in the fact that the story is so layered, and quite dense, and has so many disparate strands, I wanted to have themes that could exist on their own, but also collide, and merge with each other, and overlap, as the various story-lines come closer and closer and finally merge. V is a revolutionary, but also a terrorist, a man of principles, but also a serial murderer. His journey starts from hate, but ends with him falling in love. And Finch, the head of the police: he pieces together the whole story from the few fragments he has, and becomes converted to the revolutionary cause in the process. I think this is why I never find straight theme-character relations work for me - characters change, during the story, and they find themselves in very odd predicaments. So I always need themes that are flexible enough to do that, and are not to closely glued to a particular character.

The use of the "1812 Overture" was a given, as it is also present in the original graphic novel. I tried to use references to it sparsely, not to weaken the impact that it has when it is actually played by V as a weapon of his revolution, and he blasts it out of the ubiquitous London government loudspeakers - like television, V turns the instruments of oppression into revolutionary tools.

How do the songs on the album release function in the movie? Why were songs chosen as opposed to score?

They have nothing to do with the score: they are played by V in his house, the "Shadow Gallery", and they come from his Juke-Box in the main hall of the house. At some point in the story, V is saddened that although the juke-box has hundreds of songs (all censored and forbidden by the State), he has never danced to any of those. "A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having" he says to an incredulous Evey. I think it's one of the best moments in the film: it brings home what freedom means.

Were British nationalist composers an influence on the style you chose for the movie?

I am not even sure what "style" really means... It is the old and thorny problem - is there an archetypal "idea" of a horse, or only individual and different horses? In musical terms, did Beethoven, for example, write in a Beethovenian "style"? Or did he just write his music, and each piece is informed by different musical ideas? I strongly suspect whatever is heard as "style" is a by-product of the process of writing, rather than something one would "choose", or at least, that is the way it works for me. Otherwise, it would just be pastiche.

Why did you choose to use electronics to supplement the orchestra?

I rarely don't. I did not use electronics in Pride & Prejudice, but in most of the other films I have scored I always make use of whatever sound feels right to me at any given moment. This covers the orchestral instruments as much as samples and synthesizers, I just think of all of them as sounds, each with their own individuality, and all contributing to the orchestration.

On occasion, for example, I can only achieve the effect I am after by recording a percussion instrument and re-pitching it down 3 or 4 octaves. Certain things cannot be done with real instruments played live.

In "Lust at the Abbey", you make use of plainchant. What words is the choir singing?

Quite a few, and not particularly relevant to the story, I was more after the effect: I wanted to portray Bishop Lilliman's confused sexuality, which blurs religious and erotic fervor together. However there is a funny (for me anyway) moment, when the Bishop enters his room where the scantily clad Evey is waiting, and on seeing Evey, the choir in the score can't help singing "Jesu Christe!" [Play "Lust at the Abbey" MP3]

There is a four-note ascending motif which seems to be the main theme of the score. What is it meant to represent and how did you come up with it?

I think you are talking about my raising "freedom chords". Something like A min, B maj, F maj, D maj. They would usually start with four ascending notes at the top, A, B C, D, then move into slightly subtler areas, where held notes cause interesting clashes. I spent some time trying to find four chords that would satisfy me, and it was a very deliberate idea that they would represent the aspiration to freedom. They are given the best airing in "Evey Reborn", as Evey comes out on in the rain, and literally breathes freedom in, she is washed of the chains that kept her prisoner up to that moment. But those chords come back several times, sometimes in a much more aggressive way, when for example the people of London finally take to the streets. [Play "Evey Reborn" MP3]

What is your musical background?

My parents were, and in fact still are, great music lovers, and music was at home, very much a part of life. I studied piano from the age of six, and also sung in a boy's choir from that age, until I was fourteen. I started studying counterpoint in my late teens, and got very deep into it, for several years. In my mid twenties I moved to London, where I studied further, getting a postgraduate degree in composition, and then for three years at the National Film and Television School, from where I graduated in 1997. In between studying I worked all sort of jobs, from teaching piano and composition, to providing tech support for music software, to edit and typeset music for publishers, and assisting other film and TV composers. My real training has been on the battlefield though, and I have developed my way of writing thanks to the collaborations with theatre directors, choreographers, musicians and film-makers, and writing for concerts as well. And listening to what other composers are doing, of course.

You mentioned you've written for concerts - what kind of works have you done?

I had a bit of the double life for a while, back in the late 1990s. I wrote wind quintets, string quartets, pieces for chamber orchestra and music for contemporary dance, which was occasionally written as a concert piece and performed live with the dance. In 1996 I wrote a large piece for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which won me the Benjamin Britten Composition Prize, and got me some further commissions, including another large orchestral score. Then my film work started to take precedence, and I have had very little time for anything else, in the last few years.

What is your working process?

I mostly use the computer. On occasion I sit at the piano, at home, and deliberately look for a theme or a particular harmonic sequence, and scribble it down for later use in my studio. I find the ability to produce demos very quickly with the computer an invaluable tool to get fast feedback from the director, and this is very important, especially at the beginning of a collaboration, as the initial ideas generate lots of variations very rapidly.

What prompted you to move to England from Italy?

I couldn't see too many avenues open to me in Pisa, which is a fairly small town, without even a music school. I had made a few friends in London, in the late 80s, where I used to come in the summer and spend time in a piano workshop, as an apprentice piano technician. When the opportunity for a job came, I took it. It felt like an adventure at the time, and I didn't have a very precise plan in mind. I was very lucky, and made very good friends, who helped me finding my way.

You also say that you listen to other composers - can you name some of your favorites, and have they inspired or influenced you?

It would make a very long list! I grew up with classical music, as I said, and when I started writing myself, in my twenties, I got quite into contemporary concert music, with Ligeti and Lutoslawski being some of my favorite composers.

Nino Rota's music has been a constant, over the years, and so has Alberto Iglesias'. But my soundtrack collection is full of the usual suspects: John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Howard Shore, James Newton Howard, James Horner, Gabriel Yared, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer. It's hard to know, or even try to explain, where influence or inspiration comes from. The composers I admire most are the very ones I try not to imitate, as they have a very distinctive voice, and I am forever exploring the boundaries of my own voice. That these boundaries keep shifting, I am sure is also the result of listening to what other composers are doing at the moment.

Do you have a dream project?

Not really. I am not a dreamer in that sense. I love challenges, so I guess I try to do new things all the time, especially things I am not sure how to do yet: I love solving problems, and every new collaboration comes with its own set of problems to solve. The ultimate aim, in all these projects, is of course to move people, to touch their heart with stories, with music, to make them think, or feel something. So, perhaps that's the answer to your question, I dream of moving people with music, on every project I work on.

What are you working on now?

I am finishing a film called "The Return", by Asif Kapadia. It's a supernatural thriller with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sam Shepard. It threads a very interesting line between a spiritual movie and a scary one.

V for Vendetta opens in theaters on Friday. The soundtrack will be released next week by Astralwerks Records.

Special thanks to Maggie Rodford at Air-Edel, Alison Tarnofsky, and Jonathan Jarry for their help with this interview.