[Interview - The Music of Moulin Rouge: The Songs]

In the film Moulin Rouge, music reigns supreme.  With a plethora of songs and score, there is nearly non-stop music throughout the entire film.  Overseeing all of it was Marius de Vries.  SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with Marius about the rebirth of the Hollywood Musical.

In Moulin Rouge, you are credited as the "Music Director", which is an unconventional film credit these days. What exactly does a "Music Director" do, and how is it different than a "Music Supervisor"?

Very different! A music supervisor (in the case of Moulin Rouge, Anton Monsted) is generally responsible for helping to identify and overseeing the licensing of musical material not originally composed or created specifically for the movie, typically songs bought in for inclusion in the soundtrack. With MR, this was to put it mildly a formidable job, and Anton was in addition to his business responsibilities a valued and crucial member of the creative musical team. The job of musical director, on the other hand, is best described in terms of captaining the creative side of the music department and taking responsibility, under the guidance of the director, for the overall architecture of all the music in the movie; overseeing and facilitating the arrangements - orchestral and otherwise - of all the cues; working with the actors in the recording studio to develop and record their singing performances; working during principal photography onset with the director to coach the cast through their musical performances, and in my case with MR co-producing the majority of the tracks on the soundtrack LP.

"Music Director" is indeed an unusual credit these days, but then MR is an unusual film. Because of the highly eclectic and collaborative nature of the music in MR, Baz and I felt strongly that any "Music By" credit would be misleading. In recent times the American Directors' Guild has been unwilling to extend the word "Director" into the sphere of music, but an exception was made in this case because of the unique nature of the project and also I think because MR echoes the age of classic MGM and other break-into-song musicals (which are in many respects ancestors or at least distant relatives of MR), when the credit was more common, if not routine. From our point of view, it was the only credit we could think of which seemed to embrace the multifaceted nature of my task.

What was your average day like?  (Can you walk me through the process of what your job entailed?)

In pre-production: Many long hours in the studio creating working drafts of all the cues on my ProTools rig, visited daily by actors who would stay to work on their singing and record their vocal parts; more long hours in the company of Baz, co-writer Craig Pearce, and Anton Monsted, as well as at various times other members of the music team (for example orchestrator/composer Chris Elliott, programmers Josh Abrahams and Alexis Smith), workshopping the music in the context of the script, analyzing ideas for songs which might be included, and then attempting to identify what kind of interpretations and stylings might suit them; i.e. feeding music into the script and vice versa.  By the end of pre-production we had created a continuous and fully musicalised "radio-play" read through of the screenplay complete with dialogue and sung performances in most cases from the mouths of the cast, to enable us to assess the pacing of the music and the narrative. This was an essential resource in the weeks to come. It was also necessary for me to work in continuous dialogue with John "Cha-Cha" O'Connell, our brilliant choreographer, so we could both keep the music and the choreography in a sympathetic relationship.

During the Shoot: Work continued in the studio as improvisational and other developments on set necessitated alterations to and redrafts of the music cues; but I found myself most often on the stage, (with Music Editor Simon Leadley - who supervised onset playback - and Music Continuity Supervisor Danielle Weissner - checking lip-synch and other performance details) helping the cast give believably "real" musical performances. Assisted in this by Andrew Ross, one of the world's finest singing coaches and my onset assistant Musical Director. On many occasions we had to make hurried adjustments to our musical shooting templates as dramatic, choreographical or other performance issues called for changes of pace, shortenings and lengthenings, even changes of key. On other occasions we felt the need to abandon our pre-records and "go live", me at the piano, the performer(s) with radio microphones concealed in their clothing or hair, to shoot and record genuinely in-the-moment vocal performances.

In post-production: Back locked in the studio (we built two entire mobile recording studios for this project, both of which were by this stage installed at Fox Studios near to the editing department). As the long processing of visual editing and assembly began, an extraordinarily complicated and at times tense dialogue began to take place between the editing and music departments as we tried to bring the demands of pictorial and narrative rhythm into harmony with the pre-existing musical rhythms of the cues we had shot. This necessitated a huge amount of shuttling material back and forth between the two departments and more alterations to the musical set pieces. At the same time, I now began the process of bringing these set-pieces and cues towards finalization - finessing all the vocal performances, producing the instrumental elements and preparing them for orchestral recording with arranger Chris Elliott and a little later also with my old partner in crime Craig Armstrong, who helped with the orchestrations. We also began to develop the score - avoiding the usual temp-score approach, we wanted to have at least drafts of the score from an early stage - indeed a fair amount of the underscore elements were in existence from the days of pre-production, often emerging out of work on the set-piece cues themselves, for example the Mahler-esque version of "Your Song" which crops up here and there in the third act.

At what point did you become involved with the film? Was it while Baz was writing the screenplay?

I got involved in early 1999!  The screenplay was still very much in development at this point, though many key elements were there in embryonic form.

Assuming that the songs were written into the script (they certainly seem like they must have been!), how did you go about getting clearance for all of the songs?  It must have been quite an undertaking!

The songs were written into the script, some from the very beginning (e.g. "Diamonds" and "Your Song"); others came into the script later as a result of our ongoing workshop sessions.  As for it being an undertaking, well that's an understatement.  It was in equal parts astonishing and heartwarming that we managed to license so many milestones in 20th century popular music culture, and stay (almost!) within budget.

How many original songs were in the film, compared to previously written songs?

One; "Come What May". This was the one exception to our rule that we would construct the soundtrack out of preferably iconic and at least well-known 20th century pop songs.

What about "Le Tango de Moulin Rouge" part in "El Tango de Roxanne"?

Well, original lyrics written by Baz and Craig Pearce, on top of a pre-existing piece of music called "The Tanguera" by Argentinean composer Mariano Mores. And then mixed with "Roxanne".

…and "Fool to Believe"?

A piece of score I wrote upon which we put some recitative lyrics - strictly speaking too "interstitial" to be called a song. And somewhat based on "One Day I'll Fly Away".

This really exemplifies the blurring of boundaries involved in the creation of the music for MR. Given that we were composing the score with our fundamental building blocks being pre-existing pieces of music, it's hard sometimes to give an accurate reading of how much original work is in a cue and how much is quotation or extrapolation. "The Tanguera" was identified by Baz well before my involvement as a theme that we really wanted to include, and Christian's sung part on top of what was originally an orchestral work falls into the category of an operatic development. "Fool to Believe" was a lyric which Baz and Craig wrote into the script without a tune in mind and I wrote the music to those lyrics, though borrowing tangentially from the chord sequence of "Fly Away".

You worked with Craig Armstrong on the score to Romeo + Juliet, did you find that having a previously established relationship with him (as well as yourself being a film composer) made it easier to mesh the score and the songs together?

More to the point is the fact that the score is the songs, to a greater or lesser extent. With so many melodic themes present in the set pieces, the process of scoring undertaken by Craig, Chris Elliott, Steve Hitchcock and myself, was really a case of unraveling the principal motifs of the songs into underscore. So throughout the film you will hear signposts pointing you back or forward to "Fly Away", "Come What May", "Your Song" the Jealousy Tango, etc etc. And many of the bigger cues (for example The Tango, The Show Must Go On) have an, if you like, operatic structure in that they have both a narrative score and a performance dimension. Having a previously established relationship with Craig, and indeed with Chris Elliott and of course Baz himself, was of course useful - we had an already developed common language, and a good knowledge of each other's strengths and specialties.

How did you work with Craig on the integration of the songs and score?  (What was your working approach?)

Partly owing to other commitments (in particular his 2nd solo LP for Virgin) Craig joined us rather late, by which time we had a very established structure and most of the set pieces were at a fairly advanced stage of templature.  The first task we set him was to bring his considerable arrangement skills to those songs that seemed best suited to his particular talents  ("Fly Away" and "Your Song" for example, where "Like a Virgin" was more Chris Elliott's thing...). Then as we got more solid on picture lock, we were able to work more on fleshing out the in-betweeny bits and getting the underscore to work. It's difficult to be precise about how everyone's roles really played out on MR - Baz was very concerned to foster an open and collaborative approach to the enterprise and the whole musical side of the project was very much one of teamwork, involving a great deal of boundary-crossing on all of our parts!  Not only that, but it was important to us that our 'imported' talent - Fat Boy Slim, Missy Elliot, et al - would treat their contributions with a real sensitivity to the scenes they were to appear in - you know, Norman Cook was arguably scoring the can-can scene as much as creating a track for the LP.

Given your ability to compose music (as seen in Eye of the Beholder and Romeo + Juliet), did you end up scoring any of the sequences in Moulin Rouge?

Yes, as did Chris Elliott and Steve Hitchcock. Further, it's quite hard in MR to define where score begins and set-piece ends - from the point of view of their dramatic and narrative structuring, many of the songs play a scoring role in the work.

The soundtrack album contains different renditions of songs from the film.  Whose decision was that, and why wasn't the film version released on the album?

Ultimately, Baz' decision, in consultation with the Record Company, Interscope. Apart from issues of commerciality, the experience of listening to a soundtrack LP is not the same as that of watching a movie; and whilst the MR record is absolutely commensurate with the world of the film, it is a record and had to be constructed as such.

Do you foresee any "Moulin Rouge, Vol. 2" soundtrack release ala Romeo + Juliet?

Let's see how the first one does first! But for a long time we wanted a double LP, and we all feel it would be nice to unleash "Like a Virgin" and "The Show Must Go On" into the public arena at some point.

What are you working on now?

 After finishing my work on MR I decided I needed to get back to making records for a while after so much time out from the record industry (during my Sydney exile I did little more than a couple of radio mixes for David Bowie - his singles "Seven" and "Survive"). So my first project was to help Bjork finish her forthcoming record (I've worked with her since her Sugarcubes days). That was fun, apart from the fact that I adore working with her anyway, because she was fresh off Dancer in the Dark so we spent many long evenings comparing notes about the pain involved in creating musical movies!! Then I produced some tracks for Perry "Jane's Addiction" Farrell's imminent solo LP.  I'm also currently making music with Kelli Ali (ex-lead singer of the Sneaker Pimps) and Martina Topley-Bird (the lead voice on Tricky's debut LP a few years back), as well as Icelandic newcomer Emiliana Torrini (on Virgin Records US and quite wonderful) and Grace Jones. My next film project will be early next year but I'm not allowed to talk about it yet.

SoundtrackNet also had an opportunity to talk with Music Supervisor Anton Monsted about his work on the film.

As Music Supervisor on the film, you were tasked with the enormous job of licensing the previously existing songs for use in the film. I had heard that approximately $1.5 million was spent on licensing alone, and was wondering if you had any interesting stories you can tell me about this huge task?

Actually, the music licensing costs for the film were lower than reported, mainly because so many of the major publishers and songwriters involved all gave the project enthusiastic backing; I think they all saw an opportunity to bring new life to some old copyrights (e.g. look at Lady Marmalade on the Billboard charts right now).  Music licensing isn't really newsworthy stuff, so there is not an abundance of interesting stories.  Baz went and met with all the major publishers very early in the project to explain what he was making, and how he wanted to use the great songs of the last century to tell this story.  I think this helped us have greater flexibility to use the songs in a storytelling way; the publishers were not on the defensive, and trying to figure out why we needed to change lyrics to make a scene work.

Our only real problem was trying to license the Cat Stevens song "Father and Son".  Baz had a brilliant opening scene written involving Christian and his father singing this song as dialogue to explain why Christian needed to escape England for bohemian Paris of 1900.  The reason for the knock back was that the film did not match the current religious beliefs of Cat Stevens - this is of course perfectly valid and something Baz and the rest of the team completely respect.

We licensed about 50 songs in total for the film, and about 35 appear in the final cut. 

It was recently (this past week!) reported that Courtney Love insisted upon the removal of the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (sung by Marilyn Manson) segment in the film.  Since you had already gotten clearance to use the song (obviously) beforehand, and Love had the sequence removed because of her personal dispute with Manson, what are your thoughts on this new development, and do you think it will affect the sequence in the film?

This report is slightly exaggerated.  "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is still in the film, and forms the basis of the opening number.  If we had to remove it, we wouldn't have an opening number!!  It is an enormous honor and privilege to be able to use the song (it has never been licensed before) and part of the deal in securing use of the song was a commitment to Courtney Love that we would treat its use with the utmost respect.  You will see that it is very much a part of the opening sequence of the film; it simply does not feature lead vocals by Manson.

In the film, the part of the moon in a few songs was sung by Opera tenor Placido Domingo.  Yet on the soundtrack Jamie Allen sings them.  Why the switch?

We had availability problems with Placido, and the album was delivered a month before the film was finished.  We think Placido is clearly the voice of the moon, and that is why we wanted him so desperately to sing the part in the film.  It was simply bad timing that meant we couldn't also use him on the soundtrack, as his "moon" vocal was recorded after the album had been delivered.

Moulin Rouge is currently playing in theaters.  The soundtrack is available in stores, and is heating up the charts.  Look for Part II of our report on Moulin Rouge in a few weeks, when we focus on the score and talk with the composers on the film.  Special thanks to Monique Ward and Michelle Parker at Chasen & Co for setting up the interview.  Additional thanks to Marius for getting us in touch with Anton Monsted.  Photo of Marius de Vries by Lisi Andrew.