In June 2016, I directed and wrote the score for my first film. I thought I’d write a post explaining why a composer might be interested in making movies …
In the 18th century, Handel wrote oratorios — musical dramas that took place on stage with a chorus, soloists and orchestra. Arguably, this was the grandest scale of musical drama available to composers at the time. In the 19th century, Wagner brought opera to a whole new vista by incorporating dazzling special effect theatricals and weaving epic mythological plots into three hour-long visual-musical sagas. What is the ultimate dramatic medium now for composers? Some might say Opera, but what about cinema?
What if composers were not treated as subservient to their directors but conceived the entire musical, dramatic and plot arcs for the work? They would need to first learn about cinema, directing, screenwriting, story-craft, which is a life’s work in itself… On top of that their musical skills, counterpoint, orchestration, harmony, language… Hmm, difficult. Admittedly, In my first film, I spent more time tackling purely cinematic problems rather than musical ones.
The concept of shooting a film in one room came from working in theatre, specifically on Arthur Miller’s No Villain, which received its world premiere in London 2016 at Trafalgar Studios, Directed by Sean Turner. I had been asked by Sean to write original music for the play. After working on this and other plays, I built an appreciation for the way in which directors transform a single space into multiple worlds/locations. This is perhaps one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of theatre-making. The limitation of a single space became the creative stimulus for the film.
Our production designer, Anna Driftmier did some amazing work. We built our set inside an empty assembly hall in an unused school.
I wanted the room to be a character in its own right, with its own antagonistic force and potential. This was why I chose to build a set rather than shoot in a pre-existing location. Anna Driftmier was meticulous in realising all the details and bringing the space to life.
Luca Rocchini, our Director of Photography worked wonders with limited resources. We shot the movie on a Blackmagic camera in 4K with ND filters. With the blend of a dry ice smoke machine, the ND filter and low saturation in the grade, we achieved a very particular look. We used a blend of kinos, blondes, redheads, and a single chimera to light the set.
The film is brought completely to life by Andre Flynn’s enigmatic performance. We rehearsed several times in an empty hall with the rough dimensions of the room. Andre knew every camera angle before we started shooting.
In terms of text, there is only the ‘incantation,’ which is six lines long. Therefore the character’s emotional state has to be translated by how they move. Every movement was blocked and choreographed. In hindsight perhaps this was overboard. But it came from my paranoia of losing time on set and not wanting to leave any decisions to last minute. There are obviously pros and cons to this method. Maybe some magic could have been captured if I let the reigns loose a little. But given the specific nature of the material, I think it was the right approach for the film.
November has two characters, the character of November, a genderless godlike figure trapped in solitude between worlds and a supernatural spirit who frees November from purgatory. To create the supernatural character I used watercolour painted on panes of glass which I then composited in After Effects. VFX animator, Valeria Meng also assisted in animating the spirit.
There is a sequence in the middle of the film where the spirit undergoes a metamorphosis after being buried in magical soil. To create this on a limited budget we shot trays of water lined with bin bags filled with different mixtures of oil, acrylic paint and milk.
We shot these with Luca’s Nikon macro lenses. This footage really brings the fantasy world of the film to life. This was a particularly rewarding part of the process.
One of the hardest parts of the process was composing music for the film. It was incredibly difficult to be both the composer and director as I had no one to bounce off. It was just me in the edit realising that nothing was working. Filip Firlej, our producer was incredibly supportive and offered much helpful advice — I couldn’t have done it without him. The solution to the problem was to use an old piece of music I’d written for choir that had never been performed. I re-arranged it for strings and wrote cues based on that music. The music itself was very personal to me and I’d written it for someone I loved very much but had hurt and let down. By using this particular music, it infused the film with a new meaning for me. I began to see the film as an allegory for my own spiritual state. Indulgent, yes — very. But it helped me get to the core of the movie. It’s all very 19th century, that’s just my vibe … soz. *Contemplates liberty whilst looking out to a stormy sea with ‘Shelly: complete works’ in one hand* Anyway… the score was recorded beautifully by my friends Rick David and Ryan Latchman from Pinkbird Recording co.
I also worked closely with our amazing sound designer Si Richards to give the soundworld of the movie a distinctive feeling in line with the visuals. I wanted to avoid any feeling of rises, transitions, all that stuff we hear so much of in TV now. Instead, Simon and I created something raw, harsh and brittle edged, it punctuates the film perfectly. Simon also created a music cue which is a crucial part of the score.
Using this previously composed piece taught me music needs to work in its own right before syncing it to picture. Both mediums, music and image, need to be fully autonomous, neither should rely on the other to ‘work’. They can even be contradictory in tone; this is particularly powerful as it forces the human mind to work harder building a greater poetic connection thus creating dramatic energy (need to come up with a cool word for this idea) – at least that’s my theory for now… I suppose, now that I think about it, its kind of dialectic in nature.
THESIS + ANTITHESIS = SYNTHESIS
SOMEONE was listening in aesthetics class… Where the thesis could be considered the image, the premise or action, the music can be considered the antithesis, the exact opposite of the thesis. The synthesis is what goes on in the audience’s head ‘how cute,’ ‘yuk,’ ‘really, she’s just trying her best.’
Picture: Woman kills man – Thesis. (Aggression, death, oppression)
Music: 18th-century Opera Aria sung by a soprano – Antithesis (divinity, immortality, freedom)
Perception – This is the part no one can predict. To hazard a guess… Audience thinks:
‘She’s releasing herself from her shackles, she’s liberated herself from oppression.’
Or, no. It’s usually something more base and primal like:
‘She is Amazing.’
Cinema gets you like that, right to the core of your feelings.
If the music was just aggressive, the perception would not be a synthesis, but rather just an amplification of the action on screen, in other words – boring.
There’s much scope for a dialectic approach to filmmaking, but more on that later…
November is my first film and I’ve learned a huge amount. I can’t thank everyone involved enough. Here’s a photo of our amazing crew after we wrapped.
The full film can be watched here