David Arnold is a British composer and producer best known for his work on five James Bond films, including Daniel Craig’s debut Casino Royale. Never one to rest upon his creative laurels, his hugely successful career includes a Grammy Award for Independence Day, an Emmy for Sherlock with co-composer Michael Price, and success on stage with the Made in Dagenham musical. He has also tasted chart success through collaborations with Björk on 1993’s Play Dead, and with his collection of newly performed Bond songs Shaken and Stirred in 1997.
On September 22nd Independence Day Live comes to the Royal Albert Hall when David will introduce a screening of the ‘90s blockbuster accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite being in the middle of a violin-based maelstrom while preparing new music for Sherlock, David took time to sit down with STARBURST for a long chat about the process of scoring a film, bribing musicians with doughnuts and, of course, James Bond.
STARBURST: Thank you for taking the time; we understand you’re in the middle of arranging some additional music for the new Sherlock episodes. Is it common for it to be a last minute thing?
David Arnold: It feels like it has little to do with composing music at all; it’s more like an engineering gig. It can be complicated when stuff has to happen in camera. Most of the time you’re writing music to the screen in front of you. With this, someone has to be doing something specific to music. This isn’t what’s happening here but, for instance, if someone was singing a new song at a club then that song would have to be written, that person would have to learn it, we’d need to know how long it was going to be, what it had to do, and so on. Then that person would have to be shot performing it. Stuff is choreographed around something that happens musically and I can’t give anything away so I’m struggling to say more than that, but that’s roughly what’s happening. So because of TV scheduling and availability of locations and actors it’s happening now rather than in 4 or 5 weeks’ time so we’re rushing to get it together.
Presumably then with films like Independence Day this is less likely as you’re writing music with the finished cut in front of you?
Almost finished certainly. With most movies you’ll be working with a cut but not the final one. Things will change quite a lot and with that you change the music. I knew from the script and being on set for Independence Day that a lot of scenes could be written without seeing it. I knew aliens were arriving and I knew there was going to be a speech by the President. There’s quite a lot that was patently obvious the film was built upon and so I could write accordingly.
Much of the music for Independence Day feels reminiscent of classic war films.
In many ways you could almost transpose a lot of what happens in Independence Day into World War II films, such as Battle of Britain with the dogfighting and so on, so I guess that’s right. I wanted to do it old-fashioned, with big tunes played with a very large orchestra, similar to what John Williams brought back with Star Wars. When you have visuals on this scale I just heard big orchestras.
Do you have a remit when you’re brought on board?
You start off with an initial meeting to see if you’re going to be the right fit for the producers and the directors having read a script. You’re really just talking about the film and what the music should be doing, although not necessarily how. If there’s a consensus on the direction, then you move forward to the how. Then you play around with it, is it going to be electronic, minimalistic or 90-piece orchestra? There are a lot of decisions to be made and all along the way you have to be in agreement with production, and a good director will always guide that.
So when you arrived on set of your first major film, Stargate, were you aware of this process?
I think I’ve always just been instinctive. I was never taught to score films; I’ve learnt by doing them. I never thought I’d get the chance to do a big sci-fi film and then Stargate came along and that’s exactly the sort of thing you dream of. The sheer scale of it, to do the things that John Barry, John Williams and Ennio Morricone were doing was amazing. Also, because Stargate has no basis in reality, you have a different responsibility and can be more creative. You respect the film, but it’s different to doing a biopic or something based on truth.
When doing something like Bond or Godzilla, where the theme songs are incorporated into the film, is that a different challenge?
Those things tend to be business decisions more than creative ones, but you have to find a creative way of doing it. A lot of the time songs are included to raise the awareness of the movie. If you have Adele, for example, and the whole world is waiting for her next song, then interest in the movie is massive. That’s an advantage, and also that the song can have a life outside of the film. A song can be heard several times a day constantly reminding audiences of the film, whereas an interview with someone won’t be. Sometimes the song is in the script, sometimes it’s a deal with a record company who let you have Artist A as long as Artist B has something in it as well. The Puff Daddy track on Godzilla, for example, we were very involved in. I met him several times, we got the whole orchestra thing going and it was fun. At other times I’ve not had anything to do with the songs and you just hope they work.
With the Chris Cornell song You Know My Name for Casino Royale, was the process different? A portion of the audience will likely not have heard of him and yet the song’s music played such an important role in the score.
John Barry started that off from the start really; Lionel Bart wrote From Russia With Love and John blended it into the score. In Goldfinger, all the key scenes hark back to the song in some way and so it becomes part of the fabric of the movie. When I did my first one, Tomorrow Never Dies, it was a tradition I wanted to continue. I wrote a song called Surrender, Don Black did the lyrics and I did the music with David McAlmont and I wanted it to be the opening song. In the end it was over the end title and I’d based the score on music extrapolated from that song. It’s something I’ll always try and do as it’s a shame when the song happens in isolation, but there are reasons why it can happen. Going back to You Know My Name, I hope that when you hear that song at the beginning you get an idea of the world you’re about to enter and what Daniel Craig’s Bond is going to be like. It’s not subtle but I think it asks the right questions and has the right approach to this new way of playing the character.
Around the time you did Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997 you released the Shaken and Stirred compilation (a collection of Bond theme songs re-imagined by Arnold and featuring new singers from Jarvis Cocker to Iggy Pop). Was there a connection between the two?
I began Shaken and Stirred in 1995 just after I finished Stargate and I did it off my own back. I just wanted to work with people I liked really, and we recorded a few songs just to see how they would turn out. We’d finished them and in January 1996 I sent some of the songs to a few record companies but it was slow to get going. In the end it was about a year after I’d started before it got signed up. I then sent some of the material to Barbara (Broccoli – co-producer of the James Bond franchise) as I knew they were very protective about what you can and can’t use. For sleeve design I didn’t want to tread on anyone’s toes – if I can’t use a white fluffy cat then I’m not going to use a white fluffy cat! I didn’t want a cease and desist letter! I’d actually met John Barry as we were recording in the same place and George Martin, who I knew, had introduced us. I played him a few of the songs and he really liked them. That’s kind of how it started really. I think John then had a word with Barbara, and Independence Day became an enormous hit, and they were looking for a composer for Tomorrow Never Dies and I demonstrably loved Bond. Being friends with John and George probably made the decision-making process easier. Where did we start with this again ?
Had you started Shaken and Stirred before you got the Bond gig? You’ve kind of answered it now.
Right, so, contrary to popular belief then the Shaken and Stirred album was not made as a calling card for the Bond movies, but it was part of the process towards me being offered it. I’m honestly not that cynical!
Would you do another Bond film?
In a heartbeat. First of all, I still love the movies. Second of all, Barbara and Michael (G. Wilson – co-producer of the James Bond franchise) are two of the most fantastic producers ever, who look after you and include you even if you haven’t been working with them for a long time. I still do stuff with them such as a recent fundraiser for the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme. It’s a pleasure to do it as I do owe them an awful lot. I’d like to think we did well with the films and it would never be a case of doing it for the money as I’m happy with everything I’m doing now, but I tend to drop everything if the people from Bond call. And if that means three weeks work on a charity gig that’s fine, or if it’s the score for a new movie then that’s great also. They have my undying loyalty. But they also know that if they never ask me again then that’s fine as well.
If we can talk about the Independence Day Live event a little, are we right in thinking you don’t conduct?
I have occasionally but I’ve learnt that it’s one of those things that people think is easy, just waving your arms around. It’s very much a skill of its own, though, and I know my skill level is far lower than that required. When I do conduct I always ask the orchestra to give me as much help as possible in exchange for buying them some doughnuts in the break. I love doing it but it is incredibly difficult. When we do it live I’ve often worked with Nicholas Dodd who conducts the bulk of it and I play, talk and sing down at the front.
Do you think these events will add prominence to the work of the composer in the public’s eyes?
Most people don’t know who you are but they’ll know what you’ve done. I’m under no illusion that people coming to Independence Day Live are coming for the film experience and not for me. I appreciate me being there makes a difference as it’s a unique event, but it’s not about David Arnold. The films are the stars here. I’m just part of the team that makes this sport called filmmaking function. With this score in particular, it was written very much in a symphonic tradition. There’s a great moment usually when you’re scoring a film in a key sequence for instance, when the cast or head of the studio might come to visit or check how things are going. You have an orchestra mic’d up in a room and you play that sequence with the sound down and the music up and it’s a uniquely exciting experience that you rarely see. It comes to life and now we can do that live, and in a place like The Royal Albert Hall you have an event movie with an event score.
The first time most people will have become aware of you will have been with Björk and Play Dead. Looking back now, with all the ambition you had then and all you’ve now achieved, is there anything you’d particularly like to return to?
I’m always keen to do things I haven’t done before. Recently it’s been a West End musical rather than films, which was a hugely gratifying experience. The rise in TV has been interesting of late, with the quality of the cast and writing, and Sherlock is like that. I’m lucky really as it seems every two years I seem to do something that becomes, and in no way really to do with me, very popular; there was the London Olympics and then Sherlock. I have been promising myself I’ll make my own record so maybe it will be that. Someone always rings with something interesting to do instead though.
Mr David Arnold, thank you very much for your time.
Thanks man, all the best.
Independence Day Live comes to The Royal Albert Hall on September 22nd.