Interview with Benjamin Wallfisch

Back in the good old days of Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis, let alone Charlton Heston, the not-too terrible havoc caused by Vikings and other weapon-wielding historical figures would usually be accompanied by the lush, orchestral strains of pureblooded nobility. Those romantic pre-medieval times have changed for sure with the likes of “300” and “Game of Thrones,” where decidedly dark anti-heroes unleashed their sword splatter with an arsenal of rock guitars, dissonant samples and blasting percussion that made uneasy allies with orchestral melody. Sure ethnic instruments might be on hand for just a bit of musical accuracy, but they’re split-lip service for the thrilling anachronistic anarchy that’s now turned much of “historical” scoring into a truly insane mosh pit, one where “Hammer of the Gods” stage drives with thrilling barbarity.

You might not expect the berserker metal, eerie expressionism and head-hacking percussion of “Hammer” to come from a nice, classically-oriented English composer like Benjamin Wallfisch, who’s gone native in a way that will likely send any old school score fan screaming – and perhaps all the better for it. Here Wallfisch turns back the clock on his homeland to 871 A.D., a time when Christian Saxons battled heathen Vikings for possession of a primitive land. One such pagan prince named Steinar (Charlie Bewley) must carve his way through the cross-wearing warriors of one God to reach his brother, whom he hopes will save his father’s marooned army. It’s a berserker “Hammer” that lands as the most impressively unique work from Wallfisch, whose saner scores (all of Movie Score Media) have included “Dear Wendy’s” lushly symphonic teen rebellion, “The Escapist’s” innovative prison break and “Conquest 1453,” a Turkish action epic where Wallfisch first combined a swaggering orchestra with rock and roll fury. Here the gloves are off, even if there’s impressively melodic writing on a smaller scale. But “Hammer” is mostly about its bloody war face, one that gets progressively crazier for Steinar’s journey into pre-England’s heart of darkness. Sure Steinar, and Wallfisch, might not be wearing a helmet with two horns on it. But in “Hammer of the Gods,” what it means to be a Viking is all in the music’s attitude, a megadeath rocking brutality that Wallfisch has to spare.

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How did your work as an orchestrator for Dario Marianelli prepare you to set off on your own filmscoring quest?

Dario is an incredible composer and a dear friend. Working with him was like an apprenticeship – a great opportunity to absorb the art of film scoring in the hands of someone with an effortless sense of melody and drama, and a real master craftsman. He approached me after he heard my score for “Dear Wendy” back in 2004, and we went on to work on about 25 scores together, two of which were Oscar nominated and one Oscar-winning (“Atonement”); so it was a very special time of collaboration and learning for me. Being exposed to that level of writing on a daily basis, and being given the responsibility of bringing it to life on the page and in the recording studio conducting the scoring sessions, gave me some truly invaluable tools and experiences which I call on frequently now in my own work as a composer.

Having written many original orchestral works of your own, and started off with a bang with a symphonic score for “Dear Wendy,” was it any kind of challenge to build your musical muscles in a more rock-and-roll, action-percussion approach?

One of the joys of working in film is you are constantly being challenged and made to adapt. Each new project brings it’s own language and you’re constantly being asked to rethink what it means to put music to picture. Each score has to have it’s own unique voice, honed to fit the tone and story of each individual film. For “Hammer of the Gods” I was given the opportunity to look for a sound in a totally different universe to my other scores. It’s an angry, dirty, brutal film, and I realized the score needed to be one of extremes, where nothing was off-limits.

As a viewer, was there a point that you noticed that sword-driven dramas were getting looser, both in terms of their brutality, and hell-for-leather musical approach? And why do you think they’re so popular now with shows like “Game of Thrones” and “The Vikings,” some of whose stars show up here.

I think there has always been a fascination for how cultures lived in eras long past, and perhaps what is possible now with visual effects in television, which was previously only possible with feature film budgets, has opened up the genre to more platforms.

What brought you aboard “Hammer of the Gods,” and did director Farren Blackburn always have this kind of historical heavy metal approach in mind?

When producers Hubi Liel and Rupert Preston approached me about the movie, it was already clear that the score would need to break all the rules on what an historical battle score might sound like, so when I took on the project it was on the understanding we needed to do something pretty unique. Farren is a really brilliant director and was totally up for all the craziness I kept sending his way. It was a wonderful collaboration – I had fearless clients and it was all about telling the story in a visceral, merciless way

“Hammer of the Gods” takes you on an eye-striking, but stripped-down odyssey across pre-civilization England. How important was it for your music to give scope to that journey and the film’s small budget, yet also capture a ghostly, intimate feeling?

Although the film was shot on a small budget, it doesn’t look that way. Farren’s vision for the film is epic and sweeping, but also very much about the development of Steinar’s character from the young prince to the brutal warrior. So whilst it was important the score reflected the scope of the visuals, and the pitiless, ruthless fight sequences, there is a single thread evolving throughout the score which is designed to reflect the growth and development of Steinar’s character.

Did you put yourself into a particularly berserker mood while scoring “Hammer of the Gods?” And how did you want your music to play the violence and abundant cruelty of the time?

I try to stay relaxed and calm when writing, although I’m pretty sure my neighbors went pretty berserk with all the sub bass slamming through the walls for hours on end…. With regards to how the music played to the violence, it was just all about telling the story and creating music that feels like it’s coming from within the picture and the plot.

Tell us about how you wanted to capture the character of Steinar, a hero who knows how to kill like no one’s business, but yet is smarter and more introspective than most everyone around him.

Steinar’s story is all about the growth of a man from a place of self-doubt to one of total fearlessness. It’s a strong message and Farren paced the development of his character from the one extreme to the other with incredible care and precision. I needed to do the same in the music. The score starts with a very simple four-note ‘warrior’ motif, but at this point it’s slightly hesitant and questioning. By the time we hear the same melody blasting out with an uncompromising blend of full orchestra and electronics at the end of the score, we know how that journey has ended, but I wanted to be sure that development was seamless, as it is on screen.

Is emotion in general a difficult thing to capture in a barbaric movie like this? And on that note, would you say there’s a purposeful battle between impressionism and melody going on here to make “Hammer” even more unrelenting?

I guess there is some conflict within the score between the chromatic, polyphonic lines in the orchestral material and the cruel, vertical percussive gestures I use. It just seemed to be the right language to use for this particular movie – extremes and zero compromise. But for me music is always a language of emotion. If a piece of music doesn’t say something to me emotionally, whether it’s gently reflective like my recent score for “Summer In February,” or brutally violent as in “Hammer,” then I’ll throw it out and start again.

How did you want to balance the score’s authentic approach with its far more anachronistic one?

I tried my best not to have any preconceived ideas about how I’d balance the more traditional orchestral material with the uncompromising electronic sound world. It’s important to be spontaneous and free as a film composer, to let the characters and story lead you to what instinctively feels right for a particular scene, and how it fits in with the overall arc of the score.

Did you draw inspiration from any rock acts for the metal-industrial-trip hop elements of the score, and did you want to make them sound particularly raw and improvisational for the film?

Although it was thankfully completely banned for me to directly emulate someone’s sound – we threw out all the temp score for that very reason – there were definitely certain artists that I had in the back of my mind whilst writing – Noisia, Korn, Skrillex, The Prodigy. But, the film needed it’s own sound so yes, being improvisatory and raw was really important.

The last third of the film definitely enters “Apocalypse Now” territory when Steinar confronts his cave-dwelling, crazed brother and his cult. How did you want to capture that kind of surreal, nightmarish vibe with your score?

I did all the things you’re just never meant to do…. I recorded an orchestra doing some pretty nightmarish gestures and then was basically a crazy professor in his lab, mutating the sound, bending it in all directions, slowing it down, reversing, re-pitching, basically deconstructing it until it was nearly unrecognizable as an orchestra, but still retaining the essential emotional message of the original recordings. Then I combined this with a bunch of electric guitar textures that I’d treated in a similar way, and that seemed to make a sound that reflected the terrifying dark underworld of Hakkan’s cave.

Could you talk about coming up with such an unusual prison break score for “The Escapist?”

The director and writer Rupert Wyatt had come up with this incredible structure for the movie, where the elements of the prison escape in what we think is the future, is intercut with the planning of the escape within the prison walls. But as the movie develops the two time frames begin to blur, until we reach a shattering twist at the end. The key thing for the score was to make it one of the elements that contributed to that journey in the plot: jumping between two time frames, but allowing the time-jump device scope to grow and morph as the story developed.

We decided to have an orchestral sound for the planning scenes and a more electronic, percussive sound for the escape sequences, but then as the two time frames begin to converge, so do the two sounds of the score. But having that, as our basic structure didn’t change the fact that, like in all movies, the music simply had to serve the drama, especially with such strong performances by Brian Cox and Damien Lewis. There is a lot of emotion in that film under the surface. Frank’s character is driven in all his actions out of concern for his daughter he hasn’t seen in years, since being imprisoned as a lifer. So although much of the score in full of tension and drive, there is a strong emotional undercurrent too.

“Conquest 1453” was one of the larger films made in Turkey. What was that experience like as an Englishman? And did you ever get to go to the country in the process of scoring it, and what do you think about the political upheaval that’s happening there now?

That was a really fun project. It had the largest budget of any film ever produced in Turkey, and went on to be the highest grossing movie in the country’s history. Director Faruk Aksoy wanted to make an epic, in the real old sense of the word, about the fall of Constantinople in the 15th century, which led to what would become the Ottoman Empire. When I first saw the movie it was over three hours long. There are these enormous 11-minute battle scenes involving what appear to be many thousands of extras. The music needed to be grand and imposing, but keep the story evolving over two hours of score. So it was a case of developing a range of different themes for the various characters and finding a way for them all to develop and intertwine as the story developed, leading to the final epic showdown at the end of the film.

Faruk wanted a very ‘Western’ score, so it wasn’t dissimilar to films I had worked on in the UK or the US, although we did make reference to some of the key instruments of the region – the duduk, the Ney and the beautiful traditional Turkish vocal tradition tended to be deployed during some of the more potent scenes.

I spent quite a lot of time in Istanbul whilst working on the movie and made some good friends there. The Turks are very open and friendly people in my experience and it’s a beautiful country. I’m naturally very concerned about the situation there right now and how it affects my friends and their families, and just hope a resolution can be found peacefully and quickly.

What’s interesting about this film, and “Conquest 1453,” is that Christianity is essentially the villain of the piece. Did that ever strike you?

To be honest, it didn’t, but it’s an interesting point.

Between “Conquest 1453” and “Hammer of the Gods,” what do you think makes you particularly adept at scoring these kind of “thrash” historical scores? And is there any particular period you’re yearning to attack now?

I guess one of the reasons I was able to tackle these two scores with a fresh approach is that most of my work isn’t in the historical battle genre. There isn’t a particular historical period I’d like to attack now – for me it’s all about the story, rather than when it might be taking place.

Do you think it’s possible to do a symphonically straight-up, “old school” historical score in this day and age? And would you want to after achieving such a dynamic style for these kinds of action films?

Nothing is impossible with music, so yes! My background is orchestral so in a way I’m most in my comfort zone when using the acoustic orchestra as my main sound in a score. But I’ve never particularly liked staying in my comfort zone…

Can you tell us about your upcoming scores, and are you looking forward to having a little more tenderness in them?

“Summer in February” was released last week in the UK, and is coming out in the US later this year. I had a wonderful time scoring it a few months back. It couldn’t be more different from “Hammer” – it’s a tender, emotional score, reflecting a true and tragic love story, set amongst an artist’s colony in early 20th Century Cornwall. I’m currently scoring a really fascinating movie, “Desert Dancer,” also based on a true story – this time of Afshin Ghaffarian, a young Iranian dancer growing up in a country where dance is completely banned. We use dance as a metaphor for strength and protest and there are some incredible performances from Frieda Pinto and Reece Ritchie, and stunning choreography by Akram Kahn. Then in November, “Hours” will be released – a very special suspense thriller starring Paul Walker, set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Soon after that another movie I scored earlier this year will be released, “Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain.” which tells the tragic story of the greatest industrial catastrophe in history, the Bhopal disaster of 1984. All these films required their own unique approaches to the score.

Do you think a Viking warrior would like your score for “Hammer of the Gods?”

If you can find one, let me know!

“Hammer of the Gods” is now on VOD, and in theaters on July 2. Buy Benjamin Wallfisch’s score on Movie Score Media Records HERE