Interview with Craig Armstrong

(Photo by Simon Murphy)

With a career spent on creating rapturously lush melodic scores, Craig Armstrong has an unabashed nature that Victor Frankenstein would likely appreciate – even if this composer might be just a bit more mild-mannered in regard to unleashing his striking creations. Be they killers (“The Bone Collector”), relationship-starved singles (“Must Love Dogs”) or historical heroes (“Elizabeth: The Golden Age”), Craig Armstrong’s work has strutted forth with richly orchestral themes, the lightning of electronic music often raining down upon them. Keenly drawn to emotion since his start playing for the stage with actor and director Peter Mullan (“The Magdalene Sisters”), Armstrong’s segue to the big screen has been full of the romance for the melodic possibility of film scoring itself, whether it’s intended to serve as Baz Luhrmann’s instrumental songbook in the pop-filled “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby,” or serving as textbook examples in how to fuse together motifs into walls of transfixing, suspenseful sound (“The Clearing,” “In Time”). To listen to a Craig Armstrong score is to really be at one with his characters’ fraught emotions, whether they be desperate yearning (“Far from the Madding Crowd”) the rocking joy of thieving (“Plunkette & Macleane”) or superhero smashing rage unleashed (“The Incredible Hulk”).

Craig Armstrong’s “Victor Frankenstein” stands proudly as the most no-holds barred score to grace the iconic tale of mad Victorian science since “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” back in 1994, (its symphonically rampaging score written by fellow Scotsman Patrick Doyle). This time, the thematic spin is on the very strange Bromance between James McAvoy’s Doctor and his assistant Igor. As embodied by Daniel Radcliffe, Igor is no grotesque loon, but the central object of a love that dare not speak its pilfered brain, Armstrong’s exuberant “Victor Frankenstein” score is seamlessly stitched together from the various styles he does so well. Driven by a monstrously pounding theme, the alternately restrained and operatic music is awash in the composer’s sense of costume drama, inevitable tragic attraction and synthesized rhythms – all energetically driven with a wrathful chorus a. It’s high drama run amuck, with a fearsomely gorgeous impact that’s inimitably, ultra-melodically Armstrong.

What drew you into composing, and were there any musicians and soundtracks that strongly influenced you?

In my mid teens I started to write music, I was in the school’s orchestra and there was opportunity to compose for some of the musicians.

At that stage it was really more for fun and I hadn’t thought about it as a possible career, in fact I never thought it would be possible to compose for a living until much later on when I went to the Royal Academy of Music in London. I was always in bands in my teens and wrote songs, I was aware of film music but only from hearing it in the cinema. So I started the piano very young and then progressed to the violin and was lucky to attend a lot of symphonic concerts as a kid in Glasgow. In those years I would say the theatre and the music written for theatre was a strong influence for me.

You have a distinctively lush and romantic strings sound that often mixes with orchestra with electronics. How did you develop this strongly melodic approach?

I think it’s helped my string writing with the fact that I studied the violin for seven years. This detailed knowledge of the instrument helped me a lot in developing the sound I like to create with a string orchestra. For some reason I do connect film music with melody as some of my favorite film composers; Ennio Morricone, Thomas Newman are from this tradition. However I would say that the music I write for classical commissions tends to be more abstract. But I’m also interested in synthesizer music, which I have been since my early teens. I’m still interested in the latest developments in electronic music, and have a healthy collection of vintage synthesizers that I enjoy using if the score requires it, especially with “Victor Frankenstein.”

Do you find yourself drawn to period scores? If so, what do you think they offer to a composer that modern day-set films don’t?

I have found when I work on period films usually the director asks me to ignore the fact that is a period film and just write an emotionally supportive score. I’m thinking particularly of the score I did for “Ray.” where the original score was really more focusing on gospel music rather than the music of Ray Charles. However in some scores like “The Great Gatsby.” there was definitely music that both ignored and reflected the period. The period films I suppose offer another level of research, which, with the director, we can choose to ignore or incorporate.

How were you drawn into “Victor Frankenstein?” And could you talk about your collaboration with director Paul McGuigan, who’s shown a real visual flair in movies like “The Acid House,” “Lucky Number Slevin” and “Push?”

Paul and I were friends from quite a long time ago in Glasgow. And we always said we when bumped into each other that we would like to work together. When Paul returned from L.A recently, he offered me the chance to work on his new film “Victor Frankenstein,” and I was very happy to say yes, being a fan of his previous work and a friend. In actual fact Paul just lives around the corner from my studio! So Paul would usually work with me at the weekends while he edited his film in London during the week. I found Paul’s visual aesthetic inspiring to write for. And the musical world of “Victor Frankenstein” was very open to a score that used both symphony orchestra and electronics.

Before taking on “Victor Frankenstein,” did you bone up on past Frankenstein scores? How difficult do you think it is to put a new cinematic, and musical spin into a tale that’s been told so many times before?

I really didn’t listen to previous Frankenstein scores. But now that you’ve mentioned that maybe I should! I think classic fairy tales will always be reinterpreted by each generation. Paul’s version is very reflective of his early work as a photographer. It’s also important when you work on classic pieces like “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Great Gatsby” or indeed “Victor Frankenstein” that you are not overwhelmed by the subject matter and just get on with writing with what you think will be an exciting musical experience.

“Victor Frankenstein” has an especially furious and driving main theme. How did you develop it?

I think this theme is one of the first pieces I wrote for the film. I often find that my initial first response to the movie is the one that finally makes it into the picture.

How much of a “horror” score did you want to make this?

I never saw Paul’s film as being in the horror genre. In fact I saw it really as quite a romantic film, which also had a lot of humor. So when I wrote it I focused on the relationship triangle between Igor, Victor and Lorelei. I think by developing the emotional side of the film, the action sequences took care of themselves.

This is your second score to feature a big bruiser after “The Hulk.” Could you talk about your experience with the Marvel Universe, and how the approach for that behemoth might have carried over to your approach for the Frankenstein monster?

I took on “The Hulk” on because as a young kid I was a big fan of the character. And I very much enjoyed working with the director Louis Leterrier on the film. It was very much a movie out of my usual genre. However, I did find it fascinating working on the animated scenes and seeing them come together. For me the two films are very different in tone and aesthetic.

The grand moment of any Frankenstein score is the “creation” scene. How did you want to tackle it?

The creation scene in “Victor Frankenstein” was an interesting one to score. I had this idea of having big chords played by heavy metal guitar. But instead of guitar I used a whole symphony orchestra, but in a very tribal and simplistic way. The orchestra, were really playing huge massive power chords.

Could you talk about playing the human element of “Victor Frankenstein,” especially in regards to the “bromance” between Victor and Igor?

Paul’s movie really focuses mainly on the “bromance” between Victor and Igor. So that the heart of the score really had to based upon those characters and the development of their friendship. This theme really grows throughout the entire score and is even hinted at in the circus music. So in away it is sprinkled throughout the entire movie.

You’ve got a sizable chorus that makes an impression in “Victor Frankenstein.” What was your goal in having a finally operatic approach?

I’ve always enjoyed working with choir. And of course “Victor Frankenstein” gave me the perfect vehicle to use a massive overwhelming choral sound to match what was going on screen. I think this operatic approach reflected the world which Paul had made and which was operatic in scale.

How do you think the electronics in “Victor Frankenstein” add to a character that’s dabbling in futuristic, forbidden technology?

Working on the electronics was a lot of fun. Paul was very interested in some of my early synthesizers in the studio like the VSC3 synthesizer and the Theremin. I also used a lot of samples from very early synthesizers like the Ondioline. This approach reflected the film’s excitement of the use of electricity. We spent many days working with just these instruments.

With its use of bell percussion, do you think there’s a “fairy tale” aspect to your score?

I think there is a fairy tale aspect to the score that comes from working with unusual instruments that are both electronic and acoustical. The bell percussion in particular gives it a slightly twisted and macabre feel, which suits the atmosphere of the film. The balance between the orchestra, the strange percussion and the obscure instruments like the glass armonica all create this slightly distorted fairy tale sound. I was really excited when I worked with the glass Armonica because it really seemed to conjure up sonically the world of Victorian London. It had an edge but also an ethereal quality that was very beautiful, and seemed to tie together the circus elements with the darker elements in the picture.

There’s more humorous character interplay in “Victor Frankenstein” than most films of the genre. How did you want to capture that sometimes-flippant attitude to the madness going on?

I really enjoyed the fact there as a lot of humor in the film which of course makes the darker moments even darker. However a general rule I find when composing under humor is mainly to ignore it and just support the drama in the scene.

In the end, there’s the timeworn moral point that man shouldn’t treat on God’s domain. How do you think your score hears that lesson, especially given the tragic quality that your dramatic scores often have?

The tension in “Victor Frankenstein” comes from the moral dilemma of playing around with and distorting nature. This tension that is throughout the entire film was a major theme to be exploited musically especially in the scenes with Turpin and Victor. I found these scenes very strong and therefore fun to write for, as both held polar opposite views on this big moral question.

In a way, “Victor Frankenstein” takes you back to your Hollywood debut, which was for the serial killer thriller “The Bone Collector? What was that initial studio experience like?

“The Bone Collector” was one of the first films I did after “Plunkett and Macleane.” In this film I worked with the Australian director Phillip Noyce and went on to work with him once more with “The Quiet American.”

I found working with Phillip very enjoyable and because he’s such a strong director. He had a very clear vision as to what he wanted musically which always makes life a little easier for the composer.

Audiences are perhaps most familiar with your work on Baz Luhrmann’s films. Could you talk about this continuing collaboration, especially when it comes to weaving score around the famous pop hits he so loves to use?

I’ve been especially lucky to have met and worked with Baz Luhrmann on his epic adventures. He’s a very inspiring director. His films of course are on a massive scale so when you work on a Baz film they can often be over a two-year period. During work on the “The Great Gatsby,” we realized we’ve been working together for almost twenty years now. I would say I’ve done some of my best work for Baz. His love of pop music has always been a big part of my job when working with him. Trying to seamlessly blend the pop songs into the score and back again has been integral to our collaboration. And often you work with the song’s artists themselves, which can be an interesting experience. That’s a big part of the reason my scores for Baz work so well with the songs.

What’s it like being a go-to rom-com composer as well with your work on “Fever Pitch,” “Must Love Dogs” and especially Richard Curtis on “Love Actually?” What do you think it is about your music that adds to that film’s enduring appeal?

I think working on romantic comedies can often give a composer a lot more room to develop themes ironically. As the pace of them tends to be slower, there seems to be more space for melodic development, which in the case of “Love Actually” gave me lots of room to develop the several melodic strands for each of the characters. I think it’s hard to quantify why a film like “Love Actually,” or even “Moulin Rouge!” has been taken to the heart of the public so much, it’s one of those unquantifiable elements. But of course when that happens it’s genuinely lovely.

Your other notable period score this year that’s meant far more for the Oscar crowd is “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Could you talk about the challenges of putting your own spin on the remake, especially given the last film adaptation having such a remarkable score by Richard Rodney Bennett? Did you want to capture any of that classical flavor here?

When working on “Far From The Madding Crowd” with the director Thomas Vinterberg we of course explored different approaches at the beginning, which included at one point focusing on the church music that would have been used in that period. However I eventually settled on writing a score featuring solo violin, which, seemed to capture the emotional heart of the story and also gave me an opportunity to work with the very talented violinist Clio Gould. As for Richard Rodney Bennett’s remarkable score I only listened to it after I had finished work on the film, in fact a friend bought me a vinyl copy of it. However I was very familiar with Richard Rodney Bennett’s concert works, as he was one of the professors at the Royal Academy of Music when I was a student there.

Your next big, and perhaps most controversial film will be “Snowden,” about the still-wanted “traitor” who revealed the government’s enormous surveillance efforts. Could you talk about your continuing collaboration with Oliver Stone after “World Trade Center” and “Wall Street 2?” What can we expect from this score?

For” Snowden,” I worked with Oliver in Munich and New York but composed most of the score in Glasgow. I found it an inspirational film to work on and was very happy to work with Oliver again after our previous collaborations. For this score I worked with the London Sinfonietta, so the orchestral music sounds very classical. However, electronics are part of the score as well. For that element, I worked with the German artist Antye Greie (AGF), I have worked with Antye before on several different projects. Funnily enough, when a score has been written so recently, I sometimes find it hard to analyze t myself.

Photo by Simon Murphy

Do you think there’s a dramatic fearlessness to your work that other composers might not attempt?

The only approach I take which might be slightly unusual from other film composers is that I try not think of it as film music and just try and write music that can live on it’s own as well as with picture.

In the end, how do you think “Victor Frankenstein” figures into the saga’s cinematic and musical legacy?

I think Paul’s film fits well into the legacy of the Frankenstein movies it has a more romantic and also humorous approach but at the same time is tense, emotional and visually ravishing.

“Victor Frankenstein” opens on November 25th, with Craig Armstrong’s score available on La La Land Records November 19th HERE

Visit Craig Armstrong’s website HERE

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