Interview with Dario Marianelli

For a 54 year-old musician hailing from Tuscany, Dario Marianelli has seemingly been part of British history more than many English composers. Possessed of the kind of sweeping lyricism that seems to a birth rite to those compatriots born on either side of The Channel, Marianelli’s early works for Irish filmmaker Paddy Breathnach on “Alisa,” “The Long Way Home” and “I Went Down” yielded explorations of The French Revolution (“Pandaemonium”) an ancient Indian clash (“The Warrior”) and the Pakistan refugee crisis (“In This World”) before his bucolic talent finally landed Marianelli in the romantic English countryside of “I Capture the Castle.”

Marianelli’s costume drama-tailored talents were a natural fit for the Jane Austen landscape of “Pride and Prejudice,” his first collaboration with filmmaker Joe Wright that yielded an international, Oscar-nominated breakthrough. Marianelli’s since shown his diversity from battling a witch alongside “The Brothers Grimm” to the animated fantasies “Boxtrolls” and “Kubo and the Two Strings” His ravishing sense of feminine empathy has distinguished “Jane Eyre” “Agora” and “Anna Karenina,” a tragic sense of love lost that swept over his next teaming with Wright for the English WW2 drama “Atonement,” a score which brought him the acclaimed film’s sole Oscar win. Now after hitting the mean, classic streets of Los Angels for “The Soloist,” time is on the backwards march again for Marianelli and Wright as both give all of their rallying passion to a speech that signaled Britain would overcome its “Darkest Hour.”

Marianelli’s steps into historical drama have certainly sounded dire, especially when playing a dystopian fascist England in “V for Vendetta.” Here that threat is very close, and real for a German invasion that almost happened to a besieged island nation. Its newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill spends his time combatting his own party as much as the German army, to whom Nazi appeasers urge a peace treaty in the face of an overwhelming defeat at Dunkirk. But this wily bulldog of a political leader isn’t about to be overthrown, a resistance that Marianelli’s rhythmically alarmed music signals with surging brass and bombs bursting in air. However, there’s wily humor as well to his score given Gary Oldman’s sputtering, irascible leader whom at times seems more Benny Hill than savior of a nation. He’s also a man filled with self-doubt, as the soundtrack tenderly expresses. Given a hubbub of suspense and emotion, Marianelli is certainly at the top of his thematic, nationalistic fervor here in leading the charge against Hitler, strings rising with pride for the speech to end all valorous stands for England’s fighting spirit. But then, given Marianelli’s own connection to this beloved country, one can’t imagine a more powerful, or humane salute to all that England defiantly stands for in the face of its devastation, as embodied by its thematically stout of heart, slightly crazed champion in his “Darkest Hour.”

How important has living in England been to you as a composer, especially when it comes to the country’s role in your creative evolution?

Anyone who has learnt to speak another language to proficiency will recognize that with the new language we discover also a new part of ourselves. This has definitely been my own experience, and I know that I have been profoundly changed by my almost 30 years in England. It is pretty impossible to qualify or quantify the effect that this has had on my music, but I have no doubt that the effect is there. Some of my scores brought me closer to the work of some of the best British writers, and that has also shaped every successive work.

How did you first come to Joe Wright’s attention with “Pride and Prejudice?” And did that set a classical tone of sorts for your future collaborations?

I was introduced to Joe by producer Paul Webster, who very perceptively imagined what Joe might need at that point in his own development, and had seen some of that in my music. “Pride and Prejudice” was probably the most important of all our collaborations, in the sense that we learnt to trust each other in many different ways, we discovered a number of things that are important for both of us. As for the classical tone, I am always at a loss when I hear that word, and I am certain that “classical” means different things to different people. I’d rather stay away from those dangerous words.

Did you do your own research into Winston Churchill after getting the “Darkest Hour” assignment?

A little: initially to find out if Churchill liked music, and what he would be listening to, if he did. Not much, it turns out. Joe was thinking of having some soldiers singing at the end of the movie, while my initial vague notion for the score was to incorporate in some way the “voice of the people”. I started researching old British folk music from the past centuries. I was following the idea that those old tunes carry something of the people from which they sprung. I also imagined that “the people” were present all along, even if what we see on screen is mostly the upper class wrestling with the nation’s destiny. I intended to rework the accompaniment of some old folk tunes, and some of that work is still in the score, even if the folk tunes have completely gone. In fact, we ended up abandoning the idea of using voices altogether, even if we recorded some. It wasn’t feeling right, because it introduced a note of nostalgia that we wanted to stay away from.

What was your collaboration like with Joe on “Darkest Hour,” and what was he particularly looking for the score to accomplish?

Like always, a number of early experiments start our conversation about what is or isn’t working. Joe was keen for the score to maintain a forward sense of propulsion, reflecting Churchill’s restlessness, his mind forever throwing around new ideas.

A big appeal of Gary Oldman’s Churchill is the humor that he brings to the role. How did you want to capture that wit and outsized character, while not making it buffoonish?

I think the job of capturing what you describe was already done brilliantly by Gary, and I never felt the need to double up what is already amply visible on screen. It’s a good thing, I think, that when an actor does all that very detailed and layered work, the music is free to do something else. In this case the music could try following the momentum of the events and of an increasing sense of dread; and give a presence to the invisible but never stopping the interior motor propelling Churchill from one idea to the next. In a sense his pace is a good match for the speed at which events unfold at the start of the war. A lot happens very fast in those first few weeks of war, and the right man for the job was one with the type of mind in which a lot happens, and very fast. Joe showed me very early on a photo of Gary Oldman as Churchill walking briskly, leaning forward. It was a good image to keep in my mind when I was writing the first few pieces, trying to lean forward with the music as well.

While Winston may have been from the higher classes, he was anything but a stuffed shirt. How did you want to get across the cultural clash between his brusque manner and the far more refined politicians and royalty that he deals with?

The only place where the score goes anywhere near what you describe is the meeting between Churchill and the King at Buckingham Palace. It is an odd piece, the “odd one out”, if you wish, and it was meant to underline the pomposity of the occasion, which Joe so unashamedly sends up.

While we see some of the conflict of World War II, most of “Darkest Hour” is concerned with the political maneuverings in the English Parliament. How did you want to capture those dealings, while also telling us about the far bigger global stage the movie takes place on?

The “dealings” are there, in the story, the global stage also, well in view. Instead of capturing anything that might already be there, I think of music as something that can help building a unified world within the boundaries of the film, something that contributes to the aesthetics of what the spectator is exposed to, and has some emotional resonance. It is obvious that the film is not shot as a documentary; that it is stylized, to a great extent. The construction of that stylized, self-contained world is a pro-active endeavor. There’s nothing to capture until we have built it. For me, rather than capturing, it’s more a matter of building another voice that “sings” the story from a different, non-verbal, emotional place.

How did you want to capture the mobilizing military in the score? You use some particularly interesting techniques that sound like exploding artillery in “Darkest Hour” as well.

That’s exactly what they are: I built a rhythmical percussive track using the sound of artillery, of explosions. It continues an ongoing experiment with the blurring of boundaries between what we see and what we hear. I didn’t particularly want to capture the mobilizing military. Loud explosions have a more primal, disturbing effect on me as a listener, and I imagine on many other people too. My parents remember those sounds from the war, their home towns were bombed heavily. I have often imagined what lasting affect that can have on a child: it goes much deeper than being a token sound for the military.

The outcome of Dunkirk weighs heavily on Churchill’s decision. Having scored those events for Joe’s “Atonement,” do you think of this as a “sequel” score as such?

Not really, although the thought crossed our mind that we might have musically quoted that earlier movie. This was especially when at the start of the work with Joe we were entertaining ideas of male choirs, and soldiers singing. We abandoned that line of thinking quite soon, to concentrate instead on the more propulsive function of the music.

One of my favorite scores of yours is “V For Vendetta,” a more relevant-than-ever movie about a fascist takeover. Given that England was facing this, do you think there are thematic ideas in how you played Hitler’s threat that connect “Darkest Hour” to that score?

This is interesting. I can recognize in the music of “Darkest Hour” a faint connection to the music of “V for Vendetta.” There is an “aspirational” harmonic sequence, something that is forever trying to “raise”, in both scores, and they both use a particular chord shift. I didn’t do it particularly consciously, but it is there, and it might be a reflection of my gut musical reaction to the idea of freedom from bullying and oppression, literally an “up-rise”.

It’s rare to see a pianist noted on an album. Could you tell us about Vikingur Olafsson and what makes him so import to “Darkest Hour?”

Joe asked me to have a listen to Vikingur’s album of Philip Glass piano music. I agreed that it was beautiful, and that it had the right balance of expression and clarity without being overly “romantic” (another dangerous word!). As there was a fair amount of piano in the score, we thought Vikingur would be the ideal interpreter.

Many films have that “big speech” score. With “Darkest Hour” centering around one of the most famous speeches in history, how difficult was it to score that central sequence?

It turned out it wasn’t particularly hard: my very first draft is what’s in the movie. It was an exercise in not doing too much too soon, but keep the sense of swelling until the last moment.

Do you think’s there’s a thematically old-school, highly melodic feeling to your music that makes your particularly right for historical films such as “Churchill?”

I have never thought of this, and I am not sure that my approach is more “right” than any other. I scored a specific film called “Darkest Hour” by Joe Wright, and I approached, as I always do, on its own merit, and not thinking that it was a certain “type” of film. The couple of films I scored before, “Everest” and “Kubo and the two Strings” couldn’t have been more different, and I have just finished “Paddington 2”. None of them are historical films, but I suppose there is some consistency in the way I approach a movie. I’m not sure if it is “old school”: I might be the worse person to ask that kind of question, I am not even sure that I have a “style”, whatever that means; never mind belonging to a school.

How do you think “Darkest Hour” stands out among your collaborations for Joe Wright?

I am very proud of all my collaborations with Joe: he is a very “inspiring” director. I always feel that he actively makes space for me, to allow the music to become a character in the movie, and that’s a rare gift to any composer. On every further collaboration with him I end feeling I really have learnt something new, about music, and about storytelling.

“Darkest Hour” opens on November 22, with Dario Marianelli’s score available on Deutsche Grammophon Records HERE. Then flash back with Dario and director Joe Wright’s collaborations on “Atonement” HERE and “Pride and Prejudice” HERE

On Friday December 1st at UCLA’s Royce Hall, join such composers as Thomas Newman, John Debney and Robert Folk as they bring Drew Struzan’s poster art to musical life with the Golden State Pops Orchestra. Get your tickets HERE

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