Interview with Laurent Eyquem

If rebellion was put in the blood of native South African’s from the immigrant regime that brutally sought to stifle them, then in a gentler way, one could say that the freedom of flowing melody is a far more natural birth rite given to French film composers. For there’s no better proof of that innately harmonious, scoring spirit than Laurent Eyquem, who now stands at the forefront of the next, lushly accented invasion to hit Hollywood’s shores.

Practicing a thematic gift for unabashedly soaring music that’s marked the work of such progenitors as Maurice Jarre, Georges Delerue, Michel Legrand and Alexandre Desplat, Eyquem has begun to catch soundtrack admirers’ ears with his beautiful score to “Copperhead.” Intimately playing the epic Civil War struggle as a heartfelt conflict between pacifism and the call to action within a small town’s confines, Eyquem’s subtly gorgeous score combined period instruments with symphonic sumptuousness for a poignantly romantic sound. While scored before “Copperhead,” “Winnie Mandela” deals in a far more visceral, if no less heartfelt manner with love torn apart by history. In this famed case, it’s the relationship between Nelson and Winnie Mandela, a married couple whose crusade for their people’s rights would ultimately secure freedom, while tearing their relationship apart.

For a historical power couple played by singer-actress Jennifer Hudson and actor Terence Howard, Eyquem marks his scoring return to the South African conflict after “A Million Colours” with empathy that can soar as high as John Barry’s plane in “Out of Africa,” or reach the intimacy of piano and subtle strings. Eyquem’s western approach is stirringly integrated with the Soweto Gospel choir to give his approach the unbreakable, native spiritual power of the film’s heroine. But as opposed to romantic candy coating, Eyquem also hears a turn to anger that’s made Winnie Mandela into a far more polarizing figure than her husband.

Through every powerful emotional turn that not only reflect “Winnie Mandela’s” never-say-die journey, but Eyquem’s personal one as well, you hear an unabashed champion for the power of thematic scoring to move the audience to the right side of the melodic fight. It’s not a particularly easy battle in today’s Hollywood scoring arena. But then, talented Frenchman like Eyquem have always had sumptuousness on their side, an often beautiful, melancholy sound that waves a proud fist for country and home in “Winnie Mandela.”

With your father playing in an orchestra, was it always a given that you’d follow in his musical footsteps?

From the time I was 6 or 7 right up until I was 14 or 15 years old, I spent my Saturdays and Sundays sitting backstage, behind the harp player, at The Grand Théâtre of Bordeaux listening to the orchestra perform all the great composers – Gershwin, Strauss, Bizet, Ravel and Stravinsky. So there’s no question that my father’s love for music influenced my early years. He encouraged me a lot, seeing that I had a special talent at a very young age, and that I was naturally drawn to music. But was it a “given” that I would have a career in music? No, not at all. My dad was really torn between knowing that I had musical talent, and knowing how very hard a musician’s life can be. He pushed me to stay involved in music as long as possible to see what doors might open, but I don’t know if he ever thought I would compose. Ironically, he passed away before I began composing for film. He was a huge influence on my work, and yet he never heard a single score I wrote. 

Laurent Conducting the Soweto Gospel Choir

One senses the lush, lyrical spirit of Georges Delerue in your work. What kind of influence was he, and did you ever get to meet him?

Life has a way of surprising you…I was supposed to do an internship with Georges in L.A during the summer of 1992. Unfortunately, 3 months before my arrival, he suffered a fatal heart attack. I have always been very sad and disappointed not to have met him. I knew his music when I was young (from the FrançoisTruffaut movies), but had never spent a lot of time listening to his scores until people in the industry started commenting that my music reminded them of the way Georges wrote. I have a lot of admiration for his work, and I do not think that my music is as beautiful as his. But it seems that there is something in my writing that reminds people of the melodies and texture that his scores had. Ironically, over the past few years I had the pleasure of meeting and become friends with George’s widow, Collette Delerue, through a mutual acquaintance who was the director of photography on “Black Robe,” which of course Georges scored. It has been a special experience to learn about him and his experience and success in American film through her.

How difficult was it for you to break into English language films?

First, it has to be said that breaking into the movie business in general is not easy by a long stretch, whether it’s in French or English. Having said that, I did not follow the “typical” path most composers follow…learning music, working as a composer’s assistant, working under a major composer, doing shorts films, etc… before scoring features. When I was not able to do my internship with George, I took another direction and decided to take a few years away from music to “give back”. At that point I moved to Canada and worked as the director of communications for a few humanitarian organizations, traveling the world. After first suffering the tragic loss of both my sister and my father and then surviving what should have been a fatal accident, I realized that I didn’t have forever to do what I wanted to do with my life – which was write music for films. I dropped everything else and jumped in with both feet – and scored my first feature film, “Mama nest chez le coiffeur” in 2008 – just 5 years ago. The score to “Maman” was successful and met with a lot of positive reviews in Canada, and garnered nominations in all possible categories for Canadian film, which helped a lot. Other projects followed, and in fact, with just a couple of exceptions, they were all English language films. In this business, my motto is that you are only as good as your latest score, so my focus has been to choose the films I score carefully and to be consistent about delivering the same high level of quality, beauty and writing on each film.

What did the Mandelas, and the situation of South Africa, mean to you before you scored a movie about them?

I grew up in France, and I followed everything that was happening in South Africa very closely, including what I could read and see in the news about Winnie and her struggles during the Peace and Reconciliation Process, with Desmond Tutu. So I had a good knowledge of the political and historical environment. What I was missing was the personal side of the story that I discovered through the script. 

“Winnie” is your second major, and regional “historical” score after “Copperhead.” What kind of opportunities does that genre afford you?

The score for “Winnie” is a balance between a strong epic journey and the sadness and vulnerability we feel as we witness the descent to the dark side of this incredibly strong woman. “Copperhead” was very different – it was an “Americana” historical film that afforded me the luxury of composing a score that needed to be very subtle, while still keeping a lyrical and lush approach. Both of these films gave me the opportunity to reach into the musical traditions, styles and instrumentation of their respective eras and cultures, and that too was really rewarding.

I think that these two films gave me the opportunity to show that it is still possible to write melodic scores, like those for “Gone with the Wind,” “Out of Africa” or “Dances With Wolves,” and still have a successful soundtrack. In more recent times, music has been used rather differently, almost through the entire film, which means that the music has to blend in the background, instead of being really a part of the story and being another character. So I hope that those two films will encourage more directors to consider using the score in a different way, and to use silence once in a while too. Silence is as important to me in a film as the score. All of these elements together can create a beautiful assemblage between the photography, the acting and the music.

Could you talk about the mix of traditional African music with a western approach? And did any past scores in the genre influence you?

Well, I did not listen to any former scores in the genre, because I did not want to follow any path or to be influenced in any way. Europe tends to embrace different musical styles from around the world, and when I was young, I listened to a lot of South African music using instruments such as the penny whistle, to Zulu songs, the choirs, up to and including African “pop” music. I was a big fan of Johnny Clegg and Savuka. All of this helped me to write an orchestral score that would respect the South African music and its harmonies, while still making it quite universal. The Director Darrell Roodt really wanted to have a score that would be very respectful, in its construction and use of the instruments, to the South African culture, while still being international because the story of Winnie and Nelson Mandela is a part of world history. It is not only an African story, it is a story that has lessons for all of mankind.

How epic did you want the score to be, as balanced against the more intimate love story between Nelson and Winnie Mandela?

I really had to go to the two complete opposites, and this is the beauty of this film. I wanted to write an epic and strong character-driven score (with powerful French Horns, choirs and drums) to reflect Winnie’s drive, determination and strength of will. From the day she was born (the last in a string of girls) Winnie had a strong spirit and was a fighter – she was never one to take the easy path: she tried desperately to please and impress her dad (who had wanted a boy, not another girl). She chose to stay in South Africa to work under unstable and unfavorable societal conditions, even though she had been accepted to work in the US as a nurse. She stood by and fought alongside her husband Nelson Mandela for an end to apartheid, and ultimately survived being taken away from her children, imprisoned and tortured (mentally and physically) until she was released.

In parallel to learning about her strength, we also discover Winnie as a child, a woman, a mother, and a wife – a human being who struggled like everybody else – so we also have some gentleness, softness in the score, because this is Winnie too. And when we witness her descent into violence, it becomes more difficult to simply pass judgment. I had my opinion from the news I watched in France, but seeing her story in the full context of her life, I do not know how I would have reacted, or how my own wife would have reacted, or how anyone would have reacted. So it was extremely important for me to keep a tenderness as we witness the drama of Winnie’s life.

Tell us about your main themes in “Winnie Mandela.”

In “Sunrise” (the opening of the film), the challenge was to bring the audience into Winnie’s character in 3 – 4 minutes, because we go from Winnie being born to a young lady leaving home by the time we reach the following cue, “A New Season”. So the opening theme needed to explain right away the essence of whom we are dealing with: Winnie is a strong combative woman who developed this character from her youngest age. Therefore, the choir, the brass and the drums take the audience into this strong, epic journey, while on screen we discover Winnie being a baby, then stick fighting with boys, and finally we discover the young fearless adolescent that she was.

Then we have the main themes: “Sound of Hope” and its variations in which we hear echoes of Winnie and Nelson’s life together: it starts with soft melodic lines, with French horn, or English horn and then, step by step, transitions to that strong powerful melody (heavy harmonies in the strings and brass, very powerful), that harkens back to the complicity and strength the couple drew upon in order to face their struggles together, until almost the end, because Nelson was “forced”, to separate from Winnie, in order to be able to become president of South Africa.

There are also some melancholic pieces, like the adagio “Lover in Prison” that comes back a second time in the film (not in the Soundtrack album) when Winnie is condemned. I chose an adagio and the beautiful voice of Ipeleng Moshe (one of the sopranos of the Soweto Gospel Choir), again, to distance the audience from the evident drama, and bring back a human perspective to the tragedy unfolding on the screen.

Finally, the piano solo piece “Passing of Time” is an important cue as well in the film. It is soft, melancholic, sad, while giving a sense of the time passing inevitably, taking us to another deep step each time, in Winnie’s life. In fact, this theme is attached to three crucial moments: the first time to follow the lonely journey of Winnie who could not see Nelson for a year (when he was sentenced), the second time, when Nelson reads Winnie’s letters from his prison, and finally, when the body of the little boy is found in a field, having been killed by Winnie’s supporters. It is a long journey, a long descent, and the piano, while pounding chords on the left hand, reminds us of the regrettable path that Winnie’s life has taken.

You make particularly haunting use of the piano, an instrument we usually don’t hear in westernized “African” scores, an approach usually taken when the characters are white, a la “Out of Africa.” What was the inspiration for using a classical approach like this?

Well, first off the piano is my constant companion when I compose. As well, I did not want to fall into the “African” stereotype on this score. I used many South-African elements such as the penny whistle, drums, marimba and of course the Soweto Gospel Choir, so we had all the right elements to keep us rooted in the cultural context. But the story of Winnie Mandela is also story about a man and a women, a love story, and the struggles of Winnie’s life, so for me the use of western instruments would help to keep us in the perspective that this story is not just a South African story, but our story, as an active observer of history unfolding. The entire world has been witness to South Africa’s story – and to the story of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. So, the piano and a more classical approach also help to maintain a sense of musical relevance to a broader audience.

Laurent Eyquem, David Franco & the Soweto Gospel Choir

Did you have any interaction with Winnie Mandela while scoring the movie?

No, unfortunately. The movie is very political and Winnie was opposed to the film being made. I really regret that have not yet had the opportunity to meet her. I tried my best with my music to give her a voice and tried to be sure that I maintained an objective view of her character, keeping in mind that every story has two sides, and doing my level best to write how I thought she might have felt through many of her life steps.

While Nelson Mandela is generally regarded as a saintly figure by his followers, Winnie is viewed in a more tarnished light. How did that affect your approach? Also, what’s the level of moral responsibility that comes with scoring a figure like her?

I really hope that I did justice to Winnie’s character, because I think that we should not look at this film as a judgment of Winnie, but as a way to help understand the trajectory of her life and perhaps the reasons why she made the choices she did. It’s an opportunity to witness her life, her love, her fights, and her struggles with a more complete understanding of who she is and what she went through. I do not believe that Nelson Mandela fell in love with a heartless, cruel woman. I believe that his life’s mission took Winnie – and the events in South African society – took Winnie down a very hard, painful path and that this shaped her as a person and deeply impacted her choices and actions. Especially because I did not meet with her, I tried to look at the film, the story and Winnie as objectively as possible, to be sure that the music, the melodies, the tenderness and the strengths would be as accurate as possible.

How important do you think music is in giving a sense of optimism to Winnie’s struggles? And in contrast, were you ever worried about being too lyrical given the violence she and her people face?

When I wrote the score for another South African film 2 years ago called “A Million Colors” (the sequel of the hit “E’Lollipop” released by Universal Pictures in the 70’s) I had a terrible scene to score, a scene where we witness a “necklacing, where they put a car tire around the torso of person, douse them with gas and light them on fire. It was an incredibly painful scene to score, and I purposely left it to the very end – literally before I got on the plane to go record the score. I decided to write an adagio to focus on how terrible things human being can do. When we Witness Winnie’s path through the violent protest and her promoting “necklacing”, I decided to write the score in the same way. I wanted the audience to feel the profound sadness of the situation, not the anger, or the feeling of revenge, but I wanted us to look at it as human beings. So I used the same French horns that used to represent Winnie’s strength, but in minor, dark, sad harmonies, to separate us from her speech and give us a perspective about how sad her position and decisions are for all of us.

You’ve gone through some intense tribulations yourself in your career. Did those experiences help you identify with Winnie’s tragedy, and struggles in that way?

Yes, life has not been easy over the past 10-15 years. During that time, I lived through the traumatic death of my younger sister, lost my father to cancer and suffered a serious accident that nearly cost me my right arm and took 2 surgeries and 3 years of physiotherapy to recover. But I also met some incredible people during this part of my journey that had difficult lives as well. I once read that going though life is like going down a corridor, in a boat, in the middle of a storm: you try to go through it without getting too bruised when life throws you against the walls…I’ve learned that life is hard, you cannot control what happens or what life throws at you. You can just control how you deal, react, bounce back. So let’s say that my life has made me much less judgmental than I was 15 years ago. I think that my perspective and life experience maybe helped me to see her situation more objectively – more compassionately – and helped me, I really hope, to contribute to a fuller understanding of who Winnie – the woman, wife, mother and activist – is.

You’ve got some period jazz “source” cues on the soundtrack as well. What was it like reaching back into that style?

We had some jazz from the late 50s and I had to have a classical kind of score. So I wrote some sequences, like the one when they have the secret meeting and the police are trying to catch Nelson, in a classical way, but that reminds the writing of the 50s and 60s in the use of the brass and their harmonies in the suspense genre. So mainly, it was a question of writing more than changing from classical to jazz.

Could you tell us about how your song “Bleed For Love” with Dianne Warren, which Jennifer Hudson performs?

Laurent & Jennifer Hudson

It is a pretty interesting story…. So Jennifer is playing Winnie Mandela and the production negotiated with her to sing the end-credit song, and Diane Warren had agreed to write the song. If you want to have a haunting ballad…Diane Warren is the best. So one day, one of the producers dropped by my studio to give me a CD with the mock-up of a song, and it was the song that Diane wrote. I liked it, but my only concern was that, I felt very strongly that the end credit song needed to blend into the film and the version we had was a mock-up that was far away from the type of score that I was writing. Diane has reputation for being direct with people and not wasting any time. So when I told the producer about my thoughts of re-orchestrating and re-arranging the song, nobody wanted to knock on Diane’s door to ask for any changes.

I had never met Diane Warren before, so I asked the producer to organize a meeting to discuss my thoughts about making some adaptations. People were smiling at me telling me ’’You are going to see Diane Warren, the Grammy-winning, six times Oscar nominated song writer to ask her what she thinks about re-arranging and re-orchestrating her song? You are pretty bold…let us know how it goes…’’ So, I met with Diane and asked her if what I had was the final version of the song. Right away she answered that yes, it was. At this point I had been in her office for less than one minute, and was thinking …what do I do now? So I asked her if she wanted to listen to the first 20 minutes of the film with the mock-ups of my score, she loved the idea. After 20 minutes, she looked at me and told me that she loves the score with the orchestra, the melodies and counterpoints, and the use of the choir. I looked at her said, “What if I take your song, re-orchestrate it and re-arrange it to fit what you just heard? She looked right in my eyes and said, ‘’OK…surprise me’’. I came back one week later with the version that will be released by Sony and Jennifer, and Diane loved it. She started to tweet and email the production, and that was the beginning of what I hope will be a long friendship between us.

Laurent & Diane Warren

What was it like working with the Soweto Gospel Choir, and how difficult was it to get them for the film?

The Soweto Gospel Choir was my ‘’dream’’ request. I have tremendous admiration for them and their work, and as well, they never been included in a full film score. They did the end-credit song of “Wall-E” with Peter Gabriel, but they’ve never been featured throughout an original score. So from day one, I wrote the score as if I would be able to get them, writing all my choir parts with the orchestral score. When Diane Warren emailed the production about how she loved the new arrangement and orchestration of the song, the South African producer Andre Pieterse called me the following morning (a Saturday at 7:00 am…I will remember all my life) to let me know that he was willing to secure the Soweto Gospel Choir for me to record on the score and end-credit song. It was not easy to finalize the deal, since Winnie has been opposed to the film and the Soweto Choir is very close to the Mandela family. But the beautiful and amazing surprise was, a week later, that both sides of the Mandela Family (both Nelson and Winnie) had consented, and granted me the privilege to come to record with the Soweto Gospel Choir in Johannesburg.

What was the experience of going to South Africa to record the Choir?

It was one of the most memorable recordings I have ever done. It was very different from what I expected, because once I got to Johannesburg, I discovered that they do not read music, so my score sheets were completely useless. We divided the choir to match all my divisi from my score and each group (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass) learned their parts by heart, then right away, we were recording everybody together. Their experience, talent and commitment are truly amazing. Working and recording with them was a privilege and an honor.

Do you think that European composers are naturally more melodic in their approach, and can essentially “get away” with bold themes because of that expectation when they’re in Hollywood?

This is a question that I’m often asked, especially because of the type of score that I tend to write. I believe that the American and the European approaches are fundamentally different. By definition, American music is very rhythmic (for example, Gershwin is a master in the use of rhythm in his melodies), and you have all the jazz influences as well, so that style of music has a structural approach that is very unique for me. By comparison, the European focus – right through to pop music – is more on the melodic aspect. So from the outset, we come from a different musical tradition and that has an enormous impact on style and approach. I don’t think it’s a question of European’s “getting away” with a more melodic approach; it’s a product of our cultural and musical roots and is ingrained in the way we create and write.

In my own case – and I can only speak for myself, others may disagree – I think that my European roots are certainly a big factor in driving the melodic aspect of my compositions, but I also believe that I have learned to tap in to the deep emotions connected with the intense life events I’ve experienced in a way that brings an element of authenticity that has basically become a hallmark of my work.

What’s up ahead for you?

Next month I’m starting on an action film starring Olga Kurylenko and Vincent Cassel. I’m looking forward to changing my hat from drama to action!

“Winnie Mandela” opens on September 6th. Laurent Eyquem’s score is now available digitally on RCA Records HERE

And his score for “Copperhead” HERE

Visit Laurent Eyquem’s website HERE

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