Interview with Tom Hodge

The words “rush to judgement” never took on more ferocity than after September 11th as an entire country swore to avenge the worst terrorist attack in its history, sweeping both the guilty and innocent suspects overseas into the forever prison at Guantanamo Bay. One man labeled as a Bin Laden-level mastermind was Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Ramin), a native of the Islamic African Republic of Mauritania. Already viewed with three strikes against him for joining Al Queda against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (a fight that even Rambo supported), Slahi’s guilt is without question to military prosecutor Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), and entirely beside the potential point to his lawyer Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster). A victim of mental and physical torture by the “good guys” in their overreach to prevent another 9/11, Mohamedou’s actual innocence in the face of a death penalty at the most, and chargeless life imprisonment at least, becomes the crucible for filmmaker Kevin MacDonald’s shatteringly powerful film “The Mauritanian.”

A filmmaker most notable for bringing a journalist’s real escape from Idi Amin to the world’s eyes with “The Last King of Scotland” before turning to the fictional political conspiracy of “State of Play,” Kevin McDonald gives just about any subject a gripping sense of realism and often moral outrage. It’s a talent that gut punches like never before with “The Mauritanian,” especially in the company of musical cellmate Tom Hodge. It’s a transfixing, impactfully used score that’s essential to the film’s you-are-there feeling of hellish imprisonment, capturing humanity at its worst as much as it is does the soulful dawning of a defendant’s will to survive and the moral conviction of two lawyers out to save and condemn him – and by proxy the emotions of viewers likely convinced of the Mauritanian’s guilt. Yet the score’s pulsing suspense, hallucinatory agony and deeply felt tenderness is far from the soundtrack sledgehammering that a “message movie” often uses to tell its audience what to think in no morally uncertain terms. 

Composer Tom Hodge

Hodge constructs the cell of “The Mauritanian” and a spirit breaking free with a solid, yet subtly thematic approach that ranges from electrified thriller beats to soft piano and string poignancy. It’s an unforced approach that calls immediate attention to the Ivor Novello-nominated English composer’s biggest exposure on the international cinematic map. With a background in alternative music with the likes of Floex and Max Cooper as well as advertising, Hodge’s transfixing mix of synths and orchestra has been heard in such features as “Pimp” and “Common People” and on television with “McMafia” and the documentaries “Rise of the Nazis” and “The Billion Dollar Game.” Now given the skill that Hodge makes his musical case for with “The Mauritanian,” more dramatic subjects are all but assured for the musician, if no more importantly than in showing this particular miscarriage of justice on such a massive, or personal scale. 

Could you talk about your musical upbringing, and your collaborations with alternative artists? How do you think that shaped you as a composer?

I was lucky to be surrounded by music at school from an early age and my main focus was piano, which has provided the perfect grounding for dealing with the rigors of media composition. The process which starts in your brain and ends up with music coming out of the monitors with lots of interfaces and tech in between which need to be as transparent as possible, means good keyboard skills are vital for this flow.

I love collaborating with other artists and making records and for sure this has impacted me as a composer. ‘Input, input, input’ an old drummer friend used to say to me, when I threw a curve ball his way. It is a great way of staying fresh, looking at new perspectives both regarding conceptual approaches and technical skills. I really enjoy the variety too- it is invigorating (albeit taxing) to have multiple projects on the go as there is always somewhere for the flock of ideas to land!

Tell us about how you got into composing, and what the experience of your first features scores was like?

I studied politics at university but to cut a long story short, music was calling me, and I managed to get a job making tea in a post-production studio, Grand Central Studios, in London that specialized in sound for commercials. As I honed my tea-making skills I also found opportunities for little bits of composition for the studio’s clients. A couple of hundred adverts later, it had grown into a thing! I count myself very lucky to have fallen into adverts first up, as for sure it has supported all my other musical endeavors. I’ve already done some wonderful projects in the past, but of course to work on a big feature with Kevin and a stellar cast was very special indeed.

The advertising work you’ve done has included writing trailer music for “The Beguiled,” “Indignation” and “Spotlight.” What’s the musical art to selling a film?

Trailers are good fun! I think someone told me once you should write a trailer cue in three parts- start big, then break down and go huge, and then to finish, go even ‘huger’ or something like that.. But seriously, I treat everything the same in that you have to find truth in what you are writing. In some cases (like “The Mauritanian”) the subject matter and performances make that easy. When the subject matter is less profound shall we say, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t search for some kind of depth and honesty in your music. On the contrary, it is just as important. This is what resonates as an artist and with the listener.

How do you think that scoring documentaries, and docudramas like “The Man Behind the Microphone,” “McMafia” “Billion Dollar Game” contributed to your growth as a composer, especially when it came to scoring “The Mauritanian?” And would you say that scoring the BBC’s “Rise of the Nazis” was especially important on this film’s end?  

They were all varied projects and I learned something from each of them. If there is a general lesson, or at least an observation, about documentaries, I guess it added to my range regarding all the different nuanced positions of music as ‘commentary’ because you are dealing with (an interpretation of) facts/history/news. In drama, the music is often a subtle (or not so subtle) commentary too, but you are as likely to be ‘with’ the character, however naive that might be. So in that regard, scoring something like ‘McMafia’ with its big thematic character tracking and development arcs was better preparation for “The Mauritanian” actually. (It was certainly good preparation for the time pressure anyway!)

“Rise of the Nazis” was interesting in that the brief was to write music pretty much devoid of hope (which I discovered I had not done before!) And I certainly drew on this when I had to deal with the extensive sections in “The Mauritanian” dealing with Mohamedou’s time in “special projects.”

What were your immediate reactions to 9/11, and those who were responsible for it?

Horrified, like the rest of the world I suppose. I think I read recently Kevin remarking about Mohemadou’s story- it’s a film about why are we doing this to other human beings? We can apply his quote pretty generally in this regard, I’d say.

Director Kevin McDonald

How did “The Mauritanian” come your way?

Through my agent. Then Kevin and I chatted, I did some concept demos, I got the green light, off we went! There wasn’t much time to hang around to be honest. My deadline to write an hour of score was 6 weeks from start to finish including recording orchestra and 5.1 surround mix.

How would you describe Kevin’s approach to true-life thrillers?

This was of course my first experience working with Kevin. I guess what struck me straight away from our discussions was how deeply thematic the score needed to be. It was pretty clear everything needed separating out into four areas to begin with: Nancy & Teri, Couch, Mohamedou and a looser theme of Guantanamo. Thinking about it now, attaching themes to characters is cleaner than attaching them to ideas and concepts. If the musical material is robust enough then you can take the emotional content anywhere required of the character’s journey.

Did you research Mohamedou’s story before scoring the film?

I knew nothing when the project appeared on the horizon so of course I did some immediate investigating on the internet. But I was writing music soon after so there was no time to read his diary! I’m very interested to come at it now, post film.

Tell us about your themes in “The Mauritanian.”

Sometimes I find that the themes can come out of the sound world you are building, and they gently present themselves to you. This was not the case here! I sat down at the piano and wrote a version of Mohamedou’s theme on the first evening of work. It went through a few iterations but broadly speaking that is basis for all of Mohemadou’s scenes. 

For Couch I did a string quartet sketch with that little rhythmical glitch which landed really nicely when I applied it to the opening sequence push to the title card. This is what really helped me get deep into the narrative actually, because I was able to jump ahead and manipulate the Couch material and start discovering in the process what journey the score was likely to take.

Nancy took a bit longer- it needed to be slightly more ‘straight ahead’ I guess, more typically legal thriller to start with. So of course you have to work much harder to try to make it not typical! I actually wrote the piano hook while Kevin was in the studio feeding back on what didn’t work from my first attempts! As luck would have it, he lives a short bike ride away, so he was able to come by a few times a week and we settled into a groove really nicely. I wouldn’t normally risk something like that with the director sitting and observing but we had a good dialogue and it seemed like the way to go in the moment!

The Guantanamo theme is better described as a sound world really. It’s not something that can be sat down and played at the piano. I came to this last. Building music through synthesis and processing and musical sound design is much slower, so it was helpful to have the other themes settled and ready to be dragged into the GTMO world and manipulated. 

At first, the audience is unsure of Mohamedou’s guilt or innocence. How did you want to convey that doubt?

This was very much about Nancy’s theme- at least before things start to blur for her! As I mentioned, we are very much in legal thriller territory and this is what propels things along. It is about Nancy’s search for answers and the rule of law. She doesn’t know if he is guilty or innocent, and indeed it is not important to her. The audience are on the same journey and can make their own judgement. We are maybe too sophisticated in our film music listening and understanding now to “actively” try to convey doubt. For those coming to the film without back story, the storytelling has this guilt/innocence question on a knife-edge at the beginning and it was up to me to support that. And for those coming with a back story, it certainly didn’t need ramming home!

Talk about playing the “character” of Mohamedou, and what kind of Arabic textures you wanted to bring to the score.

I made a decision not to use Arabic instruments or harmony at all. A few years ago, I travelled to Dakar and made a piano Interrupted album with recordings of local musicians playing kora, ekonting, balafon and such. So I absolutely know the fascinating colors and textures they can bring. But my instinct was: AVOID- the risk of ‘here comes that Mauritanian fellow’ [twangs of Arabic-ness] was too great. This is a human-interest story of tragedy, hope, faith, truth, justice, fear and some kind of distant salvation. For Mohamedou, I went for what I considered the most universal of all film scoring “tools” and what I felt could make the deepest connection to his, and by extension our, emotions- piano and strings (a string section often fronted I should add, with beautiful solo viola played by Rob Ames). 

Could you talk about the sampling, and electronics that went into the score, and the balance you wanted to achieve with that often-harsh rhythmic sound and its far more tender use of real instruments like the piano and strings? 

The Guantanamo sound world was certainly much more abrasive and digital than the rest. Striking the right balance for distorted aggressive music is perhaps not as straight forward as it appears. When you are working with such disturbing images, the musical brutality actually has to have subtlety to it, so it is nether too cold nor too kitsch and incremental changes can dramatically shift that perception, so I spent a lot of time adjusting the amount of saturation and tape echo and other such things! 

The electronics in Couch’s theme were much more about a signature really. It takes me back to making my first records with Piano Interrupted a decade ago. I’m endlessly fascinated about how it is possible to sit an odd rhythmic glitch into piano and orchestral textures.

I brought a Juno-type synth into Mohemadou’s world also. Although his core sound is piano and strings, because the Guantanamo palette is so electronic, it felt quite natural to blur the analog/digital boundary for the scenes in the outside pens. If we are looking for metaphor, his piano theme is trapped in a synth cell I suppose.

Like anyone going through this ordeal, Mohamedou often flashes back to the past, and during the worst of his captivity transports himself there. How did you want the music to play the film’s more hallucinatory sequences and his state of mind?

By this stage you are deeply invested in the events unfolding and ultimately hopefully invested too in the music that has accompanied them, so really it is about twisting all the themes together, deconstructing things sometimes almost unrecognizably, so the fragments play out in a similar way to the fragmentation occurring in his psyche. Couch’s theme becomes a hammer, Mohamedou’s theme a faded light. The music is sometimes brutal, sometimes cajoling, sometimes abstract, sometimes pleading, almost torturous (to deliberately pick a word).

What’s particularly interesting about “The Mauritanian” is that it has a seemingly gung-ho military lawyer who steadily comes to believe that America has crossed the line. How did you want to play his sense of growing realization?

I found this musical puzzle very rewarding. It felt like Couch’s theme landed pretty much straight away in the writing process because of the way it sat nicely on a couple of early scenes. So even while I was searching for answers for Nancy and Mohamedou and before I had even opened the Guantanamo world, I was enjoying manipulating the theme throughout Couch’s scenes. It was great that Kevin was looking for something so strongly thematic really, as each time a scene came up, it was a case for me of “Well it’s going to be some form of these notes/harmonies/rhythms etc, it’s just a question of how!” That might sound like quite a wide spectrum, but actually the difference between having a starting point and no starting point at all, is huge (well, infinite, if we are getting mathematical.) Couch really goes through the whole range. Taking the score on a journey to track the character is of course what it is all about!

Given the “reality” of the story, how important was spotting the score to give it the maximum dramatic impact, especially given that many of the cues here are succinct?

I was very late to the party and the project came pretty much fully spotted. Kevin and I talked about a couple of situations where perhaps music was or wasn’t required in relation to this ‘temp’ but basically I knew where music had to be.

How did you want to play with the idea of the endless time that Muhamedou spends in prison, as contrasted with Nancy’s race against the clock to get him out before he’s put to death?

You’ve created a handsome “time” question dichotomy! I didn’t think of it specifically like that. Nancy, yes. There is always urgency in her music- an urgency for the answers. Mohamedou survives on the power of hope and faith and so yes, you could argue he does make his time in prison kind of dissolve. I guess we capture that most in his outside scenes with his friend “Marseille,” his moments that come closest to a kind of mental escape. There is a floating timeless quality to the synth arpeggios that I introduced for these scenes, but emotionally I guess I was focusing on the balance of hope and despair as much as anything else.

One of the most grueling, unsparing scenes in the film is seeing the extent of the torture that Muhamedou is put through, a lot of which involves aggressive music and screaming. How did you want to cut through the sound to get across the idea of the hell he’s going through? And was working on that scene, and overall film, particularly hard for you psychologically?

Actually yes it was slightly grueling. As film composers, we watch our scenes over and over and I was not sleeping well when I was working on Reel 6! On the plus side, that also had to be done in less than a week, so it was only a few really bad nights! In terms of the technical challenge, I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea that there is a very specific type of decision best made in the final dub. Some of these sections would be prime examples of this really. Everyone is doing their bit independently (sound design, foley, ADR etc) and then it all comes together at the end. As a composer, you say to yourself, “If the director ends up really leading with the music here, will this carry?” So I find I can work mainly with just music only to picture to make sure it does. Don’t get me wrong, you of course experiment with a full mix too and dovetail as best as possible based on certain logical mix frequency spectrum choices (for example, “The Mauritanian” had lots of ocean sounds so you can make some fairly informed EQ judgements there). But really the temp sound design can be as different as the temp music! Most of the time I would surmise that for these types of scenes, there is slightly too much stuff arriving in the dub and it is the director and dubbing engineers job to make it glue through subtraction.

How do you think “The Mauritanian” fits into the “hybrid” sound of today’s political suspense thrillers?

Some brutal pigeon-holing here! I suppose I am instinctively “hybrid”, but I and my hybrid colleagues probably don’t think like this I’d garner. It is about treating every sound equally. It doesn’t matter whether it is an analog or a digital source, rather what role it can play. Indeed I have spent many orchestral sessions almost trying to recreate acoustically what came out of digital synthesis and seeing where that leads; “playing” the tape delay, use extended bowing techniques to create “synth” saturation. All that being said, some sound sources are more equal than others (did someone say piano and strings?).

The other point here is that there really are multiple sonic identities in “The Mauritanian” score. Nancy and Couch’s themes yes are both gradually unravelling thrillers, but only Couch is really a hybrid sound, Nancy’s is pretty acoustic really. Mohamedou’s story is just about human emotion and the more natural score approach reflects that. And the Guantanamo sound world is certainly the most electronic. They needed to have a separateness to them to navigate the plot at the beginning. But of course lots of blurring of musical boundaries, and I suppose an increasing “hybrid-ness” happens as the narrative develops.  

If the film was scored during the pandemic, how did you overcome its difficulties? 

Yes, interestingly terrible times for making music together with others. We were lucky not to be completely locked down at the time, but there were challenges for sure. We recorded the string orchestra in Vienna completely remotely. At the time, there was still some travel so my conductor flew there and everyone else dialed in! First time remote recording orchestra for me. But if you have good people, it always works out. The piano we recorded in London with social distancing and minimal crew: piano, engineer, ProTools operator, me.

And my studio is about big enough for me plus one with social distancing, so Kevin and I just about managed!

In the end, it strikes me that there aren’t any really “big” moments here to hammer in the emotion. Was taking a “light” touch given the weight of this story important in not slamming home the film’s devastating message?

I would have said I wrote a couple of big moments so perhaps that suggests my instinct is indeed towards a light touch! The film does have the devastating weight of truth to it, as you say, and I didn’t feel we ever had need to force it emotionally. But maybe more than that, the music came naturally out of Tahar’s extraordinary performance and his truth. When the acting is brilliant then the music doesn’t have to hammer it.

How do you hope your music contributes a film like this that might change people’s mind about how we treated the idea of justice, and our Muslim prisoners after 9/11? Do you think the film will waking people up in America, and England as to the continuing abuse of power? Or do you think we’re too far gone, especially when it comes to America’s “patriots” who were eager for an “anything goes” approach?

I have no idea. It is a great privilege to work on projects that resonate deeply with society in whatever way that might be, beyond the film itself, but this is not how I think when I am writing music. Justice is of course one of the enormous themes of the film. Where is the line between right and wrong? Or probably more accurately, is there a line at all? Underscoring Mohamedou’s courtroom speech about American justice was a delicate balancing act indeed. I guess if the music helps people to think more deeply on these philosophical problems both in abstract and in relation to actual events, then it has achieved something. 

In that respect, do you think scoring “The Mauritanian” has politically opened your eyes?

Not exactly. I read social and political science at Cambridge before my swerve to tea-making and onto composition. I have a politically active extended family too. It says quite something about the film’s subject matter that I am considering taking on this question in a film scoring interview! If I was doing my degree now, I’d probably be writing sociology essays on fake news! But yes, I follow the political situation in the UK and the States with varying degrees of alarm.

Do you think the fact that people have essentially become prisoners being put through psychological duress, albeit in better surroundings, gives the film and its music an extra dimension?

It is a true-life story, and it plays strongly as such. That message is quite powerful enough. Honestly I think the facts are too stark to somehow turn Mohamedou’s story into a universal statement about society’s psychological internment. That said, you’ve offered a fascinating critical resonance to think on in the context of the film’s release!

Conversely, what do you think about the people who are still in Guantanamo, some of whom are truly guilty of the World Trade Center attack and overall Islamic terrorism?

Guantanamo is a deeply problematic institution. When I was in amongst the music with a big score to complete in a short space of time, I was really just dealing with the drama, the narrative, the characters’ journeys, finding the truth in what was on the screen. This was just six weeks ago or so. I guess the significance of the subject matter really hit home the other day when the real Mohamedou(rather than Tahar Rahim’s version) wrote an op-ed about Guantanamo. As Salahi put it in Newsweek, it is a “symbol of torture and indefinite detention.” And for those pushing for its closure, the film release coinciding broadly with the change of US President, will ultimately bring the issue to the public eye.

As your first major star-studded feature, what do you hope “The Mauritanian” shows Hollywood about your voice as a composer? 

You have me thinking now back to your other question! Am I light touch? I don’t know! Hopefully the right touch anyway. 

“The Mauritanian” is now in theaters and VOD, with Tom Hodge’s score available on Sony Music

Visit Tom Hodge’s web site HERE