Andrew Swarbrick music composer reveals the creative process of writing a film score, dramatic shopping trips and his unwhitting part in an historic tweet.
Interview by Sam Clark. Portraits by Andy Muscroft.
Who of us hasn’t heard da-dum, da-dum, da-dum inside their head when entering the sea and curled their toes up a little?
The music of some films, like John Williams’s heart stopping, thumping score for Jaws transcend the screen and become part of our lives, and fears. Others grab us by the scruff of the neck and whisk us away to attack death stars or make hot tears roll down our cheeks.
Having recently written the score for the childrens adventure film, The Runaways, Andrew Swarbrick explains his process behind the unseen guide that leads our emotions through the screen.
SC: Creating music for a film seems such a big concept, where do you start?
AS: It all begins with talking to the director. In the case of The Runaways, the director Richard Heap was also the writer so it was very much his vision. We started having little conversations then all of a sudden he’d done a two-month shoot and needed a score, which I was very excited to be asked to do.
SC: Where do the first ideas for the music come from?
AS: I wanted the score to be cohesive and fit together so it needed themes or something that threaded all the way through the film. You have to think of the project as a whole, not separate scenes. It’s almost like you come with the music for the film and then you take that and score it for the particular scenes.
In the first place, Rich found a scene to show me and I tried to write a theme that worked alongside it. I came up with about 10 ideas and Richard picked out one little bit in one of the ideas that he liked. In there was this little motif that I was able to use through the whole score.
SC: What is the process of taking these ideas and composing a full score?
AS: I ended up with three main themes. An important one was for the evil uncle played by Lee Boardman. One of the first scenes I scored was when he is in a cafe plotting against the children. It needed a menacing backdrop but with a balance, not forgetting that he was eating a fry-up in a cafe.
I then took that theme and added whatever instrumentation and devices were needed to add drama to other scenes. For example, an earlier scene where Boardman is chasing the children through dark alleyways in Whitby uses the Uncles theme but needed more energy than the scene in the cafe. You might not notice the links but subconsciously it’s all tied together. I think this really helps to make a cohesive score.
SC: When you watch a film it all flows, who decides and how do you work out where one piece of music moves to another, or to dialogue or even to silence?
AS: In this case, Richard had a clear vision for the film. He didn’t only write and direct it, he also edited most of it as well and in the editing process, he already had a good idea of where the music was going to be. As we worked on it the start and end cue of what I did maybe changed but only by a little.
SC: How did you make the music?
AS: I started with a sample library. One of the main features running all the way through the film is a string quartet and we recorded a live performance for this.
I also recorded some acoustic guitar, banjo, and a little bit of mandolin with my friend Roo (Richard Walker) which was sprinkled here and there through the score. The banjo was great because my wife’s parents had inherited one and passed it onto me but it was in disrepair and Roo nursed it back to life. It wasn’t working entirely correctly when we recorded the piece but I was really pleased with the character of it.
SC: Composing a film score sounds very Hollywood, how did you start?
AS: I never dreamed of doing this as a job. I’ve always been musical and in some ways, it’s a natural part of me but I didn’t have the thought that it would lead here. I studied music technology which was more to do with production and studio technical stuff. I was looking at the comparison of creating music with samples versus live instruments. I got a local orchestra on board and recorded pieces with them and compared it to versions I made on my computer. At university, I had friends who were film students and we all came together to make a film that I wrote the score for. That was very much the start and I’m very fortunate how it’s grown from there.
SC: Do you walk around hearing music, do you soundtrack events in your life? Was there a big band playing at the birth of your daughter?
AS: Not as such no. But there is something there definitely. Being out and about helps me, I find nature refreshing, restorative, and creative. I do think about music a lot, but it’s not a soundtrack to my life.
SC: Do you listen to music at home?
AS: I do but not very often or in a sort of rhythmical way, it’s quite sporadic and random. If there’s a score that’s come out by a composer I like I might put that on and I have at times, when I’m in Sainsbury’s doing a shop put a score on my headphones which can make the whole experience very dramatic!
SC: So it’s more scores rather than pop?
AS: I suppose I do home in on scores but within scores, there is such a wide breadth of music. I was bought up on The Beach Boys and choral music in the church, completely different things but I still love them both. I find choral music incredibly beautiful I think it’s very much ingrained into my being because I did it as a boy. I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time and I wish I could go back and enjoy it properly. I equally love The Beach Boys, I was actually just listening to them this morning. My dad played them as I was growing up so they are also very much part of the fabric of my musical appreciation.
SC: Has your music ever ended up anywhere unexpected?
AS: Part of what I do is something called library music. It’s music that people can use in their productions or edits. It could be used in a film trailer, TV, an advert, or absolutely anything. There is a running joke in library music that its a very popular thing to do, the dream everyone has is that you produce this epic piece of music and it’s used in an Avengers film trailer or something that looks amazing and seen by many. It’s an incredibly competitive space as you can imagine! But what happens is that you create this music that is released to the world and it could get used in anything.
In my case, I woke up one morning and had a direct message on Twitter saying something about my music being used by Donald Trump. Then I saw I had an email from a Washington newspaper. I did a quick search on Twitter and found Trump had released a video of himself returning to the white house in his helicopter, triumphant after recovering from Covid 19, and yep, my music was the backdrop. The reporters must have simply used Shazam to find me. I couldn’t believe it and didn’t know how to feel or how I should respond. In the end, I decided to ignore it, they were just fishing for headlines, anything they could grab. It was quite a surprise though!
SC: Do you find yourself listening to films or can you sit back and enjoy them?
AS: I can watch a film and enjoy it. I suppose it’s like watching an actor who you may know but after 5 minutes you’re lost in the storyline. If it’s done well you can switch off and just enjoy the film. But I do take note of the score and look to see who did it.
SC: Could you recommend any films for us to listen to?
AS: Recently there are a couple of films that have stood out for me. I’m a huge Pixar fan and I really enjoy watching their films as an adult and with the children. I enjoyed Onward and really loved the score in that, composed by Mychael Danna. Another film I really liked is Soul, which has an interesting score because it has two very different strands to it. There are jazz songs written by Jon Batiste, which play alongside a very electronic, synth lead score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I found the whole film really inspiring and I would recommend it!
Listen to Andrew Swarbrick music on his website here
See Andy Muscroft’s photography here
And, discover more about the exciting children adventure film, The Runaways here