Interview: composer Craig Armstrong discusses Orphans

Douglas Henshall and Stephen McCole in Orphans

Douglas Henshall and Stephen McCole in Orphans

BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning composer, Craig Armstrong, has worked on films as diverse as Moulin Rouge, Love Actually and The Incredible Hulk alongside a string of critically acclaimed solo albums.

Armstrong is also a longtime collaborator with filmmaker Peter Mullan, providing scores for all of his short and feature films since the early 1990s. With Mullan’s 1998 film, Orphans, now released on DVD and Blu-ray, Jonathan Melville spoke to Armstrong about his work with the director and his memories of the film.

Jonathan Melville: How did you first come to meet Peter Mullan?

Craig Armstrong: The first time I met Peter was on a production called Losing Alec at the Tron Theatre in 1988. It was directed by Michael Boyd and I provided the music. We were both then involved in a production of Macbeth at the Tron.

Peter started making short films, the first one being Close and he asked me to do the music for that. Then he did A Good Day for the Bad Guys and another short called Fridge. Orphans was his first feature film and since then I’ve done all of his films, most recently The Magdalene Sisters and NEDS.

Orphans is very personal for Peter, it definitely comes from the heart.

How would you describe your relationship with Mullan?

It’s one of those relationships that has endured over the decades and I see him quite a lot, he’s actually a neighbour of mine here in Glasgow.

Generally, a director picks a composer whose style they like. With Peter, even before we did the first film, we had years of working together, so in those days at the Tron the music for the plays was pretty big, with live musicians. I’d already done some quite big movies like Romeo + Juliet and I was building up a lot of experience at that point.

By the time we got to Close he knew my style. When you build up a family there’s a lot of shorthand you don’t have to go through so I know what he likes. Colin Monie, Peter’s editor on Orphans, has also worked on all of his films. It’s a lot of fun working with Pete.

How did you approach the score for Orphans? Was it collaborative?

Stephen McCole as John in Orphans

Stephen McCole as John in Orphans

Orphans is unlike any other film really. Peter came to me a lot to try ideas out and I think we’re sort of on the same wavelength. It tends to be quite a natural collaboration and we’ll find something we like and work on it.

There was a lot of ensemble work on Orphans, a lot of music that was just a string quartet and it’s quite intimate. Orphans was the first film where there was a budget for a string orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble performed it, and it seemed to fit the movie.

It was an interesting score because a lot of Peter’s films are very story driven and you have to find an emotional counterpart. NEDS had a lot of room at the end to do extended pieces of music, but generally with Peter’s films you’re trying to enhance what’s on the screen, something you first saw in Orphans in the scene in the bedroom when the camera is going around the mother.

The script has a dark tone but there’s also a lot of humour in there. Was it difficult to convey those tonal changes in the music?

When you work on a film that’s quite sad or harrowing, your job isn’t to write incredibly harrowing music, it’s for the music to become one of the characters.

Peter’s films are under the category of drama and with that you sometimes need a bit of light relief. The humour is quite dark but you need to set up the more emotional parts. That happened with NEDS as well; it’s pretty harrowing but it’s always got humorous moments, which you need. It’s a dramatic technique so that when you go back to the drama it’s even more intense. His writing is really brilliant.

You can go against the drama, which can be really effective, go quite atmospheric rather than really emotional. I did that a lot in NEDS actually, I didn’t really go with the narrative, I went off on a different journey.

I was really happy with NEDS because of Glasgow and because we came from similar backgrounds, it took me back to being a kid, the good and the bad bits!

Is there a process that you follow on Mullan’s films?

The way we work is that I’ll go and write music for the film, and I might even do a rough for the entire film, and there’s maybe 25 pieces of music and he’ll tell me what he likes and doesn’t. Like a lot of directors he’ll maybe use scenes in different places and Colin has a lot of input as well. The editor starts playing with it you have to extend sequences or move it around.

Basically you try to immerse yourself in the film and you watch it day in, day out for weeks on end. Eventually you slip into it. Music is like being another actor, you’re almost part of the psychological make-up of the film and you get more into it and it’s exciting when you do the recording. With Orphans it was the first time he had a budget to record real people. It was exciting to hear the strings.

A lot of people ask about that piece of music, it seems to stick in people’s heads.

Michael (Douglas Henshall), Thomas (Gary Lewis) and a broken Mary

Michael (Douglas Henshall), Thomas (Gary Lewis) and a broken Mary

Do you do all your work from Glasgow or do you travel a lot?

I travel a lot. I’ve just finished a film in LA and Baz Luhrmann’s films tend to be in Australia. It’s nice working with Pete as we both work all over the world and it’s good to get back together. After we’ve done a session we usually go out and socialise and catch-up.

Do directors or producers mention your work with Mullan specifically?

Baz Luhrmann is a big fan of Peter Mullan. In America, directors don’t seem to know him so much as he’s a European director, but Baz Luhrmann has all his movies and really loves them.

What are you working on just now?

At the moment I’m doing a chamber opera for Scottish Opera. I try to work in Scotland as much as possible. I just did a film called In Time with Andrew Niccol, as I’ve always wanted to do a science fiction film. That’s stars Justin Timberlake and it’s out in November.

The main thing I’m working on is a new opera and we’re casting that. I’ve done one for Scottish Opera before, a series of short operas, and this is an hour long. It’s based on an Ibsen novel, The Lady from the Sea, turned into a libretto.

These days I’d say half the time I’m doing music for classical commissions and I recently did some work at the Glasgow-based festival Celtic Connections. I’m not doing quite as many movies as I used to, I just take the time to do really good ones.

Would you like to see your scores performed live in Glasgow?

I’ve done a lot of concerts for my film music in Europe, I don’t know why it doesn’t really happen here. Maybe it’s the old Glasgow thing, you’re often more appreciated abroad.

Peter has a lot of fans in France, I get asked a lot of in-depth Peter Mullan questions in France!

Visit Craig Armstrong’s website for more information on his work.

Orphans is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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