Music and MACBETH: composer Jed Kurzel @ Cork Film Festival #CFF60

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“The other art form I relate the most to is painting.” If ever a score painted, just as if ever a film painted, it was that of MACBETH. A mixture of blood red and fiery orange illuminates the silhouettes of soldiers on battlegrounds, and warped strings and horns crunch against bells like the pestling of an abominable potion made by witches in the wood. The score of MACBETH is a haunting chasm into which the audience is plunged; an independent force that helps weave the well-known spells of Shakespeare’s witches where the script does not or cannot (tweaked as it had to be for the screen). It is a score not adhering to the violence of an expected tribal battle cry, or else a Scottish bag-piping ode, but a unique mythical creature’s voice. The film would not be the artistic success that it is without it. Jed Kurzel, the director’s brother and composer of scores for THE BABADOOk and SNOWTOWN, does a class-A job of agitating the scorpions in ‘Beth’s mind until he can’t stand it any longer. Like a witching dance of seduction and corruption, the strings render the Scottish landscape a strange and eerie space, already aptly grown for magic with their majesty. Through their foggy power he stumbles, an agent of the witches’ bidding, an agentless king.

Macbeth (read the review of the film here) is about betrayal, and its core subject suffers the biggest betrayal of all. He blindly follows where he’s led by wife and witch, a vulnerable traumatised chalice in need of purpose to fill him. And in his weakened state his illness breeds to dupe him into trusting it. By the time his demise is apparent to him, his post-traumatic stress (illustrated with the repeated image of the face of the young boy who died on the battlefield at his command) has been so sadistically warped that he welcomes the end. “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Shakespeare’s words ring true. Macbeth’s life in this tale has been a soulless descent following paths he’s told to take, wielding death with his sword against his will until his will becomes something he has no say in. All agency, all humanism, devoid.

The Cork Film Festival screening of MACBETH at the Cork Opera House both started and ended with a talk by Jed Kurzel, making the experience a powerful and visceral one and keeping the score at the forefront of our mind as we watched the film. It turns out Jed is a mine of information on everything from the pressures from the money-driven industry on the artistic processes of filmmaking to how you convey a film’s environment through music. He uses descriptive words like “spaghetti” and enjoys direction such as “make me feel sick”. There is a richness to his music that, having listened to him speak about his processes, you can totally see how he’s cultivated. His filmography shows that he is clearly drawn to (for there is no such thing as coincidences) films about trauma that treat the subject in an expressive way, namely THE BABADOOK and, of course, MACBETH. For all these reasons and many more, read on.

JED CURZEL ON…

JedKurzelTEXTURE in MACBETH

The texture of of the film was coming out of the sky, it was coming out of the earth, it was coming out of character’s faces.

We wanted something as rustic, as war-like and dirty, as the look of the film.

And then there was also the presence of the witches. We wanted to use the music to give the witches a presence even when they weren’t on screen, always within the atmosphere.

Justin (director) was always saying he thought the music should sound like the witches were sitting around, scraping away at their instruments, which was a great direction because it allowed me to go and talk to the musicians and tell them to work texturally.

TRAUMA

The whole idea of Justin’s MACBETH was ambition replacing grief. in terms of the music we made this conscious effort in the first half for the strings not to be corrupted by anything electronic. I didn’t treat any of it or loop any of the strings until halfway through the film after the banquet when he goes off to see the witches for the second apparition. Then the music starts to get trippy.

Justin said “right, its like the third day at Glastonbury, he’s had two e’s, and he’s in a nightie walking around talking to witches.”

In terms of the music we started corrupting it with modern elements – this foreign entity corrupting the music and him.

A FOREIGN SOUND

I wrote a few things here and there then called up the London Contemporary Orchestra, who I’d just worked with on SLOW WEST, and brought them into the studio for three hours. The main thing I wanted was the texture of this landscape and this idea of the witches. I spoke to them as if I was directing actors. I gave them descriptions, motivations and boundaries. The main direction I gave to them was I didn’t want Scottish music – bagpipes and all that. But I wanted this foreign sound. A sound where you can’t put your finger on where it’s from. Whenever they were moving in to territory where I thought I knew where I was I said that’s not right for us. We kept doing this until we found the film sound: a sound that was coming from the film and not any other region.

EXTERNAL PRESSURES

You’ve got all these very powerful forces coming at you (Weinstein, Studio Canal, See Saw, Film 4) and you’re getting different opinions on your work every week and it can be quite stifling.

But I love when you’re given limitations and you use them as inspiration to send you into other areas.

CULTIVATING THE SOUND

I didn’t want a massive orchestra – I wanted to use a smaller section and see how big we could get them to sound. With a bigger section you get that large sound and an orchestra as one, but what we were after was that rust, that individual quality of each player which texturally creates this other sound which was the sound I was after.

The beginning battle sequence where it all slows down, I had a sonic palette going on there and I had the main violinist who was bending those notes and the double bass player in there and I told him I wanted this pulsing feeling underneath it, and he just sat there and just started interpreting it.

I would say ‘Can you do it my way?’ and get that take. And then ‘can you do it your way – your interpretation?’ and we’d get that take.

I think it’s the one key to working with musicians – if you treat them more like actors in a scene you tend to get more interesting work because you’re getting their individual response and they love that – their own personal input into something.

ENVIRONMENT

The musicians started sticking their fingers through the body of the violin and making all these sounds and it was great. The weirder the better. I encouraged that. They’re thinking it’s not music but I’m thinking it’s texture. And film is about texture, those landscapes are about texture. My overriding approach is from the environment of the film. That leads me into emotions and things like that.

TONE

I’m a great believer in the beginning of a movie, which sets the tone and pulls everyone in, then you can get your grip on the audience.

SNOWTOWN

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SNOWTOWN (2011) by Justin Kurzel

The first film I did was SNOWTOWN, about the worst serial killings in Australia, and it all happened in the area where I grew up in South Australia. Most of the killings would happen in this area and then they’d drive two hours to this place called Snowtown and store the bodies in barrels.

It was a real dicey film to make because there was a lot of controversy around it and a lot of people said you shouldn’t be making it… But we weren’t focusing on the murder’s themselves. This wasn’t some gory horror film we were making.

What he (Justin Kurzel, Jed’s brother) was making was a social commentary on what happens to a particular society when it gets forgotten, and you’ve got a lot of boys with absent fathers, and they’re looking for leadership and father figures, and what happens when they’re prime for exploitation. You’ve got a very poor socio economic area filled with horrific things going on.

For this film we had a residue of memory of this place that we could call. I was looking at these landscapes and the places I grew up in and imagining what they felt like and seeing colour. The other artform I relate the most to is painting. It feels like I’m hearing colour and using that to paint with.

…Using music to connect. Repeating things can be such a great way to connect characters, scenes, story… I do that a lot.That film I have a real soft spot for because it started everything for me.

EMOTIONAL MUSIC OVER EMOTIONAL SCENES

I never do it. I’ve had to do it before and I just hate doing it. You usually get asked to put emotional music over scenes when the acting isn’t working or the script is bad and the director is asking you to fix their problem. You tell them over and over the problem will still be there, you might mask it but… they usually end up re-editing or re-shooting. If an actor’s crying and they’re doing it well, you don’t need to get in their too and bring out the tissues.

SLOW WEST

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SLOW WEST (2015) by John MacLean

The director (John Maclean) said “I want something that I can whistle. Something like a waltz.”

In the opening scene, the strings move with the movement of the camera. It’s beautifully melancholic. It’s kind of the closest to music as film scores get. It’s all about trying to find a way of doing things effortlessly – a lot of effort goes into making things sound effortless!

DIRECTION

I loved working with John. The way he communicated was very quick like how you communicate in bands, with winks and nods.

You can end up having very long conversations with directors and the tone of the film just turns into spaghetti. You end up not knowing what anyone wants.

Those conversations never happened with my brother. We would sometimes – as brothers do – have these really volatile fights about stuff, go away, come back an hour later and say “I didn’t mean that.”

It’s brilliant because it’s volatile but you get great reward out of a relationship like that where you can say exactly what you feel, and you don’t have to tip toe around each other.

Working with someone for the first time when you don’t like each other’s personalities is troublesome. A big part of composing is relating to people. Music is a big part of it obviously but you’d be surprised at how many other things you need to get through this. I read recently a quote by Werner Herzog: mislead and deceive, but always deliver. It’s spot on about filmmaking and even composing because you’re up against time frames and you’re up against deadlines and sometimes you throw the rod in really early – just like I did with SLOW WEST – and you land a good one, thank god. But sometimes you keep throwing it in and it’s getting closer to the deadline and there’s nothing coming. 

INSOMNIA

I’ve got to three weeks before the deadline and there’s nothing there, and it’s painful. That’s the other thing with writing film music: you get to a point where you just don’t sleep. I stay up all night with loops of music going round in my head. My brain is wide awake going “I’ve got to knock this out.” You’ve gotta find ways around that.

It’s a very solo, lonely experience. Most of the time you’re sitting their alone in terror. And having quiet wins. Yay!

THE BABADOOK

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THE BABADOOK (2014) by Jennifer Kent

I’d never done horror before. I was a fan of the giallo horror films of the 70s, and when I was a teenager I saw this film WHO SAW HER DIE, which was the original of Nick Roeg’s DON’T LOOK NOW. The score was remarkable. I was watching it going “is this a horror film? Is it a psychological thriller?” They weren’t doing any of the jump scares. Morricone had gone and recorded this children’s choir and filtered in through delays and looped it – it was just ingenious. It stuck with me.

THE BABADOOK was a bit of a family affair – my sister-in-law Essie Davis is the lead actress.

I started halfway through the edit and Jen (the director) said she wasn’t gonna do all these jump scares; normal horror stuff. She was into giallo stuff too. She had a knowledge of horror films that was just insane. In the film she’s referencing all these classic underground horror films. You could do a study shot by shot of that film and see exactly where her influences are. Mind boggling, her knowledge of it. We watched WHO SAW HER DIE together.

WHERE SOUND ENDS AND MUSIC STARTS

Horror films without music are just dreadful. They’re boring. Sound design and music in the way we wanted to do it, if they’re not there, the films don’t make sense. Jen was also contributing sound design and she was very influenced by David Lynch.

There’s a lot of subsonic sound going on in THE BABADOOK that are almost not there, but they are there and they’r doing something to your nerves.

We talked a lot about where sound ends and music starts. How do we jove them together so you don’t know which is which? Because you’re in this woman’s head and she’s having a psychotic break down and the whole idea is examining what’s real what’s not real. Is she seeing this babadook thing? Is it part of her imagination? And we were trying to do the same thing with sound and music.

BRAVE MISS KENT

She had so much guts with it. As you get closer and closer to the edit the producers have gotta show numbers and get everyone excited about the film. They were going “we’ve got a horror film!” And I was looking at it going.. it’s a psychological thriller, really. “But we wanted a horror film!” They were trying to make her do jump scares – “Where are the usual tropes?” Trying to convince people why you’re not doing that is very difficult.

You have to dig in across the board – you dig in, the editor digs in, the director digs in, and you all hold it back until you get the film to a point you can show them. And they’re gonna come round to your ideas.

INFLUENCE

When you’re influenced by things they end up coming out filtered through you looking absolutely nothing like the influence you’ve had. They always sound like you, which is a really encouraging as an argument against the idea of copying things. You’re not copying things, you’re just liking certain elements or tones, and utilising them in some way that’s your own.

MAKING PEOPLE FEEL ILL

I remember Jen saying “I don’t feel sick in horror films anymore. The sound and music doesn’t make me feel physically sick.” – that’s always a great note: make something that makes me feel ill.

I love really hard cuts. Jen used them a lot where halfway through a cue she’d just cut to the next thing, no fading out… this was real 70s horror style editing, like the giallo films. BANG, we’re out, next scene. Really jarring.

FOUND SOUNDS

When working on THE BABADOOK in my studio, I’d walk out the door, turn the soundtrack I was working on up, so I could hear it outside. And I’d sit outside and I could hear a train in the distance and I’d start listening to the soundtrack with found sounds from outside and just what was happening in the environment. And that would give me a tonne of ideas. I’ve always got my ear out for other things.

I like to play other music over soundtracks and sometimes you get a beautiful symmetry that happens. It adds a whole other layer. Things like that stop you from hitting walls.

MACBETH is in cinemas now.

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