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It’s always very enjoyable to surprise your filmmakers, says composer Benjamin Wallfisch

While chatting with Benjamin Wallfisch, one is awestruck not just by his eloquence, but even more so by his humility. The 38-year-old composer and orchestrator has worked on some of 2017’s biggest film scores including those of Hidden Figures and Blade Runner 2049, which have been nominated for Grammys and BAFTAs respectively. Through watching films such as Dunkirk and It, audiences can sense more of Wallfisch’s intuitive musical instinct.

Wallfisch began his industry career in his 20s in London, working closely with Dario Marianelli, who’s known for Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. This marked a transition from being a classical musician to a film composer, ideally someone who not just writes film music but knowing the process of working with filmmakers. Now after 15 years and continuing within the industry, Wallfisch works with Hans Zimmer who’s taught him so much, he often finds it difficult to condense the experience.

It’s always very enjoyable to surprise your filmmakers, says
composer Benjamin Wallfisch

Despite being in the film realm for nearly 15 years, Wallfisch still believes one will never know where or when the next job will be. As a musician, he “There’s this space for creative collaborations which last for a long time as they grow and develop. Hidden Figures, It and Blade Runner 2049 came in a sequence. As someone who makes music everyday, it’s wonderful to be challenged— to be forced to rethink and go in another direction in terms of a score. You get into a rhythm, there’s a certain discipline to writing music. For me it’s about meeting a certain number of minutes a day, but always making sure that those minutes get as much scrutiny as though you had more time. I was very lucky to not have those projects overlap; it was a very sequential thing without too much of a collision. So with that rhythm, it’s almost like you don’t want to stop writing so it was a very exciting period.”

‘A gargantuan and extraordinary film’

Working with director Denis Villeneuve proved to be a rewarding experience for both Wallfisch and Zimmer, where the primary conversation revolved around paying respects to Vangelis who composed the iconic score for the 1982 Blade Runner while also creating a musical analog to the newest story. “The thing with Blade Runner 2049, although it explores the similar concerns with the original film, is a totally different and much more personal story. It’s almost like a maze which keeps growing around main character K. The film is so gargantuan and extraordinary, with a real interplay between score and cinematography. So visually, when things were overwhelming, the score backed down to avoid information overload. In many ways, we had to reinvent structurally and in terms of musical context. There was no ‘normal’ about this score and no precedent to fall back upon. In regards to falling back on the Vangelis precedent, it went as far as using similar sound aesthetic but the narrative choices and musical themes were very different. In a way, we were guided by Denis, who had this extraoradinary sight of how sound design would interact with the score. When the two came together in the final mix, it was effortless, like a dance.”

It’s always very enjoyable to surprise your filmmakers, says
composer Benjamin Wallfisch

One will hear equal measures of synchrony and distinction between the two films, with Wallfisch adding, “It’s so much more interesting to invent and discover what may come from the left field; it’s always very enjoyable to surprise your filmmakers— in a good way hopefully, when they present you with a challenge to find a musical voice, be it a character in the film or a gentle and emotional subtext for the audience. But do it in such a way that the music is imbued with the film; that when it’s put up against picture, there’s very little to get in the way of the story. If you ever approach music with a model in mind, you trip yourself up very quickly. It’s so important to just start with a conversation and make it about music. One thing Hans pioneers is the idea of writing a suite of musical content which may or may not end up in the final score but is a visceral response to the story, and have the filmmakers interact with that music and have a back and forth. That itself is a conversation and good way to gear the whole process.”

In many ways, we had to reinvent structurally and in terms of musical context. There was no ‘normal’ about this score and no precedent to fall back upon. In regards to falling back on the Vangelis precedent, it went as far as using similar sound aesthetic but the narrative choices and musical themes were very different.

Wallfisch admits it really isn’t important if a director is or isn’t musically inclined, adding “All that matters is that they know what they want in terms of the story and the emotion. It’s our job to translate that into music. I try to create an environment for the director where he feels just as at home as he would be in an editing suite; give them the ability to touch the music and where the most minute details of orchestration can be discussed even before you get to the final recording session. With Blade Runner 2049, we didn’t use an orchestra at all, because, while we had the resources, the film rejected the orchestra. Vangelis’ score was 50% of the effect of the original movie. So we had to honour that approach and that sound aesthetic; the synths needed to be just as emotional and powerful. That was an interesting analog to the idea of an electronic song; we wanted to create soulful music using only electronics, which was a very liberating prospect. It opened up a huge new philosophy for film scoring which I’m excited to apply to future scores.”

Wallfisch also commends sound designer Mark Mangini and his team for their acumen and responsiveness to even the smallest nuances. Wallfisch and Hans had joined the film when much of the sound was set so the duo had a seamless composing experience.

‘A band feeling’

It’s always very enjoyable to surprise your filmmakers, says
composer Benjamin Wallfisch

With the Grammys around the corner, there’s plenty in store for the composer, whose work on Hidden Figures is in the running for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media. Wallfisch values the film as one of the most fabulous and collaborative experiences he’s ever ever worked on, adding, “Working with Pharrell and Hans and our amazing director Ted Melfi, resulted in this band feeling,” he recalls fondly. Most importantly, he views the film as a story that needed to be told, especially given the segregatory 60s’ horror of Jim Crow and the enduring racism. “We had to make sure that this wasn’t one of those typical science-in-a-period-drama where you have lots of minimalist arpeggios and Philip Glass-style elements,” he explains, “Hans, from the beginning, said, ‘they have to dance about maths.’ The idea of gospel music was a big challenge; it wasn’t about choirs, it was about using harmonic approach to give the whole score a sense of hope.”

Funnily enough, Hidden Figures was made in just under 12 months from script to final dub. Wallfisch recalls the zest and passion every department worked with to tell the story with heart. “We had to integrate the score with Pharrell’s songs, which existed way before the scoring process; there needed to be a seamless back and forth to create a singular voice.”

An India connect

It’s always very enjoyable to surprise your filmmakers, says
composer Benjamin Wallfisch

Not all of Wallfsich’s works have been feature films saddled with vast budgets. He recalls working on 2014’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain which revolves around the world’s worst industrial accident, explaining, “This film was particularly special; it was the first time I worked on a drama based on real human tragedy. It was a huge responsibility to ensure I didn’t trivialise or become overly dramatic, but rather to maintain respect. It’s hard to explain. Getting into Indian folk music was incredible, I was humbled by the tabla masters who created a lot of great energy from their rhythms.”

So with such a diverse repertoire, does the musician have a favoruite cue? Sheepishly, he admits he finds it hard to listen to his music purely because he strives to keep progressing, concluding, “My favourite cue is the one I haven’t written yet. I’m sure when I’m 80, I’ll be able to answer that a bit better, but right now it’s a constant process of working and honing the craft.”


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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 10:15:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/film-composer-benjamin-wallfisch-in-sync-with-synths-and-storytelling/article22419934.ece

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