An Interview With – Film Composer Brian Byrne
Brain Byrne is a golden globe nominated composer from Ireland. He has worked on a number of films across a variety of genres, including Albert Nobbs, for which he won two World Soundtrack Awards and was nominated for a Golden Globe, and the Irish Sci-fi comedgy, Zonad, for which he won an IFTA. Film Ireland spoke to Brian Byrne about his approach to making film scores.
How do you find the process of working with filmmakers? At times you must feel like your work is being compromised by the needs of the film or the filmmaker.
It goes with the territory. From minute one you’re working on the movie, you’re compromising; you’re collaborating with the director. Hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to have a director that understands the role or function of music in film. If they get that then you’re away. One of the things when taking on a project is getting to know who you’re going to be working with. You’re going to be in bed with these people for at least six weeks, so getting on with the director and hitting it off at the start is important.
You’ve written songs for Barbra Streisand and worked with Pink and Katy Perry among others. In film, though, you’re working with dialogue, tone, mood, the pace of the scenes. Is it very different?
Film is very difficult because of those elements. Writing a song for an artist or writing an arrangement for someone is easy because it’s a clear path from the start. I love film, though, because there’s no two projects ever the same. You usually get a film when it’s in the last six weeks of post-production. People have put their blood, sweat and tears into this for the last two years. So you have to remember that it’s not just music, it’s a multimedia project that music is one of the elements of. If you do your job well, sometimes it may not even be noticed. That sometimes can be the best score, where it’s just the glue for a movie, just one of the elements.
So how do you impose your creativity on a film?
Well, it depends on how much temporary score has gone before you. For instance, I’m working on a movie at the moment. I’m looking at the cue sheet right now and there are 24 cues that the director has already put in. In other words, the film, apart from the music and a little bit of sound design, is finished. So they have set the mood and tones for the scenes. Sometimes it works great; sometimes it doesn’t. So I come on board and watch the movie twice before I do anything. I sit down with the director and I ask, ‘out of 10 what do you think your temp is doing here?’ The reality of film score now is that it’s so easy to edit music. Once you see a movie now there’s always going to be a temporary score unless you’re really lucky. Albert Nobbs, I worked on from the script so there was no temp score – but that never happens! People were saying ‘I can’t believe that!’ So you sit down and see what the temp sounds like. If the temp is good then I’ll try and figure out the elements of that, is it the tempo, is it happy/sad, minor/major… If the temp is doing its job, you try and better it. You try and go better. If it’s not, then you scrap it and start again.
So what I try and do, it’s like a little jigsaw puzzle. I’ll try to link the music and see how the music can build character. A lot of time people will temp scores but they’ll have 50 different pieces in their movie and there’s no link – there’s no arc for the character. So what I try and do is get it down to the most basic storytelling though music. So what is the main character like? I’ll come up with a theme for him. And then theme and variations – when he’s in this mood or that mood, you might alter his theme. So you try to thematically build characters. That’s if it’s that type of score. Sometimes directors don’t want melodies; they just want noises or effects. But generally you’re trying to give everyone their place. It’s an old technique. Wagner did it, you know.
Sometimes I’ll go to the end of the movie or the big scenes and try and create a big cue for that and then dissect it. I’ll take little fragments of that and feed them to the audience from the word go. So by the time they get to that big scene or that song, they’ve already heard this theme or melody and it’s already in their subconscious and there’s a bigger pay-off.
How can a director get the best from their composer?
I would say be open to the composer, you have to remember that they have probably spent half their life listening to music, so they have a pretty good knowledge of what music can do for a film. Give them the opportunity to bring their talents to the table. Learn a little bit of terminology. If you are going to describe what you want, you can make it a little bit more precise than, say, ‘I want it to sound like a massive puffy green cloud lying over a hill.’ Describe it in words that a composer can understand.
Having seen you at work, I get the sense that you enjoy problem-solving and collaborating and maybe that makes you quite suitable for doing film scores.
I like people. I like working with people. If I’m writing a piece of classical music for the concert stage I’ll put my headphones on and I’ll want to be left by myself for hours. I can be that character if that’s what the job calls for, but with writing film music or with working on a musical or dance show, it’s not all about the music. It’s collaboration. If you’re sitting in your room all day long, by yourself, just writing – it can get pretty lonely. I like the feedback.
I know you won at the World Soundtrack Awards, which is really incredible because the competition was very strong. I suppose an award doesn’t necessarily make you a better composer but it makes people recognise your ability.
Exactly, there are 100 other guys right now my age here in Hollywood who can do the job as good as I can if not better. You just have to persevere. There were times when you would say ‘Will I go out tonight?’ If you are a young, aspiring composer, get off the couch, go out and meet people. Film music is not just about being able to write like Stravinsky, John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, that’s 55% of it. The rest is to get on with people.
The full interview first appeared in Issue 141 of Film Ireland Magazine.