Playing to Type: Scoring Atonement
Scott Macaulay talks to composer Dario Marianelli about his innovative score for Atonement.
After only two features together — Pride and Prejudice and Atonement — the collaboration between director Joe Wright and composer Dario Marianelli is one of the richest in film music today. With so many current movies being scored with successions of pop songs or else compositions that betray the influence of the predictable temp music that once adorned their rough cuts, Marianelli and Wright have created not just memorable music but also an impressively harmonious process for its creation. As the Italian-born Marianelli relates below, his work with Wright begins at the script stage, and Wright's ability to identify not just apt places for music cues but also interesting uses for score music enables the composer to create compositions that finally seem inseparable from the images they help dramatize.
Marianelli has scored over 35 films including also this season Neil Jordan's The Brave One. For Atonement, Marianelli has created a darkly romantic work that aches in sympathy with the story's mysterious ironies. Befitting the tale's World War 2 setting, the score recalls the Romantic works of the early 20th century as well as, with its use of a typewriter as a percussive instrument, the mechanical Futurist compositions of the same period. Scored for chamber orchestra with solos written for piano, clarinet, oboe and harmonica, Marianelli's Atonement score is both a grand throwback to the sweeping movie music of the past as well as an exceptionally smart compositional take on the storytelling complexities of the film itself.
This is the second period film you've scored for Joe Wright. The first, Pride and Prejudice, had a score that drew inspiration from the classical music of the film's era, whereas the score for Atonement seems to contain influences from the early 20th century Romantic composers. How consciously do you think about the music composed during the era the story takes place when scoring a period film? And what specific influences went into this particular score?
At the beginning of a project I try to focus on bare ideas, as simple and direct as I can make them. I try as hard as I can not to think about "style," because I found it can be a trap, and it can shift the thinking too early from the core ideas to a more superficial level. I would say that although the overall sound of a score can recall different musical idioms, that's not the way I go about writing it.
For me it has to happen from the inside out, from the idea to the sound. Whenever musical references come into the writing, especially with Joe's films, the conversation is not about the style of the music, but about the qualities we are looking for. For example, at some point in the conversation, we talked about Brief Encounter and about the idea that a love that doesn't find its expression in the story could instead find it in the music. There is a wonderful contrast between the story's repressed, unfulfilled love and the expansiveness of the romantic music in that film, and that idea was probably one of the inspirations for the more romantic parts of the score. But references can come more obliquely than that. A freewheeling chain of thoughts might make me jump from love-and-death to Argentinean tango, for example. Someone has pointed out a [Astor] Piazzolla influence: it wouldn't surprise me one bit. Ultimately, I try to leave the door open for these kind of lateral associations to seep into the music.
When do you begin composing for one of Joe's films? Do you create any score material before filming, or do you begin after the shooting is completed?
On Pride and Prejudice we needed music before the shoot as there were several scenes involving actors playing or dancing. On Atonement we also started the conversation about the score very early, and I gave Joe a few pieces written on the basis of ideas that came from the novel and the script. Some of these pieces were actually played during the shooting of certain scenes to impart a particular pace to the movement or the walking of the actors. The idea of the typewriter also came very early: Joe was interested in finding ways to breech the divide between the writer outside the film and the one inside. This idea affected several scenes, where the "outside" score merges with sounds coming from the inside of the movie.
Tell me more about how you devise these moments when the score moves from existing solely on the soundtrack to having some realistic basis within the actual scene. How are they constructed?
In Atonement, as I was saying, this was a principle that found several applications. The idea was to blur the boundaries between the different levels of "truth" within the story and covertly insinuate the idea that what we witness as spectators might be a fiction within the fiction. In most cases I would present Joe with a sketch of what the cue might be like and show him how it could work with the picture. The result is completely constructed, like everything else in the picture, and occasionally it involves a conversation with the sound and editing departments to make it happen in the smoothest way possible. So I might say, "Hey, that umbrella banging on the car bonnet has a good rhythm. Can we change the placing of the strikes in the audio so it continues a little longer and give me the chance to turn it gradually into a typewriter sound? And, by the way, if the cut came eight frames later it would land on a really good accent."
And tell me more about your use of the typewriter specifically. Were the exact beats of typewriter "scored" as part of the compositions, or were they added later?
Joe started talking about the sound of the typewriter before I even read the script. He asked me to think about it: I went off and sampled every single keystroke, space bar, carriage-return from a 1930s Corona typewriter (courtesy of my agent, thanks Maggie!). Then I wrote five or six pieces for solo typewriter, and I played them on my keyboard. Each had a different character, but all of them were "musical." They all used the sound as rhythm. One of them combined really well with the "faulty brakes" idea, and the conversation progressed from there into writing more pieces for orchestra and typewriter.
How does your process working with Joe differ from that of other directors you work with?
Perhaps the main difference is that Joe trusts me to the point that he never feels it necessary to put temp music on the film, although other directors also have that same courage. There are conversations about ideas, and I start producing demos with samplers. This in turn opens the conversation further, the demos start finding their way into the film, and there is never any temp to contend with. And because of the way he works with editor Paul Tothill there is often a wonderful three-way collaboration that takes place when I go to the cutting room and the three of us look at scenes and discuss what to do with a particular piece.
Your score contains themes for the Briony and Cecilia characters. What were the qualities of their characters you were interesting in either reinforcing or providing counterpoint to with your score?
At some point I started to think about Briony as "the girl with faulty brakes." This was the title of the very first piece of music I wrote for Joe on this film: I was interested in bringing out the relentless quality of Briony's imagination, which is constantly on overdrive but which can get stuck in an obsessive loop. The other more romantic theme is not just for Cecilia — it was meant to take the weight of the tragic love between her and Robbie, and so it doesn't in my mind belong to a specific character. Initially I was considering writing a spoof wartime song, which would have played from a gramophone in the dormitory of the hospital where the older Briony has became a nurse. I was looking for a theme that could belong to both worlds, within the space of the film, where the characters might be able to hear it but which would also function as a main romantic idea. Eventually we decided to use a real wartime song for the dormitory scene, but by then I had found my theme, and I kept using it for the rest of the movie.
What goes into your decision as to which instruments play the lead lines for your various themes and characters?
I am not sure how to rationalize this. I very rarely think of themes for specific characters. I am more interested in trying to illuminate more obscure sides of the story, or even add a layer of interpretation that might not be there in the first place if there is the opportunity to do so. I don't think I have ever associated a particular character to a particular instrument in my scores.
Orchestration and instrumentation follow a certain taste for contrast and clarity, I guess. I try to make it like Tuscan cooking: simple, with a clear taste and not too many sauces to mask the main flavor.
And, more generally – how did you begin your career as a film composer?
I think it's one of those decisions that were never really "taken" — it kind of happened gradually. However, I did make a decision to spend three years at film school after I had scored my first feature film, and I haven't regretted it.
What are the specific qualities that differentiate a "Dario Marianelli" score from one by another composer?
I think you are asking the worst possible person for an answer! I'd like to think that one of the qualities I bring to a project is the approach more than the detail of the music. I have an obvious preference for horizontal (melodic) rather than vertical (harmonic) thinking, but this is vague to the point of being almost meaningless. I hope that my scores are different enough one from the other to avoid me being pigeon-holed, but in all of them I can hear my concern with a certain idea of "truth," although it comes out in a different manner every time. I am not sure I can explain much better. I am already beginning to sound pompous...
What, for you, is missing today from the world of film scoring? And, historically, what soundtrack composers have inspired you?
Missing? There is so much of it! And in it as well. I think this is quite an amazing period for film music, with new individual voices being heard and appreciated internationally, and an American acceptance of a more European approach to scoring which I think is enriching moviemaking a lot. Inspiration comes from everywhere, really, and the list of composers who have made me stop and listen is way too long. It would be like drafting a wedding guest list — who do I leave out?