An Interview with Coraline Composer Bruno Coulais

Acclaimed French composer Bruno Coulais, a veteran scorer of movies in his native country, talks to Scott Macaulay about working on Coraline, his first American film.

Composer Bruno Coulais’s love of film is wide and deep, but there is one thing he hates: flat lighting. He doesn’t dislike it because he’s some kind of hyper-aesthete but rather because he can’t figure out how to write for films that are too rooted in the everyday. Fortunately for Coulais, not all movies resemble an episode of Friends. In recent years, his ambitious movie music has scored films ranging from a steam-punk French detective film (Vidocq) to an eye-popping and violent documentary about the insect kingdom (Microcosmos).

Coraline is Coulais’s first American studio picture, and his idiosyncratic and transporting score is right up there in inventiveness with director Henry Selick’s rich, handcrafted world, writer Neil Gaiman’s complex characters, and the picture’s alternately subtle and startling 3D effects.  Mixing orchestra with a children’s choir, African instruments with toy percussion, and adding contrapuntal themes that tease additional meanings and emotions from a scene, Coulais has composed a spooky, seductive score that has excited audiences as well as critics. 

Born in Paris, Coulais studied piano and violin before he was invited to score a short documentary, 1977’s Mexico Magico, by director Francois Reichenbach. Much television work followed and then in 1996 he received international acclaim for his score to Microcosmos, winning won a Cesar Award (France’s Academy Award) for best score. He went on to win two more Cesars (for Himalaya, l’enfance d’un chef, and Les Choristes) as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song (for Les Choristes). Recent projects have included his Stabat Mater in Saint Denis Cathedral with the participation of English musician Robert Wyatt.

How did you wind up doing the score for Coraline, and what was the process like?

Henry tried [putting] a lot of [temp] music with his drawings, his animatics, and I don’t know why, but he tried the music I made for a movie called Microcosmos, and it worked! Then I met Henry in L.A., he sent me the animatics, and I started to create some themes and melodies. Then, little by little, I began to see construction of the film. It was good because I had the time to change my mind, to change the orchestrations. It’s great to work on an animated movie because you have that time -- the process is very long.

Did your ideas about the score change a lot during the years it took to make Coraline?

Not too much, but for me there is an important correspondence between the lighting and the tonalities of the orchestration. I need to see the real images [before I can finish the music]. But I don’t think I changed my mind too much. I would send Henry my demos, and immediately I’d have an answer from him. We were very far away in terms of distance, but very close [creatively]. It was strange.

Where did you record the music?

We recorded in Paris, the children’s choir in Nice, the orchestra in Budapest and then we mixed the film at Skywalker Sound.

What were some of the challenges of scoring Coraline? What were you trying to accomplish with your score in terms of its relation to the story and characters?

For me [when scoring a film], the story is not very important – it’s not so interesting to say the same thing with the music as the story. So, I think in Coraline the music is sometimes “behind the wall,” like ghosts that haunt the movie. It was very interesting to have the music evolve. In it beginning it sounds very quiet and realistic because it’s a realistic world. And little by little the music becomes quite scary by the end of the movie.

How did you accomplish that escalation? Through orchestration? Volume? A change in the melodic material?

For me it’s very important to make my own orchestrations. Depending on the density of sequence, sometimes I will have just a few instruments -- strange instruments like the water phone. It’s a metallic percussion where you put water on a kind of basin with a tube and a bowl. You can play notes on it, and it’s a strange, beautiful, very deep sound. I used this in the movie [for the scenes with the] Other Mother. At the very beginning I wanted the music to be quiet but with strange sounds.  I used a string quartet, a lot of percussion, and there is a very special sequence -- the marching band of the mice circus -- where I tried to be at the scale of the mice, so I used toys and Chinese instruments along with traditional marching band instruments.

Not every film composer does that writes his own orchestrations. Is this something you’ve always done?

Oh yes. It’s important for me to write my own orchestrations because when I think of melody, I think of it with the instruments I’ll write with. I love to write orchestrations.  In Coraline I have a big orchestra, especially the string [section]. I tried to do something very special with the strings so there are a lot of glissandi and microtonalities. I expect the audience to feel that the ground is not so stable. And with the children’s choir there are a lot of contrapuntal voices. I think when you are very young, it’s the age of terror, of fear, so I think in movies when you use something very close to a childhood you create a fear, and a fantasy. For example, music boxes, sometimes when used in the music for movies they are very strange and scary.

Where do you get your inspiration as a composer?

It depends. When I start to write music, I don’t have any ideas. I am all forgetting. It’s important for me not to stay in my office and try and write music. Exhibitions are very important to me, along with the light and reading. Then the inspiration will come. And when I find the way, I am able to work a lot, all the day and night. Because I am very lazy, when I have an idea I’m very happy to keep it!

What do you read?

It depends.  I’m crazy about literature.  My favorite writer is Proust.  But also James Joyce.

The modernists.


Does the writing of those authors inform your ideas of compositional structure?

Yes.  It’s strange, because when I read a book and I’m passionate about it, suddenly I have some [musical] ideas. And, again, the lighting [of scenes] is very important – lighting, colors, everything under the story. For me, there are some colors I can’t write tonalities for, and some lighting I find impossible to put in music. When a sequence is too realistic, it’s very difficult, which is why it was great to work on Coraline and its fantasy world.

How did you begin your career as a film composer?

I was very young, and it was for a documentary.  I was in conservatory then, in Paris, and a director, a great documentarian who was very famous in France, Francois Reichenbach, asked me to write music for a documentary about Mexico.  I didn’t want to do that – for me, music had to be very pure. But when I tried to do a bit of music for him, I discovered the pleasure of writing for pictures, and after I never stopped.

What composers have inspired you?

All the classic composers. Stravinsky. Prokofiev. Ligeti. And for the movies, I have a lot of admiration for Bernard Hermann and Nino Rota. Hermann especially – his use of music is very interesting because it doesn’t correspond exactly with the sequence.  Sometimes he was able to create fear with very emotional music. 

Do you know the website Ain’t It Cool News?


It’s an influential site and a lot of the writing is by fans of the movies. A writer who goes by the name of Score Keeper loved your score, and I want to read you what he wrote about it. He starts by saying that he once wrote a college paper about your work, and then writes,

“Through the years, my admiration for Coulais’ music blossomed. His comprehensible melodies, unpretentious harmonies, proclivity for harnessing the human voice as a primary instrument, and skill at expressing the complex layers of a child’s persona all made him one of my favorite composers not currently working in America.

“Keeping within the traditional characteristics of Coulais’ other scores, the music [of Coraline] is relatively diminutive in nature imparting a nonconformist impression on the film. Each scene in which a new set of eccentric characters are introduced to Coraline, in both her current and other worlds, are scored in unique ways with their own distinct melodies, harmonies, textures, and instrumentation. This result is the creation of small vignettes within the context of a larger narrative… These musical vignettes fit together like a grand puzzle until the boundaries distinguishing them are blurred as the film progresses.”

He’s very kind.

Do you think that’s an accurate way to discuss your structure?

Yes, but it’s difficult to explain. In Coraline, yes, it’s true – it’s vignettes, like a puzzle. In life, things are not black or white. All is mixed, and I think it’s interesting to mix a lot of psychological aspects in the same music. You think the music is very light, but some element can disturb. You know, music is dangerous because you can manipulate and change the meaning, the psychology of a sequence. Ten years ago, I had a house in Corsica, and in France we have a lot of documentaries about Corsica on TV.  They want to show that it is a very dangerous country, and if you watch the picture, nothing happens, but when the music is added you think that you could be killed on any corner! In Coraline, I think Henry was interested in the Other Mother. I think great directors love the bad characters, and me too. It was interesting to show with the music how she was a scary character but also to give her humanity and emotion. At the end, there is a violent scene between the Other Mother and Coraline, and the music is absolutely scary, but I put in a very lyrical and contrapuntal melody with the oboe. The opposition between the strong rhythms, the violent music and the softness of the oboe is able to change our perception of the character of the Other Mother. 

What was it that struck you most about working with Henry Selick?

It was so amazing to see how Henry worked.  I went to the studios in Portland, and it was incredible. Three hundred people working all the time, and Henry was able to [stay on top of] all this work. It’s the same as when you are writing an orchestration -- you have to keep in your head all the sounds. Henry, he had his whole movie in his head. It was incredible.