Approaching the Job

an interview with the composer


Commercial’s director TODD MIGNOLLA interviews the maestro (APRIL 2004)


TM: How do you approach the job?

SWP: By making sure it isn’t one. I have developed the ability to deflect pressure, stay relaxed and maintain full focus under fire. The post production phase of a feature film is a minefield of indecision, contrasting opinions and technical difficulties. Working closely with producers and directors can mean that these negative aspects rub off on or influence the composer, however music itself is not worked. It is played, and to serve the drama well I keep a free and creative attitude towards the film right up to the final dub, and occasionally beyond.

TM: you consider yourself a collaborator rather than a hired hand.

SWP: Absolutely.

TM: And I understand that you consider your pre 1999 drama work to be flawed.

SWP: Correct.

TM: Including your work on my film MADAGAIN?

SWP: Unfortunately.

TM: Why?

SWP: I got sidetracked, scored a few features, then became very successful in the advertising field in the early nineties and although I expanded my musical horizons, and made a great deal of money in the process, I learned nothing about cinema.

TM: Nothing?

SWP: Very little. The comparisons between advertising clips and feature films are vastly overstated. By 1996 I was considering dropping my income in order to work exclusively on drama, but I had a family to consider, so finally in 1998 I got the courage to shut down my studio, and I took a year off to study screenwriting. When I returned to film and TV composing in 1999 my eyes were wide open, and luckily have stayed that way.

TM: And you changed the way you operate in the studio.

SWP: Big time. I had been creating performances in the computer and then adding some acoustic instrumentation, which can produce effective results, but is essentially a dreary, soul-destroying process. Without getting too technical, I now use the new lightweight portable computers to store and assemble dynamic live performances created in any number of locations, then back at home base, wherever that might be, I can manipulate and edit the material into a finished cue. It’s a wonderful life!

TM: You are often critical of the whole music-for-film process.

SWP: Intellectual uniformity is the real disease of our times and modern cinema is a serial offender. New scripts refer to classic films, actors often repeat successful performances and music cues from existing films are sprayed onto developing cuts without organic consideration of the soundtrack. The whole process can become ersatz, including the experience of watching the movie. Utilising ‘temp music’ and tactical or strategic uses of source can be a good thing, but like every other aspect of film making, only if done with a unique sensibility and a light touch.

TM: With all of these difficulties in mind are you hopeful for the future?

SWP: I compose original music for film, I have an instinct for the decisive moment and when I enter a cutting room I feel like an asset rather than a liability, so I am always filled with hope.

TM: Favourite movies?

SWP: Too many - RIFIFI, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, PERFORMANCE, AUDITION, BREATHLESS, MULLHOLLAND DRIVE… I could go on all night.

TM: Favourite score?

SWP: Probably JERRY GOLDSMITH’S original masterpiece for PLANET OF THE APES.

TM: Anything else you want to say?

SPW: How much I love controlled friction.

TM: Fiction?

SWP: No. Friction – it’s the grit that makes the pearl!