McQueen helped to guide you?
Absolutely. Steve has a painterly approach to things. Sometimes in the moment he didn't know how to get out of a scene, it had to be like a paint brush glide across canvas as it leaves the canvas, how music leaves a scene. He got that I knew what to do with things like this. We never want to talk about music. We want to play it.
Music is this odd beast. It's indefensible. You play something that either moves somebody or not. You can't talk somebody into liking something. The reason I'm emphasizing that Steve was in the room when the music was created was because his presence was like he was a part of the band. He was a musician even though he didn't play an instrument. A look, a smile, he conducted the whole procedure. Because Solomon Northup was a true story, his book existed, a man had lived this life, in a funny way our conversations were circling around to the book and the man himself. His ghost was in the room all the time. Joe Walter from the Royal College of Music is our editor and an incredible musician. All of these things created a certain ambience and environment.
Do you work this way with anyone else?
It's sort of how I work with Chris Nolan, we have a good way of working together. If you stare the beast of the unwritten score in the eye it will make you blink. Ron was there during "Rush," there all the time when making music. You try to work with your friends.
For "Interstellar" I wrote the main theme last January. For once I got a foothold on this. I traded off going away for the Christmas holidays to spend a week on "Interstellar" obsessed with it and the ideas. I spent three months in the summer working on it. I'm supposed to have a summer holiday, but I was doing research trying things for "Interstellar." It won't leave me alone. It's his words, his stories, the subject won't let me sleep at night. That's why we are secretive, with a purpose. It's a great joy to let people see something new and unexpected. Isn't that the job we're supposed to do, to surprise people? We need to have privacy, to bring the noise down, to be able to focus, to be able to make a small group to create ideas. Privacy is a vital element to hear yourself think and have notes jump into your head.
Talk about the challenges of writing "Rush." It was a low-budget Ron Howard movie.
I always knew that with "Rush" there were two ways of going about it. "Oh my god, horrible car noises," or go and celebrate it: use the cars and the loud impact part of a huge orchestra. For a while I wasn't going to write any music for the race. But I figured out how to frame them. The music is smaller during the race so the cars sound louder, there's something to compare them to. The most exciting thing about "Rush" was that it took me back to my roots working on an English indie movie with Peter Morgan and [Working Title co-chief] Eric Fellner, who I'd grown up with and did my first movies with him and Tim Bevan, like 16 mm "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Got Laid."
Ron Howard told me, "I want to take you on an adventure, forget Hollywood, I'll take you into a wild European indie movie." He embraced the whole process. So did I. I'm not a studio, I'm just a musician. I'm proud of this movie and had a great time making it, it was so worth every second we put into it. Everybody did great work, like cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. Ron didn't need to make this movie, nobody made it to get rich. We love making movies, and "Rush" was the pure experience in that regard. We got to make the movie we wanted to make, for better or for worse. I think that a lot of ideas and energy came from working in a different way. "Rush" is a score with four or five musicians, there's something very similar to "12 Years," with Ron in the room.
Some people get confused about your authorship of these collaborative scores.
Filmmaking is collaborative, why does it need to stop when it comes to music? Because the director doesn't have the vocabulary? The musicians I work with speak English as well as I do, we're talking about story, character, pace, editing. We're talking about the film as a whole.
I am still an architect. Authorship seems to be more difficult for other people. My head runs over with ideas, I can't sleep at night, I get home and get another idea, go back to studio and do it. I am surrounded by brilliant musicians, it's a give and take, constantly. The original concept is mine. I ask Ron how "Rush" should sound. He'll blame me. We work strictly in collaboration with conversations we've had. I was speaking to somebody yesterday about an idea. Beethoven had an orchestrator. He did it all himself --[sings the "dum dum dum dum" opening of the Ninth Symphony]-- then the orchestra would do the rest. He would have been well pissed off if someone said the orchestra came up with [that opening]. At the end of the day the things that is remembered is the big idea, the tune, the hooks in the architecture.