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David Arnold (Composer)

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English composer David Arnold was born on 23 January 1962 in Luton, Bedfordshire. He's probably best known for writing the music for the last five James Bond movies, Stargate [1994] and Independence Day [1996]. Darren Rea caught up with Arnold as the soundtrack to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was due for release...

Darren Rea: Your latest album, the soundtrack to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is being released at the beginning of December, how did you get involved with that?

Interview imageDavid Arnold: The director is Michael Apted, who is someone I've worked with on four films. The World is Not Enough [1999], the James Bond movie, was the first one we did. Then we did a film with Jennifer Lopez called Enough [2002] and then we did a film a couple of years ago called Amazing Grace [2006] about William Wilberforce and the end of slavery. Michael was asked to direct [The Voyage of the Dawn Treader] and, I think it was because we've worked together before, he asked me to do it but I didn't really expect it because the previous two films had been scored by Harry Gregson-Williams and I know Harry so it was a slightly strange situation [laughs]. But I had a good chat with Harry about it and he was very cool, largely because it was a different director and different studio, so it was kind of like a bit of a change.

It was exciting because I hadn't really done a sort of fantasy film for a very long time. So it was exciting to get involved in something that was purely orchestral as well, rather than... a lot of the Bond stuff has an electronical element to it and some of the other movies that I've done have been slightly more modern in that sense. So it was nice to get back to a sort of fantasy, Hollywood adventure which had a bit of resonance for people as well.

DR: You also reference some of the music from Harry Gregson-Williams previous scores...

DA: Yes, I kind of bookend the movie with it. I think people are familiar with it and I always think it's quite churlish to abandon themes that have been in previous movies. I'm not quite sure other people do it. Obviously they have their reasons.

Interview imageIt might be because I've done movies before, when I did Shaft and James Bond where you do quote other people's music. I think for a lot of people who are coming back to this series I think it's important to connect to it emotionally, in a way, because the film actually doesn't happen in Narnia. It's a voyage and an adventure across loads and loads of different places. So there's not a lot of reason for relaying on the themes that were in the first one, because we aren't in the same places and doing the same thing. But I just felt like we needed to handhold, you know, we needed to link to it emotionally musically just so we know where we are. I kind of then took off from that point, so it was like our launch pad and it was our welcome home, musically, in the movie.

DR: Has the industry changed much in the time you've been in it? Are directors more appreciative of a composer's work than they used to be?

DA: [Laughs] I don't know what that would mean. I'm not sure how a director would appear to be appreciative. Perhaps asking you back to do another one might be a way of doing it. They tend not to shower you with gifts at the end, but as long as they say: "Thank you" and they're nice people.

For me the joy of it is the creative team that's involved in making a movie and the fact that you're having creative discussions about things that are real and happening in front of you and ways of improving a film. If you work with a great director he will make you write better music, it's as simple as that, because he'll see things and hear things that you don't. And, hopefully, your understanding of the emotional truth of a film will perhaps make him see things that he never noticed before, or realised.

Interview imageFor me the best relationship you have with a director is where it's creatively challenging, satisfying, but mainly hopefully their nice people. I've been lucky this year I've done four movies and they've been the most amazing people, you know the sort of people you'd quite like to hang out with anyway regardless of work. It's an odd think because they have to be in so many different places, not only dealing with me but they've go sound, visual effects, camera and actors. The demands on them are extraordinary and they the ones that have to make the decisions and be responsible for it and usually carry the can for its success or failure. So, it's always nice to be asked. It's sort of a privilege to be asked because you're sort of being asked to help them get across the finishing line and if they're nice people especially it's an even better experience - you want to work harder for those guys as well as your self.

DR: 'Ra - the Sun God' track from your Stargate soundtrack is still a piece of music that sends shivers down my spine whenever I hear it. Is there any music that you've heard that you wish you'd composed?

DA: Erm... I suppose you'd go back to what your favourite ever would be in films. If I'm thinking about those, then I'd liked to have composed Goldfinger, I'd liked to have composed The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, E.T., Schindler's List and The Mission... there's tons of things... Pyscho and Taxi Driver. So many amazing film music have been written. Twin Peaks even, like just great pieces of evocative music.

Interview imageBut no, I never think I wish I had, I always think: "God, that is so good. How can I ever do anything which is even close to it." You hear great pieces of work like that and you sort of simultaneously feel like giving up. It's difficult to top and if you start thinking about film music and how many great things there are it certainly makes you reassess your capacity to do it, but then you think is every actor was taught they were never going to be Marlon Brando they may never act again in their life.

Every time I do one I just try to do the best that I can do. To be corny, I try to do the best David Arnold score I can do. And hopefully that's the reason they ask me to do them.

DR: The start of your career was rather unusual. You started off being involved with The Young Americans, where you were working on the soundtrack in your bedroom and cueing the music up by watching the footage on a video player, and then you're composing the soundtrack to Stargate, a big budget Hollywood movie... Looking back are you still surprised at how quickly your career took off?

DA: I was surprised it went like that at the time. The trajectory I thought I would take would be making perhaps low budget British TV, perhaps a commercial or two, trying to find some people who were making low budget British films, spend a few years doing that and then perhaps get some kind of low budget American b-movie with giant robots in or something... I don't know, just something. And then, eventually, ten years after perhaps get a movie like Stargate.

The Young American was an extremely low budget, kind of low profile movie really. It didn't really get much of an international release and we had very little money for it to produce the score. So I knew I wasn't going to be retiring on that film, in fact everything they gave me I spent on the score anyway.

Interview imageWhen the call came to talk about Stargate... I sort of always felt that I'd end up doing something like that, but because I hadn't done the standard Hollywood path - of perhaps working for another composer and working up through years and years of trying to get noticed and doing show reels and demos and stuff for people. I kind of spent those years, when normally you'd be in Hollywood trying to get into that system, working with Danny [director Danny Cannon] and doing student films in this country.

So, by the time I'd had eight years of doing that, I didn't know anyone. The only people I knew were the people from the film school. I didn't know anyone who worked in the industry as such. It was only when Danny got offered Young American financing that he convinced the producers to do it, because I'd done everything that he'd done. We both kind of did our first movie together and it kind of went ballistic after that, and I don't really know why.

It tends not to happen like that all that often. If you think about people who have big breakouts of late... Michael Giacchino, by the time he did The Incredibles he'd done TV work with J.J. Abrams and he'd done big scores for video games and Alexandre Desplat had been working in French film for many years before Girl with a Pearl Earring.

So the idea that you've actually done nothing other than student films and all of a sudden your doing huge movies... I'm not even sure it's happened since I did it with Stargate and I've no idea why it did happen like that other than God bless Mario Kassar, Roland [Emmerich] and Dean [Devlin] for giving me a break and for Danny [Cannon] for getting us on the first one in the first place. Other than that, I think it's down to your enthusiasm and hopefully a bit of originality and the way you get on with people.

DR: As well as writing for TV and movies you were responsible for writing a new Doctor Who theme for Big Finish audio dramas. How did you get involved with that?

Interview imageDA: Mark Gatiss I've known for a long time and he said they were doing a radio show and would I just do a version of Doctor Who, and they said it was just going to be a limited edition CD release, a spoken word... you know.

I had a look down at the record shop and there are hundreds of these things with Doctor Who adventures, and they didn't have any money to do it so it was just going to be me in my bedroom trying to do it. So I just did it in an afternoon, I think, thinking that it was a bit of a low key thing - which it was - but I completely misunderstood the Doctor Who fanbase and not only that, but as soon as you do anything with Doctor Who it's all over the world as far as the Whovians are concerned. But then I thought, at the same time, there's nothing else I really could have done because I think we had £60 which kind of paid for the DAT tape I mixed it on at the studio [laughs].

I enjoyed it, it was brilliant. I got all my old synths out and tried to try and build it the way that I remembered it when I was watching it as a kid.

But no, I'd love to have another go at it. It's funny when Murray [Gold] did it... Murray I met when I did Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), with Vic [Reeves] and Bob [Mortimer], because I did the theme tune for that and Murray was doing the score. That was the first time I'd met him and then I didn't see him again and then was recording Doctor Who and it was all going berserk for him. I love what he's done with it.

DR: You're probably best known at present for composing the music for the current James Bond movies, but before you got involved with that you recorded Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project. Can you tell us how that all came about.

DA: When I was growing up I'd always wanted to make records and I'd always wanted to do movies. That's pretty much all I wanted to do. When you're nobody it's difficult convincing anyone to let you make a record with them. After I did Stargate and became sort of quite well known..., and also that 'Play Dead' record [which was was recorded for The Young Americans] with Björk, all of a sudden I found that people were beginning to know who I was and were quite interested.

Interview imageI actually wanted to make a record with people that I really liked and I was trying to think of what I could do. I knew that I had to do another movie and I didn't want to write anything at that stage. I thought it would be a good idea to do covers of all the old James Bond songs, because I loved them obviously. I thought it would be a good excuse to phone some of these people up and say: "Do you want to make a record?" and get in the studio with them.

I started it by myself, I didn't have a record company or anything, and so I did the first three - which I think was You Only Live Twice with Björk at the time, Diamonds Are Forever with David McAlmont and The Spy Who Loved Me with Aimee Mann. I got those finished and then I took them round record companies and said: "This is what I'm doing. Is anyone interested?" And I ended up with East West and finished making the record with them.

I did it because I loved it and it took quite a long time to do it because I was doing other things as well. It took about 18 months from start to finish, although there was only about 12 weeks work in it completely. It was great because then you'd get to make a couple of videos and all of a sudden you've got your videos on Top of the Pops... those were the things you grew up with, thinking: "One day I'd like to be on that, one day I'd like to go and see my name on the screen, one day I'd like to a record playing in a record shop when I walk into it." It was brilliant excuse to meet all these amazing people, and eventually through that I met John Barry as well, which was the greatest thing that came out of that for me - getting to know John and being friends with him.

DR: How did you feel replacing John? Did he retire, or was the studio looking for a new sound?

DA: I think he'd said some years previous that he wasn't going to do any more. And I think, he'd done 11, there's not much left to say. He'd done it so brilliantly and so elegantly and I'm sure he had other things he'd rather be doing.

Interview imageBut to replace him... it's impossible. It's the same problem that a lot of the actors have got following Sean Connery, to a certain extent. The thing is everyone has an opinion about who is the best, and that usually equates to "who is my favourite" so for a lot of people, me included, John Barry [pictured] will never ever be beaten in terms of style or quality for the James Bond movies.

Interestingly now I've got people who went to see their first movie perhaps in 1997/98/99, perhaps there first ones where ones that I'd done, and they write to me and say: "We like your music the best out of the James Bond movies", which is a very difficult thing to hear. But I suppose you do have to realise that for some people Roger Moore is going to be the best James Bond, for some it will be Sean Connery and for others it will be Daniel Craig. There's no arguing that, it's just going to be the case. And for some people what I've written is going to be the best James Bond music and for some people it's going to be the worst.

I realised that you can't really look over your shoulder which you're doing this job, doing the Bond music. You have to look at the movie that's in front of you and write what's the best for that, and that's simply all you can do. The world will take it apart afterwards, if it chooses to do.

DR: Do you think there will be a time when you haven't got anything more to say on Bond?

DA: I don't know how to answer that because at the moment, having done five, I'm absolutely dying to start the next one, but if I'd done ten it might not be the same - obviously I'd be quite a lot older, anyway [laughs]. Right now, as long as they keep asking me, I'd do it. From a creative stand point it feels like you're running with the Olympic Torch and you want to keep the flame going. It's something that I take very seriously and I care very deeply about and it's always extraordinary flattering that they continue to ask me to do them.

Interview imageDR: If a movie were to be made of your life who would play you and who would compose the soundtrack?

DA: Oh, god. Who would play me?... I don't know... Jack Black [laughs]. Well, I'm not going to say Brad Pitt am I? Although, I quite like Adam West [pictured], who played Batman. And, you know what, I think John Barry could score anything and I'd be happy.

So Adam West could play me and John Barry could score it.

DR: If you got fed up with the industry tomorrow what would you like to do for a living?

DA: Do you know what, I'd like to do one of three things. I'd like to either be a chef, do a phone in radio show where people call in and talk about things, or write comedy - I'd like to write a sketch show. I could try any of those things but I just haven't done it yet.

DR: What are you working on at the moment?

DA: We've just finished Narnia and I'm now on the last week of Paul, which is the Simon Pegg / Nick Frost movie. It's like a road trip across America. A couple of British comic book geeks who drive across America to look at alien sighting hot spots and find an alien. It's like a road movie with Simon and Nick... and an alien [laughs]. It's very funny.

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With thanks to Joanna Burns and Natasha Nazi-Angileh

The soundtrack to The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is released through Sony Music from 06 December 2010.

Click here to buy this soundtrack on CD for £8.95 (RRP: £13.99)

This interview was conducted on 26 November 2010

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