Political satire comedy The Death of Stalin was released towards the end of 2017, directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, and Jason Isaacs as Zhukov. Based on the French graphic novel La mort de Stalin, the film follows the political power struggles following the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. It was incredibly well received, scoring 95% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Death of Stalin was your first major film soundtrack as lead composer. How did you get into the film industry?
I came out to LA about 10 years ago to work with Rupert Gregson-Williams in his studio. I was very lucky that he gave me a job because I knew very little about movies in fact, and film music at that time. He definitely took a chance on me.
What was it that made you take the leap to work in film from your more classical background?
I guess I’ve always been really enamoured with film, and perhaps I never seriously thought that I’d be able to get into it as it always seemed very mysterious to me! I was studying the piano more than composition mostly when I was younger, and was briefly a concert pianist in my early twenties. I then ventured into musicology for a while – I had been at Cambridge for my undergrad and I went back there and did a PhD. Musicology was wonderful but I was still restless, trying all sorts of things. It was then that I started getting more serious about films.
Surely for The Death of Stalin, a film set in Soviet Russia, you had to study the history and the music of the time and place?
One of my former lecturers at Cambridge, Marina Frolova-Walker, has written a book about Stalin’s Music Prize and musical life within the Soviet Union, and there are composers in there that I had never heard of. I bought lots of scores I didn’t know about, and Armando Iannucci, the director, is a great expert on classical music so I was able to bounce ideas around with him. There are aspects of that Soviet style of music that suited our film so well – there’s a sort of fast, intense style of music that you hear quite a lot in Shostakovich, but it refuses to stay happy and upbeat for long, and then becomes tortured and manic.
Did you collaborate closely with the director and his team?
We were on opposite sides of the Atlantic for most the time, so instead of being able to interact in person a lot of it was over Spotify – we’d create playlist and send one another various pieces.
Were you involved in the recording process after completing the scores?
Yes – we recorded with a big orchestra in Belgium, and we got together a bigger orchestra than one would normally have for a film, to try to get that huge Soviet sound with extra woodwind and masses of strings. We spent time trying to recreate the sound of a classical recording from that era. Even though we had actually recorded it in a studio so we had to try and mimic the sound of a big hall.
What projects do you have on the horizon?
I’m right in the midst of working on Mickey Mouse episodes for Disney. A lot of them are very jazzy, with a mix of vintage 30s sound and a kitsch mid-century modern style. I’m also working on a ride based on that show for Disney World in Florida. We’ve written a song that has lots of retro flavours but the ride is also very futuristic. The idea is that you end up inside the cartoon – you start by watching it and get pulled inside it without the use of 3D glasses.