This interview was conducted by telephone on 4th January 2007, with Jim Paterson speaking to Nigel Westlake about his musical background and the (soon to be released) film Miss Potter which covers a key period in the life of Beatrix Potter.
An audio version of this interview is also available for download as an mp3 podcast (23Mb).
JP: The Miss Potter film and soundtrack is going to be released shortly in the UK. I've a number of questions about the music, but first I'd like to understand a little bit more about your musical background and how you came to work in film music.
NW: I began my musical career playing the clarinet. My father was the principal clarinettist in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and he taught me to play from about the age of 10, and for many years I aspired to become an orchestral clarinettist and follow in his footsteps. In my mid-teens I started experimenting with composition, and became quite interested in the process of composing and its impact on my interpretation of existing classical music, namely the music I was studying at the time, that being the clarinet repertoire of great concertos and so on. I began to write little pieces for my friends to play, a very diverse collection of instrumentalists from jazz, classical and rock backgrounds. We formed a band and we toured with the band for a few years along the East coast of Australia with some success. Through that experience I began to get invitations to compose music for Radio and Theatre and Circus, and by and by I became involved in film.
My mother found a little ad in the paper one day which she cut out to show to me, which was asking for applicants to sign up for the first ever music and film course at the Australian Film and Television School based in Sidney. I applied for it thinking that I didn't have a chance of getting in but I did, and my work was noticed by some producers who were involved in the course and I was subsequently invited to write for some documentaries. During this time I was maintaining a career as a clarinet player. So I had for quite some time a dual career existence as a composer of television and media music, and on the other hand a classical career as a clarinettist in various chamber music ensembles. It was about 11 years ago that my composition career eclipsed my playing career and I started to get some fantastic offers to write film scores. But really it did interfere with my performing career, so at that point I began to concentrate fully on composition and I actually stopped playing the clarinet. So that's where I've come from. I'm a self-taught composer and gained a lot of my skills working as an instrumentalist with other instrumentalists, with a keen interest in contemporary music.
JP: That's very interesting. You say that you were self-taught but you did attend that course in Sidney.
NW: Well that was a short couse, about 8 weeks long, and it was more to do with the mechanics of fitting music with film. It wasn't a composition course as such but about applying music to film. I had as my tutor a brilliant American composer called Bill Motzing, who's been involved for many years now in a number of feature scores himself and more recently he's been doing a lot of teaching and orchestration for other composers. That was a wonderful introduction into music for film. I've also had a great opportunity to take my scores to other composers whose work I admire, and get them to commment on the work and give me feedback in a more informal situation. So "self-taught" is a bit of a long shot, but it has been more an informal approach to composition.
JP: Yes, so you didn't study composition formally for 3 or 4 years at University. In your film music you mentioned a number of documentaries but, to my mind at least, you are most familiar as the composer for the Babe films.
NW: A lot of the documentaries I've done have been for lesser known television presentations, but more recently I've been involved in Imax films, which in a sense are documentaries. I've done 5 Imax film scores to date, and that's a wonderful format to work in which is very different to the standard drama feature film score.
JP: So going back to Babe then, the first Babe film was directed by Chris Noonan just like Miss Potter. Have you formed a particular close relationship with Chris?
NW: Yes, we formed quite a close relationship. It was a very healthy composer-director relationship that we established on Babe, and we always said that we would look for another project to work on together. Chris has been very busy the last 10 years or so developing a number of film scripts, several of which he'll now be bringing to the screen over the next few years. But Miss Potter was one that he felt would be interesting for us to work on together, so I was invited to submit some ideas for this score. In fact one particular idea which is in the centre of the film is a very touching scene where Ewan McGregor who is playing the part of Beatrix Potter's publisher, Norman Warne, is taken up to Beatrix's bedroom one Christmas Eve in order for her to present him with a beautiful painting that she has done as a Christmas gift for him to show her appreciation for his support of her work, in the publication of her first children's book "The Story of Peter Rabbit". He notices in the corner of her room a little music box. He picks it up and it begins to play. He says "Oh yes I know this tune which is "Let Me Teach You How To Dance"." He says he's a terrible dancer but the words are rather sweet. Beatrix says to him "Oh, you know the words. Can you please sing the words for me." and then Ewan proceeds to sing this song.
Chris rang me up several says before they were due to film this scene and said we've got this song and we haven't got a tune for it. I think I'd like you to write me a waltz in the style of the popular genre of the period circa 1890s. It should be very formal, very sweet like a parlour song. This was of course a new venture for me having never written anything like this before, but I quickly dashed off a tune and sent it through to Chris on email as an mp3 file, saying "is this the sort of thing that you want? And if it is I'll keep developing it to make it better for the shoot". He wrote back a couple of days later saying "Yes, we've shot the scene and the tune worked beautifully, thank you very much. Would you like to come to London and write the score? Because I think that this theme should be incorporated as part of the score of this film and you're obviously the person to do it. So it was with great excitement that I packed up and moved to London for several months and worked very closely with Chris on the score. I had the wonderful opportunity to work in London with fantastic, top-of-the-tree session musicians. I had the great priviledge to work with people like Maggie Rodford at Air-Edel and of course Mike Batt and Katie Melua who came on board at the very last moment.
JP: So how did that happen? Were you involved?
NW: What happened was I got a call from Maggie a couple of days before I was due to leave London to return to Sidney, because the score had all been recorded and the job had wound up. Maggie said "Look, the producers are interested in turning the music box tune into some sort of pop song for the end credits." Of course my immediate reaction was "It's a waltz. When was the last time a waltz was like a popular song? Maybe 80 years ago or something." She said "I think you should give it a go, and I think the perfect person to work with would be Katie Melua, and Mike Batt." Of course I'd known of Mike Batt's work for many years, his work on the Wombles and his music theatre piece "The Hunting of the Snark". In fact my mother played in his orchestra when he toured to Australia with that show. She brought home a CD of his work and played it to me, saying here's a distinguished chap who's doing some good stuff. So I was really quite familiar with Mike's work.
So I went up to his studio one morning and he said "OK we've got the band booked at midday and the orchestra's coming in at three, and Katie's coming in at six, so where's the song?" I said "Well here's the music box tune. Basically we have to turn the lyrics around." Because in the film it's sung by a male: "Let Me Teach You How To Dance" a sort of patriarchal male gesture. In the case of Katie singing it, Mike turned the whole thing around and in 40 minutes and re-wrote the lyrics for this beautiful song "When You Taugh Me How To Dance". So that in a sense becomes the spirit of Beatrix Potter reminiscing on her early days, and her first romantic encounter with her publisher Norman Warne. When I played it to the editor of the film, Robin Sales, he said it's just like Renee Zellwegger actually singing it in the style of Beatrix Potter as it encaptulates the spirit of it, the slightly eccentric, quirky yet warm spirit of Beatrix herself. And it happened in 12 hours!
JP: So no time pressures then!
NW: No, you know what it's like in film. So it was great to have Mike there. He works so closely with Katie and understands her voice. To write those lyrics so quickly, he's just a genius you know. That was great. We sent the finished tape along to the mixing session, and all the producers were absolutely overwelmed with the response. They were very excited by it, and so it becomes this prominent song at the end of the film.
JP: I've heard the soundtrack obviously, but I've not seen the film as it's not been released yet.
NW: As you'll see Jim that theme is a recurring theme throughout the score, and in a way it becomes Beatrix's theme that accompanies her through this labyrinth of emotional turmoil that is encapsulated within this six years that cover that period of her life.
JP: Other than this key theme then, what kind of direction did Chris Noonan give you? What kind of guidance?
NW: The score works on several levels. The other thing we spoke about in great detail was the fact that you're dealing with characters from the Victorian era, very straightlaced, people never said exactly what they were thinking. It was a very cloistered and repressive environment. All the time there's these deep emotional undercurrents underpinning the action on screen. You're not actually looking at that on the screen but you know that it's there because of the dramatic context of the work. So Chris wanted the music to take on this almost subliminal aspect, and try and support the undercurrents of the dramatic context that was happening between the various characters. So the score in some instances is working on that level, and then in other instances you've got the beauty and wonder of Beatrix's imagination, the creative spark that helps her create these wonderful characters in her books. That in itself is another strand of the score, where a particular theme is used, orchestrated with celeste and harp to give a sort of magical quality to the work.
JP: As I've said I've not seen the film, but trailers from the film have been shown on TV, and some of the characters in the illustrations in her books are animated. Is there a lot of animation and did it require a special approach to the music?
NW: No, I'm not sure that I've seen that particular trailer but the characters only come alive for very brief moments and not very frequently. So more often than not there might be a very subtle musical reference to their actual movement when they're animated. It's more a case of the music supporting Beatrix's inner life, her fantasy world. So there's no great slabs of time where the characters are interacting with her. You only get the occasional blink of an eye or character running off a page or something like that. It's not an animation in that sense, in the traditional understanding of the word animation. Certainly animation is used very effectively but very subtly as part of the film. It wasn't like working on a cartoon.
JP: Yes. It's sometimes hard to get the impression of what a film's like from a trailer because it emphasises particular moments. The other thing I wanted to ask you about is that Rachel Portman is credited with 3 of the tracks on the album. How did that come about?
NW: That was a directive from the producers. They felt that she had a certain approach that was appropriate for several scenes in the film. So it came to be that she wrote a theme which is used on a number of occasions for Beatrix's involvement in the Lake District. Towards the end of the film Beatrix moves to the Lake District and buys up a lot of farm land up there and becomes very attached to this place, because that's one of the great heritages of her life as she left all this land in its original condition to the British people. So it was seen as appropriate that Rachel become involved. I guess she had a particular approach or sound that they were looking for, so she wrote a few tracks for the film.
JP: It seems to blend quite well together on the CD.
NW: That's good, I'm glad you said that, Jim. We didn't actually collaborate at all, we were working quite separately. She was being supervised by producers so I wasn't really sure what they were up to. She had been listening to my score when she started work on the film, so she followed a very similar pattern in orchestration.
JP: Yes, that's right, the instrumentation is obviously very similar, just strings and woodwind with piano, and you mentioned harp and celeste.
NW: Yes, that's right. We had pretty much an identical orchestra between us.
JP: Were there any other aspects of the film that you saw as being key to the music, or particularly difficult to score.
NW: I guess the most challenging aspect of the score was dealing with transitional passages in time. For instance there's one track on the score which is track 9 on the soundtrack which is "Beatrix and Norman", which is basically establishing Beatrix's relationship with her publisher. She is forbidden to marry him by her parents because he is seen to be a tradesman and beneath them. So the parents say we're going on a vacation for 6 months. If at the end of that time you still love him then you can proceed and get married. There's this wonderful scene, a big romantic emotional peak of the film where he comes to see her off at the station on her way to the Lake District for her vacation. As you'll see in the picture this has to traverse some very interesting, emotional moments, and either side of that railway sequence is a bunch of footage of Beatrix and Norman together. That was quite difficult to make those transitions between those quite intimate scenes and then lightening up into a larger orchestral palette for the farewell at the station and situations like that. Once I had the thematic material at my finger tips it was then a matter of fitting it to picture and making those transitions seemless and as effortless as possible which is always a challenge. So that was the most challenging aspect of it.
JP: I'll look out for that scene in the film when it comes out. So what's next for you musically. Have you got other projects lined up, or maybe you're already in the middle of some projects?
NW: Yes I've got many things lined up over the next couple of years, several orchestral commissions for local orchestras here in Australia and some chamber music works. And I'm looking at a few film scripts at the moment, one of which is with Chris Noonan again, based in South Africa, a film called called Zebras. This is a very exciting script, and he's going into pre-production shortly on that one. It will involve a lot of traditional African music as well as orchestral underscore. So I'm very excited about that. We'll see if that comes off, you know how it is with films: You never know until it's actually in the can. So plenty of work which is great.
JP: I think we're coming towards the end of our allotted time, I want to thank you very much for your time. It's been very interesting listening to you and I'm looking forward to seeing the film when it comes out.
NW: Great, Jim, great to talk to you and I hope you enjoy it.
JP: Thanks very much and best wishes on those future projects that you talked about including Zebras.
NW: Thanks very much, Jim, and best wishes to you also.
JP: Thanks very much and goodbye.