On the Beach

Seven Weekly Interviews with CG by Karen Cambrell
February – March 2000

WEEK TWO. Friday 25th February 2000
Preparation and Themes.

CG: Well, in the week since I last talked to you, it's been a very busy week doing the business side of things on the one hand and also trying to work out the general themes of the music for the film.

The business side has been most of it. The first thing I had to do was go through the entire picture with the notes from the spotting session working out how long each cue was and how much music there was in all and, because it's a very tight budget on this show for the music, I really have to make every single dollar go as far as it. So I've got to carefully make sure that the people who are booked are going to be used as fully as possible. So I've had to imagine every single piece of music in the whole film (there're about 45 cues in the entire production) and image the basic instrumentation for it. And out of that put together the recording sessions.

Normally in a recording session I like to record 8-9 minutes of music. In this one, because of the tight budget I need to do about twelve minutes in every session. So I needed to work out which cues would have a similar orchestra. For example, in one session I'll only have a string orchestra. Which cues will work with just a string orchestra. Add them all up and once I've filled up about twelve minutes of music for string orchestra, well that's that session filled. I've got another one for a reasonably larger orchestra of, from memory, 53 players. And there I've got about ten minutes of music where I have to do the very opening of the picture, some of the cataclysmic moments of the film and so on. At the other extreme I have one session which is only going to be violas, cellos and double basses and there's about twelve minutes of music for those - and so on, there are eight sessions in all.

And also in order to keep the costs down, I'm going to lock out a studio for an entire day, three times in a row. It's going to be April the 1st, 2nd and 3rd, the long weekend and we'll do three sessions on the first day, two on the second and three on the 3rd day. So, with breaks, they'll be three 14 hour days.

Having done that, the orchestra is put together by the orchestra contractors, Coralie and Phillip Hartl. I've already sent them that outline I've done for the eight sessions and they've already started ringing around principal players and so on.

At the same time I've got in touch with the copyists and I've had to find an assistant to help me go through the film and make a lot of notes. A lot of the laborious stuff that I would spend days doing and I just don't have the time to do.

Another administrative thing that I've had to take care of is recording engineers. In the past I've always used Christo Curtis, who's an absolute genius pair of ears and wonderful to work with. For me he's recorded Moby Dick and Sydney A Story of a City. But, as it happens, he is already booked for another film so Christo is only able to record my score. Therefore I'm using another wonderful mixer Simon Leadley to do the mixing and the editing at the end. Having two different people means that everything has to be set up so that one person can pick up where the other person left off. So we had to have a few meetings with regard to that.

So with all of that administrative stuff more or less in place I know what musicians I can have, what size orchestra I can afford and how long I've got them for and how much music I have to do in a given session.

Today I had some good news and some bad news (laughs). The good news is that Varese Sarabande Records have agreed to release the soundtrack album and actually get it out in the shops in America when the show is screened on May 28th and hopefully in Australia when it's screened here on Channel 7. That's very good news to have a soundtrack album. The bad news is that, I was originally going to be getting a final cut of the pictures this evening but it's necessary to get approval from ShowTime in America of the final cut before we can go ahead. So as a consequence, instead of getting it this evening, Friday, I won't get it until at the earliest Tuesday, and that's if there are no changes. So I've lost three days and that's actually quite catastrophic because, if I'd received it tonight I would have had 32 days to compose 86 minutes of music (that's from scratch to final orchestration), whereas now I've got 29 and it might even be 28 days. So I've got to do just over three minutes every single day from scratch to finished. Without fail. That's very daunting. It's a little bit like looking into a black hole. But that's why it's necessary that I get my basic themes done now. Then the process is a lot easier. My experience on Moby Dick was that I got way behind in the first couple of weeks and then I started catching up to the quota that I needed to do and I didn't quite make it before the first recording sessions. And those recording sessions were spread over a week, so I'd go to a recording session, go home and keep writing. I finished the last cue literally only a couple of hours before the very last session. Hopefully that doesn't happen this time. Although there are no gaps between sessions this time, so…yeah…

KC: Is that a seven day a week schedule, that three minutes?

CG: That's seven days a week without fail. No days off or evenings. So basically, you sleep and compose for those days. And the sad thing is in film music, that that's the norm. It's not a rare thing at all. The period for composing actually seems to be shrinking all round the world.

KC: Why won't they give you more time?

CG: The reason there isn't such short time is that obviously it takes a period of time to edit the picture. The picture has to be well edited. I can't really start composing until the picture is edited because if I compose a cue and then the pictures get re-edited I've got to re-write that cue and all I’m doing is playing catch-up. In the case of On the Beach it has a screening in America on May 28th. That's not moving. Consequently the sound mix of the film is booked in to happen on the week of the 17th of April so I have to be finished by a couple of days before for various reasons, say the 14th of April. I have to be finished by then and working backwards I have to mix the music. Before that I have to edit the music together from various takes. Before that we have to record the music, so that leaves a very short amount of time to compose the music.

KC: So just personally, what do you do, does your life shut down, do you tell all your friends “Sorry, I'm working, I can't see you for six weeks”?

CG: I have to tell people that I'm just not available, I'm just not around for the next four or five weeks…well even through the mixing and editing, of course, that's going to be really packed as well - I'll be in another studio somewhere else. So there's probably six or seven weeks worth where I'm just not going to be part of the world. It requires total focus which means totally being cut off from everything else.

So a way that I find to relax is the way I structure my whole day. I sort of build in relaxation periods. For example I always compose in the morning. I refuse to answer the phone, I tell everybody “don't ring me before 12” and I find that in those first couple of hours, almost everyday, I'll get really good ideas that will then set me up for the rest of the day. I find the hardest part is coming up with the very basic ideas, the themes, the “what am I going to do for this cue?” Once I've got that mapped out, it's then a process of development and orchestration which I find, although rushed, quite straightforward to do. So I'll do that from late morning through the afternoon and then in the evening I do administrative things. There's always something to do like when I finish a cue I put it into my list so that I know what the instrumentation is for every cue exactly and get things ready so that we can then book musicians and so on. That's a period where the one thing I'm most desperate to do is just get outside of my head and I can't go and watch TV or go and talk to people so I'll probably put on music on the CD player while I'm doing that part and that actually gets me out of my head for that period, for that couple of hours.

Now I start working out the themes and that's what I've been doing for the last few days. And I've worked out, with this film, I think I need four basic themes. There are always subsidiary themes, but four basic themes. Thankfully I've written one of them. I've written the Love Theme, if you like, between Towers and Moira, the main characters of the film…. there's a sense of tentativeness about it, I think.

Love Theme (piano)
Sketched 23 February 2000

…and that's very sparse like that when you hear it on the piano, but I know that once it gets onto the orchestra it'll sound much richer. It's purposely intermittent - it stops and starts. This is a tragic love story and whether or not they fall in love, they're going to die in a few days anyway and that's always there hanging over them all the time.

I've also written sketches for what I'm thinking of as the World At War Theme which will also have its place…a lot of brooding, questioning low brass, low strings sort of bubbling away underneath the dialogue restlessly. I've got a very rough one here. It's not at all a finished theme but it's probably enough for now. I'll wait until I get the pictures before I do any more. It's the music I think we'll hear right at the very beginning. At this point the world is about to be at war and then goes into war and then the theme will pick up quite a bit through the movie, through the action on the submarine, as a sort of restless undercurrent. Very often on the submarine they don't know what the state of the rest of the world is. So I imagine this being played on low brass or low strings or even on both.

World At War Theme (piano)
Sketched about 18 February 2000

I've got that sort of sketched out, but the other two themes are just eluding me at the moment. I need one which I think of as being a Family Theme, for want of a better word and that's the one that's got to be quite happy, but I don't want it to be too saccharin…getting just the right tone for that I'm finding quite difficult. And the fourth theme that is still alluding me is the Death Theme. This is a film about the end of the world and I need to be able to treat that very sensitively, but I don't want to fall into the trap of just being atmospheric background at the same time. It can be a fine line sometimes in music for film, how far forward you should come, not necessarily in volume, but in intensity. Should you take hold of the film and move it along or should you unobtrusively sit in the background? And that changes from second to second, it's not like there's one rule. Whoever it was that said that it's good film music if you didn't notice it…well that's just rubbish. Think of the many wonderful film themes that you've heard and love. It's just silly to say that but it is true at times that it's necessary for the music to function at a subconscious level. Whereas at other times it's got to come right out forward. Moby Dick, for example, was a film where, on the whole, I really felt I could just grab the film, really take hold and come out very boldly. Whereas that's not quite right for this film. It needs to be treated more sensitively, but not blandly, which is a trap I could fall into. So I'm having great difficulty with this dying theme in particular, getting just the right sensibility for it.

One of the things in the temp track was a choir. This choir kept popping up here and there and it was wonderful and there's even a solo child singer in one place and it was just terrific and Russell turned to me and said “Can we have a choir, can we have a choir?” and I said “I don't know if we can budget it” and for a couple of days there I didn't know what to do because I agreed with him that it was a terrific idea, but just how do we budget a choir? And then it hit me that, in actual fact, even from a creative point that it was better not to have a choir, but to have a handful of solo voices and I thought we could afford that. So I contacted the Song Company hoping that they would be able to do it, but unfortunately they're overseas at the very time that I need to record, but Roland Peelman is helping me put together six singers so we will have a set of voices, which will help a lot I think. That’s what I was talking about with sensitivity to the picture…the picture is going to be very full of romantic strings, sad strings and so on and to be able to go to voices will be a really nice contrast at some of the most emotive moments.

Getting Set Up.

Preparation and Themes.

Waiting for the Pictures and More Themes

Composing Begins.

Yachts and Choirs.

Nearing the End and Orchestration.

The End and Preparing for the Sessions.

POSTSCRIPT. August 2008