Simon Russell on composing for the screen

Simon Russell on composing for the screen

Simon Russell is a composer who specialises in music for the screen, from feature films, to documentaries; dramas to commercials. He’s also an accomplished bass player and instrumentalist. We deep dive into his process and the way he uses instruments and technologies to inform and propel his work.

[MPS]
What initially got you into composing for film and television?

[SR]
As a kid, I grew up watching TV programmes like The Saint, The Champions and Department S - I later found out they were all scored by Edwin Astley. His music was an initial unwitting influence - full of drama, tension and great arrangements.

As I got older, Bernard Herrmann, Michael Small, Thomas Newman, Barry Adamson and, lately, Mica Levy have all inspired and influenced me.

I played in various bands in my late teens/20’s. Sometime later, by chance, I was asked by a music company to pitch a track for an advert. The client liked my music which in turn led to the beginning of my career writing to picture.

[MPS]
In your experience, what are the most significant challenges?


[SR]
The main challenge is to try & discover what music the director is hearing in their head.

There is usually a lot of trial and error at the beginning of a project to try & find the right instruments and style that will suit. Having a clear conversation with the director is really important.

One pitfall can be the “temp score”. Editors often use commercial or library tracks to help the pace of a film. The problem can be that everyone gets so used to the temp score that they sometimes can’t imagine anything else in its place. It’s quite a task to convince them that something else will work just as well.


[MPS]
Is there a particular type of work you gravitate towards?


[SR]
I’ve composed for dramas, the theatre, commercials and documentaries. They all have their merits. Music is about enhancing an experience & helping to tell the story so I’m happy working in any medium.

[MPS]
What does your composing set-up look like?

[SR]
I have a collection of guitars and basses, banjo, theremin, bulbul tarang, guzheng and a shamisen. I’m drawn to any weird instrument that I can get a sound out of. I also use a lot of Native Instruments, 8Dio, Spitfire & Spectrasonics libraries.

[MPS]
You have a wide range of acoustic instrumental experience; do you find yourself making lots of recordings as part of your process?

[SR]
I always try & record real instruments on my projects. It’s important to have the depth and clarity that recorded instruments bring.

These days I tend to record remote sessions with other musicians. It’s a very quick way of working and the musician will normally be quicker in their own studio getting a good sound.

I’ve recently done a session with Paul Robinson (Nina Simone’s drummer) which turned out really well.

[MPS]
To what extent does your technology drive your creative process?

[SR]
Without technology I’d probably be busking.

I started composing with a reel to reel Fostex, a Korg M1 and a Cheetah sampler with 12 seconds of memory. It was a really good way to learn - programming and arranging on a very small budget helps you focus on what is going to work. It’s all about your initial idea and how to make that sound interesting.

Nowadays, there are so many options and sounds to choose from that a deadline helps me to focus and work quickly.

[MPS]
Any single piece of gear or technology change things for you?


[SR]
If I buy a new instrument or piece of gear - that tends to be the inspiration for the project I’m working on. I recently bought the Strymon Volante delay pedal which will be featuring a lot on the current series I’m working on.

[MPS]
Did you ever lose or sell anything that you really miss?

[SR]
My first bass - a Columbus Jazz. I removed it’s frets in a Jaco Pastorius phase and later traded it for a Ibanez fretless.

[MPS]
Where does your Strymon pedal fit into your workflow?

[SR]
Strymon pedals are the first link in my guitar chain. I had someone make me a desk to house my pedals as they are easier to tweak at waist height. They give me huge options in making music and often start my creative process.

[MPS]
Have you even collaborated on a score?

[SR]
My brother Mark is a composer too - we often contribute to each other’s projects, we have similar set-ups and email wav files to each other. It’s also handy being able to get someone to check a mix or get feedback on a specific cue.

[MPS]
Where does your inspiration come from?

[SR]
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Whether it’s playing around with a new piece of gear, walking the dog or listening to the radio.

Huge inspirations have been Arvo Part, Joni Mitchell and Jonny Greenwood’s film scores.

[MPS]
What does a creative brief look like? How much freedom do you have?

[SR]
Every project is different. On some projects I’ll get very detailed notes and the director may come to my studio and spot the places in the film that need music.

One director I work for regularly always gives me very pictorial briefs via email. I recently worked on a modern art series - one brief for an abstract art cue was “If squares and circles formed a band... what would they sound like?”

Any clue as to what a director is imagining is helpful, I’m self taught so don’t usually get caught up in conversations about theory.

Directors that I’ve that I’ve had a long-standing relationship with are happy for me to experiment and come up with something unique for their film.

[MPS]
What does the feedback process look like?

[SR]
It depends how far down the food chain you are. I’ve worked on tri-productions with notes from Korean, Spanish and English producers all wanting something different - you have to find the common ground, be good at being diplomatic, fight your corner where necessary and not be too precious about junking music that doesn’t work with the film.

The creatives on a commercial I once worked on asked for 20 re-writes.

I worked on a film a few years ago where a producer told me that he hated the bass guitar. It’s difficult to know what to say in those situations - luckily they are few and far between.

[MPS]
What was your favourite project?

[SR]
I worked on both series of Exodus; Our Journey about refugees journeys from war-torn countries to finding new homes in Europe. The refugees filmed much of their dangerous travels themselves on their phones. It was incredibly moving seeing what lengths people will go to protect their families. The series was very close to my heart as my sister died suddenly at the start of the project and being busy helped me through the trauma.

On a recent project, The Curry House Kid, I worked with world-renowned choreographer and dancer Akram Khan. His documentary focused on the curry houses of his youth and informed a new dance he created as the finale. The music featured solo cello, the Bangladesh national anthem, a rap and kitchen ambience - I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to make it all work and felt very out of my comfort zone but the finished piece turned out to be one of the best experiences.

[MPS]
Have you ever turned work down based on the quality of the content or the subject matter?

[SR]
I’ve luckily never been in that ethical position. Some of the projects I work on are very harrowing - I’m currently writing for a 5 part series on the Iraq war. There’s a lot of distressing
archive but from what I’ve seen of the interviews, it’s going to be an amazing series.

[MPS]
What advice do you have for aspiring film composers?

[SR]
To find your own style, find what makes you unique and hone in on that. Don’t try and copy anyone else. There are plenty of composers out there so you have to play to your strengths & stick out from the crowd. I have always liked Jonathan Wolff’s approach to Seinfeld. I’m sure most of the pitches were very different to his. Wolff’s theme really stood out.

Find out more about Simon’s work: simonrussellmusic.com

 

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