By Karol Krok
An Academy Award-winning composer Dario Marianelli is known for creating musical accompaniment for numerous period dramas and intimate character pieces such as Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Jane Eyre. However, he occasionally ventures into the world of fantasy and s-f. And with some fantastic results – both The Brothers Grimm and V for Vendetta are devilishly clever, brilliantly dense scores that contribute immensely to their films. His latest work is The Boxtrolls – a stop-motion animated film that tells a story of a group of quirky underground creatures, cheese-obsessed town above and one small boy lost in between those two worlds. Dario kindly agreed to answer some of our questions about this very project.
Karol Krok: How did you get involved in production of The Boxtrolls? What was it like working on your very first animated feature?
Dario Marianelli: I had loved Coraline and Paranorman, Laika’s previous two movies. Somehow I got to hear about Laika adapting Here Be Monsters as early as the end of 2011, I think they were listening to some of my music back then. They eventually approached my agents at the beginning of 2013, and soon after I got the script. I met with director Tony Stacchi and producer David Ichioka and we got on very well. It was quite a novel experience for me, working from a rough storyboard, and I didn’t have much to compare it to.
KK: What was your first creative impulse when working on this score? Is there a particular type of sound you tried to achieve?
DM: The only conscious reference to a “type” of sound was in the prologue, at the very beginning of the credits: we wanted to reference a classic monster movie, à la Bride of Frankenstein, or perhaps with a double tongue-in-cheek, à la Young Frankenstein. Beyond that I tried to find a musical equivalent of the world that Laika was trying to conjure, a dark and bizarre one.
KK: I noticed that you tend to use a wide variety of sound effects, especially in biggest works like The Brothers Grimm, V for Vendetta and, of course, Atonement. It seems to be trademark of your work, certainly the rhythmic element. There are some curious sound effects used in The Boxtrolls- theremin and percussion. Would you talk a little bit about that aspect and how it relates to this film?
DM: I think in this movie it came with the territory: the little monsters are engineers, and their cavern is packed full of various contraptions, clockworks, treadmills, cogs and wheels… One of them plays the saw… These guys are more than a little weird, and I felt somewhat compelled to reflect their quirkiness in the score, to an extent. I like this aspect of orchestration, and it is fun to play with unusual sounds.
KK: In your music, you often blur the line between score and sound – most notably in Atonement. In your latest film you also hint that idea when utilising music box effects. How did you achieve those?
DM: The music box tune was the very first music I wrote, on this movie. It was particularly important, as it becomes the first component part of a music-machine. The machine grows over the years, but the music box remain at its centre, so every new element added to the machine, including a song coming from a record player, had somehow to fit with the original choice of the music-box tune. It makes sense to me that the sounds coming from within the frame must have some relation to the rest of the score, and it is always interesting for me to find ways to achieve that blurring between the score and what the characters themselves hear.
KK: In one interview you mentioned how you dislike a straight character-theme associations (in relation to V for Vendetta). Was that the kind of approach you took with this film? Your main theme for the film is extremely malleable. This ascending box music-like line has a few resolutions and creates many shades. Would you talk a little bit about how you approached development of your ideas in this score?
DM: It is true, and I find that most of the time that approach gets in the way of trying to do something a bit more profound, where the music can aspire to be a character in its own right. This is not obviously possible on every movie, but it becomes pretty impossible if each motif is meant for a specific character. On The Boxtrolls I started from the music box tune. I wrote 4 or 5 different tunes, and I chose one of them with the directors. I find it interesting that, once chosen, that tune started to grow within the story, and it became meaningful after going through some experiences: it did not have a particular meaning to start with. But because it belongs to the music box that one character gives to another, and it is the centre of their shared music-making, that tune acquires some meaning as characters’ father-son relationship progresses. Eventually that tune could be used as part the score, on other instruments, away from the music-box — on a clarinet, say—, and when it comes it brings the memory of that father-son relationship. I find this much more satisfying than a straight tune-for-a-character approach.
Equally, what could be rightly called the “Boxtrolls” theme came out together with the “Eggs” (the main character) theme from a waltz, which I also had to write very early for the animators to work to. I thought it would be interesting to have those two ideas very intertwined, as Eggs does not really know if he is a boy or a Boxtroll. Evil has also its own theme, in this score, quite separate from the “baddy’s” motif, which happens to be more grotesque than scary.
KK: Your music is very intricately orchestrated. Do you have to provide synthesized demos? Is it difficult to achieve such a detailed effect while in electronic form when working on a film like this?
DM: I do synthesized demos, and put all the detail straight in. It takes a while, but it makes it easier at the end, when I need to prepare the actual scores for the recording sessions, as the demos are the blueprints for the orchestration.
KK: How did the amusing Quattro Sabatino song came about?
DM: The music machine was one of the trickiest sections to work on. The animators needed the music first, so they could sync all the movements on screen to it. As the first piece of the music machine is the music-box, anything else had to fit with that tune. So when the gramophone record appears, whatever music was on it had to be working with our little box tune. The story had a barber-shop quartet of men, with an Italian sounding name (Sabatino happens to be the name of the son of one of the directors). I proposed to the directors that they let me write the lyrics of the song, and I set to music a list of Italian cheeses. Originally I thought we would hear the song only when we saw the record player, during the course of the montage. After some trial and error it became obvious that having a long song covering the whole of the montage, and then spilling into the next scene too, would bind together this section of the movie much better.
KK: You have worked closely with orchestrator Benjamin Wallfisch for many years. In the case of this score, you have conducted your own music. Is it difficult to collaborate with other people on projects like this or do you prefer doing everything on your own?
DD: Because all the detail of the orchestration is in the synth demos, it is actually quite straight-forward. I still need to work with someone I trust completely, as there is no room for errors when we arrive at the mad last week before the sessions, where tons of music needs to jump from synth demos to paper. On this occasion I worked for the first time with Geoff Alexander, who is very experienced, and it was a smooth operation. Ben used to conduct my scores, and for a few years I felt more comfortable dealing with the music in the control room, where I could talk directly to my directors about any issue. But truth is, I was really missing being a musician myself, on the sessions, and I have gone back to conduct my own scores. More fun.
KK: The projects you pick seem to be very music-friendly. Your set-pieces seem to flow quite naturally as symphonic miniatures, certainly quite unlike typically functional “film cues” – montages in V for Vendetta, dance sequences in Anna Karenina, the entire score from Atonement actively shapes the narrative. The Boxtrolls is not exception. Are those musical opportunities something you think of consciously when choosing assignments?
DM: In part: I will take on a film more happily if I see that the music could aspire to more than ornamentation, or atmosphere. And there’s more than one way to be “functional”. But, also, I try to carve out the space for those set pieces, and occasionally present the director(s) with set pieces where they might not have envisaged one. I do have to be more “minimal” on occasion, when necessary, but I feel I need to at least explore the boundaries to which the music can expand to.
KK: Your writing seems to be very suitable, with very little adaptation, for a concert venue. Do you perform it often and what is that experience like?
DM: I have made suites of four scores, so far (The Brothers Grimm, Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina). They are not done too often, but occasionally they are, and people seem to enjoy them away from the movie. I am planning a “Boxtroll Suite” very soon.
KK: Do you listen to your film composer colleagues’ work at all? Have you got any favourite scores and musicians in this field?
DM: I listen, whenever I see a movie, and it is hard for me to watch a movie without concentrating on the sound: sometimes I miss what the characters say, listening to the score… job hazard, I guess.
I admire too many of my colleagues to even consider making a list. Perhaps the most inspiring ones when I started writing myself were Alberto Iglesias and Gabriel Yared, who were able to write personal, quirky music that did not seem to reference other film-music at all.
KK: Did winning Oscar for Atonement made things easier for you in the film industry? Or do you feel it somehow narrowed how people perceive your work, as it sometimes happens?
DM: It probably did happen to a certain extent: and I have turned down quite a few “period” dramas in recent years. But I feel very lucky with what has been offered to me over the years, and I feel like I am working on a good variety of projects.
KK: What’s next for Dario Marianelli? I imagine Joe Wright’s Pan is in the cards? Have you started working on it already?
DM: I prefer not to talk too much about the future, it has the habit of turning out different from expectation… But yes, I am working with Joe again.
Special thanks to Laura Nakhla and Maggie Rodford of Air-Edel for making this interview possible.
The Boxtrolls is now available from Back Lot Music