The Final Dialogue: Ridley Scott on Film Music

With The Martian coming out today—the best film Ridley Scott has made since Gladiator, and one of his best ever—I thought it timely to hear what the great auteur has to say about film music. I had the chance to interview Scott last winter in anticipation of Exodus: Gods and Kings… specifically about its score and the music for his films. I found his take illuminating. (Side note: Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for The Martian is aces.)

I try and be original as I can, and original in my enthusiasm as I can for a fresh look at things. And because of all the arts, I guess, music is the most abstract you can possibly have, right? Apart from mathematics—and even that adds up, or should add up. Music just doesn’t add up. It’s all intuition, and it’s all wonderful smoke and mirrors, is the way I look at it. But I also learnt that music also is, and I’ve said this before, the final dialogue. Music, in a sense, is dialogue—with the audience, it can be a dialogue between the characters, which will impose anything from a threat to beauty to emotion. And one tries not to rely on the music for these things, but in fact hope that the film works without it. But I tend to shoot with music in mind. I once worked with an editor who said, “No, we can’t put music on this, the film must stand on its own. Then we’ll apply music.” At the time, I went, “Ooh, alright,” and I was very impressed with that. And then I said, “Wait a minute, I don’t work that way.” I work with a view to music in mind, to help compose and construct the overall picture.

[Do you construct a scene knowing you’ll rely on music?]

No. I kind of rely on everything, including good words and good acting. I’m one of those “schools of everything,” which I think is one of the reasons I got into the business when I first saw Orson Welles and David Lean. I think David Lean with Great Expectations you can’t do better than that. To remake it is absolute nonsense, okay. It was absolutely genius. So he was the master of everything, as was Welles, you know. And I like to think I try to get into that on every facet. It’s all important.

You can never be [too specific]. As I said, music is an abstract discussion. It’s abstract, and yet it’s specific, and gradually the more you talk, the more specific it gets. But it still becomes trial and error. And fortunately today, we’re able to have a musician that doesn’t sit at a piano saying, “And here’s the timp, and here’s the bass, and here’s the drums,” and he’s playing on the bloody piano—and I’m thinking, “Wait a minute, I don’t get this. This doesn’t work.” And so thank god for the beginning of synth. Because synth can give you a pretty good rendition of a cello, and a pretty good rendition of a choir—like Westminster Cathedral. Today, you get a very specific preview of what you might get. Which is very important for me. So we’re very much backwards and forwards during the early stages, because when I cut… we tend to get a pretty great temp score. Because you’re able to choose from anything you want, you can stick in all your favorite stuff, either present or past or just made. And it drives [composers] nuts, because they say, “Oh damn.” I always remember my first experience with one of the biggest of all composers early on, and I had this terrific score for him. He went, “Goddamn it, I don’t want to hear it! I want to hear the film silent.” So I had to knuckle under and do that, and I watched the film silent and thought, “Jesus, the film plays 20 minutes longer.” The thing music can do is add a kind of mainstream blood. It’s like adding blood, and it becomes a mainstream thrust through the film… if you get it right. If you don’t, it can kill you.

vangelis Vangelis, 1982

I’m always willing to be surprised. In fact, one of the composers—this is not unkind, I think—who actually always surprised me, again and again and again, was Vangelis. I would have something in for Blade Runner which was pretty damn good, and he came in and looked at it, obviously was blown away by the visual… And I used to go and see him in his studio every night when I finished doing my editing. It was behind Marble Lodge in a huge, black barn—it was like a barn. It must have been a great big church hall, which was now decked out with his weird and wonderful world of electronics. ’Cause he was the first guy, really, to get seriously into synth and new age, new world, whatever you want to call it. He and Philip Glass, right? I mean, there were others as well, but he’s the one who really had a real vision. And he constantly surprised me. He’d say, “What about this? I’ve been sitting here all day, and I thought we’d try this at the beginning.” And I’ll never forget, I was completely blown out of the water, and never changed after that.