Michael Price is one of the UK’s most sought after composers. Last month, he and fellow composer David Arnold took home an Emmy Award for their music on Sherlock after being nominated in the last two years.
You may have heard Michael’s work in a number of films including Wild Target starring Bill Nighy, Emily Blunt, Martin Freeman, Rupert Everett and Rupert Grint. Michael scored two documentaries for famous producer and director Alfonso Cuaron; The Shock Doctrine (2007), Naomi Klein’s brilliant and terrifying film on disaster capitalism and The Possibility of Hope (2007), a look at different matters of the world such as immigration, global warming and capitalism through the eyes of scientists and philosophers. Michael met Alfonso Cuaron when he scored additional music for the Academy Award winning feature Children of Men and worked closely with Cuaron as music editor for this dystopian science fiction film.
Michael’s first film experience was as musical assistant, co-producer and arranger to the late Michael Kamen, which whom he collaborated for 5 years, including projects like X-Men, Band of Brothers, Iron Giant and Metallica – S&M, and concerts around the world. Now established as a successful composer in his own right, Michael has forged strong working relationships with both fellow composers, such as David Arnold, with whom he has written and arranged on a number of projects including Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
Enjoy the highlights from our time with composer Michael Price.
MC: Congratulations on your Emmy win for Sherlock. I trust you made it back safely following the awards whirlwind.
MP: Yes I did, and thank you very much Marc. It’s kind of third time lucky for David and I and all the sweeter for that! We’re really lucky to have been nominated for each of the seasons so far. Having not won the past two times I’ve genuinely managed my expectations a very long way down, so I was just happy to hang out in L.A., go to the ceremony, and the big dinner afterwards. *laughs* That said I was woefully under prepared for actually having to give an acceptance speech after we had won.
It’s amazing how fast it goes. You hear your name, then the next thing you know you’re on stage looking at the crowd, and at a counter way in the back counting down from 30 and it makes you realize how little time you have to thank everyone for why you’re up there, and then you’re whisked away back stage for a photo call and that’s that. *laughs*
When we did win, the other winner was Alan Silvestri who’s an absolute legend. He won two awards for his terrific work on Cosmos, and here I am with the award that David Arnold and I co-share going “it’s a real pleasure to meet you Mr. Silvestri, I’ve always loved your work”. *laughs* So it was really cool but I still felt very grounded and appreciative to be there actually.
MC: Did they give you any protocol after having won the award? I mean if you had to head to a party or mingle with people after the ceremony it might be a good idea have an awards ‘coat check’ room right?
MP: *laughs* Well what they definitely don’t do, or if they did I missed it, is give you anything sensible to carry the award around in later on. *laughs* They’re surprisingly large and pointy so trying to go back home through LAX with a really heavy metal sculpture in a shopping bag looks a bit ridiculous! I just didn’t have anything bigger or proper to put it in. Worse yet is that the shopping bag was a little flimsy so at one point the handle broke and literally the Emmy fell to the ground in the departure area of LAX.
You can’t get a pair of scissors or a nail file through security, but they seem to have no trouble with a giant pointy metal thing! You’re very much left to your own devices but it’s just another experience that goes along with winning an award like that.
MC: Sherlock seemed to just clean house this year, so I bet that made everyone really happy.
MP: I know! A year or two back when we were at the awards previously, Downton Abbey was winning anything and everything. That’s all well and good, it’s a fine show, but this year just felt like our year and we won a lot of categories – best actor Benedict Cumberbatch, best supporting actor Martin Freeman, writer Steven Moffat. And it really did just feel like our time. It’s not that the show has never been appreciated, but the number of fans we met this year was astounding, even in cabs on the way to the event. When we told them we were with Sherlock they would just glow and go “oh yeah, I love that show!”. It’s really good to take this win on behalf of the team because, really, this kind of award can really celebrate the whole team. The show has reached a kind of critical mass and we’re just really happy about its popularity.
MC: One of the great things I find about the music is the juxtaposition of themes that create the entire musical backdrop. As far as Downton Abbey, and I’m not belittling it by calling it one-note, it’s a period piece and they keep it pretty even keel. Sherlock on the other hand is a myriad of things. It’s a techno thriller, it’s a cat-and-mouse crime game, it’s funny as hell, sometimes deadly serious and dark and the music has to follow that narrative roller coaster. To do that, you and David use a wonderful hybrid of symphonic music and synth music to weave the themes together.
So maybe let’s just start with that. Since the show takes so many abrupt and dynamic turns, how do you even try to graph the music to that?
MP. It’s a really really good point you brought up Marc, because the show is extraordinarily vivid. I worked on a lot of TV and a lot of feature films and you’re absolutely right, the turn from incredible high stakes life or death drama, to silliness and then back out through some action is incredibly dynamic and the truth is that both David and I take a thoroughly instinctive and emotional perspective on the show, so much more than an analytical or theoretical approach.
It’s interesting because with Season 3, David and I sat in a pub and read over the script and we came up with half a dozen really clever and really thought through ideas for how we wanted the music to sound. But when we saw the actual rough cut, we didn’t use any of them. Because Sherlock is not the kind of show were you can pre-plan or impose something on it, you just have to go on a roller coaster ride with it.
So we both respond very viscerally to it. And sometimes, when you come out of the cloud of intensity that you are in while working on an episode, you’re surprised at what you accomplished. But these shows are like movies – three 90 minute movies that we’re doing at TV speed which gives us 2 weeks an episode and usually there’s 60-70 minutes of music in each episode. You just go for it, open-heartedly and as instinctual as possible, because that’s the kind of show this is, and you just hope people respond to what we’ve done.
MC: Well I really responded to the “Number Systems” theme from Season 1 and I believe that sets the tone for the entire show. What it does in a couple minutes, even in half the track, is take you through the paces that the show will take the viewers. But the one thing I want to pick up on is what you said a minute ago. These are movies which is exactly what I planned to ask you about. It’s so different from what American audiences are used to seeing and taking in. So you have a “trilogy” instead of a 12 to 24 episode story per season.
MP: Absolutely, absolutely. And I’m glad you like Number Systems, that’s one of my favorites. But as far as the structure of the show, and what David and I had to do, I had never run into this type of format before – this sort of three-times-90 minutes format. And it wasn’t even intended to be that way from the beginning. The very first episode of Sherlock was a 60 minute pilot and the show was going to be 6 episodes all at 60 minutes. I don’t know who changed it, or well I think I do, it’s probably Steven Moffat because he’s a genius *laughs* but at some point he changed it and to me, there’s something about those three 90 minute thrillers that means each episode can be given music that is very dense and tailored specifically to that story which I just don’t think is possible to do in what you said, a twelve-times-60 minutes show or eighteen-times-60 minutes or whatever American network shows are.
More than that, if it’s a network show it’s not really 60 minutes because it’s broken up with commercials and whatnot, whereas these are commercial-free 90 minute episodes. In Season 2, the episodes were incredibly different. “A Scandal in Belgravia” has these big sweeping sort of Russian romantic themes and then “The Hounds of Baskerville” is really electronic and more like Chemical Brothers if it’s like anything. Then the last episode is all about the confrontation with Moriarty on the roof top so it was probably the most filmic, especially in the last half hour which went in a very classical direction when things got very intense. I just don’t think that the canvas of a show which is formatted for a larger number of shorter episodes really allows for that same sort of depth per episode.
MC: Even though they do have continuity, as you said, they’re able to form their own identity, almost like Bond films, that can exist autonomously but are still part of the larger narrative fabric.
MP: Yes definitely. And I think the Bond reference is a good one particularly because of David’s background, and I did work with him briefly on Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. We’ve been friends and have worked together for a long time. But it really calls back to that idea of sending a hero off on an adventure, and I think that when Sherlock is at his most successful is when the story gives you the sense that characters you really love are in real danger and there’s really jeopardy there. And for that to work you have to really care for the characters and the storytelling has to craft real situations for them to be in peril. Sherlock, on his very very best days, faces that and overwhelming odds while everyone else is being put through the ringer.
So when David and I sat down to write these themes, even in the very beginning for the pilot episode, many of which have become the familiar character themes that we weave through the show now.
You can’t be self-conscious about writing these themes, you just have to let yourself go along for the ride and take each show by itself. If you ever had a thought that “oh great, now I have to create a theme that is going to be played through 9 movies again and again and again” you couldn’t even start to write something with that much pressure behind you. So in a way the gaps between the seasons, which are quite long, let you take a break from the task at hand.
MC: Well working for three seasons, you and David essentially have become the Sherlock Holmes and John Watson of the music department, or maybe vice versa. So whose decision was it to have two composers and what was the reasoning behind that?
MP: The genesis of that really came out of David and my relationship over the course of what is now close to 15 years. In my 20s I was an assistant to Michael Kamen for five years in London. He worked on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, and all those great films and when I worked with him we worked on the first X-Men and The Iron Giant. He was an amazing, amazing composer. But when I finished working with him and wanted to start working on my own projects I met David and he was working on a project that I was able help him with. Very early on we found a way of working together that I had really never had before or since really.
Even though we are quite different characters, musically we could bring out the best in each other. We could be very honest and truthful about what the other had written or how we solved a problem. So we could have those kind of conversations without the other being kind of defensive or touchy about things. That really developed over a number of films that either David was writing and I was arranging or whatever it was. Sometimes David might have written a theme and I got to write everything else but Sherlock is a project that arrived at a time where we were very happy to write together, 50/50.
We work well together but there are moments when we also want to impress each other as well. So when I get to work on a scene I know the first person who is going to hear something is David. I wouldn’t for a second say we’re like The Beatles *laughs* because we’re a terrible middle-age non-rock band *laughs* but it’s that sort of thing where if you know the first person who will hear what you’ve written is, in my opinion, a fabulous world-class musician like David Arnold, you definitely show up with your A game! You’re not going to phone it in.
So I think the combination of the two of us works and I don’t know what Sherlock would sound like if it was just David, or just me. Certainly we’re capable of doing it but there’s something to that creative mixing of our two voices which maybe really takes a cue from the show. There are two voices – John and Sherlock. It’s not just Sherlock being super smart or just John dutifully solving crimes. They are a pair and that’s why it works, and further I think a little creative chaos can be a good thing.
MC: I want to go back to what you said about reading the script and finding the homework you’ve done useless by the time you actually see footage on screen. I’ve talked to a number of composers who’ve had similar experiences, so they don’t even bother with the script. So then, as far as inspiration, how effective is going to visit a set to help you get your mind around the score?
MP: The one thing that I do, actually David and I do this together, is that I go to the script read through. We get the script and tend not to read them, but hearing the show played out over a table read is actually quite enlightening. It’s a very peculiar, banal and domestic operation where a group of incredibly talented actors, writers, cast and crew gather in a dusty windy church hall in an undisclosed part of North London and sit down and read through the entire story.
There’s just something magical about that because it’s neither the dryness of the script or the mechanical nature of being on set, and so I’m really attached to the script read through now because there is a real germ of the drama in there that sets off everything that you need to know. So between that and when we actually see a rough cut there’s been a seed planted in David’s and my brain over the past few weeks. So when we get two weeks to score the 90 minute show we’ve already been thinking about it and that helps us get there a little easier.
MC: Two weeks? Wow, I guess by working with Michael Kamen you must have picked up a few tips because I heard he scored the 90 minutes of music for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in three weeks. So if you’re writing each part of each season’s “trilogy” in 2-3 weeks then you and David must really be on the same page.
MP: *laughs* There are some special experiences in my life that allow me to look back on and go, “that was really cool!”. The time I spent with Michael was one of then and I was constantly witnessing what an extraordinary man he really was. He’s just a natural musician and he had this real passion for life. He could be very challenging to assist because he wanted the cream of the crop all the time so that meant there was always a group of very tired looking musicians in his wake trying to figure out how to keep up with what he’d written and the expectation that all this gloriousness had to happen around him. *laughs*
One of the things that I understood very late with Michael was the tune, the melody and the theme. As a young, callow and aspiring musician I would say, “You have to stop playing this tune. You can’t play it again and again and again over this scene and that scene. You need changes here, and need to chop the end of that”. I got very caught up in the mechanics of the music in each scene.
Then he would look at me and go, “Just play the tune man. Just play the tune.” and it really started to make sense later on because there’s this glorious logic that if you’ve got a great tune, and Michael wrote really great tunes, some better than most anyone else because he was a wonderful melodic writer, but there’s just something elevating and elegant about managing to play out the entire theme in all its logical form that it takes the audience, really satisfyingly, on a journey with you.
So there are times, and I would never dream of comparing anything we do to Michael’s work, but it’s certainly an inspiration about not worrying too much about the twists and turns and the cuts and starts/stops. If you can get away with it, just play a beautiful theme the best that you can do, and something else happens when you do that.
MC: Well The Iron Giant celebrates its 15th anniversary this year and as it’s a film and score near and dear to my heart, knowing that you had anything to do with it earns you undying respect in my book!
MP: Oh, thank you very much Marc! That was a such wonderful and special project to work on, mainly because Brad Bird is such a genius. The animation is fantastic and it really helped Michael create one of his finest scores of all time. That was really Michael at his best.
MC: I know we have to wrap this up so I’ll finish with a Sherlock question. The idea of earning a theme is something that happens in movies, but when you hear the theme in the intro credits of a TV series, how does that affect or influence your writing process knowing that viewers will hear the theme before the show even starts?
MP: I think that the mechanics of TV and storytelling are just slightly different from film. So one of the things with music for continued TV shows is that you’re providing a framework of themes each time for the audience. That way they can enjoy the show with an added sense of familiarity. I know what you mean, but actually there’s a kind of a reassuring pleasure in establishing home ground before you take someone on a journey.
MC: Well thanks for that Michael. And should you and David make it back to the Emmy stage next year, I hope the awards producers can find suitable means for you to take home your well deserved prize, safely!
MP: *laughs* Now that would be great! *laughs*
Thanks to Michael for his time. Michael wrote music for three movies this year - The Inbetweeners 2, Tell No One (which is in post-production) and the TV movie Walter.
Marc V. Ciafardini writes for GoSeeTalk.com, a Dallas-based website that often focuses on movie reviews, interviews, film scores and the composers behind them.