Interview: Daniel Pemberton, Composer of the “Man from UNCLE” Score

Posted on August 18, 2015 at 6:58 pm

When director and co-screenwriter Guy Ritchie needed someone to write a cool, sexy, sophisticated score for “The Man from UNCLE,” he went to Daniel Pemberton. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year and I had a lot of fun talking to him about how it all came together.

At what stage of the process did you get involved?

I came on just before they started editing. So I normally try to get involved in films early on, kind of work alongside the film makers and actually kind of have an input and it means you write music that’s kind of a) more unique and b) you can experiment more, you can kind of come up with ideas that don’t work and you’ve got time to throw them out and start again and try to find a way through. It also means you can temp the movie with your own music that you write for that movie. And I think the biggest problem with film music is the fact that so many films are temped with music that that has been temped with other films. It’s all dog eating itself and I like to try and break out of that. It’s a lot more work, it takes up so much more time but I think the end result is worth it because you get something hopefully that people kind of listen and go, “Oh, it’s new, I haven’t heard this kind of thing before.”

How do you create something that feels like it fits in the 60’s but is appropriate for contemporary listeners?

The 60’s was one of the greatest eras of music that we’ve had. I think a lot of that was because there was so much experimentation at that time. The rules were still being written. You remember that at the start of the 60’s it was still three chords played on the guitar and by the end there was this explosion of ideas and I think everyone was influencing everyone else. Everyone would try to outdo each other.

Music was such a big part of the culture and it really pushed people to try out new ideas and so it was a very fertile time. And I think we’ve changed a bit from that and it was great to go back and just kind of pick up on all of those kinds of sounds and ways of writing music and ways of recording music that were around then. That’s how I approached the score. I tried to take the spirit of the 60’s. Everyone has got their own version of the 60’s but I got to try to capture what I liked of the 60s to work. Time generally erodes the bad things and the good stuff sticks around. So you want to find all of the stuff you like about those ideas and then try to put your own spin on that.

You have major characters from four different countries in the film: the US, Germany, the Soviet Union, and England. Do you think about that when you are working on the score?

I see it like a kaleidoscope of international color because you are taking all of these influences from different cultures and the style felt very international. Spy stuff is often international, just from traveling the world and seeing different cultures. They are all being experienced at the same time and that means you can have more fun and pinch from all of those cultures. If it was all set in a grimy London street it could have been amazing but it would be harder to pull off those kinds of sounds. At the London premiere I told Guy we should do the next one in China because I want to do crazy Chinese instruments. He was like, “I don’t want to do stuff in China. We could just do Istanbul.” And I’m like “We can do Istanbul. There are loads of great Turkish instruments like kanoon that I’ve worked with before. And I would have so much fun doing like kind of funky takes on that.”

It seems like spy movies always have to have a fancy party scene, and this movie has a great one.

That scene was hard work. I had to jump between Ilya’S story and Napoleon’s story and have it be a groove that everyone liked. It is really hard because you’ve got this beat and you can’t stop it midway through and jump to something else. Guy would want to do the opposite of what you would expect on these scenes normally: “What would be the normal way of doing that scene? Okay let’s not do that. Let’s do the opposite and try to find a different way of doing something you have seen before.”
Because in a lot of ways this film is sort of a homage to all the great 60’s spy films and action films. And one of the great ways to make it feel new is to take some of those ideas and put a new fresh spin on that and music is a great way to do that. I tried loads of different ideas it’s like, “Hush, this is boring. I have heard this like a million times before in other films” and you would be like, “Oh, okay. Let’s try something else if you don’t like it.” And you know what? He was right because we were doing stuff that was conventional and it was only when I started doing really crazy stuff, that’s when it really came to life. What was clear about this film is that I got pushed to write madder and madder music and I like that.

What was the first instrument you learned to play?

The piano. Badly. Technically I learned the violin when I was about five and then I didn’t like it; it was rubbish. I did about two days on it and then I decided I wasn’t musical. And then I became 10 and I found the piano and started writing songs on it and then I sort of went from there.

Were there any kinds of instruments or technology that you used that were kind of retro?

Oh yeah. I mean we did the whole score at Abbey Road, which was kind of the spiritual home of 60’s music. It was where all of the big music records were made. I worked with a guy who is the number one specialist on all of that stuff and all the antique gear. Abbey Road an amazing studio that is still used today and all the corridors are full of old pieces of equipment, literally like old 60’s things that the Beatles probably used. They are just lying in corridors because there was so much of it. We basically commandeered it all for a recording session. There was a tiny control room full of these old tape machines. There was not a lot of space to fit because these things were ginormous and we kind of nicked them all in the recording. So we had old mixing desks, looking something like a nuclear submarine, I mean they looked insane. They were ginormous and you’ve got the mixing knobs that are like these giant levers you pulled. We had old tape machines. We even used echo chambers studio too which is a room where they used to make echoes. That’s a room in the building where you sent sounds into and record the reverb of the room. The room is all tiled and we used that to create some drum echoes because that was how they used to do it in the 60s before reverb units existed. And then the same instruments, we got like vintage 60s harpsichords, guitars, bases. Everything like even the flute, the main flute, there is a really, really old flute.

I wanted to ask you about the flute because it had that great feathery sound.

That is a great flute player called Dave Heath. He normally plays more kind of classical concertos. A friend always says, “You’ve got to meet Dave, he’s crazy, you would get on with him.” I’m sort of like, “Yeah right, okay let’s meet Dave.” So I met Dave and he is crazy and I did get on with him. He would play some stuff and I would be like, “Okay, show me the sort of sounds you can make that no one asks you to make.” So he would play it and he would start making these crazy noises and I would be like, “Hang on, that, what was that?” He would play something and I would go, “Yeah you’re right, let me write something for that.” So I would go away and I would write some ideas and he would play it and I would be like, “Okay, that’s cool.” And we would work like that a bit and try to come up with how we get these unusual sounds for the score. A lot of that is just him playing. I mean we almost killed him during recording, perfectly intense. It’s like a guy running out of breath. Yeah, I wanted to get these bits where he was running out of breath and I would be like, “Keep playing, keep playing!” There would be someone in the control room saying, “Is he all right? Are you going to kill him?” I am like, “No, don’t worry, he likes this sort of thing.” Most of the effects are analog effects. Everything ended up in a computer but it all went through a bit of analog processing. And I’ve got to tell you, analog distortion on a red desk which is one of these old desks is phenomenal. It just sounds insane. It’s like something you never really heard. You are like, “Wow, what is that?”

Follow Daniel Pemberton on Twitter to get updates on his next big score — for “Steve Jobs.”

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