Dublin-based composer Stefan French is the man behind the music of one of the most talked about Irish films of 2014 – the fact-based political drama ‘The Guarantee’, directed by Ian Power and starring Peter Coonan and Gary Lydon.
French has previously scored short films such as Gavin McDonnell’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and Ciarán Dooley’s well-received ‘I’ve Been A Sweeper’. Here, he talks to IFTN about ‘The Guarantee’ and the “ongoing pursuit” of film scoring.
IFTN: Tell us about your work on ‘The Guarantee’.
Stefan French: ‘I got to work on 'The Guarantee' after having scored a short film for up-and-coming writer/director Ciarán Dooley. At the time, he was an assistant to Ian Power, the director on 'The Guarantee', and he put me forward as a potential composer. This led to a meeting with Ian during which we discussed the project in great detail. The film was still only in the script stage and from there I went away and put together two musical sketches. I distinctly remember that one sketch was very much in the vein of what we had talked about, which was quite a contemporary, synth-led, minimalistic sound. The second was totally different. It was orchestral, and very much just an idea that I had pieced together as an experiment for conceptual reasons more than anything else. Funny enough, Ian liked both of them and they ended up in the movie pretty much completely unchanged! These two cues provided us with the foundation for the entire score. Somehow, without seeing a frame of picture, the atmosphere and the tone just perfectly captured the heart of the film. The whole process was extremely rewarding and liberating thanks to the fact that Ian really strove to have me be individual with my ideas. He has the ability to express what he is looking for without preventing you from still having the freedom and the space to bring your own skills and personality to the table. Even though the logistics meant that overall the project was quite stressful, with just a little under three weeks to turn out the score, the entire process was a pleasure thanks to this sense of collaboration and freedom.’
What training/education did you receive to become a composer?
‘I started playing the violin when I was six and continued right the way through school. Somewhere along the way I switched to the viola, which is what I play today. At around about eleven, I developed an interest in composing and I invested in my first software program, Cubase VST (I still use Cubase today!). During my teens, and up until very recently, I played in a number of different orchestras, which meant I was regularly immersed in a musical environment. Approaching the end of secondary school I made the decision that I wanted to pursue music more seriously at third level. I attended the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama majoring in Composition. From day one at DIT I also began pursuing my film scoring career by seeking out student films to work on, and making as many contacts, and attending as many events as I could. Thanks to the likes of courses such as those provided by Screen Training Ireland and IMRO, I was lucky to be able to attend masterclasses and seminars with several visiting Hollywood film composers which really boosted my enthusiasm and motivation. Alongside my studies at the DIT, I also opted to do the online course, 'Composition for Film/TV', through Berklee College of Music. This allowed me to really immerse myself in various genres and styles. The workload was high and the deadlines were very challenging, but I saw this as perfect training for how it would be in the real world. After graduating, I worked for two years on various projects across film, tv and radio. I also participated in a number of film scoring workshops. These being the ASCAP/NYU Film Scoring Workshop in New York on a Film Music Foundation Scholarship, two orchestration workshops with Conrad Pope as part of the Hollywood Music Workshop in Austria, and the IMRO/RTE Film Scoring Program.’
‘It is only recently that I have actually returned to formal studies with an aim to further develop my skill set. I am now studying for my 'MA in Scoring for Film and Visual Media' at Pulse College under the 'Conrad Pope Scholarship 2014', while continuing to maintain an active composing career. In this line of work I don't believe you ever stop learning or striving to be better. It's an ongoing pursuit that lasts a lifetime, and in this way it is endlessly challenging and equally rewarding.’
What was your first job in the industry?
‘My first professional job was for a production company in San Francisco. They had stumbled across my website and asked if I would be interested in composing the music for a corporate spot that they were producing. Much to my surprise at the time, this job ended up being for Intel! This was a big step up for me, and it was the first piece of work of mine that received some quite substantial exposure. Since then, I have had the pleasure of working on many more projects for that production company and continue to stay in contact with them. It just goes to show how important a website and an online presence is for young composers today. You just never know who might be looking!’
What do you enjoy most about being a composer? And what do you consider the greatest challenges?
‘I love how every project presents something totally new. It takes me into a different world each time and it comes with its’ own unique set of challenges and surprises (good and bad!). I could never see this job getting boring! And hey, I'm not going to deny how much of a privilege it is to be able to sit around creating music all day long. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that. But in essence, that is what I get to do. And for that I am extremely grateful.’
‘Creatively speaking, the challenges are mostly what I've already mentioned above. Each project presents a blank canvas. Unchartered territory. But really, the real challenges are on the logistical front with timelines and budgets. Sometimes these things can be very restricting.’
Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use.
‘I'm not a morning person! When the schedule allows, my body clock seems to stubbornly remain fixed to about eight hours behind the rest of civilization! I've been known to get greeted with a 'Good Morning' in Starbucks at around lunchtime on many occasions! But I make up for this by working very long hours, and quite often seven days a week. When on tight deadlines, those hours get even longer. On 'The Guarantee' I was working around 15-16 hours a day simply because there was so much to get through. In a way I actually like it this way. I could never see myself in a job with a steady 9 to 5. I like to be able to manage my own schedule, so it works well for me.’
‘My main DAW is Cubase running on a Mac Pro. I do all my 'writing' in there straight to picture in most cases. When things are ready for recording I move over to Finale to produce the music score and parts. Once recorded, everything lives in Pro Tools all the way to the dub. I don't like to complicate things on the technology side. I have a setup that is simple and efficient for how I work. In this job there is very little time for tinkering or problem solving when things start going wrong...although, things always go wrong with technology no matter how simple the setup!’
What filmmaker/composer has influenced you?
‘With composers this is very hard to narrow down. A few stand outs would be Alexandre Desplat, John Powell, Thomas Newman, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Shostakovitch, Mahler, Holst, but I could go on endlessly. There are different things to draw from each one. I also listen to a wide variety of other genres outside of the orchestral palette. I frequently go on YouTube binges listening to all sorts of different artists and styles. In film music you can get asked to write anything, especially in the commercial/ad world, so staying somewhat in tune with as many other styles and genres as I can is important to me.’
What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?
‘I want to say 'Michael Collins', but I'd feel bad because Elliot Goldenthal's score for that movie is just too good! It's better to stay focused on the things I do have the opportunity to work on.’
What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?
‘From what I remember, I had quite a diverse movie-watching experience growing up. I remember the majority of it to be comprised of whatever I could get my hands on from my dad's VHS tapes. These usually always comprised of war movies or westerns that I was probably much too young to be watching at the time. Things that come to mind are 'The Guns of Navarone', 'A Bridge Too Far', 'Shane', 'The Bridge on the River Kwai', etc. I also loved a lot of swash bucklers. 'The Sea Hawk', 'Ivanhoe', 'The Adventures of Don Juan', etc. Then there were of course all the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies and the ‘Jurassic Parks’, the ‘James Bond’ films, the 'Harry Potters', 'Hook' and 'Star Wars'. I was never a ‘Star Trek’ guy though. The only ‘Star Trek’s’ I have seen are the latest ones scored by Michael Giacchino. I am sure there was a healthy serving of all the usual kids movies too...remember those silly 'Earnest Goes to Camp' movies?! I can remember a time when I was in stitches over them. Speaking of comedies, the ‘National Lampoons Vacation’ movies...though I think most of us will agree that the Christmas one is by far the best of the lot. I still find time to watch tonnes of movies and I am also into quite a few TV shows now. 'House of Cards', 'Dexter', 'Breaking Bad', 'The Good Wife', etc. Whether any of these childhood movies may have encouraged or influenced me in some way, I'll never really know. Though a while back I did revisit a movie I must have watched about seven or eight times over as a child - 'Shipwrecked'. Back then when I watched I doubt I ever paid any close attention to the music, but when I watched it recently I was listening more closely and I was stunned to realize how many of the themes were so familiar to me. I guess by osmosis I had absorbed them without realizing.’
What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?
‘There are no differences in the process, but working on an Irish production means that I can get plenty of face time with the director and producers. In some cases, I also have the opportunity to visit the set and get a feel for things, as was the case with 'The Guarantee'. On US productions, obviously this luxury is not there. But with emails and Skype, I have found it possible to establish just as collaborative a process. Plus, with my sleeping pattern, I get the added bonus that I slot right into their time zone!!’
What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into composing?
‘Provided you have at least a basic level of music theory, get writing. No matter what the idea is, or how good or bad you think it might be, the only way to start doing it is by doing just that...doing it! Just focus on being individual and expressing yourself. If you start to think you might really have a passion for it and you would like to take it further, then further study can help you to develop. But it takes time and practice, just as if you were learning a musical instrument.’
‘With regards to specifically being a composer for film in today's industry, I can only give my two cents based on what level of experience I have managed to gain up to now. I would say that on top of striving to be individual, you need motivation, perseverance and patience. It takes time and there is no fast track. Just focus on being the best composer that you can be and then making yourself even better than that! But don't forget to enjoy the ride along the way too!’
Stefan is currently doing an MA in Scoring for Film and Visual Media at Pulse College under the Conrad Pope Scholarship 2014. IFTN visited Pulse College earlier this year, check out how we got on here.