Breakthrough neo-classical composer Amelia Warner is best known for her stunning soundtrack for the film “Mary Shelley,” directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and starring Elle Fanning. It won Warner the Breakthrough Composer of The Year Award at the International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) Awards in 2019 and a nomination in the “Discovery of the Year” category at the World Soundtrack Awards. Growing up in west London’s Notting Hill, she loved to play piano in her family home. Although resisting traditional classical training, she would constantly invent melodies, and her first proper composition, at fifteen, was for a school soap-opera project. It would be many years before anyone heard her evocative instrumental compositions. Her first career was as an actress, following in her mother Annette Ekblom’s footsteps. She knew she wanted to be part of the filmmaking and storytelling process, but quickly realized she was on the wrong side of it. Her major debut scoring project was the British short film “Mam,” which won several awards on the film festival circuit and led to her first feature film composition, for 2016’s “Mum’s List,” directed by Niall Johnson and starring Rafe Spall and Emilia Fox. Warner has also released three solo classical albums to date, the most recent EP, “Haven,” being released in summer 2020. The home-inspired “Haven” was coincidently released at a time when home was the epicenter for people thrown into months of lockdown in the midst of the global pandemic. Her previous solo EP, “Visitors” (2017), followed her debut EP, “Arms” (2015). Warner’s three EP releases have all reached #1 classical album on the iTunes chart.
Tara Karajica talks to Amelia Warner about her work on John Patrick Shanley’s new film “Wild Mountain Thyme,” starring Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan that has just been released, as well as her composing career so far and who she would love to work with when times are better.
Can you talk about the move from acting to composing? Why did you choose film composing out of all the fields in film?
Amelia Warner: I started acting when I was really young, I was about sixteen-seventeen. It was just one of those things that kind of happened and there was the opportunity to do it, so I felt that I should take the opportunity. I loved working in film and I got to work with some amazing people, some amazing directors, but I knew quite early on that acting wasn’t my passion, that it just wasn’t the right fit for me. I was very self-conscious. I was very nervous. I really struggled with panic attacks and it was just a bad fit. But I knew that I wanted to be involved in storytelling and in film and music was something that I’d done my whole life and I’d always written music and I’d always played the piano. I guess, in some ways, it was a natural move for me to go into the musical side of film because that was actually the thing that I was most interested always. And, I had been writing music and I had a piece that I wrote for a friend’s short film and I think once I wrote that piece to picture, it was the perfect fit and it just clicked. And, I just thought: “Wow! This is what I want to do! This is combining all of my favorite things in one place,” and I knew that it was what I wanted to do.
How do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images and the special moments that transport us to another place, another time and even another world?
A.W.: I don’t have a particular method. It changes depending on what I’m doing. It’s quite instinctual; you just have a response, I guess, to what you see in front of you. Actually, in the case of Wild Mountain Thyme, I had a really strong response to the script. I read the script and then wrote some of the themes straightaway because I just had these ideas and these themes in my head. I just sat at the piano and they just came. So, I think that it’s like alchemy; it’s one of those things I don’t know how it necessarily happens. Then, there’ll be other things that you write very quickly and that don’t change; often, they’re your first response and I think often it is right. But then, there’ll be other cues that may be more difficult or more challenging that you’re struggling with and sometimes with that, I’ll actually play other types of music while I’m watching the picture and I say: “Okay, well, that kind of works tempo-wise… Well, that’s doing something interesting. Why is that working? Okay, is it this? Is it that? Is it the instrumentation?” And then, I’ll try and jump off and do something inspired by that. There are just so many different ways of approaching a cue. But I don’t necessarily have a set way. It always just starts with me watching the film a few times and then, just writing note to picture, the melodies and the ideas… And then, sitting down with the picture and seeing how those themes sit with the picture and seeing which ones will work. I think the film tells you what works and that’s the thing that I find really interesting; you can have something that when you first listen to sounds really beautiful, but the picture just doesn’t take it in. And then, there’s something else that you play and you’re in front of the film and it just gets absorbed into the film and you’re like: “Okay, this is it,” and it kind of gives you clues, I think.
Are you talking about this specific film or your work process in general? I mean, how do you get in the zone and does your creative process differ from project to project?
A.W.: I think just a general way. If I’m writing music that’s my own music that I’m releasing separately then, I’ll have a different inspiration or a different process. But with a film, the way I usually get in the zone is by watching the film and trying to get those first instincts down as quickly as I can and then, seeing which of those things are going to work with the film.
Can you talk about scoring Mary Shelley and working with Haifaa al-Mansour on this particular project?
A.W.: I loved working on that film and working with Haifaa was amazing. I thought she’s an incredible director. It was really nice working with a woman on a story that was about a female protagonist and it was really wonderful sharing that experience. It’s funny because she was in L.A. and I was in the UK, so we weren’t in the same room and a lot of it was over the phone, over email or conversations. She was great and I had such a great experience on that film. It was a really steep learning curve for me because it was a big challenge to pull it off. It was my second film, but it was different from the first one I did, which was smaller, independent and it was mainly piano, it was a lot more contained whereas this felt like it needed to have quite an epic scope to it because of the fact that it was Mary Shelley and the fact that it was a period film, and there were a lot of supernatural things happening and this otherworldly Gothic world that needed to be created. But I loved it!
How did you get on board Wild Mountain Thyme?
A.W.: My agent said: “What do you know about Wild Mountain Thyme?” Well, I knew of the film because my husband was in it and he was having the most amazing time on this project and he was just loving it so much. And then, when I read the script, I completely fell in love with it as well and I just wanted to be part of that world that John Patrick Shanley creates and is distinctive and compelling. It just really got under my skin and really stayed with me and I really kept thinking about all the characters and all the moments. I just had a very strong emotional response to the script and then, I wrote some music and the main theme straightaway. It was all quite early at that stage and they weren’t thinking about composers, but then, down the road, they really liked the music and I think they put some of it to picture and were really, really happy with what I’d written. And so, I came on board then.
In Wild Mountain Thyme, there’s the theme you composed and there’s the Swan Lake theme. How did you work on combining the two and making it all flow together?
A.W.: When I read the script, there were already these two very strong musical identities in the film; there was the Swan Lake, which I kind of think of as Rosemary’s theme and then, there’s the song “Wild Mountain Thyme,” which is this beautiful folk song that I knew really well previous to the film and it’s one of my favorite songs; it’s just beautiful. So, I knew that there were already these two very important musical things in the film. Swan Lake features in these really pivotal moments of the movie. So, I guess, I felt like there was this third pillar of the score that I needed to write that was kind of finding the identity and the sound of Ireland, of the farm and where they live and the history and that was the bit that I needed to fill in. But, yes, there were already these very strong things that I knew were going to be in the score, so I knew it was going to have this kind of richness to it and this variety. It was finding something that would sit between the two. So, having that full classical orchestral music of Swan Lake and having something that could match that. But then also, having something that could work with the folk element of Wild Mountain Thyme and the smaller, more acoustic folk sound.
Can you also talk about the Irish sound that you composed? And, what was your inspiration for that?
A.W.: Well, Ireland and Irish music were. I spent quite a lot of time in Ireland and everywhere you went, there was music. Every restaurant you go to, every pub you go to, there are people playing music and it’s such an amazing brilliant thing and I love it so much. So, I wanted to try and bring that into the score and try and find a really authentic sound for it so it didn’t sound too twee because I think there’s a version of Irish music that we all are familiar with that maybe just doesn’t feel authentic anymore. But then, I also really wanted to incorporate all of the instruments and this instrumentation that you associate with Ireland. It was all about trying to find that balance. We had a band for most of those cues that was clarinets, bass, an accordion and two fiddle players. On all of the Irish folk cues, we had this great violin player called Sam Sweeney. He’s a folk violinist and he came and played on all of that stuff so it had more of an authentic, fun, wild quality to it. There was lots of improvisation and it had a really fresh energy and a character to it. I think that was really important because, obviously, the film is weird and the characters are all a bit strange, so you can use it to have a real character to it. And, the main thing that, I guess, was the most surprising and the most fun for me was the accordion, which initially just featured in all of those more upbeat Irish folk cues, but then ultimately, it’s in pretty much every cue of the film – even the big orchestral stuff has the accordion in and that was the characterful, warm, beautiful, layer that is the glue that I felt brought all of it together and gave it a really lovely unique signature sound.
I feel like both Wild Mountain Thyme and Mary Shelley are girl power scores, scores that have a strong touch of female empowerment. Would you agree with that assumption?
A.W.: I’d really like to think that and I don’t know if it’s been a deliberate intention or anything, but I guess especially Mary Shelley was so empowering. Seeing a woman back in that time making the decisions that she made and the choices that she made and having the agency that she had for her own life, I felt like there was a lot of girl power going on in there and I wanted the score to have a kind of strength. But with Wild Mountain Thyme, I hadn’t really consciously done that, but I really like that you think that.
There are more and more female composers today. Can you talk about being one of them today and who was your inspiration when you decided to become a film composer, because back then things were different?
A.W.: It was really hard and I think that’s why I didn’t start doing it until I was probably in my early thirties. And, I think that’s because I just hadn’t ever seen an example of women doing it. I mean, the only one that I used to always think about was Rachel Portman and I think she maybe had three interviews on YouTube that I’d watched like ten times and I listened to her scores and was such a massive fan, but there weren’t many examples of people doing it. I think that I felt like it was probably something that I couldn’t really do, to be honest, because most of the people that I saw doing it were these classical composers, male, older and it just felt like this is a kind of closed club. And then, I think there was a kind of new wave of composers that came through with people like Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran, Michael Nyman and Hildur Gudnadóttir that had a different approach. And, it wasn’t necessarily these very traditional scores; some of them are just piano only. It just suddenly felt like there was a bit of a shift and that film music was starting to really broaden. There were lots of artists who were in bands or who were singers who were suddenly doing brilliant scores and amazing work. It just suddenly opened up in an amazing way and I think it’s actually a really exciting time for film music now because there aren’t any rules anymore; all sorts of people are writing scores. So, I think it is changing and I think it’s really exciting and I hope that now, for people who are interested in doing it, there are all sorts of examples of people from all different kinds of musical backgrounds who are making amazing scores. It’s attainable and it’s available for anyone who’s interested in it in a way that it wasn’t maybe even only five years ago, when it still felt like a fairly narrow group of people who were making that music.
Can you talk about your EPs?
A.W.: The Visitors EP was this idea that I had in my head of an old house with all of the women who’ve maybe lived there in the past and giving them all their own musical identity and their own story, almost like their spirits still slightly walked the walls of the house. I think it’s because I’ve always loved the piano when it’s played from another room, that thing when someone’s playing the piano in a house down the road or upstairs. I love that sound of it kind of floating. So, that was the idea of that EP. I wanted the whole thing to feel like piano that was floating in from somewhere else, whether it was from another time or from another generation. The last EP that I did was called Haven and I wrote that just after having my third baby and I was at home. She was still really tiny and I was still breastfeeding her and I just couldn’t seem to get the time to go and record and commit to a date and we ended up doing it at the house and bringing the sound engineer and producer that I work with to the house. They all came and we set it all up and we recorded the noise of the room, the barn, the birds and the fire. It was a weird thing because we weren’t in lockdown then – it was pre-all of that, but it was like a version. I was going through a version of lockdown that you go through, I guess, when you’ve just had a baby. You’re kind of slightly outside of the world, of everything; you’re in this little tiny space and your world gets really small. It’s really lovely and it’s really special, but it’s a very unique feeling. So that’s what Haven was all about. And then, obviously, three months later, we were all in lockdown. So, it was like a weird echo.
What was the best advice you received when you started out? And, what would you say to a young girl who wants to be a film composer now? What advice would you give her?
A.W.: I just had my first baby and I was a bit lost and I didn’t really know what it was that I should be doing and I had some amazing opportunities to do various things and felt like: “Should I take that opportunity or should do that? I’m so lucky to be able to do that…” and I just didn’t really have the belief that I could be a film composer. And then, I remember talking to somebody who just said: “Look, what do you want to do if you could do anything in the world? Don’t think about the reality. Don’t think about constraints. Don’t think about how. Just tell me: ‘What do you want to do?’” And, I was like: “I want to write music for film.” They were like: “That’s what you’re going to do then!” It was just having somebody take away all of that noise. I think it’s about being really clear about what it is you want to do, and then just really believing it and focusing on it, and not having your head turned and not trying to settle for less because you think: “Oh well, I’m so lucky just to be able to do that.” Just having that belief and the clarity to just say: “Well, if I could do anything, what would I do?” And then, why not? You just have to go for it. I think that was the thing that changed it for me – being really honest with myself about what it was that I wanted rather than being like: “I don’t know!” because once I said that out loud, it changed everything.
I guess, the other advice would just be: don’t worry about all the technical staff or the how things work. I think that just believing that if you have an instinct and if you have ideas, then that’s enough. Don’t worry about that person having this many songs per library and that other person being able to do that or not knowing how to use Sebelius or Pro Tools. What I mean is that you can get really bogged down in all the technical side of it and really intimidated by reverbs and plugins and the kit and the stuff that you’re meant to be able to do. I am useless at all of that stuff and absolutely terrible, but I can write melodies, I can have an emotional response to what I see on a screen and I can have really strong instincts about how the music should be. And, I think just knowing that, that’s actually really valuable and that’s enough. You can learn everything else, and you can have people help you with that all and I think you have to know that it’s okay if you’re not brilliant at all that stuff – you’ll get better at it. It’s just keeping it as simple as you can for as long as you can and not getting overwhelmed with mockups and making amazing demos and all of the technical side of it.
What would you say your sound is and what would you want your audience to feel when they hear your scores?
A.W.: I would hope, in a way, that my sound is whatever the film needs. I hope that I don’t necessarily have a totally fixed sound and that I’m able to pivot and change with whatever the film needs. But I do love themes and melody. I like a strong melody. I feel like Mary Shelley was a bit more abstract and a bit more textural and atmospheric, but I think that Wild Mountain Thyme is a classic movie theme. I love writing melody. I really enjoy that. And, I guess, the other thing that I really enjoy is layers and layering things. Hopefully, it would have some emotional connection when people hear that, that there would be some kind of emotional response to music.
What is the best film score ever, according to you? And, your favorite one?
A.W.: That’s really, really hard! I love Jerry Goldsmith. Sleeping with the Enemy is one of my favorites. Doctor Zhivago, I think, is another favorite. It’s so beautiful. I love all of Michael Nyman’s work – his Peter Greenway films are incredible. I love In the Mood for Love, it’s another one of my favorite scores and it’s just amazing. There are just so many different scores that I love. I love lots of scores of classic films as well like Bernard Herman and all those brilliant Hitchcock films. But I think the scores that I probably listen to the most would be those by Dustin O’Halloran and Max Richter.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?
A.W.: I would say I’m a feminist, for sure – as in, I believe that men and women should have equal rights. I have three daughters, so it’s really important to me that they see me being part of the world, interacting with the world, being engaged in the world and doing something that I love and that has value. I feel like the only way I can do that is by example. I can’t tell them that, they have to see that. I don’t know if, in fact, it consciously informs the way I compose; I guess it’s probably more just the belief that I’m as capable as a man to do that job.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and one you would love to work with?
A.W.: I am a massive fan of Jane Campion. I think Bright Star is one of my favorite scores. I absolutely love that film and I love that score. I love all of her movies, so Jane Campion is a huge hero. Andrea Arnold is incredible. Lynne Ramsay is another director I admire. Sofia Coppola, obviously. I love her movies. I think is Sam Taylor Johnson is incredible. I’d love to work with her. I really love her eye and she uses great music. And, Reed Morano – I would love to work with her.
Times are uncertain and right now, but do you have anything in the pipeline for when times are better?
A.W.: It’s really a weird time at the moment and everything’s just a bit unknown. I think that I’m definitely going to do another album next year. And then, in terms of a film or TV or another project, I’m not sure. I think there are things hopefully in the pipeline, but I guess so many things didn’t shoot or have been pushed or moved, so it’s just working out when they’re going to happen, if they’re going to happen and seeing when that will be.
Photo credit: Amelia Warner.