Rachel Portman began composing at the age of fourteen and read music at the University of Oxford. She gained experience writing music for drama for BBC and Channel 4 films, including “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” Mike Leigh’s “Four Days in July” and Jim Henson’s “Storyteller” series.
Since then, she has written over a hundred scores for film, television and theater, including “Oliver Twist” by Roman Polanski, “The Manchurian Candidate” by Jonathan Demme, “One Day” by Lone Scherfig, “The Lake House” by Alejandro Agresti, “Never Let Me Go” by Mark Romanek, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” by Robert Redford or “Mona Lisa Smile” by Mike Newell. In 1997, she became the first female composer to win an Academy Award, which she received for the score of Jane Austen’s classic “Emma.” She was also the first female composer to win a Primetime Emmy Award, which she received for “Bessie” by Dee Rees. She has received two further Academy Nominations for “The Cider House Rules” and “Chocolat” by Lasse Hallström, which also earned her a Golden Globe Nomination as well as Bafta nominations for “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and “The Woman in Black.”
Tara Karajica talks to Rachel Portman her work on Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary, “Julia,” which chronicles the life of TV chef and author Julia Child as well as her composing career so far, including the Lifetime Achievement Award she recently received at Soundtrack Cologne, women composers today and what she is working on next.
What made you want to become a film composer?
Rachel Portman: I didn’t know that I wanted to be a film composer until I tried it. I knew I wanted to be a composer and that was going to be my profession. Probably from the age of about seventeen or eighteen, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. But I didn’t discover film until I worked on a full-length student feature film that was made by a bunch of students when I was at university that, in fact, Hugh Grant was in. He was at the same university as me at the same time. And, as a result of that, I suddenly thought: “Hang on a minute, I really like this! This is the kind of music that I want to write!” And, when I was starting out, there was no awareness of a career as film composer. Now, you can study it, there are all these programs, many of them all over the place. But I’ve never heard of anyone who did this. Of course, I knew that people wrote music for film and for television. I was twenty-two when I did that, I had just finished University and I got the bug if you put it like that. I saw immediately the power of putting music against the visual image and how they worked so well together. Something told me: “I think I could do that. So that’s what I’m going to do.” So, I focused all my attention on that.
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?
R.P.: It’s really difficult to talk about where music comes from. It’s like, where does creation of any kind come from? I’m very lucky in that it comes from somewhere. But in order to tap into it, you have to work at it. For example, if I’m starting work on a new film, I watch the film again and again and again and I sit with it and I think about it. I just spend a lot of time with it. I’m not really thinking about what the music will be. And, it’s from that contemplation that’s in a very still place that then ideas begin to come. But you have to put that work in. I have to get to know the film so well that then I can begin to creatively resonate with it. And then, ideas come.
How do you get in the zone? Does your creative process differ from project to project? Do you have rituals?
R.P.: My creative process does not really change from project to project. It’s always the same, which is, I come to my studio, I sit quietly and I put everything else that’s going on in my head out of the room, it goes out of the studio and I come to a very still place. You need to empty your mind of everything. It’s not really a meditation, but it’s something similar to that. It’s my kind of my ritual before I sit down to write.
Can you talk about scoring Julia and working with Julie Cohen and Betsy West and finding this link between food and music? How did you get on board this project?
R.P.: Betsy and Julie approached me. I had seen their film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG, that I thought was just brilliant. They’re great filmmakers. And so, when they approached me about doing this, I was really keen. They had the film with quite a lot of my music, so it was clear that they knew what they wanted. And also, a lot of it was right up my street. I wonder if one of the reasons that they approached me was that I’ve written music for Chocolat and Chocolat is a film about food. And, that’s exactly the same thing that you’re asking me about, which is, food and music going together and, to me, it’s really fun to write music for preparation of food and eating food. I don’t know why, but I feel like they go very naturally together. And, it’s a lot of fun writing music for food, cooking and recipes. So, maybe they approached me because of Chocolat. And also, I noticed that in their temp score they had used there was a lot of Chocolat. So, there was something fun about that or maybe it’s just a coincidence.
The score for Julia is a very feminist, a sort of girl power score, much like Julia Child in a sense. Would you agree with that assumption? How would you characterize that particular score?
R.P.: Would I agree with that? Well, I like that you sat that! RBG and most certainly Julia are films by Julie and Betsy that celebrate girl power and I’m all for that! The music that I wrote is reflecting that because it’s so evident in Julia Child. She was so determined to make this beautiful cookbook. She had such determination in her career that got her to where she got to, and then she carried on wanting to keep working and I applaud that! I really do! So, my music was very much reflecting that journey of hers.
The score is made up of different elements. One of the most important elements is the discovery of food and love and making food for others as a way of giving love or nurture and the importance of food and the importance of being fed. There is a very beautiful sequence in the film where there are a couple of chefs talking about the importance of being fed by our mothers while we’re babies and food goes back right to that, our earliest beginnings. It is a gift to make something for somebody. Then, there’s Julia Child’s determination and the fact that she was such a character. So, the music had a lot to do with this driving energy and quite fun as well and outspoken because she was larger than life. And then, there was a love theme for her and her husband, which is actually a really beautiful love story. They really, really loved each other.
One thing which Julie and Betsy talked to me about was that they definitely wanted the score to have some kind of badass quality to it. And, badass isn’t really a term that we use here in England, but I knew what that was. And so, the music has my interpretation of what that means, which is quite punchy, bold and sort of out there. I’ve also had loads of fun with it. There’s quite a lot of music that is very playful in there. And then, there’s the whole French thing as well. The film was a great canvas to score. I loved it!
Can you talk about your other projects? Do you have any favorites among the films that you scored? Can you talk about these experiences?
R.P.: I’ve had so many wonderful, wonderful experiences, I suppose. Standout ones, for me, would be: I collaborated with Jonathan Demme three times and I find he was a wonderful, inspiring director to work with. And so, personally, for me, that was very rewarding. I really loved working on Never Let Me Go. Never Let Me Go is a really extraordinary, very well-made film and I was very deeply moved by it. Then, of course, working with Lasse Hallström. I loved working on Chocolat and Cider House Rules. They’re both excellent films. Because they’re such good films, they give a lot back to you as the composer and it makes it very rewarding to write the music for. I loved working on Oliver Twist with Roman Polanski and with Robert Redford on The Legend of Bagger Vance. He is such a great storyteller and a wonderful man. I really enjoyed that. I really, really liked working with Lone Scherfig on One Day and Their Finest. She’s a really wonderful filmmaker. And, Douglas McGrath! I’ve worked with him several times and, of course, on Emma and he’s the most wonderful director and wonderful human being and so much fun to work with.
You have recently won the Lifetime Achievement Award at Soundtrack Cologne. Can you talk about this experience and the fact that there is a film festival for film composers?
R.P.: Soundtrack Cologne is a really important festival. It’s a forum and a meeting place for composers. They have a lot of really good talks. Interestingly, they just started a workshop for women composers, which is great because it celebrates and highlights a gap in the industry. It’s been going for eighteen years now and I’ve visited twice. And, it is a very important festival that is looking at all aspects of writing music and sound design.
As for the award, I’m very honored because I hugely respect Soundtrack Cologne, so it’s a particular honor for me to have gotten a Lifetime Achievement Award from them. I’m really thrilled about it!
When we talk about female film composers, you’re a true trailblazer and your name always comes up as the person who inspires all the up-and-coming female film composers today. How was it when you were starting out in terms of (not) having a role model?
R.P.: Well, that’s so lovely! Thank you for saying that! And, it’s so lovely to hear that! It’s a very difficult thing to talk about because when I was starting out, I largely ignored the fact that there were virtually no other women in the field. It was unusual, but I just ignored it and just got on with what I was doing. I was solely focused on doing my work. And, now looking back over the past twenty-thirty years, I’m amazed. I’m amazed that that’s how long it has taken for awareness of the lack of women film composers, their lack of chances although I know it’s changing now, but it’s really taking a long time! It’s very strange for me to consider myself as someone who is a trailblazer as it were, because I just did what I did and do what I do. And, if I can help other women composers at all with any of my stories, which can be quite useful certainly in terms of having a family and kids, then, I’m really happy that I can.
In that sense, do you see any changes in the film industry when it comes to female film composers?
R.P.: Women composers need to be celebrated and the issue needs to be highlighted and I’m really glad that there are initiatives like the Alliance for Women Film Composers, which is really important. Something has to be done about it now, which is also why it’s good that Soundtrack Cologne has raised awareness because to my amazement, it hasn’t happened by itself. Parity between men and women in the film industry in the area of film composition hasn’t happened, which is what I thought would naturally happen since I began. It’s still taking too long and I hugely support measures to support women film composers and the more we can do the better and the more I can do the better to help mentor composers, which I do quite a bit. So, in that sense, I am engaged in that.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker?
R.P.: My favorite female filmmaker is Lone Scherfig. She’s wonderful!
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your composing?
R.P.: That’s a difficult question. I think I am, but I don’t push myself to make that part. I would describe myself as quietly feminist. I’ve got three daughters who are all punchy girls in their own way. They’re all independent minded. I’m not sure if my music comes from that or not, but it must do because that’s part of who I am.
Can you talk about your solo album, Ask the River?
R.P.: Ask the River is a product of many years of being concerned for the environment and living in nature and wanting to pay attention to the natural world and to listen to what’s going on around us. So, it’s a very personal album and I’m doing another one as well, a follow-up, in the next year or so. It makes me very happy to write my own work, commission myself as it were to write my own pieces. I do quite a lot of musical commissions that aren’t film. I’ve always done a lot of other things. I’ve also done quite a lot of classical commissions, which are concerned with the environment. Ask the River is in that vein.
What would you say your sound is?
R.P.: It’s really hard. It’s easier for someone else to say what my sound is than me. I like writing melodies and I like writing music that isn’t terribly complex, but has a sort of a bittersweet quality to it, I guess. It’s really hard to describe because, to me, it’s just my own voice. It’s not something that I’ve named and it’s not something which I have created consciously. It’s just the way I express myself.
According to you, what is the best score ever? And, what is your favorite one?
R.P.: John Williams Schindler’s List is probably there. I would say that. Or Ennio Morricone’s The Mission is very beautiful, too. As for my favorite, I’m very fond of Elmer Bernstein’s score for To Kill a Mockingbird – it’s wonderful. It moves me. It’s very sweet.
What are your next projects?
R.P.: Actually, I’m doing an album for Sony. It’s a film works album – I’m recording a lot of my film works for the piano and I’m also in the works with them, doing another solo album. And, I’m working on a classical commission at the moment. I’m in a classical place at the moment!
Photo credits: Courtesy of Rachel Portman.