Compose yourself: George Fenton

Last night I was fortunate to see the very talented composer George Fenton chatting to Bill Heine (a.k.a. as that chap who has the Headington shark in his roof). The evening reminded me very much of my introduction to John Barry. I saw John Barry conduct the English Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. I went in a Bond fan, I emerged a John Barry fan. Well, I was already a fan of George’s work (he composed the score to my favourite comedy – Groundhog Day and a number of other things I held in high regard such as Dangerous liaisons, Shadowlands, The Blue Planet). He has always been on my radar, I just wasn’t aware of how much. I had a similar “epiphany” recently with composer Ron Goodwin. Once again I walked in as a casual fan and emerged the other side somewhat awe-struck.

Image from

This was also my first venture out to fantastic facility at The North Wall. I will definitely be revisiting this venue in the future. Accompanying me was Layla Mirmalek who I seem to be collaborating more and more with at the moment.

The thing which astounded me most about George, aside from his warmth, extreme modesty, integrity was his musical range. Generally composers have an identifiable style (eg. John Barry, John Williams, James Horner to name but a few). Perhaps I need to study his work more closely, but I can honestly say that I don’t think George’s scores do this, all have a unique sound and are independent of each other. He clearly studies a particular style in great detail to suit the mood of the piece, absorbs, plays, then let’s go and moves on. Completely fascinating!

So the first question was how did he begin? With a guitar. This developed into a love of perfecting other stringed instruments, in particular more exotic ethnic instruments. When George began composing,  the landscape was quite different to now. Film composers were extremely rare and it was not seen as career choice. He got early work because he had the ability to write and play all the string instruments he had acquired (a rare skill back then). Obviously things snowballed to the point where Michael Attenborough (Richard’s son) got in contact about a film his father was working on called “Ghandi“. Of course the rest is now history for the five time Oscar nominee.

Many interesting topics were covered, too many to list in detail here. However it was all pure gold, I felt completely captivated for the two or so hours. The talk was occasionally punctuated with examples of George’s music set to onscreen action. He talked us through his thoughts behind some of the music choices he made. Particularly amused by his comment which covered the complete life of a film composer – “womb, room, tomb!”.  The joke being the tendency of a composer to lock themself away in a room whilst composing.

One of the most interesting stories was when he started to open-up about his rejected score for Interview with a vampire. I didn’t even know he originally was attached to the film (although he does have a history composing for director Neil Jordan). I’m not sure he has ever talked about this before. He is clearly very proud of the score and it tested well with audiences. Unfortunately there were a few “behind the scenes” politics and sadly the score was rejected as part of this. Perhaps the score was too dark and not commercial enough for a Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt vehicle! It appears that the composer is generally the last person to find out that their score being dropped. He told us a small anecdote about Alan Silvestri who was booking in the sessions for one of his scores only to find out it was getting dropped (wonder if this was Mission Impossible?). Terrible, these artists really deserve far more respect! I would dearly love to hear George’s score for this, I’m sure I won’t be alone in that. Again it sounds as if it would be completely unlike any of his other scores.

In the interval I met up with Ben Nicholson (director/producer of Family Portrait). Good to catch up! We got chatting about B-movies. It’s long been my desire to make a daft B-movie involving an invasion of giant Ants (ala Them!). He feels exactly the same way. Time to dust off my old notes, had quite a few ideas, watch this space! 🙂

In the second half, there were further discussions/clips. George talked about working in LA for 6 or so years, how it differed from his European work. It is easier to get type-cast in LA (he seemed to have his fair share of romantic comedies). The emergence of new technology was covered both in terms of film composing and communication (eg. using Skype and not having to be in the same location any more). In terms of how George composes he is very much an old-school composer and does things the traditional way. I love this! He also touched film piracy. Clearly the studios are paranoid about it. I saw Lord David Puttnam has been recently speaking out about this. Of course the one thing a studio will expect the composer to do is “let go” of their work. Towards the end we saw an un-scored and a scored scene from Stage Beauty so it could be compared/contrasted. It was a difficult (plus musically lengthy) scene with lots going on, I can only imagine the amount of musical juggling that must have happened to get the tone right.

The floor was then opened up for the audience to ask questions. There were some rather interesting ones including:

  • Do you think that music could ever be dangerous? Essentially the answer George gave was “yes” if being used in a misrepresentative or insensitive way. It lead on to a discussion about using music to evoke a particular reaction during news reports. Interesting stuff.
  • How do you pick your orchestral palette? A good question, it is usually based around the source material/style and wanting to experiment with new things.
  • Who are your heroes? Had nothing but respect when he said Bernard Herrmann. He also added another favourite of mine, Henry Mancini who was apparently very supportive to him. Two brilliant composers indeed!

At this point I wanted to follow on with a question of my own. My question was intended to be short and sweet: “Was there a particular composing job you ever thought – wow, I wish I got that?”. George said he liked the question, and answered very diplomatically with “any piece of work I’ve seen and have really enjoyed qualifies”. He also went on to say how he would like to cover even more new ground. You could tell that the composing spark was still clearly there, he was genuinely excited to be trying new things even now. He mentioned he would really like to do an action movie.

Layla shortly followed with another question which George also liked (as did I). Essentially she asked “as a composer” if he found it difficult watching other films/programmes without analysing the music. The answer resonated with me as a film-maker (especially with the short-films I watched from other film-makers last week). He answered: “Yes”. He then went to into what I call the DVD/Blu-ray disc argument. If I watch a film in high-definition, I start being wowed by the superior picture. However if the film does it’s job properly after a few minutes I won’t even notice if it is high-definition or standard-definition. If I think part way through “this shot looks great in HD”, then I’m clearly not engrossed in the story/characters. George essentially said the same thing, he will get engrossed when the material is well made and forget about it.

At the end we got to chat to George briefly. This was lovely. He is clearly a huge Bernard Hermann fan, he beamed when I brought the subject up again. We chatted about Hitchcock and the fact that Henry Mancini had his original score for Frenzy rejected, how good Bernard Herrmann’s rejected Torn Curtain score was. He has studied Herrmann’s scores and transcribes his scores using similar techniques. He also offered to score my action film (jokingly), all I need now is an action film! On our way out we also chatted to the evening’s interviewer Bill. He said he would like to invite both Layla and myself along to one of his Sunday radio shows for his arts section. We seem to be racking up the air-time together these days! I have no idea how serious this was, but Bill – if you are still interested- please get in touch as we would both love this!

Walking back to the train station Layla and I chatted some more about film music. We got onto the subject of how Mark Mancina was driven mad by Jan De Bont’s last-minute tinkering (hadn’t heard this story before) and how an editor can be a composers worst nightmare if they keep chopping things around at the 11th hour. More ammo to my argument that it’s good for a director or editor to be their own composer also (really helps to hit the perfect tone and pace for the work). Speaking of which I noticed another chap who is doing this also. Lost Weekend is supposedly The Goonies meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre – rather an interesting mix. A director composing his own score – I’m curious how the results will end up!

A few other bits and bobs:

  • I know I shoot digital myself (more for budgetary reasons), but something about this makes me sad: The Death of 35mm Projection
  • I’d like to thank The Erratic Photographer for his blog entry (which ties in to our the Etiquette premiere). Guess who took some of the photos?
  • It seems that the on location photos from SkyFall have caused trouble for the Foraging photographer. Personally I’d like to offer support here. Whilst the studio probably doesn’t want too many new photos leaked, it makes me appreciate the detail and effort that has gone into making these sets. This can only be a good thing for the final film – surely?

Meanwhile after this talk I’m feeling all fired up musically. In the vein of the clip shown last night for Hitch, here is a saxophone piece quickly thrown together.

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