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Interview: Academy Award Winner Steven Price Talks Inspiration and ‘A Life on Our Planet’

Academy Award-winning composer Steven Price, has been receiving plenty of high praise surrounding his score for David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, one of his numerous collaborations with Sir David Attenborough.

On Thursday morning, or afternoon in the UK where Steven was joining from, we met on Zoom to chat about his score and collaboration with Attenborough. We also ended up speaking about inspirations, collaborations, and, briefly, some upcoming projects.

Read the full, transcribed interview below:

Miles Foster: In addition to this being a nature documentary, this film also tells Sir David Attenborough’s story and his view of the world through his own lens, and his own vision of the future. As a composer, how do you stay true to his vision and help to tell his story?

Steven Price: That was totally what appealed to me about the project. The fact that this was the first time really that Sir David has done anything like this. You know, we’ve all grown up with his amazing nature documentaries but this was the first time it was really sort of his “witness statement” and he was very much referring to it as that throughout the making of it. And so I basically, music-wise, decided to stick to him as closely as possible and that meant from the very start trying to find the sort of music he likes. It was really important to me that he liked it and that it felt kind of appropriate to him and I did a lot of asking around people who work with him a lot “What does he listen to?” And apparently his library is filled with 12-inch vinyl chamber music. So I was really like “Right! Chamber music!” Because a lot of the stuff we’ve done before has been more symphonic–I’ve worked on a few shows that he’s been involved with and it’s always been on quite a big sort of epic scale so this was immediately brought down to be more of an intimate chamber thing. And when the decision was made, I kind of hand-picked what musicians I was going to work with based on people I’ve enjoyed working with in the past. So, yeah, I was trying to find a style he loved and then once I got that sort of pallet, I really just stuck rigidly with him throughout the whole film, and I kind of wrote it all in sequence so you start off with his excitement about the natural world and you get his travelling days and his adventuring days and gradually his realization of what’s happened and you feel like you’re writing this big arc which hopefully lifts up at the end as he’s giving his ideas of what could happen next.

MF: So, working with Sir David, or even just on any documentary, is it more of an interactive experience compared to working on feature films or is it more dependent on the filmmaker or is it all very similar?

SP: I feel barely qualified to talk about it, really, because a lot of the documentaries I’ve done have been with this same group of people. And the directors of the David Attenborough movie I’ve worked with a couple of times before on longer shows–6 or 8 part series–and it’s always been quite a collaborative kind of process, you know. They’re great in that they let me do my thing and they’re very trusting, but then they’re also really smart with their notes as well and they’re really helpful in terms of working out that arc. And Jonny Hughes, who I worked very closely with on this, is brilliant at picking out the moment that things could rest on. You know, there was a piece I wrote quite early on–and I’m probably the worst judge at that stage, when I’m in the thick of it, of what’s the important bit and what’s not–and he kind of registered one thing as being a key, and once you have someone else being confident in something it gives you confidence as well, and so a felt I could march forward, so it was a nice collaborative process.

MF: A few moments ago you were talking about the process and wondering what kind of music Sir David likes. When you’re working on a feature film, do you do that same process with the filmmaker or is it more you selecting things that you think could work or is it always a very collaborative process?

SP: For me, it’s always that when it’s worked and when it’s been good, it’s always because there’s a collaborative process there. And so much of those first few weeks you;re kind of using the music you;re writing as a way of working out their tastes and working out what they enjoy and what they hate and what sort of things move them. And gradually, you start to develop this kind of language together, so you get to the end of a project and all of a sudden you;re writing in a totally different way to the way you would have done before you started it. And it’s kind of the result of trying things out and pushing and seeing what people respond to, what puts them off. So, that’s the bit I really love about films in particular in that you kind of can have these really intense experiences for three, four, five, six months. Sometimes longer. And by the end of it, you’re a kind of different musician as well. And hopefully you’ve found a new style of music that you’re both really excited about and you both feel is kind of unique to the film you;re making. And those are the really satisfying experiences where you feel like you’ve brought something really unique to the film.

MF: When it comes to this film, compared to working on Our Planet or any sort of series, when you;re composing, is it a longer process when working on a series because there are more installments, or is the amount of time put in equal?

SP: It’s definitely a quantity thing when it comes to those big series certainly. Something like Our Planet was I think eight hour-long films and there’s not a single cue that appears twice, you know, every moment was bespoke and completely done for in that moment. Where something like David’s film, that’s a sort of 90-minute film, I was on it for less time, but in terms of the brain space with it and in terms of the back and forth, it was probably more intense because you have to make every single moment work and sometimes with shows you need to keep to a schedule and you;re up against it, where with something like that we could really focus in. And that was nice because you got to have those discussions where someone wants to try something and you can try it and even if it may not work immediately, it always makes you think of the next idea. And I think the more times you have those things that sort of make you think of the next idea, the further along you get and you just end up with something you might not have imagined with less time.

MF: In a score, there are different pieces and of course they’re all different because they’re different pieces of the film puzzle as a whole, but each score kind of has its own distinct sound to it. When it comes to selecting the specific sound or style that score is going to have, what sort of inspiration do you draw from in creating that?

SP: It kind of changes every time. Often it’s a weird instinct. I had this thing where I’ll watch a film and certain instruments will immediately just be disqualified, you know, they’re never going to work, it doesn;t feel like that sort of film. And you’ll kind of get a sense of everything really whether it be the instruments, the colors, the way you kind of paint the thing, the speed at which it moves, the way it will kind of play against cuts. Some films desperately want you to hit every cut whereas other films kind of want you to play through it and feel more of an ambience sort of a thing. And a lot of that is this weird instinct thing, you know, and I always feel that’s something I’m really lucky to have an instinct of. There are a lot of composers who are way more technically advanced than I am musically, but my thing is being able to respond to a picture and kind of find a music which feels like it’s totally with that picture, you know, and hopefully make the image come together and feel really immersed in it. So something like the David film, A Life on Our Planet, it kind of came out feeling quite English in a way, you know, the way I was using harmonies and the way that things were voiced has come out sounding quite, quite English and at the start of the process I wasn;t writing like that. I was writing something totally different and it was– the picture kind of just didn’t want anything else so that’s what it made me do. And whenever I put anything that didn’t fit it kind of just rejected it and it’s really clear when the picture just doesn;t like what you’ve done. And gradually you just kind of work out the voice of it. That’s one of the interesting things, I think, about starting a project.

MF: While we’re talking on inspiration, what inspired you to want to become a film composer?

SP: Well, music was always– pretty much, my development froze around about the age of five when I started playing music and I kind of haven;t really done anything else since I started playing guitars and pianos around that age. And I’ve never found anything that’s more fun and so I always wanted to be involved in music. It took me quite a while to work out that *this* was a job, you know. I’d always noticed music in film and I’d always kind of find it interesting, but I never realized that it was something you could ever– I grew up in Nottingham in England and there weren’t any film composers there and it wasn’t something that I understood existed. It’s only when I moved to London and I started out working in recording studios just trying to make myself useful and find a way to be in music. Through that I met a film composer called Trevor Jones and day one at his studio he put me in front of a picture with a keyboard and it was like everything made sense. Everything I ever enjoyed–there was music, there was storytelling, there was emotion, there were subtle tonal shifts, there was psychology–there was all of it. It took me until my late teens to work that out but the inspiration is storytelling, really, I was always just absolutely in love with telling stories and music is my way of doing that, really, that’s the thing I could do. And so yeah, the inspiration has always been like, “How can we make that story better? How can we make that resonate?” And I always like the emotional stuff, so that’s something that always inspires a lot.

MF: Would you have any words of wisdom or any bits of key knowledge for anyone out there who’s aspiring to be a composer or just pursue any sort of musical field?

SP: I mean, I don’t know if it’s wisdom but it’s certainly the thing that I’m pleased I had in me was the willingness to try anything and to kind of believe you could do it even if– there are lots of times in anyone’s career and even the people you look up to who are sort of these incredible A-list people, they’ve all had knocks, they’ve all had a kicking here and there and it’s not an easy thing to do. At the end of the day you’re presenting stuff that’s really close and personal to you and so it can be very damaging if people don;t like that. But to make yourself useful and to be part of that world and to realize that you love it and to keep going anyway is the thing I’m most pleased about and if I could recommend to anybody anything just find a niche, find a way of making yourself useful, Opportunities come in the weirdest places in any sort of creative industry. It’s not like the sort of thing you can necessarily come out with a qualification and be absolutely ready for, there’s all sorts of factors: experience, personality, and how you fit into a group of filmmakers. And to do that really it’s just a case of getting yourself in there and finding out how you collaborate with people. The only advice I could ever give to people is make yourself as useful as you possibly can and luck will sort of find you, hopefully.

MF: Touching more on collaboration, we talked a bit about it earlier, you’ve collaborated multiple times with filmmakers like Edgar Wright on Baby Drive and The World’s End and with Alfonso Cuaron and even with Sir David Attenborough. What motivated you to want to work with these filmmakers again and are there other filmmakers out there you’d be interested in working with? 

SP: There’s always this hope that you will just find people that you have a lot in common with and that they inspire you to do things better than you could ever do on your own, you know, and they lift you to a higher level. And all the people you’ve just mentioned there have been amazingly rewarding relationships for me in that they have this brilliant balance between giving you the confidence to be yourself and to do what you think’s right but also wonderful feedback and wonderful ways of looking at things from a different angle to you. So the relationships that continue are wonderful in that each time you start, you have this shared vocabulary. And you;ve done various things before, but now you;re both looking to do something different, but you have that security of the fact that you’ve done something before so it’s not this great unknown and that the two of you can do this together. And so it almost becomes more of a challenge because it’s then, “What can we do that’s new now? What can we do that’s exciting?” You know, I just finished Edgar’s next film, which is Last Night in Soho, and that felt like a totally different sort of film for both of us and I’m really proud of the fact that it’s so different. I’m excited to see what people think of it when it comes. It’s great having those returning things and in terms of directors in the future, certainly I have my little internal list of people it’d be wonderful to work with, but the exciting thing I think is finding people who haven’t made their masterpiece yet. The ones who are on the verge of that and building a relationship where you both end up doing something you can’t even imagine now.

MF: When it comes to breaking into new places and trying new things, have you ever wanted to take your musical capabilities and extend those to another medium outside of film or outside of composition?

SP: Yes, that’s something I think about. I;ve got various ambitions to write more generally and to be just part of the process at an earlier stage. I think there’s a tendency with music to– you’re the last man in, really. I think there’s an awful lot of interesting stuff that goes on earlier in the process and becoming more central to that sort of thing. And beyond film and TV I’ve definitely got ambitions in terms of making records and that sort of thing (I sound very old when I say records, but you know what I mean). But yeah, there’s all sorts of things I’d love to try. It’s just that time is always short, but I do hope that there’s time to do some of these things.

MF: Do you have any current projects or future projects, such as Last Night in Soho, that you’d like to share on?

SP: Yeah, well, Last Night in Soho is out in October I believe. I’ve got a film for Netflix coming out in I think August called Sweet Girl starring Jason Momoa that we finished up quite recently. And another thing with Sir David actually that’ll be showing in I think October or November called [Earth Shot?] which is sort of like the Nobel Prize for the environment that he’s working on alongside the Duke of Cambridge over here so that;s something I’ve done music for quite recently. So there’s, yeah, there’s lots going on.

MF: That’s all great to hear. I’m looking forward to a lot of those. 

SP: Good, good. I hope you like them. It’s been such a weird period in terms of your work and work but you’re not quite sure when things are going to come out, but it feels like things are maybe starting to open up a little bit, hopefully.

MF: Oh, something I forgot to touch on earlier: how has the pandemic changed working on these projects?

SP: I’ve been pretty fortunate in lots of ways in that a lot of the projects I was working on had already finished shooting or– I was working on an animation during the first lockdown last year and obviously people continued working wherever their computer was at that point. It’s the finishing projects that’s tricky. The writing’s always been me in a room and it’s always been quite a locked off process anyway, but the things that you miss are the face-to-face meetings with your collaborators. It’s that thing of playing a piece of music for someone in a room and getting a real sense just through the air of what they think about it which is very difficult to read when you;re over a little screen, you know. And it’s been very different recording and usually that bit at the end of a project it’s almost like the reward. You’ve come through and now you get to hear the music and it’s kind of a beautiful celebration of everything together in the room, and we’ve not been able to be in the room so much. So I really miss that and the social thing, you know, you see your friends in the studio and you see what they’ve been working on. That’s all kind of inspiring stuff when you hear what other people are working on and they’re excited and you get sort of buzzy about the whole industry. But, you know, hopefully we can start to get that back now.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is now available on Netflix.

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Written by Miles Foster

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