G. Mitchell was interviewed by
Ian Roberts and I thank the
composer to grant me the permission to include this interview in
my site. Lot of thanks!
to the Composer
Your latest score is for TO KILL A
KING, the production was I
understand a troubled one, did this effect your working schedule
In direct answer to your question - “No!” I had already worked
with Mike Barker on ‘The Tenant Of
Wildfell Hall’ an Ann Bronte BBC
period drama starring Rupert Graves and Tara Fitzgerald and a
week or two before he started shooting ‘To
Kill A King’ , Mike called to ask
if I’d be interested in putting some ideas together on spec
whilst they were away on location and sent me a script.
There were then indeed the famous money problems as the
production attempted to enter the Guiness Book of Records for
going bankrupt not once but twice! In the knowledge that I had
already spent a great deal of time on a feature film that would
possibly not make it to post production, there were actually
some positive aspects to the breaks during the shooting schedule
, namely that it meant I could spend some time with Mike
discussing the creative aspects of the films development at a
time when the composer would usually not have much access to the
I also used some of the ‘extra time’ experimenting with choral
and percussion ideas using the computer in my studio.
2] How much research did you carry
out into the music from the period in which the film is set?
I did a lot of research looking for information about the
specific styles of unison Psalm singing which I knew Cromwell
and his supporters were well documented to have. For example the
film opens with the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby & I used
the actual text of the Psalms that were actually sung on the way
back from that battle as a libretto for the opening to my score.
Although I later decided on a perhaps more radical approach, the
research definitively gave me the opportunity to get a feel for
the period. I also researched other English Puritan music of the
1640s. Initially Mike (the director) and I thought about using a
choral score perhaps reinterpreting Puritan music or Scottish
Presbyterian Church Music and the like.
I also found that Cromwell's troops had burnt many church organs
in the name of their cause & he believed any music with harmony
or counterpoint was florid, - a kind of ‘back to basics’ ethos.
However all sorts of interesting contradictions came to light.
Cromwell’s favourite composer was in fact Richard Dering who
actually wrote Latin Motets - absolutely full of “florid
harmony”. The idea of possibly turning the concept on its head
and reinventing a movie about Cromwell for a new generation
suddenly excited me. I live in Somerset & Wells Cathedral Choir
have a great reputation for being wonderful exponents of early
music. The idea of using the innocence of a young treble choral
component working against some of the darker aspects of
conspiracy in the movie appealed to me greatly.
I then discovered that although Cromwell's supporters had
destroyed Church organs whilst removing much of the
ornamentation from churches, when he eventually lived at Hampton
Court, he restored the Church organ because he liked the sound
of it in his house! ‘Eureka’ – not only did the idealistic
Puritanical psalm singing general of the battlefield secretly
enjoy the outlawed Catholic "florid mass", he also had a love of
church organ music.
I decided to make use of these incongruities in moments when the
film suggested that Cromwell had become corrupted by power,
using a high church Catholic style to mock him. This became the
vehicle from which I also built some of the the emotional
aspects of the score. Along side the orchestral work, I
initially invented my own simple puritan themes of choral music
based on the text of the psalms which were later re-arranged
with quite heavy percussion elements. One of Mikes main
requirements from the score was that he wanted it to do more
than simply give a feel of the period, he wanted as with all the
various production elements of the movie to put a contemporary
spin on the subject.
Having paved the way at Wells Cathedral with Malcolm Archer, the
Choir Master, about the availability of working with them, I
also expressed a desire to take a slightly unusual approach to
recording, given that with Digital recording you no longer need
to record in a linear fashion and can indeed cut and paste whole
parts of arrangements into one another if you design your Lego
kit with enough foresight. The Choir and orchestra were recorded
separately at different venues and I recorded the brass parts in
the same room as the strings but at the end of the session on
their own, which I feel leaves you a lot more options in the
final mix when these days the picture is often still being cut
after the session players have all gone home. Also I like to
experiment with stuff in isolation later that you may not get
the option of trying because of the lack of separation in mic
placement if you go for one big session.
3] The last movie I recall that
dealt with this subject was CROMWELL, composer Frank Cordell had
real problems creating the style or sound that he thought was
correct,did you have any real headaches on
TO KILL A KING?
After initially trawling through the various musical styles of
our country in the 1640’s I must admit to taking a peak at Ken
Hughes 1970 Cromwell movie with Alec Guiness & Richard Harris
and indeed the Frank Cordell score was built around a very
appropriate singing style that was very true to the subject but
was in my opinion working so hard at creating a kind of musical
document that related specifically to the period, it left you
feeling very hung out to dry emotionally. It was obviously an
approach that was motivated by very different sensibilities &
related to the film makers demands when the movie was made.
That’s what for me is the great challenge of working on classic
stories, we continue to reinvent and see new aspects of a story
for each successive new generation.
4] You utilised the Japanese bamboo
flute within your score, which was very effective, what gave you
the idea to use this?
Having been a great admirer of the Shakuhachi, I knew that
rather than just being a beautiful romantic sounding instrument
it can also be very percussive and angry. It can turn from a
sonorus full blown vibrato clarinet type quality into a flute
and then a spitting, hissing viper in a matter of seconds. The
Shakuhachi in its work a day clothing looks like some sort of
plumbing implement, only possessing several holes and yet a
skilled player manipulates it through various tones in a way
that seems impossible given its limited number of holes.
It’s capable of the most beautiful melodic things but then also
all the weird stuff in that I wanted for our movie. I knew that
the character of Lady Fairfax in the movie was to have a
strength of character as well as beauty & the shak moves
effortlessly across those emotions.
5] How much music did you compose
for the film?
I was very lucky in that we incorporated all of the main themes
that were composed and I produced around one hour five minutes
to picture. Having run through the movie in its final dubbed
state, we came to the unanimous decision that given the nature
of the mix, ie. the music was a very dominant part of the dub
level wise, the score would work with a higher emotional impact
if we lost around five minutes.
It’s so wonderful to be given the opportunity to score a movie
where the music is given such prominence and yet doesn’t start
to wash over you like musical polyfilla because there’s too much
of it! I think the amount of music was just right on this movie.
I remember a film where about eighty five minutes of score ended
up in a ninety minute movie - needless to say that production
had problems. I know the temptation is to use more and more
music but eventually that becomes very counter productive.
6] What size orchestra did you use
on the score?
I had around fifty four strings (of which I think we had
eighteen celli for the richer cello based theme pieces) a French
horn section, a couple of harps, timps, a clarinet and of course
7] Do you have any input into what
cues from any of your scores go onto a CD release?
I was given total free rain on this album as I re-mixed and
produced whatever I felt made a nice album. The movie publishers
simply paid for the pressing, then left it entirely up to me how
mixed everything right down to the track order. It was great
being given the opportunity to revisit the mix with a different
perspective, i.e. dialogue or f/x levels sometimes change the
way you mix a score for the 5.1 that might sound unnatural when
you later re-work it for a straight forward stereo CD & I think
it’s interesting how the mix of the music is affected by the
colours on the screen:
Wierd theory of Mitchell Acoustics No 1. - I believe that if you
give someone the job of mixing what they perceive to be the same
mix and in turn get them to re-mix this whilst watching a huge
coloured screen full of firstly yellow, then re-mix whilst
watching blue, then red ..... I have an idea that if you play
back each of those tracks in a neutral white room later, the
mixes will all sound different!
8] Where and when were you born?
9] What musical education did you
I had a Grammar School education in Lancashire during the early
1970s where I did all the usual ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels with the
intention of becoming an Architect. Apart from an ‘O’ level in
music and lessons in piano, violin and classical guitar, I had
no formal music training. I was driven by an obsession for music
of all sorts but it wasn’t until later that I realised an
application. The only respectable career advice at school was
that if you had academic potential with some creative leaning,
you still had to find some sort of professional purpose in life.
I was accepted by London University to do a degree in
Architecture but then failed an ‘A’ level - probably because I
was spending too much time at home experimenting with
synthesizers and tape machines instead of swatting for exams.
Also at that time I was playing guitar and keyboards in various
as a professional failure at the age of 18, I made a decision to
turn away from a traditional academic vocation and try a
foundation course at the local Art School in Preston, which
changed my whole outlook. I discovered that the arts had been
busy moving forwards into all sorts of interesting areas during
the 20th century, when at school we’d been told nothing of any
serious cultural value had taken place after the start of the
I was accepted by St Martins School of Art in London for their
Fine Art degree course as a painter and I began to develop
relationships with all sorts of wonderful folk there;
installation artists, sculptors in multimedia and fine art
filmmakers to name but a few. I soon stopped painting and found
myself experimenting with soundscapes for other students work.
My personal tutors were Malcolm Le Grice and William Raeburn who
were two of the main figures of the avant-garde fine art film
movement in London at that time. Malcolm had worked with people
like Brian Eno. I was introduced to a whole new world, one being
the London Filmmakers Co-Op where a diverse range of
experimental work and diary films were being produced.
I soon realised that what really excited me was working as a
musical collaborator with other filmmakers. I spent much of my
time whilst technically a student at St Martins actually
moonlighting with students at the National Film School and Royal
College Film & Television School, experimenting with music and
picture. That was my "eureka" moment.
Bill Foulk another tutor and great mentor at St Martins was
making a ‘no’ budget movie with some cheap Kodak film stock he’d
been given that was about to go out of date. So a bunch of us
spent a summer shooting Beastly Treatment. It starred, amongst
others, a great actor called Ronald Lacey (who sadly died
recently but was perhaps best known for his fantastic role as
the horrible Nazi bad guy in Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost
Ark). We then spent on and off about two years in
post-production where as well as doing most of the sound
editing, I scored my first movie.
10] Do you orchestrate all your own
music, or at times do you use orchestrators?
I write and arrange all the parts into separate lines: 1st
Violins, 2nd Violins, Violas, Cellos etc on Logic Software and
Pete Whitfield, my musical associate takes my midi files and
checks the score is all legible. For example a lot of the string
work in this score, has weird harmonics and notes with sliding
pitches etc & Pete has a genius for interpreting the
hieroglyphics and making sure the musicians can actually make
sense of what I’m trying to do. My score writing is appalling
and Pete and I have worked together for many years, so I trust
him implicitly & we’ve never employed orchestrators – although I
guess if one day we’re really up against a series of stupid
deadlines, there may well no choice; "never say - never"! Pete
also enables the transposition of all the parts for violas,
brass etc. Although the software available for composers to
print out score from MIDI parts is now readily available, I
would never allow a note to be output from a score program that
Pete hadn’t checked through.
I live in Somerset and Pete lives in Manchester so I send him
Midi files with all the tempo changes and notes laid out in Key
Edit by e-mail which is fantastic. When we turned up to the
session for both the orchestra & choral stuff Pete had
everything prepared, printed out and ready to go.
11] What or who would you say are
your biggest influences musically?
I love all sorts of styles of music Jazz, Classical, Drum and
Bass, etc including Messiaen, Bach, Arvo Pärt, Keith Jarret,
Vaughan Williams, King Crimson, Ravi Shankar, Brian Eno, Elgar,
Shoenberg, Radiohead, Josquin de Pres, John Tavener, Stravinsky
, Elgar, Bjork, The Beatles, Miles Davis, Stockhausen, Cream,
Hendrix, Ronnie Size, Ennio Morricone, John Barry (to name but a
12] What would you say were the
differences between scoring a TV project and a motion picture?
There are many obvious technical differences relating to this
question but perhaps I could take issue with an aspect of this
question that saddens me. Television music in the UK is in my
opinion absolutely abysmal at the moment. Because of the nature
of television post-production schedules today, there is never
enough time to spend on dubbing compared to movies. So, I think
today the composers are too often put in a position of "blanket
bombing". When the post-production sound effects are very often
put together during the final day of mixing and dialogue doesn’t
get any thing like the attention from post sync that it used to,
music has become a kind of polyfilla to seamlessly join together
sequences of dialogue.
There are rarely musical scenes left without dialogue in English
TV and by the time all the execs have watched an interesting
‘speechless’ scene that perhaps the director intended eventually
to work as a musical piece, the scene is cut because it’s "not
Another example of music really suffering these days, is when a
piece which has been composed under the premise that it will be
a dominant part of the mix is often later mixed too low because
there is a problem with a loud atmos sync sound effect track
that everyone thought was going to be fixed at the dub and yet
an ambient piece that the composer intended to sit quietly as a
bit of musical atmos under a scene can suddenly be the only last
minute way to save some problematic sound f/x effect track and
will get mixed in at ridiculously high volume that sounds like
the composer has written something wrong.
So television composer solution number one:- "Blanket Bombing."
Just make sure that you have enough musical polyfilla laid up to
seamlessly cover all possible cracks! The television composer’s
work has become a kind of fall back secondary atmosphere effects
track. The care and attention that television producers now pay
to the music is absolutely zilch.
There isn’t even the space at the end of a UK television show
for a good theme anymore because broadcasters simply use the
credit sequences to advertise other shows . I think we’ve
finally reached crisis point here where new television theme
compilation albums will become a thing of the past. I’m sorry if
this sounds very negative but we have to stand up and shout
“enough is enough”!
13] Do you conduct at all?
I don’t conduct because I’m usually worried about how the
score’s working with the picture in the control room; ongoing
discussions with the director and a million other things to
worry about. On this occasion we had Nick Ingman in to conduct
who was wonderful. It’s a very personal thing and I know a lot
of composers feel they are missing something if they don’t get
up on the podium.
Let me give you an example of how I feel about the ‘conducting
thing’ - Whilst we were recording the orchestra for one of the
pivotal scenes in the movie where Rupert Everett as King Charles
I is being executed, Mike suddenly had an issue with some aspect
of the piece & we quickly found that there was something about
the solo violin part that he didn’t like. By the time we got to
the end of the first take, we had it nailed and the wonderful
Gavin Wright (orchestra leader) was given a note to slightly
change the vibrato style of his playing away from the way I’d
suggested it & we were quickly through to the next cue without
wasting valuable time. I think that if I’d been conducting that
would have been 15 valuable minutes wasted which we didn’t have
the time to lose.
Working with English movie music budgets is a real race against
the clock & my take on it is that it’s also very useful input -
to have an extra pair of hands and ears for some objective
perspective. Nick continually made suggestions about things that
I’m too close to have considered and is an extra member batting
for the home team. By the time you get to the point where you
are going to the session, you know every single note so
intimately and the way it works up and down with the dialogue
and everything. Nick can look at it with fresh eyes & often give
you invaluable objective input about dynamics.
Concert wise, I’ve never conducted at Film Music Evenings
because I must admit to a slight aversion to the idea of such
events! I think that a lot of composers scores may work very
well in the context of a movie but many simply come across as
cheesy pieces of late 19th century classical music when
performed out of context. I’ve always thought we should push the
envelope slightly with our approach to use of musical styles in
movie scores and am disappointed by most of the film music
14] When working on a score, do you
have a set routine i.e.: main theme to end titles, larger cues
first etc, or does it vary in each case.
I must admit that each case is always different but I will
usually start to assemble my jigsaw puzzle with composition of
all the main themes. Once you have those approved and in place,
you can move forward with great confidence. Also the end credits
is almost without exception the last thing to happen!
15] How early do you like to be
involved on a project, do you like to see a script, or do you
prefer to wait until the film is in its rough cut stage.
I really without exception prefer to be involved at the script
16] What is next for you.
I’m just finishing a movie called Grand Theft Parsons starring
Johnny Knoxville (yes he can act & rather well in fact!)
directed by David Caffrey and produced by Frank Mannion. It’s a
wonderful story about the funeral of Gram Parsons who was a
member of The Byrds, and whose body when he died of a drug
overdose in 1973, was stolen from LA airport by his road
manager, then after the most extraordinary list of events was
taken in an old broken down hearse into the desert and burned by
in Joshua Tree.