Q&A: David Arnold, composer
At Sundance London, James Bond composer David Arnold talked about his big break, discovering music for Independence Day in his dreams and if he’ll return to the 007 franchise.
David Arnold, the composer behind five James Bond films and the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, entertained a rapt audience at Sundance London with stories from his career.
Growing up in Luton, Arnold recalled his initial inspiration for perusing a career in composition.
“I saw You Only Live Twice, The Jungle Book and Oliver! all within a few months of each other when I was seven,” he said. “Each was incredibly powerful both visually and musically, and rammed with amazing songs. From the point on I wanted to be a part of that.”
Looking back on his portfolio of around 30 movies, he pinpointed his “big break” as meeting director Danny Cannon as a teenager.
“I’d made student films with Danny for about eight years, when there was literally no money and I was living at home with my parents,” he recalled.
“After he graduated from the National Films and Television School, he got a small feature financed called The Young Americans. I did the music and the end title song called Play Dead, which I did with Bjork who lived two streets away from the flat I was sharing with the director.
“People sometimes ask me about my big break. Was it doing Stargate or Bond? I think my big break was meeting Danny when I was 19 and he was 16. He was someone who ended up making a feature film 11 years later and asked me to do it. You can directly connect to those things.
“As people wanting to make it in the media, one of the most important things to do is make friends and work with people at the same level as you.”
The Young Americans got the attention of producers who hired Arnold to write the music to 1994 sci-fi blockbuster Stargate.
“I moved to Los Angeles for six months and lived in a hotel room, where I wrote the whole thing in a similar way to how I wrote The Young Americans, which was at the foot of my bed in a rented flat in Camden with very little equipment,” said Arnold.
“That equipment came out to LA, where I sat at the foot of the bed and I did the whole thing from there.”
The success of Stargate led to director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin hiring Arnold again for 1996 smash Independence Day.
Arnold recalled how inspiration can come from unusual places. “There’s a theme in Independence Day that I dreamt,” he said.
“It’s when the aliens first invade, turning up over New York. I had a dream that I went into a shop and someone demo’d me a synth which had a preset of ‘alien invasion music’. I pressed it and that’s what it played.”
He also revealed that he came up with the music to Stargate driving past Toddington Services on the M1 and the melody to Frank Oz’s The Stepford Wives driving over Hammersmith Bridge.
“It’s weird but you need to have your aerials out,” he added. “I think stuff floats around a bit. I don’t know what it is. Sometimes it gets gifted to you like that.”
His next big score came for 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Arnold originally thought he was hired as a result of his work on US blockbusters coupled with his work on an album of James Bond covers.
But producer Barbara Broccoli later revealed it was an assistant at a London record shop that recommended him.
The invitation was exciting and intimidating. “It’s a bit like wanting to climb Everest. The idea of climbing it and actually climbing it is very different,” he explained.
“I had always wanted to do a Bond film and envisaged myself having finished it but I didn’t know what the journey would be like from start to finish.
“And there are a lot of considerations, not least the historical implications. The blueprint is John Barry so I wanted to be respectful of that but offer a contemporary take.
“With each film we were able to move a little bit further away each time and do something different.”
Skyfall / Olympics
After scoring five Bond movies, Arnold stepped aside and Thomas Newman was hired to compose music for the latest instalment, Skyfall.
“It was slightly odd watching it from a distance, having been involved since 1997, but I was in the middle of doing the Olympics, which was such an overwhelming experience,” he said.
“I was on that for the best part of 20 months solid and – for the last few weeks – sleeping two/three hours a night. But it was an amazing experience that I don’t think could be bettered by any other.”
When asked if Arnold would return to the franchise, he answered: “It’s always been the same for me. If they ask me, I’d love to do it – but there are never any guarantees.”
Arnold is currently writing a musical adaptation of Made in Dagenham, the 2010 British drama based on the 1968 strike at a Ford car plant where female worked walked out in protest against sexual discrimination.