The composer talks about the ‘archaeological journey’ of scoring The Eagle, real instruments vs. samples, and Hans Zimmer’s influence.

Iceland-born, Los Angeles-based composer Atli Orvarsson scored Kevin Macdonald’s Roman epic The Eagle, which is released tomorrow in the UK. The Eagle presented an unusual challenge for the composer, who went on something of an research journey to recreate sounds for the historical epic about Roman soldiers travelling among Celtic tribes in the Scottish Highlands.

In addition to the orchestra, he employed instruments such as bagpipes, an ancient celtic warhorn called the Carnyx, hollow stone whistles and rams’ horns.

Orvarsson has worked on past scores including Pete Travis’ Vantage Point, Babylon AD, and Season of the Witch. He also works on US TV series Law & Order: Los Angeles.

In 2006, Orvarsson joined Hans Zimmer’s musical collective Remote Control Productions, where he has worked on scores including Pirates of the Caribbean 3,Angels & Demons and The Simpsons Movie.

How do you start working on a project like The Eagle?

With Kevin’s background in documentaries, his mantra was ‘make it sound real.’ ‘Handmade’ was his favourite word, and it was like an archaeological journey of music. It was such a great road that I went down. Kevin was instrumental in pushing me to explore these sounds. I went to Scotland, I recorded with musicians who had dedicated their careers to exploring ancient Scottish music, they were playing instruments dug up from excavations. And there is a huge old Celtic warhorn called the Carnyx, that was actually a recreation – they found remnants of it at battle sites and they commissioned one to be built. And we used that in the score.

Do we have any idea what music sounded like in 140 AD? No, not really, but we had something to hang our hat on. I also recorded a lot of pipes, both Scottish and Irish, and a lot of Irish fiddle. It became an ancient Celtic-infused orchestral score.

How did you balance the ancient sounds with more modern elements?

At the very beginning we thought the strings and the orchestral bit would be the sound of Romans, and the Celtic music the sound of the Celts, and in reality it wasn’t quite that simple. But generally speaking that held true. The great thing for me was this journey of discovery, it was so different than everything I’ve done, because it required something I’d never known about.

Anytime I started writing anything more German, more classical or symphonic, it just felt so out of place. I think there’s a movement in popular culture and the arts towards reality, there is a hunger for things that are real.

Do you prefer working on historical or contemporary films?

I like to mix it all up. There are different challenges to tackle, to be writing a kids’ animation film and then a historical drama, then a rock-and-roll contemporary story, I love that mix. I guess I’m sort of a musical chameleon but that’s what I love about the job.

How does it work with Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control?

It’s more of a co-op with a well-defined leader. It’s definitely his place. I don’t work for Hans, I rent the studio space, I work with him when I can or when he wants me to. Sometimes you run into a situation where there’s no way you can finish what you need to in time, and that’s what’s great is that Remote Control there is an army of people that can help you. We help each other when push comes to shove. There’s great camaraderie. Hans has his projects and his team and there are several of us that have our own careers going, there is a certain cross-migration of work, but most of my work recently has been my own. He’s been very helpful supporting me.

Do you think you have a similar style to Hans’?

Sometimes. On The Eagle not so much. I just notice it myself that sometimes when I work on a Hans project that there is an influence, you’re under the spell a little bit. But my aesthetics and his are different. He has a very strong style, and I’m working on developing my own style both consciously and unconsciously.

There can also be a bit of a stigma — ‘Oh, you’re one of Hans’s guys and you’re going to sound like him.’ That can be a blessing and a curse. Just like everybody in Hollywood, composers fight typecasting.

But Hans is a genius. It’s an amazing thing to be around somebody of his calibre.

Do the current woes in the music industry at large have a big impact on film composers?

What I worry about is the idea that music is free. There is a whole generation of kids growing up thinking of music as something that you don’t pay for, that’s on the internet. Even with the best samples in the world, they don’t sound like strings, at least to my ears. Technology has kind of given producers the idea, ‘Why pay this much money for an orchestra when you can use the samples?’ But real musicians have a much more emotional impact than something from a computer.

The Eagle would have never worked with samples, we needed the real stuff. I’m a firm believer in the realness of instruments, people sense that it’s authentic. The audience is much smarter than we sometimes think.