Composer Terence Dunn met with veteran film and pop-video director Julien Temple, whose music-film collaborators include the Rolling Stones and the Sex Pistols.
Terence Dunn: You’ve met and worked with a lot of influential musicians over the years. What did you learn from them?
Julien Temple: I’ve always liked musicians as people. Great musicians are huge personalities, it seems to me, whereas great actors are not, necessarily, because they’re more of a blank page, a blank person who becomes whatever character they must become. I’ve never found them as profound as some of the great musicians… I wouldn’t even call them musicians, they’re sometimes more than that. They’re like philosophers or thinkers, where they have something very original to say, and that’s conveyed through their music. It’s really wonderful to be close to someone who’s got that original force of feeling and thought. Often self-taught, which is also amazing.
TD: My musical journey started with my dad, and Billy Joel and The Jackson 5. When I was old enough to buy music, I went pretty heavy, then into rap and house music. I did the whole dance music, clubbing scene, mainly in the north. But I came out of that and got a band together, and it was a bit indie with some prog-rock stuff in it as well. I then got into classical music later.
JT: Were you watching films while you were in your band?
TD: Not really. I was more focused on the music, and the whole world of gigging and touring round the UK. When I walked away from the band, I carried on making my own stuff, but then I went to look at composing music for film and I got lost in the film world and that was the start for me. I was always into soundtracks. I was, like, I’m not going to make any more music in a band, but I can write music, so maybe I can write film scores. So I went to college, and to the National Film and Television School.
JT: I went there, briefly.
TD: How was that?
JT: I didn’t attend very often. I got involved with The Sex Pistols while I was there. I had a key made to the camera room so when everyone had gone home I’d get the cameras, film the Pistols, then get there in the early morning and put the cameras back. My attendance was quite nocturnal.
TD: It didn’t hold you back, I suppose.
JT: I came back with [The Great] Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and they graduated me on that. But it was a different place and a different time. I smuggled The Clash in there, into the old Anvil Studio. First time that band had ever been recorded anywhere. We had to distract the guy on the gate so we could drive The Clash’s van in.
TD: When you made pop videos, did you always treat them as mini movies?
JT: I did, really. I was trying to make films. They were like little experimental attempts at making films, which was a great way of learning. You could always cut to the drummer if you were in trouble. I wanted to do them as three-minute films where, for the first time, you had an audience who were going to see it again and again. Before that, before video, you saw a film once and you never saw it again. It was quite exciting playing with a three-minute narrative, driven by music obviously, that meant one thing when you first watched it but if you watched it again and again you’d get more layers of the story and the ideas. So they were quite abstract on one level but they released information the more you watched them.
TD: Did you have the story in mind beforehand or did the music always inform the visuals?
JT: It did depend who I worked with. I often had a story in mind for the legend that I was going to work with, like the Rolling Stones, I wanted Keith to assassinate Mick, but that was based on my version of the legend. Other times it depended. You’d hear the song and it would suggest a way of seeing it. I always liked the idea that the video didn’t have one meaning because what’s so great about listening to music is that everyone has their own version of it. It’s a bit scary putting one visual thing on a great song, it’s like closing it down, so the more the visual is like a riddle the better, to me. I don’t think music video was really good for the music, over a period of time it made the music more trivial… the great thing when I was a kid was that music was a journey into ways of seeing the world or yourself, it was a kind of mystical, philosophical thing as well as a great animal sound. And the people who made it were very elusive; then you’d see them every week on videos and they lost some of their power to transform your reality in incredible ways.
TD: How do you choose which composer you work with in your movies?
JT: I’ve always been pretty strong on the power of youth in filmmaking which, I think, comes from the fact when I started out you weren’t meant to make a film until you were 60 years old — the age I am now. You had to sweep the floor for 40 years and make the tea and then maybe… The whole punk moment was great for me because it was saying, “We’re young, but we want to do things now. We don’t want to be told we’ve got to wait 40 years.” And I’ve always had that attitude of wanting to work with young crews. I’ve worked with a lot of young art directors. Dennis Gassner who did the most amazing job [as the production designer] on Blade Runner 2049, I gave him his first break [on Earth Girls Are Easy in 1988]. I gave Dario Marianelli his first break as a composer [on Pandaemonium in 2000]. I do like taking a risk because when someone’s really good they step up to your faith in them and your belief in them and really go that extra mile. Whereas if I work with some old, been-round-the-block-a-hundred-times composer, I don’t feel I’m going to get that same 150% energy.
TD: What advice would you give a composer?
JT: It’s a funny job in a way because, as a director, you want someone to come up with a bit of music that works for the piece you’ve filmed. I think it’s more exciting if you can get to a place where you’re designing the film and the music more in parallel, so it’s not just handing it over to a composer. We had problems on Ibiza: The Silent Movie because you think you can license a track, then find out there’s a sample from another song in it, or maybe 10 samples, so you can’t afford the track you really wanted to use. I was actually working with a young composer to replace tracks, saying: “I need a track like that.” Which is a really important skill; that you can work to order. Like a carpenter — come and fit a cupboard to that space and do it in really nice wood and make it look great.
But the other side is to try and get the composer and the director together much earlier, so you share a vision or are able to talk about the nature of the subject, and the story can be narratively helped by the music. The soundtrack is as important a part of the storytelling as the images and the editing. I see editing as another huge element of filmmaking.
TD: I guess you started out on a Steenbeck flatbed editing suite?
JT: Oh yeah, chopping your thumb off. The worst thing was looking for the missing frame you’ve cut out…
TD: On a Steenbeck, you get a lot of happy accidents. That’s what they taught us [at NFTS] because we had to do this trim bin exercise, where you use the Steenbeck and just experiment with the audio and the visuals [are] just crap, really, and have come out of a bin bag. The idea is to try and find something poetic, and, all of sudden, it’s magic.
JT: The thing I always remember [about] an old-fashioned cutting room was, on a Steenbeck, you would regularly have five minutes where you rewound the reel. You’re sitting there, twiddling your thumbs with the editor, but it gives you time to talk about what you’re doing and think about the scene you’re editing. Whereas everything’s so instant on digital, you just keep editing, you don’t stop to reflect. And a lot of editing is thinking. About the scene. It’s the ideas that shape the scene rather than the cuts. The ideas tell you what you want to do.
TD: I suppose you’ve got to force yourself to step away.
JT: You need a walk around the block. You’ve got to get up and get away from it regularly. But the instant nature of digital [is] you suddenly realise you’ve been editing for five hours without a break. Whereas rewinding the reel you always had to have a break, you had to put another reel on and find the shot.
TD: Do you listen to soundtracks to relax?
JT: I do, but it tends to be old composers. I like Georges Delerue. I love his scores for things like Le Mépris and The Conformist.
TD: I take influences from everywhere. It depends on the project. If the project wants some found sample of someone shuffling something around on a table, mangled in a sample or creating a soundscape, then it’s that. Or it might be more musical and traditional. You have to find the thread, the narrative that embodies what the film needs. You need to be adaptable.
JT: One thing that’s exciting to me in a soundtrack is treating the sound effects and the aural dimension, as well as the music, as one thing, so there’s no barrier between them and they’re all part of the same aural landscape. The visual landscape and sounds and music are the same thing, almost. I like soundtracks that do that.
TD: There are projects I’ve worked on and I’ll be talking to the sound designer and say, “Have you got any wild tracks of that scene there?” Because it’ll be nice to pick up these elements and try and make a percussive instrument out of them. And if you’re talking to the sound designer you’ll know you need to stay away from all the low end [in a particular scene], so I can use more mid to high frequency stuff, and then it becomes this seamless soundtrack. That’s the best stuff, where you don’t even notice it. It just evolves and moves with the image and you’re kind of lost in the whole thing. I like the stuff Mica Levi did for Jonathan Glazer for Under The Skin. That felt fresh, it felt otherworldly, and it fitted so well for the film. And I like the stuff Jonny Greenwood has done with Paul Thomas Anderson.
JT: Who did the score for Blade Runner 2049, because I really enjoyed that film in a good cinema with great sound? The whole soundscape, the sets, the soundtrack, which was a lot of ambient sounds as well as the score, was very powerful.
TD: Hans Zimmer.
JT: Zimmer’s always reliable, but it was pretty minimal and the sound design and the music really did become one.
TD: Under The Skin is like that as well.
JT: And David Lynch. He’s very into that kind of thing. Angelo Badalamenti is a very interesting combo with Lynch. I like that. You get the sense they are on the same playing field, up front. There’s the music of the film and the film is going to find its way together, rather than call someone up at the last minute and say, “Can you stick some music that sounds like this on there?”
TD: Yeah, it’s grown together. And they’re not afraid of bold ideas. A lot of the time film music can be a bit apologetic.
JT: A lot of the time it does that stupid thing of reiterating what the images are saying, banging you over the head with it, which is a Hollywood sin. Originally. But the music shouldn’t just amplify what the images are saying, it should give you other dimensions of what you’re seeing.
TD: It’s the key to unlock the thoughts of the characters on screen without them having to open their mouths. You can make people feel exactly what they’re feeling, the subjectivity.
JT: That’s the magic.