My Conversation with Patrick Doyle

TigerTheFrog

Reid Rosefelt
In real life, I make my living writing movie press materials, essays that are given out to journalists and get posted on websites.

Recently I was hired to write notes on an upcoming Kenneth Branagh film called “All is True,” which is about the last three years in the life of Shakespeare (played by director Branagh). It was a rush job, so in a typical situation, I would only be asked to speak to a handful of people, but Michael Barker, one of the Co-Presidents of Sony Classics had a deep admiration for Patrick Doyle, so he asked me to.

The movie was still shooting when I was hired. Doyle was still in the process of writing the music. I said I didn’t want to speak to him until I could hear some of his music. When he finally sent me some cues, it was the first time I’ve ever heard music by a major film composer before I saw the film. As I had to write about a film I hadn’t seen, it really helped me to hear Doyle’s music. I felt the music told the story to me in a way that none of the other things had done. I finally understood the tone of it, the emotion.

Doyle’s music for “All is True,” is very simple, mainly solo piano (played by Doyle) and chamber strings. There’s a little bit of harp and a sprinkling of instruments that were around in Shakespeare’s time, like Virginal and Bass Recorder, but he and Branagh didn’t want the music to be too period. There is a melody that turns up now and then that ends up being a song, “Fear no more the heat o’ the Sun” (from “Cymbeline”), which is sung by Doyle’s daughter Abigail at the end. (She sang it into her phone and Doyle played it for Branagh, who loved it and insisted she re-record it for the end credits).

When I talked to him, he constantly stopped to have his assistant play me music, and he sang a lot too. He explained to me that he used computers to give Branagh an idea of what he had in mind. He played me some and I said, “that sounds like Spitfire,” and he almost dropped the phone. He thought that was hilarious. Because it was Spitfire. (I was curious about what piano he used to mock this up and he said The Grandeur.)

He said he got a lot of virtual instruments for the film, just to be sure that he would be ready to use more old instruments, but he ended up not using many. But he said it was important for a composer to keep current and add to his collection. Part of the job.

He and Branagh have many plays and 14 films together so they are pretty familiar with the way they like to work. In advance, Branagh gave Doyle two bits of poetry from Shakespeare that appear in the film: “I know a bank,” Oberon’s speech from “A Midsummer’s Dream” (only the melody Doyle wrote for these words are in the film, it’s never sung) and the “Cymbeline” song. He told me that, as a composer, he likes to have “a branch to hang my leaves on.” In other words, he takes lines from the screenplays and uses the rhythms to create music. These two themes are all over the film, but they are altered and orchestrated in so many different ways as to be unrecognizable (to me anyway). Of course, I recognized two uses of “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” in the cues he sent me because the melodies were identical.

It was quite an experience. I particularly loved all the singing he did, when he was trying to explain to me what the themes to the film were and how he changed and used them. I felt honored that he would take the time to do that for me. (Judi Dench, who plays Mrs. Shakespeare, also offered to recite “The Winter’s Tale” for me, but I am pretty sure she was joking) He had been working on it long before shooting began, ever since Branagh gave him the poems. I loved the song that his daughter sings so much that I had figured out how to play it on guitar. I understood why I was able to do that when he told me he had written it in a few hours.

But it was a huge job for him because he played all the piano parts and conducted the orchestra. He said he told the violinists not to play with vibrato. Play like lutes.

I loved the way his soft, cinematic piano sounded. He said that a little bit of echo gives you the feeling of the past and ethereal thought. It was a real piano, but it reminded me of the way I feel when I play the Malmsjo.

What I took from every word he said, was the immense joy he took in his work and the love he had for music. And for the film too. I felt that he understood what the movie was all about as well as Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton did. I think that is the mark of a great composer as much as a great actor. To serve the work you need to be brilliant enough to appreciate the work in a deep way.

I found Doyle to be a loveable man, and I could happily have gone on talking to him for hours. But I had to stop and get back to writing. Shortly after our conversation ended, my contact at Sony called and said he needed me to turn it in a week early, that very day.
 
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TigerTheFrog

TigerTheFrog

Reid Rosefelt
Lovely story. Patrick sounds like a great guy, and that he absolutely loves his job.

I hope you were able to turn in something to Sony, though... you left us with a cliffhanger! ;)
Thanks, Scott. It always makes me happy when somebody I have admired for a long time turns out to be a wonderful human being too.

After talking to my contact (who was just passing on a request), I spoke to SPC Co-President Michael Barker, and he explained why he suddenly needed the job done so fast. I said I couldn't turn in unfinished work, but I would give him a solid draft two days later. Then I worked like a maniac through two nights and days. What I turned in was not the same as what I would have turned in a week later, but it was something I wasn't ashamed for Sony and Branagh to read. It included quotes from Doyle!

I don't want to go through that kind of stress often, but I know that I am really lucky to be able to make my living talking to filmmakers and actors, and writing about it. I owe my happy life playing music to the men and women who hire me, like Barker.
 
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TigerTheFrog

TigerTheFrog

Reid Rosefelt
FYI, "All is True" opened to in LA today for a limited, Academy Award qualifying run. It opens in the UK and Ireland on 2/8. To my knowledge, the US theatrical opening date hasn't been set yet.

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