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Interview with George Fenton

May 1, 2013

The International Filmfestival in Gent Belgium , 2002 featured a concert with music by Georges Delerue alongside the music of George Fenton . I met with Mr. Fenton a few days prior to this event. Soft-spoken but enthusiastically he talked about the concert, his music for such films and shows as Anna And The King and The Blue Planet and the many fruitful collaborations with the likes of Richard Attenborough and Ken Loach.
(From the Archives – by Peter Simons)

PS: During the concert this year your music will be performed alongside the music of Georges Delerue. How do you feel about that combination?
GF: Well, I’m happy to play at this concert. It’s his concert, actually. It’ll probably make for an interesting program, because my music is very unlike Georges Delerue’s music. But I like his music very much. I heard the orchestra rehearsing today and it sounded very, very nice. So I’m looking forward to it. I do quite a lot of concert work nowadays and I always enjoy playing, where ever it is, when ever it is. And this orchestra is very good.

PS: You will be conducting yourself?
GF: Yes.

PS: A few weeks ago the BBC broadcasted a show called “The Blue Planet, Proms in The Park”, which featured a concert where you played the music from that tv show live before a huge audience. And on a couple of big screens the audience could actually see the film footage. In between cues you talked about the music. That looked like a lot of fun!
GF: It’s a different kind of show. I think it’s a show that tried to bring in a slightly different audience, compared to a normal concert audience. On some levels it’s interesting and it’s quit hard to do, because I have to keep stopping and starting. I have to be very tight with the picture, which is very difficult when there’s only fish to follow [chuckles].

PS: The stories you told in between, were they all improvised on the spot?
GF: Yeah, they were.

PS:  That must have been hard to focus on the music and in the meantime think about what to say!

GF: Yes, yes, it was quite a hard evening [laughs]. But I like it for several reasons. I like it because it brings in a different audience. And I also like it because it’s nice to do a film music concert where you can actually have picture. When we play a film music concert it’s about evoking something that was there before. And the picture is such an important part of the drive for me to write the music in the first place.

PS: How did that “Blue Planet” concert come about?
GF: It was last year after I finished the films. They asked me if I could play a concert of the music. The BBC people asked me: can you do it the picture? Well, I said I can’t play a whole score to the picture. So, I’ll have to work out a show of concert pieces, as it were. So I devised a show and performed at the Festival Hall last year. And the people from the Proms came to see it and they asked me to do it again in The Park. I didn’t know what would happen, but ten thousand people came. So it was good! It was fun.

PS: That must give you a lot of energy to see ten thousand people enjoying your music.
GF: Yeah! Well, I couldn’t actually see them, but it was great. I’m hoping…I think they’ll do more concerts like that. I am taking “Blue Planet” around the world now.

PS: Is there a touring schedule yet?
GF: Yeah, but not everything is confirmed yet, but I’ll definitely be going to Hong Kong in march to do three shows there. Theoretically, I’m going to play in Scandinavia and America and New Zealand . Lots of places, but the dates aren’t all set yet. Because the music will be performed by the local orchestra’s and they work a long way ahead, you know. I’m used to working two months ahead, but they are working two years ahead! They’re booking for 2004, 2005!

PS: It’s good to see the music is so popular all over the world!

GF: Yeah! [laughs] I think it’s the idea of the show, you know, the environmental thing and the oceans are oh so fascinating. It was a nice project.

PS: Did you actually have the opportunity to travel along with the filmmakers?

GF: No. I’d love to have gone to some places…, but I wouldn’t want to have gone to some of the others! [laughs] I don’t care much about going two miles down in a submarine.

PS: You have worked with Richard Attenborough many times, “Ghandi” being your first collaboration. What have you learned from working with Richard?
GF: Uhm…that’s a very good question. I think, he taught me one very important thing which is not very popular in Hollywood . The thing he taught me is: no matter how much pressure people put on you to do whatever you’re doing… in my case writing music… no amount of pressure people put on you can be equal to the amount of pressure you put on yourself if they don’t bother you. Hollywood is a very hands-on experience. There are a lot of people who want to hear everything as it goes along and want to be a  part of the process. And that, in a way, is a huge pressure because you only have a short amount of time and so on. But the interesting thing about Richard Attenborough is that he never wants to hear anything. He just leaves me alone completely and says “I’ll hear it when it’s finished”. But of course it makes you worry. You have to work really, really hard, because there’s nobody to check it. And funnily enough… here’s only two persons in my career who work that way. One is Richard Attenborough and the other is Andy Tennant for whom I just finished the third film called ” Sweet Home Alabama “. He never hears anything until the music is finished.

PS: How do you deal with the Hollywood “hands-on” approach? Do you create synthesizes mock ups?

GF: Yeah. You more or less have to these days. In the early days when I first worked for Richard Attenborough up until, probably, 1993 I never used electronics. I wrote everything on the piano and orchestrated it myself, and nobody heard anything really and I then I would just turn up at the recording sessions and play. But nowadays that’s not possible really, because people want to hear things. If I were them, I think I would want to hear things, actually. There’s a lot riding on the music in the end, so…

PS: How ironic, or annoying, then that they always call you at last possible moment!

GF: Yeah, but that’s the tradition of film. I don’t think that so much matters. I wouldn’t want to work on a film for months and months, because it’s so intense. The film is a very big operation. By the the time it comes to the music, no one has anything else to do but focus on the music, so you got a lot a people with their eye on the music. It makes the pressure quite intense. So I think it’s better if it doesn’t go on for too long! [laughs]

PS: You worked with Andy Tennant on “Anna and the King”, a score I absolutely love. So, you wrote that without the director hearing anything?
GF: Yes. I played him one thing actually, because he happened to come to London and when he came round, he said “You don’t have to play me anything, but if  you want to play me anything, you can.” I said, I’ll play you one thing. It’s the only thing I can play you on the piano…, which is of course the main theme, which is a piano theme. And he really liked it. He went away and that was it [laughs].

PS: But how do you deal with the picture then? Do you at least have a spotting session?
GF: Yeah, we spot. And I do call him to talk about things. He did hear the waltz before, because the actors had to dance to it. There just are certain relationships where people don’t listen so much. Although it’s a completely different thing, but I don’t think Spielberg listens to a lot of Williams’ music before he records them. I think he just goes away and writes the score.

PS: A trust thing?
GF: Yeah, I think it’s partly trust, but it’s also fun for the director to, sort of, meet the film again. The bad thing about synthesizer mock ups is that it can draw the energy away from the recording. Because mock ups can be so good that when you put them against the film, everybody knows what’s coming. In a way that can be good, but it also takes away the sense of occasion of a scoring session. I have always liked the scoring sessions and conducting the music. That’s why I also like doing concerts, to get out and play. A lot of film work is so lonely and you’re bending under the weight of expectation. It’s just great to get out and see the musicians and play.

PS: Did you re-arrange music for this concert? And what will you be playing?
GF: I’ll be playing “Dangerous Liaisons” , which is a suite for orchestra which I rearranged. The waltz from “The Fisher King” , which I rearranged. Then “Shadowlands” , a Richard Attenborough film, which I haven’t rearranged. It’s just three parts of the score. “You’ve Got Mail” , which is two parts of the score. “Ever After” , which is slightly rearranged, but it’s basically three parts of the score. And then I’m doing some completely new! For the first time… a world premiere during this concert! The person I’ve worked for most, in terms of films, is Ken Loach. He did a film called “Land And Freedom” about the Spanish civil war. He’s going to be here during the concert and since he’s coming I’m going to bring a sort of tribute to him by playing a ten minute suite of the music for “Land And Freedom” , which was originally just scored for cello’s and single wind and percussion. And I’ve now rearranged it for full orchestra. So I’m excited about playing that.

PS: Getting back to “Anna and the King” for a moment. How long did you work on that one?
GF: It was quite long. It is a big score. I did some of the orchestrations, but not all. The orchestrations were beautifully done by Geoffrey Alexander and Jeff Atmajian. I had the best time! I had more percussion instruments on the Fox scoring stage… we had literally half the room! With just everthing…all these slate marimbas, glass marimbas, gongs, different tuning things. It was absolutely fantastic. We spend a whole day just playing percussion tracks with eight people playing. Including John Williams’ brother, who plays percussion. He’s a session player in Los Angeles .

PS: I believe you have written some ballet music in the past?
GF: No no, I was IN the ballet. I would love to write for the ballet though. I have done a short opera and some commissioned work, like a trumpet work and string quartet. But I would love to write a ballet. If you know anyone who wants to have one written, please let me know! [laughs] I think actually that for filmmusic composers the ballet would be a very good medium to work in. It’s very similar. It’s like music to picture.

PS: What can you tell about upcoming projects?
GF: I’m about to work on a film called “Imagining Argentina” , which is a historical film written and directed by Christopher Hampton who also directed “Carrington” and he wrote the script for “Dangerous Liaisons” . And this new film is about the disappearing of the left winged people in the seventies in Argentina . It certainly is a darker movie than ” Sweet Home Alabama ” , but probably not as commercial! [laughs]. “Sweet Home Alabama” is a tremendous hit. It’s making millions in America. It’s starring Reese Witherspoone and she’s an absolute idol in America. And the timing of this movie is really good, because there hasn’t been anything like it this year. People were desperate for this good old romantic comedy. It’s set in Alabama and there’s a lot of guitar music. A feel good movie…and it feels very good!

PS: Did you play the guitar yourself on “Sweet Home Alabama”?
GF: Uhm…no. I do play the guitar on “Sweet Sixteen” , which is Ken Loach’s new film. But I didn’t play on “Sweet Home Alabama” , because…well, I don’t know why really. But I had two great players and they did everything while I sat in the box like a producer. It was nice.

Many thanks to George Fenton and to the Filmfestival Gent.

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