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Scoring The Screen: Rachel Portman On Hitting The Right Emotional Note


This week, we're hearing about composing music for movies. It's our series - Scoring the Screen.


SIEGEL: We've heard about animated films and horror films - now, a period piece.


SIEGEL: The music is by Rachel Portman for the film "Belle," which came out in May of this year.


GUGU MBATHA-RAW: (As Dido Elizabeth Belle) How may I be too high in rank to dine with the servants and too low to dine with my family?

SIEGEL: Belle is set in 18th century England, where a young biracial woman is raised by the Lord Chief Justice. Composer Rachel Portman has been a stand out in a male-dominated field for more than 30 years. She was the first woman to win an Academy Award in the Best Original Score category for another period piece, "Emma."


SIEGEL: Joining us from London, Rachel Portman says she takes her musical cues from the emotion of the scene, not the era.

RACHEL PORTMAN: You know, obviously action music is very different from a delicate love scene where there's a lot of dialogue, where the music really needs to keep out of the way and just be very gently supportive.


PORTMAN: Whilst also not, you know, sort of over-egging anything. I think that's very important. That's something I always try not to do.

SIEGEL: Over-egging it?

PORTMAN: Yes, so making anything that is already moving too much more moving or too sentimental or - it's important not to add another layer of the same thing that's already on the screen.

SIEGEL: Yes. We would recognize it from parody when the too schmaltzy music comes on over the romantic scene we know that - we know the joke and you want to avoid doing that.

PORTMAN: Absolutely. Completely.

SIEGEL: Has this process changed a great deal over the years that you've been writing film scores?

PORTMAN: Yes. I mean, I think as technology has changed so much, my job has really changed. I used to have a lot of time on a film. There was always pressure, but the picture editing needed to stop with a fairly good period of time between that and when I would actually go in with the orchestra. That doesn't happen these days. So pitch change is all happening right up until we actually score, which creates havoc with what I'm doing because the lengths of the music that I'm writing keep shifting as the picture changes.

SIEGEL: What you're saying is digital editing has trend of film into a work in progress up until the end.

PORTMAN: Right up - yeah and sometimes in the middle of scoring. Yeah, so that's really changed things. And also years ago, writing music for films was more of a mystery to the director and the producer. They'd more or less have an idea of exactly what the music was going to be, but it would be on piano. And now, often, every single piece of music in a film is mocked up - not on real orchestra - so they can really show what they're going to hear. So that means that they tend to have a much bigger input into what the composer's doing and what changes. And there's a lot more trusting that used to go on. We used to get away with a lot more.

SIEGEL: Can we have a little less strings in this particular scene?

PORTMAN: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Could you come in quicker with the brass at that moment?

PORTMAN: Exactly, exactly.

SIEGEL: Now I've gone back to listen to some of the main themes from your scores. One of them, "Cider House Rules."


SIEGEL: And one thing that I will stay here, having listened to a few scores is that ticking piano getting us into this theme - it's a device you use very often.

PORTMAN: I guess it is, actually. I have no idea why, but it's something I come back to a lot.


SIEGEL: I played it for a colleague and she said her skin was crawling. This was deeply emotional, the entree to music for her.

PORTMAN: Oh, thank you. It was a tough score to write, actually. And, you know, I finished that score once and then went back and wrote a whole lot more. In fact, this theme I wrote in the second go at the film.

SIEGEL: Oh, this wasn't in the original version you composed?

PORTMAN: No. It's a very rich story. And I think perhaps when we first scored it, there was one or two themes missing. So we expanded it and went back and wrote more. And that's when I wrote this theme. And actually, I had more time, and sometimes you do need more time, you know, to work on these things. And the deadlines are so tight sometimes.


PORTMAN: And then other times things just completely come together. Like for example, for me, that would be something like "Chocolat," where I had very, very little time. I only had about three and half weeks. And it was just a delight. And I just poured myself into it. And it all seemed to work really easily. And it was such a great film.


SIEGEL: We talked about "Belle" and you also wrote for "Emma"...


SIEGEL: ...And also for "Chocolat." You are in one of those jobs which, like nuclear physicists or chess grandmaster, it's always remarked - my God, it's a woman who's doing this.


SIEGEL: Do you find yourself relating differently to stories that are about women and which women play a central role?

PORTMAN: I don't think - I don't think I do actually. "Cider House Rules" had a male central character and "Belle" had a female. But I don't think I approached them differently at all. I know that sometimes an outsider like a producer or director will say, oh, so glad we got a female sensibility, you know, in here sort of writing the music for this because, you know, you've really brought a - what they see as a female sensibility. But, you know, to me, I'm very proud of the fact that I wrote the music for "The Manchurian Candidate," which was - certainly wasn't a feminine film at all. And I don't think I need to write feminine music at all, so it's a tricky one.


SIEGEL: Was there a moment when you said I know I want to be a composer and I want to compose film scores? Or were you going to be a composer and film scores were available more readily than symphonies?

PORTMAN: The latter...

SIEGEL: The latter,

PORTMAN: ...Happened to me. Yes, I mean, I started writing music when I was about 13 or 14. And I decided by the age of 17, quite seriously, that that was my - what I wanted to do. And it was when I was at Oxford that my professor was scathing about writing, you know, music with melody and harmony. And so I started seeking other music and I started doing theater music. And then I did a student film while I was there. And it was the film that immediately caught my attention. I thought, this is what I want to do.

Yeah, so I was quite lucky, actually, to realize that quite early. And actually, I'm quite grateful to that professor because I now realize that I've always wanted to write music that tell stories. And so he sent me on my path without meaning to in a good way.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). So you're a happy casualty of academic composition?

PORTMAN: Completely. Totally.

SIEGEL: Well, Rachel Portman, thank you very much for talking with us today about writing music for movies.

PORTMAN: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And tomorrow in our concluding interview in this series, we'll hear from Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.