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Oscar Special: Empire Meets Steven Price
Gravity’s Oscar-winning composer talks Alfonso Cuarón, scoring space and awards season...

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Newbie Oscar winner and future Ant-Man scorer Steven Price has worked in movie music for 15 years. For many of them, he was a jack-of-all-trades, hopping from sound editing, to orchestration, to additional music, working on movies as varied as Batman Begins, The Lord Of The Rings and that instant classic, Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Then, in 2011, he stepped up to act as composer for Joe Cornish’s Attack The Block and everything changed. Now he’s scooped a cabinet’s worth of awards, including an Academy Award, thanks to his score for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. Before the Oscars, we tracked him down to talk about his work on the movie.

Was it surreal being out on the awards campaign trail?
With no sound in space, it opened up the canvas; the music could be anything, which meant we could find something unique.
It's quite funny doing all the events. I don't know how the actors do it - they must take a quarter of the year off! I was in LA for a week, Friday to Friday. And there was stuff every night. These people are going from event to event and shaking hands and showing their faces. It's a weird old thing, but fascinating. I took my dad to the Golden Globes. He's never been to LA! My wife was supposed to go and couldn't at the last minute, so I took my dad and that was fun, of course, so you have someone in the middle of this circus who has never even been in the country. His first experience was being massively jet-lagged and sitting behind Matt Damon at the Golden Globes!

How did you originally get involved in Gravity?
Alfonso needed someone for a couple of weeks just to help out with a screening, and I got the call because he'd seen Attack The Block and liked it. We just started talking, really, and we had this great long meeting about the possibilities of what the music could be for a film like this. With no sound in space, it opened up the canvas; the music could be anything, which meant we could find something unique. We got excited about the conversation and I just started making things in the studio. I did a couple of demos and before we knew it, we were having these great collaborative conversations about things and a few promising ideas started coming out. So the two weeks became five weeks and then a couple more! One day, he asked me in for a meeting and said, "Do you fancy composing my film?" That was a nice day. And about a year later, we finished it!

Was it daunting to create the sound for these vistas?
It was one of those things where we were so busy and excited by the possibilities that there was always a load of stuff to do, so I was always doing a lot of experiments. You can send Alfonso anything and he listens to it with an open mind and will give you great feedback. He's a great collaborator. We had these chats where we'd come up with the next ten experiments. Looking back on it, I realise that it should've been daunting, but at the time it just felt very exciting.

Of Alfonso's original brief, What really sticks in your mind?
He had a lot of ideas about what he didn't want. He was very firm on that because they'd tried dropping in bits of temp music and film music, classic Hollywood contemporary action scoring that just didn't work, and in the context of our film didn't feel appropriate and felt corny. One of the first things he said was, "I don't want it to have any percussion. You don't need to drums in this, because there are no sound effects, so you're not competing with anything." So you take percussion out of action scores and it's suddenly this fascinating area - you want to feel excitement and adrenalin, but one of your tools is gone. So I'd go away and work out different ways of getting that intensity in. So it was a lot of, “Let's take away the usual tricks of the trade and see how we can get that feeling."

Everything from the story influenced what we did, it was all a designed experience.
The whole thing was a very psychological approach; the idea was you'd be up there as a third astronaut and through the same journey that Ryan, Sandra's character does. So if she's feeling overwhelmed, we want the music to make you feel overwhelmed. It was written very much with the idea that it was going to immerse you and move around you, make you feel like you were up there. You follow the eye lines and characters and it's all very entwined with what's on screen.

How closely did you work with the sound effects department?
It was very much on the end of a phone. I know the sound department from my previous life in music editing, and I was always around when we did little temp mixes. I could play them what I'd been doing and often I'd send them a demo when I had something that Alfonso and I were feeling good about. They did a lot of interesting work with low-end stuff - vibrations and that sort of thing - and they tried to make their stuff sympathetic to the way the music was going to be. So there were an awful lot of phone calls and chatting to the sound editor. There are moments in the film where we had to work very closely together - such as early in the film where the camera pretty much goes into Ryan's space helmet, and you're in there with her, so that was a moment where music and sound both had to discuss how that would best work.

Oscar Special: Empire Meets Steven Price

And there's a challenge in orchestrating the deep or panicky breathing of the characters...
Yeah, that would often completely dictate the tempos I was working at. There's a scene in the film where the characters are tethered together, and Matt and Ryan are floating through space, with the tether getting taut and their breathing patterns changing and their heart rates would dictate the tempo, which fluctuates constantly depending on just how tense they are at any one moment. So everything from the story influenced what we did, it was all a designed experience.

You also scored Aningaaq, co-writer Jonas Cuarón's short that is online and will be on the DVD. Was that a different challenge?
The whole idea of that was it was the other side of the conversation that we see Ryan having in the film. I took the lead from that, so the music is the other side of that. There are elements that are shared, but there are more Earthbound elements to it, there's some gentle ethnic percussion going on and less processing. A lot of the space stuff is very blurred on the lines between organic and electronic, but with Aningaaq, it's different. There are a lot of links between them, though.

You're working on David Ayer's untitled World War II tank film. Is that what you're in the middle of now?
They just finished shooting, so we're at the very early stages of that, there are experiments getting done, so we won't be getting into the thick of that just yet. I've been on set a couple of times and it looks amazing. They've been working in Oxfordshire, and I've been on a couple of the night shoots. It's fascinating.

On The World's End, did you work with Edgar Wright to score around his song choices?
The thing about Edgar is that everything is interwoven, so all of his song choices were there at script stage and all there for a reason, with all these layers of meaning going on. So I was definitely influenced by the style of some of those. The score has a lot more guitar stuff and early '90s synth sounds. But equally we talked about wanting to do more of the epic sci-fi stuff but entwined with this radiophonic, home made style, because it seemed to fit the film and we were both fans of that. So it was great fun to work with Edgar, because he's so into his music and his films are so rhythmic. You're plunged straight into the middle of the process.

Interview by James White

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