INTERVIEW: Oscar-Nominated Composer Volker Bertelmann on his Film & TV Career
Since being Oscar-nominated for his score for Lion in 2017, Volker Bertelmann has become a prolific composer of film and television scores including:
2017 – 5 films/TV shows including:
The Current War (dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) – our review
TV BBC/HBO: Gunpowder (creators: Ronan Bennett, Daniel West and Kit Harington)
2018 – 6 films/TV shows including:
Adrift (dir. Baltasar Kormakur) – our review
TV Showtime: Patrick Melrose (creator: David Nicholls)
Hotel Mumbai (dir. Anthony Maras)
Ashes in the Snow (dir. Marius A. Markevicius)
2019 – 10 (!) films/TV shows including:
The Perfect Candidate (dir. Haifaa Al-Mansour)
Cunningham (dir. Alla Kavgan) – on Hulu
TV BBC/Starz: Dublin Murders (creator: Sarah Phelps)
2020 – 6 films/TV shows including:
Netflix’s The Old Guard (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood) – our review
Summerland (dir. Jessica Swale) – our interview
Ammonite (dir. Francis Lee) – on Hulu – our interview
Home (dir. Franka Potente)
2021 – 3 films/TV shows (so far) including:
TV Showtime: Your Honor (creator: Peter Moffat)
Netflix’s Stowaway (dir. Joe Penna)
You’ve had an extremely busy last five years, since 2017 you’ve composed the scores for a huge range of films and TV shows, working on 5-10 things per year, which is a lot! Is this all a direct result of the Oscar nomination for Lion?
Yeah, I would say so. Part of that is the discussions about reliability and responsibility – because of course it’s a question of spending money for something that has to be delivered in a certain amount of time. I think a lot of the questions, when you don’t have a lot of films out there, is if you’re trustworthy enough to get the job and then you might be too far away, say from America anyway. So I think Lion opened that door much more, but at the same time, I have to say, it’s not a guarantee for suddenly being extremely busy. I’ve heard a lot of stories about people who had a year after a nomination where nothing was happening. So I was prepared for not getting the super stardust!
Adrift from 2018 is very much a film in two halves because there’s the present-day setting of the shipwreck situation and then the flashbacks to the love story – did you approach the score in two halves, or did you not think of it that way?
I was definitely thinking about there being a lot of dreams involved in that story and at some point there’s a change from the real love story to when we see them on the sea. But at the same time, Lion for example was clearly half and half because there’s two different stories, but in Adrift I had the feeling that this was at some point mixing. The love story from the beginning was somehow resonating when Tami (Shailene Woodley) was on the boat and when she had her visions that Richard (Sam Claflin) was still there. I loved the idea of seeing a narrative where you’re never sure that this was not really true, that this was just her imagination or her way of getting over the loss and of course, made her survive the whole thing. So I felt in that story much more of a linear build-up of the romance (that becomes tragic) but the romance has to resonate in the drama to help her find a good end.
I notice that you’ve worked with a lot of women directors eg. Summerland, Perfect Candidate, The Old Guard, Home, Cunningham and with Sarah Phelps on Dublin Murders for TV. Is this purely coincidental or something you’ve gone out of your way to try to do?
It’s purely coincidental, women talk to me as well as men when I’m getting offered jobs. We of course have a conversation about the film and what is happening next. I would say a lot of the women I work with and German filmmakers as well, where I’m trying to keep the national projects alive, which could easily disappear because suddenly you’re only working for Hollywood or big productions. But I have the feeling it’s always important to keep these roots alive and also help upcoming people to find their language. Some of the women I’ve worked with have been first-time directors, for example and so far we’ve have a very good conversation and relationship when we were talking about their films. So it’s not purposely choosing women to work with but I love working with them.
The Perfect Candidate involved helping to tell a story that is based in a culture that is not your own. Did you take influences from Arabian music, especially because music is a big part of the story with Maryam’s (Mila Al Zahrani) father being a musician?
Yes, that was a question, how much of the authentic music I’m taking in. You maybe notice when you watch the movie that there is this original music that is played by the father’s band which is always very present. I had the feeling that because they are so present, it would be weird for me to represent the native music as well. I had the feeling that my job was to maybe open the story up to not a wider range of audience, but at least giving it my perspective and maybe that helped to give it different emotional moments where people who are watching in Western countries, for example, have the feeling that we’re not so away from the East. There’s some of their understanding involved as well and maybe some modernity and modernity means in a lot of ways, not always the best. When you have collaborations with Arabic or African countries, I think it’s always important that there is a levelling of interests and not “we invented techno and electronic music and that’s now coming to you, so that is very modern” it’s much more about finding a language which is unique between each other. I’m totally aware that I can’t learn a traditional identity in a few weeks.
You sometimes work alone and you sometimes co-write with Dustin O’Halloran – what are the two experiences like and how do they differ?
Of course they differ because when there are two people, you share the writing, you have a lot of exchange with each other. I have to say, to write with someone so closely, to make deep decisions in the content, you really need a collaborator that you trust and is not complicated. If you start fighting about every cue, you don’t get things done. It’s different than working for example in a theatre production where fighting and arguing – we call that “working heat” – that creates tension but at the same time, it can be very creative. But with music to have that all the time with someone, I think we would never do a film together again. But with Dustin it works in a way that is so easy and uplifting and helping the process. At the same time, I have to say, it’s also necessary for both of us to have our own worlds and identities and because we have that, we work together in a very good way.
The Old Guard (a collaboration with Dustin O’Halloran) is on a different scale to many of the other films you’ve worked on because it’s got action sequences, also there’s quite a lot of pop music on the soundtrack that you have to intercut the score with – how do you manage all of those elements (including other musical elements to consider) when there’s so much going on in a movie?
We said yes to that film because it had that challenge, I am a big fan of challenges. To learn something on a project that you maybe are a little scared of, that gives you so much more uplift for the future because you suddenly realise; “ah it’s not so complicated!” Say for example in fight scenes, the problem is the rhythm and the interaction with the fight. If the fight is not choreographed to a certain tempo, it’s always difficult to write something on top of that later. It doesn’t mean that they always have to be synchronised, but when they lock in here and there, it’s so much more powerful. That was something that I learned with The Old Guard, to work in a very concentrated way, I experimented a lot with rhythm and with a good old friend who is a drummer – his name is Samuli Kosminen – we’ve worked with him on many films through the years and he’s worked for other film composers as well, he’s fantastic. With him I could figure out a way of getting rhythm involved. I think also that was not a typical genre movie, it was still – a bit like Stowaway as well – it has a certain area that it lives in but there is some very personal and very human sides to the story that I really like.
Ammonite (another collaboration with Dustin O’Halloran) is one of my favourite films that you’ve worked on – everything in that film, especially aurally with the sound design is extremely deliberate and precise, the music is used very sparingly and in a contained way, for example when Mary and Charlotte are on the beach – how did you want to use music to reflect the fact that Charlotte is kind of awakening Mary?
First of all, that’s wonderful, it’s wonderful that there’s something that in our world today it’s not so easy to understand because we have – well not all the possibilities – but we are a hundred years away from that. But in that time, the imagination of them having a relationship with each other was so far from…you had to open up so many more doors. But that’s just from my perspective, if you talk to couples today that had the same situation, maybe they would say “no, there’s no difference, it’s still the same.” But I have the feeling that in that time, things were so much more innocent and much more religiously orientated. Dustin and Francis and my feeling was to find the important spots that only need music and Francis was extremely helpful with that because he had an idea about a few spots. So it’s about these little moments where you just want to plant the seed of hope, of transformation, where you can feel “now we are going towards something and there’s a next step.” A lot of times the music cues are helping their transition, including the end, which is also a transitional cue in a way.
Coming up-to-date now, with Your Honor, the Bryan Cranston TV Show that you’ve worked on recently. I know Peter Moffatt from British television – eg. The Village, Silk, Criminal Justice – what was the collaboration with him like?
It was wonderful. What was very nice with Peter is because he has a history as a lawyer, there was a lot of inside information in his plot and the script that was very much based on his knowledge. The collaboration was really fruitful because I had a lot of freedom, there was of course notes, but notes can be very restrictive and they can push you right in the beginning into an area where you feel like you can’t really breathe and that can happen very quickly, you are suddenly squeezed and maybe your intuition is destroyed, then you have to rebuild your trust in something that maybe is not your intuition. With Peter, it was the other way around, I started the collaboration in the beginning with Edward Berger, who directed the first three episodes. With him, I’d worked already on Patrick Melrose, so that was a relationship that was very strong when I came in. We had a very clear, more abstract way of thinking about music than every little detail in a scene having to be attached to music, we were much more thinking about music that can be atmospheric, or that can just be a breath of something, just the sound of a clarinet that has no tone. So that was very helpful and with Peter, that continued, we had these beautiful evening spotting sessions, which was at night for the German time zone. Sometimes I was so tired, that it was very hard to follow, but we always had an atmosphere that kept us going and it was very relaxed, I have to say.
How do you find different ways to build tension through music across a whole season of television without it getting repetitive? For example, I noticed that the funeral scene in episode 3 of Your Honor had quite an unusual use of music, so how do you keep that variety going, where it’s not like a film with more limited time?
It’s a dangerous path because when you do very individual cues for each scenes, that’s not only very creative, it can also take away the colour of a series. A series needs a certain amount of cues that are coming back as the core, as the heart of the series. Patrick Melrose was a little bit different because every episode had a different music style, because every episode had a different approach, they were chapters, in a way, they were much more closed. So there we had the feeling that the music needed a different style every episode, but even there, we kept certain sounds repeating.
With the funeral scene, the cue is called Burial. It reminded me a lot of a South European funeral – in Sicily or in Greece – where you have these long ceremonies of black-dressed women, you can’t see their faces – it felt like that. I was thinking how could funeral music – of course in New Orleans – we have very slow funeral music that has a lot of detuned elements in it. But I thought more about a South European funeral, I had the feeling that the strings needed to be not too perfect, I needed a more amateurish way of how they’re played. I didn’t ask my string players “hey can you play a little bit off the grid?” it was just something where we kept certain takes, where they’re not so precise, we kept them in the string arrangements, we kept the humanity in there and also a little bit of a weirdness. Going through the whole series, I used a lot of pitch-shiftings, very very subtle – where you feel like there’s tension, but it’s subtle. It’s not on-the-nose thriller kind of music.
What are some of the differences, other than purely length, in scoring for film and TV?
Of course, it’s the amount of music that you have to create. The concept of music in a series is much more orientated on themes that you can transform over the whole length of say ten episodes and maybe beyond that, as well as an opening theme or end credit theme that will be repeated maybe in the next season. So it has a little bit of a branding attitude and I’m not saying that in a negative way. I love when a series opens up and I’m standing in the kitchen and preparing something to eat and I can hear in the background, the music coming on and I know “OK that’s the start of my series.” It’s like the curtain opening up in a theatre.
Sometimes you stay longer with the protagonist, so you need in a way, a language that can hold on for such a long time. The time, in terms of the turnaround, is also much quicker. It also gives you production values that are different from a big cinema movie. I have tried, in all of the series that I’ve done so far, to be as close as possible to a cinema movie, in terms of how I’m looking at it. I try not to think of it being on a small screen at home, some homes now have big cinema screens, but a lot of people watch telly on their laptop. If I think about that in the first place, I would maybe shrink the music to very low production values. But film scores are much more unique each time.
The first season of Your Honor is available on Showtime now.