INTERVIEW: Oscar-winning Composer Rachel Portman on ‘Julia’ and her Career
British composer Rachel Portman has been producing scores for film and TV for four decades. She worked on the classic 80s TV show Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (1987-1989) starring John Hurt and Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1990) starring Charlotte Coleman. She collaborated with Mike Leigh on Life is Sweet in 1990 and composed the scores for Benny & Joon (1993), The Joy Luck Club (1993), Only You (1994), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), Marvin’s Room (1996), Addicted to Love (1997), Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) and The Cider House Rules (1999).
Portman was the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Score – for the film Emma (1996) starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
Rachel Portman also scored The Duchess (2008) and Never Let Me Go (2010), both starring Keira Knightley. She scored One Day starring Anne Hathaway (2011), Bel Ami starring Robert Pattinson (2012), Private Peaceful starring Jack O’Connell and George MacKay (2012), Belle starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw (2013) and Their Finest starring Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin (2016).
Portman’s most recent work is for the documentary Julia directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West – about the famed TV chef Julia Child.
How did you get involved with Julia and why did you want to do it? Have you scored many documentaries before?
I have done a few documentaries, not that many, it’s just the way it’s been. I was interested in the subject and in particular, I was interested in working with Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the directors, because of RBG – their documentary, which I loved. I think they’re amazing women and they make amazing films. So that’s really why I said yes or why I was keen to talk to them. And then when I saw the film, before I started composing the score, it was so beautifully crafted and such a characterful portrait and so alive – that I really wanted to do it.
Which aspects of Julia’s character spoke to you, in terms of the music? Because as you say, she’s such a strong character.
I thought; here is a film about a woman who is so full of life and very colourful and I can bring all those things to the music. There’s a great determination in her and a sense of fun, which I could really build in the music. Her larger-than-life character is a wonderful thing to write a theme for, if you just think about it, in the most basic sense. A theme to accompany her, who she was, I found that really appealing.
There’s a beautiful theme in the film of making food for others and what that means, as a way of nourishing. The way we’re fed by our mothers, usually, when we’re born and how that carries on into adulthood when we cook for those that we love. We prepare food and the importance of food and the significance of food, which is much more than just nourishment, just the nutritional value of the food, it’s much more than that – it’s the time and the effort and it’s a way of giving love. So there’s a lot of that in her character and in this film as well. It’s there in the love story that she had with her husband and the way she tasted all the food that she cooked. It’s just evident in every scene, this love of food. And that appealed to me a lot to write music for because it’s something that I believe in too and I’m interested in, so it was delightful to write music for.
Julia’s love of France is a big part of the film and I’m wondering if that inspired you, musically, at all?
Yes! There’s a wonderful scene in the film where this fantastic lady French chef describes how you make a Sole Meunière, which is a classic. It’s irresistible for a composer, if they’re allowed to, if the opportunity is there, to use an accordion and to go all-out French. The way that scene was spoken about makes it seem really easy to make a Sole Meunière – this is how you do it, you just do this, this and this, it’s all very delightful and there it is – it’s presented. So I wanted to write music that was just as tripping off the tongue, delightful like a soufflé, so easy and light and fluffy.
So I wrote a couple of waltzes in there for Paris, which then get woven into later on in the score, into some of the main themes that I used for Julia, but not anymore on accordion, so they don’t feel French anymore. That’s something I like to do, I love, usually unconsciously, to write my way through the score of a film and pull the themes together often – further on down the line, deeper into the film.
Another quite large part of the film is the love story between Julia and her husband Paul – did you think to yourself that you would write a love theme, or did the themes, as you say, bleed into each other?
I knew that there were going to be different themes in the score for this and these were things that I spoke about with the directors in the beginning – you know, there was a love theme, humour, there’s a lot of building themes in there, determination and this badass side to her. But the thing with Paul – I thought their love story and the way it was filmed was beautifully told, with their diary entries and letters to each other, these wistful photographs of them.
Also, there’s something very beautiful about the way they found each other and fell in love. So I sat down to write a theme for that as well and all the while it needs to blend with dialogue and what’s happening – the pictures and the audio, the pace of the scene and everything. But yes [chuckles] I sat down to write a love theme but if you think about it, one could never just sit down and think “right, I’ve got to write a love theme” because I’ve got to write their love theme – that’s what I had to do.
You’ve managed to work with more women directors recently, such as Amma Asante on Belle and Lone Scherfig on Their Finest, as well as the directors of Julia. Is this something that you’ve noticed as your career has progressed and started to welcome more, over the years?
Absolutely, I completely welcome it, there are more women directors around I think, that’s one of the good things. I love working with female directors, it’s great and you’re right, I think I probably am recently working with a lot. And also, often in my career, I’ve worked on films starring women, with women in lead roles and I’m absolutely fine with that. But I’ve also done films that are very male-orientated too. It’s an interesting thought about whether there’s a difference (I don’t want to get into muddy waters here). There’s no difference between the music that I write, you wouldn’t be able to tell if I was a woman or not from the music that I write.
But I really enjoy working with women…and men. And there is a difference, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. But maybe there’s a relatability thing, sometimes, not always. It’s impossible to say whether it’s different or better, I never consciously think “here comes a film and it’s a female director, great” – I would think that it’s great, but I wouldn’t think that it will be a totally different thing than it would be if it was a male director.
I have to ask you about possibly my favourite film that you’ve worked on and maybe my favourite score of yours, which is Never Let Me Go. How did you approach something that has such complex themes, because there’s so much going on there?
Well, I read the book and I came in late to that project. They weren’t quite sure which direction to go with the music and everything, so I wrote them some music for it and they said “ah – this is good.” I think my response to Ishiguro’s writing and again with Clara and the Sun, which I’ve just read, and also obviously the film of Never Let Me Go is that I was really moved by it and it needed a score that was saying all the things that the film couldn’t say, in the subject matter.
All the pieces that I wrote were things like “is there enough time?” It’s a film about love and how much time we have with somebody and those are universal themes. Added to which, it’s a beautifully made film, it’s a stunning film. It’s a difficult subject, but it’s so well made and I’m really glad that you say you like it, because I think it’s one of my favourite films that I’ve ever worked on. And I really resonated with it, it’s really important to me. In fact, I’m about to do an album of my film themes on piano and I was just working on (before this interview) Never Let Me Go, which is going to be on it, so I was literally just playing it.
Another favourite film of mine that you worked on is Ratcatcher – can you tell me anything about working with Lynne Ramsay on that film?
We had quite short time working together and again, an exceptionally interesting and well-made film. You’ve picked out two really, really good films. We didn’t have a huge amount of discussion. The music in it is very delicate and I was using a prepared piano, which was really fun – so it’s a piano that’s been sort of messed with, with nuts and bolts in some of the strings. You can only do it with a piano that you don’t care about too much.
So it’s got a strange quality to it, very minimal, except for a couple of places where it opens up. Dealing with sensitive scenes that don’t want to be overcrowded with music, you have to think really carefully about how to place music and how little to do, which is a lot of what I did on that.
I had a main theme in there, which was made up of a eclectic group of instruments, it’s one of the lighter bits in there. In fact, I scored the scene where the little mouse goes up to the moon, but in the end Lynne wanted to use something else [Gassenhauer – a famous piece that was also used in Badlands and True Romance] which I was a little bit sad about, because that music would have integrated into the other times I used my music in the film. But it was really great working with her because she’s a great filmmaker.
You’ve also worked with Mike Leigh and I’d love to know what that process is like as a composer, because he’s got such an unusual way of working on films. As a composer, how do you slot into his very specific method?
I’ve worked with him a few times, on a commercial and a couple of small things, a BBC film and then Life is Sweet and he doesn’t like to think about music until the last minute. That was one of the problems, was that he kept asking me and I was already busy doing something else, so on Life is Sweet I got in touch with him because I heard he was making this new film and it was called Untitled 90 for a very long time. He used to ring me up and say “what do you think of this as a title?” when he was trying to think of a title. So I said to him “Mike, would there be any chance, I hear you’re making a new film, could I do the music for it?” and he thought that was, at the time, most unusual, but I think he was quite amused that I might ask.
So I ended up doing it and I remember, apart from it being quite a difficult film to know what to write the music for, was how to begin. How on earth do you write music for that wonderful film? It was so much in its own character, so I thought let’s let my music have its own character too. Which I think is what he’s subsequently done on a lot of his films, but what was funny was, with the melody – I think he likes a good tune.
I tried to write a tune for this, I tried and tried and he used to come around and say “….no.” I would be so worried, I was quite young, he’d go away for a few days and come back and I’d play him another tune he’d say “I’ m really sorry, no.” I was so worried and it went on for a long time and he kept coming over to my flat in Kentish Town and climbing up the stairs and coming up to my little room where I worked and not liking anything. And eventually I wrote something and he said “I really like it, but there’s just one note, can it just go [gestures] just there?” and I replied “yes! absolutely! of course! no problem!”
He was the most respectful director to work with, he was really wonderful. He treated the whole process of composing a score for his film really seriously, he was great.