Jed Kurzel likes to view musicians as actors, letting them be a part of the creative process.
“Treat them with respect and they will be with you all the way. They’ll also give you something different.” It’s wonderful advice for anyone in the creative profession, a profession where let’s be honest, there are too many divas around. Empower your collaborators and you might just generate better ideas.
Jed is talking at the Cork Film Festival where he is recounting how he got into film composing. He comes across as very amiable and laid back, but there is a definite edge to him.
Along with Mica Levi, Kurzel is at the forefront of a new wave of young film composers working on smaller budget projects, but fortunate enough to be working with highly talented filmmakers. His techniques and style are a million miles away from the swagger and occasional Wagnerian excesses of Hans Zimmer and overripe earnestness of Howard Shore.
Kurzel fell into scoring films out of the blue. After touring with his band The Mess Hall, he was feeling burnt out. As he was questioning what he wanted to do as a musician, he was asked to create a few songs for a TV show. This then quickly turned into a contract where he needed to score an episode each week. It was gruelling. “It was a baptism of fire. I didn’t sleep for three months. But I learnt three years worth of technique in that time.”
His first major gig and his first feature film Snowtown was directed by his brother, Justin Kurzel.
Film like music is all about texture.
Justin would go on to hire Jed on his latest film Macbeth, where after a test screening of the film, both Fassbender’s performance and Jed’s electronic score rated very highly. But this was a major issue. The composition was taking attention away from the rest of the film, so they jettisoned it and Jed started again.
He decided to experiment more freely and drew inspiration from the bleak landscape of the highlands. Jed wanted to expose the peaty earth with his sounds. “No bagpipes, but something with a lot of texture, like it’s oozing from the hills. Film like music is all about texture.”
Treating musicians like actors
A quick session was organised, with members of the London Contemporary Orchestra who Justin had worked with before. He had decided that he wanted a small orchestra to give a feeling of individuality instead of the wall of sound that a full orchestra would bring.
He directed the players through the process, never telling them what to play. This allowed the players chance upon their own interpretations of how the score should sound. This is why he thinks that treating musicians like actors comes into its own. They were allowed to bend and scratch strings, get whatever effect to inhabit the atmosphere of the film. From this session, he recorded three hours of material that he shaped into the final score.
As he admits, a large source of his creativity is collaboration. One such collaboration happened spontaneously when his three old kid gave him the eerie backbone of a recent score for the Babadook. She walked into his studio and sang unprompted into a microphone. Luckily he was recording at the time.
Throwing a rod into the water and sometimes you catch something straight away.
On the subject of producers, he talks about what producers will try to make you do against all good advice. On Macbeth, the producers kept asking Justin Kurzel to create a title card to give some background info at the start of the film. “Everyone knows Macbeth, you don’t need a title card.” After saying no many times, Justin was worn down. To alleviate the situation, Jed told Justin to make something out of it and go for it. “Limitations can send you off into different directions. If they tell you to do something you don’t want, just go for it.” And so they created the mother of all title cards. Amazingly, they felt that the concept worked and so an altered version was left in.
The stress factor
When talking about the stress of working under such punishing deadlines, he likens it to “throwing a rod into the water and sometimes you catch something straight away. That’s what happened on Slow West. But sometimes you keep throwing it in and you wonder where everything is.”
It’s at times like these when he reaches for his favourite quote from Werner Herzog at the need to fend off producers at every turn. “Manoeuvre and mislead, but always deliver.” But as he suggests, you’ll always get something in the end.
Unlike regular musicians, who can just riff off pure inspiration, imagination or be divorced from reality completely, a film composer has a harder and more concrete task in the need to relate what they are creating to something bigger. We should watch his career with interest. Jed Kurzel is more than just a composer of music, he creates landscapes that breaths life into films.