Martin Phipps, 'War & Peace' BBC Miniseries Score Composer, on Music for TV, Film & More [Q&A]
Leo Tolstoy's timeless epic, War & Peace, has been adapted numerous times over the years, but 2016's BBC One miniseries starring Lily James, Paul Dano and more, has the attention of the world. Airing in the United States on A&E, Lifetime and the History Channel, this six-part series is directed by Tom Harper, who brought on his Peaky Blinders collaborator, Martin Phipps, for the show's all-important score. The music featured on the soundtrack is a big standout for viewers, and we were lucky enough to speak with Phipps about the project and much more!
When did you realize you wanted to get into composing for film and TV?
I had a very classical upbringing, my parents were very musical. My mother was in fact an agent for the niece of Peter Pears, who is a singer and who is a partner of Benjamin Britten who is a quite famous British composer. So I grew up very much with classical music. Then when I got to my teens I realized I didn't want to do that anymore and a life as a classical music player wasn't going to be much fun. So I switched to doing bands and was in bands and did that. Then I studied drama in college, I wanted to go to college and do a degree, but I didn't want to study music. I was doing drama and I got into writing music for the plays to get out of acting, because I was so shit at acting. I had a real moment of "Oh this is fantastic." The actual writing music to a dramatic sequence was just brilliant, and also I could do it on my own; I didn't have to be with anyone else in a band to do it which was a great relief. "I have total control at last!" So that's how I came to it and from there on I started doing little bits and pieces for my friends that were doing stuff in TV and making short films and it progressed from there.
How did you get involved with the War and Peace miniseries?
Well I worked with the director, Tom Harper, on Peaky Blinders. He did the second half of the first series so I'd sort of known him already and he asked me kind of early on for War and Peace. I have to be honest, I was concentrating on film at the time and I was not sure I wanted to do a big period drama TV series. It's such a big commitment, so I really sort of held off on it for a while. I passed on it for a bit and he kept on coming and I met up with him and he sort of pulled me over with his vision for it and really sold it to me. So I jumped in and haven't regret it at all. I've really enjoyed the process.
(The following video clip has been stripped of dialogue and sound effects to focus on the score)
How much creative freedom did you have and how involved was Tom Harper in the music?
Loads and it was beautiful thing as a result for me. Even though I delayed, prevaricated it a bit, I ended up coming onto the project early on and Tom really had a great vision visually about what he wanted it to look like, but not what he wanted it to sound like. He really just let me run with it and was very supportive of all my ideas from the very beginning and I was really left to do what I want. They were filming in Russia and Lithuania, so I flew out and grabbed a few hours of breakfast with him before he went onto set each day, for a few days, and played him some stuff and told him what my vision for it was, what I thought might work and he was really supportive. And I came back and I wrote some stuff, not to picture just music based on the script while they were filming, and then I gave it to them while they were editing and they put it all into the cut while they were editing. So they didn't use any temp music at all because normally they temp it up with loads of other people's stuff. It was only my music from the very beginning, so there was never a point of "do you like this or not?" They liked it from the beginning. It was always there and it was up to me to make it better so it was a really rewarding process. Usually you have a whole lot of complicated stuff from execs and other people involved and when they hear stuff for the first time after they've gotten used to working with other music, and that never happened. Also Tom was really allowed to run the show, which really helps if you have a strong director. It was a really great process.
I'm assuming you probably read the book in the past did; you read it again?
You're presuming wrong there! Yeah, no I've never read the book. I'd like to someday...Yeah I think I was familiar with the basics. The clue's in the title, so I was kind of familiar with what went on. I hadn't read it, and in some ways it's not a bad thing; it's quite good and I think that's why Tom wanted me was partly because I didn't want to do a traditional period drama score and partly because I wasn't in love with the book and have a sort of real desire to fulfill a childhood desire to score it. It was like I was coming to it with a quite objective viewpoint and I think that's what they wanted. They wanted someone who wouldn't be too beholden to it or too in love with it, and really give it what it needed.
Was there any amount of pressure you felt because it's such a classic and it's been adapted before?
Actually, I'm sure Tom felt that and the people on the production, but they shielded that from me a lot. And I didn't have any pressure I think the biggest pressure in my game is when, if you're doing a sequel to something, where another composer has written a great score, that's a real kind of pressure and that can be very tricky. But in this kind of instance, it hasn't been adapted that successfully recently at all. I think the most successful ones were quite some time ago and very different. So I didn't feel like I had to live up to anything particularly, but you realize when it came out if it if it hadn't gone down well. It went down here, sadly, much better than it did in America, you realize if it hadn't gone down well, that you would have been in the firing lines. People love to pull it apart if you mess with their favorite adaptations.
What's your opinion on this adaptation compared to other versions?
I'm amazed at how successful it's been in terms of just certainly over here. I'm getting so much love for it. People are really enjoying watching it. It seems to really pull people together to watch it. The overall feeling is it's too short and they've done it too quickly and I'm sure, with hindsight, they'd go back and add a couple of hours to it at least in terms of the adaptation and therefore allow a little bit more depth. But having said that, it seems to work as a viewing experience very well. If you know the book very well, I can understand maybe you feel too much is omitted, but yeah I think it works well.
Do you have a preference between films, miniseries or extended TV series?
I'm not a great fan of working on something like a repeating series, like something that comes back and back. I think that would get too repetitive -literally repetitive- but I am very much into film. I love film, but having said that TV is in a golden age and has definitely come into its own in a way that it wasn't before. It's sort of often beating film in its own game. So at the moment, and especially in hindsight, I was very happy to do it. What's great about TV is its reach. It just got such a wide reach-a lot of people get to see it, which is great. Where film can be very worthwhile and very good, but you can work your ass off on it and no one will ever see it. Most films never get seen. So they both have their advantages, but I'm much more into doing TV now than I was a while back.
Do you have anything coming out soon that you're working on?
I'm doing a feature documentary next, which is something totally different- I've never done before. I like to try and do different things and it's about Formula 1, one of the English Formula 1 teams, a bit like the documentary Senna. It's by a director I really like.
I will also spend some time "recharging my creative batteries." In order to stay fresh, I think I need to take a bit of time instead of going from job to job. That's how I try to approach it anyway; it doesn't always work that way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring composers trying to get into the business?
It's a tough world to get into for sure. My advice would be you want to get close to the people- it might seem like an obvious statement, but get close to the people who are making films, TV anything and make them your friends. It's no good hanging out with other musicians and in the music world. I work in the film and TV world. I don't work in the music world, and that's where you need to be and you need to be close to that and just keep writing stuff and hopefully you'll get noticed.
I married a drama producer, so that helped too maybe that would be my advice [laughs]. So try that, if all else fails!