Film and television composer Steven Price last year won the Academy Award for Best Original Score thanks to his tremendous Gravity composition. Relatively new to the game and having mainly worked other odd jobs in the music departments on films, finally reaching one of the top prizes in the field; how does one follow up the prestige? For Price, David Ayer's World War II drama Fury, starring Brad Pitt, was the next step, with early Oscar speculation already buzzing ahead of the movie's release date.
In our exclusive interview with the acclaimed composer, Price revealed that the pressures of following his Oscar-winning score for Gravity wasn't as stressful as one would think. He also opened up about Fury, working his way through the music departments on films, and what advice he has for aspiring composers trying to follow in his footsteps.
How did you get into composing music for film and TV?
Well that's a long time ago really. I've always wanted to do music; I've pretty much done nothing else from a very early age. There were instruments around my house and that's just been my thing. I really thought I was going to get into record production - that was in my head, that was what I was going to do - and I got through university, did all you needed to do there, and then started working in studio. It wasn't quite what I expected it to be. And I remember thinking, "God all I've done is music, well what am I going to do now?" It was at that point that I kind of got lucky with an answer in a music magazine for a film composer looking for an assistant. I was about 20, 21 then, and I got a job with a film composer, and basically it was like a light going on. I was in the studio and told to work out how to make the gear work and it all kind of added up really. From youth all I ever did was write stories and play music, and film music is basically the combination of the two things; it kind of let me combine the two things I've been always interested in.
How did you get involved in Fury?
I got sent a script basically. I believe one of the producers had seen the films I had done before and it was kind of around September or October of last year, and I got sent a script - and usually I'm pretty bad with scripts. It takes me a long time to read them. I prefer to wait until I can see some kind of footage or something, but with this one, as soon as you started it, you were kind of gripped with the characters. David Ayer (I don't know if you've seen End of Watch and stuff like that), he's got this remarkable way of writing characters and believable relationships, and so a few pages into the script you kind of got to know the crew with this tank, The Fury, and you kind of cared and you wanted to know what was going to happen and he creates this whole world around them. The film is kind of a story of this family that's gone through these unimaginable horrors basically for several years, to the point that we meet them. As soon as I read that - if I could get involved I wanted to. So I got taken over to the set and I saw them shooting one of the action sequences in the film, and from seeing that and talking to David, I got this idea of what he was looking to do, which was a really honest war film. There's no romanticizing going on, there are no beautiful sunsets. It's really as truthful as you can be: a story of the end of the war - the last three weeks of the war it's set. Just talking to David, he wanted to make an emotional, honest, kind of brutal where it needed to be, but also very beautiful in a lot of ways, film and so we had that conversation, I was kind of like, "yes please."
What was it like working on this project? How much creative freedom did you have with Fury?
[David Ayer has] been fantastic really. The note that I got at the start was that he wanted audiences to feel; that was the crucial thing for him. He just wanted it to be an emotional experience, but beyond that he's been really open to anything I had. He was kind of keen to hear something that wasn't done before. There have been so many amazing World War II scores over the years, but I think he felt and I did, that it's been done so well that we have to find something distinctive to the way we're telling the story. So he was very open to me to experiment and try things and that's what I did. I started sending him early ideas, just stuff they started shooting when I came on board. I've been on it for a long time; I've done 6 months on it, which is, in film scoring terms, quite a lengthy time. But this meant that we could try a few things, find the style that really fit what he was doing, because he shot it unlike any other war film you've seen, so the music had to be something distinctive as well.
How would you compare your approaches to your past works to that of your work on Fury?
I guess there are similarities in the fact that I always try to come up with something where the music feels like it kind of grows out of the concepts and the visuals of the film. One of the things we did early on was get noises from the actual machines. They have the authentic tanks in this film; they actually got the real thing rather than the Hollywood mock-ups. And so we had recordings of those tanks either moving or hatches being torn down, or shells being dropped on them. And that kind of gave me a start, just texturally to find ways to make ambiences and to make things with a musical quality out of those for when I started writing to kind of get me into the spirit of it. A lot of those sounds survived the process. Then it was a matter of finding the themes for the characters, a very thematic score, and there's a lot of orchestra in this score in fusion with other things.
But I guess this one was a case of finding its treads. Everything about the film has this kind of weight to it. They're very much in a hellish situation. They've been in it for a long, long time, and everyday it's moving forward and progressing onto the next town, or whatever it's going to be, but always with this chance you could literally die. One of your crewmates could die any second. So I guess the similarities when I got into the process to try and draw out the visuals and what David was trying to do, to give the music a kind of character, and around that I started planting in my themes and seeing how the relationships were going to develop and how the themes were going to develop.
After winning the Academy Award for Best Original Score for Gravity, was there any nervousness or pressure with taking on your next project?
Well I think the main thing for me was with the whole Gravity experience, was when I was doing Gravity, I had no idea if I would ever be able to do another film again. I remember when we were mixing it, there's a lot of things in that movie that aren't your normal kind of film score thing, and there was always this nagging doubt in the back of my mind: "this could be the last time you ever get to do this." And so, really, the award stuff was amazing, but the main thing for me was I did get asked to do another film. So well, you want to follow it with a good bit of work. I was very fortunate to find a film, and a director who was trying to do something original again, and that was great. There's always kind of an internal pressure because you want to keep improving and keep changing. So there's always a bit of that, but mostly I'm just immensely grateful I get to do this job, because my days are filled with playing instruments and trying to do that sort of thing and trying to make music work, that's a good gig.
What was the first instrument you learned how to play and what would you say is your favorite instrument to write for, play?
Okay, well the first instrument was when I was a kid, there was this little plastic toy guitar. It used to be my uncle's, from the 60's when he was a kid. It's a tiny four-string, like kind of weird plastic string sort of thing. There was only one string on it when I had it, but I used to try to make a little tune out of it and when I got to 5, my dad saw me doing that and he was like "oh, you can try doing that with more strings and have a lesson." That kind of started me off. So I still have that little guitar, it's sitting in my studio. I'm looking at it now. So that was kind of the thing I started with. And I write a lot on guitar and I write a lot on piano now, I do an awful lot on that. But emotionally, when I'm writing, I find myself writing for cello a lot. I find cellos incredibly emotionally affecting. And I've been lucky on the last couple of projects to work with a cellist called Will Schofield. It's one of those great occasions where you find a musician who plays it just like you imagined it, but you could never kind of explain that to anyone, so you just write it down, try to get all your directions to the musicians. He's just one of those you has that sort of sympathy for what I'm writing to make it exactly what I heard in my head. Very fun to write the cello, and there's something very human about a cello and the tone it can get. So I do a lot of work on that.
Do you have any advice for anyone trying to get into your industry?
The weird thing is with composers is that the more you speak to, the more complete different stories you hear of how people get involved with it because no two people seem to have the same sort of journey. I mean my thing was it took me a long time to get me to the stage where I was doing what I always wanted to do, which was composing. I'd gone through every job in film music, really, and I've kind of taken this incredibly long 15-year process to finally get the opportunities really. And through that, the only thing kind of was consistent was I just tried to make myself useful.
There are always a lot of jobs. Film scores are complicated, big old things to manage with time constraints and there's a lot of politics. Really, I just made myself as useful as possible within that process to composers and directors. Whatever was needed, whether it was an arrangement on orchestration or making the tea. Try to be useful during the process, and in that you end up learning so much, and seeing so many different situations, and learning a lot from really great composers and fascinating directors along the way. So the only advice I would ever give anyone is just kind of. if you can enjoy being useful and be open to any opportunity that comes up because it never happens the way you imagine it will. If you can enjoy it and make yourself useful, I think there's always potential for the nice surprises to happen.
Do you have any projects you're working on now or will be working on in the near future?
I don't know at the moment. I just finished about just a week ago, so we've been still finishing off the soundtrack for Fury these last few days and getting everything finalized. So the next thing I do, I have a little holiday actually and then we'll come back and see what's happening. It's the first time I've stopped in a couple of years so I'm quite enjoying having that. It feels weird actually, but ultimately it will be nice. Not quite sure what's going to be next, but looking forward to whatever happens. Another different challenge. This one was doing a World War II film after a space film, was a nice change of pace and hopefully the next one is a similar kind of thing.
Are there any artists, either within your world of composing or even in more contemporary radio music that you're really into now?
At the moment, I'm listening to a lot of electronic stuff. I fluctuate in and out of that sort of thing, but I just the other day got that new Thom Yorke Record, I've been listening to that and enjoying that the last few days and that kind of led me back into Aphex Twins sort of thing. But yeah it kind of changes a lot, I tend to listen to a lot of music around the house and it tends to be randomly shuffled along all the music I own, so things will pop out and I might have day of 16th century choral music tomorrow. It tends to be whatever comes up and suits the mood of the day. It's one of the joys of having all these songs on my iTunes. Never know what you're going to listen to next.
For more on Steven Price and his work, follow his Twitter account!