Tony Longworth calls himself a ‘dark, alternative music composer’ with his latest project – horror movie Retribution – out on DVD soon. So we caught up with him for a chat and had to ask…
What is an alternative composer?
Well I guess it’s a composer who does things a little differently, like me, ha ha. When I started out doing this, I made a conscious decision to approach film scores from a different angle, I didn’t want to do the same thing as the majority of film composers, I wanted to bring different elements, different styles of music into my film scores. I didn’t want to just call myself a film composer or music composer, I needed a another title, something that would make people curious, so the ‘alternative’ tag worked a treat for that.
When did you start doing this?
I started composing for film in 2000. I’d been in bands before then and I’d always had an interest in film and music. I’m a total film geek so writing music for film was a natural progression for me. I left my first band in the late 90s and started my second band, Flesh-Resonance, which is still going today.
Flesh-Resonance is a really experimental band which spans many genres. When we released our first album I figured some of the songs would be great in movies so I got in touch with some independent filmmakers in the US, sent them the CD and they loved what they heard. Filmmakers then started asking me for specific pieces of music for certain scenes in their movies so I just started scoring and it all took off from there.
If I gave you a million pounds but you had to either be in a band or score films and give up the other, which would you choose and why?
I’d definitely score films even though I love being in bands, but my heart really does belong to movies. You’ve got to understand that once you’re in a band, you’re involved in a serious relationship with however many people are in that band – it can be difficult to manage at times and it’s hard work, and it can slow down the creative process. I think that’s why a lot of bands don’t last that long, people just want to be in a band but don’t realise the effort they’ve got to put into it. I find scoring for movies is much more enjoyable, you’re dealing with less people, usually it’s on a one to one basis which speeds up the whole creative process immensely.
What’s the process for scoring a movie – do you see the film first?
I have no fixed process for scoring a movie as such. Most times I will be scoring to the actual footage of the movie but at other times the filmmaker might just talk me through what they want or even give me examples of existing songs or pieces of music and I just interpret them in my own style.
Last year I scored a movie called Inspiration. The director, Jason Armstrong, sent me a rough cut of it containing temp music from other movies, basically music that worked and music he liked in there. I had to watch this cut once, take notes on the music, you know style, mood, etc. and then work on my own version of the soundtrack without referring back to any of that music. This process worked really well, I could easily understand what the director was going for with the music. So I think the important thing for me is being flexible to the filmmakers needs, I just adapt to their working style, fit in, work any way they want to work.
How much creative licence do you get as a composer? Do you have freedom to throw new ideas in the mix, or is it literally working to a brief and that’s that?
That all depends on the project. I’ve worked on several scores in the past where the filmmakers had a very specific idea of what they wanted and there was little room to bring new ideas into it, but most of the time I have a certain amount of space to flex my creativity and I can experiment with new ideas. I feel I write better when I can experiment, throw a little craziness in there, see what works and what doesn’t.
What’s been your favourite project to work on?
That’s a difficult one to answer because I’ve enjoyed most of the projects I’ve worked on. There’s been the odd one which just wasn’t that pleasant but on the whole, I just love what I do. If pushed to choose just one favourite project, my answer would always be the project I’m currently working on because I’m so focussed on it and engrossed in the world of that movie – so based on that, my current favourite project is Six Pack Sam, filmed in Texas, written and directed by Joe McReynolds. It’s a dark action, horror movie, featuring an amazing psychotic killer. I’m maybe half way through the score now, still quite a bit to do. I’m experimenting a lot with this soundtrack, I’m really pushing the whole synth thing, playing with different styles – it’s all coming together really well.
What makes a great score?
Wow, that’s a difficult question and I don’t really think there’s a definitive answer to it, it’s like capturing lightning in a bottle. A great score has got to capture the mood of the movie, driving it along, going hand in hand with the visuals. It can’t be overplayed and at the same time, it can’t be underplayed. It needs to add to the visuals without taking anything away. You realise it’s a great soundtrack when you’re not conscious that you’re watching a movie with a soundtrack, it’s all the same, the experience has pulled you in, it’s true escapism. A great soundtrack simply just works.
Are there any major pet peeves that make you instantly switch off a soundtrack?
If a soundtrack does anything to take me away from the film, you know break that illusion, pulls me away the escapism that comes from watching a good movie, then that will instantly turn me off.
I want the soundtrack to be seamless, hand in hand with the visuals. So anything that breaks that down will make me switch off mentally. It can be things like acoustic instruments sounding obviously synthesised, or even the misplacement of music, something that just doesn’t work for that scene. So many times I’ve been watching a movie and thought “why the hell have they used that piece of music there?” and the spell was broken for me.
What advice would you give anyone starting out?
My best advice is just do it – start writing music, start experimenting, start learning this art, get involved, surround yourself with it. Build up a catalogue of music. Even if some of your early attempts are flawed, you’ll learn from that, it’ll push you, it will make you better yourself. As you develop, your individual style will develop. While you concentrate on your strengths, try to develop any weaknesses.
Once you’ve got a large collection of music, it’s time to find filmmakers. Give them a lot of your music, don’t be shy to share it, make people aware you’re there. You’ll end up doing a lot of work for free early on which will get you credit and also help develop your skills further. Then, don’t be afraid to charge money – this will scare some filmmakers away but don’t be put off by this – once you’ve developed your own style of music, you’ll find that good filmmakers are willing to pay for those skills.
What’s your favourite movie score of all time?
And another difficult question, ha ha. I love so much music, so many scores. Recently, soundtracks for The Signal and It Follows have just blown me away, so different, so good. I love everything Trent Reznor does too, anything he turns his hand too is just perfect. But if pushed, I think Hans Zimmer’s score for Black Hawk Down is the one soundtrack that I listen to a lot. It’s just so different, so ethnically diverse, so dark yet uplifting. Lisa Gerrard sings on it, there’s even a Faith No More track in the movie itself, artists I’m inspired by.
And finally, if you could pick your five favourite scores this year, who would get your vote?
So many good soundtracks to chose from, but the ones that have stayed in my mind are Star Wars VII – The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Ex Machina and It Follows. That last one is probably over a year old now but it’s that good, it needs including here.