By Vicky Bennett / GMS Administrator
Following his incredible win for Best Music in Wild Rose which was announced at the BIFA’s on the 1st December, Jack Arnold took the time to speak with us to discuss his role as Musical Director.
When did you come on board for production and what drew you into working as Musical Director for this film?
Jack: I started on Wild Rose in February 2017, when the production was just starting prep. I’ve known director Tom Harper for 25 years, we’ve worked together often so there’s a lot of trust in there and we both like to get started as early as possible. In this case, it was a film with a lot of music in it – performed songs on camera, found songs on the soundtrack, and score. I never like repeating myself with my work, and so this felt like a challenge – country music being a new genre for me to work in, though not to listen to. That said, I do remember that I had a lot on my plate at that time, and so producer Faye Ward had to talk me into it – seems crazy looking back! Having cast Jessie Buckley in the lead role was also a big draw for me, though. I’d worked with her on War and Peace, coaching her to sing slightly operatic songs, so the idea of her singing country was fascinating. It turned out she had never heard any country music beyond the obvious Dolly Paton hits, so we had some work to do!
Can you explain your process as musical director and how was the process for you in general when collaborating with the cast and crew?
Jack: The first thing I did was make a playlist of great female country singers for Jessie to listen to. Nicole Taylor who wrote the film is a font of knowledge, and between us we suggested artists such as Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, Patsy Cline, Lee Ann Womack, Wynonna Judd, Alison Krauss, Kitty Wells – country is such a broad church, and I wanted to see what Jessie would gravitate towards with her character and voice. Her role was as much about acting as it was about singing, and I thought it important that Jessie had full input into that. We then met with a rehearsal guitarist to try some things out. At the same time, the script had songs peppered throughout, some very specific to the story, and others not so. I think it’s important to come up with alternatives because while a song might be perfect lyrically and mood-wise in a script, when it comes to shooting, it might feel wrong. Tom and I met for a few listening sessions so that he could pre-visualise what he thought would work. But if memory serves, very few that were in the script ended up changing, and a couple moved to different places in the story.
We also needed an absolute gem of an original song for the end of the film, and so we put the call out to songwriters in this country and Nashville for pitches. There were so many that came back feeling half right, but not quite right. A great lyric, but a disappointing tune, or a wicked tune but a bum lyric. Until we got Glasgow (No Place Like Home) from Mary Steenburgen (yes, THAT Mary Steenburgen – who knew?), Kate York and Caitlyn Smith. It was Mary’s brilliance as an actor that meant she was able to totally nail the song.
I also had to find musicians to be Rose-Lynn’s band. I didn’t know it at the time, but there is a small but brilliant country music scene in this country – we met and worked with Laura Carrivick of the Carrivick Sisters and Midnight Skyracer, for example, when we recorded songs for the album much later, but at the time I didn’t know where to look. So I emailed guitarist Leo Abrahams and said: “do you know anybody in the UK who plays Dobro?”. He came back and said “Neill MacColl”. When I met Neill, he said he didn’t play it, but he knew someone who did. Neill became our band leader and put together a great bunch of players. The fact of the film being set in Glasgow seemed vitally important to me, so we approached Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, who I’d greatly admired form the BBC Transatlantic sessions. It seemed to me that they mage a sound together that just sounded like Scotland. All the strands came together in a rehearsal and pre-recording week in Glasgow in June 2017, by which time they’d all been wowed by Jessie’s extraordinary singing talent, and we had our band.
With the music, my approach was really to allow the band to play the songs in their own way. It’s just THAT kind of music. There’s no point in trying to make someone like Aly Bain play differently to what he is, and so early on in the pre-records, which were really just an insurance policy because Tom wanted to take the bold approach and shoot all the songs live, in-camera. (In fact, there are only a few seconds in the film when what you see is not the exact take that was shot). It gives a rawness and a realness that we felt was vital for Rose-Lynn – authenticity all the way. Some of those pre-records, though, were just so good, they ended up on the soundtrack album.
So, in summation, I think my main approach was to create freedom for the players and for Jessie and wait to see what happened. And a lot did!
What did you feel was most creatively challenging for you and why?
Jack: Creatively, the most challenging bit for me was the score. There wasn’t originally going to be any, which was another reason why I needed talking round in the first place. The score is my bag as a composer, and I was disappointed that there wouldn’t be any. The feeling was that the film had so much music in it that it might seem overkill to score it as well. In the end, there were a few places that needed it. The challenge was that instruments such as the dobro and the pedal steel guitar are so idiosyncratic that writing for it in an orthodox way felt impossible. So I approached it differently. I did several recording sessions with steel and dobro player Melvin Duffy where we looked at a scene and improvised around it, or I’d have a tempo and a chord structure and we’d play around that. So I had hours of material, and then I went away and cut it up and layered it, adding drums and bass, then going back into the studio and recording some more, and the cues sort of materialised. It is a great way to work, actually, because as a composer you can get trapped in your own ideas. With Mel, and with Stuart Nisbet, another steel and dobro player, totally different to Mel, it was the perfect way to work.
Which scene of the film did you enjoy working on the most and why?
Jack: So many, but I’ll say “Peace In This House”. Its the scene where Rose-Lynn is persuaded by Susanna to record a YouTube video to send to Bob Harris, and its the first time we really hear Rose-Lynn’s talent. Tom shot it in such a way as to start as an observer, but then we move inside her head and hear instruments playing behind her. So what we did was have Neill MacColl (guitar) and Stuart Nisbet (dobro) set up in the next room on the set, and they joined in with her a cappella. You can do that sort of thing with a singer as good as Jessie – she holds her tuning, and it all comes very naturally, rather than putting the instruments underneath in post-production. I think its a very magical scene, and it cadges your view of Rose-Lynn, who hitherto had been brash and crass. You glimpse into her soul.
Once again, Congratulations Jack on your win for Best Music at the 2019 BIFA’s and thank you for taking the time out to speak with us!
You can watch Wild Rose online here!
For more information on Jack’s work, click here!