Interview: Scottish composer Craig Armstrong talks Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd is Armstrong’s first collaboration with director Thomas Vinterberg.

Scottish composer Craig Armstrong has worked extensively with director Baz Luhrmann on titles such as Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet and most recently The Great Gatsby, and is set to reunite with Oliver Stone on his next project, Snowden.

Far From the Madding Crowd, in cinemas now, is his first collaboration with director Thomas Vinterberg. Adapted from Thomas Hardy’s classic novel it centres around Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a fiercely independent young woman and the three men in her life.

DIY had a chat with the award winning composer about his writing process and inspiration for the score.

At what point were you brought on board?

I think I was brought on quite early. The film changed quite a lot, when I was brought in at the start there were a lot of elements that were quite different so he (Thomas Vinterberg) was really just in the middle of constructing it, putting it together. We went through lots of different themes. So by the time it got to the version you saw it was a long time that I’d worked on it.

Presumably you and Thomas collaborated quite closely. What was that experience like?

That was great. In my experience the way it works is you write pieces of music you think work. Say there are 8 reels in the movie and each of them are 20 minutes long or whatever so I might do 4 reels of music and then he’ll go through that and pick out what he really likes. That will give me a clue to what he is looking for, then I might go back and re-work ideas and then of course he’s still editing the film so it’s really all in flux. So it’s not so much that he tells me what to write he edits and chooses what he likes of what’s been written. Say maybe at the beginning you write 10 pieces of music for him and 5 of them he really likes and are right for the film, that really clues you in to what direction he wants.

How did you get inspiration for this score?

I read the script. It’s helpful in one sense but really it’s much easier with the colours of the film and the atmosphere to wait to get that to be able to respond to that musically.

So you felt you had to wait to see some rushes…

You do really. It’s nice to read the script but for me I really have to wait to get the film to know how to react to it.

Did you visit the set?

In the film I did before, The Great Gatsby I was on the set in Australia but I didn’t go to the set of Far From The Madding Crowd. It [the scenery] makes you want to go there doesn’t it?

It certainly does, I wanted to know where they filmed it…

I can find out if you want! It looks like: “I want to go there,” doesn’t it?

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Hardy’s less tragic works. Tragedy exists but not to the extent of some of his other novels, you’re not waiting for someone to die…

It was quite controversial because women in those days…it was quite unusual for her [Bathsheba] to be so decisive in the sense that there’s the three stories; the soldier, Baldwood the rich land owner and then there’s farmer Oak and I think at the time it was quite controversial.

It certainly feels more like a film about independence rather than romance.

It really was. Now of course that’s completely normal but I think at the time of writing that was really seen as very modern.

It’s reflective in the music which is not overtly romantic…

I wanted to do that, generally speaking I think I’m known for trying to get into the kind of soul of the picture. In a way it would be easy to write some big, over the top romantic tunes. I think the story, although it’s seemingly quite simple it’s actually quite a complicated story and her story is incredibly strong. Bathsheba is quite remarkable at that time when women were just expected to marry the rich landowner.

In those days if things went bad they went really bad. If your farm went down the hill you were basically starving. Right at the beginning of the film when farmer Oak loses all his flock, it’s hard to put that in perspective now because for him that was basically him eating raw potatoes [laughs]. That’s what it was like, I think it’s hard to get your mindset back to that, to how hard life was for these people.

What’s the writing process for you on a project like this?

What I try and do is try to become a character within the film and try to get into the DNA of the film. With Gatsby you’re trying to express Gatsby’s loss of hope and in this, in a sense it has a happy ending. I’ve got a very young daughter who’s only 13 and in all the films I’ve done she’s always blanked them [laughs] but with this one she really loved it. She was like: “Why doesn’t she just stay with the soldier?” I said: “Because he’s a baddie Angelina,” [laughs]. He’s [Vinterberg] brilliant at really elemental things like landscape and the rawness so a lot of the score was the rawness of the countryside and how bleak and hard that is. At the end of the day Bathsheba gets farmer Oak or they get each other whatever way you want to look at it, and at the end of the day it is very romantic. Especially Thomas he also is not really known for big romantic gestures. At the end out of all of this chaos and carnage something happy happens. It was nice to also be able to write an unashamed love theme for them. Apart from my 13-year-old daughter [laughs] everybody wanted them to be together.

Where did you record the score?

Angel Studios in London with the London Session Orchestra. They’re like the best players from the all the big symphony orchestras. It took maybe three or four days to record and then to mix was maybe a couple of weeks. It sounds good, they’ve done a good job with all the artwork and all that, it looks nice the album doesn’t it?

It definitely does. Directors edit all the time so does that affect the beats of the score when things change?

Especially this film was right up until the end kind of in flux in a way. I’ve never worked with Thomas before so I don’t know if that’s the way he works. I basically accept that a film is never finished and that the things people see in the cinema they’ve basically just taken it out of their hands really. It’s like a painting it’s never really finished and basically at one point you just have to stop or you could literally go on forever.

Presumably you’re almost on call with things changing and going down to the wire?

The thing that’s nice and I’ve been lucky with is I’ve been able to work with really interesting directors with Baz Lurhmann and Oliver Stone and I really liked Thomas’ film The Hunt, it’s a fantastic film. I know a lot of people wanted to work with him but for some reason he chose me and we got on really well. Because Thomas lives in Copenhagen, Glasgow’s like a 40 minute plane ride so he came to Glasgow a lot, in fact I’m meeting up with him in Copenhagen in a couple of weeks. I like him a lot, he’s a really exceptional guy. It was lovely working with Thomas. Obviously Baz Lurhmann and I have done years of work together so he’s kind of a main collaborator and my next film I’m doing Oliver Stone’s new movie, the Snowden project in New York in July. So I’m still working away you know?

Going back to Baz Lurhmann we can’t not talk about Romeo + Juliet. The score is still being used everywhere, in trailers and adverts etc. It must be an immense source of pride for you…

I think as a musician you know how hard it is to make a living because lots of musicians don’t get any work. I think you’ve got to be humble enough to say to yourself: “You’re lucky that you’ve had work for a long time.” I’m 56 next week and I’ve not really stopped working since I left college at 23. There are so many musicians and so many writers and directors that the ones that are lucky enough to do it as a living, I think you’ve been lucky. It’s a lot of work doing music for a big film but at the same time I’m always aware that I’m one of the lucky ones to have had the opportunity.

Doing your own albums must be quite freeing as you’re not beholden to anyone else.

I think that’s why I do it. You’ve got a lot of film composers that get very embittered, they just do film after film after film and they get pissed off being told what to do [laughs]. When I do my own projects I’m quite happy to do a film after that because I’ve been on my own for a long time. It’s quite nice to be around people!

Far From The Madding Crowd is in cinemas now.

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