Music

Interview: Kingsman: The Golden Circle’s composer Matthew Margeson

In an exclusive interview, Sean Wilson talks to Kingsman composer Matthew Margeson about the film and his career...

Despite the flashy suits, manners making man and explosive candy popping heads, the first Kingsman stuck in people’s memories for, amongst other things, the vibrancy of its swaggering score – courtesy of Matthew Margeson, who over recent years has continued becoming a rising star in Hollywood, attaching his name to numerous major projects, including this week’s newly released sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Our own film score musical maestro Sean Wilson sat down with Matthew to discuss the new Kingsman, the previous Kingsman, and his career thus far…

SW: What was the eureka moment that inspired you to become a film composer?

MM: I don’t think there was a eureka moment as far as film composing goes but I was probably about seven or eight years old and I grew up just outside New York City and my parents took me to see The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and the show was great but I was definitely more interested in the man waving his baton around, directing all the musicians. After the show I actually went down and talked to the conductor, and I’d been taking piano lessons for a while, but that was definitely a moment where I thought, this was something I’ve got to get involved in and wouldn’t it be cool to be that guy? Wouldn’t it be cool to make this a career for my life. So I think seeing that show with a live orchestra was probably a turning point in my life.

SW: That’s interesting as I was about to ask, were there any particular scenes in movies that stood out as making an impression on you? Were there any other pop culture moments where you experienced live orchestral music that made that kind of impression?

MM: You can’t deny watching some of the old Spielberg films and Star Wars, that immediately you become seduced by some of these soundtracks. When you see something like Phantom of the Opera live though, it did change my way of thinking. My parents would love to see Broadway shows and when they would take me to see the band live, that was always a treat. All those young experiences solidified that I was going to do this for the rest of my life.

SW: You also restored Hans Zimmer’s remote control studio, where you made a name for yourself in part. How much of an impact did that have on your own career and sense of musical development working there?

MM: Definitely quite a bit, I think. The hierarchy that exists at Remote Control is a really positive learning ground and there’s so much to learn that isn’t even music related, there’s the act of selling your music, or talking to your director, or the file organisation and the process of trying out different music and different themes. I see it often in young people who move to LA who want to get involved in this, you could know your way out of any music theory lesson or the Beethoven repertoire but theres so much more to it than just the music. There’s the political side, the bureaucratic component, there’s a lot that goes into it, so being at a place like Remote Control is a real crash course in all the components of the career.

SW: From there you collaborated not just with Hans Zimmer himself but the likes of Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt, and I’m wondering, what the secret to a great collaboration on a film score?

MM: When I was working with those guys I was in the position of working as akin to a ‘ghost writer’ or additional arranger or additional composer, and it’s a fine and sort of volatile balance of respecting that this is someone else’s score, their name is going on it and it’s ultimately their material, and you’re there to help explore it. It’s similar to what I was talking about regarding the political aspect of things, you need to know when to ask questions, when to let your voice shine, and when to respect that its the other person’s project. I think if you want to get in the industry that way you have to be very good at reading people and know when to suggest ideas and when to, importantly, keep your mouth shut!

SW: Yes because I do wonder when I see film score partnerships I do wonder, to what extent are you allowed to inject your own musical quirks or idiosyncrasies into a particular project?

MM: Well if someone doesn’t have the time to write every single piece on a score then they’re looking for somebody with the confidence to bring something original to the table, but like I said you can’t just go and write something that sounds completely different from the rest of the score, you have to respect the composers intentions and their ideas, first and foremost.

SW: After working with these guys, would I be right in saying that the score for Skyline, for the Strauss brothers, which had this wonderful synth orchestra in it, would you say that was a major breakout for you as a solo composer in your own right?

MM: I had done a couple of indie films and commercials beforehand, stuff like that, but I think Skyline was definitely my first studio feature where I was on the front lines of many people wearing suits and ties listening to the music and giving notes. A big step for me. I can remember crying myself to sleep at 3am every morning wondering “how the hell am I going to get this thing done?”.

SW: Well you certainly got through it! With that score, how did you decide on the makeup of that soundtrack?

MM: It was an interesting prospect actually, especially with the Strauss brothers, who’ve made several films and are primarily visual effects guys, so I think for them the process of making a film wasn’t like dealing with 20th Century Fox or something like that. There’s actually a whole score to Skyline that doesn’t exist, I’d written about forty five minutes of music in my naivety without playing back a single note, so when I did have my first playback they came back and I realised it was just completely wrong! So you kind of put your tail between your legs, and we went back and once I had gotten some input from them–I don’t even think we had a spotting session before we started, which is where we have the initial conversations about dialogue or the score should be, what the intent of each scene is, and so on and so forth. So I went back to the drawing board and in a matter of just a couple of weeks I had the rewrite the entire score before the orchestra sessions. Ultimately I had written a much more contemporary, synthesised, much more minimalistic score for that film and they had definitely wanted something organic and orchestral, and more of a throwback to the action type of music from the Golden Age.

SW: Talking about working in the synthetic realm, I must give a mention to your wonderfully retro score for Eddie the Eagle, which I adored. I thought when I listened to that, given the setting of the film and the type of music that you wrote for it, was that a chance for you to dip back into the nostalgic memories of the music you remember, from when you were younger?

MM: Absolutely! I grew up in the Eighties, I’m a textbook child of the Eighties, and I grew up with all the Harold Faltermeyer scores with all the–I don’t want to use the word ‘naff’, but the synthesisers that one might almost quirk their head at in some situations, but when I talked to the director Dexter Fletcher and of course (producer) Matthew Vaughn, we had this idea of lets just give it a whirl and try it and really just commit to doing an Eighties genre piece. It was a ton of fun. A lot of the time in other scores when I’m using some of those retro scores, you have to almost hide them or try and bury them, or double them with things to make them sound a bit more contemporary. To let them play loud and proud was a real trip.

SW: From there we’re inching ever closer to Kingsman, but I must address your collaboration with Henry Jackman, who you’ve partnered with on the likes of Wreck It Ralph and X-Men: First Class, and so on. When you’re working on a score together, what is the nature of your collaboration, particularly when you’re working on a massive movie like Kingsman or X-Men?

MM: Yeah, it depends. I mean, if it’s a movie with a Henry Jackman score and I’m just brought in to get some of the minutes done, it goes back to what we were talking about before where I definitely have to, kind of, do my research and see what he’s going for and see what sounds he’s using and what type of ‘voicings’ and what kind of orchestration he’s using. If its something like Kingsman or Kick-Ass, where it’s a co-composition, then I think from the very beginning the roles are a little bit differently defined and we’re both sitting at the piano as players then, instead of me just being the guy in the back getting some minutes finished and getting some scenes finished. As far as the collaboration goes, when we are both co-composers on the project, to our benefit we had this long relationship of me doing additional writing on some of his movies, so it’s definitely a really healthy collaboration. It’s a total friendship and we can bounce ideas off of each other and its a really great working relationship that we have.

SW: Yeah, definitely! On Kingsman, you both wrote the score for the first film, which was a massive, great big super-hit and, obviously, made everyone wonder why Colin Firth couldn’t have played James Bond when he was younger! When you saw the first rough-cut of the first Kingsman, what were your impressions of it in terms of what the music was going to be like?

MM: It was really interesting. In the very early days, we [Henry and I] had (and I’m showing all my cards here!) very different impressions of what the movie would end up as. We had thought that Matthew [Vaughn] had made, from start to finish, a really elegant British espionage spy film, which in some regards he did, but when you get to that church scene, things change a bit don’t they? It’s almost as if you’re watching a whole entire different movie, which is part of the reason, I think, it was a grand success, just because no-one expected that coming. It freshens up the whole of the second and third act of the film. And so, we thought in the beginning to do this orchestra-only, really really elegant British-sounding score and once we started getting some resistance from Matthew Vaughn and when he started saying no, now we really need to dive into the action and it needs to be visceral and we always need to give permission to the audience to have fun… we need to up-the-ante when the action scenes are going on and really just be wild and bold with it and not as restrictive as, maybe, we were trying to be initially.

SW: That’s really fascinating to hear the differing creative aspirations behind the music. I wonder, in that case then, what was the broad pitch for the music for the sequel, The Golden Circle? Was it ‘bigger, bolder, more badass’?

MM: Yeah, it is! For The Golden Circle, you have new characters and new settings and new scenes for the film which really allowed us to explore new material and also expand upon the world we created for the first one. You have the Kingsmen who are back, so you definitely have this British spy, espionage world that we created in the first one. You know, where can we go with that now? How can we re-voice things and how can we rearrange things? How can we turn things up on their side, musically speaking, to dive deeper into the psyche of some of these characters? Then on top of that whole component of the film, you now have the Statesmen, who are based in Kentucky. We initially talked to Matthew about what he wanted to do for that and he was pretty adamant that these guys were cowboys so it was two-fold; they needed to be bold and they needed to have swagger. We definitely wanted to include a cowboy-ish bluegrass element to it and so we got in some banjos, some fiddles and some dobros and some washboards. We even brought in some whips to get some percussion elements. We had a couple of big jam sessions and out came the score for Kingsman 2. It was a lot of fun!

SW: That’s brilliant! The nature of these movies is, as you’ve said, Matthew Vaughn wants the audience to have permission to have fun and there is an emphasis on the action. There’s also a very satirical underpinning and an outrageous underpinning. Is that quite tricky to navigate in terms of how you push the humour in the music and how much you pull back from it?

MM: It is! The only way I can describe it is its all a matter of degree when there’s a comic moment or when there’s a moment with a little more gravitas to it. I don’t think on any cue I’ve ever written for Matthew, when I first play it for him, does he say “Great! That’s it! Let’s put that in the film and we’ll call it a day.” With Matthew, if there’s a more tragic moment, let’s push the tragedy and find out where that line is. If it is a more visceral, action moment, let’s make it feel louder and higher and faster and bolder. We’ll find out where that line is that we’ve gone too far and then we’ll dial it back a bit. Every once in a while, we’ll go through fifteen rounds of revisions and tweaks. Sometimes we’ll end up back at version one – you just don’t know that unless you’ve been down certain paths.

SW: I imagine, as a composer, that it must be a good thing to have a director like Matthew Vaughn who continues to push the envelope and gets you guys to push yourselves in the similar way?

MM: It is. When you’re in the thick of it with Matthew, he can be very demanding and ask a lot of you, except that I will say between Kick-Ass, X-Men, Eddie the Eagle, both Kingsman films, I am always so proud and so happy with the product of the film and the music that comes out. It’s only in retrospect do you know that all the pain was worth it. You have music that marches to the beat of its own drum, and you have a film and a director that’s always being bold and doing what they want to do being very clear about their own vision.

SW: You mentioned Kick-Ass there, The Golden Circle isn’t the first sequel you worked on because you worked on the music for Kick-Ass 2 back in 2013. What are the challenges of honouring an earlier film versus going in a new direction with the music? 

MM: I think you’ve already established a world so, depending on the nature of a sequel, you don’t want to completely abandon the world you’ve created musically, but as a composer you should always be wanting to push the envelope, explore different ideas and see where they can go and see how far you can stretch different emotions.

SW: Absolutely! I mean, there is such a rich canvas of spy scores across the history of cinema and there’s so much you can dip into – whether it’s John Barry with Bond or John Powell with Bourne. That must offer such a rich opportunity for you, as a composer, to dip into these wonderful melodies and ideas? 

MM: Yeah – for the first Kingsman score, it definitely is a nod to the Bond genre. When we started coming up with initial phrases and motifs, we didn’t necessarily go ahead and rip off John Barry because where would be the creative nature in that? What we did do was have a lot of discussions about what are those components, elements, instruments that lend themselves to that genre and let’s start there. Instead of actually going back and listening to the scores, what was in our minds after watching all those movies twenty years ago? What were the elements that stuck just as ideas? Let’s use that as a starting point as far as sound palette and different tempos. And what percussion are we using? How contemporary? How throwback? All those questions you have to ask yourself when exploring your genre.

SW: In this one, you’ve got the character of Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, who is now a fully fledged Kingsman agent. The first film, obviously, traces his journey to becoming that. I wonder, did you have more fun amping up his screen charisma through the music? 

MM: Oh, absolutely! In the first film, along with the story, you start off in a very traditional, elegant espionage world and that’s definitely reflected in the music. By the end, when Eggsy is a fully fledged Kingsman, all those same theme, notes, motifs an musical ideas are there except now they are played on guitar, bass and drums rather than a seventy/eighty piece string orchestra. The journey that you go through as this young kid goes through his journey; we definitely tried to draw a parallel.

SW: In this new movie, The Golden Circle, you’ve an Oscar-winner in the form of Julianne Moore playing the baddie. What sort of opportunities did that present in terms of music?

MM: A lot of headache actually! The baddie character in this film was the hardest nut to crack musically-speaking! We thought we’d figured out a musical idea for her and a theme and different musical instrumentation. I actually went to London and recorded a whole orchestra playing her music back in March. It was one of those things where you only know if something is right or wrong if you commit to it for a while and keep re-visiting it. It was a month after we had it recorded and mixed when we all watched some scenes and screenings and thought everything was feeling really good in this except for Julianne Moore’s character. We didn’t think we quite nailed that musically. So we stepped back to the drawing board. The same thing with Skyline – there’s versions and versions of some of Julianne Moore’s scenes that, musically speaking, have ended up on the cutting room floor and we revisited many, many times. Her theme and her presentation of the music was definitely one of the hardest bullet points to solve for this film.

SW: I imagine! So what have you got coming up next? Any exciting things in the pipeline?

MM: Yes – there is! Except I can’t, necessarily, talk about them yet! If there’s something that I’m already well into working on and is coming out soon, I have no problem talking about it. There’s a couple of things now that are still in very, very early pre-production; but I’m super, super excited about. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about them just yet.

SW: That’s fine! Lastly, you mentioned Jerry Goldsmith earlier (who is my favourite film composer – he’s just extraordinary!), he once said that the film composer’s job is not to score the surface action but the emotion that we’re not actually physically seeing on screen, the emotion that’s working on us in a subtle way. I wondered, in a philosophical sense, from your point of view as a composer, how hard is it to guide the audience effectively while also delivering a kick-ass film score?

MM: Good question! I think that it goes back to what we were saying before about trying things out. I think the word ‘perspective’ always comes to mind when you’re scoring a film – whose perspective are we supposed to be empathising with when we’re watching a scene? Is it one of the possibly many characters on the screen? Is it not a character on the screen and we’re actually scoring the audience’s perspective? Is it a scene that needs help for the audience to understand some of the storyline of what’s going on? I’m a huge fan of revisiting things, as I’ve said before, and trying things in different ways and sometimes I’ll do two or three versions of a cue for a scene – one is maybe playing the protagonist, one is maybe playing the perspective of the antagonist and come back to them in a couple of days or send both to the director and say ‘What were you thinking for this?’, ‘Whose scene is this?’, ‘What’s the purpose of this scene?’. I think it goes back to a really profound subjectivity when you’re watching some of these things that you have to keep in mind the director’s vision. That’s why I like to present them with, hopefully in a lot of cases, just one idea you’re really confident about. The great thing about Matthew [Vaughn], if I’m struggling with a scene and say ‘What’s going on here?… How intense should this be?… What should be the purpose of the scene?’, I can just call the guy up and just have a conversation with him about it. I think that helps a lot of the times when you’re struggling with which direction to go with for the scene. I think it’s Hans Zimmer, who I’ve had so many meetings and collaborations with in the past, and he’s always talking about ‘story, story, story’. It’s why you can get away with producing The Joker scene, which was essentially one note – it goes back to story, it goes back to the execution of the fact that he’s helping to tell the story so elegantly with one note.

SW: From the perspective of someone like yourself who’s in the industry, have you heard any scores recently in other films that you think have enhanced the narrative whilst you’ve been watching?

MM: That’s really interesting! I will say that I am a huge fan of Daniel Pemberton’s work – I think The Man From U.N.C.L.E. score is just ear-candy – it’s just amazing! His work on the latest King Arthur and the Steve Jobs film shows, you know, he’s a young composer who is really amazing and really has his own voice! As far as other shows or movies – I really don’t have that much time to watch things these days, but TV is getting so good! You have Jeff Beal’s score to House of Cards, which I just think is so patient and elegant and amazing and helps tell this really sinister story of politics. You could also just turn on the BBC and watch the reality of the world political situation right now! Which is just as entertaining! I think the content, both cinematically and on TV, is really in an exciting place; especially when you have these guys, like Trent Reznor and other band guys, who are coming in a bringing in whole new textures and sounds to the world that we might not be used to. It’s opening up many doors for collaborations. 

SW: That’s an interesting thing – I’ve spoken to John Powell and said ‘Do you see the orchestra as the backbone of every film score?’ and he said ‘No, absolutely not – there is an opportunity to create new sonic palettes and new textures away from the orchestra.’ Would you say people shouldn’t shy away from that? 

MM: I think that, again, it’s a matter of balance. If something calls for an orchestral sound, there’s no doubt that those sounds are going to be, I don’t want to use the crutch, but an easy device to make things sound big and sweeping and bold. But there’s other ways of doing things now and when you have a younger generation of film makers and directors and producers that are coming up, hopefully, that they are more open to a more contemporary way of doing things. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing more goosebumps inducing than listening to a seventy/eighty person orchestra play your music, but I think that with all the media that we have and all the different mediums of media that we have, there’s a lot of opportunities to explore different sonic worlds that don’t involve wood and strings and brass.

SW: Absolutely. I completely agree – it’s a really exciting time for film and TV music. I love the shout out for Daniel Pemberton, as well, because I love his work as well – I think it’s so varied! It’s fantastic! Well, Matthew, thanks so much – this has been really interesting and it’s lovely to go behind the curtain and hear the perspective of someone who’s worked on the film itself. Thanks so much!

MM: No problem – my pleasure, Sean! 

Many thanks to Matthew Margeson for his time! Kingsman: The Golden Circle will be on general release from Wednesday 20th September.

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