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Exclusive interview with Voice from the Stone composer Michael Wandmacher

Sean Wilson chats to the award-winning composer behind the Emilia Clarke ghost story...

A spooky Gothic drama set against enchanting Italian backdrops, Voice from the Stone allows Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke the chance to stretch her wings away from the world of dragons and all-out war. Adapted by Eric D. Howell from Silvio Raffo’s novel the story centres on a young British nurse who in 1950s Tuscany forms a connection with a young boy haunted by a promise he made to his late mother.

The movie also offers a fine showcase for composer Michael Wandmacher, who envelops the audience in an air of unease, melancholy and subtle beauty. We caught up with him to discuss the inspiration behind the score.


So before we get onto Voice from the Stone I’ll ask what I ask all soundtrack composers: what was the eureka moment that inspired you to do this for a living?

Although it was something that I aspired to do from a young age, because of my interest in both music and film, I think the moment that solidified it was the first time I went to a scoring session in Los Angeles. It was for Mission: Impossible, when Alan Silvestri was originally attached to it. The whole thing of walking in the room at Sony and seeing all those musicians and watching everybody play in concert with the picture. Just seeing all this stuff that I had heard about prior, or seen pictures of. That was my eureka moment, for sure.

Well that’s an interesting one isn’t it, because Alan Silvestri didn’t end up doing Mission: Impossible in the end. It was Danny Elfman.

Yeah, I wasn’t privy to any of the politics in that case but for me just the experience of being there, the actual being in the room, that was the thing for me. There were subsequent score sessions I went to for big movies, too. I remember thinking, wow, I can’t believe somebody actually does this for a living! I can’t believe I’m actually here, witnessing this. That feeling never really goes away [laughs].

Are there any film composers in particular who have influenced your work?

I’d say the people who most influenced me are those who I continually go back to for inspiration. It was definitely Silvestri, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Thomas Newman. There’s a long list because I like many different styles of music but those were the people who I listened to a lot early on. Just playing the scores over and over and over. Those are the most important.

Lovely to hear Thomas Newman being cited there, as he’s one of my favourites. What was your path into the industry? Did you always intend to do film music or did you come at it from a side angle?

I came at it from a side angle, definitely. It was something I was interested in and wanted to get involved in, but I never went to music school. I actually have a degree in journalism. I started my music career playing in cover bands and that evolved into a moonlighting gig writing jingles and music for infomercials, which led up to doing bigger commercials and short films and independent features. At the time I was living in Minnesota and managed to make some connections in Los Angeles. There was a point where I felt like I was running out of opportunities in Minneapolis and the people I knew out here in Los Angeles told me I needed to move if I wanted to make a living out of it.

So I did! I just packed up and moved out here and it’s been going ever since. It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to do this but was never sure how, so I kept knocking on doors and trying to find different opportunities.

So if you’ve got a background in journalism I’d better make sure my questions are good, then!

[laughs]

You’ve worked extensively in the horror genre with the likes of Piranha 3D and Haunting in Connecticut. What is it about horror scoring that makes it such fun for a composer like yourself?

I think it’s because horror doesn’t really have boundaries. Even though it is a genre, you get to do a lot of different things musically, both in a traditional and experimental sense. The techniques you use with both electronics and live players are much broader than you would normally find in a comedy or drama or something that’s more focused as a genre piece. With horror you can be doing anything from atonal noise to just deeply thematic. You can integrate electronics with organic stuff, you can use really bizarre, weird instruments. Within the palate of those films, somehow it all just fits together. So it’s a great laboratory for doing different things that you would never usually be able to do on other types of films.

That’s interesting because I was going to ask how do you settle on the instrumental and tonal makeup of your scores in terms of orchestra vs synthetic elements? Do you prioritise one above the other or does it vary depending on the project?

It really depends on the director and the producers, if they’re also weighing in. When I’ve gone into every single project, no matter what it is, the director always has a pretty clear vision of what they want either in terms of all orchestra or all electronic or both. Sometimes they want a bizarre instrument to drive all the thematic elements. I work from there and what I usually offer up is a chance to use a particular kind of instrument or a combination of different things based on the filmmaker’s ideas. Just do some demos and mock-ups that we can then throw at the movie and see what sticks. I’m usually responding initially to what the filmmakers want.

When you’re collaborating with a director do they talk to you in emotional terms related to the narrative or musical ones?

I honestly can’t remember a conversation that was musically or technically driven. It’s always about what emotion do we want to sell in this scene. How do we want the music to enhance the dynamic of a scene that’s driven either by dialogue or action. The combinations of sounds, should it get louder and softer? Should it be counter-programmed, as in aggressive music during a soft scene, or vice versa? Lots of discussions about very abstract ideas.

It’s always focused on emotion first, use of themes and moving the narrative along in a way that makes sense from a musical standpoint. Ensuring the storytelling aspect of the music make sense along with the movie, so there’s an arc in the score that matches the arc of what’s happening in the film.

You’ve also worked in video game scoring and this is something I find curious. Are there different disciplines involved in scoring a video game as opposed to scoring a movie?

Yes. The main difference is that in a game, you’re composing the bulk of the music in loops. And they can be really long – up to six, seven, eight minutes. But most are between 50 seconds to two minutes, and these are pieces of music that will cycle as the game goes on, depending on the level and area of the game you’re in. So you have to take into account something that somebody may be listening to over and over, so you have to be extra careful to come up with melodic motifs, themes, stuff that won’t get boring or repetitive or annoying to the player.

It’s actually a lot trickier than it sounds. In a film everything is meant to be seen once and it plays through, so if you’ve got themes coming forward to sell parts of the story it’s okay to keep using them, because they all go by in one pass. In a game, if you’re in a particular area you may be playing it hundreds of times and you have to ensure the music doesn’t get in the way at that point. It’s a delicate balance because you want to create a score for the game that’s unique and has a specific voice and sells the idea of the game and what it’s about. Yet at the same time it can’t be overbearing. It’s a balance thing. It’s a much more dynamic environment: whereas a film is on a set path a game can be different every single time you play it, and the music can’t adapt each time so you have to find a way to work with all aspects of the gameplay.

Onto Voice from the Stone. This is an Emilia Clarke-starring ghost story and I wondered how you got involved with the project?

My best friend, the director Eric Howell, had wanted to turn the book into a film. He worked to bring that to the screen for over four years. It was a passion project. I’d done some short films for him and we’d talked about music, because music is such an important part of the story. The day he knew the project was moving forward, we talked about the music right away, throwing around lots of ideas about whether it would be huge and lush or very sparse. It was an interesting experience for me to be involved so early on, pretty much from day one, and to be able to develop the music as the movie itself developed.

This is a ghost story yet it also touches on themes of memory and romance. There’s also menace and sadness. How did this influence the tone of the score and what musical touchstones did you draw on?

[pauses] Trying to think… The movie’s really interesting because it’s not a hard genre film. It’s more a love story and it’s a relationship story set within a very uneasy situation. There’s definitely a supernatural element surrounding it. The most important thing was to find a style or some type of voice in the music that could be haunting and elicit this state of unease. This idea that something’s not right, yet at the same time it’s beautiful. It was talking about the developing relationship between the owner of the castle and Emilia’s character, as well as her relationship with the young boy, whilst also addressing the ghostly presence at the same time. It was a really interesting thing to tackle because it wasn’t immediately obvious how to address both aspects of the story. We walk that tightrope through the whole movie.

Emilia Clarke of course is a very magnetic screen presence and I wondered was her presence an influence on the tone of music as well?

Very much. It centred mainly around her character. The music opens up and becomes more complex and lush as her character evolves in the story. When she first arrives she’s very constrained, quiet and reserved, and as the story evolves she comes out of her shell. The music does the same thing. There are themes that follow her throughout the movie, ones that start out simply stated and which are later extrapolated into something much bigger towards the end of the movie. I just wanted the piano in particular because it’s a central part of the narrative in the movie, and also the solo cello. The lines I wrote were pretty sparse and minimal at the beginning of the movie and progressively become more complicated and orchestrated.

I imagine the film’s gorgeous Italian landscapes must also have played their part?

Oh yeah, I mean every frame of the film looks like a painting and the crazy part is, there’s no CGI! It all looks like that! The fog was real, the turning of the leaves into those deep reds and purples, offsetting the castle – all that stuff was actually real, so it’s pretty hard not to let that influence you because visually it’s so compelling. Finding something musically that would bond with that was very important. It gives you such an inspiring palate to work with when trying to come up with the score.

Fantastic. Lastly, what projects have you got coming up next?

Right now I’m right at the beginning of the fifth season of The Goldbergs, which is keeping me very busy. There’s another movie I’ve done, Patient Zero, but I’m not sure when it’s being released. But it’s coming, we’ll just see what happens.

Michael this has been a pleasure, thanks very much.

You’re welcome, thank you!

Our thanks to Michael for taking the time to do this interview. Voice from the Stone is now on release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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