To celebrate the release of David Mackenzie feature ‘Outlaw King’ we caught up with Air-Edel’s Jim Sutherland and Chantelle Woodnutt who worked closely to produce the on-set music for the film, which stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce.
Jim, Could you tell us about how you became involved in the project and what it was like collaborating with director David McKenzie?
JS: David approached me about the project a few weeks before the shoot to enquire if I might be interested in being involved with the diegetic music for the film. I have known David for some time. I met him for the first time in the late 90s when he directed a couple of pop promos for the Lanterns, a band I was part of that was signed to Sony Music at the time. He more recently came to see a concert by La Banda Europa which is a 36-piece orchestra of indigenous European instruments that I put together and compose music for. David was aware of my interest in world cultures and my ability to put together and produce large scale work and put two and two together.
It was an interesting and challenging collaboration. Diegetic music plays a vital role in contemporary film making, allowing the director to populate a film with music that sets the scene as well as helping to drive the emotional narrative. We identified and placed music cues that ranged from army drums and medieval fanfares on trumpets and cow horns, to choral works for a royal wedding, a funeral, a coronation and a piece which celebrated the killing power of King Edward and his deadly trebuchet catapult being launched for the first time.
I created the initial draft budgets for these scenes, at which point, Chantelle Woodnutt joined the team to reduce the budgets down to workable proportions and oversee their implementation.
The story follows 14th Century Scottish ‘Outlaw King’ Robert The Bruce, who used cunning and bravery to defeat and repel the much larger and better equipped occupying English army. How did you establish where music was needed and what steps did you take in researching and creating medieval music for the scenes?
JS: As the film is set in the early 14th century very little is known about the music of the period. We have knowledge of church music which was documented by scholars, but even this is open to interpretation due to the non-precise nature of the notation. The folk music of this period is largely lost, however it was possible to create our own musical language for the film by looking at the cultural influences on the country at the time. Instruments such as harps, whistles, bagpipes, rebec, gittern and various reed instruments would not have survived. However, because we are aware of stone carvings and illustrated manuscripts from the period, we know that they were likely to be in use in early 14th century Scotland.
Detective work and artistic licence were necessary. For instance, Scandinavians via the Vikings had been settled in Scotland for a few hundred years, so it could be assumed that the culture of the time had Scandinavian influences. I discovered the Nykelharpa’s keys were found in an archaeological dig in Sweden pertaining to this period, so it felt safe to bring the instrument into the diegetic music palate.
People made their own entertainment with whatever they had to hand – overtone throat singing was around in Ireland in this period and I took this as an opportunity to incorporate it into our widening musical palate. For the other vocal elements, I composed choral pieces for court occasions such as the Bruce’s wedding and coronation. In Scotland, particularly in St Andrews, they lead the way with harmony during this period and the linear contrapuntal style of writing was developing. The pieces I wrote for the Scottish court were largely cantor lead (call and reply), whereas the piece I composed for the launch of Edward’s deadly trebuchet was fully choral and incorporated the throat singers which also gave a huge bottom end to the Westminster knighting ceremony scene. Other cast songs included ‘Hey Tuttie Tattie’ which was reputed to have been sung/played by Bruce’s men in the lead up to Bannockburn.
Cow horns were widely carried in Scotland as signal horns by hunters, so it seemed natural that they would be used ceremonially – at one point in the film three cow horn players signal an important arrival. However, for the better equipped and more sophisticated English army I wrote fanfares using the long trumpets of the period. The drums too were used to signal the difference in levels of sophistication. The English drummers signalled the military might of the army with powerful drumming on massed tenor drums, whereas the Scots were much more ad hock and we created the sound with large rope tensioned drums made from carved out indigenous tree trunks.
Other elements that influenced my work include the wonderful Cantigas de Santa Maria of Spain. It is known that troubadores were traveling widely and would have taken influence from the various musical cultures that they encountered. I brought dulciana (a small folk oboe) players from Spain for three scenes in the film and married them with English and French bagpipes of the period. The sound was at times huge and certainly not the po-faced medieval music that we are often treated to in movies.
Could you talk us through your processes from start to finish – composing the onset music, sourcing and working with the musicians, to the final stage of production for the dub.
JS: As with nearly all projects, we began with a spotting session. David McKenzie and Gillian Berry had already both given their suggestions for diegetic music cues and they asked me to go through the script in order to spot further music opportunities. We ended up with more than 50 music cues which included horn blasts, fanfares, war drums, Latin choirs, Gaelic mouth music, war chants, cast songs, massive minstrel scenes and even Senegalese music in the harbour scene.
I would say that 50% of the music was composed in advance of the shoot. The prerecords were very useful for judging pace etc., however, David was keen to record as much of the music live as possible. The other 50% was written and arranged as we went along. It was a challenging process as I was often on set thinking about music for future shoot days while directing performances and rehearsing musicians who were ready to shoot for the current scene. For the shoot days, musicians and singers were generally on set very early in the morning so Chantelle and I had to be there to make sure everything went smoothly through make up and costume and then into rehearsals which were often held in corners of fields or dining areas.
Towards the end of the shoot I went into the studio to do ADR with actors and extras on songs. I spent a couple of weeks in the studio tidying up premixes and overdubbing additional musicians and singers onto wild track recordings. I also lined up pre-recorded choral recordings in one place and remixed war drums etc. Essentially, because the live music worked so well, there wasn’t a lot to do except for mixing stems for use in the mix.
Chantelle, describe to us the main purpose of your role on the production and talk to us about any challenges you faced?
CW: As Jim mentioned, I was initially brought on to help manage the budget and help him with finding and booking musicians and singers. I went up to Glasgow about three weeks before filming started, stayed until three days in to the shoot, and then continued on the film for the next three months from London, with the occasional trip back for the larger music scenes – it became clear pretty quickly the monumental scale of what David Mackenzie wanted to achieve with the music and my role quickly expanded to include
- Keeping schedules of the scenes that required music and their shoot dates
- Ensuring that Jim’s compositions and arrangements were heard and approved by David
- Organising travel and accommodation for specialist musicians coming from all over the UK, as well as Spain, Sweden and Ireland, and also transport to set, etc.
- Working with the assistant directors to keep them informed of musician crowd requirements and agreeing set call times
- Arranging fittings with the costume department for the on-set musicians
- Liaising with props to source authentic looking instruments
- Ensuring the sound department had mics and equipment for the live recordings
- Organising singing coaching sessions and choir rehearsals
- Managing all contracts and paperwork.
The biggest challenge we faced was the sheer scale of musicians used, which was nearly a hundred and twenty, and the number of scenes with music, added to David’s desire to record as much as possible live – on some days, it felt like we were doing a musical! We did do pre-records, which were utilised for certain scenes, but a lot of the time, we were having to juggle a number of factors to ensure that we could record live (location acoustics, sound recording setup, the way the costumes fit, etc.) which was a constant challenge.
Another challenge I faced was often being down in London – not being in the thick of it meant that I couldn’t just pop over to the relevant department to discuss things, and not always being on set meant that sometimes I was having to react to things quickly from quite far away.
As you mentioned, this particular project was monumental in terms of cast, musicians, crew etc. How did this compare to previous projects in which you worked with the on-set music team?
CW: All of the other projects I’ve worked on where there was on set music usually utilised pre-records. For What We Did On Our Holiday, there were a number of on set “folk” music scenes, and for that one, I got Jim involved to produce and record some traditional music arrangements. These were then mimed to on set, so it meant things were not quite as complicated – it was also only two or three scenes, not fifty! As a different example, Parade’s End needed a lot of on-set military music and bugle calls – I sourced traditional military sheet music which was then played and recorded on set by an existing military band who had been hired.
I’m currently working on a TV series with Maggie Rodford, which has a number of small orchestra scenes – again, our musicians are miming to pre-recorded music, so while we are sourcing those, having arrangements created, working with casting to find musicians, etc., it’s not on the same scale as Outlaw King was in terms of music demands.
Jim, You worked closely with Chris Pine and other cast members to provide them with vocal coaching, how did you find this?
JS: Yes, I worked with a small team of singing coaches and choir masters. I really enjoyed working with Chris and the rest of the cast. Chris has a lovely tenor voice and his Scottish accent was perfect. He and the rest of the cast applied themselves well to both the Scots and the Latin songs that we taught them. The results speak for themselves!
To you both: What was your favourite musical scene from the production and why?
JS: I loved working on the Coral beach scene which was set in Islay working with women singing Gaelic Waulking songs. It was so very cold that day and the women were amazing. My favourite however was the Latin choir in the wedding scene. It was my first day on set and the music worked really well, setting the scene for the actors and giving them a sense of ‘being there’. The diegetic music made a huge difference to the actors who found it easier to be ‘in character’ with the music which would often play through their performances. This music was also really useful to David for establishing the feel and pace of the scenes it was in. There was a lot of standing around in muddy fields for days on end, but it was worth it to see the whole thing come together. What a fantastic experience.
CW: I have two favourites, both in terms of the day and how they appear on screen – the first was the day after Jim’s aforementioned wedding scene, again including the choir, but this time for a funeral scene – it was our second day on set and the choir had already done the day before, so were feeling confident and happy, and the music Jim had written for the scene was incredibly beautiful and spine chilling – you’ll recognise it straight away in the film. My second favourite, to bookend it, was my second last day on set and was for the famous “Feast of the Swans” – it could not be more different in terms of musical style to the choir and utilises a huge array of interesting musical instruments including Lancashire pipes, dulcianas, hurdy gurdy, bowed zither and throat singers. It’s quite a mad piece of music but perfectly evokes the bizarreness of the scene and was a fun scene to be on set for.
Thanks so much Jim and Chantelle – what an amazing film to be part of! ‘Outlaw King’ is out now in UK cinemas and on Netflix.