Steven Price is the exceptional Academy Award and BAFTA-winning composer who has cultivated forward thinking and ornate musical universes for compelling films including Gravity, Suicide Squad, Baby Driver, Fury, American Assassin, and The World’s End. After apprenticing for the distinguished Trevor Jones and serving as a music editor on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Steven embarked on his own artistic path, assuming scoring duties for Joe Cornish’s sci-fi fantasy, Attack the Block. Since then, Steven has demonstrated his wildly creative repertoire and deft sensitivity to the particular demands of each narrative he embroiders. In our wide ranging discussion, Steven shares about spending a year of his life creating a majestic sonic odyssey for the riveting environmental docuseries, Our Planet and his deep dive into animation on David Feiss’ Wonder Park.
I understand the first instrument you learned was the guitar and that you went on to earn a degree in music from Emmanuel College, Cambridge. How were you introduced to the subject of film scoring?
It evolved gradually. Looking back on it, I'm always slightly embarrassed that I didn't connect the dots earlier, in that the two things I was ever interested in from a young age, were music and storytelling. Of course, that's essentially what my job is now, but it took me a long time to realize that this job existed.
I'd always loved film music, and recognized it in movies as I watched them, but I was already working by the time I realized that this was something I could do. I started off working in recording studios after college, and it was only by good fortune that I met a film composer by the name of Trevor Jones. I was about 21 when I started working for him, and it was the direction for me. Within five minutes of being in this studio, I kind of went, "Oh god, this is the thing for me. This is it. This is everything I've ever been interested in — all in one job.” It was one of those moments that you just can't ever forget. It was obvious to me that this was everything I enjoy. I love making music, I love the emotion that music can bring, but I also love the challenge of telling stories and bringing all that together.
When I was growing up, I was a guitar player, and that takes you down more of a song route. I was very obsessed with all things rock music, but at the same time, I was playing classical guitar. Gradually through doing classical guitar, you get into more of the repertoire, like Bach transcriptions. I was also studying classical music, so there was always this dual musical identity going on. Again, that’s excellent preparation for a world of film music, because you end up drawing on so many influences.
On my first day with Trevor, he sent me to a little studio in his place because I didn't really know what I was doing. He just said, "Here's a scene. Just play with it." He was obviously testing me a bit, and I just remember making a little melody, then just changing where the notes fell, so they fell on either side of a movement on screen. It was just an eye movement, but the difference it made emotionally by changing the note on that frame half a second later…It was just like, "God, this is amazing. This is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used in so many different ways. It can have such a massive effect on stories." I remember going home that day knowing that it felt right.
Can you tell us about the musical styles and artists you studied that formed the basis of your composing approach?
It was a mixture of things. I was interested in the pop side of things, but the degree course I did at Cambridge was very analytical. I also found a lot of Baroque music fascinating. Even to this day, I’ll often go back to that material.
Film music wise, I only really got into it once I started doing it myself. After I was involved in the industry, I went back through the lineage of that. I grew up in the early 80s — that big era of E.T., Back To The Future, those sort of films. At that time, I was much more involved in pop and classical. As a classical guitar player, you end up playing a lot of Scarlatti, John Dowland, and Elizabethan sort of things. I'm sure a lot of the way I think harmonically and melodically comes out of that slightly odd upbringing. The guitar’s generally a funny instrument. You've got a lot of open strings that can clash against other things. I think that makes you very into extended harmonies, and ninths, and thirteenths, and all that sort of stuff, which for a guitar player, is a completely natural way the fingers fall. When you start applying that to orchestras, you can end up with some exciting things. I'm sure it's this weird combination of influences that all seem to add up to what I like to come up with.
Out of curiosity, were the Beatles a significant influence on you?
Massive. Boringly obsessed. Growing up at home, we had a vinyl player. I must've been really little because I remember crawling from speaker to speaker. Those early 60s mixes — they're really extreme, and you might get the drum track and the bass on one side, and the vocal and something else on the other side. I used to find it endlessly fascinating. I'd almost learn one side of the stereo image at once. I absolutely loved all of that music. I always say if you like the Beatles, the paths it leads to are endless. Whether it be literature, or other forms of music, or history, they seem to touch on everything.
You've got the trumpet on “Penny Lane,” and then you go off and listen to a Brandenburg Concerto because that was the influence there. There was this map that could launch you into a world of music, and I absolutely loved all of it. I always remember “Hello Goodbye.” You don’t immediately think of it as a particularly orchestrated tune, but on one side of it, there was this woodwind texture going on. You could dig into those details forever. It still staggers me how much they accomplished in so little time.
On your path to becoming a full-time film composer, you served as a music editor for high profile films including Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. How did those rich experiences inform your scoring work and what inspired this transition?
It was just one of those weird, fortunate things of being around the studios in London during that era. I was working for composers, assisting, and doing additional music right as the Lord of the Rings project was starting up. They were obviously looking to build a huge project, so they needed a team of people. I was at Abbey Road one day and was asked, "Would you be interested in this?.” At that stage, I'd never really music edited and didn’t really know much about what it entailed, but of course, it sounded fantastic.
That became a three-year odyssey, where every year for about four months at a time, we would hole up at Abbey Road, and we would work on those scores. It was this wonderful education, in that a music editorial role can mean so many different things. On that project, it was a lot of editing performances, and getting the best possible performances of what had been recorded by the orchestra. On other films, you're very much creatively involved with the director, making cues work. You might be either the person who's communicating between the director and the composer. So often, musicians speak one language, and directors perhaps aren't as familiar with musical terminology. Sometimes, they're nervous of musical vocabulary, so you learn to be a middle man and make sure everyone gets what they need.
You come to realize that composing is the fun, natural bit for the musician, but it’s the filmmaking that requires a range of other skills. We’re not just making music for our own pleasure; we’re making the music to serve a story, and to serve a piece of film art. Being a part of the editing process makes you realize there’s so much more to it than the music that’s you’re really focusing on. You are a part of a bigger picture, and you’re helping to deliver the vision of the director. You’re hopefully giving the film the best possible chance of working from a musical standpoint.
To do music editorial, to be right there in the cutting room as the film evolves and changes for a number of projects, those were the most amazing experiences. It was a hard thing to move on from. Once you’re known as a music editor, it's very hard to get that lift into composing. That was a tricky transition for me, but the experience I got doing the job was really great, and I'm very grateful to it.
Not a bad way to learn on the job considering Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan are recognized as two of the world's greatest directors.
Absolutely. I was very fortunate, certainly on Batman Begins, to be working very closely with Chris Nolan from very early on in the edits. I helped put together a temp score, cut demos that were coming in, and worked all the way through the process. Right from very early on in the cutting room, and all the way through to the last day when the film was print mastered.
It was a real treat to see a director like that pushing for what he needed, trying things out with the film, and experimenting. I've been fortunate to work with a lot of great directors, and watching Chris Nolan in action was a real privilege.
Netflix's Our Planet is the upcoming nature docuseries, exploring the world's most breathtaking and fragile habitats. It addresses hard truths about humanity's devastating impact on precious flora and fauna. Narrated by legendary British naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, the limited series was documented in over fifty countries, taking place over three and a half thousand filming days. How did you become involved with the project, and what is your personal connection to environmental activism?
Well, I'd done a previous series with the company who made Our Planet. I first worked with them a good ten or fifteen years ago on a film called Earth. I'd been the music editor on that project and met a lot of the people involved. Ten years after that, they got in touch about this great show called The Hunt that I did for the BBC. I scored all seven episodes of that show. Just towards the end of that project, they mentioned that they were doing this show called Our Planet, and how it was the first time that a natural history show had truly dealt with the realities of the earth, and the health of the planet.
The show has a real angle of conservation. It shows you the wonders of the earth, but it also shows you the damage that's being done, and it shows you that we need to act. I remember going to Bristol, where they're based, a couple of years ago, long before we started working on the show, and they just showed me some of the sequences. They film these things for four, five years. At the end, they asked me if I'd like to work on the job, and I don't think I've ever been more honored to be asked about anything.
From your perspective, why is the subject matter of this show important for people to engage with at this time in human history?
It's just very timely, and I think a really important show. It's beautiful to watch, but it's also very powerful to watch. We're all hoping that people watch it and it starts this conversation that really needs to happen now, about what we can do to help support the world. We're at a critical stage, where things need to change now. Climate change is very real. We need to do all we can because we're losing a lot of things that we need, and the world needs. We need to be friends with nature. We're all here together. What's been particularly fascinating for me, is that the project really shows how every part of the natural world interrelates. If there's a problem in the Arctic, there's going to be a problem in the desert, and all that affects the growth in the forests. Everything is linked up.
Luckily, we’re still at a stage where we can help this. There is a reason for optimism. If behaviors can change, and governments can do what governments should do, there are solutions out there. The show is done in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund. After each episode, you can go on the OurPlanet.com website and see films dedicated to what can be done to help our circumstances.
For every episode, I would have the people who directed it come to my studio to talk about music, but also so I could pick their brains about the realities we are facing, and what actions can be taken. We’ve come a long way in the last five years. We’ve reduced the use of plastics and are moving over to recyclable materials in coffee shops, supermarkets, and stores. People are learning to reuse and repurpose. You see so many more electric cars now, and all the big vehicle manufacturers are working on it. All these seemingly small things can make a massive difference. It’s been fantastic to learn from all these experts.
The point is, we have to take responsibility for the world, rather than just draw from it. It's been an incredible project to work on. I think they're lovely films, and musically, it was an amazing opportunity to work with these incredible images, but hopefully, the message is what resonates the most.
Will there be multiple soundtracks released for Our Planet?
Absolutely. It’s quite extreme. There's a two-CD version, there's a double vinyl version, and we're also releasing the scores for the eight films digitally. Each individual film has a full feature film score in it. There’s a massive amount of music coming out of this project because each film really stands up on its own, and has some amazing sequences in it. We’ve kind of done a highlights thing for the physical releases, but we figured it would be nice for people to be able to find specific musical sequences they like in the digital version.
I can only imagine how long you’ve been at work on this project.
It was a solid year of working. The main scoring period took about nine months, but before that, there was quite a long period of me getting rough images across, and working on melodies. Once we began the main process, every month, we’d go into the studio and record an episode, and then it’d start all over again. I'd be mixing the last episode whilst writing the next one, and orchestrating the one after. It was this really intense process, but it was amazing in terms of writing something one week, and knowing you're recording it the following week. With films, you’re often playing with a cue a lot longer than that, so it was really invigorating, and the adrenaline was extreme.
It was a glorious project to work on, and you can't help but be inspired by the work that's been done by everyone who's involved in the show, from the incredibly dedicated camera people, through to the producers. It was a passion project because everyone truly believed in what they were doing. It always felt like every day was an exciting day. I hope that comes across in the show.
Can you elaborate on the instrumentation you harnessed to convey the unparalleled beauty of these natural wonders and communicate the grave consequences of environmental neglect?
One thing that we've been cautious about doing with the show overall is that whilst we do show the dangers and the things that are happening, we never wanted it to feel like it was berating the audience. I was constantly making sure that I wasn’t going down a depressing path because there are still things that can be done. You’re working with these fantastic images, and you can’t help but think, “I don’t want to be working on a history show. I don’t want this to be the last time we see animals like this.” While there are certainly many melancholy moments in there, I wanted to convey a feeling of hope as well because there are many great examples of the difference that has been made so far. With the whaling ban, things like that. We have incredible sequences where if you allow the space for nature to recover, then nature will thrive. My main Our Planet theme has an uplifting character to it because the idea is that we can act now.
Musically speaking, there’s obviously a lot of orchestra, as I worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra on the show, but the key for me was to find the emotional core for every sequence in the films. That was my main job. There are overarching themes that come back over the course of the series, but within that, each episode has its own thematic identity and its own sound. They're all set in different areas of the earth, but they're all connected through thematic material that comes across in them. I was working on the Frozen episode, and that lent itself to a lot of glassy sounds, and a lot of textural elements, whereas the Forest episode, there are a lot of woodwinds. The Jungle show has a lot more intimate behavior. You’re dealing with a lot of smaller creatures in places, and that lent to specific instrumentation. The story has always lead the music.
Wonder Park is an animated adventure film centered around June, an imaginative ten-year-old girl who conjures up a fantasy realm called Wonderland, which magically comes to life. What are the creative advantages of scoring for animation?
It had always been an ambition of mine to work in animation. I've always been a huge fan, and I have young kids now, so of course, you end up watching a considerable amount of animation. The project that got me in the frame for it was The Hunt, which was a natural history one I'd done. I got a phone call from the filmmakers about this Wonder Park project.
It was fantastic. I loved the process of constant evolution. As the animation itself would get more detailed, the music could get more detailed and reflect that. Every detail they put in an animated film is very intentional and very thought through. There are no free accents. If there's a beautiful reflection, that's because they want there to be a beautiful reflection there. Whenever I got a new iteration of the picture, there might have been a tiny facial gesture which had become slightly more developed. Things like that would let me enhance that emotion a little bit more in the score. Musically, you feel like the more you put in, the more this combination of the music and the visuals come together. I really enjoyed myself, and I think it suited the way I like to write music.
What instruments felt most supportive of this exuberant amusement park setting? What sonic attributes felt appropriate to signify the darkness and the destruction brought on by the chimpanzombies?
This is certainly, for me, quite a pure orchestral score in lots of ways. My previous work has been a lot more rooted in processed sounds. Because this all takes place in an incredible amusement park, I wanted it to sweep and feel very melodic and thematic. There are many sonic ideas in there, but one of the key ones was that the whole park is born of the imagination of the lead character, June, and she envisioned the park being powered by clockwork swings.
This starts off as a game that she plays with her mum, where the clockwork swings exist as this kind of mechanism that they've built together. When we realize the park is real, it's this huge, great, massive area full of clockwork. One of the things I was looking to do was to power the score with this clockwork mechanism. When the park is healthy and well, you feel all these gears locking together, and when it's not, those things would break down, and you would feel that mechanism was failing. For that, I recorded all these different kinds of bells and metal instruments. When the park was running well, they would lock together, and the rhythms would fuel the cue, giving it momentum. Later on, when things weren't going so well in the park, I would almost melt those sounds and slow them down, and see what I could get. The texture of these things would become the bed of a cue. There was a layer of experimentation behind the orchestra. It hopefully supports their story points.
For the process of slowing down the audio and creating those textures, what DAW did you work in?
I work in Pro Tools from the first note to the final mix. I stay in the same bit of software for the whole thing, even for the first sketches. I used to work in Logic earlier in my career, but I got into Pro Tools whilst working on a project called Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I worked in the studio of Nigel Godrich for a long time, and he was the composer of that score, so I was assisting him and arranging things for him. He used Pro Tools, and what I loved about it was that it felt like we were building up a record. I commit everything to audio very early on, and then play with that as if I’m creating a record rather than it being all MIDI instruments. It feels like I’m building scores in a very old school way.
In 2014, you won both an Academy Award and a BAFTA for your palatial and emotionally nuanced score for Gravity. Considering that outer space is essentially silent, how did you, alongside the director, Alfonso Cuáron, envision your score and its role in the storytelling of the film?
I’ve looked back on that project, and the whole thing was a never-ending experiment. The basic brief I got for that film, was that the director, Alfonso Cuáron didn’t want it to sound like film music. It had to sound like a unique thing, and the film invited that approach because it was unlike anything else. You’re basically up in space for the entire thing in real time, so it’s very immersive. Because of where you are in space, there’s no sound, so the music was intended to carry so much of what sound would have done and give musical expression to the things you were seeing. Some of it was instinctive. I remember very early on, some of the sounds that I came up with for that film, they really survived the whole way through, and some of it was just this constant iteration of trying things.
What was really interesting about that project, is you might return to version two of a cue you created 200 versions of, but there would always be something in that 200th version that taught you something. It was actually very similar to an animation process, in that the more you put in, the more the film gave you back. What I loved about Gravity was that it was so concept-driven.
There's a bit earlier in the film where two of the astronauts are tethered together, and the tether gradually compresses, and they come together, they pull apart. They come together; they pull apart. The force is upon them. I remember playing with the old Steve Reich thing of having two tape players playing slightly out of phase with each other, so as the characters moved apart, so the phase of the tape moved apart. You can barely hear that in the score. You can barely hear the noise that it made, but it is there. The more layers of meaningful things you added to back up the story, the more it seemed to come together and become its own sort of sound world. It was a huge amount of fun doing that project.
Can you speak on some of the experiments that took place to define the musical identity of Gravity? Did you try out a lot of different synthesizers?
There are a couple of synths in there, but a lot of the synthetic sounds are processed orchestra or processed voices. There's a tremendous amount of voice in that score. There were a lot of things that came across like bass sounds, which are literally me sitting in front of a microphone in the middle of the night, singing in the lowest note I could do, and then slowing that down, and filtering it, as you would do a synth.
There were lots of tape-esque processes that went on, and things having their pitch changed gradually. Throughout the film, there’s an awful lot of things rising and falling as the characters move. A lot of that would be an orchestra holding a note, but then I’d manipulate it, almost playing an oscillator, but with a real sound instead, speeding samples up and slowing them down. I used very basic tools in extreme ways, nothing exotic in terms of plug-ins, just playing with filters, EQ’s, and a lot of distortion. I come from a guitar background, so my studio is not short of pedals. I took very beautifully recorded orchestra and put it through old bits of valve gear from the 60s, pushing everything to maximum to see what the distorted output of that would be. There would be loads of nasty noise, but there might be something in there that speaks to the film.
Whenever I used too many synth sounds, it always started to sound like sci-fi, whereas when the sounds were organically created, they seemed to feel like you were on this journey with the character. I remember being at a recording session for Gravity and towards the end of it, we recorded a piece which sounded quite conventional. One of the executives from the studio said, "I really like the sound of that.” and I was sitting there going, "God, I'm going to take this away and tear it up now. You're going to hate me." Everything was played with. If ever I did anything that felt even slightly conventional to Alfonso, he let me know that wasn't what he was after. It was a challenge to keep coming at it from different angles. It was just one of those projects where you keep trying to chase the sound in your head. It was a lot of hours, and it became obsessive because there are very few films where the real subtleties of music can be heard, and you’re not competing with anything from the sound department. The project truly developed its own language. Working with Alfonso, you’ve got someone to play things to, who will offer a lot of feedback, thoughts, and ideas. There are very few opportunities in life to run that wild, and it was an incredible collaborative process.
Baby Driver follows the tumultuous journey of a highly skilled, music obsessed getaway driver for high stakes robberies, looking to complete one last job and ride off into the sunset with his diner waitress girlfriend. The licensed songs in the film speak directly to the character of Baby and are used as a way to drown out the ringing in his ears, a consequence of a traumatic childhood accident. Your multi-faceted score serves as a potent connective thread, offering greater context for these specific musical moments to shine through. Can you tell us about how this treatment was conceived and established? Did you work closely with the director, Edgar Wright, and music supervisor, Kirsten Errington to plot out such a seamless musical progression, or did it come together more organically?
The thing with this film was that the process went on for about ten years. I got involved, and it was the very first time I met Edgar Wright, just as he was writing the script to Baby Driver. This goes all the way back to 2007 or so. We worked on it, and he would have ideas for scenes and songs, and then I would go through the song, give him a breakdown of the tempo, of the cuts that we'd need to do, and what potentially could happen with the movement on the screen. The first page of that script established that everything in this film reacts to music. Everything is intertwined with music — every frame of the thing.
For years, we would dip into that, and there would be bursts of activity in between other projects. We would come back every couple of years, and there would be another draft, and a few more songs to try. Over time, it had evolved so much, and by the time we got to shoot it, I’d moved on to getting composing work. When we started, I wasn’t doing that. The project went through a lot of changes to get the transitions to work, and to help Baby’s story evolve with the fact that he needs music to distract from his tinnitus condition. He lives his entire life to music, so the music always needed to be seamless, and the score could then play along with some of these existing tracks. Sometimes, it would go off and do its own thing. For the character of Doc, there is a purely scored thematic thing, but when we’re in Baby’s head, it’s more song focused.
It was an amazing thing to be involved in it for so long and then had the opportunity to do the final tweaks on it at the very end. It’s a great film. We were all proud of that when it came through, because back when we looked at the script back in 2007, it was difficult to explain this idea to people. Even the windscreen wipers are going to be in time with the music, and people are looking at you like you're mad, but it came together. Edgar is a huge music buff and imagines the songs as he’s writing. He likes to use music very strongly and prominently in his films. He’s someone who is brilliant to work with. I’m incredibly grateful to him. Without Edgar, I would never have made that transition into composing. It was really only his support back in the era of Scott Pilgrim that lead me to get films like Attack the Block, which in turn lead to things like Gravity. Our relationship has been tremendous in my life and career.
In your opinion, what are the most intriguing technological innovations that you believe will impact the future of film scoring? Which traditions do you hope will carry on forever?
The second part of the question is an easy one to answer for me. What I love most about this world is the interaction of story, image, and music, and the craft of that. That's the thing I really hope survives. We're in an era now of lots of content being produced, but for me, the bespoke moments are still what really sing. One of the things I’m very proud of is the fact that I did every second, every note of the score for Our Planet because that’s what it needed. Those stories needed to be told individually. I think there's more intensity in the process with computers being at the center of things, and that music and visuals can be endlessly edited, but the feeling of musicians performing to a piece of music, which is very specifically written to picture, I think it still carries an emotional resonance that’s really important.
In terms of technology, there's always going to be new, exciting things coming out. Just look at the last twenty years of developments made to the software, plug-ins, and all these things we all use every day. That said, music is still a human thing where emotions are involved. Any sound can bring about an emotion. That link is the thing I hope will remain through whatever technology emerges. It should always come down to a human reaction to a story, to a character, to a moment.
The satisfaction for me is finding not how technology can lead the process, but how it can help me find the sound that's very specific to a film. My dream is to write a score, which as soon as you hear the first notes of it, it reminds you of a specific scene in a movie, that it couldn’t be any other film. If the technology helps achieve that, great. If we find, through playing with a new bit of equipment, a sound which is completely bonded to a film, that's where technology is excellent for me. It's always keeping that human touch present — that very bespoke feeling of the music bonding to the picture in a way that elevates the whole story.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Steven Price and White Bear PR.