Whether an artist is working in front of the camera, behind the camera, or in a recording studio, the film industry is perpetually the home of working ten or twenty years to become an overnight success story. In the case of Steven Price, the composer spent almost two decades rising up through the ranks of music departments, working on projects as varied as The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I’m Not There, and Pirate Radio. After becoming part of Edgar Wright’s creative team on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he wrote his first scores for Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block and Wright’s The World’s End.
All of this led to Price writing the score for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, for which Price has already won a BAFTA and Critics Choice Award, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. In celebration of Price’s BAFTA win and Oscar nomination, I recently spoke with Price about his work on what is universally considered to be the most ambitious film of 2013. Here’s what Price shared with me about the unique spirit with which Cuaron challenged everyone creatively, Sandra Bullock’s acclaimed performance serving as his muse, and crafting the score for Gravity.
Jackson Truax: You’ve been working in film music for almost twenty years, and recently began composing your own scores. What has the journey been and how did you rise up through the ranks?
Steven Price: My desire was always to compose. I started off when I was in my early twenties…and that was the plan. Of course, the reality of actually getting an opportunity is a little tricky at times. I took the approach that it was better to be useful to people. And learn as much as I could along the way and hope for a break. So I’ve done literally every job in the film music industry. I’ve made tea for people. I’ve done programming. I’ve arranged, orchestrated. I’ve music edited… I fell into music editing in the early 2000s and it seemed like such an amazing way to spend quality time with directors. Because you can spend your life working for composers and really never be in the thick of it… This job enabled me to spend so much time working with directors right from very early on in their cut, all the way through to the final day of the final dub. It was a good way of learning more and more about the process and about storytelling, really.
JT: Since you hadn’t done a lot of your own scores prior to Gravity, do you know how you came to Alfonso Cuaron’s attention and what made him want to meet with you?
Price: I think he had seen a film I had done previously called Attack the Block. Basically that got me through the door for a meeting. And then we just had this amazing conversation. He told me all about the film. He told me all about how he was going to honor this fact that there’s no sound in space. And then said to me, “So, what can music be in this context?” So I started thinking about it and saying things to him… In the end, we had this couple-hour conversation… The idea of what music could offer to this film, and to this experience that he was trying to make… I came out of that meeting so excited about the possibilities of what he was up to. And then kind of started making a few things in my studio and he responded to those. All of the sudden we found ourselves collaborating. It was an amazing couple of weeks at the start.
JT: So how did you come to score Attack the Block and what did you learn from that experience?
Price: Attack the Block came about through a film I’d done previously called Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World with Edgar Wright… I was hired as music editor on that and ended up doing arrangements and additional music… You can spend your life doing those backroom jobs and…a lot of people [never] recognize that. But on that film, Edgar Wright, and the producer Nira Park…and [composer] Nigel Godrich…they recognized what I’d done. And they credited it properly. Then when [filmmaker] Joe Cornish was making Attack the Block, which was a much smaller-budgeted film, and they were looking for somebody to compose it, they gave me a meeting off the back of the Scott Pilgrim experience. I owe an awful lot to them really recognizing, and encouraging, and giving me the opportunity. It was at that stage, I really wasn’t sure if I was ever going to get to make the break into what I originally wanted to do. So I owe an awful lot to that little period of time.
JT: A lot of scores feel like collections of music cues, but the score for Gravity feels like a whole piece. How did that approach influence crafting individual cues as well as the score as a whole?
Price: The whole film is this journey. Sandra’s performance does it so beautifully, that my job was to be with her throughout… The way it was filmed, in these huge, long, never-cutting, great, long sequences, offered itself up to this real musical storytelling that took place alongside the visuals… I could develop things in this score in a really delicate and detailed way. Because there’s no sound, there was nothing to compete with in that respect. So I could plant really subtle, little threads of melody in. And know that they would be heard. They would become part of the texture. I could play with that. And do things in a lot of detail. And plant little musical ideas that I could develop in later scenes, all the way through. So this film was this amazing canvas, basically, for music. It enabled me to really have a lot of fun with planting thematic ideas that really makes it feel like a journey.
JT: The score is so eclectic, and blends so many different musical styles. How did you decide which instruments or genres would play into which sections of the film?
Price: I definitely didn’t think in terms of genre. I think every scene was just taken on its own merits, really. Some of it was instinctive. I got a sense very early on that the more emotional moments [had] blasting, pure sounds…long-held notes, and slowly, growing, thematic things. And very much a slow-burning feeling. The score was written very much to move around you and to be part of the theatrical experience. Some of that was instinctive. A lot of it was born out of experiments. I would do demo after demo, really, of different ways of playing the score… We’d watch it again and again. And see what it was doing for the scene. And see if it was helping… Rather than it being a plan we stuck to from the start, we were always very open to letting the film and the music guide us, and respond to however it was making us feel as we went through.
JT: How influenced did you think your score was by Sandra Bullock’s performance? Might it have been a different score if another actress had been in the role?
Price: Absolutely. I think Alfonso has been quoted many times as saying that Sandra is Gravity. She’s the central heart to the film. Whenever I started a day, even though all I could see of Sandra was…a very small amount of her face, and maybe her breath on her visor. But somehow, she performed it in such a way that the character was always there. The emotion was always there. My job was really reading that and going with it. My favorite scenes in the film are later on, the more meditative moments, once she speaks to Aningaaq… The performance is there. It was all there for me, really. The expression was just a matter of continually pushing to try and get the tone right for all of it. That could be a thematic thing or a melodic thing. Or it could even be just where we floated elements around. To sort of follow how she was feeling. Sometimes the music would just follow her eyeline. I would follow her performance to that extent… Where it felt like the music track was kind of in her head in a funny way. So every aspect of this was based around that performance.
JT: There are several places throughout the score where there are no lyrics, but the human voice is used as an instrument. How did you decide to implement that, and where and how often to use it in the score?
Price: There are two main uses of the voices in the film. Some of it is textural. There are an awful lot of things that provide atmosphere that are derived from human breathing. I worked very closely with a singer named Haley Glennie-Smith. She’s got this beautiful, pure voice that I would then stretch and manipulate. That would become part of the ever-evolving texture. Then there are these solo lines, these performed lines, that are performed by Lisa Hannigan. The very first thing in the film you hear is a very abstract version of what will become the theme for Ryan, the thing that you hear in the re-entry. It starts off the usage of that… It’s always very abstract. It comes through a radio signal or it might be moving around you through the space a bit. Gradually, as the film goes on, almost as the character gets stronger, that voice gets clearer. And the melody gets clearer. And the whole thing starts to become more precisely stated. Until you finally reach the point where she decides to make this journey home. And she embraces life. Then, all of the sudden, the voice is very clear. Then, as we break into the earth’s atmosphere, you get a choir. That’s the only time that I used a choir in this whole thing. To me, the solo voice was always the inner voice of Ryan. Then, when we get close to earth, the choir comes in and she’s not alone anymore. She’s rejoined the world. So that was the broad scale thinking of it. I was very lucky to find Lisa Hannigan… She brought so much emotion to it. These lines that I had suddenly meant so much more when she sang them.
JT: One of the standout musical pieces in the film is the “Aurora Borealis” section. How complete were the visual effects when you saw the images of that scene, and how did they inspire you?
Price: The music for that was one of those things that came really early on. It was the most broken feeling I could make for that moment… And it kind of stuck. It certainly sounded so much better when it fit with the visuals. There was something in the way the lightning worked and the way it shimmers that somehow melded in a strange way with the radio interference and the processing sound that I put on this very old piano that’s slightly out of tune. We got a session musician to replace my playing. But we ended up not using it. Because it was too good. It needed to sound broken and wrong. So we kept my original demo performance for that.
JT: You spent almost a year working every day on the score. What was the process throughout that year and how did the score evolve?
Price: Initially, my path was to get thing up and running. So a lot of my work was done in these very quick pushes. There was always some sort of screening coming up, or there was a target… It was always, “Let’s work on the emotional side of things.” Or “Let’s work on the action sequences.” There were always these loops of work going on and experiments going on. So I would constantly just come back to the studio and work on big, long sequences. You wouldn’t really be talking about that two-minute cue or that seven or eight-minute cue. It had to be seamless thing. You couldn’t really see if it was working or not until the whole thing was done. So I would do these demos. Then it would be a case of talking through it with Alfonso and playing it for him. Oftentimes, he’d just come from a meeting with [visual effects company] Brainstorm. He’d be able to tell me “[Marvin the Martian] is going to fly by here. Perhaps we can look at something that’s going to bring that out.” Every time I went into a meeting I’d learn a little bit more about the detail that was going into the visual side of things… Then we’d get together with the sound crew and they would hear the music. We’d put together a version for us all to watch and the studio to watch… And see how it was playing. And see how the surround stuff was playing. And if it was really doing the job that we wanted it to do. Then at the end of those we’d say, “That’s the area that’s letting us down.” That would be my next process. It was just a constant thing of working and analyzing it.
JT: This is a film in which Alfonso Cuaron has really pushed the medium of cinema forward. Whether it was with the score, or sound as a whole, were you consciously aware of making something that would make people redefine what they think is possible?
Price: All of these things that we were doing… It was always for a very simple end. It felt to me that he was making a really simple, human story. It’s just that we were telling it through these really ambitions means. [Alfonso] knew that we were going to go off and do that. Because that’s what it needed. He had these great ideas that my score was very much designed to be heard as an immersive, 3D score. I would do everything like that. I’d write melodies knowing that I was going to have amplifiers playing them on opposite side of the theater, and I was going to move them around. But the technical side of that was never discussed. That was for an emotional purpose… We were all pushing ourselves. Alfonso was encouraging us to go as far as we could possibly go.
JT: Do you try and write for a certain number of hours per day? Or write a certain number of bars?
Price: I don’t have a specific number of bars or a specific number of minutes. But I like to feel that I’ve gotten somewhere. I think what tends to happen with me, is I’ll have this idea in my head that I want to get this scene today… I’ll keep pushing and I’ll keep pushing and I’ll get nowhere… I’ll spend too long in the studio… Then I’ll go for a walk for ten minutes. All of the sudden, everything gets a lot clearer. Then I come in and actually work quite fast then. Sometimes I have to work a long time to get to those moments where it comes together. I always try to get to something by the end of the day that I can listen to the next morning and have a view on. I love that process, when time allows, to listen to it fresh the next day. You always try and get the character from one place to the next place, and then see if you agree with how you did it.
JT: Many screenwriters and songwriters alike have stories about doing something unrelated and a line will come out of nowhere they have to jot down and write a scene or a song around. Did that ever happen to you when working on Gravity?
Price: It happens most of the time, to be honest with you. I think I have more ideas out of the studio, melodically, and the important stuff, thematically, than I ever do in the studio. But I sometimes think I have to immerse myself in the hard work of it in order to have those moments. I thank God for the little memory apps on my phone. I often find myself walking somewhere singing surreptitiously into that. I found, the other day, the original iPhone recording of what turned into the theme for Gravity. It literally was a Sunday morning when I wasn’t supposed to be working that I had the idea. My kids are playing in the background. I’m just playing this this really badly on an upright piano I’ve got in my house. You can hear people yelling in the background. I just got the chords that I needed… A lot of the time, things happen at strange times.
JT: Different composers have different views on this, but once you’ve assembled your musicians, do you show them the picture they’re scoring to?
Price: I do. I have screens in the room. It depends, really… This score is a little different because there were only a couple of sessions with a conventionally big orchestra in there. There was an awful lot of work with smaller groups. Then, of course, it’s a much more personal, intimate thing with the musicians as well. There were only a few of us in the room. Then I would just go in and I would talk with them…and tell [them] what was happening in that scene… The more people can engage with the emotion that they’re going to be expressing musically, I think the better. It’s trickier when it’s a full orchestra… But certainly with the solo performances and certainly with the voices, I always went through what was happening. You can hear in the performances when people are into that and into the story. And feel that they’re telling the story with me. I think that’s a great thing to do, if time allows.
JT: If you were to win the Oscar for Gravity, what impact would that have on your life or career?
Price: This film, from the very first meeting two-and-a-half years ago has totally changed my life. The whole journey through it has been remarkable; and so creatively satisfying and exciting. Already, doors are opening to working with amazing filmmakers and telling more stories. I’m so enjoying the way that this has allowed me to have these conversations with people I’ve always admired. It’s remarkably exciting. I just hope that I get to do films of such ambition and heart.