From the sounds of the Wailing Wall we hear as the Murder On The Orient Express opens to the departure of the steam engine as it sets off on the journey through the exotic East, its prestigious cast of characters are entangled in a classic murder mystery with music as lavish as its grand and majestic setting.
The journey comes to a deadly screeching halt as detective Hercule Poirot tries to solve the famously knotty whodunnit. Branagh collaborated with long time composer Patrick Doyle to create the score for the film. Branagh also wrote the song Never Forget which plays as the film comes to its unsettling conclusion, with lyrics so beautifully sung by Michelle Pfeiffer to express the (ahem) piercing sorrow of Armstrong’s theme.
Have a read of our conversation below:
What was your initial discussion about the score and what you wanted?
Kenneth: The first conversations are always exploratory. I always tend to pass on what my instincts are at that stage of the process. My feeling was that we would end up being quite dramatically different from the 1974 film which was beautiful. It felt as if there was a darker and emotional quality here. The score was likely to have an evolution from a big beginning where we’re traveling to this exotic location, but gets leaner and sparer as the show went on.
Patrick is very patient with me about what can be quite impressionistic feelings about the score. It ends up being rather intuitive. Sometimes you talk about a picture or a song that inspired you, or a phrase, or a character. I did indicate that Mrs Hubbard, the Michelle Pfeiffer character would somehow be drawn musically to the center of the story. I parked that with Patrick and he comes to me with his design feelings.
Patrick: It gives you a broad sense of the arc of the story and his impressions of what could unfold. The central character and director of operations within the story clearly was key to the score. I come up with a little suite based on all of those ideas and impressions that Kenneth had.
Kenneth: It was the immediate engagement with what are we going to do musically to convey the sense of travel and the movement of the train? We wanted to have a pacey version of the story. The movie was under two hours, we wanted the illusion that we would travel swiftly whenever we could, and that was something music was going to have to tend to in terms of sound and rhythm.
We start with The Wailing Wall. That sets the tone and continues throughout the score. What was the process of establishing that?
Patrick: I used an instrument from Romania, the duduk, and Eastern percussion. The small ney flute that fills the screen with the duduk gives the sense of the orient and the East.
Once you establish that color, it tends to be part of the organic growth of the score. That opening music gives you the sense of adventure, exotic, and location. If you keep that in the normal colors that you use in the orchestra to achieve suspension and movement, it gives you a nice flavor throughout the picture, it keeps the journey all joined together.
Then you have Departure as the train leaves and goes on that journey.
Patrick: The rhythm was essential because you see this big and enormous thing. Having traveled on a steam engine train as a kid, it wasn’t difficult to remember the experience and enormity of it. So there had to be a strength to it. We wanted a sense of upcoming adventure that was uplifting and with a fine sense of mystery. The balance of that was quite tricky with major and minor chords, but it was a crucial tone. I kept moving from both to give you a sense of both of those ideas that keep the story alive and slightly mysterious.
Let’s talk about composing Never Forget and how you convinced Michelle Pfeiffer to sing again?
Kenneth: She was a great collaborator and takes things seriously. She came in to discuss tone and wanted to rehearse and really put that wardrobe together carefully. She wanted to put layers to the character that were part of the approach that we definitely wanted. She was a pro and a super talent. She came up with this performance that was faithful and changed character as the story demands it. She does this revelation in the movie that is so raw and takes us into the underbelly of the story that comes out of grief, loss and terrible pain. By the time we get to the end of the movie, Patrick had come up with this beautiful Armstrong scene which plays beautifully and poignantly of all that gone before, but of course, there’s violence and pain. It seemed to me, to leave the movie with this murky moral area where a murder, a revenge, the killing of a killer is not sanctioned. There weren’t really any winners and even if revenge acts as some kind of closure, there would still be this immense loss and ache. It was that what I wanted to put into a song and Michelle Pfeiffer would be the person to do that. The goal not being to introduce some new voice into the picture, but more to capture that feeling of loss and begin in a way, a sense of understanding what their lives might be like. They would still miss this beautiful child and people they live. Ritual and music become a way to address some sense of moving forward.
When I was growing up, my granny used to sing Danny Boy. She had a brother called Danny and she never sang it without tearing up. This requirement of living through a song, with simple lyrics, was necessary for this process of healing. For a film like this, we could leave with something that is underneath the movie, loss embodied by the person who lost most of all.
I’ve never had a response so quickly from someone. I introduced the idea and felt I had hit send and I had the ping back. She wanted to hear it. She was on a plane and had just arrived. I thought she’d have to go home, spend a few hours or days before getting back to me, but within twenty minutes she had heard it and immediately said, “I’m not sure. I haven’t used my voice in ages.” I thought she didn’t want to do it, but she offered to have singing lessons. Also, she understood it. She knew how it connected with the character. I talked to Patrick about it and thought the only person could be Michelle. It had that sense of organic development. It could emotionally deliver the audience out of a painful story and into some tender and melancholic and tangible hope through this therapeutic recollection that this person was missed and would never be forgotten.
Patrick: We knew she was musical and she would bring this soul, character, and maturity to the song. It’s crucial to a film. She’s someone who is at the top of her game and lived through the story.
How long after she agreed did it then take to put the music together?
Kenneth: The Armstrong theme had been early on in the film. We had the idea of another song and we had developed that early on in the process. It was constantly in my mind. I wrote the first verse to give Patrick an idea of how it might go and that simple dramatic effect I was going for.
Patrick: The first verse was something Kenneth too, and the Armstrong melody on the cello and worked the words around the melody. I came up with the rest of the structure and handed it back to Kenneth. I have to say it was quick to write.
Kenneth: I wrote it, recorded it on the phone and sent it to him on a voice memo that was not musical as it might be. What I liked passing on was that sense of performance in the broadest terms.
I just kept this feeling of just how appalling loss and is never going to go away, the song is a cathartic release for that. Part of the drama of the song and what Patrick did to it along with Michelle’s voice is to feel that tension between someone in pain who wants to sing something that is important to them, but the very pain with which they must sing is preventing them from executing it at some beautiful level. You feel some touching effort to honor the person who’s gone. You must sing it, you must let this person know, it’s an heir to the person that’s gone. The magic of the melody is if you sing this kind of song you send some spiritual level out there. When people lose people, they’re not rational and not logical. So to sing out to the universe, we’ll never forget you is necessary for the person who sings it, but they’re singing it because they’re in pain. It’s all about capturing that intersection.
It made it a really interesting thing to do and something Michelle really enjoyed. You can hear in her voice, for me, this song connects to work we’d done before, my family history with Irish funerals, and remembering people with this necessity to mark the passing of people.