Stefan French Interview
As we continue our Featured Artist series, IFM recently caught up with the extremely talented composer Stefan French. (Don’t forget to check out a few samples of his music below.)
IFM: First off Stefan, give us a bit of background information about yourself, and how you first got involved in music.
I am a film composer based in Dublin and I spend most of my time scoring shorts, documentaries, corporate videos, features, etc. I am also finishing my BMus in Composition at the DIT Conservatory of Music. My main instrument is the viola and with this I play in a number of orchestras and regularly play with my quartet, The Avoca String Quartet, at weddings and receptions. Most of my writing however is done at the piano. I first got involved with music after going to a concert in The National Concert Hall with my mum and dad when I was around 6…at least this is how I remember it! After this concert I was marching around the house singing and waving my arms around and making a right racket and so my parents decided to buy me my first violin. Actually…this was my first ‘official’ instrument…there was a certain makeshift drum-kit before that which involved me sitting under the kitchen table with an array of pots and pans laid out around me…I believe I used wooden cooking spoons as drum sticks!! The violin was definitely a quieter option! As the years went by I continued to play and I changed to viola when I was about 11 or 12 because my teacher at the time, Peter Crooks, was a viola player. It was in first year of secondary school that I took up music technology. It was an extra curricular activity after school every Monday and this is where I’ve always felt things began for me as a composer. Back then we were learning how to use Cubase and Reason and I bought myself my first copy of Cubase after a few sessions. From then on I gradually got more and more interested in writing music and I think that that was the first major stepping stone towards where I am now. It got the ball rolling so to speak. Cubase is still my software of choice today.
IFM: You done some of your study in Berklee College of Music in Boston. How did your study there infuence you’re concept of music?
Yes, I did the online course ‘Composition for Film/TV’ which was a 12 week course created by Ben Newhouse. This was an amazing course!! The way it was structured was that each week we covered a different genre of film looking at selected examples, viewing scores and studying how particular scenes from these genres were typically scored. There was group discussion sessions and small mid-week tests to help with the learning curve. Then, at the end of each week we had to score a scene from a movie in the style we had studied during that week. My music technology experience really helped here as you really did not have time to be tinkering with software…you just had to sit down and write!! It was really a great thing for me to do because I was doing it in tandem with my degree. So for the 12 weeks the workload was quite high!! This really kept me on my toes and gave me an insight into the working environment to expect in the industry which is riddled with time constraints, last minute changes, pressure, pressure, pressure!! There were days when I was up till 4am working away because I knew I just had to make the deadline no matter what! It helped though that they were 5 hours behind!! A midnight deadline on Sunday equated to 5am my time!!! So I was never late haha! I didn’t mind though because most of the scenes we were scoring were from major movies like Iron Man, Troy, Atonement, etc. so it was really, really enjoyable work!! As far as my concept of music is concerned, I think what this course really taught me to do was to be extra sensitive to the picture. I found myself really starting to try and draw the music from the scene rather than just thinking of a mood and composing a piece in that mood and sticking it in!! This is really important as a film composer…no matter how good or bad a composer you are, you’ve got to understand film, emotions, relationships between characters etc. and gain your inspiration from that. There was also the fact that each week, because we were doing different genres, we got to explore styles which we might not have ventured into on our own. This helped to develop our musical voice and to find our strengths and weaknesses.
IFM: What was your first introduction to film scoring, and did you have to alter your approach to writing music when you started?
This is a blurry area for me. I actually cannot recall when I decided I wanted to write music for films exactly!!! There was a time when I was just composing for fun…and then there was the time when I was writing for a film. I can’t seem to fill in the gap! I do know, though, that what I was writing evolved a lot over the years from when I first started learning to use Cubase. Back then I was writing techno and trance and I took these tracks along to my youth club and blasted them out on the big sound system to see how people liked them. This led to a brief interest in dj-ing but that died away fairly quickly. The trance and techno moved into a drum and bass and electronic phase for a while and then into a more electronica kind of area. I also dabbled in rock and some kind of rock/pop thing that I cant really define!! Basically, I tried a lot of different things as a teenager and this eventually settled into landing my first job scoring a short film for a guy that had been in school with me. I was in first year of my BMus and I heard through the grapevine that he was studying film so we got in touch. By then my style was approaching classical/instrumental/easy-listening so I did not find it too difficult to get some ideas for the film. I must root out that film and have a look at it again now that I think of it!! It would be fun to see my first efforts as a film composer! Looking back on my first days as a film composer, I couldn’t go without mentioning a particular event that really marked a turning point!! I was at a house party of a girl in my class and we were just chatting and getting to know the people there. Next thing I’m talking to this guy and I hear he’s a film maker. At that stage I had scored a couple of shorts and a documentary I think and I was really keen to get my name out there and start taking things more seriously. So this chance encounter seemed like the perfect opportunity. We talked for a good while and all I remember thinking was ‘Wow, we are on the same wavelength!!’. Ideas we had and our thoughts about things were very similar and we were able to talk about stuff very easily. This is something that is so important between a composer and a director!!!! This guy, Josh Bourke, is now one of my good friends. However, due to our ridiculously busy schedules we still have not yet gotten the chance to properly collaborate! His work is really, really good so I am certain that we will get around to it at some stage in the future!!
IFM: Every musician has their influences. Who would you say has influenced you most when composing?
God, I never know how to answer questions about influences or favourite composers etc.! It is simply impossible to narrow it down. The way I see it is that every one of the great composers (all composers, not just film composers) has something to offer. Some were/are amazing orchestrators, some wrote beautiful themes, etc. It would be impossible for me to try and single out any particulars. What I do know is that my experience playing in orchestras over the years has greatly helped my writing. Just to be immersed in a musical environment every day is enough! There have been times in rehearsal or whatever where I’d hear a certain sound and go ‘Hey, whats that!?’ I’d then go and check out the score to see how it was made. This has also given me the ear for all the instruments too. When I’m composing I can close my eyes and hear particular things like the horns, or the cellos and double basses, or the flutes etc. Ok, samples are so good now that you can hear all these things by playing your keyboard…but I think it is so handy to be able to have all those sounds in your head because, after all, you’ve got to come up with the ideas in the first place and then make them with your samples.
IFM: You recently scored your first feature film, Malcolm Deegan’s ‘Fractional‘. How did the position come about, and how long was the process?
I asked Malcolm how he found me and he said he saw my link on IFTN. I guess it was just luck so! Luck has played an important part in my career so far on a number of occasions. For example, a production company in San Francisco came across my website last summer which led to some pretty high profile jobs over there. This just goes to show how important it is to have a web presence as a freelancer! You never know who might be looking! Malcolm and I met for a coffee and to discuss the script and throw around some ideas. I had the script well before I saw any footage and we had a general idea of the style we were going for before I sat down to write anything. Things we discussed for example were the overall tone and mood of the score and whether or not we would have any particular themes for certain characters or not and if so, what kind of thing were we trying to enhance/show about them. When the film was ready I had about 3 weeks to score it. This wasn’t long at all as I had to compose an hour and 47 minutes of music!!! To add to the pressure I was moving my studio at the time and the upgrades were causing quite a bit of technical issues! Thankfully I got everything running in time. I was in constant communication with Malcolm as I worked giving him samples to listen to and things. It was a great experience and it is an even better experience to see the film getting some exposure. Its premier in Los Angeles and its winning of Best Screenplay at the IFS Showcase has been a highlight of my career so far. This was my first ever feature film score, so for it to get that kind of a launch was amazing!! It’s great to know that my work is reaching audiences so many miles away!
IFM: Give us an idea what your typical day would be like when you’re involved on a project.
Every minute of the day is usually devoted to the project…even when I get up and walk away for a while!! My mind would still be going wild with thoughts. This job doesn’t have its 9-5, 5 day week kind of thing! It becomes your life and you find yourself walking around humming themes or thinking up ideas every where you go. This makes sleep at night hard too!! Try sleeping while you are replaying scenes in your head over and over! I usually end up sleeping quite late in the mornings due to having stayed up late the previous night. Often, my best work happens in the am hours. When I’m on a role with something I often go at it for hours on end without a break. I have been known to look up at 11.30 in the evening and realize that the whole day went by and I even forgot to eat…and I like my food so that’s saying something!!!
IFM: How do you see the job of the composer?
Hmmm, it greatly depends on the scenario I think. There are scenes that require a layer which compliments the feelings/mood on screen. These types of cues cannot be an intrusion on the audiences focus. Then there are scenes that need the music to give it a bit of momentum and drive. I’ve scored scenes that felt slow initially but with a bit of motion in the music have really come to life. The job of the composer is to enhance! Whatever it takes to enhance the film and create the world that the director envisions is what should be done! I find if I think this way, I don’t find myself over composing a scene or showing off with the music. I’m not saying that the music should always take a back seat either…but i have yet to score a big Hollywood blockbuster that allows me to write a huge bombastic cue with a 100 piece orchestra and choir!!! Someday I hope!! So I guess to reiterate, it really depends on the scene and the film. The job of the composer is to identify what is needed and he/she writes what is necessary to achieve that.
IFM: With the completion of ‘Fractional’, what have you got planned for 2012, and will there be any more film scores?
Absolutely!! 2012 has already seen the completion of 2 other short film scores as well as the completion of an album which I was producing for an songwriter, Adrian Mannering. I have also got another short film in the mix and there are some other interesting possibilities brewing. I am wrapping up my degree too which sees me writing some concert music so there’s a lot happening. My main goal for 2012 is to visit LA. I want to go and see all the sights and take a tour of USC which has the prestigious Film Scoring course which I am aspiring towards doing in a year or two. Oh and I’m going to take some time off to get some well overdue rest!!!