Hi Film Folk,
Today we bring you another In Conversation.
This time with BAFTA-nominated director – Gary Tarn!
You studied music. How did that lead you to composing film music?
I think it’s quite a simple line really. I started out making records and then I sort of drifted away from pop music and I discovered Mahler. I discovered Satie, I discovered classical music. It was the early days of samples so you could kind of make that noise at home. It was the first time, in a way, that you could make that stuff. I spent a few years just teaching myself classical technique and I became quite obsessed with that and I started drifting into that but obviously I had a background of pop music so I was kind of playing with the two things.
I was writing bits of music that were slightly classical and slightly kind of pop. I had friends who worked in advertising and who worked in the film business and they would hear my music and they’d go ‘Hey, why are you not doing ads? Why are you not doing media music? The music you’re writing is great for that! It’s got a real sense of depth and kind of quality to it but it’s quite modern sounding so it’d be great.’
I thought ‘well, OK, I’ve never really thought of that’ so I made a few and I found my way into doing that business and for about 10-12 years I wrote music for some very high-end commercials. So I was always dealing with visual images.
My job was to find the musical emotional equivalents of what was seen on screen. To tell the emotional story because with pictures, if you take an advert and you take the sound off, you’ve just got a series of images. As soon as you create the soundtrack, you open it up. Even if it’s something you’re not latched on to. That was the thing I learned to do and I think I was OK at doing that.
Then I wanted to take that a bit deeper and move into writing music for films and I just couldn’t get that first break. With all these things, there’s always a bit of luck and it’s about who you meet and being in the right place at the right time. I just couldn’t find my way into that. At a certain point, I kind of just got so frustrated that I thought: “well, if I make my own film then I can write the score.”
It was as simple as that and it was as stupid as that really. I’d always liked taking photographs. Someone lent me a camera and I taught myself to use a camera. I found a story, I found this book, Hugues de Montalembert’s book and thought this would make an interesting short film and I managed to get a number for him from a friend who’s a journalist. I called him up in Denmark and I kind of lied on the phone and said I was a British filmmaker and I wanted to make an experimental documentary. His book had been published 20 years earlier so he hadn’t had any calls for a while. There had been a lot of interest in it when it first came out but somehow no-one had ever actually quite made the film that they’d promised. So it was there.
That was the first bit of luck that I had really where I found this story that was sitting there. Hugues was ready to give me the story – he was full of these amazing soundbites. As a writer himself, he had amazing language. So we met up and I made some recordings with him in Paris and then spent essentially five years developing – obviously doing other work at that time.
During that period, I started the film three times and I almost invented a visual language. I kind of invented a language that I hadn’t really seen in any other film that would suit that story. It almost needed its own language because it was such a strange story and it was told in such a particular way.
It was about blindness. If you’re talking about someone who can’t see then how do you tell that story in film? I’d never really seen it done very well before so I thought how do you tell this story? I looked at all the films about blind people and about blindness and how it’d been depicted in cinema. None of them really made me get any sense of the frustration that you must have. So one of the ideas was that you would never see him through the whole film. You’d get to the end of the film and you’re incredibly frustrated because you can’t see him and so there is your first equivalent of getting that sense.
Also, just trying to find visual things you hadn’t seen before because he was creating these images in his head so it was trying to take you out of your comfort zone somehow. So it took a while and then when I finished it I thought well it’s either quite good or it’s complete rubbish. I had no idea because I had no-one to ask. If you make something that looks like something else then you kind of know it’s quite good because it looks like that but if you make something that doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen then you don’t really quite know where you are.
Some festivals just didn’t get it and some reviewers didn’t get it and some people thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. We’d have a screening in Miami and there’d be eight people there and by the end of it half of them have walked out and no-one cared. Two weeks later, we go to Mar del Plata in Argentina into a midnight screening where you couldn’t get another person in the room. You could hear a pin drop and they absolutely loved it! It’s the same exact film! It’s not like even theatre where you can have a good night and a bad night – you’re showing them the same thing.
I thought that extraordinary that you can show the same thing and get such different reactions on different days or different places. I quite like that. I think it’s nice to make films that polarise people. There’s enough mediocrity. David Lynch said half of film is music – 50% or more. I think he’s right. I think that the music, even though it may not be loud or maybe you’re not aware of it, if you took the music off that film you’d completely notice the difference. Also, it would have a different quality.
It’s kind of like the spices or the sauce – you can make some chicken or you can make some pak choi but if you don’t put any spice or sauce or something on it, it’s just flat. The music is what makes film work for me. The way you handle sound. Even if it’s no sound, it can be completely silent.
I made a film last year for the Royal British Legion for their two minutes silence that was completely silent. That was unusual because nobody ever puts you in a position where you have to watch something for two minutes and there’s no sound. Two minutes! Where you’re watching just peoples’ faces standing quietly. You’ve got 12 celebrities to just stand and look at the camera and have no sound. People get quite uncomfortable so it’s just as interesting to work without sound as it is to work with it.
Do you have any advice for any aspiring composers or directors?
I think get out there. Be more social. I think that’s probably what I wasn’t doing. I wasn’t getting out enough and meeting enough people and putting myself in the right places.
One thing I would say, is don’t just copy things. I think people do that too often. They’ll copy something and think that if they can copy it that they’ve somehow achieved something. To me, they’ve achieved nothing other than copying something. I do think that the medium is there to be forced, to be pushed, to be explored. I love seeing things that push the language further. It’s like hearing a great poem when someone’s taken words further, and I love seeing films that push the filmmaking process – not just technically but intellectually.
Films that move editing structures around or films that just take the story and push it on and make it interesting to see things. I find it very hard to sit through a mediocre film. It’s just like I’ve seen these characters before. I know it’s a great skill to get all this together and to make it work – it’s really hard.
I take my hat off to anyone who makes a feature length film about anything because it’s really hard but have an idea of what you’re trying to do, have a story to tell.
Is it harder to make arty films?
I think you’ve hit on the point. I think that is the future. I think that brands are realising that if they do something which is beautiful and if you would share that online with your people or with your friends and just say for fun ‘I love this’ – I think that brands are going to actually do that more and more.
Harvey Weinstein, at Cannes two weeks ago, just said that the future of brands is to make beautiful stuff and great stuff. I think that is the future. I think the future is that brands will get into funding artists to make work and that is where it started. That is how documentary films started. The GPO funded Night Mail, 1936. John Grierson, Elgar the British composer, W H Auden the leading poet of his time. GPO were funding the greatest filmmakers, composers and poets of their time to make these films about the industrial process. In a way, it’s come back to that.
Kevin MacDonald’s being employed by Sainsbury’s to make films for them. Leffe are employing me to make a film. Jake Scott’s making films for Johnnie Walker. People who are talented in the industry are making long form or longer form. I think it’s going to go further that way. I think there will be more and more. I think this is quite a departure. I don’t know another film like this that a brand have made. I don’t mean I’ve invented the wheel but I think it’s a kind of aha moment. If this does well for Leffe, then maybe other people will kind of go ‘Yeah, I get it, let’s makes something great. Let’s get good people.’
There’s plenty of good people out there. It has to make sense. It takes careful thought. This was not a five minute thing. We worked on it quite hard and we worked on it quite hard to make it make sense. Leffe have got a good story which is we’ve got a very old abbey beer which goes back to 12th century. Got this long history. Rediscover time, savour our drink.
So we were like “let’s make a film that echoes those ideas and if we can achieve that without being artificial about it but if we can actually really do that and really believe it and go ahead and make that film then it all makes sense”. People will see it and they’ll realise there’s integrity behind it.
Izzy from Leffe believes what she’s saying. She believes in letting me get on with the film which I love unlike in advertising where you have 100 people. I’ve not seen her since we first talked about making the film until today. She hasn’t come down to the edit and sat over me. She hasn’t sat in the grading suite. I’ve heard about stories of 42 people in a grading suite. Now the grading suite is where you just tweak the colour. 42 people from the advertising agency in a grading suite tweaking the colour for an advert – I mean it’s almost madness! That’s not letting people get on with their work.
What’s lovely about this is that Leffe have let me get on with my work and they’ve allowed me to let my friends get on with their work. The Quays, I said to them if you want to make a little piece of something, five seconds or so and I’ll put it in the film. They turned up with this beautiful piece for me. I didn’t give them a brief, I just let them get on with it. I told them what the film was going to be about and then they just came up with that. If you let people get on with what they’re good at, you get beautiful things.
Some people like to be very tight and keep themselves to themselves. I’ll work with anybody. I’m happy to work with everybody. I’ve worked with Alfonso Cuaron, I worked with him on shooting some stuff on Children of Men and he helped me with my first film. He was very generous and I love that generosity. He was incredibly generous with his time to help me.
He’s a very busy man and he’d just made Harry Potter and he was making Children of Men and he spent time with me going through the edit of my film for no money. Just because he loves film, because he loved what I was doing and because he thought he could help which he did enormously. I love that. If I could pay a bit of it back!
Thank you, Gary!
Watch Gary Tarn’s ‘Slow Time’ presented by Leffe below.
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