EXCLUSIVE: Sir Kenneth Branagh and Patrick Doyle talk creating Murder on the Orient Express’s score and original song with Michelle Pfeiffer

Hi Film Folk,

‘Murder on the Orient Express’ has been a huge box office success, making back over four times its $55 million (£40.82m) worldwide as well as receiving critical acclaim for its stylish production and all-star cast, featuring Johnny Depp, Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi and Penélope Cruz.

The Film Doctor team were lucky enough to sit down with the film’s amazing star and director, Sir Kenneth Branagh, and his composer – and collaborator of 30 years – Patrick Doyle for one of our In Conversation chats!

Read below to find out how Sir Kenneth and Patrick crafted Murder on the Orient Express’s score and the original song ‘Never Forget’ – sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer – along with some advice to actor/directors from Sir Kenneth.

Sir Kenneth Branagh in Murder on the Orient Express


Sir Kenneth Branagh! How did you get involved with Patrick on a longstanding basis and what does he mean to you as a collaborator?

KB: It’s 30 years now. It’s interesting that he did this song for ‘Murder on the Orient
Express’ because one of the first things that we tackled together, back in 1987 on
our first show together – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – we actually were gifted the use
of a song by Paul McCartney. We were allowed to weave it into Pat’s very excellent
score for Twelfth Night. We’ve always been a bit song conscious.

I’ve always told Pat that he has this incredible gift for melody – a man who can come up with a catchy tune. He has this connection to a sort of Celtic folkloric kind of tradition in his own life but he also has this big classical background based on training in composition and piano at The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

As we come up against some of these amazing subjects like we’ve had the chance to do, for example Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing, he often follows research into all the classical composers.

It’s been a very live collaboration because we both get excited at the beginning of each new one. We like to be fresh. Neither of us are people who rest on any kind of laurels. We’re always looking for the adventure and terra nova in the artistic collaboration.

On this one, as it often has been in the past – we get together early and we talk impressionistically. Me, about what I feel the film is at any given time – that’s an evolving thing. Here, it was to try and come up with something that surprised people. First of all, by really ramping up the epic dimension to the visual sweep of the film. From the beginning to immerse people in this 65mm format and take them into a great big expansive widescreen version of the golden age of travel in exotic places.

That then pares itself down to a murder mystery that further reduces itself to something a little bleaker and more existential and a little more psychologically dark but that forces the characters to not only find out who, how and why the murder was committed but then what must be done.

Across that shape from the massive sweep of the beginning, through the darkening middle to the bleak last act, the music needed to find the kind of shape. Right from the beginning of the process, Pat responded immediately with similarly impressionistic piano sketches or thematic material. It gives us a great chance to discuss it and chart the evolution of what we think the film is and what he thinks the musical treatment might be.

One of the fantastic things about you is that you do so many things.  Do you see them all as one singular thing as an artist or do you wear different hats for them?

KB: It’s an organic development from the second theatre job that I did, it was a West End play. During the day, towards the end of it, we formed a company that did a lunchtime production of the play that effectively meant we were producers.

In my second film job, which was a television movie called To The Lighthouse – an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel by a brilliant filmmaker called Colin Gregg – that was where I started asking the lighting camera man and the sound editor and anybody who’d listen to me and answer a few questions on the process of how the work was put together.

It never deviated me from the sensual connection and total fascination and dedication to performance but that was the centre of what then branched out into an insatiable curiosity on how the holistic completion of any of these pieces of work happened. I was always fascinated in the ‘how’ of it basically because of a real passion of the quality of the storytelling.

There’s never been any desire for its own sake to do a number of things. Here, for instance, the marriage between the seeker of truth who is Hercule Poirot, at the centre of this, and a director whose job is trying to tell the truth with the story. In a murder mystery, this literal issue of the truth is central to the whole story. They work out by the end that everybody is telling them lies so director and performer became very interwoven here.

With Patrick, and with other key collaborators – Haris Zambarloukos, our cinematographer, and Jim Clay, our production designer – I enter a lot into their territory and they enter mine. So I feel as though, although I have multiple disciplines that same traffic comes back my way. People like Pat and Haris end up having a quite a lot to say about performance and because we’ve built up a degree of trust, I’m happy to hear it from them.

My version of that gets a bit more attention of theirs. Pat will contribute very helpfully about script and about performance and about the pacing and editorial work. Not trying to step on other peoples’ toes but just because we’re in situation where we all believe that the idea is bigger than us. We have mutual respect for each other. He’s one of a group who is happy to accept that I do roam across the disciplines if I feel all of that is necessary to serve up the best version of how I see a particular story told.

Tell us a little bit about how you ended up suggesting to Michelle to record the song ‘Never Forget’?

KB: I very much admired her performance and I felt her performance was one that really defined the approach the film had. Which was that – after layers of deception are revealed – a human soul emerges. In this case, Mrs Hubbard reveals what lies beneath and that beneath is raw and passionate an imperfect and pained. It’s a big emotional surprise in the movie and she carries it off with great conviction. She also leads the film into a great, big emotional moral dilemma which is – having discovered who, how and why it was done – what is justice now?

Poirot – a man who says there is right, there is wrong, there is nothing in between – has to now consider this inbetween area. This grey moral zone. He’s going to have to perhaps accommodate a decision about what justice is that bears in mind the pain and distress of other people. It seemed to me that, that pain and that distress, somehow needed, or at least I felt there was an invitation from the film to have that pain express itself at the beginning of another journey as the train leaves the movie. Which is the journey of consolation and acceptance and resignation about this loss, with a possibility maybe even of closure.

Basically in my own life, I’ve so registered that music and the apparently simple airs of my childhood listening to a popular song like Danny Boy. My granny used to sing it. She lost her brother called Danny. She would never sing it without breaking down. It was somehow consoling, it was necessary for her – she bore the loss.

She, in the words of our song, never forgets this loss and this ache and this pain – but to sing the song, to experience the music is to begin a process of healing or therapy or catharsis. That might all sound a bit grand for the end song of a movie but we took the heart of it seriously enough to think that somehow Mrs Hubbard, in the person of Michelle’s beautiful performance, needs to begin the journey that is leaving the story of the film.

When I spoke to Michelle, I told her that for me, this was not about finding anyone else who is unconnected with the movie to come in and sing beautifully. This is about someone connected to the guts of the movie to live the song, live this feeling – carry that loss, carry that pain – into the song and embrace its mood of beautiful sadness.

In so doing, console herself, the other characters and maybe for those of our audience who have become as invested as we believe they have to feel that same sort of closure expressed in the music and in the beautiful imperfection of her performance.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express
« of 8 »

Did you go to San Francisco to record with it Patrick and Michelle?

KB: I was working on post in the film so I was Skyped in from thousands of miles away. It was a pleasure to hear and watch them getting on with it. Michelle is a real seasoned pro. When she decides to do something like this, she really wants to do the right job. 

It’s always exciting to watch people like that because they don’t get into the arena without being prepared. They also know that they need to, and want to, for their own personal pride and creativity, give it their best job.

It reminded me of years ago when I was doing Mozart’s opera of The Magic Flute, a very different piece of music. I remember across several arias seeing amazing singers march around outside the recording theatre like boxers before a fight. I had that slight sense with Michelle here. She was going up against this song and what it meant to her. It was real exposure in singing it, that required a leap of faith from her as an artist. She took it and I was so thrilled to hear it.

As soon as we added it on to the end of the film, it joined seamlessly and gave a moment of reflection and consideration that the film needed and wanted. It felt like a very integral and organic connection that somehow offered closure in a way that only she could give. Michelle was very respectful of what was required, very respectful of Pat and his music.

It was critically important that we all did the best job that we could.

What advice would you give to an aspiring actor or director wanting to one day reach the amazing heights you’ve reached?

KB: The one thing to remember is that your imagination is unique and you as a storyteller, in whatever form, will bring something to storytelling and any individual story that nobody else will have. A belief in your uniqueness, in the power of you being different. Whoever you are, wherever you are, however old, whatever background – your uniqueness is your strength. You already have an advantage just by being you. Believe in that and believe that that’s a genuine strength – your point of view.

Whenever and however – practice. Practice in whatever way you can. If it’s films you want to make – it’s watching films. If you want to write – read. That’s practice! In any which way, at any point you can, and as often as you can, whether it’s with a 20 second idea that you film on a video part of a camera or a camera phone.

Anything that strikes you that you feel motivated to lay out in some sort of story form – do it! Acquire these things. Acquire the practice of doing it as modestly but as often as you possibly can, in order to start developing the practical application of that unique imagination.

Goethe, the great German writer, said that it’s extraordinary when one sees the impact of commitment to something – it lends a kind of support to your endeavours once you’ve fully and utterly committed to something. The world and the universe comes to help in all sorts of ways.

I’m not suggesting that magic wands are being waved but once you commit to the idea that you are able and ready to begin the process of practising, however modestly, you will be surprised at how much can develop from those two simple things.

Self belief – which is justified, you are unique – and a determination to practice in whatever way you possibly can. The rest will begin to follow…

Thank you, Sir Ken! 

Murder on the Orient Express composer Patrick Doyle

Now, Patrick, where did you train and how did you meet Ken?

PD: I met Ken Branagh over 30 years ago at the Riverside Studios at a production of Twelfth Night that I did the score for. I did three plays – Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and As You Like It – and then after that, we went on to do my first score and his first film, which was Henry V.

Do you come from a musical family background?

PD: Yes, I’m from 13 children. My father, who is 96 now, is a wonderful singer. Obviously his voice has gone now but he was an extraordinary singer. My mother and sisters and all my family are singers and I also have sung in the past.

I went to The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and spent four years studying classical music there. One year as a junior student and then three years as an undergraduate. I was a piano teacher for a year before I went into theatre as a musical director, initially, and a composer.

What differences do you find between doing theatre and film?

PD: Apart from Macbeth over two and a half years ago, up until then I hadn’t worked in theatre since I very first started working in film. Ken has done a lot more theatre, he keeps going back to theatre as well as doing film.

Many years ago, theatre music was mainly music that passed you through from one scene change to the next. There was very little underscore. Theatre music now has become more cinematic – there’s a lot more underscore. There’s now a lot more music in a cinematic way in theatre. Actors absolutely love it!

It’s very tempting to put a lot of music under theatre now because the world is such a cinematic place. It’s so powerful, it’s everywhere, it’s all-invasive. We’re just bombarded with adverts for it and trailers – everyone loves the cinema. It has crept into theatre in a big way.


Sir Kenneth Branagh and Daisy Ridley in Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express
« of 8 »

Tell us about Murder on the Orient Express.

PD: I work with Logic. I moved from handscored work, which is exhausting, just before I did Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I initially made that change then. Kenneth and I read the script way back early last autumn then we had a long and detailed discussion after that as to how Ken perceived the picture.

Then, as I always like to do – especially with Ken – if I can, I went to visit Longcross Studios where it was shot and I saw the early designs by Jim (Clay_ the designer. I looked at some of the costume drawings by Alexandra Byrne, who I worked with before with Ken. I went to the viaduct they created and I saw the train itself.

It was a very visceral response to it, I sat inside the carriages to feel it – I like to do this. I went to visit the set while they were acting one day. This gave me an extraordinary insight to the membrane of the pieces. For a composer, that’s always a good thing – to get inside the picture, to inhabit the characters.

I actually saw some early test footage with Kenneth as Poirot. Immediately after that, I compose a conceptual suite based on all discussions. He let me see little animated moving images of approximately the shots we’d have, a sense of the story. It was only a small piece about 10 minutes long, not even that.

Also, we knew we needed music for a pianist to play on set. It gives the composer an opportunity to write music specifically for that moment. He gave me some words which I wrote this piece to, which in fact became Poirot’s theme.

Never Forget grew out of another piece of music from the film. It really wasn’t a plan to have a song at the end of the film – it just kind of grew.


How did the song become the theme and how did Michelle end up on it?

PD: During the various screenings in post-production, I continually wrote original music as opposed to using temp tracks. I continued throughout the process, from last December, writing the score using mock-ups. I came up with the Armstrong theme based on this Armstrong story which is central to the narrative.

Very early on in the day, Ken said how much he loved the music box theme that represents Armstrong. It had a cello obligato line on top of it – he said how strong it was and talked about putting words to it. He sang a melody and put it to words and I went away and wrote the rest of the song. He created the rest of the lyrics. It was as simple as that! It was rather a quick process but it grew out of the score. It’s always the best thing when a song emerges that has all the thematic material one has heard throughout the score.

In terms of having Michelle do it, it was totally Ken’s idea. He felt that it would be such a good idea to have her singing it, she’s so central to the story. She’s the director of all these characters within the tale, having sung herself. We were both keen not to have a strapped-on song – from an artistic point of view, it had to be the correct thing to do, the right thing to do. To have a natural singer as one of the characters to be part of it – we needed it organic and true.

She was asked if she was interested in singing the song to which she agreed. She was very, very enthusiastic! It was a very last minute thing and I was flown to San Francisco and we recorded it there in a couple of days. She’s lovely, totally professional and totally committed – she spent some time with her vocal coach which was her choice as she hadn’t sung for a long time.

She kept saying ‘just get Rihanna!’ It wasn’t right for this film. It should grow. It should just ease gently out of the story because it’s a very dramatic ending. It’s traumatic for everyone and cathartic. This gentle meander into the final dying cause of the score should come really out of the story and an extension of the character in the story.  

What did you record on?

PD: I use Logic for my demos for film. From there, I put it on to Sibelius. Then it’s transferred to Pro Tools for editing purposes. Then it was recorded on a Cadac with a 72 input. Nick Taylor, the score recording engineer and mixer, did a wonderful job and his desk uses a mixture of analogue and digital mixing. The score was recorded in AIR Lyndhurst Studios with a large group of session players – up to about 70.

We used Air Edel Studios to record the song because when I went to the studios in California, I brought a demo as a guide. She sang with a pianist. Then I had a look at the arrangement again back in London and I re-recorded it playing the piano myself.

The strings come in, which are orchestrated, in the last verse. We had a small string orchestra. It meant that we could record in a smaller studio and budgetary-wise, that really was the requirement. Many, many pictures are recorded there.

Do you have a go-to set of session players that you use for recording?

PD: Yes, I will ask for particular players. For example, Maurice Murphy, I scored a lot of his action films. I would specifically write for Maurice as a trumpet player. As indeed did John Williams. John used him for Star Wars and the Superman movies.

We specifically asked for Richard Howard the cellist, on the song. I’d used Richard before and he’s really enthusiastic. There are a whole selection of leaders who are available for sessions that I’m comfortable with. 

Michelle Pfeiffer in Murder on the Orient Express
Murder on the Orient Express
« of 8 »

What advice would you give to an aspiring composer?

PD: There are many, many routes. There’s no absolute guaranteed route. Each person has their own path to follow. There’s all sorts of different ways of becoming a film composer. You can work on short films if you’re doing a university course or there are courses specifically in the London Film School and in London. A lot of them are post-graduate courses.

I feel that it’s about time that the UK had a school for film music and not as a second study. To have a classical training is essential to have a long career, in my case. The world changes so fast. In my case, it was through theatre. There’s still a lot of theatre in this country and directors of theatre can go on to be film directors. That wasn’t my plan – I worked in theatre because I loved it and I happened to meet what became an outstanding film director as well as theatre director. But up until then, I had an acute awareness of film music. I loved it! I was enthusiastic so by the time I came to be a composer, I really had subconsciously and consciously studied it.

There’s editing where people can cut their teeth and watch how composers work or being a composer’s assistant.

One has to be passionate about it. If you’re passionate, it will happen. It’s enormously hard work. I still do, very often, a 12 hour day. It doesn’t relent. It’s a very taxing business. Not for the meek and mild.

If you’re prepared to put in the hours it will happen. See as many films as you can. I’m always amazed when I talk to students at how little theatre they go and see, or exhibitions, if any.


Join us on FACEBOOK or TWITTER and sign up to our emails on the right hand side for articles straight to your inbox.
Any questions/thoughts/experiences of your own??? Leave a comment below!
Have a great week!
Check out our previous CASE STUDIES
Check out our SERVICES

Leave a Reply

You have successfully subscribed!

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Film Doctor will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.
%d bloggers like this: