INTERVIEW: Composer Joseph Metcalfe Talks Theatrical Film Debut
- We’re excited to be speaking today with respected composer Joseph Metcalfe whose theatric score for the new film The King’s Daughter starring Pierce Brosnan recently premiered; welcome to our humble pages, Joseph! Before we get ahead of ourselves, how has your New Year been treating you?
Thanks for asking. It barely feels like a new year anymore with so much having gone on already. Of course The King’s Daughter premiered in January and was in top 10 at the box office for several weeks against some good competition so that was great to see it there. The soundtrack has also been doing well on the likes of Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon Music etc. and we’ve received lovely reviews for the score which is the cherry on the cake.
- Major congratulations for your stellar and lovely score for The King’s Daughter! For those that might be late to the party, could you give us a brief rundown on what The King’s Daughter is about?
The King’s Daughter is a period fantasy drama set in the times of Louis XIV of France. He was known for a very lavish lifestyle, lots of parties and many beautiful women who would keep him entertained. He was also known as The Sun King and as life progressed he became concerned about his mortality, and wanted to believe that, like the sun, his light would never be extinguished. The story soon becomes a battle between traditional beliefs and emerging new science that involves the life force of a Mermaid. At the same time, an illegitimate daughter arrives on the scene who challenges the King’s core values and beliefs. There’s a bit of everything in there for everyone: action, drama, fantasy, adventure, romance… oh and mermaids!
- As a composer, what specifically appealed to you when you were offered the job of scoring and conducting The King’s Daughter?
I think this is one of those types of movies that many composers want to score. It flexes the composing muscles by needing some traditional score, alternative music, fantastical moments, sentimental pieces and even some writing for instruments that have since gone pretty much extinct.
- Musically, did The King’s Daughter provide you with some unforeseen challenges?
When I came on board the film had already been through quite a journey, pretty much through to completion, but a new cut meant the music had to be redone from scratch. There are scenes in the film that showed one of the main characters playing the cello. The music I wrote had to match the finger movements without copying the melodies that she originally played so timing had to be immaculate while staying true to what you saw on screen and to what her fingers were doing on the cello. It was a challenge that brought me great satisfaction.
- What was your writing process like when creating the music for The King’s Daughter?
Usually I don’t start writing to picture until the picture is locked. However, due to the re-edits along with strict deadlines, it meant that the writing would often need to change with new edits. That’s just part of the job of being a composer though. I also had two other composers come on board. John Coda was a childhood friend of Sean (director) who he had used before and Grant Kirkhope who is a fellow Brit, best known for his world class video game scores. Having three composers all with different sounds work on the same project is unusual, so to keep the score cohesive I assigned certain themes to play to the strengths of each of the composers. In situations like this communication between the three creatives is paramount.
- How much collaboration did you undertake with the film’s director Sean McNamara? Did he have a firm idea as to how he wanted the score to sound?
Sean was working on other projects while this was in post but whenever he could break away from his other films he would come to my studio in Simi Valley to listen to what we were working on and give his input and direction. We experimented with the sound of the mermaid. He combined human voice along with the sound of an actual whale and an Erhu (Chinese two stringed instrument) and he worked with the ideas we were developing. He was very clear on what he wanted, directed necessary changes and nothing went to the scoring stage without him first signing off on it. Even some last minute changes were requested that had me literally reworking the orchestration during the whole flight to the scoring session. We recorded in Prague so he would join us remotely from the States through the night and give feedback as the score was being recorded.
- The King’s Daughter is a cocktail of the historical and fantasy and whimsy. How did you attempt to accommodate both of those tones into one cohesive score?
The movie needs to have a certain tone, a personality so I chose the orchestration that would best fit the balance of authenticity of the times along with some modern elements that Sean had requested. As mentioned with John and Grant also working on the film I really tried to utilize their experiences in scoring to deliver all elements that the film needed.
- With one foot in the past, did you look to the era and its music to sort of guide your own endeavors?
Absolutely. The film was shot at the Palais de Versailles just south-west of Paris with all of its ornate, golden decor that fills the screen with incredible colors so the score screamed for authenticity to the times. At the same time, Sean also wanted a modern feel to contrast the futuristic vision that Louis XIV had. The balance was really very delicate but I feel everyone involved pulled it off really well.
- Were there any films that served as an inspiration for your lovely music in The King’s Daughter? Did you look to past efforts in similarly veined films to act as a bit of a guide for your own efforts?
I have a lot of scores I listen to and really admire. One of my favorite scores is for the movie Stardust composed by Ilan Eshkeri. I used him as a little inspiration for some of the magical moments with the mermaid moments, but also tuned in to some of the music that was transitioning the Baroque to Classical music eras. Of course the movie was also temped with Hans Zimmer scores (almost every movie I get with temp nowadays has some Hans music in it) and several other composers but fortunately Sean wasn’t married to the temp and was open to allow our own creativity to shine through.
- What do you hope viewers of The King’s Daughter walk away with after watching the film and hearing your score?
I hope they didn’t notice the score. Not until they download the soundtrack and listen to it on its own. I want the music to serve the film, to subtlety add to the story, but not make the audience be pulled out of the film because the music is too overpowering. There are films, such as Bond movies or Harry Potter where it’s highly appropriate that the music themes come in and add noticeable power to the film but I hope that the music in this one gets appreciated more when people listen to the soundtrack rather than notice it during the film.
- You have another film which you’ve composed the music for which is waiting in the wings entitled Merry Christmas, Officer Hansel. What can you tell readers about this film and your music therein?
Merry Christmas Officer Hansel is a really cute family feature. I’ve worked with Collin and Alex (director/producer) on most of their other films and they have given me so much trust and freedom to create which allows the magic to just flow. This film actually has a lot of space for the music to tell the story. Colin also wrote some really catchy songs which we feature in the film. I anticipate that the film will come out around Thanksgiving and Sum Of All Music will be releasing the soundtrack around the film release.
- Your first credited film was the 2000 Bryan Bagby directed movie L.I.N.X. Any special memories of that freshman project?
Wow… that’s asking a lot to think that far back, I was in my 20s when I did that one. Although I had scored a number of films while at university I hadn’t done a sci-fi and about a week or two before the film showed up I had been thinking that I really wanted to. The opening scene is one of those gorgeous scenes of beams of light pouring through a misty forest before man in a space suite comes walking into the scene. I remember being really excited by that… and agreed immediately to score the film based off of that one moment. Bryan is the cousin of Larry Bagby who plays the character ICE in Hocus Pocus and is also Johnny Cash’s bassist in the movie Walk The Line as well as producing and appearing LINX. LINX was a really good concept of a film that Bryan wrote himself. If I remember correctly, Bryan’s dad offered him a choice to either go to film school or fund the making of his first feature so he chose to make the film. I actually have positive memories of that film. Although it was made in LA I scored it back in the UK, with a home studio set up in my Mum’s living room. My Mum (yes… the English way with a ‘u’) can’t take suspense very well and she would come in to hear the music… with her eyes closed as the scenes were a little too suspenseful for her.
- How did you wind up on the path of composing, Joseph? Is there a Secret Origin story you could share with readers?
I was 4 years old when I gave my first stage performance on piano with absolutely no plans do so. I was at a variety-show where the host pretended he ran out of jokes and invited a volunteer from the audience to come on stage to help him. Instead of telling a joke I asked to play the piano, much to my family’s surprise as I couldn’t play. However, that night I played a tune, both hands, note perfect and surprised everyone, including myself. In the years that followed I mostly worked out how to play the piano and started writing my own songs while still a child. But it was in the movie Amadeus that I got that big reveal that I was going to become a film composer. I remember having that awe inspired awakening that the modern stage is the screen and I wanted to write music for that medium. From there is was a journey into noticing opportunities to write music first for stage, then commercials before being accepted into university to study film scoring.
- Final – SILLY! – Question: Favorite composer – Bernard Herrmann or Elmer Bernstein?
Actually not a silly question. I have a close affinity with both composers. Along my path to film composing I was able to be mentored by several of the great film composers. David Raksin was one of them who was a close friend of Bernard (or Benny as he would call him) and David used to bring in Bernard’s scores to study. To the ear Hermann’s music was so easily identifiable, new to it’s era, inventive of new sounds that expressed emotions perhaps not so familiarly expressed in music (take the Psycho shower scene and how that’s become synonymous with virtually every knife that has appeared on screen since) and has definitely influenced some of my scores in the past. But to see the music on paper was mind blowing. What an incredible creator!
Having said that, another mentor of mine was Elmer himself. I remember the first time I had lunch with him I just sat there and fed off every word… I barely even touched my food. Although American, he was a complete Anglophile and probably considered himself more English than I felt I was. I think Elmer’s biggest challenge in film scoring that he spoke about was getting pigeonholed into a genre of film music and had to work hard to break away each time he was placed in one. Once he was known as the ‘Western’ composer after The Magnificent Seven he had to convince directors that he was capable of so much more and, once given the chance, he found himself as the ‘Comedy’ composer and then had to break away again… and so the story goes on. But Elmer also influenced music in new and exciting ways. He even adapted several Hermann scores when working with Scorsese and Elmer’s versatility was incredible.
So, it’s really hard to say who was better of the two, because they both brought genius and influence to the history of film scoring, but with a little bias due to direct personal connection, and when I think of him I can still hear his voice (and music) in my head I’m going to have to go with Elmer as topping the list.