The Man From U.N.C.L.E finally made the jump from TV screens to cinemascope with Guy Ritchie’s new adaptation, something its composer, Daniel Pemberton, knows all about having worked (and continues to work) on a host of great TV projects before scoring his first film with 2011’s The Awakening. In a guest column he explains how to create quintessential modern, yet 60s feeling spy film soundtrack.
I’ve worked for over 20 years on a zillion different types of TV show now so have learnt a lot from all of them really. That was kind of my school in learning how to write music for films. When I first met Ridley Scott he said that by doing that I’d done my “10,000 hours in the garage” which I loved. He said he’d done his in advertising – that was where he learnt to direct. I did mine writing TV music, including things like Peep Show. It all helped! With a film You just have to dive in and get your hands dirty. If you think about how big it is you never get anything done. You just stand there like a rabbit in the headlights. Already learnt that mistake! So I just get going and see what happens.
There were so many great composers who worked on the original U.N.C.L.E. series it was quite daunting to follow in their footsteps. I definitely wanted to continue the tradition of creating scores out of less instruments with a more unusual sound that had a great groove at its heart. If you look at someone like Jerry Goldsmith who wrote the original U.N.C.L.E. theme he was always experimenting trying to get new sounds from unexpected places and that was definitely a mindset I approached the project with. It wasn’t just U.N.C.L.E. that I took influence from – it was so many scores from the era. Everything from classics like Get Carter and The Ipcress File to things like the film soundtracks by Serge Gainsbourg or TV scores by English composer Edwin Astley.
I’d also scored a 1970s cold war BBC TV spy series just before U.N.C.L.E. called The Game and the approach to that was very different. With U.N.C.L.E. you’ve got this kaleidoscopic world of what I call international colour. The film looks so great and has so many stylistic and geographic influences you have so many things to play off as a composer. We’d use everything from sounds that have become quite synonymous with the spy world – things like Cimbalom which is a giant zither like instrument – to more unexpected elements like mandolins, bass flutes and getting someone to scream through a distortion pedal.
We recorded the entire score in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Studios which is pretty much the spiritual home of so many of the most important moments in 1960s music. We commandeered every piece of vintage gear we could in the building, from old tape machines to ancient mixing desks, antique microphones to reverb units and used this alongside more modern technology to get a sound that had the punch you’d want from a modern film score but still the character and identity of something from the 1960s. A lot of it is also about the attitude – music from that period was incredibly bold and unashamed about itself whereas a lot of film music today is a lot more subtle or neutral. It was great to go with that for once and just write very upfront music.
It was a crazy ride working with Guy Ritchie. He’s unlike any other director I have worked with before. What’s amazing is he really, really understands the power music can bring to a film and he uses it incredibly strongly. You have nowhere to hide on one of his movies and if your work isn’t up to it it’s not going in the film. So it’s a lot of work because every piece has to sound like a great track – it can’t just be a piece of score, it has to feel like a fantastic piece of music in its own right. If Guy feels like it’s something he’s heard before or it isn’t unique enough you have to come up with something else. And that happens a lot. He really pushes you. The end result is so good though it’s worth the journey you go on to get there.
My score also had to work with some classic tracks – like Roberta Flack‘s Compared To What or Nina Simone‘s Take Care Of Business – most of those are decided between Guy and his editor James Herbert, who is fantastic with music. But in this film I still got to interact a bit. The scene where the main character Napoleon Solo is eating a sandwich inside a truck, there’s a fantastic piece playing in the background but we all felt it needed a push when he starts driving the truck (SPOLIER ALERT!) off the harbour into a speedboat! So I did a string line that plays on top of the track that you’d never know wasn’t part of the original to help push this moment.
On this film a lot of people felt it wasn’t right to redo the original Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV series’ theme music and I have to respect that, but I’d be up for giving it a go if they ever changed their minds on another film. I love those theme tune and there are countless versions of of it – my favourite U.N.C.L.E. theme is the Lalo Schifrin version.
As far as the my next project goes, right now I am sitting in Abbey Road studios mixing the score to the new film by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs, though Alan Parsons just popped in to look at some speakers about 30 minutes ago… That’s what you want when you are working at Abbey Road! Anyway the new film is looking great – it’s a completely different score and approach than U.N.C.L.E. but hopefully people will enjoy it. Oh, and by the way, it’s out very, very soon!