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Interview: Death of Stalin, Veep Composer Christopher Willis On Scoring A Very Unique Film

He also talks the parallels between this Putin's Russia and 1950s Russia.
Christopher Willis

Christopher Willis

Politics is becoming such a farce that the line between comedy and real life is becoming blurred to the point where we don’t know if The Onion is real life anymore. This makes political comedies even harder to create, but that much more important to show the absurdity of those in power. The Death of Stalin is a film that touches on those themes in a time of transition for the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin and the bumbling decisions of politicians that would mean life and death for citizens without a say in the matter. Writing music in this context is not a simple task, so we spoke to the film’s composer Christopher Willis about making the score for the film and the parallels between modern day and that period.

We also talked the influence 1950s Soviet composers had on his work, how it compares to working on Veep and more.

How difficult was it to create a soundtrack for a movie that is comedy, but touches on serious themes as well?

The key was to not try and write funny music. This film was in a tradition of comedies where the music doesn’t really give the game away. One of my favorites is Young Frankenstein, but I also loved Elmer Bernstein’s in Ghostbusters, which is generally pretty serious. When the people on screen in Stalin start doing stupid things, the music is still very serious. It was very dark and created this jarring effect that worked really well.

What would funny music sound like?

Traditionally funny music is light, quirky and upbeat. I don’t think there is anything in this score that is any of those things.

Did you watch the movie first or did you have to score based on notes they gave you?

I watched the movie many times over a period of months. I did start work before I saw the film, just trying to understand Soviet music in the 1950s, which was my musical starting point. I did a lot of studying before I saw the film. But once I got the film, I was working very closely with it.

What from 1950s Soviet Union did you bring in?

Classical music was a very important part of the culture of the Soviet Union in the ‘50s. There were symphonists that were a huge part of cultural life. Fairly early on, we decided it would be best for the score to sound like Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Mossolov, Weinberg and various others. The famous one now are Prokofiev, Shostakovich, but the more I looked into, there were many, many composers and there was a similarity in the way they wrote. They were characterized by enormity, desperation and kind of a bleak quality to a lot of it.

The movie has been praised but has also gotten some backlash in Russia. Did you expect that and did you get any of it?

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We weren’t sure what would happen. I am not surprised now that it has happened because there are a lot of parallels between what was happening then and what is happening in Putin’s Russia. So it stands to reason that they would be easy to offend on that subject. But we are very pleased to that some people in Russia including Russian ex-pats that by and large enjoyed it. But in fact the depiction of the suffering by the Russian people is not comedic. It is the bumbling of the politicians that is comedic. So I very much disagree with the Russian authorities who say it is offensive.

You have also worked on TV scores such as Veep. What are some of the main differences between TV and film that isn’t just the length of the project?

There are some similarities between the two things, but in Veep I don’t think there was much of a threat of real tragedy taking place. The focus is on the politicians and games that they play. In Stalin we actually need to find out the ramifications of the politicians and the decision they have made. So there are scenes that are still very cinematic. The camera goes and we find the crowds of people who are living or dying based on that. The music has to reflect that so it is very satisfying to be able to do that. The music can swell up and really try to show us things happening on an epic scale.

How many people do you generally work with on scoring etc.?

The size of the orchestra will vary a lot. On Veep it tends to be fairly light. It is an American sound, it is very sturdy, but it is fairly light. It isn’t a huge orchestral sound. On Stalin it is actually enormous. We went to a place with 80 people, which is bigger than a normal film orchestra, which was to imitate the big soviet orchestras. It was quite labor intensive, more of this instrument, more of that instrument. There were four flutes, four clarinets, a great sea of violins and violas. We recorded in a very large scoring stage in Belgium and it was to accommodate the huge orchestra. I think you can hear it in the way it ended up. It sounds very mighty and big.

It sounds very full.

I was very grateful to the production company for allowing me to do that. I suggested that we go all out like that and was not entirely certain they would.

Do you sometimes get pushback on that?

Yes it is very common nowadays to cheat in one way or another. What is happening in music is very similar to what is happening on screen. What you see more and more when you work on films that are still in post-production is that there are a lot of green screens in scenes you don’t expect. An enormous amount of stuff that is done digitally a generation ago would have had to be real or not there at all. Sometimes if you are in an apartment, what is happening outside is a green screen. Or when you on the street the end of the street is a green screen.

Musically similar things are happening behind the scenes. You can have scores that are partly finished off with computers. The numbers you are hearing that are real people can be relatively modest. So there is a lot of push and pull going on. “Do you really need this, do you really need that? Or is there someway you can cheat?”

Do you do some of the electronic work yourself?

I don’t mix the scores myself. I work with a wonderful engineer named Satoshi Noguchi. We started working together on the Mickey Mouse shorts that we do for Disney. On Stalin a lot of the mockups we did I did myself. When I came to LA I learned how to work with samples and computers. So I had great training and I am grateful to the people at Remote Control for that. When I am doing TV work with high turnover, I have a method where I work with two assistants. It is kind of like a century ago when orchestrators would work with assistants because there was so much manual labor by hand. 

Now the most labor-intensive part is the computers, getting the skeleton on the piano and getting it to sound realistic. That is enormously time consuming, so I have two assistants Ed Underhill and Drew Connolly. We work together primarily on Disney Jr.’s The Lion Guard, which has a very epic orchestral score and choral and a good amount of that is done with computers.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

Yeah, Veep is wrapping up next year so we have one more season. I am looking forward to getting to see it. I am right in the middle of a Disney ride that is based on Mickey Mouse. The shorts have been very successful so they are turning the biggest plot of land anywhere in the park into it. It is called Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. It is a huge ride planned in Florida. It is quite old-fashioned. It is based on an original song that had its plot and characters. It is a little reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion or Pirates of the Caribbean where they would base the ride on the song. 

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