27 May 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
BIFA winning composer Stephen Rennicks talks to IFTN
15 Dec 2014 : Seán Brosnan
BIFA Winning Composer Stephen Rennicks
Primarily known as a key collaborator of director Lenny Abrahamson over the past decade, composer Stephen Rennicks has cemented his position as one of Ireland’s leading composers with three IFTA nominations and a filmography consisting of celebrated Irish films like ‘What Richard Did’, ‘Garage’, ‘Man About Dog’, and ‘Adam and Paul’.

Fresh off his win at the British Independent Film Awards last week - where he won the award for Best Technical Achievement for his musical contributions to ‘Frank’ – Stephen Rennicks spoke with IFTN about the nuts and bolts of composing as well as the genesis of the soon-to-be-infamous ending song of ‘Frank’.

IFTN: Winning an award for Best Technical Achievement means that you are not just beating out other composers but winning out of every technical category – that must have made the BIFA award all the more sweeter?

Stephen Rennicks:‘Yeah, it’s a bit strange though. Is it a technical exercise writing music for film? I think aspects of it are – I think aspects of it contain an artistic possibility. I suppose a lot of ‘Frank’ was a technical exercise though – I was writing music before there was even a cast attached, then working with that cast and trying to work out how we were going to be able to realise our plans.’

‘But, I suppose it doesn’t matter, if BIFA says it is, then great and to win an award is a really lovely thing. It’s certainly easier to negotiate winning something rather than have to deal with those phone calls from people saying “hard luck, you were robbed” and all that stuff! But even to get nominated at the BIFA’s was fantastic because I presume I got picked out of a lot of composers so even that is already something. It was a real honour to go over there and get an award with people like Brendan Gleeson and Andrew Scott and for the work to be recognised.’

Was a film like ‘Frank’ a composer’s dream? The story essentially centres around music – was there a feeling of ‘yes, my time to shine’ when approaching this film?

‘Yeah, I suppose it was. I mean anything like this really is a gift but also a nightmare at the same time! It was exciting but it was also the biggest test for me in terms of music in film. A lot of material had to be written on the hoof and that's when you find out if you've got anything to offer or not. It’s the biggest film in terms of budget and talent that Lenny or I have ever done. Before ‘What Richard Did’ had been shot this project was mentioned and as far as I was concerned it was always only an outside chance that I would be working on it because we knew it was a Film4 project and we knew – certainly I knew – that it was going to be a thing where they would say “well, who’s Stephen Rennicks? He has done all of Lenny’s films but this is a much more serious thing” and if I was a producer I would have been thinking the same thing! But Lenny and I had so many conversations about this project that by the time it came around to choosing who would do it I think Lenny just went to them and pretty much told them he was working with me. Lenny would need to have as much autonomy as possible – at least as much as possible on a big budget film so it definitely helped to have someone he could work closely with instead of perhaps a bigger name that would take a while to track down if something needed changing. I think Film4 were really supportive and were willing to take the chance such is their regard for Lenny. It was a fantastic one to do but it was two years of my life and that took its’ toll in other ways !’

Tell us about the genesis of the fantastic ending song sung by Michael Fassbender’s ‘Frank’?

‘Sometime in December two years ago – I had to present something to most of the cast of A- list celebrities who had assembled in the rehearsal studio in central Dublin – a song that I knew would be the end song and I was out in my studio in Dun Laoghaire the night before thinking “what the hell am I going to do here”! I remember it was around 2.30am having this idea and recording it. And straight away I had the feeling that it was a really strong idea. I just thought about what would Frank say and I knew it would be this weird blatant thing like “I love you all”. I demoed just that chorus part and brought it in the next day with this lovely feeling you always hope for where I knew it was good – and well, if they didn’t like it they’d be wrong and would have to do it anyway! As it happened, they ended up liking it and it was a great feeling to have that one in the bag as it was then something to work towards when writing the band's other music leading up to that.’

So, was that a case of your work informing the script then or was it written in beforehand the message the song had to get across?

‘The script went through various stages and there was always that really important end song in that scene but there were no lyrics in the script only a description of the job the song would have to do really to bring Frank and the band back together. I would always fire everything back to Lenny to see what he would say. And with the “I Love You All” song, I knew it felt good and Lenny liked it too and thought that Frank would definitely say that. But we always had to have alternatives - up to a certain point in pre-production anyway. The difficulty as well was that we didn’t really know who Frank was at that point. I mean, Michael hadn’t even put the head on yet nor had he settled on Frank's voice or accent at that stage. So, I didn’t really know if those words would suit as Michael figured out who Frank was so I had to be ready to change the words and the music just in case. The first time I heard it done fully cooked was when Michael performed it as you see it in the film and it was a revelation to me - he's extraordinary. We had to be very aware of what the actors could sing and play because it was important they do as much as possible themselves – so there was all these levels of priority to think of when the date of the shoot was coming towards us.’

‘Frank’ was perhaps in stark contrast then to ‘What Richard Did’ and ‘Garage’ which are kind of minimalistic with music –how do you deal with a project where the music is a lot more scaled back?

‘Garage’ in particular didn’t feature a lot of music. There were a lot of spots for music where I had to write a cue but they weren’t used and I knew they wouldn’t be because the film was so beautiful anyway without them. With that and ‘What Richard Did’, Lenny and I would sit down and discuss the music at a rough cut stage whereas with 'Frank' we were talking about where music was needed even prior to official pre-production. Even for a film which ends up with very little music you still write a lot of music but sometimes just to prove that it’s not right for a scene or at least that the scene doesn't need music. I think music in film is an element like everything else in the collaboration, like lighting or editing, and certainly it has artistic potential but most of the time it’s a real nuts and bolts thing. If you’re not thinking about the overall film and conveying the story when writing the music, you need to be doing music somewhere else. Sure, be concerned about your music but only how it serves the film. That’s why working with Lenny is such a joy because it's always about the best way, whatever that is, to present the world of the film to an audience. .’

So, what would draw you to a film then? Would it be the music you think you could create or simply the story?

‘Well for years, what drew me to a film was that someone asked me to do it and would be willing to pay me to do it! I have been really lucky in my job that I have been able to do it and get paid for it. And I have been really lucky to be working with Lenny. The reality is if Lenny’s stuff wasn’t going out there then my stuff wouldn't be going out there either. So you end up - if you're lucky – in a position where you get to have some choice. And then there would be a lot of things to factor in but mostly the script and the director. If they aren't right then music isn't going to help.’

So, what composers would you say have influenced you and continue to influence you?

‘I don’t actually listen to a lot of music but I suppose the biggest influence in terms of understanding music would be from my background growing up singing and listening to a lot of Gospel music. And I don’t mean Aretha Franklin but Irish Protestant Baptist gospel music, choruses and hymns. With that, I was immersed in melody and harmony every week and I grew up assuming everybody was but of course they weren’t. When I got a bit older I was playing music in bands and trying to make shorts at the same time. I loved film and wanted to write and direct or be a cameraman and do everything except music or sound but I started getting hired to write music. Who knows why? Probably because I was cheap and able to deliver.’

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to be a composer for film?

‘If you want to write music for film, one has to assume you have a certain amount of talent. That’s the most basic thing. Then, I 'd say to try and work in as many areas of film as you can. Be a runner, go in and be around an edit. Learn how to light a scene. Learn the process so you understand how it all fits together and how collaborative it is. If you want to write music for film, learn about film, don’t learn about music because I’d already assume that you’d have musical talent. And after that, it takes hard work and of course luck.’

Finally, what’s in store for you in the future other than celebrating this win?

‘I just finished a Channel 4 series called ‘Cut’ which is going out after Christmas I think. I've just started work on an Italian language feature, then a Spanish language feature and in the new year will be Lenny’s new film ‘Room’. And even since the awards, there have been a few more projects put in front of me, which is lovely to get and long may it continue!’

Producer of 'Frank' Ed Guiney (Element Pictures) received this year’s European Co-Production Award – Prix EURIMAGES, an award acknowledging the decisive role of co-productions in the European film industry at the European Film Awards Ceremony in Riga on Saturday, 13 December. Check out IFTN's interview with Guiney before the event here.

Director Colm Quinn discusses documentary Ransom 79
Oscar-nominated Todd Field discusses directing at IFTA Masterclass
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