17 August 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Interview with IFTA-winning ‘Queen and Country’ composer Stephen McKeon
12 Jun 2015 : Seán Brosnan
Stephen McKeon accepting his IFTA last month
Landing the IFTA last month meant that composer Stephen McKeon was two for two on John Boorman projects at the annual Irish Academy’s Awards ceremony.

Winning in 2007 for Boorman’s surreal Celtic Tiger drama ‘The Tiger’s Tail’, McKeon last month added to his tally by landing an IFTA for the legendary filmmaker’s semi-autobiographical period drama ‘Queen & Country’ – in cinemas now.

The composer’s busy slate this year has included political drama series ‘Charlie’, animated film ‘Two By Two’ and Simon Fitzmaurice’s buzz title ‘My Name Is Emily - and he is due to start working on Brendan Muldowney’s highly anticipated ‘Pilgrimage’ as well as the animated film ‘Norm of the North’.

Here, McKeon talks to IFTN about the many cinematic references within the ‘Queen and Country’ score, the perennial uncertainties facing composers and the possibility of nabbing an IFTA hat-trick if Boorman decides to make another film.

IFTN: First off, congrats on your recent IFTA win. You are now two for two at the IFTA’s with John Boorman films – how did it feel to win the IFTA this time around.

Stephen McKeon:‘It’s great! It was weird because I rang John that night and I said that this was my second IFTA for his movies and that I wanted to make it a hat-trick – which means he would have to direct another movie [laughs]. He decided that this was going to be his last one – [SPOILER] the film actually ends on a camera with a reel spinning around which then stops so that was him saying “I’m out” but I think now he is coming back to do another one.’

‘It’s strange though – and I must say this to him – but the music is telling a different story in that scene– for him that scene was saying “I’m done” but I had the music build to a crescendo so my idea was that this guy would continue on – he is only getting started.’

‘But it was great to win and John is fantastic to work with because he is all about the story and he understands music so much. This score was unusual in a sense because the story is about John – which means the score is filled with cinematic references – and references to films that John went on to make. So, at the start there is a scene involving water – water being a constant theme in John’s movies – and a character Sophie has her hand caught in the water and it was a nod to the lady in the lake in ‘Excalibur’. So, I picked up on that and deliberately made it sound like Wagner which is a nod to the score in ‘Excalibur’ which John loved straight away. And we did that throughout the whole film. Ophelia, the lead female character in the film – instead of giving her a conventional romantic theme - I told John that I would score her as Sleeping Beauty which is another filming reference. There’s also one central scene on a military base where I ripped on Beethoven’s Ode To Joy which John also loved and we had a real laugh working like that.’

Because this film was about John’s life and a presumably personal project - did that make him a bit more hands-on this time around?

‘Not at all, he is probably one of the most un-precious directors you’d meet. John is very professional and relaxed and because of that he surrounds himself with people who know what they’re doing – and he lets them do their job. Also, I think he sees films as journeys of discovery in a sense. So, he doesn’t come into it saying “this is going to be a John Boorman film, do it this way”. Instead, he’ll say “let’s see where the music takes us here”. Now, there is still a bit of nervousness on my part when he hears the first cue but John has great sense of humour and a great knowledge of film which means he picked up immediately on the cinematic references I was employing and had a little chuckle about it. He does oversee the music and is hands-on but when he makes a comment on the music, it’s always a brilliant comment. He will always comment on the story. He’ll never say I don’t like the violin or the piano there or whatever. He will say “I think this is too dark” or “the pacing is a little off here” but he will never tell you how to fix it. That is perfect as a musician because that is something I can work on – I know what’s wrong.’

Did following up on a film with such a lasting legacy as the 1988 Oscar-nominated ‘Hope and Glory’ create any added pressure for you here?

‘No, I never felt that kind of pressure because I get on with John so well. The pressure around scoring is enough pressure – the pressure of organizing orchestras, organizing arrangers, organizing musicians means you can’t worry about anything else. I must say though that I absolutely loved ‘Hope and Glory’ but no I didn’t feel any added pressure when scoring this.’

You mentioned John being all about the story and all about discovering where the different elements of film take the story – was there any point in this project where your music influenced the story – changing John’s focus on how he previously imagined a scene?

‘Usually I knew I was on to a good thing if I made him laugh! Myself and John get on so well and we both love cinema which meant when I came into this I knew I was on solid ground. I saw all of his films and some of them several times so I understood the imagery he was using. I know John is never interested in telling a conventional story – he is more interested in the subtext and I always try to build that into my score.’

How long were you working on the score?

‘I got a cut of the film and then I worked on it in Pro-Tools in my studio where I mocked up the orchestra. Once John signed off on it, I got it on paper and we went to the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. After that, it was back to my studio to be mixed and then off to Ardmore. It was quite a fast process – it was about 50 minutes of music composed which took about four or five weeks to write. In this business, you have to be able to write quickly and that’s certainly the stressful part of the job because it all has to be up to a certain quality too.’

You have bounced around from very different projects over the past 12 months such as animated film ‘Two By Two’, political series ‘Charlie’ and you will be soon working on violent historical thriller ‘Pilgrimage’ – when you finish something and move on to something else that is completely diverse, is it hard to switch your mind-set for the new project?

‘No, it’s great. The process of being creative never stops so even though you might write a score for something – it literally has to be dragged away from you to be recorded – as I would never stop making corrections. It’s forced out of your hands and on to the screen and even when I see the finished – I’d think “that should be better” or “I could have done that differently” so it’s great to move on quickly to something very different that forces you to wash your hands and forget about it. And that’s what I love about this business. It’s a bit of a buzz to go from scoring a nice little children’s film like ‘Two By Two’ to a hyper-violent, dark drama like ‘Pilgrimage’.’

Tell us a little about your work on ‘Charlie’ then – a political series on the life of Charlie Haughey where the score really played a huge part…

‘Charlie’ was unusual because they asked me to read the script and then tell them how I wanted to do the music – which is something I normally detest doing because the script really tells you nothing about the style of the piece or how it will be shot. ‘Charlie’ was different because the sense of what it was going to be was established very early on and as well as that I had worked with director Kenny Glanaan before so felt I was in good hands. Haughey essentially saw himself as an historical European figure and he was always thinking – he was always two steps ahead of everyone. So, I came up with the idea to score him as Napoleon so in scenes where you normally wouldn’t have a score, I would have the score furiously playing. And they went for that. Even when he’s just reading newspapers, I scored it as if he were reading maps so it had a big, Wagnerian, Napoleonic feel. In the third episode then where things start crumbling around him, I slowed the score completely down.’

It seems to be a good time for Irish composers at the minute – even looking at the IFTA category you came out of last month – guys like Ray Harman, David Holmes and Stephen Rennicks are really flying…

‘They are all guys who work extremely hard. This business is insanely competitive. I often say to people that in any other business if you do something really well you will eventually get repeat business. This business isn’t like that. You can do a great job for a director and establish a great relationship but then that director may never work again or his/her next project is a co-production which means they need a French composer because its’ French money. Or their next movie doesn’t require music or their producer has another composer in mind – so much can happen. It means composers have to be fighting their corner all the time. Those guys you mentioned are all very hard working and it shows. The only way to get ahead in composing is to have a lot of energy and to keep putting yourself out there. Not every composer gets to meet their Steven Spielberg or a Tim Burton who hires them every time.’

You may not have found your Steven Spielberg or your Tim Burton but surely the mighty John Boorman will do….

‘Yeah! To work with John twice has been a real privilege - he's such a phenomenal director and I would jump at the chance to work with him again if it ever came to be.'

‘Queen and Country’ is in cinemas now. Check out our interview with DoP Seamus Deasy here.

Tom Collins: “For me it's all about the work, which is about creating a reflection of a modern Irish cultural identity that can travel beyond borders, history and these shores.”
Over €4.6m allocated by Creative Europe to Irish screen industry in 2021
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