Click the image above to watch the full conversation.
French composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is closing the year on very good terms, thanks to her awards worthy collaboration with director Oliver Hermanus on his period drama, Living. The film is adapted from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurasawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, with Hermanus swapping Britain for Japan and actor Bill Nighy for the late Takashi Shimura.
Written by novelist and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, Living follows Mr. Williams (Nighy) who is a veritable walking zombie in his daily life. When he gets troubling news on his heath, Mr. Williams contemplates the life he’s made for himself and how he should live his final days in post World War II England.
The British setting struck a chord with audiences and Levienaise-Farrouch, who delivers one of the year’s best scores amid a career-best performance by Nighy. Levienaise-Farrouch’s approach to scoring Mr. Williams relationship with Miss Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood) is the key element to the film’s emotional core.
Levienaise-Farrouch spoke to Awards Focus about her first reactions to Ikiru being adapted in a new setting, the evolution of cues and melodies in the film, and advice for future composers.
Awards Focus: I’m so lucky today to be speaking with composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch for the film Living from Sony Picture Classics. Emilie, thank you for being here. I’m so excited to dive in. Can you give me some background on your introduction to the team involved and the material itself?
Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch: I had seen the original film about twelve years ago at University. I watched it and absolutely loved it. It was stunning and really touched a nerve for me. Then a decade went by and I was invited to have a chat with (director) Oliver Hermanus about the project. I thought the project was terrifying because it was tackling a film that was incredible and a masterpiece of Japanese cinema.
I’m a fan of (Kazuo) Ishiguro and his books, so I read the script and I immediately understood why they wanted to remake the film. They had an amazing writer with both the sensitivity to tackle this Japanese story but also a complete understanding of British culture that set the story in 1950’s London. After reading the script I knew I wasn’t scared to tackle the material, it was in amazing hands.
AF: Did you come up with ideas after reading the script? How does Oliver Hermanus like to work with a composer? Did he want to try something new or different for this film?
Levienaise-Farrouch: I think Oliver likes to map things early in advance and has a very clear vision of the film long before he’s even on set. There were a few concepts I discussed with him during the interview process and he was very excited about it. Early on we started coming up with ideas such as using the voices in a way to represent a sense of community and the difficulty of communication that William was experiencing.
We did not plan on the piano being as present as it was in the end. We started discussing concepts and thoughts and we exchanged playlists and music. But with every film you have to see the film evolving in the edit. You can have all the concepts and ideas ready before filming but in terms of music so much happens when you start seeing the performances; the pacing of the actors and the camera movement. You have to listen and respond to what the film is and write based on that. There were a few concepts we had at script level that we abandoned and replaced with what we felt this specific film needed.
AF: This adaptation is a very worthy translation and handles the material brilliantly. With the setting of post World War II London, it’s an entirely different idea of where we find this man in his life.
It becomes apparent that his time is short and there’s an evolution that takes place. There are so many emotions you had to play with musically in this film. Can you talk through the first cue that you wrote and what scene really spoke to you?
Levienaise-Farrouch: The first cue I wrote didn’t make it into the film but the melody and theme that was at the center of that cue did make it in the film. The scene that spoke to me was when William (Bill Nighy) goes down the stairs of County Hall to his medical appointment. We used a beautiful, lush 1950’s jazz standard. I had a cue that used the bass clarinet which is used throughout the score and for me is associated with William’s character.
I had a connection with that instrument for that character I suppose. I had this melody that felt so right for that slow-motion sequence. The cue itself didn’t feel so right but the theme remained William’s theme throughout and is referenced and developed for piano even later in the film. It was unusual in that sense because the cue itself got taken out of the process pretty early but the theme felt really right.
AF: Bill (Nighy) is a central character here but Miss Margaret played by Aimee Lou Wood is fantastic. Wood is a breath of fresh air and offers a new perspective. Were there some musical choices you wanted to make to differentiate between the two?
Levienaise-Farrouch: The piece of music that’s written was not for her character, but for her interaction with William in the park when they go for a walk. That was more about representing the type of relationship that they have rather than her particularly. If it had represented her alone it would have been slightly more joyful and dynamic but this was more about their relationship and the fact that it’s romantic in a sense but not in an amorous way.
There’s no flirtation or innuendo happening but rather an appreciation. He’s fascinated by her youth. We had to have something that’s both restrained and warm. It was quite tricky to find something that didn’t feel too sweet or sugary but found this balance between who she is and who he is. That cue addressed her character the most.
AF: Can you talk about any experimenting you did with the instrumentation and what you fell in love with?
Levienaise-Farrouch: One of the early ideas was the use of vocals not necessarily with any words or lyrics but short vocal patterns, tones and sustained notes we had 12 singers- a small vocal ensemble the reasoning behind it is early in the film there’s a line of dialogue where they mention its rather like church and to me thinking back about British society in the 50s and earlier regardless of belief or being religious i didn’t try to make the score religious, but it felt like singing in a congregation was a very important part of community building and the fact of using those vocalists a mixed group of female and male vocalists would be a really interesting type of representation of community
AF: Can you tell me about the final cue? When it came down to recording and approval how did you revisit it and shape it into the perfection we hear now?
Levienaise-Farrouch: The cue that was the longest to write and needed some tweaks until the end is a cue that is playing on a train journey where all of Williams colleagues are discussing what happened in the few weeks just gone. It is a solo piano and a total of eight and a half minutes.
This cue has to completely accompany the things that are on screen and the realization of the four characters in the carriage but also the evolution of the narrative and what they’re remembering. That was tricky because you have to keep things simple enough for the dialogue to sing through and tailor everything so it matches everything that’s happening on screen. That was probably the final cue to write and took little adjustments to make sure everything was landing right. We then had to record everything on the piano that had the sound that I wanted.
AF: What advice can you give to composers and aspiring composers?
Levienaise-Farrouch: We are given a very short amount of time on Earth a vast majority of our time awake we will be working. If you find a way to do something that really matters to you and not for the validation of other people try to make as much space for it as possible. When you’re accomplishing something and you have a sense of overwhelming joy just keep going
AF: This is such rich conversation and such a rich film with so many layers and thought. This is such an amazing collaboration. Emilie we are very lucky to have you and you were lucky to find such a beautiful project.
Levienaise-Farrouch: They’re all so incredibly talented. It’s mind blowing and yes I was very lucky with this project.