INTERVIEW: Geoff Foster, score engineer for ‘The Great Gatsby’

AIR Studios’ Geoff Foster has spoken exclusively to API about his work on the film scores for The Great Gatsby and Evil Dead.

Foster has engineered and mixed the scores for hundreds of films, and won Grammys for The Dark Knight and Ray. He was also named Recording Engineer of the Year at the 2012 MPG Awards.

Foster begins by telling us about the challenges he faced when working on The Great Gatsby, and what sets Baz Luhrmann apart from other directors…

How did the scale of the job compare to some of your other projects? Were many musicians involved?

It wasn’t a particularly huge orchestra – I think there were between 50 and 80 musicians – but what was challenging was that we had several sets of songs that all had to be intercuttable. During the filmmaking process the choice of songs had not been finalised, as there were some legal and creative issues to be resolved. The result of this was that we ended up scoring the film about four times – not all of it, but certain sections – and it meant that we had to make options and alternate versions, and as the film progressed, the nature of the score evolved and we had to accommodate this evolution into the process too.

At one point The xx came in and started playing their stuff over what we’d recorded. The time that had been allotted for them ran out so to allow that creative process to continue we had the band in a booth on one end of the desk and in the hall we had the orchestra recording something completely different through the rest of the desk. It was a little chaotic. It wasn’t big or complicated in the way Batman (The Dark Knight) was, but creatively it became a challenge because there were so many versions of things and keeping a log of what needed to go where and to who became a full time job.

What was it like working with Baz Luhrmann? 

When we did Moulin Rouge it was a similar sort of thing. Baz is very much about drawing together a vast wealth of popular culture to make an experience and he doesn’t just think in terms of the film and the music. So there is this constant influx of new talent and ideas right through the process. He also has enough kudos that people want to be involved and his projects tend to build up a momentum as they grow towards completion. He is always in the room and he’ll quite often pursue an idea even though he knows there’s a good chance you won’t use it, just to see how it feels and whether or not it can influence other parts of the film.

And what did you think when you first heard about the idea of using hip hop and other modern musical genres for a film set in the 1920s?

When watching a Baz Luhrmann film, very early on you are taken out of reality, so the whole thing is a little fantastical. With any of the films he’s done it’s about believing the world that Baz has created. I think that by using the more modern stuff that he did from very early on in the film people accept that stylistically it is not a period piece. It’s a period story, but it’s set in a world that Baz has created and from the outset you buy into it. As a viewer, once you’ve accepted this contemporary sound world that has been presented, it opens up a whole load of other doors in terms of what, as a film maker, you can put in.

You also teamed up again with Craig Armstrong for ‘Gatsby’. How do you rate him as a composer?

Craig Armstrong was a perfect choice for a composer as he is doubly talented in that he writes beautiful melodies and he’s also a very gifted arranger. So for a Baz Luhrmann film he can write new material for the whole where there are no pop songs, and at the same time take the songs and weave them, in a very filmic manner, into the score, while still sensitive to the picture’s needs. Originally it was anticipated that there would be a lot more pop songs than what ended up being in the film, but Baz actually brought the whole thing back towards the score because the score versions of the songs worked so well.

Moving on to Evil Dead, how crucial is it to get the score/sound right for a horror film? Surely the music is almost as important as the visuals in creating the desired mood?

I think in terms of what the music can do, in both films you are looking to manipulate/assist the audience’s feelings, particularly so with horror films. Sometimes you’re trying to say ‘something bad is about to happen’, get the audience all tense and then hit them with a false shock moment. Other times you are just driving the scene. A shot of a dark door, that you can’t see inside, isn’t scary until you put scary music with it and then suddenly you’re thinking ‘maybe something horrible lurks within’.

How was it working with composer Roque Banos for the first time?

He was great – very creative and with similar qualities to Baz. He knew what he wanted and was always interested in exploring new ideas. One of the things that was particularly beautiful about doing that film was that the director wanted it all played in the room – a full orchestra with no synths or samples. Pretty much the whole score was done in one hit. You could perform that score live with an orchestra in concert and it would be as you heard it. We did stem the strings and woodwind separately for some cues with Gatsby for technical flexibility, but with Evil Dead it was all done in one take – a complete performance. Roque conducted the whole thing from the podium. It was lovely to have film music that just lived in its own space.

What do you like most about what you do?

Part of the joy of the job for me is everything that you do has its own challenges and when you get to the end of it and you go ‘today, I did that’ – for me that’s the big kick. The people that I work with like what I do and how I do it and we tend to work together again, and once a relationship is formed you start to develop a shorthand which smoothes the process and takes away some of the stress.

What piece of work are you most proud of?

Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now is still a classic and I still listen to it and go ‘how beautiful were the arrangements’, but film-wise, obviously there’s now The Great Gatsby, but I particularly enjoyed the first Sherlock Holmes – I thought it was a really interesting and different score. I did that with Hans (Zimmer) and Lorne (Balfe). It had a new feel to it and it was fresh both musically and sonically.

I think the score we did for Casino Royale was a particularly fine-sounding score. There were constraints put on us in that it had to sound like Bond, but couldn’t actually be Bond until the very end of the film. It was even in the script that it had to be that way. The final cue was recorded in one take – all together, orchestra, band and David Arnold on Guitar in the control room – we had six minutes of orchestra time left and a five-minute cue and most of it is the well-known theme.

Everything fell into place and there was a real sense that the band knew Bond and we all knew what it had to be and how it had to feel and that we only had one shot at it. It was just one of those moments that worked and I think you can hear that in the recording.

Click here for more information on Foster, including a full list of music and film credits.

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