When director Baz Luhrmann decided to bring about his screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby, he turned to his longtime collaborator, ASCAP composer Craig Armstrong. I was lucky to speak with Craig about his involvement with the ambitious project. Coincidentally, I was writing questions while staring out my Hollywood office window at the apartment where Fitzgerald spent his final days.
This isn’t your first cinematic collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann and his team. What’s the key to making that relationship work, and how hands-on is he during your process?
This is my fourth collaboration with Baz, my first being Romeo and Juliet, second Moulin Rouge, third the Chanel No. 5 campaign and now The Great Gatsby. I think the main key that makes this relationship work is that we both respect each other’s work, and enjoy and have fun exploring new territories. Even when the work can be very, very demanding, I always know that everybody else in the team, including Baz of course, is working so hard to achieve something that is beautiful and special.
It’s very creative when Baz and I work together, as I have a free hand to compose whatever I feel is right for the particular scenes and actors. However, as you can imagine, there can be several attempts at creating something that will connect with Baz in terms of what he’s looking for to tell his story. Once Baz has chosen the themes from the many I’ve composed, he’s then very hands-on with how these pieces of music work in his film, and how they are shaped.
One of the things I really admire about Baz is that if he likes a piece of music, he very often just lets it play out in parallel with the picture so that both, together, can create something special.
At what stage were you brought on, and when did you first begin formulating ideas for Gatsby?
I first met Baz at the end of 2011 in Sydney to discuss composing the music for The Great Gatsby. From that moment on I began to write ideas, returning to Sydney the following year, a brief visit to Los Angeles and then the final stages when Baz came to Glasgow to work on the fine detail of the score at the end of 2012.
As a European, were you reluctant at all in providing a musical voice to a “Great American Novel?”
Yes. Obviously, working on a film which is based on one of the most famous American novels is something that you have to respect. The same was true when I worked with Baz on Romeo and Juliet, written by William Shakespeare. However, as Baz often takes on very complex subjects for his films, I did feel I had some experience in this area before, and felt very comfortable working with a director I have so much respect for. I also felt it was a great privilege to work on The Great Gatsby as I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on this iconic story.
What was your approach to developing everlasting themes for such iconic characters? Do they overlap throughout the score?
For me, it was very important to treat the original score in a very classic way – i.e. all the main characters had their own melodic themes. As the film developed, so the themes developed. In many ways it is quite a traditional score, however because of the subject matter and the complexity of Gatsby’s character, and his metamorphosis throughout the film, it was very complicated. I had to find themes that retained the same melodic elements in the beginning with such a hopeful Gatsby, then through to a very dark Gatsby, and then to the almost philosophical ending with Nick’s narration.
The music of the Roaring Twenties definitely had a distinct mood and flavor. Was that a factor in your orchestrations and instrument choices?
The music of the Roaring Twenties definitely had an influence on the original score, but really it was through the prism of the classical music that was being written at the time, like Ravel and Gershwin. Although sonically, the choice of the soprano saxophone as the prominent orchestral instrument in the Gatsby theme “Infinite Hope” was a conscious attempt to link the two worlds of ‘20s jazz and the original score.
I know Baz liked the contrast of the classical saxophone sound, which although connected obviously to the jazz saxophone, has a much more ethereal quality.
How did you reconcile what you were asked to do, knowing that covers of pop tunes would be used so prominently in the film? What goes into the proper marriage of score and source music?
I think in The Great Gatsby as opposed to, say, Moulin Rouge, there really was a lot of room for the original score to breathe and develop. There was more original score written than for any movie I have done. And what Baz likes is when I arrange the songs so that the texture of my orchestral arrangements link with the score, e.g. the songs by Lana Del Rey and the xx. Hopefully this makes for a seamless connection between the songs and score.
How have your experiences arranging, mixing and songwriting with Massive Attack and others enhanced your work on the scores you’ve written?
My experience of arranging, mixing and writing with Massive Attack was very valuable early on in my career. I would say especially when U2 asked me to orchestrate the title tracks for GoldenEye and Mission: Impossible, which they wrote for those movies. Having hands-on experience with large orchestras early on in my career definitely gave me a little bit of confidence that was needed when I was first given a chance to work on large-scale films.
What’s your relationship like with ASCAP, and why did you choose to license your music through ASCAP in the US?
ASCAP is incredibly supportive and encouraging to me as a composer and artist. I chose to license with ASCAP in the States because I had always heard such great things from other colleagues, and I’ve never looked back. They are very knowledgeable about the industry and keep ahead of the changes and what this means for writers. I feel very supported by ASCAP and I’m very grateful for all their hard work and support.
Craig Armstrong is a Grammy, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award-winning ASCAP composer for film, TV, orchestra and theatre. He is a longtime collaborator with director Baz Luhrmann, and has also worked with some of the world’s most innovative rock and pop artists, including U2, Massive Attack, Yoko Ono and Mogwai. Visit him on the web at craigarmstrong.com.
The Great Gatsby came out in theaters on May 10th, 2013. Find out more at thegreatgatsby.warnerbros.com.