INTERVIEW: Shaken & Stirred: James Bond composer David Arnold
If you’ve watched any recent James Bond film you’ll have heard his striking scores. If you regularly tune into Top Gear, you’ll have enjoyed his dramatic car chase music. Having also worked on productions with Shirley Bassey, Björk, Massive Attack and many more, it’s very likely that knowingly or not, you have heard music by one of the most talented film composers of his generation: David Arnold.
Now known mainly for his work on the last five Bond films, Grammy award winner David is globally recognised for his ability to produce both catchy contemporary electronic tunes and searing orchestral arrangements. His first big break came in the early 1990s when he scored the science fiction hit Stargate, which led to him scoring a major blockbuster in the 1996 epic, Independence Day.
Having around this time also produced Shaken & Stirred, an album of cover versions of Bond film themes done with the likes of Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop and Pulp, David came to the attention of Bond producers wanting to take the Bond sound in a new direction for the 1997 film, Tomorrow Never Dies.
Since then, David’s Bond films have grossed over two billion dollars, elevating his reputation to super-composer in the process.
A seldom seen face publicly, we recently asked David if he would be willing to speak to SkiddMark about his work on Bond, how film music is created, how emotive music links to cars plus about David Arnold the man himself. Happily, he agreed to this and we can now share with you his exclusive thoughts on working with Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, how he adapted when Bond switched from BMWs to Aston Martins and how he would score a commercial for Ferrari.
So beneath are David’s articulate and bold opinions in uncensored and unedited form, straight from Air Studios in London. Make sure you have your speakers on too as we’ve embedded examples of his work to help you experience his catalogue of work as closely as possible.
Entering the hot seat [ please click to open]
Independence Day opened the door to the world of James Bond ...
The first question I put to David was simply asking him how he got into scoring the Bond films. I’m aware of his Independence Day success and Shaken & Stirred projects, so I asked if getting the Bond gig was a result of either of these two projects.
Well I always thought it was a combination of both of those things. I think Independence Day was a movie which proved I could handle a big budget Hollywood style film and regardless of whether I could do it or not, the fact that it was so successful always makes a big difference to the way people perceive you. You know, you’re part of something that’s hugely successful and part of that rubs off on the people that put it together, so I think that helped.
I think the Shaken & Stirred record helped because the producers could hear at that time my ideas of where Bond’s sound could be made more contemporary or exist in today’s world, even though that was in 1997. But the true story however is what Barbara Broccoli (James Bond Producer) told me and I didn’t know this until about six months ago.
David Arnold feat. Martin Fry – Thunderball (Shaken & Stirred) (00:30)
She was in a record shop looking for soundtracks and composers to try and choose someone from and there was a guy at the desk who noticed she had a big bag of CDs and asked her what she’s doing. She said ‘Well I’m trying to find a new composer for the Bond movies,’ and he said ‘Oh, you should get that David Arnold to do it.’ So somewhere in the world is a shop assistant who I owe a very large drink to. You know, it probably wasn’t just that otherwise we’d have the most powerful shop assistant in the entertainment industry!
But I think it was a combination of all those things. The record had come out, it had done well, people were talking about it, they liked some of the tracks that I did and they had started to put rough cuts of the instrumental parts of the songs into Tomorrow Never Dies. And so I think with Independence Day doing so well and me getting a Grammy for it, I think the combination of all those things made it okay. Also the fact that when I met up with them all that I’d been a Bond fan all of my life, we were able to have a reasonable discussion about where this could and should go.
David Arnold now carries the torch originally lit by John Barry's early Bond films
After Ian Fleming, composer John Barry is considered one of the most influential characters in the Bond dynasty. I asked David how it felt to take the reins from such a legendary figure as Barry, and if he felt any sense of pressure or great expectation as he stepped into the hot seat.
Well … up to that point, everyone was saying ‘is this the next John Williams?’ because I’d been quite orchestral and elaborate with Stargate and Independence Day. And then as soon as I did Bond it was like, “Oh, it’s the next John Barry.” I think it’s very easy for people to want to hang labels on things. But you’d be foolish to ignore the shadow that John casts over the entire series, he’s a big influence and one of the things that made me want to do film music was John’s work as it’s completely inspirational and completely and utterly unique.
There’s the idea of doing it and then there’s the reality of doing it. And I think if you sit there in the headlights of a Bond movie you’d be unable to move but somehow if you just turn around get on with it you’ll be okay. All of these things can be quite intimidating. Say if you work for a big director and he’s made a film you really love or it’s been a big hit everywhere, then you think ‘Oh my god, I could be the guy that messes this up.’ Also the world has an opinion on James Bond music and they’re not afraid to let you know about it. So it was kind of intimidating and exhilarating at the same time.
David Arnold (Die Another Day) – Hovercraft Chase (00:30)
Luckily I got to speak with John Barry a little before I started doing it – [RO: You had his blessing for it didn’t you?] – yes, I think so, I’m not sure if he has an opinion on it anymore because obviously he’s been doing the project an awfully long time, I think he’d done about 11 and I think he’d done about as much as he’d wanted to do and that’s as much as he wanted to say about it. I think he’s enormously proud of what he did with it, but I’m not sure he was that worried about what happened next, because I think he’s worried about that 11 times already. But it’s nice that I was able to have those conversations with him and I think I’ve been respectful of his work in terms of how much of his influence you let seep into the music of a Bond movie.
For me, the spirit of those movies is John’s music – it’s the one thing that completely changes your perception of it. I do as much as I can for what I think is right for it, to a certain extent I think if you have John’s kind of blue print, then it makes it feel more like a Bond movie than not. It’s not slavishly copying it, but it’s keeping the spirit of it.
Projecting the Bond sound [ please click to open]
The opening frantic car chase of Quantum of Solace is anything but boring
Aware that Bond is a highly formulated movie franchise, I asked David how much creative freedom he received from producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson when composing for the films. Is he given carte blanche or do they critique at every stage of the creative and production process?
I think the thing to keep in mind is everyone is making a Bond movie and there’s almost an unspoken understanding of what that means. Perhaps one of the reasons why you’ve not had a Quentin Tarrantino or Ridley Scott Bond movie is because it might’ve been a Ridley Scott or Quentin Tarrantino movie, before it was a Bond movie. I mean I don’t know that, but I think it has its own signature is so many ways – the production, design, the way it looks, sounds, in the way things happen and certainly in the music there is a kind of dictat that comes from the film itself which of sort of tells you what you should do.
I think everyone when they’re making one of these movies is aware that that’s what’s happening and I don’t think anyone wants to imprint something so violently on it for the sake of it. We have a lot of discussions about what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it, how the approach should be and I play them everything before we go into the studio to record it, so they know what it will sound like. In terms of overall freedom, they do pretty much give me freedom to what I think is right alongside the director, but that’s why I think they’re so good as producers because they hire the right people to do the job and then let them do the job.
They certainly don’t as far as I’m concerned tell me what notes to change. I mean they have an opinion about the music about whether they like it or not, is it working at a particular point or not and that’s fine, it’s part of the collaborative process. But they’re certainly not dictatorial, they’re extremely collaborative, very generous and look after everyone. It’s a pleasure to work with them and for them.
Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in Casino Royale - a true 'Bond Girl' or not?
Knowing there are several key elements that comprise the marketable elements of any Bond film; music, bond girls, gadgets, the feature car, the bad guy – I asked David if he is conscious of how these features interact within the minds of the audience when creating the music.
Well most of the things you mention are in the movie before I get to start, although a lot of the time I start before they’ve even started shooting. I think it’s all part of the recipe, it’s part of what makes up your experience of a Bond movie and perhaps the absence of any one of those things would make you think differently.
No matter how brilliant Eva Green was in Casino Royale, people still refer to her as ‘a Bond girl’ and it really wasn’t that kind of role at all. The typical Bond girl role was largely semi-naked eye candy that turned up in order to be used to his will by James Bond and then killed in the next scene, there are fewer of those now. The ones that we’ve had for the last few years have been reasonably substantial parts rather than just being eye candy. Elektra King in World is Not Enough by Sophie Marceau … a serious and hugely competent actress, not what you would call a Bond girl. So these things, even though they’re always present, do change.
David Arnold (Casino Royale) – Vesper’s Theme(00:32)
The gadget aspect obviously has been played down quite considerably in the last two movies, there hasn’t been anything particularly tricky or funny but that’s because we’re in a slightly different world at the moment. The films are a little more aware of ethological, global, geo-political situations and they always have been. I think in Daniel Craig’s Bond it’s a slightly different world that we exist in at the moment, the Bond universe is probably closer to our own than it has been for a long time.
Having said that, you still get ridiculous things like exploding hotels in the desert, even though it’s realistic, it’s still a hotel exploding in a desert, which probably wouldn’t really happen. So it is constantly changing, the flavour and the recipe, but the constitutional elements of it are nearly always there otherwise it stops becoming a Bond movie.
Creating the music [ please click to open]
David digitally synchronises his scores with footage from the films
I’m always intrigued by how well music in all big budget films is beautifully synchronised to the action on screen. Curious to know how this is done exactly, using the example of the dramatic Aston Martin DBS vs. Alfa Romeos introduction in Quantum of Solace, I asked David to explain to us how exactly he matches his music to the on screen visuals.
It’s actually quite boring in a lot of ways, because the craft of writing for films involves a few technical things which aren’t to do with creativity as much. But you might have a sequence like for example the car chase at the start of Quantum of Solace, which might be three to four minutes long … a different example would be the African foot chase at the start of Casino Royale which when I first got it was 11 minutes long, I mean it was astonishing but it was 11 minutes long. Eventually the one in the movie was seven and a half minutes so that obviously had a lot of editing, bits taken out and rearranged, so there’s an awful lot of change that happens within the editing process.
David Arnold (Casino Royale) – African Rundown (00:26)
I suppose as far as writing music is concerned, we sit down and decide where the music’s going to start, where it goes through to, which parts of the sequence we want to mark, which parts do we want to feel more dread, more anticipation, more excitement. Is this a Bond moment? Do we hear the Bond theme here? Do we want to sell this moment as if everything’s alright but then it’s not going to be alright? Or do we keep the pressure going all the way through?
So we have all these creative discussions to think emotionally what the music should achieve, then in order to do that I’ll load up the scene into the computer and we’ll mark out actual tempo maps – how fast do we go in order to get to here? Then how fast do we go in order to get to there? Knowing that there’s an overall approach that I want to take for the music and rather than try and write that car chase all in one go, I kind of do it a section at a time. So I’ll do it from the start up to the point where the first bad guy gets dispatched, that kind of thing.
I make a synthetic version on the computer first and then I can adjust the tempo, I can adjust the stops and the starts and obviously once they’ve changed that, if they’ve gone back and re-cut it because they want it a little faster at the beginning or a little slower towards the end, you have to go back and redo what you’ve already done. But that’s kind of the technical side, making it fit. It’s more of a craft man side to it and hopefully after you’ve got some material for the film, which is the period where you walk around in a bit of a daze trying to think what the sounds are going to be like and that’s the properly big creative part. The rest of it is physically making it stick to the film.
David adapted the music to reflect the electronics and gadget crazy nature of Die Another Day
Bond films are a rollercoaster of emotions, frequently flicking between high drama and sorrow and remorse. David’s become well known for his techno based songs, so I asked him if he prefers this over some of the more operatic compositions that have recently appeared in Bond films.
I don’t have a preference. I think for most people who are doing this kind of job, I think you try and do what you think is right for the film at the time. I’d never do something explicitly electronic because I feel like it rather than because that’s what the film needs and vice-versa. It just so happened with Pierce Brosnan’s movies that as the films became more elaborate, I mean Die Another Day there were space lasers, melting ice hotels and invisible cars, it felt appropriate to match that with a level of non-traditional orchestral approaches to the music. But once we got back to Casino Royale, there were very little electronic elements because it felt like it needed to be more organic and earthy and less I guess showy in a way, because the movie and specifically Daniel was like that.
David Arnold (Casino Royale) – City of Lovers (00:30)
There was a scene in Die Another Day when Pierce was paragliding from a melting glacier that had been zapped by a space laser controlled by a guy with a remote control on his arm that had his face changed by having a diamond explode in his face, so it’s a reasonably over the top scenario!
Music and cars [ please click to open]
The 2002 return of Aston Martin marked a softening of the car chase scores
Bond is often seen driving around exotic machinery in equally exotic locations. I asked David whether the vehicle or location chosen for the movie has any influence on the tone and style of his score. This is seemingly noticeable in Tomorrow Never Dies with the gadget filled BMW often set to techno music, against the romantic tones with the more organic Aston Martin DBS in Casino Royale.
Yeah, it does and especially in Tomorrow Never Dies. In that he had a BMW and in Germany when he did the backseat driving that he controlled from his mobile phone, you had the BMW voice assistant saying “the warranty will be void if you machine gun the rear window” and that sort of thing! It was very funny, but it was kind of technically driven scenario that he was in and we were also in Germany so it seemed a good point to go down a slightly techno route for it.
David Arnold (Tomorrow Never Dies) – Backseat Driver (00:30)
Then after that we ended up in China and so the approach changed completely to there. Bond’s always gone all around world geographically and I think it’s quite fun to follow it musically as well. In Casino Royale we had all the African percussion instruments in the opening chase, in Quantum of Solace we ended up in Bolivia so we used traditional Bolivian instruments. It just helps to give a flavour of the place that we are at, it sells it, it sells the idea that we’re actually there.
Top Gear often use David's music - Click here to view 'Time to get out' in action
If you watch any show on TV that shows a dramatic chase of some sort, they will often look into the back catalogue of David’s songs to weave in his compositions to accentuate the feeling of drama and suspense. Often hearing his pieces on Top Gear, I asked David how he feels when he hears a composition he made specifically for a film used elsewhere, .e.g. “Time to get out” in the Top Gear Twingo clip, and whether he felt proud or confused at its alternate application.
No it’s lovely! That’s the funny thing about hearing things you’ve done in another context, it makes you look at it in a different way. I know they use quite a lot of it on Top Gear, usually because the sequences they use are quite fierce, action filled moments and there’s probably quite a good possibility that when you’re driving one of those cars on Top Gear, that’s the person you feel like, James Bond.
So it always has that sense of danger and excitement about it and I think if you’re trying to say that about a car, then music is usually the best way to do it because it will make you feel that way and that’s what film music does. It’s designed to make you feel a certain way when you see it in combination with something. It does two jobs really, it’s evocative of the character, which immediately makes everything look better because no matter what you think of the movie there’s a sort of ‘excellence’ I think with Bond and the things are associated with it. You tend to find and think of it as a very high standard. Then there’s also the stylistic element of it, the fact that it immediately makes it quite cool.
Score an advert for Ferrari? Only if they give him a free car to fully understand them says David
Having heard David’s opinion on previously composed music being used elsewhere, I’m keen to hear how he would handle an approach from a car company commissioning for a short commercial. Using the example of Ferrari approaching him, I asked David what ingredients and cues would he look for in order to score the ultimate car advert that would project the core values of the Italian marque.
I think the key thing when anyone asks me to do music for them is find out what they want to feel about it. Most of the time, the last thing you want to do is have a discussion about what instruments to use. I think I get more out of a discussion of how do you want to feel, so in terms of perception, how do you want to feel about the product, how do you want to feel about the person who’s thinking about buying one of these things?
Music is all about emotions, it’s emotive, even the driving stuff which may not be particularly musical or hugely rhythmic, it’s about what does it do to you when you hear it. So if it was ever that kind of scenario with Ferrari you’d need to understand I suppose and have an opinion of the character of the vehicle. You’d sit there and say what sort of character is it? If I was to play a piece of music and say think of a car, what would you think of? And you would hope it would be that which you are writing for.
I might also have to ask them to give me one, you know, just so I could get used to it. Just so I can truly understand it!
Staying creative and innovative [ please click to open]
After 5 Bond films and working up a strong relationship with the characters, he is hungry for more
Having completed five Bond films now plus many other film scores, I put it to David that many people after such prolonged exposure of a particular topic may lose the passion for it, particularly once this becomes something they do for a living. I asked him if this applies to him and if it ever feels like a job or chore.
No, not at all, it never does, but also sometimes I do four or five different things between each Bond film. By the time I do the next one I’ll have done another four or five movies. It’s always nice to come back to and I think everyone’s quite – well, I am – protective of it. I’ve always thought it’s a bit like carrying the Olympic flame around because you know, at some point you’ve got to pass it on to the next person, but your job is to keep the thing alive and moving. And so that’s constantly changing. The challenge is more the expectation, the expectation kind of gets higher every time.
You feel like you know the characters so well, I know the process so well and I do feel oddly sort of personally responsible for a lot of how these things are received and what they’re like. I’ve always said I’ll do it until they don’t want me to do it anymore and no matter what you’ve done in the past, it really doesn’t help when you’re about to do another one, because it’s a different situation. I guess it’s slightly more difficult because it’s the sixth time you’ve done a car chase with James Bond in it and how do you do that differently? So those kind of challenges are always there, but creatively I’ve always loved the series, the people involved … you know, I’m just a fan of it first and foremost, so it always feels slightly odd when I’m working on one as I feel like I’ve won some kind of prize!
David Arnold (Tomorrow Never Dies) – A Tricky Spot for 007 (00:30)
You have incredibly dark days where nothing comes to you at all and you start questioning whether you’re fit or able enough to do it, but you kind of have to go through that process to get to wherever it is you need to arrive. Sometimes things come quickly and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it comes to you when you’re walking around and not thinking about it and sometimes it comes after two to three weeks of hammering a piano for 15 hours a day trying to find it.
Sometimes you’re just sitting there doing nothing then at the end of the day you tap the keyboard and five notes come out that are the solution to all your problems. It happens in so many different ways, but it’s all about letting the whole thing filter in. You’re thinking about it constantly and it’s always percolating and at some point it will come out and you’re hoping that whoever’s asked you to do the film likes what you’ve come up with.
The Future [ please click to open]
Like M, David hopes to return in Bond 23
The 23rd instalment of the Bond series is currently “indefinitely suspended” due to ongoing financial difficulties at production company MGM. I asked David whether once these issues are lifted he will compose his sixth Bond film for Bond 23.
I would never presume anything, but I would be surprised if I wasn’t but prepared not to be just in case it happens! I mean, I don’t know when the next one’s going to be, we were supposed to be doing it next year but obviously we have to wait for the situation with MGM to settle down, so I think it’ll probably be the year after. Certainly we’ve been talking about it with that in mind – that I’d be doing it – and I’m still involved with other things with EON anyway, for example I’m in talks to do some things for the 50th anniversary. I think you’re foolish to assume, so I always remind Michael and Barbara that I don’t expect to be asked every single time, but they know the level of commitment they get out of me if they do.
High or low budget, if the film's good, David's interested
Despite being young for his expansive and successful CV, I asked David if at 48 there is a particular individual or company that he would enjoy working on a project with that he hasn’t had the opportunity to do so yet.
I haven’t really because I always just prefer to work on something that I think is good and that can be good on lots of different levels. I wouldn’t want to work necessarily with a particular director if I didn’t think that particular director was doing a film that I didn’t think was very good. Everyone has a duff movie in them at some point, so I’d rather do it project by project, but if a film interests or excites me, make me want to do it then I will regardless of the budget or director.
It’s really to do with whether I think I can do it, whether I want to do it, if I can do a good job and that can be with a film that’s got no money or a lot, but for me the job stays the same. I end up in a room, in front of a computer trying to think of music for something and if that thing costs £100 or £100,000,000 to put on the screen, the job is basically the same. It’s still, ‘here’s the scene, I need you to do what you need to do.’
Working with those at your career level are David's secret to success to a successful composing career
Knowing some of our readers are into music beyond just listening to it, I asked David if he had any advice for any budding composers/producers. What he said is actually sound career advice for those in any industry.
I guess there are lots and lots of different ways into it, but I do think the likelihood of you being fully qualified in all sorts of ways and then being able to land a film is fairly unrealistic. Certainly a lot of people that I know and work in films, started off because they worked with a director a very, very early stage, perhaps in student movies or some kind of TV thing … the director then gets a job doing a feature film and then wants to take the people with him that he’s worked with before. Those kind of relationships are absolutely essential.
Bjork – Play Dead (Produced by David Arnold and director friend Danny Cannon (00:30)
If you were starting off and you had a degree in composition, or you might not, you might be an electronic musician, whatever it is, I think the real good currency in most kind of relationships is finding those people at the same stage of their career as you are because I think the chances of you landing a gig with someone who has a choice of anyone in the world as a composer is probably fairly remote if they don’t know you. But if you get to do some student movies with someone who might be in four years time have developed into doing feature films, you’re probably much more likely to have them take you with them than they would anyone else.
Honestly, if you’re a film maker and you have the choice of anyone in the world, why would you choose someone you’ve never heard of or worked with before, over someone you have worked with before and know and trust? If you put the shoe on the other foot, it doesn’t really make much sense for a film maker to hand that responsibility over to someone else, so definitely try and build and develop your relationships with those who are the same career point as you.
No Bond on the imminent horizon, but there is plenty still happening in David's world
Obviously retirement is a long way from now, but I asked David if before he retires there is anything he would love to accomplish within the film industry or otherwise?
I do love what I’m doing. Billy Bragg once said to me “it’s good to know you’ll never get to say ‘Thanks very much Wembley, good night!” although frankly I’d still like to hear that! I don’t know, I’d like to do some more live work, but it’s difficult when you have to go out with a hundred people every time, it’s hugely expensive.
I’m conducting at the Albert Hall on Friday May 14th with the Royal Philharmonic which is an evening of film where I’m doing bits and pieces from Bond movies and a couple of other ones as well and I always like that because it just puts you directly back in contact with the music and the audience. You can enjoy it in a different way, so I’d like to do a bit more of that but I still like making records, like how I did a record with Shirley Bassey last year and a show with her as part of the Electric Proms for the BBC.
I’m also doing some work with Care International who are an international charity, doing awareness and fundraising for them. Pretty much everything I do now that’s not to do with film is, how can I help them? I went to Rwanda with them last year and I’m supposed to be going to Chile with them this year looking at projects with women and children and it’s extraordinary the work they do. I did a big concert for them at Brixton last October with some of my friends who turned up and played. So Mark Ronson, Gary Barlow, Kaiser Chiefs, Dara O’Brien, Rob Brydon, David Walliams and a whole bunch of people, so that’s going to be done every alternate year and in those other years we’ll do a film concert for them.
In order to allow you to see what David’s up to in 2010 between Bond films, I close by asking him to summarise where we may see and hear him this year.
I’ve just finished two films, one of which is called ‘Made in Dagenham’ which was actually about the women that went on strike at the Ford car plant in Dagenham in ’69 to get equal pay, so there’s a car related movie for you!
And I’ve just finished another one called Morning Glory which was a comedy with Harrison Ford about a TV news anchor. It was kind of the American equivalent of if Jeremy Paxman was contractually obliged to host ‘This Morning’ with Fern Britton and didn’t want to, it’s that kind of story. It’s very funny, very clever and we’ve just finished that and right now I’m into the next Narnia movie, so no cars or helicopters in Narnia but lots of monsters, creatures and ships.
You can view David’s complete career workings here and follow his humorous tweets @DavidGArnold. If you want to share your thoughts on this interview or discuss your favourite Bond films or songs, tweet us@DriversRepublic or comment beneath.
Finally, it would be remiss of us if we didn’t include the following as our final 30 second sample: