Batman Live Interview
1st July, 2011
With a new stage adaptation of Batman opening in July, James Brett tells Nick Smurthwaite about writing music for the Dark Knight and his enemies, and performing the duties of musical director.
Just watching James Brett putting the brass section through its paces at Abbey Road Studios is exhausting. Juggling the roles of composer and musical director of Batman Live, Brett darts frantically between the recording studio and the control booth, sustained by an abundant passion for what he does and the encroaching deadline he knows he must meet.
Brett’s score for Batman Live, which opens at the MEN Arena, Manchester, on July 19 before embarking on a four-month UK tour, is 86 minutes of orchestral music, roughly the same length as a feature film, but much more full-on. At its most urgent and dramatic, it sounds like something Prokofiev or Shostakovich might have produced.
The son of a session musician, Brett’s hero as a boy was John Williams, whose anthemic scores for Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Superman and Jurassic Park set the bar for film composition. “I was drawn to the melodic and harmonic colours of his music,” Brett says. “His ability to conjure memorable, catchy themes while retaining an intense sophistication in his scores was remarkable. I go back to them again and again.”
On graduating from the Royal College of Music in 1997, he was lucky enough to be taken on as an assistant by the late Michael Kamen, the prolific film and TV composer best remembered for X-Men, Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, and Die Hard. Brett worked alongside Kamen on several big projects, including the acclaimed TV series Band of Brothers.
“Michael was a charismatic New Yorker, brash at times and straight to the point,” says Brett in a snatched break from recording. “He’d tell stories and mess around, never taking it too seriously. There was a degree of chaos about him. It was an important learning curve for an English grammar schoolboy who’d been taught in fairly conventional and disciplined ways.
“When he died it was a huge loss to me. Without Michael, I might not have got a foothold on the top level of the music business, certainly not as quickly.”
Now Brett divides his time between movie work – Planet 51, Outpost, Lay The Favourite and 2012 – and scoring these big arena shows, most notably the hugely successful 2007 production, Walking With Dinosaurs, based on the TV series of the same name. Extracts from his dinosaurs score were heard in a BBC Prom marking Darwin’s centenary in 2009. It was a particular thrill for Brett because he found himself on the same bill as his childhood hero Williams, whose music from Jurassic Park was also featured.
The score for Batman Live, which shares an executive producer with Walking With Dinosaurs, has taken him six months, from a blank score sheet to nearly an hour and a half of exhilarating sound weaved in and around Allan Heinberg’s DC Comics-style narrative.
This £12 million spectacular is a drama with music, rather than a musical – nobody bursts into song. No doubt the producers are keen to distance themselves from that other comic book reinvention, Spider-Man.
At the launch event in April, director Anthony Van Laast said, “What it is really is rock and roll”, pointing out that nearly everyone in the production team has a background in rock concerts. “We always knew we could fill an arena,” he added, “all we needed was a really good yarn, and we’ve got that.”
The show combines acrobatics, stunt work, outlandish costumes and spectacular special effects, as well as a specially-commissioned Batmobile from former Formula 1 designer Gordon Murray.
Each of the main characters – Batman, Robin, Catwoman and The Joker – will have their own theme music, specially composed by Brett.
Was he influenced by previous Batman scores?
“I listened to all the Batman scores that are available in order, so that I could bring a fresh voice to it,” he says. “Obviously there are certain things you need to do to make it Batman-esque – big, bold, brassy stuff. It bears no resemblance to any West End musical you’ve ever seen. It is much more symphonic. I’m filling big arenas with sound, courtesy of a 90-piece orchestra.”
Where do you start with such a complex and protracted musical tapestry?
“I’ve got a fabulous computer programme that breaks it all up into smaller segments,” explains Brett. “It even tells me how many minutes of music I should be writing each day.
“I worked predominantly from the script, aided by stills from the comic books and some video content. I had a lot of discussion beforehand with Anthony about how the show was going to be done. He wanted something that sounded grand and gothic – big orchestra, choir, big-band, the full works. But he has been great about giving me a free rein stylistically.”
Many film and theatre composers find writing the music stressful enough, but Brett piles on the pressure by doubling up as MD. “I know many composers hire a conductor to do all that, but I just love going out there on the podium. You can mould it and shape it, and I love working with musicians. It does make things very intense, doing both jobs, but it is the biggest buzz for me.”
As with his music for Walking With Dinosaurs, Brett hopes to produce what he calls a performance suite from his Batman score that can be played as a stand-alone orchestral piece.
A devoted family man, he is keen to encourage young people to participate in music and, to this end, he has produced a children’s work, The Book of Dreams, in collaboration with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and a 60-strong children’s choir. The aim is to challenge schools to broaden their musical horizons and experience the thrill of participating in collaborative musical events.Composer, Interview, Music