The Interview: Emily Rice / by Charlie Brigden

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It can be hard for a young composer in Hollywood, especially when you're female, but there are opportunities. Proof of that is British composer Emily Rice, whose experience working with composers such as Frank Ilfman and Brian Tyler puts her in the perfect place for when she graduates to bigger feature scores. We talked to Emily about the world of breaking into the film scoring world.
 
Charlie Brigden: Okay, so the beginning is the best place to start - how did you come into music?
 
Emily Rice: My musical life started when I was about 8 years old and we got offered instrumental lessons at primary school. I think the choice was strings only - so violin, viola or cello at that point. I went for the cello... Before that we were always fortunate enough to have a piano in the house (courtesy of my Grandad) and I was an avid recorder player (like a lot of kids!) even before I got into the piano. I also remember being jealous of my younger sister who later on got the chance to learn the saxophone and drums and I was always gutted that her instruments were way cooler than I perceived mine to be! I'm sure that my interest in music initially came from my paternal Grandad and maternal Grandma who were keen listeners of classical music and a church organist respectively, and also from my Dad's record collection (stuff like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Simon and Garfunkel, and Billy Joel which I'd listen to over and over). So there was always a mix early on of classical and popular stuff.
 
CB: So was there one spark that made you want to write music for films?
 
ER: Not early on... though I think that the seeds were being sown without me really realising. So I was growing up watching Star Wars and a lot of Disney films where music is obviously a huge thing. But I was living predominantly in the classical world before other stuff like Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Green Day, the Spice Girls etc started appearing on my radar. It wasn't until I was at University that I started getting into Bjork's music and that I eventually started consciously putting the idea of music and picture together (my dissertation ended up being about Bjork's storytelling process through the combination of her music, lyrics and music videos). Then I later started playing electric cello in bands which led to me eventually writing my own cello parts. Once I realised that I liked writing and telling stories through music, I think that's when the penny dropped. And by the time that happened my musical tastes were pretty wide, which is very helpful when it comes to film music as scores can be a mad jam of so many things! It was an 'all paths lead to Rome' type of situation!
 
CB: How did you get into the film scoring world?
 
ER: Good question! Once I'd figured out that I was interested in film scoring I thought I'd better try and find out more about it, so I started looking up film and TV composers in London and contacting them to see if they'd have coffee with me. I was really trying to find out how you get into that world and what it involved, because at that point I really knew nothing. During this process I came across Frank Ilfman. We ended up adding each other on our social networks, he was supportive of my ambitions and ended up inviting me to a spotting session he was having for the film May I Kill U?. I didn't realise it at the time but I think he was testing me out and soon after that session he asked me if I was interested in becoming his assistant for a while. We ended up working on at least 4 projects together (May I Kill U?, Coward, Cupcakes, and Big Bad Wolves). This was a pivotal learning curve for me and opened my eyes to what I needed to do to have any chance of getting into the industry. Whilst assisting Frank I also had a full-time job working for a music charity. I had a bunch of financial obligations (rent etc) and didn't know how I was going to be able to shift my entire career path so drastically. So that's when I started thinking about going 'back to school'. I unsuccessfully applied to the NFTS in the UK. That kicked me into getting some composition lessons (something I'd never done at this point). Various other things happened in the meantime but about 18 months later I applied to the film scoring program at USC in Los Angeles and got in, to my complete and utter delight! Once I graduated from that program, I'd say that's when my 'career' really started.
 
CB: So how does the USC program work?
 
ER: USC takes 20 film scoring students a year. During the program we'd have 1-2-1 composition lessons, orchestration classes, mock-up/technology focused classes, and numerous live scoring sessions that really helped prepare us for what was to come next in the industry. Other opportunities were also available if you looked for them - like the music school's mentoring program. I applied and got paired with one of LA's most successful music contractors. There are people I've been fortunate to meet in the industry that I would never have met had I not done the program and work opportunities that have also arisen as a result.
 
CB: And after that?
 
ER: I finished up at USC in May 2015 and took a few weeks to find my bearings as I was about to become a freelancer for the first time and was unsure whether I was going to be able to make it work, especially in LA where the competition is fierce. Through some connections I'd made during my time in LA I picked up a couple of jobs, including some short films. One of the short films (Najmia) did really well and I was fortunate to get an award nomination for the score. I then found out about a couple of assisting gigs which brought me my first opportunities to write additional music and orchestrate for other composers, and I also got to work on my first TV show and put my cello into use again (being a cellist has come in very handy as a composers assistant!).  In the middle of all of this I was still doing student films and other short films as it's really important to me to compose for my own projects and build my own relationships with filmmakers. I then took a break back home to the UK over Christmas, and came back to LA at the beginning of this year. The first couple of months were a little difficult (as is the 'feast or famine' nature of this job), and in March I was contacted about a possible opportunity with film composer Brian Tyler. I had a great time helping prep for his film music concert in London, and am looking forward to getting stuck in with a number of films he has coming up. So since March I've been working for Brian and cramming in a few more shorts of my own!
 
CB: So what will you be doing for Brian?
 
ER: Who knows! I've been brought into the team as one of his assistants, and it can be an all-encompassing role. He is so diverse that one minute we'll be preparing for his tour under his electronic artist name 'Madsonik', and the next we'll be starting on film projects like Power Rangers and The Mummy. Really the work can be everything and anything!
 
CB: So for your own scores, who do you take influence from?
 
ER: Oh that's a hard one...whatever the temp is! Just kidding...
One of my favorite current composers working is John Powell because I really love what he does with harmony and also I find him to be really interesting texturally. I think being influenced by other composers can be such an unconscious (or maybe subconscious?) thing that I find it a really hard question to answer! I like to take influence from other composers in terms of the ways that they work...things like being more creative in combining live audio with samples for example, or hunting down new and interesting sounds to incorporate into my scores. And I suppose my ultimate aim in scoring films is to create music that is very much married to that specific film...and I always think of Desplat andThe Grand Budapest Hotel as a great example of that because for me, a large part of that movie's personality is held in the score. I suppose in general too I must take influence from classical music and the orchestra as it's what I grew up playing and listening to.

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CB: How do you view the current scoring landscape, both for women and in general?
 
ER: I think that the scoring landscape is always changing and I'm still learning a lot about it. My experience of the film industry has mostly been from the Los Angeles side of the pond and I deliberately came here because I felt that there would be both more opportunities. In general I feel quite positive about where film scoring is going - more viable options to record are popping up all over Europe (wider choice is a good thing right?) and film music concerts seem to be increasing in popularity every year.
I think that the landscape is definitely starting to change for women too - I know a number of very talented women composers (and orchestrators, music editors, composer assistants and performers!) who are working hard and gradually becoming more visible and helping debunk the myth that 'there are no women composers'. We're definitely out there and I personally think that we just need to get to a point where we're more visible. And increased visibility comes about through having better opportunities - the chances to work on projects that are going to be seen is really important because that filters down to who we see on composer panels giving talks and who gets interviewed at award season time. Those are the composers that get 'seen' and it'd be great if this group became more reflective of our society as a whole! I would love for there to be a 'female equivalent' of Hans Zimmer for example, in terms of visibility and profile. The sad thing is that we might have already missed out on knowing the work of another Mozart, or another Zimmer because that person may have been a woman who was passed over, or perhaps not even considered, when an opportunity came knocking. The Alliance for Women Film Composers is certainly helping on this journey, as are the Alliance of Women Directors - this is something that needs to change in other areas of film (Directors, DP's and such) and not just for us composers.
CB: What score do you think is the best representation of you as a composer?
 
ER: That's a really difficult one because the nature of film scoring is that you are always serving the picture first and foremost, so to an extent part of your 'voice' won't always be able to come out. So I'd say that there are normally one or two cues in each of my scores that I feel particularly proud of, for example, the central cue I wrote for Najmia was fulfilling to write, as was the final scene into the end credits of one of my more recent films Lost Girls. I've also just finished a film called Firefly (which will screen at the LA Film Festival in June) that is very motivic and I feel that represents the way I like to write quite well...building motifs into themes and whatnot. If I had to pick my favorite piece of music I've ever written... it'd be a toss up between the scene from Maleficent that I re-scored and the string quintet pieces I wrote prior to moving to the States - I guess the string quintets are the 'truest' representation as they weren't written for film!
 
CB: What was it like when you first saw a movie shown in public with your music?
 
ER: Oh man it was terrifying! Because sometimes you don't see the completely finished thing before you turn up to a screening and you don't know if the music has been edited or moved around since you last touched it. Also there can be small differences in how the sound comes across through different speakers/sound systems, and it can depend how it's been mixed in at the dub (which a composer won't always go to) so you never *quite* know what you'll be in for. Having said that, it is also extremely satisfying when the music does come off well and the audience enjoys the film overall.

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You can listen to some of Emily's work here.