Wednesday, 1 April 2009

One Hell of a Bite...

Debbie Wiseman's Lesbian Vampire Killers

It was on a relatively grey October morning that I ventured across the country to London; a familiar journey culminating in my arrival at the sanctuary that is Air Studios. Every time I come to Air I’m struck by the friendly atmosphere as people bustle about, many of whom visiting just like me. The cosy, and busy, refectory usually offers a glimpse of someone well known in the music world – last time it was Bryn Terfel, enjoying a bowl of soup. This time Nick Cave, looking somewhat Vampiric - which was apt as just across the way the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were battling a pack of Vampires, Lesbian Vampires to be exact. As I found my way to the booth, through a cable-covered corridor, a familiar orchestral flurry met my ears – the music of Debbie Wiseman. Later on, back in the refectory, the whys and wherefores of Lesbian Vampire Killers is being explained to a somewhat confused Nick Cave during lunch – ‘so is it the Vampires that are Lesbians, or the Vampire Killers?!’

To set the record straight – so to speak – it is the Vampires who are Lesbians; the killers are none other than James Corden and Matthew Horne, a pair of comedy actors who have unwittingly made it into the public conscience here in the UK through a series of roles and shows – some rather better received than others. Lesbian Vampire Killers though, finds the duo on fine form as Jimmy and Fletch, two friends who decide to get away from it all and go hiking in rural Norfolk, only to find themselves prey for a pack of Lesbian Vampires bent on resurrecting their long-dead Queen.

Back to the scoring session and it’s a tough schedule, but Debbie Wiseman is in fine spirits as usual. Two orchestra sessions fill the daylight hours, while the evening session sees the lovely ladies of the Crouch End Festival Chorus offer their voices, supported by classical superstar Hayley Westenra.

As usual I’m blown away by just how much music can be delivered in such a short space of time – indeed the entire film was scored in one day – and it’s all marvellous stuff. This is not a small score, but a wildly lustrous affair with unrelenting set pieces, fluttering romance and just a dose of comedy. Shortly after I take my seat behind Debbie’s regular engineer Steve Price, she takes the orchestra through a barnstorming cue which supports a hilarious scene involving an axe. As soon as the orchestra lifts off, it’s obvious the director is loving every minute of it and we exchange amused and excited smiles as Matthew Horne burys the axe into the head of his recently bitten ex-girlfriend all to the tune of Offenbach’s rambunctious ‘Can-Can’ (“It’s gonna be called ‘My aXe Girlfriend’ if there’s an album” he tells me, grinning from ear to ear). Later I’m introduced to the enthusiastic director and I’m pleased to find out he’s a big soundtrack fan – and possibly the only other person to have purchased Jaws 3D when it was finally released on CD last year. ‘I bought two!!!’ he reveals.

Of course there has been an album and ‘My aXe Girlfriend’ is not only present and correct, but one of the highlights as well. Having been at the scoring session, heard the album many times and seen the film, I am well and truly adversed in the ways of the Lesbian Vampire – and so it was with a head full of music, snappy one-liners and images of all kinds of gore (not to mention silliness) that I chatted on the telephone to Debbie Wiseman to discuss the most controversial title in her CV yet.

Unusual title… you’d agree the most unusual in your filmography so far?

I think it’s fair to say. Yes it definitely is the most unusual; it’s certainly causing the most controversy and whenever I tell anybody I’m doing it they look shocked. Especially with Hayley Westenra fans, I think they’re all a bit shocked as well; but the thing is that, as I say to people, the film is a lot of fun, it’s not offensive in any way and it’s just fun and the title itself causes controversy and makes people laugh and I think that’s a good thing.

How did you become involved with the project then?

Well about two and a half years ago, believe it or not, I met with Phil Claydon the director and he had heard some of the music I had written for Arsene Lupin and we met in a pub and started chatting about the music. Phil, as you know, is a massive soundtrack fan and he’s been collecting soundtracks probably even as early as you have I would have thought - he started when he was about six or something. He got into soundtracks really young, started to collect them and really has a massive knowledge of every type of soundtrack, from the early stuff – he loves Bernard Herrmann, things like that – all the way up to modern contemporary stuff. So he was so enthusiastic about the music, the score and what it could be and how much fun it could be. It was brilliant because often directors like the music process because it adds such a massive boost to their film, but to have somebody that not only likes the process but absolutely loves it was just fantastic. He’d come over and we’d start work and he said ‘Oh I’ve been waiting to do this for ages!!’ It was just great to have that enthusiasm and to have that support for the whole thing was fabulous.

You say in the album notes that he actually had quite a lot to do with how the score turned out; what sort of things was he giving you in that sense?

Well there were temp track ideas, but also before we even started actually – before he started shooting even – Phil made up CDs for me of all the stuff that he loved and stuff that he thought might work. A lot of that was just for listening and just for fun, and not necessarily to inform the score, but it was just great because he had so much in his head because he’d been looking forward to it so much and been really enthusing about getting started, so he had quite a lot in his head as he was writing it and developing the script. So there was a lot there to listen to, which I did, and then when we started actually working on it, it was kind of starting again really because it takes on its own life and although there were some temp track ideas, most of the time they were just there as a rough guide for editing. So we just sort of started again and that’s the fun bit because, though he’s had a great knowledge about soundtracks and had this background of loving film music, it didn’t make it ‘it’s gotta be like this soundtrack that I love…’ which a lesser director would have fallen into that trap.

So from all that you’ve ended up with this quite massive score; it’s gothic, romantic and funny… It’s actually scored quite seriously on the whole.

Well I think in a way it’s funnier if you do that; the irony of it plays well against the craziness of the situation. I don’t think comedy music ever really works terribly well in a film; I think by trying to be funny with the music often you can kill the joke, because you’re telling the audience and nudging them to laugh, and if they’re not gonna laugh without music, it’s probably unlikely they’re gonna laugh with music. The gags have to work on their own really and so the music plays seriously against it and a lot of the time obviously it’s a crazy scenario, but they’re in terrible danger, the boys, they’re about to be eaten by lesbian vampires and that’s a not a nice thing to happen (laughs). So to play it seriously was absolutely the right thing to do, because they’re in terrible danger, even though James Corden keeps going on about ‘I know something really wrong is happening here, but can we just ignore it?!’ (laughs) So of course it’s silly and of course it’s a crazy story, but I think it’s done with such love and the way it’s delivered – the two boys are so funny it, they’re very endearing characters – hopefully people will go along and grab a big bag of popcorn and enjoy it; it’s that sort of movie.

Typically your music is very thematic; what sorts of things have you come up with this time?

Well I guess the main one is the Lesbian Vampire theme itself because that sort of threads through, so you hear that in the opening prologue. In fact that was the very first thing I wrote; I was coming up with the idea of having something that was quite gothic and quite epic, but that also could be very beautiful and small at the start, so you’re teasing it a little bit at the beginning of the film. I played it to Phil and that theme stayed virtually exactly the same as it did from day one, I hardly changed a note, because it just sat really well and a lot of other things grew out of that quite naturally so it was quite good that it was nailed quite quickly. A lot of the other stuff, certainly the horror stuff was harder to nail and I tried out a couple of different ideas on Phil. I think the themes for that were harder because we weren’t sure whether to go all out horror or whether just to keep it slightly more magical and dark. There’s a very fine line between slightly overdoing it and slightly not, and that was quite hard to get right. The comedy stuff was more straightforward, there are a few comedy scenes and lighter touches which were easier to get right, then the real sort of action/adventure stuff, stuff where they’re bashing down doors – or not able to bash them down – and the running and big chases in reels four and five, those also were quite hard to nail and I did two or three versions of lots of those cues before we ended with what we’ve got in the film now.

Does that become more motivic than thematic then, that sort of scoring?

Yeah and it was getting the kind of big, chunky sound that Phil was after – very rhythmic and quite driving – without it sounding… It’s quite difficult to explain actually. A bit like the film itself, it’s very full on and it delivers the gags and then it moves on; it’s very quick and fast paced. He directed it and always wanted it to feel a bit like an animation; you know the way in an animated film the characters come to life so directly and then it’s over and done with and they’re off doing something else, and that’s what he wanted with this. He wanted the music to do that as well, so it literally leaps from one thing to another without bothering to make a nice neat join; one moment you’re in action/adventure land, the next you’re in magical land, the next moment you’re doing all out horror, the next minute it’s comedy… He just wanted that to happen and not to apologise for it, so it was getting into that vein of writing – which is very different to anything else I’ve done, and it was getting that atmosphere right…

Is that slightly more ‘Hollywood’ in that sense then, to be creating such a relentless, almost wall-to-wall sound… It did strike me as such when I reviewed the album, whatever ‘more Hollywood’ actually means (laughs)

I think so, possibly… I was interested that you said that. I guessed what you meant was that, yes, the directness of it, the directness of the approach…

Relentless, colourful, but not too repetitive and turning on its heel as you say…

That was the intention, to try and keep it lively and to give it that sense of excitement where it needed it, keep the drama moving on. I mean that very last sequence where he picks up the sword and he throws it, you know he’s a Hollywood hero at that moment and so the surging brass there and all that sort of stuff was to really play that up. Here he is, Matt Horne kind of looking like a Hollywood film star, saving the day!

Helped along by you…

Yes (laughs)

You mentioned the brass, which is fantastic, and it’s of course courtesy of the RPO, along with Hayley Westenra and the Crouch End Chorus… It’s becoming a regular cast.

Yeah… It’s not kind of intended. I do like the sound of the RPO brass and they do make a really great sound, they play beautifully together and create big sounds with seemingly very little effort – though I know a lot of effort goes into it. Having Hayley on board was really because Phil always wanted a choir and when I met him for the first time two and a half years ago one of the first things he said was ‘I really want it to sound epic and I’d love to use a female choir…’ – so he already had that in his head. But the solo voice came kind of later on, because once I’d written some of the choral cues it seemed there were obvious moments where a solo voice could be used as well. That’s when I suggested Hayley, because I just love her voice ‘cause it’s so pure and I can use it like another instrument; unlike say if I used a modern opera singer who might use a lot of vibrato, or make more of the notes than you necessarily want in something like this. She sings what I write very purely and it comes across sounding hopefully just like another instrument, but beautiful…

She has an ageless voice I think…

Yes that’s true, that’s a very good point, you don’t really know. I played a CD of hers to Phil when we were talking about using a soloist and he just loved it. Luckily she was free and was able to do it, because she has a crazy schedule and we were really fortunate that she was able to do it.

Returning to specific moments in the score, one of the standouts is ‘My aXe Girlfriend’… What was the idea behind that, using the ‘Can-Can’?

Well that actually was one of the hardest ones, that scene with the axe and poor Judy turning into a vampire… We must have written it four, five or six different times, I mean I wrote all kinds of different things; I wrote a crazy waltz that went round and round and round, I did something very very fast like an animated/cartoon sequence. So we tried loads and loads of different things and I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know how it ended up on the temp track, but the full Offenbach ‘Can-Can’ was originally tried as a temp track along with five or six other things and it was kind of felt that it was so crazy and so silly that it really really worked. So one day Phil said ‘why don’t we just think about using a bit of the ‘Can-Can’ and see if that works…’ So what I did was start the cue – it’s not the ‘Can-Can’ at the start – and then when he grabs the axe and goes across the room with her it’s there and at that moment it’s absolutely 100% the ‘Can-Can’. You only probably hear about twenty seconds of it; it just comes out of nowhere and hopefully will make people smile… It was really tough to do that sequence, but in the end everybody just loved it.

So you’re appearing at Filmharmonic once again this year, will the Lesbian Vampire Killers be making an appearance too?

Yeah definitely, I’ll be doing a suite from LVK – I’ve already written it actually, or put it together more or less – not with Hayley unfortunately as she’s out of the country, but it will be just an orchestral suite of all the main themes. I’m also doing a new version of Tom & Viv, which is quite interesting because Tom & Viv was my first film score and this is the most recent, so I thought I’d put them together. So that’s what’s happening! It should be a good night…

You were working on a ballet… Is that still premiering in July?

Unfortunately the ballet got a little bit delayed. There’s a slight problem with one of the financers; it was a bank that went under because of the credit crunch stuff. So it’s just been slightly delayed; but it’s not a terrible thing and will only probably be delayed by a month. I am work-shopping Feather Boy (the musical with Don Black) with the National in July; it’s been re-written and re-shaped as a new full-length musical. We’ve just cast it with old people and young people now, so we have this more binary attitude to it; I’m really looking forward to that and hopefully we’ll take that on after the workshops.

So one last point on Lesbian Vampire Killers… Is there a favourite moment for you in your music?

That’s a really hard question ‘cause I’m so close to it now… I think for me it’s in the last reel, so on the CD that would be the one that’s actually called ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’. That track I really enjoyed, because it took quite a long time to get it to feel as good as it could feel and just writing that and sustaining that kind of momentum – for seven, eight minutes – right to the end as he throws the sword and saves the day. That whole sequence and the build to that was quite a challenge, so that was good fun and I guess for me that whole sequence was the standout bit.

When you sit down and watch the film, or any film you’ve scored, are you really tuned into the music and the memories of working on it?

Yes it is strange… Now I am anyway. In two years time I’ll be able to watch it much more dispassionately and will be able to sit back and just watch it as a film, because the intensity of what you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked on it, it’s just that bit further away and so you can become just a bit more objective about it. Also you’re there at every stage – I went to the dub on this, I saw the final mix and so I have seen it many many times. I love seeing it when it’s finished, because that’s your treat at the end you know, it’s there and it’s done and it’s finished and hopefully everybody is happy with it. That’s great and that’s why you do it, but I will be able to – in a couple of years time – as I do with stuff that I did when I was first starting out, not listen as such, but I can certainly watch a film that I’ve done two or three years ago and not really think about the music. I’ll have the memories of it, but it will be much less in the front of my mind and I can sit and have a nice time just watching the film.

Lesbian Vampire Killers is in cinemas in the UK now, with the album available from Silva Screen Records (
My thanks to Debbie Wiseman, Phil Claydon and everyone at Air Studios.

1 comment:

  1. Shame they didn't spend the time and effort they did on the score on the script (which has been underversally ridiculed!) ... and Exec Producer Vic Bateman had my script for Carmilla in his hands in 2002. Shame he only stole the idea, not the script!