On May 30, I spoke with Sydney-based musician Elliott Wheeler, one of the collaborators who worked on the soundtrack for Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby.
Mr. Wheeler is the founder of Turning Studios. A classically trained musician, he studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Sydney University. Over the years, he has worked as a composer and producer on several films, documentaries, commercials, and theater compositions.
2013 has been quite the year for Wheeler; in addition to the release of the Gatsby soundtrack, he also has the following two projects lined up: soundtrack work for George Miller’s next “Mad Max” film, Fury Road and Rob Conolly’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s The Turning. If that weren’t enough, this past May heralded the release of his first solo studio project, The Long Time.
The following is an abridged version* of our conversation, containing some of the “best bits.”
First, I wanted to talk about your work on The Great Gatsby; I’m curious to find out a little bit more about your specific involvement in the project.
I was approached by Baz (Lurhmann) and Anton Monsted, the music supervisor and co-producer on the film, back in June last year. The job was two-fold – first was to start doing the work that the music editors couldn’t do with the music that was coming in. Being able to do transitions between a certain style of track or getting one of the pieces of music to fit in a particular way that was beyond this normal music editing. The second role was just to help Baz be able to explore some of the concepts of what some of those tracks might sound like in different styles. So, what would it be like if we were to ‘jazzify’ one of the Jay-Z tracks or Lana Del Rey tracks; what would that sound like? And that’s sort of what my role really evolved into – I was really allowing Baz to explore what all these songs would sound like in different incarnations and in 20’s style, as well as going over (to London) and working with Bryan Ferry and his jazz orchestra, or some of Craig Armstrong’s original themes. Craig Armstrong was the headline composer on the score and so we recorded a few things as well in that 1920s style. There were so many people who were involved with the soundtrack, but Craig Armstrong’s original score is absolutely incredible and he recorded that over in London. Craig’s score is integrated perfectly into the film and his scenes for the different characters are so strong and they’ve given such a great particular, which is what an original score should always do. But then you’ve got all the work that Baz, and Jay-Z, and Anton who was bringing the artists in and collaborating. My role is very much to help Baz be able to make all of those different artists weave together and become part of the fabric of the film rather than something that’s “just voices.”
Of all of the tracks that you worked with on the Gatsby soundtrack, which one was the one that gave you the most satisfaction and why?
It is a tough question – of course there were so many different styles. I might name three.
The Florence and the Machine track, which I arranged the strings and we recorded over at my studio. That was a really, really exciting track to be a part of because it was a section in the film that we had been trying lots and lots of different ideas on and then Florence came and got involved and just instantly hearing her voice over the particular scene that it’s used for suddenly brought the entire thing to life. It was one of those beautiful moments when you’re doing screen composition where – it’s just one of the parts that absolutely locks in … and it was just incredibly exciting.
The second one is the Lana Del Rey track (Young and Beautiful). It was a track that we just were living and breathing throughout the process and had to go through so many iterations. Craig had a beautiful version of it and we did a number of different versions. We did a fantastic foxtrot that we got to record with Lana and the track appears in one scene that was really fun to able to get that style. Then having Lana sing back over the arrangement was a real thrill. She’s got amazing vocals and you expect her voice to be absolutely beautiful, because you know what it sound is, but hearing her sing it in a different idiom was really exciting.
And the third one, I’m just going to say that working with the Jay-Z material, which was a number of different tracks that we worked on with Jay, but that was an absolute thrill because his material just sounds so incredible already when it turns up and the production on it is so fantastic. But the level of complexity in his actual production is so superb that when you’re having to put material over the top it’s a conundrum [because] it already sounds so good that you don’t want to put stuff in there that doesn’t need to be in there. But at the same time, anything you add on top just fits so well with the track, because with hip-hop, you’re used to hearing those samples that fit very easily within the language. It was just a thrill to do.
Moving on to other film projects you’re working on. Let’s start with The Turning.
The Turning is a wonderful book by Australian author Tim Winton and it’s a collection of 18 short stories that the producer Rob Connolly has tried to turn into a film. So, what he’s actually done is got different people to direct each one of those stories in whatever way they want and given the directors some amazing freedom. It’ll be really exciting to see the final result. Cate Blanchett is directing one; David Wenham, Mia Wasikowska, and 15 others. My role on this film was literally just doing the opening sequence with a wonderful friend of mine. A director called Marieka Walsh, who actually did the film clip for my “Baker Man” single. Marieka has done stunning animation; she is amazing. She’s literally drawing every single frame and taking a photo and then moving it on old school animation and the results just look incredible. So, she’s done a really beautiful opening for the entire film and I was scoring her opening.
Let’s talk a little bit about further detail about Fury Road and your role in that film. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), it’s scheduled for a 2014 release.
My role on Fury Road has been at this stage to work with George (Miller, the director) and Maggie (Sixel), the editor, to really just throw up the initial pallet of music. So, it’s a score composition, but also doing a lot of music editing. Actually in the initial process, it’s mainly music editing and trying different things up against different scenes. Just looking at what sort of music pallet is going to work with the film and then from there. If George wants a certain thing to happen and you just can’t find a way to do that with the additional interesting score then we begin to start writing and coming up with some original score to get through the film. It’s a wonderful film and George is extremely open in the score take. So, it’s been really exciting. The material that he’s provided has been interesting and he’s been very open to a lot of material that we’ve been working on.
We rounded out the conversation talking about his solo project, seven years in the making, The Long Time, an eclectic mix of jazz, neo folk and indie rock; here’s a sample, followed by what he said about working on the album.
It was so fun but also extremely challenging, because with film work, I’m used to collaborating with people and I love having those outside influence that come in and put pressure on the different parts of your creative process; that sort of pressure brings out different responses. I think every musician is curious to hear what they can do when they put a body of work together like that, but what was also fantastic is I would bring all the skills and the people that I’ve met on something that was just purely music based. A lot of those same players and all the singers that appear on the album are people I’ve been working with in my screen work. So, it was great. It was a very different process, but there are so many boundaries that you have with film work that I find extremely freeing. You’ve got a set perimeter and you get to explore your creativity within those set perimeters. [With film work] if you have a particular story to tell, a deadline to meet, or a particular ensemble that you’ve got to work with – I think sometimes limiting the number of choices that you have to make can be extremely fruitful in terms of your actual credit output. With an album you have a blank space of time and contributors and material and where you want to move it. It took me a long time to work out exactly what flavor and what format I wanted the album to be, but it was a wonderful process to do.
The Great Gatsby soundtrack and The Long Time are currently available for purchase. Mad Max: Fury Road is in post-production and tentatively scheduled for release in 2014. The Turning is currently in post-production scheduled for release in August as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.