Prison drama Starred Up was one of the most tense and captivating films of last year. Although that was largely due to a fantastic breakthrough performance by Jack O’Connell, the film’s unsettling and atmospheric musical score also played its part.
This soundtrack was a collaborative effort between the film’s director David Mackenzie and Glasgow-based producer and musician Tony Doogan, featuring contributions from actor and multi-instrumentalist Ewen Bremner, Belle & Sebastian keyboardist Chris Geddes and improvisatory expert, Professor Raymond MacDonald.
Now the music from Starred Up has been reworked for an album release in its own right (available for pre-order now), and so we caught up with Mackenzie to hear the story behind the soundtrack.
You can listen to Starred Up Film Music Reworked in full right here, and learn more about the background to the record from David below.
You’re best known as a director, and most directors don’t get involved in the musical side of the film-making process. Why have you chosen to take an active role throughout your career?
David Mackenzie: “Actually it’s not really true that most directors don’t get involved in the musical side of the process – music is so important to the vibe and emotion of a film that pretty much all directors will take an active role in shaping and choosing the music. I love music and have always tried to do something different in my approach to it with each film – some more successfully than others – so it’s an easy choice to get actively involved in the music. It’s a bigger leap to actually be directly involved in making the music for the first time on this film and I learnt a lot from doing so.
“One of the most enjoyable experiences I had was doing the soundtrack to Hallam Foe. I had just come from a film where the US studio behind it sacked the composer and replaced them with someone I never met who made a functional but generic score. So I wasn’t feeling good about the composer experience and decided not to have one at all and instead try to find source music to do all we needed. I approached Laurence Bell of Domino and we made an arrangement to get access to the Domino catalogue and this is what we used. The challenge was to find tracks or bits of tracks that worked for the whole range of emotions within the film.”
Can you describe how each of the main players in the Starred Up soundtrack – yourself, Tony Doogan, Chris Geddes, Ewen Bremner and Professor Raymond MacDonald – worked together? Did you have the film in front of you during the recording?
“Basically it started with me wanting to do a very low key and unmusical soundtrack – just sounds to reinforce the hostile landscape of the film. Then Tony and I started playing with ideas using the film as a backdrop and this is how much of the soundtrack came about. Then we brought in Chris to take it to a bigger dimension on some of the tracks, particularly the track ‘End Piece’, which became ‘Credit’ on the album and the reggae track ‘Double Bubble’ in the film (not released elsewhere because I don’t feel comfortable with my vocals and lyrics on it – fine in the background of the film but not out there on its own).
“After the film was done, I felt we should do something with the soundtrack, but felt the OST (which is available in its own right on iTunes, etc) was a little austere, so I thought we could add to it. So we re-edited and arranged the material, set up some more studio time and Chris, Ewen and Raymond came in to do the reworking of the album title.”
Why did you feel you wanted to rework the Starred Up soundtrack as an album in its own right?
“It was about taking stuff that was targeted at specific moments in the film and allowing it to come alive outside that context in its own right. Film music is mostly straight-jacketed by the time-frames of the film, so we wanted to free it from this.”
How is this album different from the original soundtrack? Did returning to a previously finished work generate more creativity?
“It’s more expanded and allowed to find its own space. There are a lot of additional electronics from Chris and the whole thing is shaped into a kind of journey which is both prettier and darker than the OST. Yes it did generate good creativity and it was great to get fresh perspectives from Chris, Ewen and Raymond – as well as for Tony and I to revisit the material.”
What do you think is the secret of a successful film soundtrack, and what are some of your personal favourites?
“Something that works with the film, making it come alive without dominating it but somehow fusing with it to make a whole. I think all the best soundtracks just feel like they belong with the film and hit the notes the film needs to hit.
“My faves include the raw electro soundtrack to ’80s sex and drug sci-fi Liquid Sky. Alan Price’s in-film singer/narrator soundtrack to Lindsay Anderson’s Oh Lucky Man. Stranger Than Paradise with Bartok playing against repeated blasts of Screaming Jay Hawkins’ ‘I Put A Spell On You’. Diva – stylised French opera noir with music to match. The crazy jukebox of The Big Chill – how many classics can you squeeze into one soundtrack. The Graduate with Simon & Garfunkel, McCabe and Mrs Miller with Leonard Cohen, Pat Garret & Billy The Kid with Bob Dylan. And of course the home made synth soundtracks that run through the John Carpenter films.”
It’s been a couple of years since Starred Up was released – what’s next for you as a film-maker?
“I am just finishing a modern western bank robbery movie with Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine and Ben Foster. It will be out next year and we are immersing ourselves in the outer edges of country music for the soundtrack.”
Starred Up Film Music Reworked will be released on limited-edition deluxe vinyl and as an iTunes download on November 6 via Good Grace, and is available to pre-order now from www.departmentodd.com