Despite being a late starter, composer Michael Neilson has forged ahead in his music career, his most recent achievement being the score for Mark A. Lewis’ Ill Fated. A few days after its Canadian première at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, JWR met Neilson to discuss the state of his art.
How did music move from interest to occupation?
I began as a self-taught guitar player when I was twenty-one and living in Calgary. Then I broke my back snowboarding so decided to focus on something a little less risky. Vancouver was the next stop where I took part in the Capilano College jazz program—I was hooked immediately. Five years later, I was finally accepted into the Vancouver Community College and majored in jazz. Up ‘til then I had very little theory background, but with teachers like David Duke and Alan Matheson I discovered that the theoretical aspects weren’t as difficult as I’d imagined. The more I learned, the more I really got into it. One of the courses was arranging. I’ll never forget hearing the school’s big band play my version of Duke Ellington’s “Cotton Tail.”
Your music for Ill Fated is very rich in colour. What else influenced your style after you finished college?
I spent some time in Japan, playing rock and teaching English and guitar. My wife was born in Osaka so I am naturally interested in many aspects of Asian culture. I thought England would be the best place to get into a rock band, but once there I found it difficult to find gigs, however, soon realized that it was film that I really wanted to do. I bought a keyboard and computer and from my London flat learned the programs. Not before long I was scoring for Adventures in Time and Space, a spin-off of the Dr. Who series. The shows were all pre-recorded so my job was to craft the overall sound design and compose the music—coming up with distinctive sounds for each show’s alien and Doctor. Soon enough, I began meeting independent filmmakers including Ian Diaz and Julian Boote and they encouraged me to listen to a wide variety of movie scores.
With many musicians—particularly composers—there is a single piece that drove them into a music career. Was there such a composition for you?
“Mars” from The Planets [Gustav Holst] is fantastic, especially the power of the orchestration. Hearing that, I hoped to be able to work with actual musicians rather than computer-generated sound. I’d become frustrated with the computer so after completing the tracks for my first film—a slasher flick! [Fallen Angels]—I moved back to Vancouver to study conducting. It was a wonderful experience to dig deep into Brahms’ Second Symphony, Pulcinella [Stravinsky] and learn much more about vocal music. By now I wasn’t playing much jazz anymore.
The hardest thing about conducting is that you can’t practise without an orchestra. Were you able to get some “live” podium time?
Through the Guild of Canadian Film Composers and the efforts of Glen Morley and Christopher Dedrick, each of the conducting students was able to write a short piece then rehearse and record it with some of Vancouver’s finest professional musicians. My piece has a Celtic tone, a bit “Braveheartish,” and the experience was unforgettable. It’s on my DVD (which also includes samples from Ill Fated and Homeworld 2 video game), which is the ideal “résumé” for a composer/conductor—potential employers can see and hear my work.
How did you approach Ill Fated?
When Mark asked me to do the music I was delighted. My brother Rob was the editor so was literally across the hall throughout the process. My only worry was that the musicians’ budget might be cut—not an uncommon experience in the industry—but Mark was as good as his word. So I would just write like crazy. Copland came to mind immediately when I saw the opening shots, then I knew it needed banjo, marimba, stand-up bass, slide guitar—I even rented a mandolin and did some samples using a violin bow on my guitar. There was one main session with six players, the rest I recorded myself after further discussions with Mark. Everything turned out great—can’t wait for the next project! I’m especially interested in combining Eastern and Western components, as I did recently with Vancouver’s Chinese Music Ensemble—there’s no end of possibilities.
Producers take note: music is a vital character in every film, lingering in memory long after the lights go on. JWR