A Q&A with Oscar and Emmy - winning composer Rachel Portman

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  1. What initially drew you to composing music for films, and how did your early experiences at Oxford shape your career trajectory?

    When I was a music student at Oxford I had the fortunate opportunity to write the score for a feature film entirely made by students there. It was a revelation to me to write music for the moving image, as until then, I had been writing only classical music, believing that would be my future path in life. I found putting music to the moving image fascinating and immediately decided to focus my attention on trying to become a film composer when I graduated. I hadn’t grown up in an arts environment so came to film quite uninformed. I watched as many films as I could. I am completely self-taught as a composer of film.  

  2. You collaborated with three-time Emmy nominated composer Jon Ehrlich on WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES. Can you talk a little bit about what this project means to you and how you collaborate with another composer.

    We Were The Lucky Ones is an extraordinary moving story about a Jewish family in the Second World War. Because it’s a true story, taken from the book by Georgia Hunter (grand daughter of Addy, played by Logan Lerman in the show) it felt like a big responsibility to honour what happened to these real life characters and their individual stories within the series. 

    This is the first time I’ve collaborated in depth with another composer, so I approached it with optimistic enthusiasm though mixed with my fingers crossed. However, I could tell early on from conversations with Jon and from listening to his music, that we were on the same wavelength not to mention the fact that we both approach film scoring in a similar way. We both felt the magnitude of the task to honour the material. I wrote the main theme, and then we extrapolated more themes and material from it as well as many other themes, passing ideas back and forth. 

  3. For WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES you composed a beautiful Main Title Theme. Could you talk a little bit about the process of creating a Main Title for Television.

    I took my time writing the Main Title, and it really arose from getting into writing Episode One. It feels like a weight to have to write and distil a musical idea into a one-minute title sequence. It needs to focus attention, and in a way give the series a unique brand. My goal was to capture something compelling, emotional and melodic. 

  4. In the past you’ve mentioned your preference for melodies as the focal point of your compositions. Could you share some insights into how you develop and integrate these melodies within your scores?

    I seem to want to write in melodies and always have. They don’t always come easily and often I spend time playing around with ideas until they settle and feel ‘right’. I like to start writing from the inner scenes of a film rather than at the beginning. This might be a montage for example, something that I’m drawn to, where a musical idea can breathe. Then I work my way outwards. That way the music grows organically and feels connected to the original idea.   

  5. Your compositions often feature clear, string-dominated textures with lyrical woodwind lines. What draws you to this particular style, and how do you adapt it to suit different genres and narratives?

    I think as film composers, we all develop our own individual sound over the years and probably I’m drawn to strings, piano and woodwind lines from my classical music background. The film’s narrative and setting determine the music I write – the orchestration, the colours, whether there are non-live elements as well. It’s fun starting a new project and letting thoughts and ideas flow.  I think we follow our intuition as to what to write for a particular film, and every film will speak differently to each composer.  

  6. Collaboration seems to be a significant part of your career, particularly with directors like Lasse Hallström and Jonathan Demme. How do you navigate collaborating with filmmakers while maintaining your artistic vision?

    I loved working with Jonathan Demme! He encouraged me to experiment on the three film scores I wrote for him and I felt a real freedom to explore musicians and different ways of approaching scoring. I worked on Beloved for more than a year.  He was a wonderful collaborator and held music in such high regard. He loved all kinds of music and was always discovering new music. 

    I try hard to remain true to myself in what I write. However, there are times when I’m asked to rework or write things in a style that isn’t my original intention (comedy is a good example of a genre where directors have very different ideas of what’s funny or ironic scoring which might differ from mine. I prefer to err on the side of subtle comedy scoring). In those circumstances I feel it’s best for the sake of the film to make a small compromise even if it doesn’t feel completely true to myself, but having said that, it’s rare for that to happen. 

  7. If you had the chance to write music for anything in the world, what would you write for and why?

    I would love to write the music for a big female led Western –  sweeping landscapes , great storytelling and room for lots of melodies ….

    Interview by Thomas Mikusz

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