Interview with Patrick Doyle
If there’s one picture that Patrick Doyle was fated to be the composer of, then it’s no contest that movie is “Brave,” Pixar’s animated salute to all things Scottish in the form of a feisty lass named Merida. Like all modern, high-born Disney heroines, this red hair rebels against the chauvinist-conformist path set by her well-meaning royal parents, with her archery skills representing the sharply pointed spirit of her determination. Not only does Merida’s shooting skill outrage her highland clansmen and intended suitors, but her unbreakable will also ends up incurring a witch’s ursine curse- the rampaging results of which provide the slings and arrows for Doyle’s adventurously rousing, and emotional approach that’s the ultimate salute to his homeland.
“Brave” isn’t Doyle’s first time aiming at a cartoon bull’s eye, having done yeoman musical work on 1998’s “Quest for Camelot” and 2008’s “Igor.” But there’s a far bigger likelihood that “Brave” will find its mark in the box office red where a two-headed dragon and a mad scientist’s assistant didn’t. As such, “Brave” represents the continued, on-target re-invention of Doyle for the 22nd century, a process that the genre has certainly abetted with “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and last summer’s one-two hit combo of “Thor” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” two scores which saw Doyle transform his old-school orchestral approach with today’s favored blend of symphony and rhythmic percussion. While just as fresh, and forward-looking in its sound, “Brave” represents a sort of return to form for Doyle, its action music hearkening to such enjoyably bombastic scores as “Frankenstein” and “Dead Again.”
But make no mistake that “Brave” is more importantly all things that are Scottish, using a ripping orchestra as a base to bringing on the Highland bagpipes, jigs, flutes and violins for a clannish spirit that Braveheart himself would approve of- as passionately wrapped into Disney’s newfound, determinedly feminist spirit. And while there’s joyful energy to spare in Doyle’s always-robust approach, “Brave” is also very much forged in the tender, sometimes humorous approach of the Mouse House’s enchanted kingdom, full of songs, danger, Celtic mysticism and the kind lyrically melodic heart that will always bring a seemingly wayward daughter back into parental arms’ embrace by the soaring end. It’s a score that’s a much about Doyle’s proud, ancient ethnic identity as it is about a Disney tale as old as time, given a newfangled shot of CGI toon energy the Pixar way that’s now made this composer the likeliest Scottish fellow to win “Brave”’s hand.
How did you come on board “Brave?” It would seem like a natural for you.
I was in Scotland when Pixar first approached me to go up and meet everyone. The following week after I did, they officially asked me if I would like to do the score. I think it was important for Pixar to have a Scott writing the music for a quintessential Scottish piece, so it seemed very natural for me to do it. It was also certainly a thrill for me because I adore animation. And this was Pixar. I’ve also worked with some of the voice actors in “Brave,” including Billy Connolly, Kelly Macdonald, Craig Ferguson, and Robbie Coltrane, who’s a very close friend of mine. And of course there’s Emma Thompson, who I’ve known since 1983. So it was nice to be part of this ensemble.
You also appear in “Brave.”
Yes. Pixar asked if me I’d play a small part, which ended up being a castle gate keeper, which gave me a couple of lines. It was funny and wonderful when they asked me to sign the wall where all the actors who’ve ever performed in the Pixar films had left their signature. It was lovely to be on that wall of fame.
How early were you brought into the filmmaking process of “Brave?”
Three years ago. I made many, many trips to Pixar to watch the animators at work. They showed me lots of various parts of the process. including how the bears were going to be. They also explained the process where they actually gave the characters layers and layers of clothing, as opposed to giving them one garment, as one does in normal animation. That gives the characters movement and fluidity, with a depth of perspective that’s new for animated films. Pixar is enthusiastic about each part of the process in that way. As the storyboarding process developed, I would send some basic ideas, including a lullaby. Each step, and each change was a very organic process. They are incredibly enthusiastic people and generous and a sponsor your ideas. So you’re given an immense amount of freedom within what is in fact a rigid, but very flexible structure. It’s just a very un-hysterical process.
How “Scottish” did you want to make the score?
Clearly, “Brave” is very, very Scottish. The animators made a lot of field trips over there to capture the land’s colors, skies and seasons. Very often in the summer you’ll have a wet morning. Then the sun comes out after lunch, and the rest of the day will have the most beautiful white clouds, and lovely sunshine. So when I saw those wonderful images of the skies, mountains and lochs, it just kindled all of the Celtic connections in my upbringing. I’m very fascinated by my own culture in terms of its art and music. I’ve also been strongly attuned to the music of Ireland, as half of my family is Irish. So there’s always been cross-fertilization between those two countries for me. I also wrote the score to evoke Scotland’s ancient culture, a Celtic quality that comes across with indigenous instruments like bagpipes and the flute. I also used instruments from other cultures just to sweeten the sound on occasion and give the score a contemporary feel. Jim Sullivan came in and provided some incredible homemade drums, as well as deep drums with big pieces of deer hide, which he’d whack with a wooden mallet to make these incredible sounds. We even used a washboard. But the score also has very delicate and intimate moments, along with the big dance pieces and montage sequences that make particular use of the bagpipes.
How do you want to approach the orchestra in the context of the Scottish music?
I was always keen on having “Brave” sound as contemporary as it did ancient. So the orchestra is big, but only when it needs to be, so as to not overpower these wonderful images and characters. To accomplish that, we used various small groups that we recorded with close microphones, and larger groups with other mics, all of which could give us the sense of a small, chamber sound.
What did you want the music to say about the heroine Merida?
She’s very much a strong person, as opposed to a strong “woman.” Merida just happens to be a princess, as opposed to a prince. And she has to go through the process of learning and discovery when things don’t go according to her parents’ plans. Because she’s such a strong protagonist, her music in no way sounds “cute” for her. It shows her strength of character, one that also evokes her culture’s ancient, mythological quality. Merida’s music is like an arrow that flies through the air.
You also create some really interesting sounds that revolve around “Brave’’s magical qualities.
I was very keen on these magical moments not only came from the world of the colors I had, but also from my personal point of view that gives you a sense of the tradition of Pixar magic, and Disney magic. As a kid, I remembered clearly the magic of film and animation, but that magic always involved the story. It can be a dark, grim magic that’s mixed with wonder, which is a beautiful concoction.
“Brave” is very much about family. In that respect, your son Patrick Neil Doyle wrote the Gaelic lyrics for “Noble Maiden Fair” (“A Mhaighdean Bhan Uasal”) that Emma Thompson performs in the film.
It was just wonderful to work with my son, and have the opportunity for him to write some lyrics. Patrick’s also a very gifted composer. I suppose in a sense that the actual story itself is about the relationship between Queen Elinor and this very feisty young child. It’s this mother-daughter thing where they’re both very strong and set in their ways, with the older person set in her ways for reasons of experience. The young person, realizes that not everything works out a according to plan, and that she’ll have certain responsibilities. It’s a rite of teenage conflict, and passage that is completely normal in every family on the planet. It’s a constant affirmation to try and follow your own path, a conflict that can be both frustrating and rewarding. There’s always a kind of joy at the end of it when an actual learning process takes place.
There are a lot of composers from the 80’s era you got started in with the likes of “Henry V” and “Dead Again” who also wrote big, lush orchestral scores. But many of them can’t seem to get work anymore because of how the whole dynamic of film scoring is changing. Yet you’ve managed to “re-invent” your sound with scores like “Thor” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” How’ve you continued your career in that way?
I’m enthusiastically about all the arts from reading to the theater, and I’ll go to the cinema, as opposed to watching movies in my living room. I’ve always liked the visceral response of the cinema. Because when I go see movies, I’m also subliminally taking in the whole process of what is contemporary and modern. One of my favorite composers is Jerry Goldsmith. And if you listen to his work through the years, you’ll hear how he always embraced the world of technology and modern sound, but remained fundamentally strong in his traditional musical training. I like all music in that way, and am inquisitive about it. I really can adapt quite regularly. The process of writing “Thor” was fairly hard because I had to stop myself from becoming too, what would you say, “old school?” I had to keep pulling myself back all the time. Everything in the movies has changed. Maybe you’ll be in a phase where everybody is fast cutting, or there are long shots, hand-held shots. All these kinds of images and cutting dictate a certain rhythm in music. If you’re on a project like that, you have to learn to take stock in what you see in front of you, as opposed to you coming in with all your old bags. You have to come in and start buying some new stuff. I have always been updating my sounds, whether it’s finding them, or creating them. I remember for example when I did a film called “Blow Dry” many years ago. It was a small movie and didn’t do well, but it was a wonderful experience for me because I worked with a young programmer. He came from the pop world. I told him that I was going to make sounds and noises that I wanted him to emulate. And from that, I created some really new, different sounds. I made a conscious decision to something far from anything I’d ever done before.
What’s it part of you now being a part of the Magic Kingdom with “Brave?”
It’s fantastic. It’s absolutely terrific. I was only 14 when I went to Glasgow to see the very first movie on my own. It was at a privately owned theater called the Cosmos Cinema, which was playing a matinee performance of “Fantasia.” So for me to have finally scored an animated film for Disney and Pixar is quite something special.
Interview transcribed by Peter Hackman