Winter 2018

Time Is on Their Side

Three decades of kinship is music to Kenneth Branagh's and Patrick Doyle's ears


Director Kenneth Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle (Photo: Courtesy Patrick Doyle)

Belfast-born director Kenneth Branagh and Scottish composer Patrick Doyle have been friends and collaborators for more than three decades. They met in the London theater world in 1987, moved into film two years later with Henry V, and have now done a dozen movies together.

Beginning with the inspirational choral anthem "Non nobis Domine," which he sang himself in Henry V (1989), Doyle has written some of the greatest music for Shakespeare on film. His music added whimsy and fun to Much Ado About Nothing (1993), in which he coached the actors on set in Tuscany, and his Oscar-nominated score for Hamlet (1996) embodies all of the play's drama and tragedy with some of his most sophisticated symphonic writing. He adapted classic Hollywood songs for the musical version of Love's Labour's Lost (2000) and added Asian instruments to the mix when Branagh set As You Like It (2006) in 19th-century Japan.

Aside from the Bard but also for Branagh, Doyle indulged in musical melodrama for Dead Again (1991); electrified the imagery of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994); went minimalist for Branagh's remake of Sleuth (2007); penned exquisite waltzes for Cinderella (2015); characterized an entire universe of Norse gods with the most classically thrilling of all the Marvel movie scores in Thor (2011); and provided a very modern, hybrid synth/orchestra score for Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). Their latest is Murder on the Orient Express, which stars Branagh as Agatha Christie's mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and features a song they co-wrote.

DGA Quarterly, as part of its ongoing Collaborators series, interviewed them together in London in November. It was their first-ever joint interview.

(Top) A scene from Murder on the Orient Express; (Bottom) Doyle, left, and Branagh ham it up on the set of Hamlet. (Photos: (Top) Nicola Dove/20th Century Fox; (Bottom) Courtesy Patrick Doyle)

DGA: Tell us how you met and what that first collaboration was like.

BRANAGH: It was 30 years ago, almost to the day. I met Pat through a mutual friend, John Sessions, who I was at drama school with. John had spoken highly of Pat's gifts. We met to discuss some work at the beginning of the life of a theater company that we ended up forming, the Renaissance Theatre Company. The first project that we collaborated on was a production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
DOYLE: My job was to provide the underscore for the play. I worked often as a musical director and a performer, and decided at that point in my life to focus on music. I discovered from the outset that Ken would allow me to experiment and have fun and let me get on with it.

DGA: When you embarked on Henry V, a first film for both of you, how did you decide on the musical approach?

BRANAGH: The best I could do was talk about the thrust or atmosphere of a scene. Sometimes I would refer to an existing film, or a popular song. Mostly I tried to be impressionistic. I didn't want to cramp his style. Often it was what Peter Brook called "the uninformed hunch," handing it over to Pat and sitting back until I got the call saying, "I need another bit of input here," or until he presented me with something quite well developed. Pat also has a performing background, and a sharp, innate sense of the dramatic, how stories are told, quite aside from music itself.
DOYLE: A couple of months ago, I unearthed a cassette where he's describing in animated terms the peaks and troughs of the story. I used this as my continual go-to template. There is a tremendous sense of music when you listen to his work on stage. He presents a collage of thoughts about the entire process, the characters, the story. It's incredibly stimulating to a composer, very inspiring and informative.

DGA: What is your process like these days? Has it changed over the years?

BRANAGH: It varies a little. If I know I'm going to do something, I'll let Pat know and we'll have an initial conversation, or he'll come in and look at concept drawings. The more we've done, the more we try and allow a bit of it to happen before our very eyes. Away from the pressure-cooker of post[-production], we've tried to find ways to make the front end of the process a little more relaxed and a little more wide-ranging.
DOYLE: Around October of last year, Ken sent me the script for Murder on the Orient Express, and we started talking about it, well before shooting began. Ken always talks in great detail about the characters. Then in November, I visited the set and saw this enormous steam train they'd built. And I saw a mood montage, shots of trains, Ken in his outfit, and I got a tremendous sense of his character. I saw Poirot instantly; it was like Plato meets Bond. Very shortly afterward, probably December, after all these detailed discussions and looking at drawings and designs, I sat down in my studio and came up with a small "conceptual suite," four different cues, and sent that to Ken. He approached me shortly after that about a song that we might need on the set, for the lounge pianist, and gave me some lyrics. So I wrote this song, and it became the Poirot theme.

DGA: Did Ken visit your studio to hear demos?

DOYLE: Regularly. There was very little temp (temporary music added during editing), probably about 20% of the film. The demos are very useful. They're so effective now in terms of the samples (electronic simulations of real instruments). I'm more relaxed about having them played in a large cinema. We had a preview down in Orange County (in July 2017), where I think 80% of the score was my own work.
BRANAGH: Pat's written so much music now that we could temp an entire movie very successfully from his previous scores. But that has its dangers, sending you down a familiar route. We've learned to be a little more confident about keeping the integrity of the movie. Pat reserves the right to be very exploratory in the first instance, across instruments, musical genres and period. But then he's very detailed with his demos, very layered. What I now hear, without ever being confined to them, are very detailed tracks.
DOYLE: There was one cue that was about nine minutes long, a key moment at the end of the film, an emotional moment. After nine minutes, the ear can recognize that [these are samples and] it's not a real orchestra. There was a risk it would lose its impact. So Ken asked—and the studio was very accommodating—if we could record it with an orchestra two months before the score recordings. So that's what we did. We previewed it with a real orchestra playing this demo—a very good instinct on Ken's part.
BRANAGH: It wasn't until almost the very end of the process that we, in fact, came up with a song that is now at the end of the movie. That is quite different in character than the one we thought we were going to do—it goes darker, more pure and tragic; the previous one was more romantic.

(Top) Patrick Doyle, left, conductor Simon Rattle and Sir Kenneth Branagh confer during the recording of Henry V; (Bottom) Branagh in the title role with Emma Thompson. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy Patrick Doyle; (Bottom) Photofest)

DGA: And then you recorded the final score in London? Did Ken attend?

DOYLE: Yes, we scored in late summer, in September. Of course he's there, and very relaxed. By then, we've done all the work.

DGA: You've done five Shakespeare films, and even more for the stage. Is it at all intimidating to set those great speeches to music?

DOYLE: I was encouraged to be bold and follow my musical instincts. The writing itself is musical, and Ken's interpretation of it creates its own melody. Soliloquies are like arias, so I think very much in operatic terms, following the sweep. It's about presenting something and making it accessible to a modern audience.
BRANAGH: Music is so key in that, as a potential way of dealing with what we encountered a lot, which is intimidation by Shakespeare for an audience who may be told that this great cultural icon is good for them. Music became a critical "way in," to understand scene-setting and tone and mood in a way that lets people relax and respond to the material. It isn't the Globe Theatre, it's Shakespeare in the cinema, and it requires something else.

DGA: Have the two of you ever had a disagreement over the right approach to a scene or even an entire movie?

BRANAGH: Sometimes we have different points of view. Pat is incredibly supportive but he has the necessary strong opinions. They're always worth listening to. The general understanding is that whatever happens, we're both only about what is best. We don't always know what it is, but we know we'll get there. Thirty years together helps.
DOYLE: He must have the luxury of playing the picture and testing it and see how things go. He'll always listen. I do that with other directors too. I've learned over the years to relax a little.

DGA: What would you say was the most surprising moment you've had in your 30 years of collaboration?

BRANAGH: A very striking moment was when we were recording the score for Thor. It was at the end of the recording sessions, a scene etween Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tony Hopkins' Odin. This was a family drama, about a son who is thrown out of his father's home, and Ulysses-like, has to go on a journey of redemption, seeking to find a new place that is no longer the rebellious and ungrateful son. It wasn't long after my own father passed away. I remember being quite moved by the music. It was very elegiac, capturing some of the family turmoil and the epic dimension of what we had attempted to do.
  Pat had found a musical response that also seemed to have an ancient, resonant quality. Like an illumination or an epiphany, I found myself walking into the studio to say to Pat: "I think I know what this film is about now. It's about a son trying to honor his father. And I wonder if I've been doing this in every single film I've ever done. However different the genre or the length, maybe I'm always making the same film. However diverse they are, do you think you're always writing the same score?"
  I don't know if we answered the question, but there was something about what this music did, which was nothing like anything else he's written, and yet it was like everything else he'd written in character. It was about father and son, something ancient and something deep, and it awoke something in me. That was, for me, a kind of important moment that honored the idea that you were constantly trying to refine what you do and go deeper into what may be the same material.
DOYLE: I remember the moment very clearly. We were both very emotional. I was very fond of Ken's parents, both of them. There's a lot of family stuff, a lot of personal interaction over the years, and a delicate separation between the friendship and the work. They have to be separate, but they're also very connected. Your emotions are heightened, but in that there's a clarity, a trust and a deep sense of loyalty.

DGA: What advice do you have for directors and composers about the best kind of collaboration?

BRANAGH: Music can't do what everything else is not doing. But when it harmonizes, to use an integral pun there, it's pretty amazing.
  Try to find someone with whom you are especially simpatico. You need not agree about everything, but have as extensive and inclusive a means of communication as you possibly can.
DOYLE: My advice to a composer is to engage yourself as much as possible in the process. Make yourself indispensable. Really become part of the team and don't be frightened to represent your ideas as early and as constantly as possible. You'll build up a trust with your work.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring a Special Report exploring Content Distribution in the Streaming Age as well as interviews with Michael Apted, Reed Morano, Lily Olszewski, Martin Campbell, Kenneth Branagh, Pamela Adlon, and more!