The sound of success
Nicholas Sillitoe sometimes goes to film premieres, but being on the red carpet can feel a bit weird.
“Very often at premieres, I’m on my own,” Sillitoe says at his home outside Kristiansand in Norway. “No one recognizes me. I’ve had actors saying ‘Oh my God, you’re the composer!’ It’s a strange feeling, because I feel I’ve been so intimate with them. Being a composer is almost like I’ve been inside the actors’ eyes.”
In the same room is a bright little piano. It’s on this piano that Sillitoe usually begins creating music for movies and TV shows. In 2015, he won an Amanda Award, Norway’s top film prize, for his music for the movie The Disappearing Illusionist and he was also responsible for the music for the internationally-acclaimed Norwegian TV show Okkupert (Occupied).
“The piano is my comfort zone. Here at home I’ve got silence, a beautiful garden and a forest outside,” Sillitoe says, gesturing towards the impressive view from the terrace. “When the kids are at school it gets really quiet. As corny as it sounds, any writer needs a space that lets you dream away. Whether it’s a hip loft or a forest in Norway doesn’t matter. As long as I have internet, the technology is so good that I could work on the moon. Kristiansand is my moon.”
Many people in the movie industry have their roots in the world of pop or rock, but Englishman Sillitoe comes from a slightly different background. Born in London, he was something of a child prodigy in classical music. As a soloist, he sang in opera houses all over the world, but at the end of the 80s things took a different turn when he discovered acid house and began making house music. In 1994, he moved to Norway to produce techno, where he has been ever since, working mainly on soundtracks.
Name: Nicholas Sillitoe
Born: 1971 in London
Lives: In the hills just outside Kristiansand, Norway
Family: Married with two children
What he does: Soundtrack composer for TV show Okkupert, among others.
“It’s something that sets me apart from others,” Sillitoe says. “I have these two strong polarizing forces – I can go electronic or classical with my music. Over my years here, I’ve become quite Nordic. My personality has a penchant for the melancholic and the Nordic Noir, so I like it a lot here.”
Sillitoe describes his work as something of a fog.
“It’s incredibly tough work. There’s a lot of impatience and tight deadlines and 24/7 phone calls with paranoid producers. With theater and drama, you have to know the origins. A film is not a music video. Film music is peculiar in the industry – we’re seen as these weird cousins of the movie industry who are never around on set. You have to build up a relationship with directors, we have to get into their heads.”
Music supervisors have grown in importance in the movie and TV industry in recent years. In the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Thomas Golubić sits drinking a cup of coffee. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard his work. While Sillitoe creates original music for film and television, Golubić picks existing songs to match the scenes. Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire and The Walking Dead are just some of the acclaimed TV shows he has put music to. Since last fall, he’s also President of the Guild of Music Supervisors, and as of 2017, the profession has its own award category at the TV industry’s Emmy Awards.
“Music supervisor was a job that was ignored for a long time,” Golubić says. “We are woefully underpaid and often with no job security. We’ve had to struggle for recognition. As television in particular has gone into a golden age, the craft has evolved. We think like directors, how we can use music as a storytelling device in an effective way.”
A composer and a music supervisor often work together on projects these days. A bit like doubles partners in tennis.
“The score is what the audience should immediately feel,” Golubić says. “A supervisor can edit in other elements. We can make a 1:30 song feel much longer, but the work is similar – we both need to tell a story.”
“We have to try to license music often at short notice,” Golubić says. “The best music supervisors areobsessives about books, music and storytelling, in addition to being fantastic diplomats and negotiators. Everyone thinks they are a music expert on set. For a composer, it’s not the same thing. The most important thing is that you have to understand storytelling, to recognize what a story needs.”
For Sillitoe, too, music work is about storytelling. His trick is to start by just listening to the dialog of the movie or TV show.
“I follow the phrasing and tone of their voices,” Sillitoe says. “I don’t want to compete with the actor – instead I use the actor. It’s like a soprano and an aria, when the orchestra in the pit sneaks around the melody line. Then I watch the scenes at home to learn them. I literally put the headphones on and start to compose. I work alone at home at the piano, really basic. I make simple themes and try to get into the characters’ space. It’s an intense process.”
When asked to name colleagues whose work he respects, Sillitoe mentions Ennio Morricone and more modern composers such as Trent Reznor, Olafur Arnalds and Cliff Martinez.
“I prefer a minimalistic score,” Sillitoe says. “The age of the big Hollywood score is a bit passé, sound design is becoming more relevant. The biggest form of flattery is if someone says ‘I really liked the film, because the music was just a part of the film.’ That’s the best criticism you can get. The music shouldn’t be too noticed. There are certain moments that I can hear that ‘Yes, I nailed it here,’ it’s not often the music itself, more ‘Did I get in at the right place? Did I fade out?’ The magical moment comes when you are engaged and the music comes in and takes you somewhere.”
Having completed the music for season two of Occupied, this British-born Norwegian is currently enjoying a well-deserved break.
“It’s a privilege to work with talented directors and tell good stories. Of course I get goosebumps in the movie theater when I hear the work that I started in my pajamas back home a year ago. That’s as rock ‘n’ roll as it gets for me!”
Text: Anders Dahlbom