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Film composer Andrew Swarbrick

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Nether Edge film composer Andrew Swarbrick has spent years honing his craft, scoring soundtracks for movie trailers and a string of well-received short films. Now The Runaways, the first full-length film featuring his music, is about to hit cinemas. We asked about his journey to the big screen.

How did you become a composer?

It all started for me in primary school where I was in the privileged position to learn an instrument. At the age of eight I chose the trumpet and started singing in the church choir. I also played in various function bands, a ska-punk band and a jazz-funk band.

It was during my Music Technology degree at Stafford University where I grew a real appreciation for orchestral music. I particularly enjoyed Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings and other composers such as Thomas Tallis, Holst and Karl Jenkins. I was fascinated by the sounds and textures that can be made by an orchestra to evoke different emotions. In our final year there was an opportunity to work with film production students and I jumped at the chance to compose the score for the short film they were making. I used some inheritance money to get myself a MacBook Pro, some orchestral sample sounds and a copy of ProTools and I even managed to get a local amateur orchestra to record some of the score. This was my first taste of writing music to picture.

I knew deep down I'd love to make a living from music

After graduating in 2009 I knew deep down I'd love to somehow make a living from writing and producing music, but it also felt like some sort of far-off and distant dream. I had many jobs 'on-the-side': telesales, pizza delivery, maths teaching, gardening and more recently conducting a church choir. My favourite was gardening, and this is how I met film director Richard Heap.

After meeting Richard back in 2012, I worked on a few scenes in a couple of documentaries he was working on. Then in 2015 he asked if I wanted to work on a short film he'd written and directed called Twine, and later in 2017 We Move Through. Twine was a very dark and edgy film which is perhaps not my natural style, but it was great to work on another score and to work with Rich in this way. Twine went on to win awards and was BAFTA long-listed in 2016. At this point I'd no idea that Rich was ultimately working towards his first feature.

Tell us a bit about The Runaways.

The Runaways is a film shot in Whitby and the North York Moors about three children who run away with their two donkeys in search of their estranged mother. It's an emotional journey with some humorous moments, but at its heart it's a story about sibling love and sticking together as a family.

Rich got me involved after the film had been shot. It became evident to me quite quickly that this was a much bigger project with a lot more people involved and that Rich wasn't the only person who'd have a say over what the music should be like. Rich started giving me sections of the film that had been edited and certain scenes where he knew he wanted music. He also asked me to send him some of my existing work for him to use as a 'temporary score' to help him discover what he might want the final score to be like.

Eventually I was given the green light of composing the whole score for the film, which was very exciting, Rich had a clear brief of intimacy and space for the theme - intimacy to help tell the story of sibling love and space to somehow capture the lush landscape of the North York Moors. I set to work and came back to Rich a few days later with five ideas. It was nerve-wracking sharing what I'd done. One small section of one of my ideas grabbed Rich's attention, and it was these few bars that helped form the score. This is what I love about collaboration - that short section would've passed me by, but Rich heard the simplicity and the beauty in it.

The focus becomes [...] how you can help the audience emotionally connect

What's your process when writing a score?

I've spent most of my composing career writing production music for TV and music for movie trailers. In both these cases the music is actually made 'away from picture' and then used by editors later on, so essentially you have no idea what the music will be used for.

The goal is to create a piece that establishes a particular emotion and then build that out into a two-minute piece without veering away from the original idea too much. The aim is to make the music as versatile and 'useable' for an editor as possible.

Working with Rich is a completely different experience. The focus becomes the film and the story that it's telling, and how you can help the audience emotionally connect. Also, working on a score is a much more collaborative process which is something I particularly enjoyed, because sitting in the studio on your own writing production music can become a bit lonesome at times!

Sam Gregory

The Runaways is in cinemas from 10 January 2020. Information on screenings can be found here.

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