The acclaimed composer of ‘The Death of Stalin’ and ‘Veep’ sits down to discuss his inspiration for the film’s score, continuing to work with master satirist Armando Iannucci, and his past academic life.
A composer is often one of the more unsung heroes in a film’s production. They’re work is often appreciated within the film community, but when it comes to filmgoers, it often seems that they could care less. To ordinary viewers, that’s exactly what they are–viewers. They seldom appreciate the passivity of the work, the underlying emotionality that is inserted via the affective music. Whether it’s to foreshadow a grisly event or accent a heart-wrenching moment, composers work tirelessly to subtly communicate with the audience with non-diegetic music. And that work can be especially difficult when it comes to the other spectrum of melodrama–comedy.
Chris Willis is an award-winning composer who has worked on numerous films and television shows, the most revered being his work on Armando Iannucci’s Veep. Willis’ use of patriotic Yankee-inspired orchestral music in Veep clashes beautifully with the ineptness and buffoonery of Selina Meyer and her bumbling staff. It’s a juxtaposition that accents the entire production, pushing the show’s comedy to new heights of satirical witticism. And it appears that Iannucci realized Willis’ inherent understanding of comedy, hiring the composer to work on his newest feature The Death of Stalin. With deep, searing strings that invoke patriotic fervor for Mother Russia, Willis uses the same juxtaposition between the non-diegetic music and the macabre black comedy to not only annunciate the humor, but build upon it to wondrous results. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with Willis to discuss his time working on the film, his continued collaboration with Iannucci, and more. Check out what the famed composer had to say below.
The Knockturnal: You’ve worked with Armando Iannucci before on Veep. How did you end up continuing to work with Iannucci on his newest film?
Chris Willis: Well, we both knew as we were working on Veep that we shared an interest in classical music, and we met up towards the end of all our time on Veep, he had just won two Emmy awards towards the end of season four. We had a chat about all kinds of things, including classical music and he told me about the Stalin movie. We started talking about that and the Russian politics at that time and I was enormously intrigued by it right from the start.
The Knockturnal: Interestingly enough, this is also your first big profile feature film. It seems like most of your repertoire is children’s movies and TV shows and the likes, so I was wondering how it felt departing from your usual fare.
Chris Willis: It was really just nice to be working on a larger canvas, it’s a natural way to tell stories in a bigger way, with more resources and with more time. I think that was probably truthful for Armando as well as for me. It’s actually harder to just limit your musical comments to the very short things that happened in Veep, it actually feels like a release to able to express things at greater lengths.
The Knockturnal: I mean I have to say the sweeping dark tones that you use in the film, really contrast itself with the comedic buffoonery and double speak that a lot of the characters end up conversing in. Why were you drawn to that juxtaposition? I understand that it fits and it also has very strong influences of 1950’s Russian orchestral music but I was wondering how you came to that conclusion?
Chris Willis: Some of the comedy just clearly didn’t need help at all, it just worked very well being absolutely dry. In some ways, I supposed there’s a pedigree of comedy in which the music just takes itself very seriously and doesn’t break character. There’s another project, which is not so famous over here, which is what Michael Palin and Terry Jones did after Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, which is a series called Ripping Yarns. Anyway, in all those things, the music is terribly serious and doesn’t acknowledge the comedy at all and I really grew up with that kind of approach to comedy.
The Knockturnal: Were you always interested in composing for comedies?
Chris Willis: I was a big comedy fan growing up and so although I’m not sure our film is quite like any of those, I feel like it’s a very natural idiom to have that sort of jarring juxtaposition and to the music to really go for it and be very bombastic in a way of making the action funnier.
The Knockturnal: You’ve cited multiple times that you really look to the orchestral music of the 40’s and 50’s from Russia to create your canvas that you would work from. As a result, it seems that your contribution to the film through composition of music was actually the strongest thread to Russian culture and literature and art. I was wondering how you felt about the critics that have come out from Russia and the former soviet countries, either outright banning the film or heavily criticizing it. I was wondering how you felt personally because it seems like your work on the movie was the most Russian.
Chris Willis: Good question, I certainly did spend a long time studying Russian music in order to try to understand that idiom, I listened to an enormous amount of Soviet music from the middle of the century. I certainly wanted it to transport you, and yes as you say I think there’s a sort of irony there, which is that anyone who watches the film I think can tell, if they think about it, the amount of love that’s gone into and the amount of reference for the historical story that were telling. As you say in many of the details, not just musically but in many other departments where we were anxious to be very faithful. I think it’s been very telling that Russians who are not in Russia—Russian who are at liberty to watch the film and talk freely about it—have been very supportive and have supported the message of the film and even people who lived through the great terror have told us that the atmosphere of it is uncannily accurate, it really was the way one felt living through these years.
The Knockturnal: It’s quite disheartening to see that because it seems that a lot of the actual message of the film was lost to the cultural critics. I have a funny story where one of my friends, his father was alive during the purges, and he asked his father, “have you seen The Death of Stalin? And he replied “no, is it a comedy?” The son answered “yes” and the father said, “back then, it was no comedy.” I guess it paints a picture of how they still hold that intensity about it but in my mind, you always have to look back and be introspective about history and secondary sources can sometimes provide a new light that primary ones can’t really.
Chris Willis: I think, the film is always very sympathetic to the lives of regular Russian people, I don’t think there’s really any comedy kind of, drawn out of the suffering of ordinary people. That is all played pretty straight, it’s the shenanigans going on at the Duma and Kremlin that generally are what we’re laughing at.
The Knockturnal: Exactly, the doublespeak, the unanimous voting, all that nonsense. To pivot a bit, you were at point in time very involved at academia. I was wondering whether that subject drew you back into wanting to discuss something like this. Unlike Veep, these are heavy topics that a typical composer wouldn’t have the wherewithal to understand the delicacy and the texture of these kinds of topics and finding the comedy that’s intrinsic to it.
Chris Willis: Well, I was drawn into the world of film music away from academia just because, film music seems so alive, the chance to actually work with orchestras regularly and write with them were here in large numbers. And to know that the music would be used for people to reflect on serious things, I found all that very appealing. But yes, it’s noticeable that since I’ve come to L.A., I’ve tended to move towards projects that require research. You know things that are as you say rather heavy compared to the Veep and the average. I certainly enjoy working with Armando, who also has an academic background, is unafraid of talking about intellectual things, so I’ve been very lucky in that regard.
The Knockturnal: Would you ever return to academia in the future?
Chris Willis: Like most academics, I had a couple of ideas as to what I would’ve done next, had I not run away. I was just gearing up to get really heavily into musical syntax, and then got pulled away. You know the trouble is that once you leave, you get behind on all the reading.
The Knockturnal: Right, that is the hard part.
Chris Willis: I’d have to catch up on all the reading that I forgot to do. So yeah, it’s an interesting question, it would be great at some point, to write about things that I left off. I can’t say whether that’ll ever happen, so enmeshed in the Hollywood scene, but we shall see!
The Death of Stalin is in theaters now.