Who is Alex Heffes you may ask? He's a terrific composer who came onto the scene in the 2000's with a thrilling score he wrote for the British mountain climbing film "Touching The Void" which got him alot of critical notice along with his score for the film "Dear Frankie". He soon would play a major part in the critically acclaimed film, "The Last King Of Scotland" directed by Kevin MacDonald which earned a Best Actor Oscar for actor Forest Whitaker and would later reteam with MacDonald again on the thriller, "State of Play" based on the hit UK mini-series featuring an all-star cast of Oscar winners Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Helen Mirren along with strong support from Rachael McAdams, Jason Bateman and Harry Lennox writing a unique suspense score. Other projects would follow such as the supernatural thriller, "The Rite" starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and the little seen drama, "Fifth Grader", in which his score received some very solid reviews all the way around.
After scoring the action-thriller "Escape Plan" starring action icons Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger which earned pretty good reviews and writing a thrilling score for that film, he has followed up the film based upon the late of former South African President and Humanitarian, Nelson Mandela called "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" starring Idris Elba ("The Wire") and Naomie Harris ("Ninja Assassin") based on the autobiography written by Mandela himself which has earned strong reviews is a chronicle of Mandela's life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
For this very special interview with the composer, Alex discusses the process in writing the score for this film, his favorite moments from the film, how the "Mandela" soundtrack was put together, and his collaboration with Director Justin Chadwick. We also look back at previous scores such as "State of Play", his partnership with Director Kevin MacDonald and talk candidly about his favorite composers and favorite scores. So sit back and enjoy the very versitile mind of this talented composer who is just on the verge of becoming an A-list composer here in the U.S.
Please tell our readers about what made you became passionate in music and composing.
AH: Really it was the movies. Although I had a very classical musical education I was always crazy about the movies. When I first saw Star Wars in 1977 and then Superman I became hooked on movie music. I started collecting it and trying to work out how to play it on the piano. I used to record the music off the TV and VHS onto cassette to hear it as it wasn’t always that easy to buy soundtracks back then.
Let’s talk about your latest film, which will be part of the beginning of the Oscar Awards season, “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” directed by Justin Chadwick and starring Idris Elba as the historical figure. How did you get involved with the project?
AH: I had worked with Justin on ‘The First Grader’ and a couple of other projects subsequently. While he was researching Mandela he called me from South Africa to talk about scoring the film. Although, it took another year from there to start writing music.
After you got the film, did you immediately play around with themes that you felt would be perfect for the film or did he gave you a specific idea of what he wanted for the film musically?
AH: Justin is a very open person to work with. He gave me an idea of what he wanted to achieve emotionally and dramatically in the film – that is, to use the personal family story as the emotional and musical anchor of the film. Then we talked about the scope of the story which is epic and how to shape the journey of Mandela thematically through the many different episodes of his life. I spent quite a bit of time living with the film and watching it with no music before I started writing a note.
Let’s talk about the score itself. Do you feel that you accomplished what you wanted personally for the film?
AH: From first viewing I could tell the film was an extraordinary achievement of acting and direction. It’s extremely powerful and affecting. My main hope for the score was to live up to and support this. Obviously another task was to integrate African elements into an orchestral score in a way that keeps it sincere rather than a ‘travelogue’ type approach.
Was there anything difficult about writing the score in regards to the film being a biopic about a very special and important person for this generation?
AH: Yes, I think there is an added weight of responsibility when making a film about real people. It’s important to be sensitive to that while still retaining a sense of distance and keeping your own viewpoint. The film is not always polite about the people in it. Far from it.
What were the scoring sessions like and where did they take place?
AH: Scoring took place in South Africa and London. After the bulk of writing I travelled to Johannesburg where we recorded vocals, percussion and rhythm section. This was a wonderful experience. Then we recorded the orchestra in Studio 1 Abbey Road and mixed the score up in the Penthouse with the wonderful Peter Cobbin. The whole process was a very intense and inspiring one.
How much music did you end up recording for the film?
AH: Somewhere around 90 minutes in total.
Will there be a soundtrack released of your score?
AH: Yes, Decca is releasing a score album.
How did you assemble the album?
AH: I chose the key material I thought was necessary to tell the story in music. It broadly follows the film chronologically, although I’ve combined and edited material here and there to make it a good listening experience. I always like score albums to tell a story and stand alone as much as possible.
Is it difficult for you to put together a soundtrack of your music once the recording sessions are done?
AH: Sometimes there is an incredibly short amount of time to do this which can be a challenge.
Before this, you also scored the action-thriller “Escape Plan” which features the first ever pairing of both action legends Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. How did you get the assignment?
AH: I had worked with the director Mikael Hafstrom on the Anthony Hopkins thriller ‘The Rite’. Mikael immediately asked me to do ‘Escape Plan’ when it came up.
After viewing the film, was it easy for you to come up with thematic material for the score or did it take you sometime?
AH: There was a pretty quick turn around for music, so I had to get straight into it. There’s about 90 minutes of action music in the movie… The film is such fun and works so well though that it didn’t take any time to get into at all.
Was utilizing electronics a big part of the fabric of the score?
AH: Yes. Although it’s an orchestral score, there is a very large electronic component to it. The film has a hi-tech feel and I love getting into this area with synths.
Please tell us about your collaboration with Director Mikael Hafstrom.
AH: Mikael is a wonderful director. He’s very intuitive about music. We talked a lot about pace and rhythm. There are hugely long suspense and action sequences in this film – it’s essentially a prison breakout movie – so getting the pacing of the score is key. The last 45 to 50 minutes of the film is pretty much one long music cue!
Were you satisfied with the end results of the score? Was there a soundtrack released? Can you please talk about that.
AH: Yes I was very happy to have done it… huge fun to score the two great icons of movie action. I enjoyed the combination of electronics with orchestra. I conducted the score with the New Zealand Symphony which was a pleasure. Yes, there is a score album available on Metropolis Movie Music.
Let’s go back a little bit one of my favorite scores that you’ve written previously and that is “State of Play” for the film that starred Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. I really enjoyed that one and it’s one of my personal favorites of the scores you’ve written. Let’s talk about how you got the film and the process of how the score came to be.
AH: Thanks. I’d scored all of Kevin Macdonald’s films starting with his first, ‘One Day In September,’ then ‘Touching The Void’ and “Last King Of Scotland” so “State Of Play’ followed on from that.
Was it your idea to go almost completely electronic or was that Director Kevin MacDonald’s idea?
AH: Kevin wanted to do something a little leftfield with it. As the film explores the battling worlds of old style print journalism vs. the internet, I wanted the score to echo that somehow. I wanted to make a score that sounded like a synth score but was actually made from mostly acoustic sources. A lot of what sounds like synths is actually derived from live instruments that were processed. One of my favorite things was using a Chrystal Bachet, which is an incredible glass and metal instrument that is totally acoustic, but sounds like an incredible analogue synth.
Looking back, what was it like working with Director Kevin MacDonald after working on “Last King of Scotland” and “State Of Play” which had somewhat of a similar theme which politics, but they were also thrillers.
AH: Many of Kevin’s films are essentially thrillers. Even many of the early documentaries we worked on have that edge to them. He’s brilliant at keeping the through-line of a story and keeping the audience on the edge of their seat.
A soundtrack was released digitally on iTunes when the film was released, were you happy with what ended up on the album and was it difficult to put together?
AH: Always happy to have a soundtrack released!
What is your favorite score that you haven’t written?
AH: Ask me again in a year or two. I’m always most keen on what I’ve most recently done. Also, you never really know what score you are going to write. You need to find the right language for each movie. So sometimes it’s just as much of a surprise to me how it comes out.
What is your favorite film featuring one of your scores?
AH: I honestly don’t tend to watch them too often. I prefer to keep moving forward with new work. I am immensely proud of being involved with "Mandela" though and how powerful audiences find the film.
Who is your favorite director that you’ve worked with to date?
AH: Now, you don’t want to put me on the spot with that do you?! Honestly though, it’s the variety of working with different people and their individual approaches from film to film that is once of the most enjoyable aspects.
Is there a film score that has really touched you personally?
AH: As I mentioned earlier, the excitement of hearing the great John Williams scores as a child was a very strong experience for me. The finale to E.T. is still one of my absolute favourites. I remember being very touched by the very delicate cue between E.T. and Elliott where E.T. puts him to sleep. That stays with me often.
What composer has personally influenced your career?
AH: Um, I do keep talking about John Williams. In the world of film also, of course Goldsmith (Planet of the Apes!!!!) and the greats. But I have very eclectic taste. The classical repertoire is an endless wealth of inspiration. I’m crazy for Bach (my cantata collection is pretty good), Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss, Stravinsky, Ravel, Stravinsky again. I’m a big jazz fan (caught Keith Jarrett at Disney Hall last year). I’m big on Pink Floyd, and don’t even get me started on 14th century polyphony – that’s pretty wild believe me!
What makes you happy as a composer?
AH: Being able to work at home with my family.
What is your dream project, if there is one?
AH: The dream really is just to keep on working and keep on getting better.
Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects you may have.
AH: There are lots of interesting things coming up. I’m currently in the middle of a project with British director Peter Webber which is really fascinating. I’ve got a few ideas for another solo album following my last one ‘Face to Face,’ so watch this space…
I really want to thank you once again Alex for granting me this interview and I’m looking forward to your future projects.
AH: My pleasure.
A very special and appreciate thanks to Alex for going through this battlefield of tough questions (at least I hope they weren't) and for your excellent and classy attitude to me. You're great and I must do this again soon! Escape Plan on Blu-Ray is right around the corner! Also a major shout out to Jeff Sanderson. Dude, you keep getting and doing the best for me. I don't know where I'd be without your great efforts. God bless ya!
This interview is dedicated to the memory and legacy of the late Nelson Mandela! A great inspiration for hope and energy in fighting for everything we believe in.
Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is now in theaters but opening nationwide Christmas Day from The Weinstein Company.
Alex's score album to "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom" is now available on Decca Records http://www.amazon.com/Mandela-Long-Freedom-Original-Score/dp/B00G0RTVBQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1387849837&sr=1-2&keywords=mandela+long+walk+to+freedom
Please free to visit Alex's official website for his current projects including "Mandela" as well as sound samples of his work and info on upcoming projects at http://alexheffes.com/
Here's Alex's Bio:
"Alex Heffes was born in the UK. He had an unorthodox education at a small specialist music school in London where he was immersed in music every day from an early age. It was here that he fell in love with the idea of being a composer. At the same time he fell in love with cinema. After graduating from Oxford with a first-class degree he first worked as an arranger, then writer on projects covering the musical spectrum from steel band to symphony orchestra with artists such as Elton John and members of Blur.
It was his scores to Kevin Macdonald's Academy Award-winning films ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND and BAFTA-winning TOUCHING THE VOID that brought him to international attention. His reputation as a composer who is truly at home with the orchestra as well as electronics has given him a unique and unusually varied output.
He received his first BAFTA nomination for his score to the HBO drama TSUNAMI: THE AFTERMATH and has gone on to score across an incredible variety of genres including Charles Ferguson's Academy Award-winning INSIDE JOB, the US No.1 box office movie THE RITE starring Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Hardwicke's fantasy thriller RED RIDING HOOD, Peter Webber’s World War II drama EMPEROR starring Tommy Lee Jones and ESCAPE PLAN starring Silvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He collaborated with director Tim Burton on his screen adaptation of SWEENEY TODD starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. His score to STATE OF PLAY starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck featured a collaboration with classic British rock producer Flood and during the scoring of THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND Alex traveled to Uganda to record and produce many of the bands featured on the soundtrack. His score to the short film BOY was featured at the opening ceremony of the Olympic velodrome at the 2012 London Olympics. Alex’s score to MANDELA: THE LONG WALK TO FREEDOM features vocals from South African legend Caiphus Semenya.
His scores have met wide critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Daily news said of THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND it has “the best and weirdest soundtrack I've heard all year” while his score to EMPEROR was described as “phenomenal, recalling the days of Patton, or Tora! Tora! Tora! by Jerry Goldsmith” (Presspass LA), “stunningly beautiful yet strikingly simple” (Film Music Media) and “an epic score brilliantly mastered by Heffes” (JMH Digital).
His solo album project FACE TO FACE featured collaborations with artists such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Regina Spektor and Matthew Barley. His music has appeared in concert performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Brussels Philharmonic, the Oman Symphony Orchestra and at the London Jazz Festival.
Alex's scores have been nominated for BAFTA, Ivor Novello, European Film Academy, NAACP, Black Reel and ASCAP awards. In 2011 he was awarded discovery of the year by the World Soundtrack Academy and in 2012 was awarded best film score of the year at the Ivor Novello Awards in London."