Patrick Cassidy is a renowned Irish born composer. As well as his concert work and compositions, he scores and collaborates on film and documentary projects. Notable credits include Hannibal, Veronica Guerin, Confessions of a Burning Man, Salem’s Lot, King Arthur, Layer Cake, Che Guevara, Ashes and Snow, Kingdom of Heaven, The Front Line, L’Aviatore, The Irishman and Calvary, which is released in American cinemas this week.
Darragh John McCabe caught up with Patrick to chat about his career to date.
Patrick, you’re an Irish composer. Your most famous work is an Irish language symphony. And this interview is on the occasion of the soundtrack you composed to one of the biggest Irish films of the year, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary. Why are you speaking to me from Los Angeles?
Before I moved here, I’d written lots of pieces for orchestra. I’d done that symphony, The Children of Lir, which had done well in the classical charts in the United States. Ireland is a small place, and my publishing company was based in L.A., and I felt the need to try to do something on a bigger stage. Working in Ireland you might be chasing one gig a year – I just wanted to try my luck and come here.
But there are still strong links with home, Calvary being a case in point?
It was really nice to get to work on an Irish movie. Most of the work I do these days is in Hollywood. And everyone was quite happy with the score, which means I might be doing more work in Ireland, possibly.
And James Flynn, the producer of the movie, called it “the best Irish score in twenty years” at the IFTAs?
Calvary was just one of those movies where everything came together well. We started with a good script and everyone got the chance to excel. The score seems to play an important part, too – the film was a great canvas for an underscore, and that doesn’t always happen. I put a huge amount of effort into it. It was a particularly pleasant experience, actually, Calvary; just a great bunch of people, from the director to the editor right down to the sound designers, happened to be working on it. There was a great atmosphere throughout the whole of post-production.
Is working on a relatively small-scale Irish film a different experience to some of the bigger Hollywood films you’ve done? I’m thinking of Hannibal, Layer Cake…
You know it’s pretty much the same. The one that they both really have in common is that you never have enough time, I suppose because music is the last thing that gets put in. Say for instance with Calvary, they already had an edit that was quite close to the finished movie by the time I saw it. When the composer comes in they’re running out of time. Though I actually had around 10 weeks for Calvary, which isn’t too bad.
But do you think that the fact that Calvary was produced in the context of a far smaller film community made it such a pleasant experience?
That’s probably part of it. But the main thing was, we all liked the movie. And we certainly knew that it was something different. This was definitely a very Irish story that hadn’t been touched on before. It was exciting.
And what’s your methodology?
Well, the technology is amazing. To do film music it’s so important that you conform to picture. So I have the movie on one sceen and I’m writing music on another screen. I actually write music every day, so I have this bank of sketches and ideas. Whether I’m writing a score or a classical piece, I’ll tap into it when I need it. I think it’s really important to keep working and to keep having ideas.
Is it a challenge to understand what a director is looking for in a score?
Usually the biggest indicator is the temp score. When an editor is editing a movie, they work with the music editor and the director to come up with music for the rough cut. It can be anything, really; just whatever can give a strong enough guideline for what they’re looking for. Usually it’s music from other film scores, actually. It means that the scene already has a good pulse to it by the time the composer gets to it. And if you can do something better than what’s on the temp score, they’re usually pretty happy. It’s what you should be aiming for, really.
Calvary is now a very well-regarded film – you don’t have to name any names here, but is it the case that the worse the film, the harder it is to score it?
It’s very hard. Sometimes you can try to fix a scene with music, but you often just make it even worse. Music has to complement and enhance the emotion – it’s really incredibly important, actually, for capturing what’s special in a scene. And if the film isn’t so good, it’s hard to know what to do. If the music’s too good, it’s nearly wrong. In the same way, working on Calvary was nearly effortless. It seemed to be like I always got it right the first time, which is rare. John Michael made a lot of suggestions, all right, but he liked the approach I took with the material in general.
It must sometimes be difficult for a director to communicate what they want from a score if they don’t have a musical way to explain it to you.
Oh yes. It’s a whole language. And even that language can’t explain why a piece of music is beautiful or it isn’t.
And what are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing an opera called Dante – it’s the story of Dante’s life told through his own poetry. Not working on a movie at the moment, but probably will be soon. I was composing music before I ever got into composing for film, and standalone works of classical music are still my main focus.
Your biggest hit, so to speak, was a setting of Dante, right?
That was called ‘Vide Cormeum.’ I suppose that’s my most popular piece over here in the U.S. And Ridley Scott used it for both Hannibal and The Kingdom of Heaven. It’s always nice to get a hit. It became very popular – the Welsh mezzo Katherine Jenkins has covered it, and Sarah Brightman has sung it as well. It all happened because in the script of Hannibal, Hannibal went to an opera – the opera was described in the script, but nobody had written it. I was working with Hans Zimmer at the time, and he knew that I was involved primarily in choral music. He asked me when they were literally going to be shooting the scene in two weeks time. Very short notice – that’s quite typical. But I relished it.
Finally, can you talk a bit about your influences? And are there any film composers whom you think have been overlooked?
A lot of my favouite classical music is music that’s outside of film – Mozart, Beethoven. But there are a few film composers – I always find it kind of surprising that Ennio Morricone never won an Oscar, for example. The score for The Mission is just amazing. He might be the best film composer of the last generation. He’s done so many interesting things – you see Quentin Tarantino going back to that spaghetti western music he did. The score for Dances with Wolves, by John Barry, is a favourite too. In recent years, there have been some very poor scores – very generic, not a lot of individualism. I’m not knocking anybody – maybe that’s what the directors want. But personally I like to bring my own style to things, and if somebody hires me they know that that’s what they’re going to get.