David Mackenzie on Starred Up Film Music Reworked

On its release last year, David Mackenzie’s Starred Up turned heads and earned plaudits for its intense portrayal of prison life. Now the film’s score has undergone the remake treatment, Mackenzie explains why he's still immersed in the music

Feature by Chris Buckle | 02 Nov 2015

Appropriately for a film set entirely within prison walls, Starred Up is full of sounds that signal confinement: the grating clink of bolts slid shut; the jangle of keys in locks; the harsh electronic buzzer that accompanies the opening of a cell, followed closely by the door slamming shut again. They contribute to an immersive sound design dominated by diegetic details, from the echoes that bounce down under-lit corridors to the metallic whir of a revolving door pointedly spinning to a stop in the final moments.

The effect is stark and largely naturalistic, underscoring the rawness exhibited elsewhere – not least by Jack O’Connell, as the violent offender who graduates to adult prison in a whirlwind of sound and fury.

Less apparent, particularly on first encounter, is the ambient score lurking beneath these surface sounds – below the murky argot, the ominous reverberations, and the muffled background noise. Barely there and barely music, it sits so low in the mix as to be almost subliminal, making Starred Up: Film Music Reworked an intriguing prospect. Revisiting the original recordings with producer and co-composer Tony Doogan, David Mackenzie has overhauled the score’s abstract soundscapes and fashioned a satisfying standalone listening experience; still subtle and often amelodic, but nonetheless a major change-up for material previously designed to go all but unnoticed.

“The whole idea of the music in Starred Up, and I guess part of the reason why I myself was allowed to do it, as somebody who’s not really an expert in the field as it were, was because we wanted something that didn’t sound too musical” David explains, taking a break from packing to discuss the score’s route from reel to record.

In a few days he’ll fly back to the States to complete post-production on Comancheria, a heist drama shot in New Mexico over the summer with Jeff Bridges, Ben Foster and Chris Pine in the lead roles; till then, he’s appreciating the chance to look back and “re-engage with the music side of things” once more. “We wanted something that felt like it was coming through the pipes, something that had that kind of atmospheric element to it,” he continues. “And obviously a lot of that is down to the sound design, but the current of the musical elements was a way of bringing things together.”  

David Mackenzie and DIY

Mackenzie describes his decision to “have a go” at doing the score himself as “a progression, for me, of all the films that I’ve done. I’ve always had an interest in music, and I’ve got to work with some great people” – a roster that includes The Pastels (coaxed out of hibernation for 2002 feature debut The Last Great Wilderness), David Byrne (responsible for Young Adam’s hauntingly beautiful score) and Max Richter (who supplied mournful piano and strings to 2011’s sci-fi parable Perfect Sense).

Mackenzie also references 2007’s Hallam Foe, “where I decided I wasn’t going to have a composer at all and was just going to curate the score from bits and pieces from Domino Records,” as a key step towards the level of autonomy demonstrated on Starred Up. “Doing it myself, or myself with a lot of help, felt like the right sort of experiment for this film” he concludes. “There was something about the intensity of the way we made it, that felt appropriate to be a bit more DIY in that department.”

He’s referring here to Starred Up’s telescoped production, whereby the whole film was shot in sequence and edited in tandem – an approach that undoubtedly contributes to the film’s edgy energy. Writing and recording the score was a similarly fast, instinctive process: starting with some “sketchy” ideas put together on an iPad, Mackenzie and Doogan entered the studio, cued up the relevant scenes, and started “throwing things at the wall to see what came out.”

In all, it was a positive experience the director hopes to repeat on future projects. “I don’t want in any way to suggest any disrespect to those great people that I have worked with, because they do what they do and it’s excellent,” he stresses. “But it’s a different thing to have some ideas and try and get them out yourself – rather than trying to communicate your ideas to someone else who’s much more skilled but who has got their own take on things… It’s only appropriate in certain projects, but in this case it felt right.”

More on Starred Up:

 David Mackenzie: the Search for Authenticity

 Starred Up – the Film Reviewed

By mid-2013, the film was in the can and on its way to success on the festival circuit and beyond, but Mackenzie found he wasn’t quite ready to put the music side of things to bed. “That original soundtrack, you know, that’s out, that’s available on iTunes if anyone wants it. But I sort of thought, well there’s another way of presenting this material, that’s still got some of that energy but with a bit more shape.” Hence Reworked, designed to be “more of an audio journey rather than just the underscore of the film.”

“You tend to have to be very surgical when you’re doing film score stuff,” Mackenzie elaborates. “You know, you’ve got a 25 second piece to get from A to B or whatever, so they tend to be tiny little chunks, which is not very nice to listen to. So [Tony and I] would go in and mix a few tracks together, we edited and expanded stuff, we opened things up. When you don’t have to worry about the timeline of the film, you have a different kind of freedom.”

One of the most significant shifts was the broader range of instrumentation available this time round, courtesy of an expanded studio line-up. Belle & Sebastian’s Chris Geddes was brought back, having previously worked on the original soundtrack sessions, with Ewen Bremner and Raymond Macdonald invited along to complete the ensemble.

Both new recruits have worked with Mackenzie before: Hallam Foe and Perfect Sense each feature a memorable supporting performance from Bremner (best known for his acting but with an accomplished musical side-line under the name Exitman), while Macdonald (saxophonist, composer, Glasgow Improvising Orchestra founder and noted academic) collaborated on David Byrne’s Young Adam score, arranging and performing on a version of Charlie Mingus’s Haitian Fight Song. Mackenzie and Macdonald also form two-thirds of an ongoing art project called Scarecrows and Lighthouses, working together with Turner-winning sculptor Martin Boyce on a variety of interdisciplinary artworks.

“Raymond’s an improvising genius,” Mackenzie enthuses, “and he would always say that anyone’s a musician to some extent. We did a lot of experiments and produced some really interesting stuff, and that was a deliberation for me to think, ok well as someone who isn’t necessarily trained as a musician and who doesn’t have certain skills – that doesn’t mean that you can’t be making music.”

Improvisation in Starred Up: Film Music Reworked

Informed by these past collaborations, improvisation became a key part of the Reworked ethos. “I think it’s fascinating, when you have some raw material and you bring musicians in, and the direction is very limited – it’s just ‘find the material, don’t overwhelm it, and see what happens’. To see how things can evolve in that way…” He pauses for a moment, mulling over comparisons with his regular line of work. “It’s very intuitive. The exploration can go wherever the exploration goes, which is really nice. It’s not like filmmaking, where you’ve got a script.”

Surely there are some similarities though, between on-set improvisation and its musical equivalent? “Well, I mean I always try in my films to mess around with improvisation,” Mackenzie replies; indeed, Starred Up’s therapy sessions offer a case in point, with the actors encouraged to digress from the script to make things feel as natural as possible. “But usually you’ve got a scene to be told. You know roughly where you’re going, so the improvisation is sort of within those parameters… But having the freedom to do that both musically and within a dramatic piece – I definitely think there are parallels. Even that word, ‘improvisation’, is one that’s used very comfortably in both media.”

We ask about other ways that music might feed into filmmaking – for instance, does he ever play it on set to establish a certain tone, or reference it when communicating ideas to cast and crew? “I have done it in the past, yeah. And, for example, the film we’re doing now [Comancheria] has quite a strong country music vibe to it, and that was pretty much everything I listened to during the five months we were…” He laughs. “Well, I’m still doing it actually – I’m trying to kind of wean myself off it. So there’s a sort of world creation that you get when you inhabit a certain type of music, and I think that that is worth doing when you’re trying to immerse yourself in a period or a vibe or a world.”

While Mackenzie won’t be scoring Comancheria, he confirms it’s something he’d like to investigate further on future features. “Absolutely, definitely. I’m very happy and excited by the people doing the score on the new film, but I would really love to do it again and just keep mixing it up.”

Making Changes

Ironically, a project that began with themes of incarceration and confinement has wound up “opening doors” for the filmmaker – whose Twitter handle (“Film director, sometime writer and producer. But interested in exploring many other things”) neatly summarises the artistic curiosity inherent in his work. “It’s quite nice to be able to do something that’s complimentary to what you’re doing, but also is creatively quite a different thing” he continues. “I really enjoyed working with Tony and I’d like to do that again; I’d like to do some music with Tony that has nothing to do with a film as well.”

Even Reworked isn’t necessarily the last word on the Starred Up material; is he really considering making further alterations, as indicated by previous comments to The Skinny?

“Ha! Well, I mean I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Credit on the radio a couple of times in the last couple of weeks, which has been great, and although it plays really nicely I think it would be quite fun to get some lyrics on there, get some really belting vocals on there. It could really expand that track… I’d almost love just to do it as an experiment and see what happens”. Reworked Reworked?Yeah, exactly, exactly,” he laughs. “Well I mean there are plenty of artists who keep exploring themes and going deeper and deeper into those themes, so there’s something that could be worth exploring there… ”

Starred Up: Film Music Reworked is released on 6 Nov. Starred Up is currently showing on Film4