In the first of a series of conversations with composers, Kylie Boltin speaks to Oscar winner Lisa Gerrard about her process and observations
10 May 2010 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 1:30 PM

Lisa Gerrard was a musician for 20 years before she transitioned into cinema under the direction of Michael Mann, by composing for his films Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). She has since worked extensively across filmmaking industries, winning accolades and praise for her soaring film scores that have included Gladiator (2000), Whale Rider (2002) and Balibo (2009). Her most recent score to hit our screens is Pene Patrick's Playing for Charlie.

“Usually with the process of writing music for score, it's very director orientated,” Gerrard tells me. “They have very specific ideas about what they want. The Australian film industry tends to be more like a European style of making films—directors tend to go for a lot more intimacy from the score as opposed to the larger orchestral sound you might use in a Hollywood film. We tend to go to a much deeper emotional sub-textual layer of cinema as opposed to the sensationalism that you might get in Hollywood cinema. Not all Hollywood directors go down that road but with the larger films, they tend to go for more glamorous colours in their score.

“I usually start from the script and can tell whether it's something that I'm going to be able to create the poetry that the director requires. It also takes a conversation with the director to pick up the atmosphere around them as a person, because that really helps to understand the story they are trying to tell.

“There's a lot of abstract communication that goes on between reading the script, getting to know the director, having an understanding of what films they've watched that have moved them and why, whether their characters are singular, whether they want to use music to create a characterisation, or whether they want to go to a sub-textual emotional colour, where they paint the story underneath the picture.”

Playing for Charlie is the story of an adolescent boy, Tony Hobbs (played by Jared Daperis) who dreams of playing rugby for the state. For Gerrard it was a combination of the game itself and the themes of the film that informed her decisions for the score.

“Because rugby is such an old game and primal activity, involving precision, vision and sense of greatness, we wanted to herald something back from the ancient. We tended to go for colours that were based on abstract choral voices and a singular voice that was indefinable, that you couldn't put your finger on, but sounded very old because this calling that the central character was having in the film was quite ancient.

At the same time, Gerrard created a delicacy in her score that reflected the internal worlds of the characters as well as the fragility of their relationships. “There's so much that this young man is dealing with. He was such a visionary yet everything seemed so impossible for him. He was extremely compromised. With the music I found that the way to go was a very sensitive palette of colours that helped to go to where he was emotionally.”