wax Poetics

The Rhythm of Film

DJ/producer David Holmes approaches soundtrack composition

published online
Originally published in Issue 38
By Robbie Busch

Photo by Robbie Busch.

    David Holmes grew up as the youngest of ten in Belfast, Northern Ireland. With so many older siblings, he was surrounded by music from a very early age. He started DJing at fifteen and became obsessed with collecting vinyl. He started looking for old soul records and progressed through Detroit techno and acid house. Within ten years, he was making his own dance music. 

    His love of movies was evident from the start. His first record, coproduced with Ashley Beedle in 1993 under the name the Disco Evangelists, was called “De Niro.” A couple years later in 1995, his first LP was titled This Film’s Crap, Let’s Slash the Seats. It was an atmospheric homage to the soundtracks of his youth and had directors from all corners of the world jumping to use tracks for their films. Soon after, he began working with film icons like Steven Soderbergh, doing soundtracks for Out of Sight (1998) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), among others.

    What was the first movie you worked on as a composer?

    I got into it very gradually. It was a natural progression for me. The first film I did was for TV. It wasn’t even really a film. It was a drama, and they just wanted to use my first album all over the drama. So it was about editing the music to the picture, and one thing I learned really quickly is that you can put any piece of music up against pretty much any image, and the chances are it will work in some shape or form. Then you’ve got to do a whole movie, and that’s where it gets tricky. But a lot of the music just really fell into place purely on editing.

    The next movie I did was called Resurrection Man [in 1998], which was a movie set in the darkest, darkest days of Belfast in the ’70s. So that was something that was really in my blood. Marc Evans, the director, wanted to play with feedback, drones, and texture. There was nothing really elaborate about it, so I was slowly but surely learning how the marriage between music and the moving image really worked without having the huge responsibility of making something really elaborate from scratch. 

    I kind of eased into it without any pressure, and learned the ropes without any pressure, because what was being asked of me wasn’t that complex. You’re always learning from every movie you do. I’ve always said, “You never have the same problem twice.” There’s always a different problem that arises when you’re working on a film. And a lot of those problems aren’t actually musical. [laughs

    Do you have any sense that there is a difference between your internal processes when you’re making a proper album versus a soundtrack?

    Yes, there’s a huge difference. When you’re working on a film, you’re just another cog in the wheel. It’s all about working within the boundaries of that film and what that film needs. Also [it’s] what the director is digging and what’s making him excited, because it’s his vision at the end of the day. It doesn’t mean that you’re not free to be creative. But you’ve got to do it within the boundaries of what that film is about and the emotion that is being driven.

    Sometimes, I feel that DJing is almost like making a movie, because you’re creating a mood and taking people on a journey, whereas making music is always a much more internal process.

    Sure. I can definitely see the similarities, and I think one of the reasons that I adapted to working with film so well is because of my background in DJing. When I DJ now, I play many different styles of music, and my job is try to make sense of it all within two hours and create some kind of dynamic. 

    You’ve worked with Steven Soderbergh the most on soundtracks. Do you feel like you have a good sense of what he wants now? What is your working relationship like?

    It’s great! It’s really open. Each movie that I’ve worked on with him, I’ve tried to apply a completely different kind of sound and instrumentation for the different genres, even though they are kind of in the same ballpark. I see it as, you kind of have this family of music through all of those soundtracks. 

    He lets you create and have fun with your job; that’s kind of the great thing about him. He’s not a control freak. I mean, he knows what he likes, and he’ll tell you if you’re wandering slightly, but he’s generally very open and into doing things slightly different. Even when he does a blockbuster, he’s always doing something that you’d see more in an independent film.

    I feel very lucky just to have met him; you learn so much off someone like that even on just a total human level. For someone who’s won so many awards from Cannes to Oscars and back again, he’s actually a very humble individual. He just wants to make movies and do them his way. You’ve got to admire his openness to experiment and take these real serious risks that a lot of directors wouldn’t have the balls to take. It’s kind of punk rock.

    So what are some of your favorite soundtracks?

    It changes all the time. When I was younger, Morricone was a huge influence. I mean, it’s hard for him not to be. John Barry’s more sort of obscure moments like Follow Me! [aka The Public Eye]. And, obviously, Midnight Cowboy, which was just a huge influence, not just as a score, but also as a soundtrack album and how that whole thing was put together—how beautifully simple it was and the fact that it’s such a seminal film. A lot of French soundtracks by composers like Jean-Claude Vannier, Pierre Cavalli, Roland Vincent, and [Serge] Gainsbourg. They had a massive influence on Ocean’s Twelve with that whole European sound with those very musical bass lines. Almost like Paul McCartney, but with that French stamp on them. Herbie Flowers was a big influence as well. He played the bass line on “Walk on the Wild Side” and did Histoire de Melody Nelson for Serge Gainsbourg. For Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Thirteen, I was taking in bigger stuff like Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, and Henry Mancini, more heavyweight composers. 

    But I try to incorporate a lot of different stuff like Turkish psych or even pop music. I’m not directly taking from other soundtracks. I try to take things from everywhere, and I suppose that’s why it sounds like it does.

    I’ve worked on movies where I don’t even watch it. I build up all this information by reading the script and talking to the director about the simple emotions that are driving the film and the kind of world that the film is set in. In your head, you can start to see the buildup [of] these kinds of moods and textures. Then when you see it cut up against the images—I said, “Wow! Maybe that wouldn’t have happened if we had the picture in front of us.” 

    I got the idea from Irmin Schmidt from the band Can. When they did soundtracks, he was the only one that would see the film. He would describe the emotion of the film to the rest of the band and talk to them about the characters. Then they would just start jamming. 

    I always like the idea of happy accidents. It seems like sometimes, if you saw the image first, you might strive too hard to emulate something about the picture.

    Exactly. When I did the music for this incredible film Hunger. They sent me the script, and I had to ring them up and say, “I actually don’t think your film needs any music.” Through that, I got the job; the director wanted to talk to me because I said that. The reason I said it was because I grew up during that whole time of the hunger strike. I said, “Once you put strings under this movie, you’ll fucking ruin it! What kind of emotion are you trying for here?” He said, “I want it to be really emotional, but I want it to be completely nonmusical.” I said, “Okay… One of those, coming up.” [laughs

    Then I had this idea about this hurdy-gurdy. It was from a track that wasn’t going to make my album. We soloed the instrument and put it up against the picture. It was just magic. It’s just like four minutes at the end of the movie, but that’s all that it needed. It’s one of my favorite soundtracks, because it’s not about the quantity, it’s about the quality. There was so much music in that film on a [musique] concrète kind of level. [Writer-director Steve McQueen] magnified all of the actual sounds, whether it was the beatings of the prisoners or the clunk of the cell doors or the atmosphere of the empty corridors or the shit being smeared on the walls. All this stuff is really magnified, because there was so much silence in the film. I find things like that really intriguing. 

    I think there are a lot of films that they put so much music in that they drown it out. A lot of the time, it’s so unnecessary. Sometimes, silence is so much more effective. I read this quote by Lalo Schifrin where so many people came up to him and said, “Man! I thought the music in the car chase from Bullitt was incredible!” He told them, “But there’s no music in the car chase.” [laughs]

    I love things like that! When people are bold enough to not put any music [in the film], because the music is already there. It’s got a real rhythm to it. Film is a bit like that anyway; the whole rhythm of editing can be very musical in itself. I’m probably more turned on by minimalism at the moment than anything else. Just how beautiful something can sound by being so naked. But every film needs something different, and I suppose part of my job is figuring out what that is.