Satire, Sundance and Stalin: An Interview With Composer Christopher Willis

Christopher Willis is a film composer known for his work on children’s animation such as Mickey Mouse short films, and his collaborations with British satirist Armando Iannucci on Veep and most recently The Death of Stalin. This film has been described as a ‘comedy of terrors’ for its farcical depiction of a scheming Politburo all desperate to seize total power after the dictator’s demise.

The Death of Stalin had its UK release in October 2017, and recently had its American premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. The Death of Stalin recently received news coverage after Russian authorities refused to give the film an exhibition licence, and police forcibly stopped a cinema in Moscow from screening it.

The Death of Stalin has its UK DVD release on the 26th February.

Christopher, how did you find Sundance?

Glorious! It was the first time I’d been, and the special vibe of it was totally unfamiliar to me. It’s extraordinary, as much for the clothes as anything else. It’s so incredibly cold there [Park City, Utah], and all of the LA people need to completely rethink their wardrobe. There’s the odd person who didn’t realise and turns up in shorts and a t-shirt.

So how did The Death of Stalin come to be playing at this year’s Sundance festival?

The film has had an interesting history. It was actually sold in territories including the US around this time last year, before production had begun. I think people were sold on the strength of what they had heard about it. It was at Sundance not looking at distribution, but simply to premiere in the US. Because of its late US release it’s not eligible for this year’s Oscars but in fact for the 2019 ceremony [by contrast, the film was been nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film at this year’s event]. It’s interesting it’s coming out so early in the year as far as Oscars go, but we’ve been seeing a change to the traditional pattern of all the Oscars contenders coming out in the autumn.

I’m hopeful that the US will enjoy the film. I think it’s going to be timely, the film touching on a time of great political turmoil. The feeling at Sundance I got was that people were watching closely and hugely interested in what Armando [Iannucci] has to say about crazy political strife.

There are lines in the film, considering it was in development before the 2016 election, that approach the issue of different people believing different facts. Nobody quite says the phrase ‘alternative facts’ but they do talk about false narratives and there are various conversations that feel extremely prescient.

Speaking of premieres, Russian police stormed the film’s exhibition in Moscow. What’s your reaction to the film being banned in the country where it is set?

It’s extraordinary news, we’ve been following it with great interest. It’s very sad that the film is not getting an official release [in Russia]. We’re very happy to be hearing from lots of Russian journalists who have been able to see the film that they don’t understand the ban and they think the film deserves to be seen. That’s the message we’re hearing from most of the [Russian] people who have seen it. We remain hopeful that the film will get a release if possible.

It comes on the heels of the strange situation of Paddington 2, which also had trouble with its Russian release. To be honest it’s all rather surreal, for it seems to mirror things the film itself is about.

How did you go about creating a score for The Death of Stalin, where you’ve got to balance dark comedy with real-life atrocities?

The style of the music is very Russian, in contrast to the characters who are very obviously not using Russian accents. When I saw the film I saw straight away that the comedy didn’t need my help, it was funny without needing funny music. On the whole, the comedy is inside and plays well very dry. What I felt like I could bring to it was to remind us what’s going on outside, what’s going on with the millions of people who are suffering at the hands of the people who are making these decisions.

On the whole, the music doesn’t really break character. I think there’s a tradition of doing that with comedy, there are different ways of approaching comedy musically. I absolutely adored the music to Young Frankenstein, and the composer John Morris just recently passed away. The Death of Stalin is not a spoof, but it’s the same idea of the music doing its own kind of ‘method acting’, staying in character and not giving the game away. In the case of Young Frankenstein that’s Hollywood music of the 30s, for The Death of Stalin it’s Soviet music of the 50s.

There had actually been a question of using this Soviet music from the era, but ultimately it’s quite hard to utilise a pre-existing soundtrack. There’s much more you can do if you have a score specially written by a composer that you can’t do if you just borrow the music. What I did in the end was to just lock myself away and to study Soviet music for many months before I wrote anything for the film, and thereby make the whole thing have the organic shape that I wanted it to have. Things at the start of the film musically are very tightly controlled, very logical, but by the end of the film when things are getting out of control in the story, the music is much more primal, much more violent.

The film opens with desperate attempts to re-stage an opera so Stalin can listen to the recording at his leisure. Was there a desire to link your original score in with that scene?

We recorded all of that music ourselves. The Mozart concerto that’s playing, that’s actually me playing the piano, matching up with the onscreen recording. There are a few cues that bridge the gap between the two things. As we see the LP being carried from the concert hall to Stalin’s dacha there’s a score cue, crossing between the opera and1950s Soviet music, Shostakovich does Mozart. Later when the pianist Maria is playing, this is a nod that they’re in the same universe.

What is the difference to the creative approach in your work with children’s fare such as the Mickey Mouse shorts, and adult comedy like Veep and The Death of Stalin?

It’s very much shades of grey. I suppose that the most general thought is that the music for more grown-up things is much more ambivalent about what you’re seeing, perhaps a mismatch between what the music is saying and what the action is saying. When I’m doing family entertainment everything happening is more homogenous, the effort is to emphasise the strongest possible feeling, the fear or the delight that you are seeing. It’s interesting how much that varies actually, there may be moments in one of my Disney shows where we take a much more grown-up approach, and there may be the odd moment in Veep where we just get away with treating it almost like a cartoon. There’s more overlap than one might imagine.

You have a PhD in musicology. How has this knowledge been used in your music composition?

For many years I’m not sure that it was. I came out to LA and there was so much for me to learn that I remained a student and became a beginner again. When the Mickey Mouse gig came my way, I suddenly found that I was needing to research the music of different countries at high speed. For instance I might suddenly need to write for a cartoon that was all Bollywood music, or an upcoming one set during the Rio carnival. I had to get to know samba and the carnival tradition. With those things I do suddenly feel like I am a musicologist again.

I listen as widely as I can and use some of the analytical tools I learned as a musicologist. I’ve found since then it’s happened multiple times, including on The Death of Stalin where I was trying to learn Russian music as well as I could. For the first portion of the project I feel I’m not really a composer but more of a musicologist. Eventually I’m able to put all of that away and concentrate on writing.

Which other films from the past year have impressed you for their score?

I very much admired the score to Get Out [by Michael Abels]. I’m happy to see that film getting attention. I thought it was a very stylish, Hitchcockian score. A lot of work went into making that film so effective. I also adored The Last Jedi. In fact I had to stop listening to the soundtrack because John Williams is one of those composers that I find so gripping that as soon as I start listening to him I try to work out what he’s doing and it messes up my own writing routine. Sometime when I don’t have anything else on I can have a listen to the rest of it.

Are there any current plans to be working with Iannucci on future projects?

Not yet, but we’ve discovered that we work very well together and I hope we will.


The London Economic would like to thank Christopher Willis for taking the time to speak to us. The Death of Stalin has a UK DVD release on 26th February.


Film Review: The Death of Stalin

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