BWW Interview: Composer Vik Sharma Discusses His Score For FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY
Composer Vik Sharma spoke with us about his score for the new film Fighting With My Family and what it was like working with Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon.
Tell me a bit about your background, how did you decide to be a composer?
Music has always been a big part of my life. Both my grandfather and father were classically trained musicians in the Indian tradition. My childhood was spent listening to music from India, the UK, and the US. My father was a singer and would listen to and sing classical Indian stuff, but he was also a huge fan of Nat King Coleand Frank Sinatra. My mother continues to be hugely passionate about music - she is now in her seventies and runs a non-profit music and arts organizations here in the UK. I taught myself how to play the guitar when I was a kid, playing along to The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrixand Led Zeppelin, Neil Young- setting a high bar! Then I played in a few bands, one of which was signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World Records. After that, I was approached to score a TV documentary, and I loved it. The process, the work, the idea of driving narrative, heightening characterization and creating compelling worlds through music - I find it thrilling. I'm a self-taught musician, so a lot of my work involves improvisation, experimentation - essentially play. I can't think of a more enjoyable, fulfilling thing to do.
Your latest project is the upcoming film, which premiered at Sundance, Fighting With My Family, how did you get involved with that project?
I've worked with the writer and director, Stephen Merchant a few times before. He executive produced the comedy series, An Idiot Abroad, which I scored. He liked it and asked me to compose the music for his HBO sitcom, Hello Ladies. I was even a contributor on his radio show for the BBC in the UK. He first mentioned Fighting With My Family in 2016. I was, of course, immediately interested given our previous work together. Merchant is a thoughtful, intelligent filmmaker-he always has a vision of what he wants to achieve and works collaboratively and with wit and empathy to bring it to the screen. He sent me the script and I thought it was fantastic-lots of humor, with heart and emotion, but also quite cinematic in scope.
You brought on Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon to play guitar for the score, can you speak about what that collaboration was like?
Stephen Merchant wanted a guitar-led, rock score, and we had agreed that drawing upon the British rock, punk and new-wave vernacular was in keeping with the lead character and family. He also liked the idea of working with an A-List guitar player-someone who was innovative, a bit edgy, cliché averse, but also capable of expressing a range of different emotions. I had an opportunity to meet with Graham, we hung out, discussed the movie and he was immediately into it. I think the basis of any good collaboration requires a connection - you need to get on, have a shared frame of reference, broadly feel the same things - and it became clear almost immediately that Graham and I had that. Then he came into the studio, pulled out his guitar and played on my compositions in a very fluid, improvised way that was just brilliant, a joy. I would offer direction to ensure that the director's vision was always paramount, but Coxon felt a connection to the characters and situations in the film too, and each take he played was a refinement, a dialogue between composition, image, and guitar.
Did you meet with Paige or her family while working on the score? Where did you pull inspiration from?
I haven't met Paige or her family yet. I look forward to doing so! I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing in terms of writing the score. My ultimate responsibility is to the film and the person making it-in this case, Stephen Merchant. It's his vision, his interpretation of events in Paige's life and the music has to help evoke that. So, inspiration came from extensive discussions with him, sending each other existing music or me sending demos, him reviewing them, offering his thoughts and ideas. Ultimately, we landed on this stripped down, edgy, somewhat scruffy sound that is evocative of the characters Stephen Merchant has created. And working with Graham Coxon and Jason Cooper of The Cure (who plays drums on the score) helped enrich that sound with an authenticity and energy that might have been harder to find with session players. Had I met Paige then tendency might have been to try and please her, not the director!
How much creative freedom did you have while composing? Was there a clear direction or were you able to experiment?
The score is entirely improvised really. Most cues start with me strumming through scenes with an acoustic guitar, hitting the emotional and dramatic beats, then developing the sound through arrangement and instrumentation. Finally bringing in players like Coxon and Cooper to add magic and mischief.
But Stephen had a clear idea of what he wanted at the script stage. He wanted a rock soundtrack, he wanted the guitar to lead. He didn't want strings and he didn't want piano. It had to be unadorned.
So, we were limited in terms of instrumentation, which brought its own compositional headaches. Strings and piano are like the connective tissue of film music - they cross time signatures and tempo relatively easily and you can emote with subtlety, complexity and power. With a guitar, it's a little more challenging. You can do all of the above, but it's much easier to fall into cliché.
Did you use any unique instruments or sounds in your score for that film?
No, for the most part it was good, old fashioned, honest to goodness rock and roll! However, we did use reversed instruments throughout the score to create a heightened sense of drama and discombobulation.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for best?
My career has been steeped in character-led comedy, and I love to do that. The genre is less important to me than the opportunity to work with a creative team committed to using music in new and interesting ways. If I think about some of my favorite scores in the past year, for instance Hereditary by Colin Stetson and You Were Never Really Here by Jonny Greenwood, they were both unconventional in their instrumentation but perfectly captured the essence of the characters' journey and the world in which their story takes place.
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
There are loads of directors across cinema and theatre I admire and would love to work with-Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey, Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Armando Lanucci, Simon McBurney, Robert Lepage, Melly Still,the list goes on! But, what's really important to me is being engaged in creative work that's full of new ideas, innovation, and opportunities to learn and be inspired.
When you're not composing, what do you enjoy doing?
I love cinema, observing the craft, the performances, and the music, of course. Every viewing is an opportunity to learn. I was recently made a member of BAFTA, and have had the chance of sitting on the judging panel, which has enriched my appreciation of the craft even further. I go to the theatre - watching Simon McBurney in his one-man show, Encounters, was a recent highlight. I also love live music-I'm very excited to see Kamasi Washington perform in London this spring. And of course, spending time with my family and friends, kicking back, laughing, carousing and having fun!
Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing music as a career, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Yeah - don't be a prima donna! If you go into scoring for film or TV for personal glory or notoriety, then you're probably in the wrong line of business. The goal is to service the vision of the director, or program maker. And if they are struggling to define that vision, then a composer has a responsibility to help bring it into focus. Personal fulfilment is not always the ultimate goal. So, park the ego, don't take criticism personally, and remember that a good job is one where you contribute to the creative direction of the entire project. It's the director's world, we just live in it!
Can you tease any other upcoming projects?
I'm writing my first solo album, a series of ambient soundscapes, partially recorded binaurally to incorporate sounds of nature. The goal is that you will feel like you are physically in nature as you listen to the music; in an autumnal forest, sunrise at the beach, a rainstorm in the city-that kind of thing. A chance to chill out, de-stress and be closer to nature: who doesn't need that from time to time?
Fighting With My Family is in theaters now.
IMAGES Courtesy of Vik Sharma