Benjamin Wallfisch

From classical orchestras to the art house films of Lars Von Triers, composer Benjamin Wallfisch has scored music for them all. M quizzed him on how he broke into Hollywood and the concert hall…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 6 Dec 2013
  • min read
Benjamin Wallfisch is one of the busiest composers in the business.

As a classically trained composer, he divides his time between writing music for TV and Hollywood films and composing for (and conducting) orchestras.

Over the last year he’s managed to come up with scores for six feature films as well as three concert works including commissions for the London Philharmonic and LA Chamber Orchestra.

It’s a dedication and admiral attitude to his work which has not gone unnoticed by the industry. He was nominated for best original film score in the Ivors for his music for The Escapist in 2009 while also picking up a nomination in the 2009 Emmy Awards. Ben has also been nominated as discovery of the year in the 2005 and 2008 World Soundtrack Awards.

M managed to track him down amid his hectic schedule to quiz him about screen composing and how he managed to make it in the business…

Did you want to compose music for film from an early age?

I grew up with music all around me, with both my parents being professional string players. There was always a piano in the house and I started playing before my feet could touch the pedals. I loved improvising and refused to read music until I was much older, much to the despair of my piano teachers!

We also went to the movies a lot as a family, and I was lucky to grow up during the golden age of the Williams/Spielberg collaborations. I vividly remember seeing E.T. and being floored by the music. I just had to know how it worked and went home to try and figure it out on the piano. I was hooked on film music from then on, although I went on to have a classical music training.

So you had a formal musical education?

Yes - at 14 while still at school I also went to the Guildhall School of Music, where my wonderful composition teacher Jeffery Wilson encouraged me to continue with my experiments with early samplers and sequencers as well as insisting on my writing five minutes of chamber music a week which would then be performed by student ensembles. I then went on to study on the joint course between the University of Manchester and the Royal Northern College of Music where I had some amazing teachers. During that time I started writing a lot of music for Granada Television which was my first true taste of media music. I then went on to do my masters in composition at the Royal Academy of Music, which is where I also started to do a lot of conducting.

What was your big break?

When I was 24, some of the orchestral work I had written at the academy was heard by Thomas Vinterberg. He was looking for a composer to score Dear Wendy, and after a brief meeting in Copenhagen, he hired me. Looking back they were taking a big risk as I had zero film credits at that point, but it worked out well. It was a surreal and wonderful moment conducting the Philharmonia at the scoring sessions having only left college a year earlier.

Dario Marianelli happened to hear the score and got in touch as he needed someone to help him with orchestration. At the time I had no idea that composers hired orchestrators due to time constraints, so went into our meeting with a very open mind. It turned into a true apprenticeship - Dario is a wonderful artist and is incredibly loyal and demanding. I learnt a huge amount from him and we went on to collaborate on 18 scores together over seven years, where I orchestrated and conducted his music, including two that were Oscar nominated, and one that won the Oscar for best score (Atonement) .

I’ve been turning down all offers of orchestration work for the last two years, so I can concentrate on composing. But I still love to collaborate with other composers. In fact I recently had one of the most inspiring experiences of my career working for Hans Zimmer writing additional music for his score for 12 Years A Slave.

What do you think are the key qualities a successful screen composer needs?

Like anything creative, it’s all about the quality of your work. The music has to come first beyond networking and contacts. One of the key things about writing to picture is your ability to communicate well with your clients and set up a situation where they feel like they can say anything they like to you about their vision for the movie, and you can translate that into music. You need to understand how to tell stories with music while never getting in the way of what’s on screen. You never want to tell the audience what emotions to feel, but instead create an emotive environment. How you do that I think ultimately is an instinctive thing. I love the process of going on a journey with a director to find the musical ‘voice’ of the score - it has to be unique for every project.

What do you enjoy most about composing music for film?

I write concert music too, which is very important to me. But that can be a very lonely job as the only parameters to work with, or stories to tell, are the ones you invent for yourself. It’s a great platform to express all the stuff you would never be able to put into a film score, but I know now that I’m happiest when I’m collaborating with other people - directors, producers, editors, writers - they are some of the most inspiring people around and I also enjoy being part of something much bigger than just me.

What projects have you recently been working on?

These last 12 months I scored six movies including Summer in February, a beautiful period drama set in Edwardian Cornwall, Hammer of the Gods, a Viking movie with an entirely electronic score; Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain and Relativity Media’s Desert Dancer, starring Freida Pinto and set in Iran. I’m just finishing a beautiful feature for the BBC, The Thirteenth Tale, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Coleman, directed by James Kent and produced by David Heyman (Harry Potter, Gravity).

I also composed the music for a very powerful suspense thriller, Hours (Lionsgate/Pantelion). Tragically, one of the most generous, kind and deeply talented actors of his generation, Paul Walker, died just a couple of weeks before being able to share what I believe to be his very best performance, as the lead in this movie. It’s a very difficult time right now for all involved, but the producers took the decision to proceed with the release, as it is a true testament to Paul’s incredible talent and strength of character. We are dedicating the soundtrack album to Paul Walker’s memory and donating all proceeds from album sales to his relief effort organisation, Reach Out WorldWide.

Have you any favourite scores or composers you go to for musical inspiration?

In chronological order, Beethoven, Mahler, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokoviev, Korngold, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Herrmann, Ligeti, Williams, Reich, Adams and Zimmer.