Debbie Wiseman

Debbie Wiseman MBE is one of the UK’s most popular composers for film and television, having written acclaimed scores for Othello, Land Girls and Wilde. M interviewed her about the power of music to transform a film…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 7 Nov 2013
  • min read
Flexibility is one of the attributes screen composer Debbie Wiseman MBE keeps coming back to when discussing writing music for the screen.

Both in terms of musical style and writing to tight deadlines, this flexibility is something Debbie has perfected over the course of a long and acclaimed career.

Over the last 30 years, she’s shown off an uncanny ability to flit between genre and style when writing for the screen. Highlights from her career include work on family film Tom’s Midnight Garden, television series Judge John Deed, French action adventure film Arsene Lupin and the biopic Wilde, starring Stephen Fry. Debbie is also a talented conductor who is renowned for taking her scores into the concert hall. This combination of talents saw her honoured in the Queen's New Year's Honours list with an MBE for services to the music and film industry in 2004.

M interviewed Debbie about her career, writing scores and why a great piece of music can transform a film…

How did you first start film composing?

I was classically trained at Guildhall and got a gig fairly quickly with Channel 4 for a drama documentary. The company I worked with went on to be quite successful. I stuck with them and quickly built up a list of credits.

Once you’ve got credits, it’s far easier. The phone rings for you rather than you having to do the calling.

At what stage do you become involved in a film?

It varies with each project. I’m recently did a film about the life of Dylan Thomas which started with a script and I used that as a basis for themes and ideas.

Seeing a rough cut is ideal for me. I get involved early enough to get some thinking time so I can develop the music during filming. On other films, you might get to see a cut really late in the day and only have weeks to come up with the whole thing.

I did a film called Flood right at the last minute. I had to write two hours worth of music in less than three weeks but you do get used to working at high speeds. It doesn’t phase me at all anymore. I know I can deliver on time and that’s a good, desirable skill to have.

So being flexible is key for screen composers?  

Yes there’s no such thing as a locked cut. With digital technology, changes can be made until the very last minute. That’s great for the director but it means your whole music sequence can change at the drop of a hat.

You’ve got to be flexible and able to make changes on the fly sometimes at high speed. It can be pressured.

Are there different challenges associated with composing for TV and film?  

Not really. It’s all about writing to picture. They’re both full on jobs. Sometime there are budgetary differences. But budgets are being slashed for music across the board. So you have to be creative and make it sound as if you do have the big budget for a big orchestra. That’s a trick of the trade - you get to make something small sound huge.

Has technology made that possible?

Of course. But I always fight for live musicians. I didn’t get into the industry to work with machines all the time! I like collaborating with musicians and sharing the music. You can’t always afford this. But we’ve got great musicians in this country and it’d be a shame not to use them.

How do you start a score for a film?

I try and find a theme. I avoid cliches and try to make it sound fresh – so it completely conjures up the image of that production. The best scores are the ones where the music and the images are so well attuned you can’t ever imagine one being without the other.

Is the film composition industry in good health?

There are a lot of opportunities out there both in TV and film. A lot of channels, advertising and in film. It’s always been competitive and there will always be too many people for the gigs. There aren’t many films being made in this country but with television there are opportunities.

To get in and start a career is difficult because you have to build a reputation. And that can take some years. But the demand for music and original music is there. Long may it continue.

What do you enjoy most?

It’s the best job in the world. I love coming up with new music, writing scores, working and collaborating with other people. When you’re writing for the concert hall, it’s quite a lonely profession as it’s just you and your manuscript. And then you don’t actually see anyone until you get to the performance.

When you’re writing for film, you’re constantly involved with everyone in the production. There are a lot of people involved and all have a say on the music in some way. I enjoy the collaborative element. If you want to enjoy a career in this field, then you have to enjoy working with people.

You have to write to please the team and make sure you’re creating a soundtrack they want to hear that they feel is helping their film, helping tell the story and shaping their characters and drama which music can do so brilliantly.

We’re very lucky we have these great musicians in this country. It’s such a pleasure to write the music and see it performed by them while in the studio. There is nothing better than writing it, hearing it performed and seeing it performed on film and TV.

What does a good score do to a film? 

Producers and directors value what a score can do and how much it can elevate a film. Most people never see a film without music and just accept that it’s there.

If you watch that same programme without music, you begin to understand the power of the score and the power of music over picture and how it tells you what you can’t see, what the dialogue can’t tell you. Emotion, subtext, fear, drama and romance - all those things are instantly helped by the music. Music is such an emotional tool in a film.