Lorne Balfe is down with the flu, but that doesn’t stop him from detailing his experience on star-studded projects like Inception and His Dark Materials. Over the phone with MetroPlus, the British composer, who’s worked with directors such as Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee, Chris McQuarrie and Guy Ritchie, says it’s been a golden year for him.

Conversations with directors and reflecting on and referring to scripts for inspiration differ from project to project for most composers. “Many times, what’s in the script doesn’t make it to the film these days,” the 43-year-old points out, “and when you choose a job, you take it based on genre and whom you’re going to work with, if you believe in them. Ideally, it’s great to gain inspiration from the script, but when filming starts, characters and their journeys can change. Looking at some of the concept art for inspiration is helpful. His Dark Materials was like that, and as a fan of the books, I found myself trying to figure out that musical sound for 10 to 15 years, but concept art stepped in.” Recent concept art-heavy films include Inception (for which Lorne was nominated for an Academy Award), and Ad Astra (for which Lorne wrote additional music).

Will Smith in ‘Gemini Man’ (2019)

Similarly, Lorne, who is also known for composing for video games such as Assassin’s Creed III and Call Of Duty, has studio walls that are covered with the concept art of an in-production game that will release in two years. Then there’s the melding of sounds which will be felt in Underground 6, directed by Taika Waititi. “The canvas of instruments is so vast, we’ve got to be ready to use what’s necessary to bring out the story. There shouldn’t be any rules with music.”

A love for childhood influences

Scaling out a score for a series such as His Dark Materials, which airs in India in early November on HBO, made the experience a mammoth of project for Lorne and he’s proud to be working on something which has been a part of millions of people’s childhoods. “The sheer size and the legacy of it are special,” states Lorne, “and we’ve been recording all over world; we recorded Sarah Willis, a French horn player with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, in Havana, Cuba. Other locations included Los Angeles, Bulgaria, Vienna, Wales, to name a few.” The compositions, he says, are a melding of electronics and live instruments, all put together to push the envelope.

Dafne Keene as Lyra Belacqua in ‘His Dark Materials’ (2019)

Dafne Keene as Lyra Belacqua in ‘His Dark Materials’ (2019)  

Has His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman heard the score? Lorne pauses before responding, “I’ve never spoken to Philip but while doing research, I found references he’d made regarding inspiration. I hope he likes it! I’m starting to panic now; it’d be horrible to think if he doesn’t like it.”

The visuals in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows were as memorable as the eerily modern score. Though the Robert Downey Jr-starrer released eight years ago, the music still lingers in the mind. “It’s not about formula, it’s about inspiration. A film like that has such an iconic character, you have that soundtrack in your head as a composer through your life. When you read those books, you live and breathe Holmes and Watson’s lives and their eccentricities — all of this becomes DNA. Getting to work on Mission Impossible: Fallout is like that too; I’d watched the TV show growing up and have been a fan of the movies for half my life. When you get to do a score of a film of which you’ve known the characters for so long, the inspiration is just endless.”

A fan of The Art Of Noise, a synth-pop from England, environmental sounds ingratiate much of his inspiration, Lorne says, adding, “Hans Zimmer and I considered Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows to be a steampunk genre; our inspiration came from Sherlock’s own travels. We also drew from the Roma community; the gypsy way of playing music and mixing that with elements from Ireland. So we created a fictitious musical map for Sherlock.”

Two for one

In Gemini Man, working with director Ang Lee was a win, and presenting the score for two characters played by one actor was a fun challenge. “The first time watching the film, I had to help the story musically in that each of Will’s characters had their own theme but both were of the same DNA. So I wrote melodies for them both but they’d play on top of each other so that, no matter what, they were connected.” This was one of the first things he showed to Ang whom he commends for being one of the most technologically revolutionary directors but also an organic storyteller.

Will Smith in ‘Gemini Man’

Will Smith in ‘Gemini Man’  

As a composer, Lorne understands the value of a powerful orchestra. Tina Guo, a cellist who played for Wonder Woman, Gladiator and video games such as Skyrim and Final Fantasy VII, performed live for Ang while Lorne played, to present how the two themes can be intertwined.

Lorne agrees that working with other departments is integral to the storytelling process. “Mission Impossible: Fallout director Chris McQuarrie has a great sensibility in seeing where music is allowed to be prominent and where sound effects can take over. The bathroom fight sequence in Fallout was one of the best action sequences of all time, and there’s no music there, but the sound effects there are more powerful than music. So you’ve got to learn that music doesn’t necessarily have to be hard in intensity.” He affirms that a film like Inception where visuals are trippy, require a careful balance of sight and sound.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in ‘Inception’ (2010)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in ‘Inception’ (2010)  

What set Ad Astra and Inception apart? “If there is a heart and soul to the story, inspiration follows naturally,” responds Lorne, “and it is very hard to be passionate about a character if there is no depth to them. Ad Astra is a visually beautiful film but the story is the interesting part. I love the film because of Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) and I relate to the film as a father and a son.”

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