NFTS 2009 Composing graduate Stuart Earl has been speaking to NFTS students about working on the Sundance Film Festival award winning film Lilting starring Ben Wishaw and Cheng Pei Pei, with writer-director Hong Khaou and fellow NFTS graduates.
Speaking in conversation with NFTS Head of Post Production, Dean Humphreys, after a screening of the film, Earl, who signed to United Agents at his graduation screening, explained how he landed the role of composer on Lilting. He was the first composer to be named a Star of Tomorrow by Screen International magazine – the UK’s leading film trade publication. At the ‘Stars’ celebration, he met producer Dominic Buchanan who showed him the script for Lilting.
Earl said he found the themes of language and communication, and lack of communication, intriguing. – and was keen to work with Director Hong Khaou.
"Hong was brilliant. Lilting is his first feature, he's done a few shorts, but he'd never really worked with a composer before, which is always interesting, but he did brilliant. I said to him - basically - if we put any temp music in, try not to love that too much and, when you listen to it, try to listen on decent speakers or headphones."
However, Khaou was unsure if there should be any music in the film before he shot it. Earl said: "It doesn't mean there the film doesn’t have any music, but it tells you what sort of music we'll be dealing with, and it won't be something huge and bombastic, but quite minimal. The slow paced moments and the dancing, they were the obvious places there would be music in there."
Set in contemporary London, the Microwave film with a £120,000 budget tells the story of a Cambodian-Chinese mother mourning the untimely death of her son. Her world is suddenly disrupted by the presence of an English stranger, and we observe their difficulties in trying to connect with one another and begin to process their grief without a common language.
Earl and Khaou talked about references and before he had even seen a cut, Earl particularly thought about Alexandre Desplat's score in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). "These floaty harmonics - I used them quite a lot."
After seeing the first cut he just wanted to get as much of his music in as soon as possible, and started sending sketches over. It was a process to find the language, and Earl was working from his studio, mostly e-mailing with Khaou. "We weren't entirely sure where music was going to go until the very end stages, so I did sketches to pictures, keeping it in the background, not really trying to hit any points, but getting the tone. We also had a spotting session. I think in the end, I really didn't want too much music in it at all. Even in the mix I took two cues out."
Earl worked on Lilting for about a year part-time, and advised NFTS students to, "take as many jobs as you can [when you graduate]."
Writer-director Anthony Chen, also an NFTS graduate, asked Earl to write the score for his debut feature, the Caméra d'Or and four times Golden Horse winner Ilo Ilo (2013), but Earl watched it and said "It doesn't need any music," which Chen was quite chuffed about.
"The film has been so successful - now I wish I'd put in at least a drone or something of course" Earl laughs and adds "but it was definitely the right decision."
Earl's standout credits include By The Grace of God (2012), In Our Name (2010) and My Brother the Devil (2012), TV-series Black Mirror (2011) and Mayday (2012). He is currently writing for theatre and also working on Danny Boyle's TV-series Babylon.
NFTS Cinematography graduate Ula Pontiakos won the Sundance Cinematography Award: World Cinema Dramatic for her work as DoP on this film.
Lilting is released by Artificial Eye on August 8th.
Film London’s Microwave scheme is looking for the next generation of filmmaking talent – and will offer bespoke training and feature film funding, as well as development and distribution support. Applications close on 30 July.http://filmlondon.org.uk/microwave
Pictured: Stuart Earl (centre) with staff and students.