Every so often, I hear a score that transports me to another time and place, a piece of music that stands out from all of the rest. The music written by Laurent Eyquem for Copperhead fits that description. When I was invited to a private screening of the film back in December, before the picture was locked, I spoke with director Ron Maxwell before the show, and told him something that I had to think about with much deliberation: this melancholy yet uplifting soundtrack may be better than the one for Gods and Generals…it may have even surpassed Gettysburg. Ron smiled and noted that he loved the job Laurent did, and was very happy with the finished product. We both agreed on something else, and that was how kind and down-to-earth this composer was. Sometimes musicians can be very high-strung, or almost detached, but Laurent is as good a person as he is a musician. When I introduced myself to him via email before asking for an interview, he told me that he had already known of my work, because he had been following my blog for months, and even linked some articles on his website. We then conducted the interview below, which took place this past spring, and followed that with a lengthy conversation about films and music, and also about Copperhead, as he was curious to know my thoughts since I had seen the film already. It was a very fun and interesting afternoon.
GC: How did you first get involved with Copperhead?
LE: I first met Ron Maxwell when he came to congratulate me on the score of Winnie. He was in Toronto for a screening at the Toronto Film Festival that year, and he came to talk to me at the end of the production. He was a friend with one of the producers and he came to tell me that he really enjoyed my score and we chatted a little. A few months later, he wanted to meet with me because he was starting Copperhead and wanted to see what kind of scores I did outside of Winnie. He listened to some more of my music and we talked about Copperhead a little.
GC: Did you know anything about the American Civil War before you get involved?
LE: I knew only a little about the Civil War. I’m from France, but in the school program at the university, we had an American history class, so I knew a little about it, but not as much as a person like Ron. After we started to talk about Copperhead, I went to check a few movies and to see what Ron did in the past, and I learned more about that time period in history.
GC: Were you influenced by anything when writing the score?
LE: No. When I worked on the movie, and this was a discussion I had with Ron, I tried to get myself as far as possible from the music in other movies and music that he has used. I base all my scores on a very tight collaboration with the director, when we exchanged ideas about the types of emotions and what we want the person to feel at that moment. When I thought about emotion, very often I was getting back to Ron, and he requested a lot of detail. For example, if you have sadness in any of the scenes that the director wants, I am going to go deep into detail. When I write, I try to create a soundtrack that is the signature of the movie, so it is not a copy of another soundtrack, and belongs to Copperhead. I always try to put in the instruments that will be the signature.
GC: Can you describe your method of writing music? I would think that writing music on its own would be much easier than trying to match it up with something going on in a movie.
LE: I have two challenges when I write music for a movie. The first one, usually, is going over with the director each scene and deciding when we want to have some score. I go deep into detail about the kind of emotions that are happening on screen. I will always remember Ron calling me during the shooting, telling me that he was removing certain scenes, or removing dialogue, “because with the kind of score you do, you will just transport us with the emotions”. In that kind of collaboration with the director is where you need to lay exactly in details the emotion that we want. Then, I work. What I do, usually, is compose mathematically, down to the thousandth of a second, the sequence. Sometimes in scenes, you get not one cue, but two. My challenge is to respect that sequence right there, that way I can get the rhythm. Usually when the music comes, it comes all together. I feel it in my head, the complete orchestration. I then have to write it down, with all the different instruments, like the violins and the strings, the woodwinds, etc, etc. I have a grand piano here, for when the music comes fully in my head, then I go back to the studio and I put it down, and after that, match the rhythm with the tempo of the score in the certain sequence.
GC: How long does it take for you to write and record a soundtrack for a film?
LE: (Laughs) Sometimes we have a very, very tight schedule depending on the work with the production. I’ve done some films where I have had five weeks, which can be very hard. This one we did step-by-step with Ron, who asked me to write the opening theme in advance as well as the romantic theme. I would say that I wrote the rest of it in five to six weeks after that, and I am from the school of the composer where I have to write absolutely everything. I have to dot every I and cross every T, because I write the music for each and every instrument. It is a very physical method for me.
GC: Can you describe the Copperhead soundtrack for those who have not seen the film or heard any of the music?
LE: That’s a good question. The soundtrack is really related to the life of these characters. We start with only one or two instruments so we can focus on the individual then go to the big kind of Americana score which will remind us of life at the time of the Civil War. It goes from very timid to very big, but its never too big—it stays within a reasonable dimension. I really wanted for the score, every time it comes in, to take the people on a journey in a melodic way. The score was very important for Ron, as it has been for each of his movies. We needed a score that could capture the passions of the individuals, yet at the same time, be very close, and at no time are we ever far away from these characters.
GC: This next question is not about this film, but rather, your career. I had read an article that said you experienced an injury that nearly threatened your career, because doctors considered amputating one of your arms. How did you overcome this in order to write music today and play instruments?
LE: I had stopped working with music for a few years and had this injury right when I was coming back to the field. I had done some charity work for different organizations like the Red Cross, and when I came back, I felt that this is what I would be doing for the rest of my life, and when I had this accident, I survived a fall and my arm was so bad they wanted to amputate it. Because I was still conscious before I went into surgery, I told the doctor that they had to find a way to save my arm. It was a long and painful process, and I am one of only a few people in the world to experience such an injury without my arm having to be amputated. That was my motivation to recover, and as I told the surgeon, if my arm could not be saved and I could no longer play music, I would be dead in my head. My life would be meaningless and I would have no reason to live. When I woke up after the surgery, I saw my arm and was able to move my fingers. I thanked the surgeon but he said not to thank him because they had to remove everything inside of the elbow and that the arm may have to be fused in the future. There was going to be extreme pain for the next year or so. But the motivation to play music was there, and that is what kept me going, along with the help and support of my wife. Playing the piano actually helped me in the long run because the different finger movements strengthened the muscles in the arm. It took about two years for me to return to music.
I would like to thank Laurent for taking the time to conduct this interview, as well as express my happiness that he recovered from injury so well. Imagine how different this film would be without his soundtrack. The score for Copperhead was just released for iTunes, which you can check out here. The CD will be released on June 25.