The music behind the dialogues – Interview with Mark Hinton Stewart

The 2007 film The Man from Earth became a cult classic, in the last decade, despite the fact that it did not have a cinematic release in Hungary. For background information about the film’s score we turned to the composer Mark Hinton Stewart, who was kind enough to answer questions about the composition process. The interview turned out to be quite relevant as it comes on the heels of the announcement that the story will be continued in The Man from Earth: Holocene, which is in preproduction

How did you get into the world of movie scores?

Like most composers who get into film, there was a certain amount of luck involved. In my case, the luck began straight after I graduated from university where I'd studied for a degree in music. I moved close to London and spent 2 years teaching (like everyone, I needed to earn money!) and one of my students was a very talented violinist who was about to embark on a journey through music conservatoires and into one of London's finest orchestras. We stayed good friends and when he came to me with the idea of starting a company to contract musicians to record the soundtracks to go onto films, he had my full support and help. At the time, I was playing with a lot of bands on the UK live music scene and I was also doing a lot of recording sessions as a piano/keyboard player so my knowledge of studios and recorded music complemented his knowledge of the finest orchestral musicians in London. I worked a lot with him to build the company and we visited Los Angeles many times to promote the business and to promote London as a great place for composers to come and record their scores. The next logical step was to start to represent composers, and so we opened up a composer agency. I was one of the first composers on the books and a chance meeting with a director who was struggling to find the right music for his film saw me step forward and suggest what I thought would be the right direction for the music. He hired me and I had my first film score! The film, Tube Tales, was a big hit in the UK and once I had that credit, other films started to come my waynzerv.

How did you become a member of The Man from Earth team?

Again, it was a bit of luck. The director had met one of our other composers at the agency, but he wasn't free to do the job, so he recommended me. Richard Schenkman and I had many transatlantic phone calls (he was based in Los Angeles) and he sent me a rough cut of the film and I loved it. We talked at length about ideas for the score and, despite the fact that he was in LA and I was in London, he asked me to start working on it.

How long did it take you to write the score? Was all your music included in the film?

It probably took me about 5 or 6 weeks to complete all the music and he used everything that I composed. We established a great way of working where the editor broke the movie up into a number of QuickTime movies that he sent via the internet, I wrote the various music cues and as each cue was completed, I sent it over to him in the edit suite back in Los Angeles. The cues were all encoded with the timecode reference so he was able to drop them straight into the movie and Richard was able to give me immediate feedback. It meant that any changes that needed to be made could be done straight away so we really didn't waste any time. It was an incredibly productive, immediate way of working and I've tried to work like that on all the projects that I've done since then.

How did you come up with the musical atmosphere and style? What made you decide to use the instruments you used? What instructions did you receive from Richard Schenkman? 

Because most of the film takes place in one room with the same group of people, I knew that the music could never get too big or inappropriate for the mood of the film. Richard gave me a blank canvas as he hadn't used temp music, and that was really helpful, as I wasn't guided by hearing any other music. The location where the film was shot was a big inspiration for the musical atmosphere and style. There are a number of establishing external shots at the start of the film that inspired the slowly evolving atmospheric pads and heavily delayed textural guitar part, and those became a feature of the whole score. The main character, John Oldman, is immortal, living across time for more than 14,000 years. I needed an instrument that could echo his timelessness, and I thought the melancholic tones of the clarinet would be perfect for that, so the clarinet became the main solo instrument. The great thing about working with Richard was that he gave me complete trust and freedom to write whatever I felt was right, and he imposed no limitations in establishing the sound for the film. I'm very proud of the music that I composed for the film and very grateful that I was given the opportunity to work on such an inspiring piece.

Was the Gregorian chant-like singing recorded specifically for this score or was it an existing recording that was sampled?

[SPOILER] The Gregorian chant underpinned the moment that John, pressed by the group, reluctantly reveals that, in trying to bring Buddha's teachings to the West, he became the inspiration for the Jesus story. [END OF SPOILER] Because of the religious nature of this scene I thought that the Gregorian chant combined with the already established musical textures would be perfect. I chose a religious text, Kyrie Eleison meaning 'Lord, have mercy' and wrote a chant that I then sang myself and tracked a number of times to give the impression of a group of singers. So yes, it was written and recorded specifically for this score, and sung by me!

How did the title song "Forever" come about, for which Richard Schenkman wrote the lyrics? Which came about first, the title song or the score?

"Forever" came before the score – it was the first thing that I wrote. Richard had always had the idea of a song for the end credits and when I first spoke to him he'd already written the lyrics, which were inspired by John's story. Actually, before I spoke to him for the first time, I already had a copy of the lyrics and a fairly clear idea of what the song should sound like. Amazingly, the song took on a life of its own and spawned many YouTube videos where various people were inspired to create their own images for it.

In the film and on the soundtrack we can hear the "2nd Movement" of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. During the film and on the soundtrack it is very different from your quieter musical style. Why did you choose this piece?

The Beethoven was used because Jerome Bixby specified it in the script and the fact that it was used in Tarsem Singh's The Fall that was made around the same time, was a pure coincidence.

Will there be a The Man from Earth II or maybe The Man from Earth - The Series? Would you like to continue the musical story?

There has been talk of a sequel and a series, and there have been Kickstarter campaigns to try and raise the money, and I know that Richard is working very hard on getting a pilot for the series made. As always, the major issue is raising the money, but Richard remains very hopeful and optimistic. If it happens, I'm very keen to continue the journey with The Man from Earth and I'll certainly let you know if things start to happen! 

Why haven't you written any more film scores? Is there a chance that we will see your name on a credit list soon? 

I've done a few film scores since The Man from Earth but mostly low budget. Unless you're in Hollywood, it's pretty hard to crack the film industry, and I don't have any plans to move out to California as my family are happy living on London. Most composers in the UK are composing for TV and that's what I've been doing. I'm lucky in that most of my TV work has been television dramas, so that's the next best thing to writing for films. Of course, if a film director/producer comes calling, I'll be jumping at the opportunity.

Last year saw the release of your electronic rock band's album Electric Blue Lemon with Giles Andrews, you are also a choirmaster at a London church where you play the organ, and you play the keyboards in The Berakah Project too. How do you balance three seemingly so different musical worlds? 

Music is music – it doesn't matter what it is. I love working on soundtracks in my studio but I also love the spontaneity of live performance and working with other musicians. The choirmaster/organist role is important to me as it keeps me in touch with my classical roots, and writing soundtrack music calls for us composers to be knowledgeable in all styles and genres of music. The thing that excites me at the moment is writing sacred choral music and I've done a lot of that over the last couple of years. Despite the seemingly non-connected nature of all the music making that I do, you'd be surprised how much of a crossover there is between all the styles. Like I said – music is music.

Do you listen to soundtracks in your free time? Do you have a favorite movie composer or score?

Yes, I do listen to soundtracks. Amongst my favourites are Ennio Morricone and Thomas Newman, but there are many others. Bernard Herrmann was a giant and his collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock was pure genius. It's really hard to single out individual scores, but one that immediately springs to mind is Lalo Schifrin's score for Bullitt. A great score for a fantastic film. Another score I love is Donnie Darko where Michael Andrews, like me with The Man from Earth, wrote and recorded everything himself and it's pure atmosphere. Another stand out is Asche & Spencer's score for Monsters Ball. Again it's big on atmosphere and textures and fits beautifully with the slowly evolving film. I guess the important thing to me with soundtracks is atmosphere and texture. The music needs to support the images without getting in the way and the melodies should draw you in and evoke an emotional response to what you're seeing. It's the music that goes beyond the dialogue and gives you an insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling. In a way, it's the music that is the soul of the piece.

What are you working on at the moment?

Since the birth of my daughter I've stepped back a bit from soundtracks as the work is all consuming. When my son was born, I missed out a lot during his first few years as I was working non-stop and this time I didn't want to miss out on my daughter growing up. At the moment I'm avidly composing choral music and I'm working on a piano-led album combining a classical ensemble with electronics and wordless vocals which I'm planning to take out on tour as soon as it's finished. I'm not done with the soundtracks, but for the moment my inspiration is leading me in other directions. 

To know more about Mark Hinton Stewart's work, please visit the composer's official website.


June 04th, 2016
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