Interview: Composer Amelia Warner on Getting to a Place of Comfort in “Wild Mountain Thyme”

A few years ago, a friend had asked Amelia Warner whether she might want to try her hand at composing the score for a film he had made, knowing of her piano skills as well as her desire to do something new creatively. At the time, Warner had been acting since her teens, landing big roles in such films as “Quills” and the title part in the BBC miniseries “Lorna Doone” but realized that success wasn’t equal to satisfaction and was already moving towards music, rechristening herself as Slow Moving Millie to start writing and recording songs, though as she would tell The Independent, “I’m terrified of performing,” making it not necessarily the most comfortable fit either.

“I wrote this piano piece for picture and I knew then, ‘My God, this is everything that I love all in one place.’ It was storytelling and film and music and collaboration,” Warner recalls. “I just loved it and from that film, that’s what I wanted to do.”

It isn’t just that Warner found a place for herself as an artist, but for films that dare to live in between different worlds, creating just the right balance between classical and contemporary in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “Mary Shelley,” in which success of the jolts to the system delivered by the “Frankenstein” author when it was assumed no woman could write such a horror hit were reflected in the composer’s flirtations with electronica, and now in John Patrick Shanley’s “Wild Mountain Thyme,” where the gentility of the Irish countryside is at odds with the strong-willed characters making a home there. Both come to the fore in the romantic comedy when the land is what’s at issue, with a family torn over what to do with their farm when the patriarch (Christopher Walken) is entertaining the offer of an American (Jon Hamm) to take it off his hands, rather than letting his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan) run it, with Rosemary (Emily Blunt), the proprietor of the neighboring farm, looking on in curiosity whether she could take it off his hands.

With protagonists prone to the bravado you might expect from the writer of “Moonstruck,” but rarely saying what’s really on their mind, particularly in the case of Anthony and Rosemary, who have grown up together without ever confessing their attraction to one another, Warner summons the feelings in her notes that they dare not speak out loud, pulling music out as if it’s the truth they hide. This sophistication itself is somewhat hidden amidst a jaunty score fit for a rollicking yarn in the grand tradition of tall tales from the region, often sneaking up to surprise you in its poignance when it so eagerly wants to entertain and Warner shows a wry sense of humor on par with Shanley in accentuating the eccentricities to be found in the small, close-knit community. Not only is it a small world in the film, but also in its production when Warner was sought out as a composer without anyone connecting the fact she happened to be married to the film’s leading man Dornan and with “Wild Mountain Thyme” now being released online, she spoke about that and other serendipities that transpired on the production where there was as much magic off camera as caught on it.

How did this come about?

My agent got in touch with me and said, “There’s this movie ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ and they’re starting to think about a composer, and what do you know about it?” And I said, “Well, I know about it because my husband’s in it.” [laughs] He was shooting it, so I knew about it and then I’d read the script and completely fell for it in a really big way. It was just one of those weird things that got under my skin and I could hear the film in my head and I knew how it should sound. I felt really inspired and I wrote some music just from the script and it was quite a long process in the end, but it ended up working out [where] they really liked the music, so then they asked me to write the rest of it.

When you spoke to John about it, what were the early conversations like?

They were short and very concise. [laughs] He is not a man to waste words — he is very, very economical, but it was incredible because he just said, “You know what to do,” and having somebody say that to you is so empowering. He just really emboldened me and I sent him a bunch of cues and he’d come back with like really clear, very, very concise notes that were often quite esoteric. They’d be like a word or “Just think about this as an idea,” but it was never particularly musical. They were almost philosophical, and it just made me approach things slightly differently. He’d get what he wanted, but it was done in a really kind, gentle, supportive way.

With your background as an actress, has it actually contributed to how you think about music narratively?

I wouldn’t say consciously I ever think that it does, but I’m definitely driven by the performances and the emotion. and for the characters rather than anything else. I’m not looking at what the camera’s doing or necessarily the technical side of filmmaking. With this one, probably even more than “Mary Shelley,” it was very much thematic. The characters had their own themes and they were established quite early, so it was about weaving them all together and having it build and build and build so by the end, you have this big sweeping romantic theme that started earlier on as a little seed in the film. I’m very much melody driven, so I would always go for a motif or a theme pretty early on. That’s important to me to get those melodies and once I have those melodies, it’s about developing and layering them up and having their own life and try to weave a fabric out of them.

I’ve really enjoyed how you’re bridging classical with modern in your scores. Do you think in those terms of taking something traditional and tweaking it?

Yeah, with “Mary Shelley,” I was more consciously doing that [where] this was a contemporary woman, a radical feminist and so ahead of her time, I felt the music had to reflect that. It couldn’t just be traditional period [music] because it had to reflect her thoughts and her ideas that were so modern and so radical, so I was more consciously using lots of electronics — synths and drums — and trying to bring those elements into the orchestra. “Wild Mountain Thyme” is a lot more traditional in its instrumentation and arrangements, but probably what was a bit more modern is probably the melodies themselves were a bit more hooky. I don’t think it’s something I do deliberately. That’s just the music I write, but I think [the melodies] give the music a slightly more contemporary feel even though it’s more a traditional orchestra set-up.

“Swan Lake” and the folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme” are also built into the script. Was the score influenced by having to work around them?

Yeah, I felt coming onto it, there were already these very strong musical identities. There was “Swan Lake” with its epic drama and then there was the beautiful folk song “Wild Mountain Thyme,” so the score had to be the bridge between those two worlds — that soulful, delicate Irish beauty of the folk song and then the big, sweeping drama and classic romance of “Swan Lake,” so I wanted the score to crossover and meet the two.

Is creating music for a comedy fun?

Yeah, I really enjoyed the playfulness of it, trying to infuse some character into it and have a bit of a raucous fun feel. I didn’t want it to feel too stiff, so that was important, but it was a hard line I definitely think I crossed or went a couple times too far and I just remember the director saying, “Pants down silly doesn’t really work” even though initially he’d been like “Make it funny” and it just didn’t work, so it was trying to honor and acknowledge the comedy, but not actually being in on the joke. The music had to keep quite straight most of the time.

There’s already a bit of musicality to John’s dialogue as well…

Yeah, and that was such a big thing because I loved the script so much. John is such an extraordinary writer and the words are so important, you don’t want to get in the way with this kind of film. The words are everything. At the same time, there’s this lyrical, rhythmic quality to his writing that I wanted to try and reflect somehow — to have this kinetic energy to it and feel that it was always giving it momentum and just pushing everything along in the way that his dialogue was.

What was it like writing a song with him?

The song [“I’ll Be Singing”] was the cherry on the cake – it was this great thing that happened at the end. I remember when I first wrote [music] for the scene that the song comes from, John heard it and he said, “This is a song. This sounds like a song.” And I was like, “Yeah, does it? I don’t really know.” I just didn’t really hear it and he just kept saying it, like “This is a song” and he sang what the lyric, “Will you come to my window, Laddie?” over the scene. Then he sent me these lyrics and was like, “If you just want to have a go at doing this…” And I was like “Oh my God, I just can’t…” — it was right at the last push for the score, and I was thinking I can’t now be doing a song. This is crazy, I’ve got to just finish the score.” [laughs] Then I was sitting down one morning [thinking], “I’m just going to sit down here for 20 minutes and see what happens” and then the song was written. It was amazing. Sinead O’Connor sang the vocals, which was just this really unexpected delight that happened.

It’s been difficult to convene an orchestra or do post-production work because of COVID. Was this tricky to pull off?

We were lucky because we just squeezed it in between lockdowns, so we recorded it in August, [when] we were all out of lockdown and there were still some restrictions. It wasn’t as straightforward as it normally would’ve been, but we did manage to get everything that we wanted. And then we went back into lockdown a month later, so it was really good timing at the end. But I was joking with [John] because on our last conversation when everything was finished, I was like, “Oh my God, we’ve done the score and we’ve co-written the song and we haven’t even had a coffee together.” I’ve not ever met him in person and it’s just so weird because it’s just an amazing journey to go on with somebody and I just had the most extraordinary time working with John and learned so much from him.

What was it like to see the finished product?

It was amazing and obviously, it’s really sad with this film because you don’t get to do the cast and crew screening or a premiere where I would’ve actually gotten to meet John, which would’ve been really nice. [laughs] But we got to watch it a couple of weeks ago in London at a really small screening with my mom and a couple people and that was really lovely. With “Mary Shelley,” it was really hard [because] I was so critical of edits and cuts and volumes and levels — I was just hyper-aware of the music the whole time whereas with “Wild Mountain Thyme,” I genuinely forgot I wrote the music. Within 10 minutes of the film, I was just in it and I felt like I was watching it for the first time, even though I’ve seen it hundreds of times. I was just completely swept up in it and it was a joy to watch.

“Wild Mountain Thyme” is now in virtual cinemas and available on demand.