Composer Interviews


Composer Interview: Elliott Wheeler

1. My name is... Elliott Wheeler

2. I'm aged... 42

3. I work from.... Turning Studios, working between Sydney, LA and NY.

4. I've been composing for screen for... 20 years

5. I studied music at.... and qualified with a.... I studied music at the Conservatorium in Sydney, and also Philosophy at Sydney Uni. I didn’t finish either degree, because clearly, at that stage, I already knew everything.

6. My musical journey involved.... A lot of very generous people giving me time and opportunities. I’ve had wonderful colleagues, collaborators and mentors throughout my career. I started with a background in classical piano and then jazz, then through doing session work (and through some very generous mentors) started writing for television and film at a young age. About ten years later, I started my own music production house, Turning Studios, with my long term collaborator, producer and friend, Emma Hoy. We worked on a huge range of different projects, from commericals, film, documentaries, theatre, and musicals, and throughout have had a fantastic team working with us. My colleague, Jamison Shaw (who is my music editor, engineer, associate producer, counsellor, and basically does all the clever things) and I set up our US operations about 5 years ago.

I’ve worked as Baz Lurhmann’s musical collaborator and composer/producer for the last 8 years or so. It’s a a very special relationship, working with a director who tells so many of his stories through the lens of music. It’s given us a chance to work across an incredibly broad spectrum of music, from the jazz of Great Gatsby, the world of Hip Hop in The Get Down, and now, exploring the music of Elvis and that part of the American song book. Being able to work with Baz and the writing team at a script level means the interaction between music and story can be incredibly interwoven. It’s a lot of fun.

7. The instrument I'm best at is... Piano.

8. I also play.... Extremely poor trombone, and just enough of a few other things to be able to hold the conversation.

9. I'm best known for my score(s) to...The Get Down.

10. The score I wish I wrote is...... because.... Chinatown, by Jerry Goldsmith, because of its sheer beauty and melancholy. There’s a grace and succinct poetry in the melodic lines that floors me every time.

11. The film I wish I scored is.... because.... Being John Malkovich. Though I don’t really wish I’d written the score because then Cater Burwell wouldn’t have written it, and it’s genius. But the film itself is ridiculous, funny, tragic, beautiful, and Burwell managed to capture all of that in the music. It was a film early in my career that helped me understand what you can do with a musical score. So I do wish I’d scored it, but only if I’d had the talent to write it exactly the way Burwell did. It’s a tricky question. Most of the films we love have scores we love as well, and why would you want to change that?

12. My favorite sample libraries are....

Spitfire, Ivory - we’ve assembled a lot of them over the years, but increasingly we are trying to do as much live recording as possible and creating our own. I know it’s a common thread at the moment, but with all of the libraries sounding so fantastic now and that being so accessible to everyone, the fun and challenge is I think increasingly to find new sounds and colours to keep yourself interested and your music and interesting. And live music is how we all initially got into this thing at some level. A lot of what we’re doing now is trying to find our way back to that in the recordings we’re making.

13. My favorite plug in is...At the moment, the Fabfilter line. They’re incredible.

14. My most memorable recording experience is.... Too hard to choose, but most recently, recording in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb with a gospel congregation in a small 200 year old church, about an hour out of town. The session went for 10 hours and I don’t think the choir stopped singing the entire time. It made me fall in love with music all over again.

15. My workflow is typically.... It depends on the project. At the moment, it’s working with Baz and his writing team on musical ideas in the script, doing proofs of concepts, then getting working recordings for the actors to work with, workshopping and rehearsing with the actors leading into filming, then moving into post and seeing where the finalisation process takes us. It’s a fairly macro process at the moment.

16. I compose using... Mainly Protools. For score, the team at Jigsaw Music and I usually move files back forth in Sibelius, though I was a Finale devotee for many years. I use Live to get a quick bursts of new ideas.

17. My screen composing income is supplemented by.... Nothing. This is it…

18. The things I love about my job is.....The people I get to spend my life with, and those moments when you get to forget yourself in the process of creating with others.

19. The things I dislike about my job is.... Realising that nearly every one of the excuses you have for not writing are just that, and then having to live with that as you keep making them.

20. My favorite piece of technology is.... because.... Airtable. Not music based at all, but grab a drink and I can wax lyrical about it. For a project like the Elvis project with the number of cast, original multi-tracks, recordings, rehearsals, etc, it’s an OCD dream.

21. My favorite piece of non film­score music is.... because.... Favourites are impossible, because it’s always so contextual. But I often go back to Bach, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Duke Ellington, when the pot is empty.

22. To relax I.... Walk and call friends. Particularly over the last few months with the world shutting down, it’s been vital.

23. A day wouldn't be complete without.... Family time. We’ve got a new daughter and that’s just the bomb.

24. The last concert I went to was.... My short review is... With a new baby and a pandemic, it’s been a little while between drinks. But I think the last one would have been when my friend, music historian, Nelson George, took me to a tribute to George Clinton in LA. It was awesome. Mr Clinton was there in the audience and on stage, Anderson Paak jumped up on drums, and a line of artists got up to pay their respects through their music. The room was on fire.

25. My new year’s resolution for 2020 is/was ………To make achievable resolutions. Snack less. Abject failure thus far, but we’re only in May…

26. A message to my fellow composers would be.... Hang in there. It’s obviously a tough year for everyone. Everyone is in a similar position with the uncertainty of where we're up to as an industry and a country, and talking with our peers is a great way to get a sense that you’re not alone and that a lot of people are facing the same fears and concerns. I think we’re incredibly lucky as a country with the way Australia has dealt with the crisis, and I do have a sense that the industry is going to be able to get back up to speed perhaps a little earlier than was once feared. And as one of the first countries to get up and running again, that comes with some great opportunities, both for local and international work that may be able to start here. I also have great hope for the creativity that’s going to be unleashed once that happens. A lot of very creative people have had a lot of time to think, create, and respond. While it’s been under incredibly tough circumstances for many of us, I think the lock down has put a spotlight on the fragility of the existence that so many artists lead, and also how important that artistic lifeblood is in making us feel whole as a country as we pick ourselves back up again. I think a situation like this can really help us as a society look at the things that make us who we are, and sometimes we only notice them once they’re gone. Hopefully, both in the way the government supports the arts, but also at a more personal level for Australians, there will be a change in the level of support and energy that is turned towards the people who paint the pictures to show us who we are. Regarding the opportunities available to us with international productions coming over here, I feel strongly that we need to be coming together as an industry and really pooling our resources. With international creatives looking to bring projects here, the more we can utilise the strengths we have as an industry and show that we have the infrastructure in terms of teams and facilities to take on that work at scale, the more feasible it’s going to be for those productions to look to Australia as a safe, financially competitive place to finish large scale projects, that can compete with the Pragues, Bratislavas, Viennas. There’s a set of circumstances globally and a level of work that potentially could be coming through that we collectively need to be ready to scale up to. There’s a window coming that I feel we really have to take advantage of, and the more we can consciously come together to plan for that, the better. It’s a fascinating time to be alive, good and bad, and there are going to need to be a lot of stories told. And we’re the lucky ones who get to help tell them.