My recent interview with James Peterson about his score for THE RED CANVAS had readers reach out to me and ask me if if I had ever seen the fight film UNDERGROUND and if I had heard its score from composer STUART HANCOCK.
Having missed both I quickly sought them out. An old school fight film focusing on various fighters all competing for a cash price, the score made such an impression on me that I felt obligated to not only spotlight the soundtrack but the composer himself who was kind enough to grant me an audience and give one of the most honest interviews I've ever had the pleasure to share with readers. Temp score, no budget, no time... it's all discussed!
How did UNDERGROUND and the eventual scoring duties come to you?
At the time (December 2006), I applied for the composing role on Underground in response to a posting the film-makers had put on Shooting People and Mandy.com. I was one of several UK composers the director short-listed and interviewed. A combination of interviewing well (I guess!), of me writing some demo music to one of the fights featured in the film, plus having some good past work that demonstrated the epic orchestral sound they were after (including a track written for London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympics) ultimately won me the job.
The film's brutality and stark images are quiet disturbing and feel very real; its throw back quality puts focus on the fights and carries little flash or style and at times only your film score gives the film a cinematic feeling. How did you settle on what would be the final sound for UNDERGROUND?
Chee Keong Cheung (the director) was always seeking a big cinematic music sound for Underground, so there was a very clear direction from the start of the process. The film itself took plenty of inspiration from the US reality boxing series The Contender and some of its music (Hans Zimmer’s main theme, in particular) was used in the temp score. Once I’d started composing, Chee’s feedback to me, on the whole, was to make the sound “bigger, bigger, bigger” - often, as you point out, in contrast to what you might be seeing on-screen.
What was your writing process like on this project?
The writing process on Underground was very hectic in terms of timescale, because I had to try and juggle the work with other commitments already in progress (commercial work, mainly, that paid better than film and which I couldn’t turn down! I was also at the time organising a concert performance of my orchestral silent movie score “Lucky Star” as a fund-raiser for a hospice in east London). The film ended up with something like 75-80 minutes of music, meaning that very little of the film (run-time 87 minutes) was not scored, and this was composed and orchestrated in its entirety (including an enormous amount of to-ing and fro-ing with the director’s feedback) between Christmas 2006 and early February 2007. Despite the miniscule budget of the film (and my correspondingly virtually-non-existent fee), I was able, at the last minute, to convince Chee to spend some money on using musicians on the final recording to breathe a bit of extra life into the soundtrack!
Was there any temp score or specific scores/music you were asked to draw from?
The temp score was largely drawn from the The Contender, and other soundtracks of that ilk. Mr Zimmer has a lot to answer for!
What are some the first cues that you created for the film?
I pitched to win the job scoring music to the 5th fight (The Foreigner vs The Police Officer), which I ultimately re-scored with a simpler sound, employing drones and textures rather than the full-on orchestral nature of many of the other fights; the same happened with the 8th fight (The Model vs The Ex-convict). With hindsight, I think this was particularly effective and some of the other fights would have benefited from the less-is-more approach. The first actual scoring I did was to establish the main theme in the opening titles sequence. This theme was a big hit with the director, to the extent that he asked to hear it over and over throughout the score, even quoting it underscoring dialogue/narration sequences. It was strong and simple and provided the ideal building block for the whole score. After that it was a case of working my way scene by scene through the movie.
What was your favorite cue that you created and why?
The theme is obviously a favourite of mine, and seemingly helped the soundtrack release pick up its favourable reviews. E.g. “simply put, it’s fabulous, largely because of its powerful, driving main theme which dominates the score. It’s so rare to find a really memorable theme in films these days, so when you find one like this, it’s precious indeed”
Of the fight scoring, I think the music is more powerful as the tournament develops, meaning that the semi-final and final fights are pretty intense and emotional. I think the 9th fight (The Triad vs The Homeless) is visually spectacular and was a lot of fun to score. Another favourite for me is the build-up to the final cage fight (called “The Finalists” on the album), which is a theme I have since adapted into a concert piece called “Variations On A Heroic Theme” (a clip is on my website in the “concert” section).
What if any was the most difficult to create?
The theme was the easiest part. It actually just sort of arrived in my head (while I was in the shower). The hardest scene to score was probably the Weapons fight, as this was a long cue that needing to cut between three separate fights whilst linking them together and giving them a driving build. I opted to give the music a slightly oriental flavour in the percussion, which served as a contrast to much of the rest of the score, but also because of the weaponry and the role of the Foreigner here. His ultimate demise in this fight was a real emotional peak of the scoring process for me.
It seems like any fighting film will have a training montage and UNDERGROUND is no exception. Tell me about the scoring of this scene.
There was no attempt to do anything other than a “Rocky”-style chest-thump here – not embarrassed to admit it! It was a good work-out for the main theme and this cue set up the Final fight well. Songs were never under consideration here (or anywhere else in the score), mainly because of budgetary constraints. Even the brief gentlemens-club scene required some appropriate dance/night-club music from me.
Tell me about the orchestra that helped bring your score to life.
The live musicians were only a last-minute (but very welcome) addition to the soundtrack. I used a line up of five violins, three violas, three cellos and four horns, recorded in separate three-hour sessions in a single day at my home studio. The use of live horns were a key to getting the big film/epic sound. The players were all contemporaries and friends of mine met through college or through various orchestral gigs. Time and budget constraints meant that I had no copyist to prepare the printed music nor a recording engineer on the sessions (other than myself) and that I was only able to incorporate the live elements into about half of the score - although that’s still about 35 minutes’ worth. We did the opening titles, and then the live musicians re-appear in the build-up to Fight 7 (The Foreigner vs The Delinquent), but then remain in the soundtrack from there to the end. To lift the final fight even further, I enhanced the score with some choral samples which give the climax a really epic feel.
How involved were you in the creation of the film score album released by Movie Score Media?
The director was instrumental in securing the initial deal with MovieScore Media. Mikael Carlsson there decided what was to be included on the album, choosing all the highlights I would have chosen myself. As holder of the master recordings, I provided the splits and mixes for the album, as well as contributing liner notes.
Did the film spark any interest in the ever popular world of MMA/Fighting world or where you already a fan?
To be honest, I wasn’t and still am not a fan of this genre of film and wouldn’t actively seek it out from a purely personal “watching” aspect! Having said that, I’ve hugely enjoyed scoring this sort of thing (this and Chee’s next movie “Bodyguard: A New Beginning”) as it deals in very raw action and visuals and similarly raw emotions. Capturing emotion and drama and helping to tell a story with music is what I love to do.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have just completed work on a concert piece for choir that is to be premiered at London’s Roundhouse as part of a choral festival in late March, and I will be writing music for a Buster Keaton silent movie, again for live concert performance, in May. I continue to be involved in commercial and TV work (it pays the bills!), and I will be at the headquarters of BAFTA tomorrow (March 1st) for the premiere screening of another film I have recently scored call “Hawk”. It’s a 40-minute fantasy movie with a Lord-of-the-Rings-esque score which I recorded with the fantastic Bratislava Symphony Orchestra and Wales-based choir Serendipity. And I am about to pitch to score an independent British film from one of the producers of The King’s Speech (which ironically has a bit of cage-fighting in it again, and a brief fighting appearance from Mark Strange – one of the leads in Underground).
A very very special thank you to Stuart Hancock for his time and for being so generous [he was kind enough to let me hear more music from the score!] and for some more conversations we've had [off record] that sealed the fact that his is the real deal. Underground comes HIGHLY RECOMMEND!
You can keep up to date with Stuart Hancock at his personal site - www.stuarthancock.com
Follow him on Twitter.com/StuartHancock1
And if you already haven't, you can get listen to clips of UNDERGROUND from Movie Score Media website - http://www.moviescoremedia.com/underground.html
Buy the score at Screen Archives Entertainment:
Download album in 320kbit mp3 format here:
Download album on iTunes here: