INTERVIEW: “The Hustle” Composer Anne Dudley On Her Creative Process And Storytelling Through Music

Whether it’s music for movies about male strippers, French revolutionaries, or, with The Hustle, female con artists, Anne Dudley has composed it all. One of only three women to have won the Oscar for Best Original Score (for The Full Monty in 1997), she’s become known for her eclectic choice of projects, which includes other ’90s hits The Crying Game (1992) and American History X (1998), as well as the Anne Hathaway/Hugh Jackman Les Misérables and last year’s Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. I caught up with Dudley and got the scoop on her composing process, her thoughts on scoring for different genres of films, and the film score that inspires her to this day.
I’ve always been interested in film scoring – it’s something I always listen for when I’m watching a movie. I know that The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, so I was wondering what your approach is when you’re creating a score for a movie that’s a remake. Do you look to the original score for inspiration or continuity? How do approach that project?

It all depends. Sometimes not. But in actual fact, in this case, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin, was set in this same sort of Mediterranean south of France location. And it had this rather lovely score which featured a jazz violin in the style of Stephane Grappelli. And it sort of fit, and we tried different things, and we kept coming back to this idea of having something that was a little bit retro—a little bit based on the music of the ’30s, I suppose. I only watched Dirty Rotten Scoundrels once because I didn’t want to get overly influenced by it. And actually, apart from providing the story [for The Hustle], it’s completely different in every respect. But it did, in this case, provide a really good starting point.

When approaching a film, do you look to genre first for creating the score? What’s your general process, if you have one?

Well, I think with comedy, it’s very important… there’s a couple of things with comedy. I don’t like comedy scores which try too hard to keep telling you “this is a comedy.” There’s certain cliches that go around, like pizzicato strings. So I don’t like that. I like to find something which picks up the rhythm of the comedy, somehow.

And also, with a comedy, you can easily take away the humor. So it’s very important to keep the pacing of it going, and to keep the lighthearted nature of it going. I think in many ways, a comedy is more difficult than drama. [The music can’t] bring a scene down—it needs to sort of bring the scene up, if that makes sense.

When you are working with material that already incorporates a lot of songs like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again or The Full Monty, how do you craft the music to fit in? 

That is a specific task to do sometimes. For example, with Mamma Mia, because ABBA have written so many brilliant songs, it was our deliberate intention wherever we could to find an ABBA song I could arrange in such a way that it would sound like the score. There’s all sorts of ABBA songs—there’s “Honey Honey” in my score—which don’t actually appear in the film, but the whole soundtrack has a feeling of unity, I suppose, because it’s all mostly the same songs. And with The Full Monty, there was a certain style to the songs. They had a lot of brass in them. They were quite soulful. And that had an influence on the score. The nice thing about The Hustle is that it doesn’t have many pop songs at all so the music score is, in a way, very much more important in actually establishing a musical tone for the film.

Do you think of character motifs in any of your films? Or are your first concerns rooted in genre?

I don’t really follow character motifs, particularly. I think you can get into a right pickle if you do that all the time. I sometimes like motifs that represent abstract things, like you might have a motif for loyalty, or love, or resilience, or something like that. Especially when you’re doing a long running TV series, actually, because those sort of motifs can help you bring a unity to the drama. And a lot of the characters will experience, say, resilience at some point or another, and you have something that represents that, that can be very useful. That works better for me than finding a theme for a character, which can be a bit confusing if you have two or three character in the same scene. It becomes very constricting, I think.

You’re also the composer for the BBC series Poldark. What was your approach for that?

There’s a couple things in Poldark. There’s a historical section which has a bearing on what I did. Specifically, it’s set in Cornwall, which is way out in the west of England, and we wanted to find a sort of, if you like, a Cornish style, whatever that is. And I looked at some of the folk music which came from the west of England. I looked at the melodies and harmonies and what sort of character that had. Obviously, the score has to do lots of things. I was just working on the fifth series of Poldark, so there’s a lot of hours of drama to come. And you need to have a lot of things to draw on. […] I just wanted to give them music with the character of England and of Cornwall. There is a little bit of music that [the characters in Poldark] play and sing, and those are actual folk songs, mostly, and that has a bearing on the whole style of the score. But the score needs to do the normal things a score does. It needs to underline the drama, reinforce the emotions, do all those sorts of things.

When you’re working on a movie that’s got a very serious political theme like American History X, what’s that approach?

Well it’s a similar approach. You’re trying to find the right sound for that particular film. I spoke to the director about using a boys’ choir, which he was very keen on […] The Ed Norton character has almost a missionary religious zeal about his beliefs. And we used the choir to sort of reinforce this self-aggrandizement that he has. He’s completely convinced that he’s right at the beginning of the film. Towards the end, he loses his faith in his right-wing ideology, and the music sort of then drifts away and starts doing other things. It was quite a challenging film to do, really. It’s pretty serious stuff […] You have to get a balance between being too full of yourself and being bland.

You also worked on Les Misérables. That entire film is sung pretty much all the way through, so what did you see as your role?

I was there on spec a lot of the time—almost all of the time, because the singers are singing live, and most of them weren’t primarily singers. They were mostly actors. And they needed help—they needed to warm up properly; they needed to go through the songs so they were completely okay with them. It was a continuous process. I think my role on that film is described as “music producer.”

Then after the actors had finished, and we were in post-production, I was responsible for getting the orchestration to make it sound like the orchestra had been there live as well, since of course it hadn’t been. [The actors] were singing with a live piano—an electric piano, so we weren’t getting any sound on set. And they had earpieces which you can’t see because they were all [removed]. Video effects managed to take them out in post-production. So they were singing live, and whatever they wanted to do for each performance, the pianist was following them. The songs have varying tempos, and the actors weren’t restricted by having to have a predetermined tempo. Most people don’t do musicals like that, because it’s very challenging. We felt we were breaking new ground.

I see you’ve done scores for horror films. I can imagine that with horror, the sound is sometimes the most important thing when it comes to preparing the audience.

The trouble is with a horror film, once you’ve watched it as we do when work on the score ten, twelve, twenty, thirty times, you lose any sense of tension, because you know what’s going to happen. So you have to keep reminding yourself that the audience is only going to watch it once. You have to sort of put yourself back in the mind of the audience, and not give away what’s around the corner. You can make a very bland scene very tense, which might be a good thing. The thing with a horror film is that you have to undermine the audience’s expectations. You have to keep shocking them. It was not something I felt that was really particularly my sort of bag.

Is there a project that you see as the essence of your method or style?

I like to keep fooling people by doing completely different things all the time. Thirty years ago, I was in an avant-garde pop group called The Art of Noise, and we just used samples all the time and a lot of electronic keyboards and that was that. Then, I did a TV series which was based around 1920s jazz, and then I did American History X, which is very serious classical choral stuff. I do genuinely like to keep doing different things, which can confuse people, because people like to pigeonhole. They like to say, “oh, [this composer] does comedy scores” or “[that composer] does very dramatic scores.” I think most composers would hate people to think that they only did one sort of thing.

What recent film scores have you liked?

Well, of the Oscar contenders, I really liked Alexandre Desplat’s score for Isle of Dogs. I could just tell that nobody had been on his back, and that he’d done something that was really original, really funny, and very unconventional. And I think that was fantastic.

What’s another movie score that you consistently think of, or that you like to listen to again and again?

One of the scores that I always keep coming back to is not particularly well-known. It’s very old now. But I remember hearing it and being so inspired by it that it made me want to write film music. It was John Williams’ score to The Witches of Eastwick. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie.

I have seen that movie! I didn’t know that was John Williams. He’s done everything!

It’s fantastic. I listened to the music before I saw the movie. The music has its own character and it just fits so beautifully in the film. The two of them together become something else, which is what you would like to think music can do to a film […] I thought “gosh, if I could ever write anything that was half as great as that…” and I’m still trying.