A life set to music

Scarlett Johansson in a A Good Woman

Scarlett Johansson in a A Good Woman - Credit: Archant

CLARE BOURKE talks to film composer Richard G Mitchell about how his love of music and films has made for a very fulfilled life in rural Somerset

Scarlett Johansson in a A Good Woman

Scarlett Johansson in a A Good Woman - Credit: Archant

Tucked away in a beautiful corner of Somerset countryside, surrounded by stunning views, it is easy to see where Richard G Mitchell gains much of his inspiration.

Scarlett Johansson in a A Good Woman

Scarlett Johansson in a A Good Woman - Credit: Archant

With around 30 film and television scores to his name, and plenty more yet to come, the renowned composer is enjoying the tranquil life, but is still as busy as ever.

“Writing music for film is very different to writing other music,” Richard explains. “It is time consuming and labour intensive and I need the quietness of Somerset for that.”

Richard, 52, has lived near Bruton, close to the Somerset/Wiltshire border, with wife Suzi for the past 15 years, working in his home studio and can now not imagine living anywhere else.

He says: “We moved here from Herefordshire. We fell in love with the area and looked for a year for a place. People come here to work with us so we wanted somewhere that was nice for them to come to. The landscape is so beautiful, the village is spectacular and you don’t realise how wonderful the community is here.

“It is one of those strange places where you instantly find connections with people. Around 400 people live here and we probably know everybody; it’s an old fashioned community.”

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Richard’s successful career started soon after he graduated from St Martins School of Art in the early 1980s where he studied for a degree in Fine Art. But it was his passion for music, rather than art, that was to become his life after he started writing scores and collaborating with students making films and art installation projects at St Martins, the Royal College of Art and the National Film School.

“When I started out at age 19/20, I saw the cinema as a place for composers to work,” he explains. “You could try out ideas and you didn’t have the pressure of the concert hall. The cinema felt like somewhere you could experiment with a great deal of styles, and I like the idea of music working with the moving image.

“I started doing electronic music and ended up doing period dramas. I now get involved at the script stage because period dramas need music all the way through them. It means you get to have more creative input in films. That doesn’t happen with modern films.”

Richard’s period works include To Kill A King (Rupert Everett, Tim Roth and Olivia Williams), Moby Dick (Ethan Hawke, William Hurt, Donald Sutherland and Gillian Anderson) and A Good Woman (Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson and Tom Wilkinson), an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Recalling his time working on A Good Woman, Richard says: “That was absolutely wonderful. We moved the play to the 1930s because the morality of the time fitted with Wilde’s original and we filmed in Amalfi, Italy.

“Period films need a lot of music in them, a lot of background music. In the film there is a scene where they go to church and there is a soloist. For this I recorded a chorister at Wells Cathedral and had to work out something he could sing that a little Italian boy could mime to in the film. It worked really well.”

But this was no big budget movie, as Richard remembers. “It was a typically small English film with no budget. For the party scene I had written a piece for a 20-piece band but was told there was no budget so we would go with a 10-piece but when we got there we had members for a four-piece only. I ended up miming playing the trumpet in the film as we didn’t even have a trumpet player. We also ran out of money so we did all the exteriors in Amalfi and the interiors in Rome.”

Richard is not alone in finding his corner of Somerset to be a creative space and works closely with many friends who live nearby and are involved in the film industry.

“Bruton has become a centre for cultural people with directors, composers and conductors moving to the area and has become the centre of the creative universe,” he explains.

“Director Mike Barker lives near us. I first worked with Mike on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for the BBC in the 1990s and since then we have worked on A Good Woman and To Kill a King.”

Choirmaster Matthew Owens at nearby Wells Cathedral, who lives just 10 minutes away from Richard’s home, is another creative who he can call on to help with a film, with the cathedral choir being involved in a number of his scores.

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, Richard doesn’t even have to leave his home to attend recordings and is often known to ‘attend’ via Skype.

He says: “I scored my first film when I was 19 and I had to have a producer in the room when we were working on a film. Back then, it took an incredible amount of time to add the music to the score but now it can all be done so quickly, thanks to new technology.

“I live my life in a cupboard but with technology the way it is these days I can be anywhere in the world and still be here. One time, when I couldn’t get to Bulgaria where the orchestra was, they plugged my desk into theirs. My room was 1,000 miles away from them but it was as if I was in the room with them.”

And when it comes to premieres, Richard’s corner of the county is perfectly capable of handling those too, with no need to head into London or further afield.

“We had the world premieres for A Good Woman and To Kill a King at Strode Theatre, just down the road near Street. That way we could turn them into charity evenings.”

So what’s next for this musical maestro? Richard has just released his first solo album of piano music, Piano Tree Elettriche, and this year will be taken up by scoring a movie called Shakespeare’s Daughter, which is currently in development.

Whatever the future holds, it is clear Richard, has no plans to leave his adopted county. “My heart is in Somerset,” he adds. “My parents live at nearby Castle Cary and we pretty quickly built up a large group of people who live and work here together. There is a lot of talent here. Somerset is the centre of my world now.”