Interview: How Matthew Herbert built the score for The Wonder

By in Features





Matthew Herbert has built his illustrious career scoring films and TV shows, including A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience and The Cave, alongside his extensive background as a DJ and producer. His latest score, for Sebastián Lelio’s understated film The Wonder, is a powerful and thought-provoking accompaniment to Lelio’s unique story about 19th-century Ireland.

VF’s Kelly Doherty sat down with Herbert to discuss writing the score, his relationship with Lelio and the stories that matter to him as a composer.

How did you end up working on the soundtrack of The Wonder?

I first worked with Sebastián Lelio, the director, on A Fantastic Woman seven or eight years ago. We subsequently formed a friendship and made a few other films, and this was the next one on the list. Initially, I think he was going to work with somebody else, but we’ve become so close and ended up doing it again.

For me, as a viewer, many of the films you’ve worked on like Disobedience, The Wonder and A Fantastic Woman tell the stories of women that rarely have their stories told. Is that something you are drawn to thematically?

It’s definitely something that interests me. Something that leads to all the choices that I make about whether to take a project is if it fits with the values that I’m interested in. We don’t really need many more films with white male heroes saving the world, particularly after the years of damage and catastrophe that we’re living through because of many decisions made by that sort of structure and system.

It is really important to me that the camera moves away from that and moves towards people whose stories may be worth hearing and the music highlights that. In A Fantastic Woman, for example, you hear the full orchestra play at the very beginning. It’s a very grand, opulent moment that has the biggest number of players. What we’re saying with that is, this woman deserves your respect and attention. We’re giving her a strong melody and having so many people play for her it gives her a gilded frame and tells you to take her story seriously.

The music keeps running like that throughout the movie. We can give cues about where the power lies and where we want to draw your attention.

How did you approach writing the score?

I was very lucky on this one because I was in very early and stopped thinking about it as a script. I got sent the dailies and could start writing when they were shooting. By the time they got to the end, I had a palette of sounds and some ideas that Sebastián could try. In fact, the very first cut that he had was nearly all my music, which was a huge rarity because normally there isn’t bespoke music for it. It felt like a real luxury to shape the music so early and for it to be an integral part of the creative process.

You can never underestimate the amount of talking involved. I would talk for hours and hours to Sebastián about it. I thought a lot about wind initially because there was a lot of wind on the set and also this idea of the divine or the spiritual or heaven. Sebastián wanted something that had a lightness to it or that floated a little above the heaviness of the story. There are all these invisible forces at work, so we wanted a combination of the invisible, spiritual world and the actual wind on the set.

We wanted to use instrumentation or sounds that felt like it was air passing through something rather than a violin being scraped or a synthesiser being played or what have you. I started with an accordion which I messed up (technically, I mean, not with my shoddy playing!). I assembled a whole series of their instruments powered by organs and harmoniums. Then there are lots of other things that you’re hearing. In the first shot, for example, there’s a series of scaffolding around the film set. I commissioned somebody to make a whole series of sounds from scaffolding–dragging, air blowing through, striking. That’s actually what makes the tolling bell sound at the beginning.

It makes it a thematic idea, even if the audience doesn’t consciously understand what’s going on. It creates a motif when that sound appears later again, so you put it together and realise the pictures are connected. It’s a way of reinforcing messages throughout.

The Wonder is quite a restrained, quiet movie, aside from the soundtrack. Was it a challenge balancing that quietness with a striking score?

The biggest challenge is disturbing the stillness of the film. Every single sound or gesture you make, you’d hope that it enhances the picture or adds another layer or adds some additional context. With that film, particularly with this one, it was quickly apparent the wrong gesture at the wrong time, or the wrong instrument or the wrong melody would make the whole thing just fall apart. It’s a really tricky balance between not wanting to draw too much attention to the score, but also not wanting to do something insipid.

There’s a real problem with a lot of film and television music that becomes very beige with very generalised senses of emotion–there’s a bit of danger here, or these people are having a happy time. Music is much more complex than that and I think in The Wonder, the score is a character. I have conversations where I ask directors “If the score was a character, what kind of character are they?”. Is it a character that actively takes part? Or is it quietly sitting in a corner, pretending to be invisible?

In a film like The Wonder, where it’s so quiet and exposed, you have to really get it right. Otherwise, it can really take people out of the moment, the worst kind of thing that you want for a film.

Often, Ireland-based movies have a reliance on traditional Irish music in their scores, whereas The Wonder has a more contemporary sound. Was that intentional?

We didn’t want to go that traditional way because it feels so familiar. If the film was to have that type of score, the viewer would be less intrigued because you’d know what was going on. I sampled lots of 18th-century-period Irish instruments and slowed, twisted, and processed them. You can’t tell it’s them, but I like the idea of using the same instruments and using technology to do more with it. It’s built on sounds that would have been heard back then, but they’re deeply disguised and hidden.

It’s also not a period film, in the sense that the start and end are based on a film set. The story itself has a modern resonance that is helped by having more contemporary scoring.

You’ve worked increasingly often on soundtracks in recent years. Is that a conscious choice?

There is a combination of reasons. One really prosaic reason is that Brexit has killed the live touring business. I’m also getting older. The combination of there being fewer gigs and me wanting to travel less made me think maybe I should do some more studio work. Spotify doesn’t pay enough money and the bigger side of the music industry has no interest in supporting independent artists or even art for that matter.

Also, it’s been really great to learn a new craft and to collaborate with people and get involved with telling compelling stories, whether it be about trans women or lesbians in a strict Jewish community, or whether it be Noughts and Crosses which I did for the BBC about race relations in this country. I like the idea of being able to take part in national storytelling. For me, it feels really exciting.

There’s something really nice about being part of a team that makes a piece of work–all of you pulling together to do the best for a particular story that’s worth telling. It’s a tough time to be working right now, so I guess it’s a sort of coming together of two things. One, it provides me with some kind of income. And second, it allows me to tell stories that are counter to the sort of poison coming out of the Tory government these days.

A limited edition Vinyl Factory vinyl release of The Wonder Official Soundtrack is available now, accompanied by a hand-numbered Vinyl Factory Certificate of Authenticity.