Being an artist is just like being an iceberg. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it likely means that you have never pursued a career in the Arts. The public witnesses about 5-10 percent of the work that you have done to get to the point in which they are actually aware of you. Anyone who thinks an artist is a slacker trying to avoid “honest work” is completely unaware of the years, even decades, of training accumulated just to be able to perform to best of your abilities. Athletes are the closest to this template and their physical forms give evidence to their toil. You won’t necessarily see a six pack on a painter or a cinematographer. Artists often work together to create works that are designed to move a mass audience. When Director/Writer/Producer Tom Petch wanted a film score for his award-winning film The Patrol, he enlisted James McWilliam as a composer. The result was a highly original and unique score which sounds both mechanical and organic. With sounds that are at times indiscernible and sometimes beautifully organic, McWilliam’s compositions (along with composer Nick Crofts) were created with the intention of being very prominent in the film to give the audience the uncomfortable feeling of being in a war. The Patrol was nominated for the Radiance award at the British Independent Film Festival and won the Jury Prize at the Raindance Film Festival, attesting to the achievement of this goal.
Filmmaker Tom Petch is a veteran. With The Patrol, he wanted the audience to understand what he and other veterans had felt in their experiences as a soldier. The film follows a patrol of soldiers in Afghanistan in 2006 tasked with keeping territory out of the hands of the Taliban and providing support to the Afghan National Army. Rather than focusing on the war itself the film delves into the internal psyche of the individual men, and as the soldiers become disillusioned with their roles in the war asresources become stretched the authority that was, until that point the only thing holding them together, begins to unravel. The original plan to use music from a number of different artists was scrapped in order to create a highly original audio landscape which would be created by McWilliam. Petch was clear from the first conversations that he required some unorthodox compositions. Rather than a score which causes the viewer to feel for the soldiers, Petch wanted music that placed the audience into a state of similar sensation as these combatants. McWilliam states, “From the outset it was clear that Tom Petch didn’t want a conventional score. He wanted to avoid the usual ‘trappings’ that came with a war movie set in the middle east such as Arabic wind and vocal parts mixed with emotive strings and orchestra that have become so common place in film & TV. He wanted a score that reflected the alien like landscape the soldiers found themselves in and, in a musical way, mimicked the sounds of warfare. It was important to him that the score reflect the emotions felt by the soldiers such as fear, anger, and isolation. To achieve this, I knew I had to approach the compositional process in an unusual manner and cast off any preconceptions of what a war film should sound like. An important point that Tom mentioned was that he wanted the score to develop along with the film moving from ‘ugly’ mechanical sounds at the beginning of the film and slowly transitioning into more ‘human’ recognizable sounds with the introduction of melody as the film develops and we come to understand the soldiers and their lives.”
The instrumentation for the later part of the film was much easier for McWilliam to envision but the “ugly” sounds required a lot of experimentation. Communication from Petch to McWilliam brought the ideas into focus and create the proper unpleasant audioscape. As a composer, conductor, and orchestrator, McWilliam has worked on films Exorcist Diaries, Crimson Peak (by Guillermo Del Toro, $73MM Worldwide), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ($892MM Worldwide) and others in locations like Paris, London, and Macedonia. In creating the unusual music for The Patrol he leaned back on his early pop-musician aspirations with a modern twist. In his early days, James studied piano and drums. In his search for interesting yet uncomfortable ‘noises’ for The Patrol he used a bit of rock/experimental influence. The composer reveals, “A lot of our primary sounds came from a £30 guitar I bought which I then unceremoniously scraped, banged and smashed, mixed with lots of effects and then chopped up into useable bits of audio. Along with sounds that Nick had created, we had our palette and we really felt that we’d made a sound world that couldn’t be for any film other than The Patrol. Nick and I decided which scenes to work on and we talked about how the score was to develop as Tom had asked, starting with hard, mechanical, distorted sounds inducing unease and tension and then moving towards a softer more human sound with hints of melody entering into the score as we learn more about the individuals involved. Along with my composing partner, Nick Crofts, we created some pretty ugly sounds, alongside some very beautiful ones, and how we introduced these sounds into the film and layered them up to create intensity at key moments was important. For example, the beginning of the film begins with a wildly distorted guitar accompanied by pulsing low synths, this has the deliberate intention of dropping the viewer straight into the hell that is warfare in the Helmand Province. Later on in the film shortly after one of the main characters dies (Taff) we get a glimmer of something you could call a melody, played on piano. This point signifies a change in the film and the music.
As anyone who has worked on a film can tell you, the Director is the person in charge who has the understanding of the tone of a film and will lead others to complement his/her vision. While some members of a production try to interpret a Director’s vision, others feel that their role as an artist is to present their ideas in an emotional way. Tom Petch clearly communicated his opinion of what the score to his film should be like; McWilliam took this advice but channeled in through personal sensibilities. James notes, “I think that as a film composer you are a filmmaker just like everyone else and it is your job to do offer a perspective on what you are seeing based on your knowledge and experiences. It can be an incredibly difficult job under very stressful conditions and whether it’s composer; orchestrator or programmer you must be able to understand the needs of the director and help deliver a score that is right for the film. The composer is in quite a unique position as they’re often one of the first people outside of the closed circle of director, producer and editor, to see a full edit; this means they are one of the first to react to what they see on screen and this materializes in the form of music. Given how long everyone else has had to form his or her opinions on the film, what the composer does next can be a crucial moment. It can be a very difficult position to be in and this is where the real skill of being a film composer comes to the fore. Will the composer see the film the same way as the director and or producer have been seeing it from the first day they began work on it? Perhaps the composer has a different take on it that moves the film into an entirely new direction that no one else had thought of, this is the power that music can have on a film.”
The fact that Petch was not only Writer/Director/Producer of The Patrol but also a veteran required unmistakable aim from McWilliam’s score. James was immensely successful in his creation as Petch declares, “James’ score for The Patrol was outstanding. He developed the music for the film having really grasped the story, the film’s idea of isolation, and the brief I gave him for the movie. His score had an ethereal quality which lifted the imagery and definitely contributed to the film winning the UKs leading independent film festival, Raindance. James’ ability to work with a directors’ vision and turn it into his own work, while never baulking at the challenges, and understanding of the collaborative process is essential to successfully scoring a feature film. These qualities led to the great success of his score and thus our film.” The score in The Patrol leads the viewer on a disturbing trip which is used to translate the individual’s perspective and emotional state in a time of war. The film’s music stands by itself as a work of art that, when combined with the film, speaks to the humanity of those found in a circumstance which attempts to separate them from that same humanity. James McWilliam has succeeded as part of a production team in communicating the story of the dissipation of the team on-screen; helping us all to see that war is never pleasant for anyone.