There are many avenues to pursue in the modern day music industry. While the opportunities for bands and artists may have decreased in the last decade or two, other vocations in the music world have gained new venues within which to be employed. James McWilliam is a prime example of this. He may have had adolescent dreams of pop/rock stardom as a drummer but after veering towards jazz and classical music in his studies, he has become a noteworthy composer, conductor, and orchestrator in his native UK. Although working primarily in the UK, McWilliam has worked with and led ensembles in Paris and Macedonia as well. As a professional whose credits include the films; The Book of Life, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Masterminds, Standing Tall, and many others, James is widely sought after by filmmakers looking for music to enhance the emotional impact of their creations. Whether working on big budget feature films, Independent movies, or even video games, McWilliam is known for creating and/or implementing the audio accompaniment to perfectly present the goal of its creator. An overview of James’ work on his many projects gives proof to the idea that this musician/composer is challenged to be creative in a wide array of media presentations.
Don’t Look Down is a documentary which follows urban free climber James Kingston as he travels the world scaling 100m cranes, 200m radio towers, tall buildings and bridges…all without the use of any safety equipment. Composing the music for Don’t Look Down was attractive to James for a number of reasons. He states, “The production company wanted a score that followed and heightened the tension of the subject matter, whilst appealing to an age group of between 18-30 years of age; the show therefore needed a contemporary score. I turned to a more electronic based sound with lots of percussion and heavy synths. This show worked a little differently than other things I’ve worked on previously. Rather than writing to picture, the production company asked me to write longer pieces of music that they could then edit alongside the show. This is quite liberating for a composer but perhaps not as much fun; personally, I’m inspired by what’s happening on screen and prefer to write music specifically to picture.”
Standing Tall is a French feature film directed by Emmanuelle Bercot which deals with France’s treatment of disadvantaged youths. In addition to seven nominations, the film was selected to open the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, won two Cesar Awards, and a Lumiere Award. Eric Neveux sought out McWilliam to serve as Orchestrator & Conductor in Paris. Neveux confirms, “James has been a valuable member of my team for over 4 years now and as an orchestrator has played an integral role in the scores of many of my films. Standing Tall opened the Cannes 2015 film festival and was a very important composing project for me. I knew I could rely on James’ orchestration skills to help me deliver the score for this superb film. As an orchestrator, James brings a great depth of sound to my work, utilizing his extensive skill and knowledge of an orchestra. No matter how complex the project might appear to be, he always works tirelessly to achieve the best result possible.” The score was recorded at the famous Studio Ferber, known for the recording of many iconic pop musicians and film scores since the 1970’s. Concerning his role in Standing Tall’s score, James stipulates, “I think that the real skill in orchestration is being able to interpret a composer’s demo in such a way that what you do is clearly a huge improvement on the demo and yet it still sounds identical to the music signed off by the director. This balance (which is quite a fine art to master) is always changing from score to score and cue to cue; how you decide on this is through a lot of discussion with the composer. I truly enjoyed working with someone else’s music, especially on projects where I feel like I’ve had a significant impact on the end result. Of course, the balance I refer to above can be difficult to find especially when working with a new composer and sometimes a greater period of time is needed at the beginning of the process to understand where each other is coming from.”
Legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is highly stylized in his approach to movie making. For the animated film The Book of Life (which garnered 27 nominations including a Golden Globe, 3 wins, and a Worldwide gross of $94MM) the highly respected and successful del Toro trusted Gustavo Santaolalla to compose the music the he wanted to capture the feel of a past and modern Mexico. Hired by the score’s arranger and conductor Tim Davies, James set to work orchestrating the music of Santaolalla. The rich, colorful themes and rhythms were as entertaining as the animation and action on the screen. The process of bringing the music of The Book of Life to manifestation truly depicts the modern and global means by which artists cooperate. James notes, “It’s not often that I’m hired by another orchestrator/arranger to work on a film but when I do it’s always a pleasure to be part of the team. It’s more common on larger US projects to have multiple orchestrators so when I do find myself in this position it’s often on a big budget production. I love the work of Guillermo del Toro so this was a particularly exciting project and something I was very pleased to do. It’s interesting when you work for another orchestrator because it makes you evaluate your own approach to things and working with US based orchestrators in particular really keeps you on your toes. This was such an enjoyable score to work on; the music Gustavo Santaolalla created for the film is brilliant.”
Projecting a completely different tone and subject matter are two feature films which saw McWilliam seated at the composer’s helm; The Patrol (nominated for a British Independent Film Festival Award and winner of a Raindance Film Festival Award) and Born of War. James defines the difference of these two stipulating, “Born of War isn’t really a war film although, like The Patrol it is set in Afghanistan. The two filmmakers work couldn’t be more different and the scores reflect this. Whist the score for The Patrol deliberately avoided emotive strings and Middle Eastern sounding instruments, Born of War fully embraced these sounds and they became an integral part of the character of the film. The film begins in 1980’s Afghanistan, moves to present day Oxford/London and then back to Afghanistan but in the present day. All these changes had to be reflected in the score and we did this through balancing the use of real orchestra and synths/percussion with influences from the Middle East. The score wasn’t about reinventing the wheel, this was more about fitting into a specific genre of films and playing it for everything it’s worth. The orchestral score was recorded in Macedonia. It was a lot of fun!” Rupert Whitaker (Born of War’s Producer) comments about the film’s score, “Vicky Jewson, our director, had a very specific sound in mind for Born of War; a sound that was going to cost a lot of money, which our budget couldn’t stretch to. As soon as we spoke to James about our vision for the score, we knew we were in safe hands. The size of the task ahead of him meant that James decided to assemble an eclectic team of highly skilled people, all of whom added a huge amount of value to the project. Not only did he strive to make Vicky’s ambition a reality but he supplied us with numerous creative possibilities that enhanced the picture, aiding the drama and bringing a whole new life to the film. James is not simply a powerful creative force; he is also a highly skilled technician in his field. I was very fortunate to have him contribute to the success of the picture.”
Rather than touring the world in a van or a bus as a drummer who plays to crowds at clubs or theaters, James has become a respected and valued member of a global music and filmmaking tapestry performing to peers who are among the most talented artists in the world. From a young boy thrashing about on the drumkit to leading the world’s most gifted orchestras, James McWilliam seems incredibly grounded…so much so that one wonders if he actually realizes that he has exceeded his own youthful goals.