Elliott Wheeler is a Sydney based composer, producer and founder of Turning Studios. He has worked continuously as a screen composer and producer across a broad spectrum of genres from studio releases to film, documentary, commercials, and theatre.
For the last year he has been working on the soundtrack for Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby, collaborating on material from all of the film’s artists, from Jay Z, Florence + the Machine, Lana Del Ray, Jack White, will.i.am, Bryan Ferry and his Jazz Orchestra, Emile Sande and Kid Koala, Fergie, Q Tip and Goon Rock, as well as providing original additional music for the film.
I managed to grab a few moments to chat.
First of all, could you tell us a bit about your work on The Great Gatsby? How did you go about gaining this role? What were your initial ideas?
My role on the film was Arranger and Additional Music Producer, as well as writing some original pieces for the film. A large part of the role was helping get all of the music from the wonderful collaborators we had working on the soundtrack and making them sit together in the way that Baz wanted them to. There were so many fantastic flavours coming in from the artists Baz and Jay-Z had brought together, and Baz had very particular ideas about the way he wanted those voices to sound together, particularly in the way they were to link in with Craig Armstrong’s beautiful original score. So we spent a lot of time working on getting that weave right. There was also the challenge of linking the eras between contemporary and the sound of the jazz age, which was another area we focused a lot on.
I’d worked with Baz and music supervisor, Anton Monsted before, and I happened to run into Anton on the way to South by South West at the airport in LA not long before they started getting into early screening stages and we caught up then. My involvement happened fairly organically, from initially helping Baz and Anton explore a few ideas in terms of the way different contemporary pieces could work in different styles, to the eventual role we ended up with. It was a fantastic process.
Baz Luhrmann’s soundtracks are famously quite prolific. Did you find it a daunting idea coming up against some of his past work?
Absolutely. The Romeo and Juliet soundtrack is one my favourite soundtracks of all time and everyone is incredibly aware of how passionate Baz is about music. But it’s such an incredible enthusiasm to work with – you’re always being challenged, fed new ideas, being asked to look at things in ways you’d never have thought of. It’s what you crave as a composer, having that degree of stimulus to work with all the time.
How did you go about mixing the 20s theme with more modern sounds?
Baz was very clear from the outset that he wanted the contemporary audience to understand on a very visceral level the excitement and level of buzz that Nick would have felt falling into Gatsby’s world, what it would have been like going to those parties, how much at the cutting edge of society Gatsby was positioning himself. And one of the ways Baz wanted to draw the audience into that world was by leading them into that space with a contemporary soundtrack that would translate the idioms of the time into something we can relate to now. Jazz was the dangerous, cutting edge music of the time in the way that hip hop and dance music are now. So we ended up taking the contemporary tracks and doing 1920’s versions of them, putting a speak easy band under a Jay-Z track, recording a Foxtrot version of the Lara del Ray track Young and Beautiful, whatever was appropriate, and then worked on weaving those different flavours together.
Bryan Ferry and his Jazz Age orchestra were a huge part of that sound. We travelled to London to work with Bryan after Baz heard The Jazz Age album Bryan released. He’d put together the most incredible group of jazz musicians who were all utterly steeped in the music of that time. They ended up not only recording versions of most of the contemporary tracks, but also some of Craig Armstrong’s themes for the film. The result was incredible – Bryan and his team were absolutely meticulous in making sure the recording process was authentic to the time, and the musicality of the players was just astounding. It was a very special part of the project to be involved with.
We then had the luxury of being able to blend all those elements together to get the weave of that era working with the modern music and Craig’s score in the way Baz wanted.
What was it like collaborating with some of the bigger names such as Jay Z, Jack White and Florence and the Machine? Were they easy to work with?
Because Baz has such a good relationship with all of the artists involved, everyone was incredible responsive in making sure they were giving everything to the project they could to make sure it worked in the best possible way. I think it’s testament to the level of respect Baz has within the music community that so many of the artists were willing to make multitracks available to Baz, give him whatever components were needed so that we could make everything work together. He has such a vibrant way of getting across to the people he’s working with the nature of what story he’s trying to tell, and he’s so respectful and excited by what they can bring to the project, all the artists seemed very happy to give everything they could to help bring the story to life.
How did the making of this soundtrack compare to some of your previous movie work?
It’s unique in a number of ways. Having so many artists contributing and collaborating is very special and unusual, particularly when you’re working with the caliber of artists that Baz and Jay-Z were able to bring together. That was very special to be a part of. And being able to travel across so many musical styles whilst still having that guiding vision of the story Baz was trying to tell was fantastic. And being able to work all of that in against a score as beautiful as the one Craig composed was very special.
As well as the release for this film, you’ve also got an album coming out, “The Long Time.” Could you tell us a little more about this such as the sounds that the tracks contain?
The sounds I guess are a combination of my various backgrounds – jazz, classical, and film writing. So the palette is large – I was lucky enough to be able to tie some sessions for the album onto the back of some scoring projects, so had the unusual luxury of using a live orchestra for a lot of the tracks. The fun part was then being able to remix those elements to try and take that traditional sound somewhere new.
What were your main inspirations for the album?
The inspiration for the album came from scenes from my favorite films of the 60’s and 70’s. Films like Chinatown, The Conversation, the Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, Bonnie and Clyde. I’d take a look, a tone, a line, a mood, and start from there as somewhere to build an idea from. I found it took some of the terror from the blank expanse you look out at when you’re starting an album, and gave me some sort of receptacle to pour my ideas into. It’s also just an era of film making that really resonates with me, stylistically and narrative wise. It seemed like a natural place to dig.
When and where can we buy the album?
Here, or most online shops, iTunes, amazon, etc.
Talking about your musical history, how old were you when you first discovered your love for music?
I started playing piano when I was about 5. I can’t really remember it not being in my life.
How did you go on to pursue your talents as a songwriter? Was it a tough road?
I wouldn’t call it a tough road. You’re always working hard at it, but it’s something that you love doing it and it’s a privilege to do be able to it full time.
I studied classical piano and jazz and then got into film work very early through a wonderful mentor, Peter Kaldor, who taught me the craft and technical side of it. I was just very lucky to meet someone who was generous enough to be so giving. And I just sort of kept going from there.
On a whole, who have been your main inspirations throughout your musical career?
Different people for different aspects. Family and the people I work with. Artistically, Jon Brion, Bach, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Arvo Part, Carter Burwell, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Sebestian Tellier, Radio Head, Brett Whitely, Miles, Danger Mouse, Jonny Greenwood’s writing for film, Nick Cave. So many, but there’s a few.
If you have one, what has been your favorite project so far?
It’s so difficult to choose, each project you work on resonates in such a different way. I’m very lucky to spend time working on what I love.
Aside from your album release, do you have any other plans for the future?
I’m working with George Miller on Fury Road, the next installment of the Mad Max journey, and am about to start to work with Baz again on another project, which I’m really looking forward to. It should be a fun year.
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