Hollywood’s most in-demand composers plans to make Cork home

For classically trained composer Doyle, whose epic film soundtracks include Thor, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Carlito’s Way, happening upon Sgt Stubby prompted him to make Cork his home.

Hollywood’s most in-demand composers plans to make Cork home

One of Hollywood’s most in-demand composers plans to make Cork home. He tells Esther McCarthy why.

A loveable wartime mutt who became a valued canine companion inspired Patrick Doyle to take on his latest project. Now one of the world’s most in-demand composers has found a love of Cork through his work and is planning to make the city his home.

It’s all come about through quirky animated movie Sgt Stubby: An Unlikely Hero, the true story of a plucky dog who accompanied American forces in the trenches of France in WW1, and is credited with saving many lives.

€3 million of the feature’s production funding was raised in Cork, home of Executive Producer Tom Sheehan and base for director Richard Lanni.

For classically trained composer Doyle, whose epic film soundtracks include Thor, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Carlito’s Way, happening upon Sgt Stubby prompted him to make Cork his home.

“I’m actually in the process of looking for a place. I’m looking around, I’m going to see a place this morning,” says the Scottish composer, who has always felt a strong connection to this country.

“I was brought up in ‘Little Ireland’ in the west of Scotland, you can tell by my name. I’m from a family of 13 children, we sang around the living room. I’m from a family of extraordinary singers and they all sang Irish songs as well as Scottish songs.

“It’s a huge part of my life. I’ve been back and forth for various things and because of my upbringing I feel at home here. Now the kids are grown up we can be adventurous. All the family are very excited at the idea.”

It’s a move also prompted by his next project, Artemis Fowl, directed by close friend and frequent collaborator Kenneth Branagh. The movie about a teenage criminal mastermind, based on the best-selling series by Irish author Eoin Colfer, recently wrapped filming on location in Northern Ireland, and Doyle is scoring the film.

His reputation and body of work mean he’s in a position to pick which projects he takes on. But following a brush with a very aggressive form of cancer two decades ago, the composer says he focused on the important stuff - more family holidays, less stress and working with people he liked and believed in.

I was at a very, very strong point. I was 44, so I’d been nine years as what you’d call an A-list composer. That was right at the peak of my career, and it was devastating

- he said of the diagnosis.

“It was one of the most aggressive forms of leukaemia that a person can get. It’s actually unimaginable the process of isolation, both physical and mental, on and off for six months. It’s a most intense period in your life.

“I was very encouraged and inspired by people who had been through this appalling disease. And now I always like to say: just keep on going. Fight it, fight it, fight it. It does pass. Certainly, it changed my whole attitude to this very moment. I certainly take more holidays. I don’t invest in the stress the way I used to. And I notice with projects that if I know that ahead of me is going to be undue stress, if I feel that people are erratic and not very organised, I will steer clear of it!”

He says now that recovering from such a serious illness has given him a little internal ‘trip switch’. “You can feel it - there’s an alarm bell goes off, in terms of: ‘No, the body will not take that stress’.

His desire to work on interesting projects prompted him to sign up for Sgt Stubby and first introduced him to director Richard Lanni. Lanni, an accomplished documentary maker, had never made an animated film before, but Doyle was impressed with his enthusiasm and belief in this extraordinary true story.

“Richard had seen an interview I did, a round table with all these various composers in the business. He liked the way I talked about how I worked. I loved the idea of it. I love animation. I liked him very much and the idea of this film was very attractive to score. I found the story of this young man who befriended this dog just fascinating.

I thought: ‘Why hadn’t it been grabbed by one of the major studios?” Stubby was secreted on a ship to France by one of the young soldiers who had befriended him and was present for several battles on the Western Front. He was credited with locating hurt soldiers in no man’s land, warning civilians of gas attacks he could sense in advance, and was able to hear incoming artillery fire before soldiers, given them additional warning.

It’s just a wonderful story, that the army gave him the thumbs up and he ended up decorated,” said Doyle. He’s just a little smart animal, the film breaks all the rules and is beautifully done. It’s utterly charming. It reminded me in many ways of the film Life is Beautiful. The war’s going on, you’re aware of it, but you’re concentrating on these two characters. That’s always been Richard’s quest: to educate and entertain

Before scoring film and television, Doyle worked primarily in theatre which means he loves to collaborate with others. “I have a theatre background and theatre’s a very collaborate process. I like to get in very early on projects. In the case of this picture, I came in much, much earlier, working with Richard. I come in earlier than most composers in order to get into the heart of the picture.

“My primary objective is to capture the heart of all the characters. Just harness the emotion. There are very poignant moments and some of excitement and a wonderful jolly military aspect, if you like. There’s the fun in the central character, the dog, and that little duet between the two of them. The comedy between them was a delight to enhance.

“Animation is unique in that you don’t have sound on a stage as you do (with non-animation), cars and people and noises. Very often you have very little sound, apart from dialogue, and the score along the way helps to tell the story. Music in animation plays a far bigger role than in live action films.”

Doyle’s most prolific collaborator is actor and director Kenneth Branagh and the Scotsman has scored - including the forthcoming Artemis Fowl - twelve of his films. Their roots go back to theatre and their films together are very diverse, from dramas like Much Ado About Nothing to Marvel blockbuster Thor and Branagh’s recent live-action adaptation of the classic Cinderella.

“One of the main reasons Richard he asked me to work on Sgt Stubby, he loved my score for Henry V and also Cinderella, both with Kenneth. He felt that both those films had the various qualities that the film required.

“I’ve worked 12 times with Ken, in fact I was in Belfast with him recently when he got the freedom of the city.

That was my very first time, believe it or not, playing live with an orchestra, the piano. It was absolutely terrifying, I did a piano arrangement of a song we wrote for Michelle Pfeiffer (for the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express).

“Everyone assumes because I’ve written these scores I perform live. I don’t. It’s one thing to do it in studio, it’s another thing, in front of the dignitaries of Ireland with 2,000 people watching me! No-one noticed, I rather enjoyed it and thought: ‘I must do that again sometime!’” he laughed.

He and Branagh are close friends. “His mother and father, and my mother and father, are working-class Celts. I’ve known him for over 30 years. It’s as if I’ve known him all my life. He came to visit me twice a week in hospital. He’d make cups of tea for the nurses. He’s a fantastic person.” Doyle feels fortunate that throughout his career he has taken on highly diverse projects and has never had to resist being pigeonholed.

“Elmer Bernstein, for a long time, could not get away from doing light comedy, in fact so much so, if I remember correctly, he asked to do the score of My Left Foot to break the mould.

“I’ve never had that problem thank God. It’s just the way the cards have fallen. I’ve managed to be able to deal with all these different genres. And people can see that.”

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