Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to speak with film composer Benji Merrison about his work on SAS: Red note. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy McNabb, the film follows a special forces operative who takes on an army of mercenaries planning to blow up the Channel Tunnel.
Benji Merrison is a composer with a BA (Hons) in Music and an MA in Music Technology from York University. He also studied jazz piano with Howard Riley at Goldsmiths University. He’s been in SAS: Red Notice, BBC Green Planet, General Magic, Dynasties 2 and Victoria.
I hope you enjoy our conversation about SAS: Red note.
How did you get started as a film composer?
Thanks for the ride, Becky.
I grew up listening to a lot of music as a kid. My father had a large vinyl collection and played a lot of folk guitar. My mother played the piano, so there was a piano in the house. I started playing the piano when I was five or six years old. I’m a little obsessed with finding the right thing. I spent hours practicing tunes and such, then I took piano lessons from a local teacher. When I was about eight years old, I picked up a Roland Juno 6 and was dumbfounded – I couldn’t believe the sounds it could make, and I made up fantasy stories in my head while subconsciously fiddling with the knobs and sliders. It’s funny when I look back on it now, because it’s such a simple synthesizer. I still got it.
I studied classical music for a few years, then did a master’s in music technology. After working in animation and audiovisual art for a few years, I started suggesting to clients that I could do both music and motion graphics. So I started with small jobs that became more and more important over the years.
It’s been a wild ride so far, a very organic process. Honestly, I didn’t even know you could get paid as a songwriter from the beginning, I just jumped into the industry with the thought: I can do that, see what happens.
How were you convinced to work on SAS? Red Note?
CAC : Red Notice was a great project to be a part of, and getting the job was truly fortuitous. I met the music director at an event in Los Angeles and we discussed the project and the fact that they needed a British composer. Of course, I did my most exaggerated British accent!
She put me in touch with producer Lawrence Malkin. Larry called me and said: Can you be in Amsterdam tomorrow for the screening? Somewhat excitedly, the yes man in me snapped, and I was indeed there the next day (this was before Covid, of course). I guess my enthusiasm must have impressed him, because after presenting a few test compositions, the job was done!
Where did you start putting the topics together? How did you decide what sound you wanted to bring to the film?
I’m an improvisational composer, so I often approach themes and writing in general by messing around and seeing what works for me.
Early in the score development process, I had a few improvisation sessions in the style of Larry Malkin (producer) and Peter Clark (music editor). I had created a nice Cubase template with a lot of interesting instruments that I could integrate into a session, so I could go from an intimate piano sound to a full orchestra with synths and crazy pulses mixed in. I’ve programmed midi controllers to do all sorts of things with each instrument, including varying the different pitch layers (some raise the pitch, some lower it).
During one of these sessions, we tried to determine what themes would fit the main character Tom Buckingham, and what musical instrument we could use to describe Tom Buckingham’s psychopathic nature.
I started hammering out a simple English Country Garden style riff, something that came easily to me and became the subject of Tom Buckingham. Then I gradually used more and more midi controllers until this massive, intense, teeming orchestral sound took its place!
Larry and Pete were talking: What was that? Sounds like psychopathy to me! From there, signals like Emergency Response, Two Psychopaths, and the end of Player Search emerged. In fact, much of the score comes from this improvisation. I find it fun and inspiring.
Have you created themes for specific characters?
Yeah, for some people. In particular, there are very clear themes, such as those mentioned in Tom Buckingham and also in Black Swans. There are also other thematic elements, such as. B. first heard the Church of Psycopathy theme in the drum scenes with Will Lewis.
However, it was clear from the outset that these themes would gradually reverse, transform and degrade over the course of the film. This seemed like the most ideal way to portray psychopathy. I also took the ideas of these themes and reduced them to an ostinato figure, for example, or played them in a retrograde or inverted form, something like that.
Deconstruction was a big part of the process. This happened both on a thematic level and on a tonal and instrumental level. In the course of the film, I take an object like a kettledrum or a snare drum (which is clearly a sign of militarism) and run it through several chains of effects or spectral processing to create something entirely new, but from the same source.
I love ideas like this, but only if it means something to improve the story. In this case, it was a logical and proportionate approach. I think it worked, too.
What general process do you follow when choosing which tools to include (or exclude) in the tool set?
I don’t have a consistent process, it changes with each result. I always do a lot of research, trying out all kinds of things to see what works best for me, for the character or the story. Often I like to combine a familiar or obvious device with one that is more surprising or exciting.
In this way the spectator experiences a sense of familiarity on the one hand, but on the other also a certain tension, astonishment or questioning. It can be a very useful musical instrument if it is clearly defined. You can use the relative push and pull of this pair to play with the viewer’s emotions and evoke more nuanced complex states of mind.
Are there any musical ideas you’ve tried that didn’t work?
Oh, yes, very much so.
In fact, for me, this is a big part of creating a successful account. I think as you get more experience, you develop the professional maturity to reject an idea (no matter how good it is or how long it takes to write it) if it doesn’t fit the movie. It used to annoy me, but now I quite enjoy destroying a sophisticated idea. Here’s the thing: Sometimes you learn more from the things that go wrong than the things that go wrong. This is all part of the process.
I like to fly over the feelings associated with the creation of music, to hear the music as objectively as the audience. In that sense, it is good or bad. All that matters is the audience’s emotional reaction to the film, my own feelings don’t matter.
To counteract this, I don’t like to spend a lot of time working on posts or writing topics. I have learned over the years that the longer I dwell on things, the more perspective I lose and begin to gain. I like to hear my work regularly, as if I hadn’t written it. That way I am more objective and logical about how others will react.
How long did it take you to compose the music for a film?
Scoring was conducted for approximately four months during the late summer/fall of 2019. It was a pretty intense but very pleasant experience. In the winter of 2019, just before the start of the pandemic, filming took place indoors at AIR Studios.
It is surprising to think how intense this period was, especially since publication was delayed due to events in 2020. I’m glad it worked out this way, because it means that all the recording and mixing was done in time before the restrictions kicked in.
How was the cooperation process? Was the collaboration with producer and writer Lawrence Malkin on the soundtrack fruitful?
There was a lot of cooperation. Larry is a very involved producer and enjoys being involved in all aspects of the film. I really enjoyed the process. We got used to him coming to the studio every weekend and then we’d watch two or three reels of film all day, talking about each shot and how we could influence the plot and add to it with the score. Then I would take a week to review and repeat the process. All this resulted in a very dense and accurate image.
Even though it sounds like it was a bit directed, it was a pretty free and structured approach to the score that I really enjoyed. I had all the time to experiment and let ideas flow freely, but I had that focus and a second opinion, so I didn’t focus too much on any one idea or part.
In that respect, I’d say it’s one of the most collaborative scores I’ve had so far.
Do you have a favorite song? Or a detail you hope viewers will notice?
Ha! In fact, there are a number of them.
One of my favorites (and others who have seen this movie so far) is 3m23 Emergency Response. It’s a real fad, but also a perfect blend of Tom Buckingham’s distorted and fragmented theme and the signature lines of Psychopathic String. It’s basically orchestral heavy metal disguised as a soundtrack, which I really like!
Thanks for taking the time to tell me about SAS: Red note!
Thank you, Becky, thank you for having me!
I would like to thank Benji Merrison again for taking the time to talk to me about his work at SAS: Red note! I hope you all enjoyed this interview!
Have a nice day!
Interview with the composer
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