Film composer and orchestrator Emily Rice has assembled a career that’s characterized with coveted, outstanding achievements many pursue and few obtain. Rice — born and raised in London — has punctuated her presence in the realm of film and TV, doing so behind the cameras with impactful music that’s integral to cinematic storytelling at its core.
It’s been a prolific year for Rice that’s included her musical brilliance dispatched to 11 different film and TV titles such as director Kavi Raz’s feature historical drama, “The Black Prince,” that’s produced by the management-production power, Brillstein Entertainment Partners, Castille Landon’s feature family adventure, “Albion: The Enchanted Stallion,” starring Jennifer Morrison (“House”), Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”), Stephen Dorff (“Blade”) and Oscar nominee John Cleese (“Monty Python and the Holy Grail”), the feature drama, “93Days,” from director Steve Gukas and WGN’s historical drama series, “Underground,” starring Jurnee Smollett-Bell (“The Great Debaters”) and Aldis Hodge (“Straight Outta Compton”).
Throughout her impressive tenure, Rice’s music has been heard in a copious collection of films including “Najmia,” an award-winning bio drama based on Fawziya Abdullah Youssef, for which Rice received a Best Composer nomination at the 2015 Underwire Film Festival (U.K.), as well as in “Lost Girls,” that stars Bar Paly (“Pain & Gain”), Marisol Nichols (“Scream 2”) and Siena Goines (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”) and the award-winning animated short, “Cowboys in a Saloon.”
An alum of the University of Southern California’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program, Rice has recorded and conducted her own original material at both Warner Brothers and Capitol Records. She has collaborated with a who’s who list of talents including the Emmy and Grammy-winning composer, Laura Karpman, and Brian Tyler, who composed for box office sensations such as “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Furious 7” and “Iron Man 3.”
We recently had the chance to visit with Emily to get an insiders look into her own story that we are proud to present today!
What was your initial inspiration to pursue a career as a composer and orchestrator for film and TV?
ER: My initial inspiration was actually the singer-songwriter, Björk! I’d studied her music videos as part of my undergraduate degree and found them to be a really powerful storytelling tool. As soon as I realized that I also enjoyed writing music, music for film and TV became the obvious choice. As a kid I wasn’t that into film though, it was always music, and my parents didn’t watch a lot of movies. My earliest memory of films was watching Star Wars and Disney films at home, and my earliest memory of going to the cinema was probably to see Godzilla when I must have been about 12-years old.
Who are some of your musical influences and favorite composers?
ER: I grew up playing the cello in orchestras and my parents always humored my musical interests when I was young. So I’m definitely influenced by orchestral music and I love composers like Beethoven, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Prokoviev, etc. As I got older, I started mixing that up with a lot of Pink Floyd, Radiohead, Björk, 90s pop music, and as my interest in music and film grew, I started adding John Powell, John Williams and Alexandre Desplat to my list of favourites. The list really is endless though!
How did your assimilation into film and TV begin? What were some of your early projects?
ER: My very first projects were student films, and before I even started doing those, I remember contacting an animator I’d found online to ask if I could download some of his work and score it as ‘practice’! In addition to starting on student films, I also got on board with the film composer, Frank Ilfman, very early on, and was lucky to assist him on a number of his projects, including the Saturn Award and multiple Israeli Film Academy award-winning, “Big Bad Wolves.” I was so fortunate to get this kind of ‘real life’ insight very early on in my career.
What are some of the go-to ingredients that make up a most effective score and how do you go about implementing those into your approach?
ER: I think that the best go-to ingredients aren’t actually anything to do with music, but rather attitude. Because each project is so different and every film has its own very specific set of needs, my approach is always to first spend time with the film and talking to the filmmakers, figuring out what they want from the music. From there, it can be a different process every time. Creatively speaking, I do try and mix up live audio with samples if I’m not recording everything live, and I try and bring a unique element to every score.
Music is the essential auditory complement to what’s seen on screen. How do you go about building up and enhancing what audiences see?
ER: My approach is always specific to the individual film. Spotting, which is deciding where music should start and stop, is an important part of the process and dictates how successful a film score can be. Music also needs to be attached to meaning, sometimes to a character, but not always. For example, in “Star Wars” I always think of Yoda as being a vehicle for wisdom and goodness – so his musical theme is not about him as such, but rather about the ideas that he embodies. So it’s a combination of enhancing what the audience does and doesn’t see.
What’s the key in matching compositions to storytelling conventions such as tone?
ER: There is no one answer or formula. I think one must spend time with the film and get an understanding of it – you need to understand the tone before you attempt to tackle it. This is where an in-depth understanding of music and orchestration really do become helpful and one of my composition teachers once said to me: ‘There are no mistakes in music until you establish your intention.’ I definitely use orchestration to help define my intentions and match a films’ tone. A feeling of chaos can come from developing ideas too quickly as well, and the pace of a story is another important element to match musically.
It’s said often in film and television production that locations can serve as characters themselves, places like the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining” and the mystifying island in “Lost.” Can film music take on a similar capacity and life of its own?
ER: Absolutely. I think that some of the best film music we have does exactly that; it has its own identity and so it brings a stronger identity to the film overall. Having said that, the role of music in film is to enhance the story, or to say what the picture doesn’t or can’t say alone. It shouldn’t be overbearing and so the music taking on a life of its own isn’t necessarily the right approach for every film.
There’s music from composers like John Williams, Hans Zimmer and Alan Silvestri that is so recognizable, iconic and synonymous with dozens of great movies. What’s it about their quality and sensibility that resonates with audiences so well and pushes a movie into the classic threshold?
ER: Each of these composers have a very unique musical voice and have their own strengths which, in my opinion, they apply to their films in a very sophisticated way. John Williams is known for writing wonderful themes and has a traditional sound, whereas Zimmer has always been an innovator when it comes to creating new sound worlds. The point is that they are each extremely good at the thing that makes them unique. Movies are also always a team effort and for a film to be considered a ‘classic,’ every element of the filmmaking process must come together successfully.
You’ve mentored and trained under talents such as Frank Ilfman, Bruce Broughton, Christopher Young, Garry Schyman and Jack Smalley. What’s your takeaway from working with them and seeing their methods up close?
ER: The greatest thing is that I’ve learnt something different from each of them and have seen and heard the different ways that they all think about and approach writing music. Having said that, the one thing that I’ve seen consistently from them all is the integrity of their work and their motivation to create the absolute best work they can, no matter what the project is. And take great joy in doing so!
How did the scoring program at USC help shape your composing approach?
ER: USC was such a wonderful all-round experience. I was able to take away some very practical things like specific writing techniques, learning to conduct and run a recording session, as well as try new ideas like creating a concept for a score.
What’s your experience been working with Laura Karpman and Brian Tyler?
ER: Both Laura and Brian have been working in the industry for more than 15 years and so my experience with them both has been very enriching. It’s also been hugely varied as they each work on different types of projects and both work in different ways. They are both very creative musically and so it’s been a pleasure to witness them work and be part of their teams. I’m star struck by both of them on a daily basis basically!
Share with us a little bit about “Najmia.” What was the premise of the film?
ER: The idea behind “Najmia" was to highlight some of the difficult conditions child brides experience, especially when faced with pregnancy at very young ages. The aim of the film wasn’t to pass judgment on other cultures, but rather to help raise awareness about the need to improve sanitary conditions and midwife training in regions where these situations are common.
What was your approach in composing “Najmia” and what came together well that led to your award nomination?
ER: My initial concept for the score was for it to be predominantly strings. This was primarily because the film had moments of great intimacy, loneliness…stillness, but also reaches a pretty intense climax. As a cellist, strings have always been so emotional and expressive to me, and so I felt that they could convey everything that the film needed the music to be. We did add some piano, synths and a touch of brass for some additional colour later in the process. I think that the award nomination was a result of several factors, not least that the film was beautifully made and the story was told very effectively; I was very excited when I first saw the cut. The entire central cue was written around a repeating bass line, which I think helped the emotional content of the film feel very relentless and thus had a more powerful affect on the audience.
“Albion: The Enchanted Stallion” has a superb cast. What did your job as orchestrator entail for this variety of a fantastical family adventure?
ER: For me, orchestrating for other composers is such a joy as you get the opportunity to see the nuts and bolts of their writing and how they put their music together. The role, when doing it for someone else, can be any number of things from filling out harmony and instrumentation, to formalizing a sketch or mock-up that is already very detailed and near complete. I don’t view orchestrating for other composers as a form of self-expression. The opposite is true though when I orchestrate my own work. On “Albion,” my role was to take George Kallis’ music and expand it for the full orchestral and vocal forces that we had available, making sure I fulfilled his musical intentions. At times, this meant taking an adventure-like cue and filling out the brass section, or in a more fantasy based passage, making sure that the orchestra was being used to demonstrate its full range of colours.
You’ve also been working on historical dramas like “The Black Prince” and “Underground.” What’s the goal in crafting music for those productions and what do you think serves as the best music for titles that are rooted in history-based storytelling?
ER: You know, even though these two projects share the historical drama umbrella, they are so different to one another that it’s difficult to draw parallels. But this is also the beauty of composing for film and TV; that no two projects are the same. However, the goal in writing music is always the same for every project — serving the story. But at the same time, it’s how you serve the story that changes from production to production.
For “The Black Prince,” my role was orchestrator and the challenge was to maintain a classical feel in the score to reflect the time period. I also wrote some additional music, and as an additional music composer, ones’ role is to reflect the lead composers’ style and blend your writing with his or hers. This might mean doing an arrangement of a theme, for example.
“Underground” was a completely different type of project – it was a TV show rather than a film and had a contemporary approach in that it mixes modern songs with original underscore and slave songs from the time. I think one should at least hint towards the time period in historical dramas as this is a strong part of the story’s identity and perspective, helping tell us where we are and when. It also helps marry the score specifically to the film or show and gives it its own identity.
Your music for “Cowboys in a Saloon” sounds very interesting with its live performance by the Helix Collective at the Los Angeles Live Score Film Festival. How would you describe the score and its ensuing performance with the screening where it went on to win Best Picture?
ER: “Cowboys in a Saloon” is such a charming little film. In my experience, I have found animations often need a lot of music because the mood/tone is changing at a faster pace than in live action. On top of that, “Cowboys” had very little dialogue and sound effects to add to my challenge! It gave me great freedom though, and meant that the score really was at the forefront from start to finish. I was quite nervous of the screening as the film wasn’t actually finished for the festival and I wasn’t sure how the audience would react. The Helix Collective performed the score perfectly with the best outcome we could have hoped for!
You composed for the dramatic thriller, “Lost Girls.” What’s the film about and how did you go about crafting music that serves the suspense and drama?
ER: “Lost Girls” is about a young girl (Marisol Nichols) who is kidnapped and sold into sex trafficking. We follow Marisol and the woman who helps kidnap her (Kara, played by Bar Paly). The film’s content is obviously serious and dark, so I started writing with these tones in mind. “Lost Girls” actually became two films — “Lost Girls” and “Lost Girls: Marisol” — each one told from the perspective of one of the two main characters. “Lost Girls” is Kara’s journey and we learn about her history and what led her to position she finds herself in. So there is an added sadness in parts of the score, whereas Marisol’s tale hints at hope.
Share with us a little on your composing for the short film, “FIrefly” that recently screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival. What’s the film centered on and what qualities encompass its score?
ER: “Firefly” is centered around a young girl who is determined to catch the ‘monster’ that goes bump in the night. When she finally discovers her ‘monster,’ she realizes that things aren’t always as scary as they seem. I wrote the score from Maya’s perspective as we spend the whole film inside her imagination. The instrumentation I chose and the way I orchestrated helped convey to the audience that we were very much in a child’s world; it was vital to get the tone right!
What are some of your hobbies when not working on film music?
ER: Haha! Well music started out as my hobby and I still view it this way – playing music, going to concerts or writing. And I feel the same about watching films and playing video games, though I’m a little rusty on the latter having left my Playstation back in England! I love the beach so I try and jump down there for walks as much as possible – we’re spoilt for choice in California and I wish I had more time to explore the state.
What’s next up for you?
ER: Up next I’ll be working on a feature-length documentary called “100 Faces of Survival” about Armenian identity today against the backdrop of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Season 2 of “Underground” was recently given the green light and I’m looking forward to working with Brian Tyler on his upcoming projects. I’m in discussions about a few other things of my own which I can’t mention yet!
Out of all of your achievements to date, what’s the most proud mark you’ve made in your career as a composer and orchestrator?
ER: It’s difficult to choose one specific project, and really I’m just proud to be doing a job that I love. I very much enjoy the process of moving from one project to another that is completely new and different, and I’m especially happy when I get to work with live players. I’m also very proud to be supported by BAFTA LA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Los Angeles), including receiving a BAFTA scholarship. As a Brit, being recognized and supported by such an organization is very meaningful to me!