Interview: David Arnold (Hot Fuzz)

featured / Interviews / News / September 4, 2017

The number of film soundtracking heroes you can maintain under Danny Elfman is very limited. The folks that work across multiple forms and functions top out around 20 big names — at least when it comes to active, modern, hero types. Within that, only a few apply across the board as top flight. David Arnold might not be the most obvious inclusion, but oh wow has he racked up the credits to cash in.

Arnold’s notable early career credits include such ’90s gigantic scale action as Godzilla and Independence Day, along with Zoolander and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Since then, he’s done five James Bond soundtracks, Sherlock, Stargate, and even a Doctor Who theme.

Finally, after much fan demand, Mondo released the first vinyl pressing of Arnold’s soundtrack to the seminal Edgar Wright film, Hot Fuzz. If you aren’t familiar, Hot Fuzz is actually, and without question, the greatest film of all time. And while Baby Driver‘s (Edgar Wright’s latest feature) soundtrack, got more attention than the film itself at times (and in the film, the iPod’s narrative inclusion earns that attention), Hot Fuzz represents that perfect blend of responsibility between film and sound — and it achieves so much with this perfect blend.

I sat down with Arnold to discuss the making of the Hot Fuzz soundtrack and a life in film, cut short only by his need to attend a screening of Atomic Blonde. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think of this Mondo vinyl release of “Hot Fuzz”?

Arnold: It’s an amazing and beautifully considered and designed product. It’s a delight to have something I made on vinyl. It’s not that often you get someone who cares about the core and the heart of a movie and injects that into the product on the other end. Usually a soundtrack release gets some pictures from the film on the inside of the booklet, but otherwise it’s not that great. There are innumerable soundtrack releases and I think the sheer volume makes people not care. But this vinyl… well, it smells like chocolate. Anything that smells good is worth your time. Have a sniff of it and tell me what you think. Maybe it doesn’t smell like chocolate to you but it does to me. [Editor’s Note: The insert for Mondo’s special Comic-Con edition is in fact chocolate scented.]

When working with Edgar Wright, the soundtracks can be more important than the film itself. Does this change how you approach a project like this?

Arnold: Well, for me the soundtrack is always more important than the film. Right? I’d know Edgar for a long time and I knew he loves to use songs. But it’s not like he would pick the songs and ignore the soundtrack. He understands that this entire thing is one long story. So the songs and the score are telling you part of the story, and he would never just ask me to fill in the gaps. I wrote quite a lot of music for this, which I found easy, because it was a story about people more than it was about situations or things.

This is also a film about films. Where did you take inspiration?

Arnold: Edgar said he wanted Hot Fuzz to essentially be a Tony Scott film. Like, the most expensive of the American actioners you could see, but about two Someset guys with fingers tickling Hollywood action. The music had to be aware but without being on-the-nose. There’s a guitar riff on acoustic that creates the feeling of loneliness in Nicholas Angel, which is a bit cheesy, but it’s also a cue that people would use in earnest in another film. No cliché left unturned, but all clichés used with absolute commitment. It’s not just funny in a way, but rather funny in a lot of ways. It creates a distinct journey through music and styles of music just as Hot Fuzz has a distinct journey through entire genres of film.

This transfer of the soundtrack involved working from the original tapes and making completely new edits of the original themes. What kind of chances did you take here?

Arnold: Well, yes, we had those original tapes, but also there wasn’t enough room on CD to fit all the music in there. So vinyl opened up some opportunities. For example, there is an entire side of a record that I created a 23-minute suite on. To a certain extent, it suited the tone of a vinyl release to have shorter cues on one side and longer cues on another. You can have all of these action-y cues and a suite of any sort certainly has an air of pretension about it; it’s like someone saying they’re making a trilogy. But it also does lend itself to collectibility. We took all these much shorter cues and re-arranged them into this much larger thing. I know it’s vaguely preposterous but it fits.

During the process of making the film, Wright is known for doing extensive re-edits and so on. How much of your music was made for later-scrapped moments?

Arnold: There were no major rewrites on this film, so by the time I was brought in we really cut to the heart of it. Edgar made a mood board that was basically two mix CDs of all the songs he wanted in the film, and listened to while writing it. Here’s the thing: I believe Edgar Wright could score his own movie. Easily. It might just be time that stops him from doing it? He’s a bit like an animator in that level of dedication. He was sitting in on the mixing process, and honestly, a director sitting in on the mixing is unheard of. But there’s Edgar: “What if we put a little delay on that or maybe a slight ting there because someone might not notice what we’ve done on screen?” And each of those notes improved what we were making. Working with a good director means he knows how to keep pushing and pushing for things to get better, and then he also knows when to stop. Edgar pushed and pushed until a breaking point, and then very specifically stopped. And I’m sure he did the same thing with every department.

As a composer who has worked on multiple James Bond films, you also worked on the Shaken Not Stirred Bond cover compilation album that is famous for having a Bjork cover of “You Only Live Twice” that was cut from release. Can you tell me why?

Arnold: After we’d finished the track and listened back to it… well, Bjork was of the opinion that if you haven’t improved on the original, why release a lesser version? And I often find it impossible to improve on the original of anything. But I also respect her opinion. The problem became that the record label released a four song sampler tape with her cover on it, before the album was released, and obviously before we’d decided to cut it. So that’s why there’s a version of it floating around out there on the internet.

You’ve also written music for video games, like “Wing Commander,” that often involves someone else arranging the final songs and so forth. Is that a strange situation?

Arnold: It’s the hardest job in the world to score, unless it isn’t. Writing something and handing it off for arrangement is probably the easiest version of this. When I approach a film, the toughest thing is coming up with the key music solution to a film: the main theme. It dictates to everyone else what the film will be and you don’t have restrictions of making it fit a thing. And sure, not every film needs a theme, but when one does I write it away from the film. I’ll watch some of what was shot or read the script and hopefully come up with something. To link this back, Wing Commander had an air about it, so writing a theme came quickly and handing that off to Kevin [Kiner] was quite easy. He’s extraordinarily talented and he knows the style. He’d also send me pieces of what he was making as he worked along. Soundtracking is about being in love with coming up with solutions. I like coming up with solutions.

“Hot Fuzz” feels like one of the best films that uses music to sell jokes, but it certainly isn’t… comedy music.

Arnold: There’s no point where it’s supposed to be funny. What I learned from Ben Stiller when I worked on Zoolander was that the funniest thing music can do is… stop. It is funny to start and stop music. The worst thing you can do is try to make “funny music,” which we called “Mickey Mousing the action.” That’s when a trombone plays as they fall over or there’s high woodwinds when a bird flies around them after they get knocked out. This certainly was not that.

When you’re brought into a Bond franchise film, are there any restrictions placed on you when you come in? Do they tell you about certain themes you have to use or anything like that?

Arnold: None. No restrictions. There is an inherent sense that you would include the parts where the film demands it, but they would never dictate anything like that to you. They have a director, an editor, and you — and you all have all of the leeway in the world. Sure, they’ll take a pass at things and give feedback and producers always have their notes, but especially in the Bond world they hire people who they trust and they are very respectful of what you make.

Of all your Bond film scores, which is your favorite?

Arnold: Tomorrow Never Dies lives in my soft spot. I got a lot off my chest there and I’d been thinking about some of these themes for years and I got to do Bond but get away with sneaking some of these long gestating ideas in there. Also, it was my first, and that felt amazing. But actually, Quantum of Solace is musically my most refined, I think. It was a different James Bond and a slimmer, leaner film. Much shorter as well, so I had to do what I did in an economical way. Just like Bond, that score is concise and muscular.

You did the Eighth Doctor’s theme for Big Finnish Productions’ “Doctor Who.” What goes into doing a theme for a character with such a deep musical legacy and such high expectations? What influences did you look to and was there anything about the least famous Doctor character that spoke to you?

Arnold: I did this when Doctor Who was off air and had been for many years. No one really expected it to come back and this was for a limited edition CD run of audio stories of Dr Who. it was a low key, low budget (around £60 I think ) favor I was doing for Mark Gatiss whom I’d known for a while. I loved the show when it was on TV and watched it religiously as a child. My favourite was Patrick Troughton. It was great to be able to go back to how I felt about watching the show. I wasn’t interested in re-inventing really… more revisiting….so I stuck closely to the classic Derbyshire version. It was always Doctor Who so in a way the actor didn’t matter; I was still writing for The Doctor.

You got an Emmy for “His Last Vow” on “Sherlock.” How does TV scoring work differently for you than film work? What are your Sherlock influences?

Arnold: TV work tends to be much lower budgets and shorter timescales. There’s tightness and urgentness. You’re still just sat in front of a show trying to write music for it, and that doesn’t really change from film to tv to stage, but the job stays the same. And if I can capture intrigue and surprise, I’ve done Sherlock.

Finally, “Hot Fuzz” was made to sound like a giant polished studio action film. You’re also the man behind the score for “Independence Day,” which is one of THE giant action films. What was your process for creating the score for something of that scale and how does it feel to be revisiting it, like you did with the live orchestral accompaniment last year?

I write music for the film that’s in front of me. If you’ve seen Independence Day, then you’ll know why the music was the way it was. The process is always “what do I have to do to support this story.” Revisiting it was a blast because I’d done all the hard work when I wrote it, so the very clever team of Tristan Jacob-Hoff, Geoff Foster and Gavin Greenaway had to do the heavy lifting to get the scores fitted to match the finished film. I only had to cast my eye over it to see if all was as it should be — a relatively easy job — and then listening to amazing musicians ripping into it was great fun.

The soundtrack to Hot Fuzz is available on “Crown Ale” vinyl and black vinyl over at Mondo. Sorry, that chocolate scented version is long sold out.

Feature Photo: RTÉ Concert Orchestra

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Brock Wilbur
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian living in LA. Read his book "POSTAL" from Boss Fight Books and follow him on Twitter, @brockwilbur.

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