I recently had the opportunity to speak with Australian composer Stefan Gregory about his work on the Netflix film Dig. Gregory makes his film debut with this Netflix drama, based on the novel of the same name by John Preston. In the film, Ralph Fiennes plays a real-life excavator, Basil Brown, who has been working for several years to excavate a petrified wooden boat from Anglo-Saxon times on the property of a young widow (Carey Mulligan). With this project Stefan switches from the world of composition and sound design for theatre to the world of screenwriting. He studied mathematics at university, but his passion for music (mainly jazz) caught up with him and led him to a career as a music writer for theatre productions.

Enjoy our conversation about Copatier!

How did you begin your career as a composer?

Improvisation and composition have been part of my way of learning music from an early age. My father was a folk musician. I got my first paid gig through a friend who worked in a theater. I made $500 on a production of Hamlet with a classical banjo and cello.

How does it feel to go from writing for theater to writing for film? Was it a big difference?

It was quite simple, the basic ideas are the same for film and theatre: preserve the story and the visual world, don’t get in the way of the text, find what is missing in the story that can be told by the music. One difference is that theatre music sometimes has to be a bit flexible, because the time can change every night, while film music has to be precise.

There are some subtle differences that are hard to put into words – something about how we interpret the film as real because it’s based on photography, even though the footsteps you hear are probably dirty. In the theatre we always know it’s fake because we can look up and see the lights and the arch of the stage, so it’s more based on imagination. It changes the way the music is performed. If you use certain cinematic style figures in theatre, it may come across as cheesy, or the audience may feel manipulated, which will put them off. But the same figures of speech work in film, or are even necessary because they are part of the grammar of film. But it’s very subtle for the most part.

Did it help to work with director Simon Stone, since you’ve been working together for ten years? I imagine that would make the transition from theater to film easier.

It is very helpful to know the manager well, because he or she is your most important employee. Another view of the downside: It helps to work with directors whose philosophy and aesthetic you share, and you’ll end up working together for a decade!

How did you determine the overall sound of Dig? This is not how I imagined a film about an archaeological dig, even though I love the intimacy of music. I’m also curious about one thing: I read that it was your original idea to do music from this period. What exactly would it look like? I know you didn’t go that way, but I’m curious how that differs from what you did.

Originally we wanted to tackle the orchestral music of the time, and I worked hard on that before I saw the revision. However, most of these ideas didn’t seem to work when we applied them – the modern camera and editing language seemed to require a more modern score. I avoided using the piano for a while, but eventually gave up, and it really helped me unlock the whole sound. I think there’s a reason it’s used so often. The strings and orchestra were perfect for the setting, but the piano gave the piece the intimacy and human touch it needed.

When you decided what sound you wanted to give the film, how did you go about composing the music? Was it because of a single theme that spread, or was it more organic than that?

In this case it was a piano piece I wrote, which was a breakthrough for me, the tone and style seemed right, and it suddenly became clear what kind of compositional world would work. It wasn’t the theme itself, but some of the harmonic ideas I was working with, and the simplicity of the melody. Interestingly, this piano piece was removed during a major editing change, as it made the whole film feel a bit faster and this piece was now too slow.

How long did you have to work on Copay? Have you been affected by the pandemic? If so, how did you handle the admissions process?

I was brought in for the shoot and watched the daily castings. By the time I got it right and saw the editing, I think I had 3 or 4 months to write it. This coincided with the first wave of the pandemic in the UK, so my pregnant partner, my three-year-old daughter and I made the decision to return to Australia in the middle of this period. As a precaution, we had already sent my mother, who was helping us with the children, home. My partner was bedridden with morning sickness, so it was a challenge for me to take care of my family and write my first full score at the same time. Returning to Sydney on one of the last easily accessible flights, we had to spend the night in a remote bush where, as it turned out, there was initially no phone, no internet, not even hot water. For weeks no one came to fix the internet and phone because everything was stuck. However, the scenery was beautiful and offered breathtaking views of a large river that inspired the music. The collaboration process got complicated – I had to drive down a dirt road in a four-wheel drive vehicle and upload files via 4G to the director in Vienna.

There was no orchestra at the recording. Iceland opened at the end and we were lucky to have a fantastic band and crew on hand to make an online broadcast of the session possible. People from all over the world – Sydney, New York, London, Quito and Vienna – listened in a small studio in a picturesque coastal town a few hours east of Reykjavik. The sessions started at about 8pm Sydney time and lasted until about 7am. I was a little tired at the end!

One question I can’t get out of my head, and forgive me if it’s misinterpreted, did you write this music to mimic what an archaeologist does? There were many small, more delicate moments that reminded me of the brushing and probing an archaeologist has to do to get these precious objects out of the ground, and I wondered if it was done on purpose.

Haha! I love that observation. It wasn’t meant to be, but I insisted on imagining it, so there was probably something going on in my subconscious.

What do you hope the audience takes away from seeing Copatier and your score?

I hope they listen to the score as part of the overall cohesive experience of the film and don’t overthink it – all the elements of the film work together nicely. As for the experience, it will resonate differently with everyone and everyone will find something different. Of course there are big problems: Life, death, time, land, heritage, love.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Several. I love the montage that begins just after Piggy’s arrival and continues under Basil, who shows little Robert the stars through a telescope, until a foggy morning. I also love the part after they get the body out of the plane crash, with the sunset and Rory and Peggy – it seems a little unexpected musically.

Thanks again for taking the time to talk about your work on Dig.

Thank you for your questions!

Thanks to Stephen Gregory for taking the time to talk to me about his work on The Dig. You can watch the movie on Netflix!

Have a nice day!

See also:

Interview with the composer

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