When thinking about film scores, a few classic ones immediately come to mind. The Mission, Last of the Mohicans, Jaws. Each of these movies had a score that brought something extra to the film and made it a classic. To me, film composition is one of the most important aspects of the entire project. Film composer Ben Willem, with more than 20 films to his name, spoke to me about his role in My Father's War, why he loves his job and what has been some of his favourite projects to work on.
You are originally from France, when did you move to South Africa?
Ben Willem: I came over when I was about five and a half. So I've been here most of my life. I went to an English school, I was at St. John's. I'm a little bit more South African than French but I'd say I'm a little between the two.
“...at the end of grade eleven I discovered that you could write music for movies and that's what got me excited...” - Ben Willem
How did you make that discovery?
Ben Willem: I had a theory teacher, Carl Albert van Wyk, who was at Wits University at the time and he showed me some of the possibilities of it. From there I just decided that's what I wanted to do, so I went to Wits University and from my first year I was straight into the studio, hardly anyone was using it there. I really got my hands dirty and somebody was teaching me as well, a man named Dan Selzic who became one of my great, great mentors.
Then in 1999, which was my second year at varsity, I did my first professional documentary. I did a couple of student films for AFDA, finished my degree and then I went to do a part of the pilot master's course at AFDA before it was affiliated. That was a trial by fire because I did my first TV series which was a thirteen episode series but the way the schedule was running, I was doing about fifteen or twenty minutes of music.
The first run was hectic because it was about three days per episode, I was composing per episode. In theory it's the best way to work as opposed to building a library for them as I did that for Skeem Saam. But obviously having control is always better because as a general rule editors always tend to cut to music. Quite often they'll get a film and they'll use music to allow or help them to put the pictures together, and then the music dictates the rhythm of the film.
How do you decide on a theme?
Ben Willem: It depends on what the film needs. A good example is Vir Altyd. It had reference music that was very dramatic. Very kind of heavy and dark. And you know the film could've gone either way, so the music worked to a certain extent but what it did for the film and for the audience in my opinion was to bring it too far down.
I spoke to the director and we had a big discussion and I was like I don't want to do that, I want to flip it around. I want to bring the music right up. So when the dark moments are dark, that's okay, at least we'll lighten the whole experience for the audience.
And the theme for My Father's War?
Ben Willem: My Father's War was a very interesting one. Because they really wanted me to push a lot of things to the top. There were certain decisions that had been made which became a little bit difficult once the movie was in place. For example there's a dream sequence that happens but the way that the film is set up, you have a direct cut from real life to the dream sequence.
What I did was, I took an old guitar and a rough stick and I rubbed the stick on the string. It developed a very bizarre sound that allowed for creating a sound that the audience can identify with as being sonically part of the dream. Then I take that and I set it up before the scene happens so that you're pre-empting the fact that it's going to happen. It became a construct that you see in the movie, in the film at the end. The construct comes in and it cuts to the credits.
What is the project that has meant the most to you?
Ben Willem: Meant the most to me? That's a difficult one. Every project teaches me something. That's what I love about the job. Again, on My Father's War there were so many elements that were pushed in and there were stuff that we experimented with and stuff that went completely over the top.
In my opinion, the best movie so far is probably Ballade vir 'n Enkeling. That one really came in and it was like you know what, this is a good film already. Without having to worry about what you need to add or touch or flip, it was already a good film. And Vir Altyd was definitely for me a step up. I definitely feel there's an increase in level in what's happening in the film industry. It's just a question now of how do we push the ceiling so we can have more budgets so we can increase that level even further and try and get it to international stages.