Christopher Willis on Finding Musical Inspiration in Stalin's Russia for 'The Death of Stalin'

An interview with Armando Iannucci’s composer which starts in Soviet Russia and ends in Walt Disney World.

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Creating art is a difficult thing. We often talk about creativity and protecting the creative bubble with flowery language. Beautiful words describing an idyllic process no safer from the world than a fly caught in a soap bubble. Then we put on some Armando Iannucci and, at the very least, our language gets slightly less flowery. The man is a cussing poet and his latest film The Death of Stalin is no exception. Through the coarseness, we find a surprisingly accurate depiction of reality. Even if all the Soviet leaders speak with British accents!

We recently had a chance to chat with the composer of the film, Christopher Willis. What does it mean to compose for a film full of real-life, yet anglicized monsters played half for laughs and half for something like “Oh, fuck, these guys are literal mass murders and I know people whose families were decimated by the purges?” Although, the dreamlike, English-accented realist approach was not without its purpose.

The way we study the villains of the 20thcentury leads us to think of them as singular, unique, and almost statuesque. The opposite couldn’t be more accurate. These were powerful men, but aside from their power and facility with words to cover it all up, they were no different from the next bunch of boozing, intoxicated pieces of shit ruining the environment at your local diner.

Mass murderers aren’t Bond villains with grand schemes. They’re macho dirtbags willing to do anything to survive and profit amongst the chaos and death. And they are in every town. If the world is a shitty place full of horrendous people, then Iannucci’s comedy seems hell-bent on showcasing the absolute pettiness of depravity and evil.

To that end, Willis had quite the challenge to walk the manic line between earnest pastiche to set the tone and ribald support to ride the wave of graphic irreverence. For his part, Willis turned to the works of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was active during the height of Stalin’s power.

We talk about a protective bubble for artists, but Shostakovich is an example of an artist who lived through the mercurial attention of a brutal dictator, struggling to keep pace with the leader’s sense of proper Soviet pursuits. In fact, it almost cost him his life. Shostakovich composed his fifth symphony under the fear that this might be the one that got him murdered.

“Against this backdrop of pervasive political terror and personal attack, Shostakovich had to find a way to write his Symphony No. 5, scheduled to premiere Nov. 21, 1937. Fearing arrest, torture and even death, the composer, with sly brilliance and a remarkable spirit, found a way to compose music which appeared to adhere to Stalin’s directives while subtly weaving a deeper and sardonic musical truth, bearing testimony to the despair and terror that reigned over the nation.” – Didi Balle, program notes for the symphonic play, Shostakovich: Notes for Stalin

Willis couldn’t have picked a better inspiration. In every scene, he worked to craft the perfect piece of music. “It should sound like we just happened to find a piece of Shostakovich or something that happened to have that exact shape.” Shostakovich’s work mirrors the struggle of a movie like Stalin. It has to walk the line between irreverence and respect that should in every way be totally impossible to walk. Yet, they’ve done it. Literally, I’m shocked and awed.

The score of this film is as masterfully and creatively accomplished as the film is great. When I asked him what he was most proud of about his work on this project, he shared: “It dawned on me that we were part of this thing that was seeming to comment quite presciently on what’s going on in the world right now. It’s a useful film to watch to understand the way a country can go a little crazy quite easily.” We all go a little mad, I suppose. A great line that, in reality, is fucking terrifying.

You know, sometimes I really want these conversations to continue indefinitely. Willis and I start our chat on finding inspiration for bringing the sound of Stalin’s Russia to the big screen and end in, of all the surprising places, the similarities between Disney’s heritage and Soviet Russia. And, my gosh, I just wanted to marinate in that moment.

Willis is an excellent composer, and you’ll find his point is both excellent and pertinent and not at all what you would think. And, I’m personally very eager to check out his latest work at Disney.

Seek out The Death of Stalin! And be on the lookout for his next project with Armando Iannucci, David Copperfield.

Now, onto the chat!

A Chat With Christopher Willis, composer for The Death of Stalin

William: I caught Death of Stalin last February at the Lost Weekend film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse out in Winchester, Virginia and loved it to pieces. Armando Iannucci’s gift is in presenting a glimpse at reality through the absurd. It’s tough to watch sometimes, especially with the subject matter for this film. Even if we do laugh!  The score definitely played a major role in helping make those emotional transitions from shock to horror to guffaws. So, when you’re preparing to do the music for something like this, where do you go for the inspiration to get into the mindset of Soviet Russia? Or, I guess, maybe this interpretation of Soviet Russia?

Chris: Well, there was an idea early on that it seemed to be working musically to have music playing that was very, very close to the style of real Soviet music from the 1950s. Armando is very interested in classical music. He and I both love it, so we were able to have a lot of conversations about the music of that period. Shostakovich is the famous name from Soviet Russia, but there are lots of composers in that school.

Armando at one point said, “Well, let’s just imagine that we had hired the Soviet Union’s finest composer. Resurrected him from the dead and hired him.” So, on my part that meant doing a lot of research to try to understand exactly how that music works. I wanted to be comfortable enough in the style so that I wasn’t just thinking about technical musicological issues but could actually write freely in that world. Which is definitely harder than just kind of getting a few minutes done, you know? At great pains!

The interesting thing is that those composers were writing symphonies and operas, but they were also writing film music. So there’s a lot of material to look at.

William: When it came to working out the flow of the film, what did that collaboration look like?

Chris: Well, I suppose a blanket observation is that we talked about it and analyzed it less than one might think. Even someone very intellectual like him, I think when it comes to actually making comedy, making films, he’d rather do it and follow his instincts than try to explain himself too much.

I’m lucky in that I really grew up with his comedy actually. So in terms of comedy traditions, we were on the same page. And in a way, I think perhaps discussed it much less than I would have pictured two people working on a comedy like that discussing it.

William: One thing that sort of defines Armando’s approach to comedy, whether it’s In the Loop or Veep or Death of Stalin, is the elevation of dialogue. Many of his scenes have no score. How did you work together to decide what moments of Death of Stalin would receive a score, and which would be empty?

Chris: You’re absolutely right, I think as a general assumption, Armando would like the music at the very least not to be involved in the comedy directly. And if necessary, not to be present at all when something comedic is happening, most of the time. So you’ll notice actually sometimes quite literally the music plays in moments that are not comedic. And sometimes the moment the tone switches and something ridiculous happens, the music just sort of magically disappears, and then comes back a bit later.

There are moments where the music is part of the comedy. Namely, those slow motion sections when everything stops and the music takes over. We did experiment a certain amount, and I know that there were some of them that he had struggled with, with the temp track, trying to find music that conveyed the strange effect that we were going for.

Again, it wasn’t something that was talked about a lot. And even now, I find it a bit difficult to describe why exactly those bits are funny, and what exactly the effect is that you’re getting. Because they are funny. But, they are also tragic in a strange sort of way. The music is generally playing them very seriously, and slightly ridiculous things are happening visually. And so there is that jarring effect.

I actually have trouble describing exactly what the effect is that we went for there. I could just sort of feel, as I was working on it, that there was something just good and very, very Armando that we could achieve if we got it right.

William: Oh, I felt those effects! The two moments that come to mind for me are the chest bump with Nikita Khrushchev at the beginning of the movie and the orchestral swell when General Zhukov throws off his jacket and you see all of his medals on his chest. It’s a really strange hero’s moment in the middle of a state funeral of a brutal dictator.

Chris: The Zhukov one was relatively straightforward for me. Actually, my only worry was that I would go so far that it would read as being sort of like Star Wars or something rather than sounding Russian. We went so far into that sort of heroic sound!

The earlier one was the one that I think they had struggled with. We knew that there was a certain amount of tragedy that you could get from it because we do know that dark things are going to happen. So it’s a strange sort of rather somber, tragic opening piece. It sort of sounds like the start of a symphony, as you see them chest bumping.

But yeah, it’s remarkable the extent to which you don’t quite talk about it, and don’t quite know why it is that something ultimately feels right.

William: Those dark things to happen are part of what makes the movie difficult and engaging to watch. It’s a bit like a cringe-comedy taking on real-life monsters. And I’m curious, what’s your approach as a creator when you’re trying to strike the right tone in each of those moments where you’re asked to provide a score? How do you that?

Chris: Well, there was something that we noticed when we were listening to Soviet music. As I was getting into the groove of that, I found there’s a manic quality to a lot of that Soviet stuff. And a darkness to it that’s particularly in the film music, the newsreel music. Like the sort of stuff that those composers were writing quickly. It can get rather kind of preposterous, rather pompous, rather silly.

And so there’s an area there that I could just sort of move around in, between genuinely feeling very serious and very thought-provoking, and just going over into being slightly ridiculous, slightly crazed in a way that reads as being a bit silly.

But it was just a question of getting comfortable with that, and then kind of riding that and responding as sensitively as possible to the film. I would say the film is doing that too, you know. There are things that are very ridiculous, and then things that are… Yeah. Just things that are very dark, very unpleasant.

William: Manic is so right. Right on the edge of losing control of the piece. But, you nailed it! Riding the wave and feeling your way through something so delicate can be a tough group exercise. Would you talk a little bit about how you two worked together and what your creative process was like?

Chris: Well, as I said, our sort of shared love of classical music is very handy. You can talk for a long time about music and not really be saying that much. Yet two people can be talking and not really be talking about the same thing.

But, if you’re trading reference points, then suddenly you can be much more musically precise. And that could be the case in any style. Two people who know their jazz really well, or their 70s rock really well, are able to do that much more easily with references than just by talking. So we would do that a lot with orchestral things.

There is a certain point at which you just have to hope that you’re thinking in the same way, and I just have to go off and do it. And nowadays, of course, you can demo music. The score is a very old-fashioned traditional orchestral score, but I used computers to demo it so that I can show him what it is I’m doing.

Chris: The differences are that, on quite a lot of films at the moment, you might actually end up hearing some of what the computer’s doing in the final mix in with the orchestra. But in a film like Stalin, we’ve completely thrown away everything the computer did, so that what you’re hearing at the end is literally just the real orchestra in the real room.

William: Oh, I love that. Practical and efficient, but when it comes to the product you get to stay more authentic to what you’re going for. Speaking of moments! I think for me, musically and visually, the moment where it all comes together is the scene where they’ve turned the trains back on and the people are marching on the NKVD soldier’s post.

There’s this quite serious swell of music that’s happening in the background while you’re watching the people march at the picket line. The music crescendos as the NKVD commander gives the order to fire on the people that have made it past the line. The first gunshot silences the score. It’s stunning really.

I was wondering if you would speak a little bit about maybe what went into crafting that particular moment.

Chris: Right, well, I’m glad you like that section. That’s splendid. The general shape of some of the scenes will have been something that we’ll have talked about early on. The editor, Pete Lambert, and Armando might already have an idea. I think the concept of ending on the gunshot and then having the actual massacre empty was something that had been decided early on in the edit. There might be other places in the film where I actually go away and make some discovery that is quite different from anything that we talked about.

So yes, then, of course, I have to try to create that thing. I would try to come to a complicated scene like that relatively late on when I’ve sort of finished doing my research and I’ve already got quite a lot of music under my belt.

I’ve already got quite a lot of music for the film written by that point, so I’m feeling relatively confident about the language I’m in and the ingredients I’m using.

That scene is quite complicated. It has to move through various different stages, and yet I’m really, really concerned that it be very sort of symphonic. It should sound like we just happened to find a piece of Shostakovich or something that happened to have that exact shape.

William: Making movies is a challenging, precision game. Whether you’re composing or directing, writing, whatever. It ain’t easy. I’m wondering, what’s the thing that you’re proudest of, maybe when it comes to Death of Stalin? What do you look back on in that particular project and find rewarding enough to motivate you through the next challenge?

Chris: I had a distinct feeling with Stalin. While we’d been doing it, I was concerned with a lot of musical elements. You know, polishing it and seeing if things work. Totally concerned with the composition.

But, once the film was out in the world, it dawned on me that we were part of this thing that was seeming to comment quite presciently on what’s going on in the world right now. It’s a useful film to watch to understand the way a country can go a little crazy quite easily.

The film was made before the 2016 American elections, so it wasn’t intentionally commenting on politics, but in the last few years, it seemed like there were so many parallels between the film and what’s going on in real life. I was very proud to be a part of something that was useful and urgent, and perhaps even important in that way. That was a very new sensation for me as a humble scribbler of musical notes.

William: I think that’s a lovely answer. I’ve really enjoyed this chat. But, before we go, are you getting geared up for Armando’s next film?

Chris: Oh, can I tell you, we are just getting started on David Copperfield!

William: How are things going with that so far?

Chris: Well, it’s very early days. I just saw a first cut of the film not that long ago, but I’m tremendously excited. I think it’s going to have more music than The Death of Stalin. I don’t think it’s going to have quite that pastiche flavor, but I’m thinking about English-ness and Dickens a lot at the moment. I think, again, it’s going to be very organic. And Armando’s interests of course in concert music are going to, again, influence the way that I think about it.

William: Very exciting!

Chris: I also just wrapped up the music to a big Disneyworld ride which is opening next year.

William: Wait, really? Which one?

Chris: Are you a fan of the parks?

William: I am!

Chris: Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, which is opening sometime late next year I believe. It’s a huge new Mickey Mouse ride at Disney Hollywood Studios in Disneyworld.

William: Holy shit. That’s really cool. But, how do you prepare-

Chris: It’s very different!

William: Ha! What would you say are the key differences between working on a film versus scoring a ride?

Chris: There are a lot of differences when you’re first encountering the logistics of doing a ride. There’s a steep learning curve. I would say eventually that settles though. The aim by the end is to create something that does flow cinematically. So ultimately I would hope you arrive at a similar place.

And although the tone of the two things, you know, dark political satire and a Mickey Mouse ride, could not be more different, I must say the Disney heritage is no less imposing than the Soviet composers. I’m trying to craft something that continues the tradition of the great Disney composers, Oliver Wallace, and Frank Churchill, and you know, the great music of the golden age of Disney animation. And yeah, they were a talented bunch.

William: You’re spot on. I love it. I think that’s fantastic. I knew that you had done some work with Disney before we got on the phone, but I didn’t realize it was scoring such a big new ride.

Chris: It’s a strange thing to pair up. Well, of course, if you see the Mickey Mouse shorts, you’ll see that they are amazingly edgy. So again, it’s comedy. It’s very, very smart comedy, just as smart as what you see in Veep or The Death of Stalin. It just has a slightly different audience in mind.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.