Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with composer Warren Ellis about his film scores, including The Velvet Queen, and how it demanded his time when he had none to spare.
Take a moment. Dip into your memory. Can you recall the movies that altered your chemistry upon first watch? These are the movies that seeped into your eyeballs and crawled their way into the back of your brain. The movies that took up residence within you, causing your perception of the outside world to be forever changed. They pushed you through the Stargate, beyond the infinite. The world under your feet is no longer the one it was a few steps previously.
Warren Ellis has experienced this sensation several times. As he’ll tell you, he makes his money as a touring musician (he’s a Bad Seed) but his hobby is film music. Whenever he gets the opportunity, he’ll jump on a movie, totally happy to help it solidify its voice and contribute to the medium that has transformed his interior countless times.
Chatting with Ellis via Zoom, we spent nearly an hour discussing his giddy infatuation with cinema. We were there to chew over his latest collaboration with Nick Cave, the score for The Velvet Queen (a.k.a. La Panthère des Neiges). The French documentary chronicles Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson’s arduous trek through Tibet’s mountainous region. Their mission? To spy on the endangered snow leopard.
Ellis was emotionally rocked when he caught an early cut of the film in January of this year. Something he wasn’t prepared for or even wanted because, frankly, he didn’t have the time or the energy to score another documentary. He was in the middle of mixing Carnage, the album he did with Cave back in 2020. He was already scoring Max Eriksson’s skateboard doc The Scars of Ali Boulala, and he had just completed Blonde, his latest project for Andrew Dominik.
And, oh yeah, his memoir, Nina Simone‘s Gum, had also recently exploded from his body. The man was spent.
Chasing Unshakable Cinema
His tank may have been running on empty, but it got full again real quick. Ready or not, there was little choice. The artist had to get involved with The Velvet Queen.
“It blew me away,” says Ellis. “Seeing these animals in such a raw and extraordinary kind of state. They’re just totally unaware. It’s unlike any animal documentary I’ve ever seen in my life. And I said, ‘Okay, look. I’ll give you five days in the studio. Whatever I come up with at the end of that, if you like it, we can use it, and the rest of the music I’ll be able to work out how to get it for you.’ Because it was a very small budget film, very small. And [Munier] was like, ‘Whatever you can do.'”
When a film hits, you gotta react. The Velvet Queen pounced on Ellis. He describes that time in January as a nervous breakdown. He was running ragged. But the documentary got inside him, and it was enough to boost his energy and commitment.
“These things change your life,” he says. “They raise the bar. I mean, that’s what it’s all about, films. I remember when I saw Under the Skin, I just went and saw it the next day again. I did that with Saint Maud as well. I do that quite often. I’ll just go and see it again. I did that with Drive. I saw that, and I went like, ‘Wow.’ And then I went back and saw it again the next day. I love those things in life where you realize that something’s shifted, it’s moved.”
Jam Session Compositions
The Velvet Queen shifted something in Warren Ellis’ core, and he thought it might have the same effect on Nick Cave. He called his mate on the phone and asked him to come in for two days. Once Cave saw the documentary, he too latched on.
“He was just in tears by the end of it,” says Ellis. “He came back in for the rest of the week. We knocked out the bulk of the score in that period of time. I sent it off to them, and then they came back with notes. And then I took another two days, and I got a string quartet. I didn’t have parts. I just had ideas that they could improvise.”
Ellis and Cave’s scores are accomplished through jam sessions. They don’t enter the recording studio with a plan. They feel it out. The music is in the instruments, and that’s where they go digging.
“When The Proposition came along,” he says, “Nick asked me to do it with him. I had never given any thought to composing music for films. I had no idea. But we developed this system where we could just go in and create music, days of music, and then Gerard [McCann], the music editor, would sit there and chop it in, and then say, ‘Hey, guys, come have a look at this.’ It was done in a really improvisational way. For The Proposition, we didn’t do one cue to image, and I think having done 30 or 40 films later, I can’t recall a scene that I’ve actually done to cue.”
What works for Beethoven and Zodiac should work for Warren Ellis
The confidence to wing it didn’t come from anywhere. Warren Ellis fell into his movie knowledge. He pressed rewind on his favorite movies, thinking of the most iconic sequences where picture and song cosmically connected.
“The approach came out of not knowing what to do,” continues Ellis. “I was like, ‘How the f**k do you do a score? Where do you start?’ It seems like such a massive thing to get your head around, and then I had this idea. When you hear Beethoven or Bach or The Rolling Stones in a movie, or you hear ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ in Zodiac, they’re not made for the film. But they work. I thought, ‘Okay, you can make music that’s not intended for the film, but it can work.'”
When Ellis and Cave came to Hollywood for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, they had almost no footage at their disposal. They were given a tiny sequence featuring Brad Pitt twirling his revolver. Ellis and Cave constructed nearly the film’s entire score from that minuscule moment.
“I actually met [Pitt] the other day,” he says. “He was laughing and telling me that it’s his favorite film he’s ever done. And he loved the music, and he asked me, ‘How did you do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, we had 30 seconds of you with a pistol going, “Does this thing work?” He was just laughing his head off.”
Warren Ellis makes space for the movies
Of course, once they make their first emotional pass on the film’s score, Warren Ellis and Nick Cave start fine-tuning. They tinker and tighten, and when they do receive the picture, they morph what they got to what they now have. This freedom allows the movie to do its thing, the score accentuating its mood, not mimicking its actions.
“A lot of my problems with film music,” says Ellis, “is that it’s so on the nose a lot of the time. It’s telling you something that’s already there. It tries too hard. But this beautiful thing happens when improvising music and finding these beautiful accidents that take place. It gives space for the image; it gives space for the performance of the actors.”
Ellis sees his job as creating a unique voice for the narrative. For six days, he worked from 10 in the morning to three in the morning the next day. The Velvet Queen demanded his full attention and effort. He would not fail it.
“You don’t want to be watching it,” he says, “and suddenly ‘Song For Jesse‘ from Jesse James comes in. Or The Proposition. You’re watching these incredible vistas, and if you know that score, you’ll hear it; the Proposition theme coming in [The Velvet Queen] needed its own voice. It’s this beautiful meditation, and there’s something incredibly spiritual about it.”
Seeking the Divine within The Velvet Queen
In observing Vincent Munier and Sylvain Tesson seek their snow leopard, Warren Ellis grazed upon the profound. He felt the divine in their images, a meaning beyond the obvious. The Velvet Queen is a quest for the interior and the exterior. It’s the same hunt humanity has pursued since they looked skyward and pondered.
“The French aren’t religious,” he explains, “but there is something religious about this film. They’re looking for an apparition of a snow leopard. There’s no guarantee that they’ll see one. It’s a bit like wanting to see the Madonna, or see God, or see Jesus. There’s something about it that keeps you going, that it’s there, that the snow leopard might exist.”
He didn’t know it at the time, during that January madness when he said yes to a Velvet Queen screening, but this small documentary would reconnect him to his first cinematic Nick Cave collaboration. Here they were again, anchored to a few days in the studio, urgently trying to produce something worthy of the film they were given, or at least, the idea of the film they were given. The process is only as stressful as it is exhilarating. But he does it because he adores it.
“I love watching films,” says Ellis. “I watch more films than I listen to records these days or read books. It’s the thing that I do when I’m not making music.”
Movies are Warren Ellis’ avocation. They’re the hobby that distracts from the noise. They’re the stories that redefine his person every few years, twisting his guts, his brains, his DNA. Every time he sits before the screen, he prepares himself for change. There’s always another Under the Skin around the corner. Another Saint Maud, another Drive, another The Velvet Queen.
The Velvet Queen is now playing in select theaters.