In Josie Rourke’s historical drama Mary Queen of Scots, composer Max Richter found a fresh, contemporary take on a familiar story. Centered on Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Stuart, who aggressively pursued her seat of power, the drama called for a score that was as unexpected and alive as its central characters, casting off the sonic preconceptions associated with the conventional period piece. Like Yorgos Lanthimos’ radically unorthodox The Favourite—which examined Queen Anne and her fleeting affections—Rourke’s film strongly juxtaposed the worlds of men and women, finding the latter party in power, even as their counterparts pursued every opportunity to take them down. While Mary Queen of Scots features scenes on the battlefield, neither of these films placed its focus in that realm—and while Richter offered up some heavy orchestral music and war drums for these moments, his real interest was in a different spectrum of musical colors, which were far more lyrical and lush. Putting women at the center of his score—as Rourke had put women at the center of her film—Richter came to a delightful creative epiphany, as he looked for a sound for Mary Queen of Scots, herself.

How did you come to Mary Queen of Scots, and why was this a film you had to take on?

A lot of different things came together. Obviously, the story is well known. We all think we know the dynamics and the story between Elizabeth and Mary, but this was a new take on it. It puts the women very much into the center of the thing, in opposition to the world of men that they inhabited. It makes their relationship feel different, and it casts that in a new light. I was really interested in working with Josie Rourke, who is a fantastic theater director. This was her first film project, and it’s always exciting to be in the beginning of somebody’s journey.

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Reading scripts as a composer, what are you looking for?

It’s usually a lot of dimensions coming together. For me, one of the big things with Mary Queen of Scots was that it’s a period film, and it’s 16th century. That immediately chimed in with some of my own musical interests; I’m very involved with Renaissance music. Some of my favorite listening music comes from that time, so that was quite exciting, to think about trying to develop a musical language, which could be dramatic and contemporary, but at the same time had a shared DNA with the music of that period. That technical challenge was exciting. There was something quite inviting about that.

In early conversations with Josie, what was discussed?

Josie was brilliant in that she gave me completely free rein to imagine a musical universe for the story. Obviously it’s a period film, and there was going to be historical music as well. There are various formal entertainments and those kinds of things, where we felt it obviously needed to have actual period music in it, which we sourced. But beyond that, she was completely open for me to bring my vision into the thing. I made sketches, we tried a few things out, and honestly, it all came together quite easily.

There’s a certain balance you strike here between the expected colors of war—of the world of men—and a more light and lyrical sound. How did you conceive of this story’s emotional core?

There’s a few colors that I was playing with in navigating the story. The first thing is that I wanted to have these quite abstract women’s voices—there’s no text, but there are these sustained tones, and they provide a psychological context, I think. It’s a female-driven piece of storytelling. It’s kind of a love story; it’s multiple love stories, really. It’s the two of them navigating their relationship, and they also have love relationships with other people, and it’s about how that plays out against the historical backdrop. I wanted women’s voices really at the center of the score, and that’s why the work is lyrical.

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Then obviously, there is the world of men, and the world of men in this film is generally associated with brutality of various kinds. There are lots of quite heavy drones, and a lot of heavy orchestral music, with low-register instruments, bass instruments as pulsation. Then you’ve got war drums, evoking this idea of the drums being used to propel the various combatants in these various battles and skirmishes. But also, ultimately propelling Mary to her execution. It’s the executioner’s drum. That’s the psychological dynamic of the various colors of the score.

What part did the harp play in your musical palette?

The harp works, in a way, as a domestic storytelling color. There are many scenes where somebody’s talking in a room, and I wanted something which felt a bit lighter and more domestic, more everyday for that material. So the harp is playing, and it also connects to the Gaelic harp at one point; you have this classical harp, and then you have the Gaelic harp. One of the main, big themes is played quite often by a cor anglais. I wanted to use that because it does have a reedy, almost Renaissance-y color, this modern cor anglais. It’s like a big oboe, but I also wanted to use it because of its name, actually. Because in a way, it’s a little Easter egg: Mary was [raised] in France, and then came to Britain. I liked the idea of having this instrument with a French name, playing her melody. It’s Mary’s voice, really. The instrument was perfect for that story.

Were there other ways in which the film’s 16th century setting manifested in your work?

There’s a lot of choral music in the score, and there are these wordless female drones, but then there’s also more written-out choral music, and that uses the language of 16th century Elizabethan, polyphonic choral music. It uses that grammar, so it’s written in that style, and it feels in some ways embedded in that period. Apart from that, a lot of the orchestral music is built around these repeating bass phrases, and again, that’s very Elizabethan. At that time it was called a “Ground bass”; now, there’s usually a loop. But it’s this idea of a repeating bass line, and a lot of the music is built around that. So, there are technical little procedures, which I’ve pulled out of Renaissance music, and I’ve just imported them into the score.

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

What was your process in finding recurring melodic lines that felt right?

Honestly, I write them down on a piece of paper. [Laughs] That’s the starting point: I sit at the piano, and I just find things, and play things, and slowly, the thing takes shape. Once I have the bare bones of it, then for Josie or anyone I’m working with, they need to be able to hear it in its orchestral presentation. Then I’ll move over to the computer, and use the softwares and everything there. But it really starts with notes on a piece of paper.

When you set out to record your music, do you prefer to have a full orchestra in the room, or take your instrumental sections one at a time?

I tend to record in sections. We’ll build it up in layers, and as we go, we remove the sampled layers until in the end, we’ve got all real stuff. The choir was all recorded completely separately in different days, different sessions. Then we built up from the strings, and did a bunch of string sessions, and a bunch of brass and woodwind and percussion sessions, all separately. Then we assemble it all. So, we’re recording basically in stems, and that allows a lot of flexibility in terms of how the music is presented.

One of the film’s memorable scenes was set at a wedding, with a crowd of people marching back and forth in time to your score. How was that moment approached?

That came very early on from Josie and Wayne [McGregor], a choreographer who is responsible for all the movement. Josie and Wayne came up with this idea that they wanted to make the wedding as this ritual, so there would be the wedding itself, and there would be this formal dance, which is a bit spooky. Then they would intercut that with the drama taking place between Mary and her new husband, and various darker, more threatening bits of material. The idea was to tie all of this together with a pulse that would then be picked up within the music in the scene; there’re bits of light music in the scene being played. And also, of course, that gave me the engine for the score, that pulse. We picked a tempo, and that seemed to have worked for that plan. Then that was all choreographed and made, and once they got some way along in their process, I started to score it. All these elements pulled together, and I think it works really effectively, all these things all locked in that grid.

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Were there other major hurdles you confronted with Mary Queen of Scots?

There were just a couple of things. The first is that there are battles, and we wanted to try to avoid just massive percussion going off during the battle. We wanted to try to do that in a different way. There’s quite an extended battle sequence, where it actually plays very much against that traditional battle music. I feel like it works in an interesting way. Then, the other thing was the whole last section, which is a very long piece of music, around nine or 10 minutes. It took a bit of time to get the architecture working exactly as we wanted it.

Having created so much compelling music to date, presented in various ways, what are you thinking about, career-wise, as you look to the future?

I’m always looking for the next surprise, really. Obviously I’ve always got plans for my own next project, what I might want to do next, in terms of record releases. In a way, that’s something that I can control, but there’s always that out-of-the-blue phone call, where you’re just thinking, “Yeah, that sounds good.” Film is a bit like that; you get the call, and it just sounds fantastic. A bit like this call, you just think, “I should be doing that.”