Working on longtime friend Andy Serkis’ The Jungle Book long before Breathe came to be, composer Nitin Sawhney ended up seeing that true-life drama hit theaters first. Based on the true story of producer Jonathan Cavendish’s parents, Robin and Diana, the film sees Robin (Andrew Garfield) struck down by polio in his late twenties, leaving him and his wife (Claire Foy) to manage his condition for the rest of his life.
Registering the trauma of such an abrupt illness, Breathe ultimately became an uplifting and inspirational film supported by the lush strings and jazz elements of Sawhney’s score, depicting the couples’ efforts to create a better life for others afflicted with the illness.
Speaking with Deadline, Sawhney compares the distinct musical vocabulary he brought to each of Serkis’ films, discussing his approach to surpassing the pitfall of musical sentimentality and his experience contributing himself to the film’s musical assortment.
How did you come on board Breathe?
I’ve known Andy Serkis for a long time. I’ve worked with him on a couple of video game projects, called Heavenly Sword and Enslaved. I was already working on Jungle Book for Warner Bros., and he came to see a show that I was doing at the Royal Albert Hall with my band. We got talking afterwards, and he said, “Would you be interested in scoring Breathe?” We had a look through the rough assembly and I just loved the film.
Having teamed with Andy several times now, what is it that works about that collaborative relationship?
Everyone knows he’s a very intuitive and great actor. As a director, he’s the same way. I really trust his instincts. He’s actually a very good musician as well, and on the Breathe, score he plays saxophone very well at one point.
I’ve always trusted his instincts, because he’s also a great musician. He’s somebody who really looks behind, for the subtext of what’s going on. He understands the role of music with film. I have very constructive conversations with him every time we meet. He’s just a great guy—it’s easy to get on with him. We tend to have a very easygoing creative relationship.
What did Serkis convey to you, as to his hopes for Breathe’s score?
There’s the old song “True Love” in this film, and I think it’s very much a celebration of how love is much more about caring about another person’s quality of life. It’s very much about that, and having Jonathan Cavendish come in, given that the movie is about his father, it was great to hear his input, too.
Both of them are very open-minded people and it’s good to make suggestions about different ways we can approach the music and different ways we can approach the characterization of each of the people in the film. I really enjoyed how we all worked together.
Can you describe the range of instruments we hear in the film, and the size of the orchestra you worked with?
Really for me, the feel of the film is also celebrating Robin’s spirit of adventure.
In places, there’s a really romantic backdrop to the story, as well. There’s a lot of emphasis on strings and the way I’ve orchestrated those. At the same time, I wanted to bring in elements of jazz, to get across the free spirit that Robin had.
And also, the fact that he was always optimistic. There’s a sense of that optimism that comes through in the score, hopefully. I really wanted to get his character and even his taste from what Jonathan had described to me. I wanted to get that across. He was a fan of Burt Bacharach, and people like that. I used a little bit of both elements, even in the garden party scene. I think also it’s a classic romance, so using that palette of sounds that comes from strings. The danger with a film like this, because it’s from 1959 to 1981, is that you can create a score that’s anachronistic.
I wanted to ensure that it wasn’t that at all, and that it was pretty much about creating something that felt timeless, but still congruent with the whole of his life from the moment he contracted polio.
How did you arrive at the pace and rhythm of your score?
Initially, we wanted to set the film up with this almost exaggerated, fairy tale romance, so that we really felt the change that happened even more than we initially see in the moment he contracts polio. There’s this opening montage with his falling in love with Claire Foy, and we really get a sense of Robin living the good life and having a carefree existence, which is very much what he had.
But I think as time goes on, we’re looking much more at the resilience, not only of Robin, but also of the people around him who care about him. It’s one thing to care for somebody, as a carer. But at the same time, to also care about their quality of life, that’s something we really wanted to depict. I think as the film moves along, the score also hopefully grows to reflect all of that.
I think there is a sense of a narrative journey that follows this journey that he goes on, where we recognize that his whole life was massively enhanced by the fact that everyone around him really cares about him as a human being, not just seeing him as somebody who was afflicted, and therefore unable to do things. They really saw that he was still Robin, rather than a symbol of somebody who had polio.
How did you manage to avoid the pitfall of sentimentality that you had mentioned?
That is always a pitfall, when you don’t want to over-sentimentalize what’s going on, or create too mawkish of a score. I work a great deal with documentary, and sometimes you’re just working simply with tones, underscoring the narrative without being too emotional. With this, it is quite emotional in places, and I think it’s about measuring where it’s salient to be very emotional and to go with that.
At other times, the acting was really impressive from Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield. So much so, that Jonathan Cavendish felt like his father had come back to life with Andrew Garfield. There were times that he was very emotional during the making of this film, and so was his mother. They really felt that Andrew Garfield had captured the essence of Robin Cavendish, which is quite a compliment to Andrew Garfield’s acting.
I didn’t want to swamp those performances with too much music. It was about being selective about where the music came in, where it would enhance the emotion that we were looking at, and being judicious about where music was used.
You play a number of instruments, including piano and flamenco guitar. This story seemed to present certain opportunities to you, with the trip to Spain.
It was quite fortuitous, the flamenco guitar for the scene where they arrive in Spain. I’m also a jazz pianist and play classical piano, so I’ve had a range of experiences in different styles of music. When they land in Spain, and there are flamenco guitarists that they meet, it’s very useful to have an understanding of that, to really get across that transition from England into Spain. And also, to be relevant to the time that they were in, it was useful to have that knowledge, and to be able to play that live.
I guess if I wasn’t a flamenco guitarist, I’d get someone in. I got some great jazz brass players in who I know well. I played at Ronnie Scott’s [Jazz Club] myself and I know a lot of the jazz house band from Ronnie Scott’s, so some of those guys play on the score, too. It was useful that I’m a live musician, that I have a network of people I can call and bring in to enhance the score.
Did you conduct the scoring sessions as well?
I often do conduct. This time, I did at one point conduct the brass section. When we were recording with strings at AIR Studios, I didn’t feel that I wanted to conduct because I find it more useful, quite often, to actually be in the control room, listening to what’s going on so that I can tell the conductor what I want them to change. That worked very well for me, and it worked well for Andy. We were constantly having dialogue about ways in which we could enhance what was going on.
What was the methodology when it came to the jazz components, given jazz’s improvisatory nature?
I actually played in a lot of the solos anyway, with mock versions of the instruments, so they could hear what I was doing. I could also then say, “Okay, you can either play exactly my solo or you can actually improvise in exactly the same style as I’ve done with that.” And there was a mixture of both. But essentially, it was the same spirit as whatever I’d played in.
Some of it, you’ll hear is me actually playing on a keyboard, using some instruments which sound very much like brass. They’re mixed in with live players, so it’s kind of a combination of both.
Could you define “soundscaping,” and the role that played in the process?
I’m not just simply using musical instruments. At times, I was using all kinds of effects and sounds, which weren’t necessarily musical, but actually psychological. There were different, darker tones. I would sometimes use instruments that weren’t recorded live, but were emulating some live instruments, too. But by and large, I try to keep everything as live as possible. That at times dependend on what we were trying to achieve in a given scene.
You’ve worked across a number of musical disciplines, including jazz, classical and electronica. What has this breadth of experience brought to your work?
Because I’ve worked a lot as a live musician over the years, but I’ve also worked in theater, dance, film, television, and so on, it all cross-fertilizes. Even working as a DJ, I’m very aware of thinking about narrative. I think whatever you do, whether you’re DJing or working for an orchestra, or composing for film or theater, you’re always looking for the dramatic arc of the music, and what purpose it serves along with the visuals and the development of the story.
I’m always thinking about how music serves story, even when I’m making my own albums. They’re not concept albums in the classic sense, but they have a feel or a theme I like to work around. The question I always ask is, “What are you saying with your music?” It’s not that I’m necessarily trying to give out messages with the music that I create, but at the same time, I feel like it should be almost like creating a language. That’s something I think about a great deal.
How did your experience on Jungle Book compare to your time on Breathe?
It’s massively different. Each project that I do, I try to look at creating a different vocabulary that’s appropriate to that given project. With Jungle Book, it’s very much about getting inside Mowgli’s head, reflecting his internal psychology, but also there’s a huge, epic scale to what we’re looking at.
I spent some time over in South Africa, musically directing a couple of the scenes, which was diagetic music—music actually in the film itself. But I look at each project in itself and think, What’s needed for this? And hopefully, I can bring the right language to the project.