Industry Insight: Award-Winning Composer and Music Editor Stephen Gallagher.
This week we sat down with award-winning composer and music editor Stephen Gallagher, based out of Wellington, New Zealand. Stephen’s work has been featured in many films, including Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit franchise, The Lovely Bones, District 9, and many other projects. He has been honored with numerous industry awards for his work and also served as music editor on Wolf Warrior 2, which recently opened as the #1 movie in the world! We were honored to sit down with Stephen and get a closer look at his journey, inspirations and insight into building a successful career as a composer and music editor.
This article features some of the highlights from our talk, but make sure to check out the full interview on the Music Business Lounge podcast here:
Thanks for being with us, Stephen! Can you start by sharing a little bit about how you first began your musical journey?
Of course! I was born in Auckland, which is the biggest city in New Zealand, but I only lived there for two-and-a-half years. My entire family moved to Japan. We lived in Tokyo for about three years. That had a massive effect on me. Going into that environment: bright lights, lots of sounds, just a fascinating wonderland, especially for a kid. My dad worked for a bank so we moved around a lot as a family, but I spent the majority of my high school years in Wellington.
I started being interested in music as a teenager and doing music lessons at school. Then I got interested in rock music and started playing with friends. I was really interested in synthesizers after seeing this video by Duran Duran. Those mysterious, compelling-looking electronic boxes. I immediately gravitated toward this idea that there were people whose job it was to operate these machines.
In school we had been studying the titans of classical music: Bach, Mozart, those kind of guys. From a technical point of view I thought it was impressive but I didn’t really connect on an emotional level. One day my music professor put on a cassette of 20th century composers. The very first thing was a piece by George Crumb. I had never heard anything like it. It blew my mind. I still remember sitting there in the classroom and it felt like I left my body. I realized there are people out there writing this kind of music.
I was introduced to Ross Harris, a New Zealand composer and professor at the university there. I went and visited Ross and he took me into his electronic studio and my mouth fell open. He had all of this stuff that you read about in Keyboard Magazine. I was speechless for a while. Ross was so great and so generous. He helped me connect the dots a bit between being interested in rock bands and being interested in contemporary and electronic music.
I went to university and studied composition and electronic music for an honors degree. During that time in university, I joined a band. We got signed by Sony Records and made a couple of albums. Then the band took a year off and I did some music for a theater production. It was a really fantastic experience and it really opened my eyes a little more to music in a dramatic context. I met a media composer named David Long who played in a band called The Mutton Birds. They were kind of big in New Zealand. We met over a cup of tea and a couple of months later he asked me to be his assistant for a TV show. I jumped on board and did two seasons of a show with him.
So that was your first time being involved with music for TV or film. That must have been an incredible experience!
It was incredible. He is such an awesome guy. An inspiring kind of personality. It was great watching how he approached dramatic underscore. To be involved in two seasons of a show was a dream, really. Afterwards, the production company that was producing the show had an opening in their sound editing department. I thought it would be an interesting thing to do. I joined them and was taught by a guy called Mike Hopkins, a legendary figure in the New Zealand production scene.
Another fine gentleman named Dayton Lekner was the dialogue editor. Those two taught me how to cut effects, cut ambience, and cut dialogue. I worked on a TV show for about six months with them before leaving to work on another show as a dialogue editor. The whole time I was knocking on the door of a guy named Chris Ward who used to work at Park Road Post Production. He was the supervising dialogue editor on The Lovely Bones and also worked with Mike Hopkins on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. He was also a theater sound designer.
I first heard his work when I was a teenager. I went to the theater production and the sound design blew my head off. It was amazing. Wellington being a pretty small city so it wasn’t too hard to track him down! Especially in Wellington theater circles. I began to talk to him and asked what his job entailed. Basically just knocking on his door and saying, “If you ever need someone to help cut dialogue, I’d be really keen.”
One day I got a call from him and he said “I don’t have anything in the dialogue department for you but how would you feel about coming and cutting a temp score for a movie that we just started working on? I think you’re the right fit.’ The movie was The Lovely Bones and the composer was Brian Eno, a long-time hero of mine. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in the same room with his music that he made for the film. It was just mind blowing. Until then I didn’t think that a music editor was even a job that existed. I put the temp score together for the film with Fran Walsh. She is amazing. They asked me to stay on and work with the rest of the film and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since then.
You worked with some of the same people on The Hobbit, right? Can you talk a little bit about your creative process and what work was like on those films?
It was a real joy to work on those films. One of the greatest things to come out of it for me was meeting a gentleman named Mark Willsher. He is a music editor and a scoring engineer. At the time, he was living in San Francisco. I had heard his name around the halls of Park Road Post Productions and his name was often spoken with reverential tones of “this magical music editor.” After hearing his name for like five years, to finally meet him was quite amazing.
The first day he arrived, I sort of blurted out, “Oh my goodness, it’s so great to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you!” He kindly let me sit in on one of his sessions and I was watching him. Within five minutes he was doing things in Pro Tools that I’ve never seen anyone do before. He, out of anyone, is the one that showed me what music editing can truly be. He’s raised the bar so high. For me, he is the god of music editing. We got to hang out and become friends.
One part of The Hobbit that was really learning about the intricacies and skill sets around music editing. Peter and Fran asked me to write a song called “Blunt the Knives,” which was amazing. As far as the creative process for that goes, they were fairly generous. They said they wanted the song to be kind of boisterous and almost like a pub sing-along. You know, after everyone has a few drinks in them. They said just use anything you want and make us a demo. I got some friends to help me sing and put the demo together. It was a really good time. I sent it off to them, they made a few changes and then it was all done.
At first I was really terrified, but once I got some friends together to help record it, we had such a good time and my worries left me. It was such an enjoyable process. Next, we recorded backing instruments and then they told me that I had to teach the cast how to sing it. I had never really taught anyone how to sing before. Then all of a sudden I’m standing in a room with the core dwarf cast and Martin Freeman. I was looking around and thinking about how I am fans of most of the people in this room. They were great.
What incredible stuff to hear. The work all of you as a team put in to create such an incredible experience for millions of people. It’s unbelievable. You also worked with Ed Sheeran on the film, right?
Yes! Fran Walsh mentioned that she wanted a song for the end of the movie and they had some names that they were playing around with but she said if they can’t find anybody then we could always ask our friend Ed. For some reason, when she said that, I thought she was talking about someone from Radiohead. But he flew down to New Zealand when they asked him to come write a song. Peter and Fran’s daughter is a huge fan of Ed and that’s how they made the connection. We all had dinner together and he was just a lovely guy. His manager Stewart came along, too. The next day, Ed watched the movie and came up to the room where I was working and said, ‘I think I’ve got an idea.’
He started playing this thing on his guitar and two things were immediate: one, he was an amazing guitar player and secondly, the idea was really cool. He started playing the main intro theme and he just kept working and figuring things out. So we would just record him and he’d stop and make suggestions on where to put what. After he got the basic structure of the song on his guitar, he just started developing all of the guitar parts and all of the percussion parts until he had a sort of backing track which was the shape and the color of the song.
Then he started recording the vocals. How he did it, I thought, was really interesting. He didn’t do it linearly, he jumped around. At first he recorded phonetics to form a melody and he was just trying to figure out what the shape and the lyrics were going to be. Over time, and we’re talking about two-and-a-half hours, he wrote the whole song and recorded most of it. We recorded all of his vocals and then we put some piano and percussion on it. We were recording out of the room I was working out of and there was a huge storm going on. We recorded him just in this room in front of a window with a curtain over it. Almost like a bedroom recording, you know. He was just incredible. Listening to him playing and singing was a joy. To see someone come up with something so quickly and make it so good was so inspiring. We didn’t have a fancy set-up, all he had was his guitar and a DPA mic on that. It just sounded so good. He played it to Peter and Fran that night and they loved it.
Incredible stuff! Would you share some tips that stand out to you for someone that wants to get into film composing and editing?
I think if you’re interested in composing or editing music for film, it’s really a service industry. You’re really working for other people. Largely helping other people fulfill their vision. That involves building relationships and meeting people. That can be kind of a scary prospect. I find it kind of daunting.
My advice would be, if you’re interested in getting into it, go and meet people who might be interested in making films. There’s a lot of people out there who want to make and direct movies. Find out where those people are hanging out. Are there places where directors are gathering? Are there places where you can go and make contacts and meet with people?
The other thing I would say is find someone doing what you want to do. In my experience, most people are very generous and nice. I’d recommend just trying to get in touch with these people. Just email them. Most people are going to need someone to write music for them. It may as well be you.
Be sure to connect with Stephen:
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