Long before he directed “Pride and Prejudice,” “Atonement” or “The Soloist,” a young Joe Wright helped create visuals for a number of electronica acts’ live shows, including for a then-burgeoning British duo called the Chemical Brothers.
Flash forward more than 15 years: Wright is a BAFTA Award-winning director and the Chemicals, as their fans call them, are, arguably, the biggest electronic group in the world. The friends reunited to work on Wright’s latest production, “Hanna,” the story of a teenage girl, trained to be a killer by her father, who undertakes a very specific and personal mission to exact revenge. The modern sterility of electronic music lent itself to the cold — literally, much of it takes place south of the Arctic Circle — clinical thriller.
“We’ve known Joe for a long time, before he was a big cheese,” says Tom Rowland, who makes up the Chemicals with Ed Simons. “Watching him carve out these amazing pieces of work in this big Hollywood sort of world now is incredible.”
“I still think we’re new and modern and cutting edge,” laughs Wright, “but we’ve both been around for a long time.”
“Hanna” gave Wright — whose association with Oscar-winning composer Dario Marianelli resulted in a more traditionalist approach to the score in their three films together — the opportunity to use contemporary music for the first time. “I’ve loved working with classically inspired scores, but it felt really liberating to me.”
Wright brought in the pair before shooting started and, in some cases, asked them to write the music for a scene before he shot it. “As we were filming, I’d have a large sound system and be playing the music that they’d composed or just playing music from their previous albums to give the cast the feeling of rhythm and energy. … I was interested in creating very little division between sound effects and the music.”
The director gave the Chemical Brothers very little instruction other than “he didn’t want to hear any strings on the soundtrack at all,” Rowlands says, “no orchestra language the (composers) have used before in thriller action films. The main thing that he brought to us was his enthusiasm and his excitement. You’d send him a new piece, you’d think it’s too much and he’d say, ‘more, more’.”
Unlike many directors, Wright stays away from underscore. Instead, “Hanna” features long stretches — including two taut, tension-filled chase scenes — that play out entirely to score with no dialogue. “I really don’t like it when you have a dialogue scene and you have this emotional push me-pull me thing going on with the score,” he says. “It seems like a cheap shot. I like music to be impactful when it’s there and then when we’re into a dialogue scene, let the dialogue do its work.”
After the Chemicals began working on “Hanna,” “Black Swan” director Darren Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell asked the pair to score the club scene featuring a drugged-out Natalie Portman. “We only had this 10-minute segment of the film that we’d been sent and were entranced by it,” Rowlands says. “Darren and Clint said make it as twisted as possible.”
Now that they’ve got one foot in the movie world, Rowland says he and Simons would love to do more scores, “if things are interesting and there’s something we feel we connect to. We’re just playing live again and it made me appreciate that: that we can go out and play and make demented music to loads of crazed people and then we can have this existence where we have to hit emotional peaks in a minute.”