Interview: Nick Urata (composer for Paddington)
James R | On 27, Mar 2015
Paddington is out now. Directed by The Mighty Boosh’s Paul King, it’s a delightfully silly take on Michael Bond’s bear, with real charm and heart.
Central to that deft balance of comedy and affection is the music, by Nick Urata. We sit down with him to chat CGI bears, scoring comedy and that Mission: Impossible moment…
To Colorado music fans, Nick is the lead singer of the band DeVotchKa. Their sound has always been rich and orchestral, with a flair for strings. It was perhaps inevitable that their songs should be picked up for Little Miss Sunshine back in 2006.
“The directors sort of wanted our sound, so it was a good match,” he explains. “I was always sort of writing that way in the back of my mind. And Little Miss Sunshine was sort of a nice weighting in because we had some songs that we had already written that were re-adapted for the film.”
So how big a step was it, to move from song-writing to soundtracks? “The hardest part is just the two worlds are quite different – the demands of a film are a lot different from sitting in your basement writing songs on a guitar.”
But different is far from an alien concept to this musician: a quick glance at the list of instruments he plays, from theremin and bouzouki to piano and trumpet, gives you a taste of just how versatile he is. He’s ambitious, too, describing Little Miss Sunshine as “a good growing experience”. Unsurprisingly, he soon found himself back working with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for Ruby Sparks.
“We had such a unique experience with Little Miss Sunshine,” says Nick. “We stayed fiends and kept in touch and they had a lot of projects sort of starting, which is, you know, a big part of being a director and trying to get a film off the ground. They said ‘We’re putting [Ruby Sparks] out to other composers and we wanted to see what you could do’ and they showed me the film and I wrote some stuff and it turned out to be what they were looking for.”
“I don’t think I could’ve done it years ago, if I hadn’t had a few more indie films under my belt.”
Almost 10 years on from their first collaboration and Urata finds himself on a big budget family movie – a Christmas release with stars such as Nicole Kidman and (at one point) Colin Firth attached. A few months later, Focus came out, starring Will Smith.
“I guess it was a big leap but, you know, on a trajectory, they’re both really great films to score, musically,” he observes. “I don’t think I could’ve done it years ago, if I hadn’t had a few more indie films under my belt. Does that make sense?”
He’s eager to talk about Paddington, enthusing several times about how great it is.
“It’s sort of a fairy tale and a comedy and it kind of allows you to,” he begins, then pauses to choose his words.
“On so many films, you have to pull back the reins and stay out of the way, but Paddington you’re sort of allowed to be big and almost cartoonish, in a way.”
Like acting, though, comedy is fiendishly tough to do with music. “Yeah, it’s really difficult to score comedy sometimes,” he agrees. “You don’t want to break out the slide whistle!”
Urata’s score, with its waltzing piano theme, emphasises the sentiment as much as the slapstick, which helps to keep the tone in balance.
“That’s what’s so great about Paddington. It has such a heartfelt story about an orphan at its core, so there’s a depth to it.”
“There’s always that fine line you’re walking and you go there quite a bit usually,” he adds. “Mostly, there’s a lot of other people that can pull back from you edge.”
Collaboration is another key part to Paddington’s success. The film is accompanied not just by Nick’s work, but by songs from Trinidadian singer Lord Kitchener, who arrived in the UK in 1948. His number, “London is the Place for Me”, is performed in the film by D Lime – featuring Tobago Crusoe and recorded in Damon Alburn’s studio.
“What I feel as an outsider is an amazing thing about London,” chimes in Nick. “It’s such a worldly city now with people all over the globe. To hear that coming through in the film and that was one of the underlying themes, you know. You just have to be yourself and you’ll make it in London – you’ll find a home.”
“I love the songs and I love the style.”
The score echoes Kitchener’s calypso beat with its own shuffling rhythm, which permeates almost the entire movie – and helps to bring out the chaotic nature of the comedy. The trumpets and other instruments are a bonus.
Nick says he was aware of the songs being used when he get involved.
“I love the songs and I love the style. I adore the style. And it opened the door for what I was talking about, how you can have this international flavour and still feel very much you feel like you’re in London.”
Paddington’s a film where the music plays an explicitly central role – D Lime even performs his song on camera in the middle of the street. That overt inclusion of the soundtrack extends right to the end, when a familiar melody pops up during a chase sequence: the Mission: Impossible theme.
Was that always the plan or did it come about naturally during the mucking about?
“It was definitely a trial and error sort of thing,” he reveals. “We actually tried [the film] out in front of an audience before it was released and tried out different ideas and jokes. That joke always seemed to land with the audience.”
“For licensing reasons, we couldn’t use the original,” he adds, “so we had to do a re-record with the orchestra. It was pretty fun song to tackle!”
Nick seemed to be having fun throughout the project, with Rule Britannia even making an appearance during one Buckingham Palace scene.
“Yeah, that was another fun one!” he laughs. “It took some sculpting to fit it in there! I just love that scene. It’s one of my favourites. There’s the whole British hospitality and the devotion to tea-time…”
“There was definitely a lot of pressure…”
While the production had a sense of fun, though, Paddington is still a big step up from his indie comedy days – not just in terms of budget, but profile. How much pressure was there?
“There was definitely a lot of pressure,” he admits, although highlights the importance of working with King and the rest of the team. “Sometimes, as a composer, you just get stuck in a vacuum in a room somewhere. The collaboration did help a lot. I tried not to focus on it too much, but there was a lot of pressure and there was definitely a hard deadline that wasn’t going to move!”
“With animated films it’s often a bit dicey too,” he elaborates. “There’s so much computer programming that you don’t always get the film on time so there was a lot of writing without the proper picture and everything. It was a learning process, for everyone, but thankfully, I feel like the story and the material just pulled us all through the hard times!”
The film arrives on DVD just after Focus landed in UK cinemas. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting movies – or soundtracks.
“Focus was my third film with the directors,” says Nick. “They’re the kind of guys who love their songs. They love to pick all the songs in the movie from other artists and they often write to them and edit to them, so they had very strict, strong musical ideas.
“[The score] in Paddington was more of, like you said, part of moving the story along. The score was always there. Focus was, like, a little less score and a little more time to develop what was happening.”
Is the contrast part of the appeal, when it comes to choosing projects?
“Yeah, definitely. That’s always a big draw. Focus was great because the film takes place in New Orleans and Argentina, so the directors wanted to bring that sound to the movie, so I got exposed to all kinds of different artists from probably the greatest two musical locations in the world!”
“[The music in] Paddington was part of moving the story along. The score was always there.”
So what’s next for Nick?
“Actually, the same guys are doing a movie with Tina Fey that takes place in Afghanistan. I’ll be working on that in a couple of weeks.”
A quick search reveals the project as The Taliban Shuffle, starring Margot Robbie, Billy Bobby Thornton and Martin Freeman.
“Yeah, it’s sort of a romance that takes place in war-torn Afghanistan, so we’ll see how that plays out!” he laughs.
You can bet on one thing: it’ll certainly be different to the last one.