An Interview with Composer Elliot Leung

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To call Elliot Leung an overnight sensation would be incorrect, as it would be ignoring several years of praised work in video game, advertisement and documentary music. And yet there is indeed something meteoric about his arrival in the A-List of Chinese film composers: his thrilling score for Dante Lam’s spectacularly successful Operation Red Sea – now second only to Wolf Warrior II on the list of highest-grossing movies in China and still the fifth highest-grossing film worldwide for 2018 – marks the beginning of a promising big screen career, with no less than four high-profile films already on his dance card. A busy schedule in spite of which he graciously agreed to answer our questions.

  Can you tell us about your academic background, and how you originally came to be a film composer?

I suppose I can start from the very beginning. My mother played piano, so music was very much weaved into my upbringing. She started teaching me piano when I was two, and when I was five, I started studying the cello under Mr. Laurent Perrin in the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. Laurent was a very key figure in my musical upbringing, as not only did he teach me cello, but he also taught me how to understand and digest music, which was much more important. I studied in a prestigious primary school and was involved in every musical ensemble there was: choir, orchestra, string orchestra, percussion band, wind band and more. This quickly formed my musical identity and made me love music very early on. In primary one, everyone had to write, as a homework assignment, what they wanted to be when they grew up. On my sheet, I wrote without hesitation; conductor or composer. Wild! So I suppose my first thought of pursuing music as a career came when I was 6 – the film composer part comes later.

Fast forward to my secondary school years – I transferred to an International School in Hong Kong called International Christian School. I was just as involved, if not more, musically in the school scene, but the philosophy was quite different – I started to focus on creating rather than performing. I also had more opportunities to conduct groups of all sorts, and started to learn how to cultivate my sound, and ask for what I want. The turning point of the “film composer” part came when I played my first video game – Halo 1. Yes, the shooting around was fun but it was the first time where I noticed the music: Marty O’ Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s score carried the game and made me want to play it more just so I could listen and fully digest the score. From then, my focus shifted, and I started listening and being aware of scores in all kinds of media.

I then went to the US for university. Prior to that, I had become a diehard Marty O’ Donnell fan because he was the first who inspired me to embark on this quest. Therefore I chose to go to Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, as that’s were Marty went. In my second year, I was able to meet and befriend Marty – which was at that time, crazy for me – and since then he gave me some advice here and there, critiqued my music, gave me some very kind comments, and encouraged me to continue pursuing this path. It was crazy for me to go from fan to friend.

When I was looking for work in the beginning of my career, I asked Dante Lam, who had attended one of my concerts during my secondary school years when I was conducting and had absolutely loved it, whether he could recommend me to a composer with whom I could learn. Leon Ko had scored director Lam’s film noir That Demon Within, so he recommended me to learn under him. And so my first involvement with large cinema productions was working as Leon’s assistant on the film Insanity back in 2014. Leon taught me a lot and was very patient with me. Gradually I began to compose for ads, documentaries, shorts, etc. In 2016, I orchestrated for one of Leon’s musicals called Field of Dreams, and director Lam attended one of the performances. After the show, he came up to me and invited me to join him for lunch a few days later, and that turned into my invitation onto the project of Operation Red Sea. After that I began the process of scoring the film, and it’s easily the best working experience I’ve ever had. My collaboration with director Lam was super smooth, and my like-minded colleagues from every other post-production department were extremely friendly, which made working super long hours with them an inspiring experience.

 Apart from Marty O’Donnell, who are your favorite composers (in any musical genre) as a simple listener? And which of those do you think are a direct inspiration on your own style?

I love listening to everything. One of the first pieces of advice Leon Ko gave me on my first day of work was to “learn how to listen to every genre of music and not dislike any, because all kinds of music can influence and inspire you creatively.” Overtime, this translated to all forms of art, but for music, if I had to pick favourites, which mainly are in the realm of orchestral music, they’d be Wagner, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Toru Takemitsu, Hiroyuki Sawano and of course, Marty. Marty’s symphonic writing definitely has the most influence on my writing, but Sawano’s melodic contours and electric elements, Shostakovich and Stravinsky’s harmonic structures, Wagner and Rachmaninoff’s orchestrations and Toru Takemitsu’s sparse textures and colours found their way into my creative output. I can go on forever about other musical influences, but there really are too many.

 How daunting was it to have your first feature film work be one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made? And how is the process of working for Dante Lam?

My first cinema feature was actually called Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy, a film made in 2017 in the US. That said, the scale of Operation Red Sea was much larger than that first film. Nonetheless, it was pressurizing at times scoring, like you said, one of the most expensive Chinese films ever made. The film was an extremely fine piece of cinema, and I knew if I couldn’t create a musical heartbeat and maintain a pulse over the action, I would single-handedly kill the film. I’m very glad to receive great comments from audiences worldwide after, but during the process there were many nights where I kept trying to think of the many different perspectives I could use to score particular scenes, just to make sure the approach I took was the best and most well thought-out one.

Working with director Lam was great. He was very supportive – he knows what he wants. During our initial conversations, he explained and talked about his craft with such detail it formed new perspectives in my head. We first nailed down what tone and sounds we needed for the film, and then went back and forth on cues. One time, he came over to my studio and spent 10 minutes playing with my Chinese opera gong and wine glasses, as I used those elements in some sound design textures. On other rhythmic cues he likes, he would be dancing and air-drumming in the mixing room. Many great and fun moments like this made working together a lovely time.

 One of the score’s most striking moments is an erhu solo, right in the middle of the final battle, as Jiang Luxia’s character makes a last stand. In a film that wears its Chinese identity with patriotic and militaristic pride, it’s fascinating that you chose a traditional Chinese instrument of such vulnerability, used very sparingly yet unmistakably. What is the importance of traditional Chinese instruments in your music?

Yes, many have told me after they watched the film that they never expected to hear an Erhu in a Chinese war movie, especially during the middle of a battle. Like I mentioned earlier, scoring to me is all about perspectives, so in this case, the perspective came from Jiang Luxia herself, about how she was trapped and about to lose all hope, and die. That hopelessness sparked the idea of something melodic, and I wanted to use more Chinese instruments in a Chinese film, so this scene provided an opportunity for me to do so. Director Lam was very surprised too on the first hearing, as that was not what he expected. I guess he grew to love it, because he talks about this moment in the score a lot now, haha!

I love Chinese instruments. Chinese instruments have a very unique sound and timbre that cuts through the western orchestra. The Chinese percussion instruments were used with western percussion instruments in the score, but as for other Chinese instruments, I think these are instruments that have to be used very sparingly, but effectively, or else they loose their unique colour. Chinese instruments were actually not in my musical upbringing, until I was in university, in the US! I remember the story very clearly – I was drinking with a group of friends, until one jokingly said to me, “Elliot, how come you know so many western instruments, but not any Chinese instruments being Chinese yourself?” Although it was a joking statement, it actually resonated with me and made me wonder why. Since then, I picked up the Erhu, and started fiddling around with other Chinese instruments too.

 Of which cue are you proudest in the score, and which cue posed the greatest challenge to you?

Ah, well, definitely the cue towards the end when the squadron of four skydive. This was a cue that happened overnight, where inspiration magically strikes, and whenever that happens, the best music comes out of me. Eddie, the post-prod supervisor witnessed all of it. I spent that whole day trying to come up with ideas until about probably 10 pm when Eddie and some other colleagues dragged me out for a few beers. After a few beers these musical lines just bombarded my brain and I rushed back to the studio, and everything happened before the sun came up. It’s not meant to be a crying moment, but many, including me on the first playback did, just because of how the music and visuals are so well-wedded, and how the audience is able to feel the bravery, as if they’re now part of the four-man squad. Last time I checked this track in the soundtrack album, “The Valiant Flight” already has over millions of playbacks on Chinese music apps. I’ve had many cues which I would revisit a few months later and wish I wrote them better, but this is a cue that I can say that I poured out the best of me. Though, I already have other thoughts of rearrangements when I staged this in concert.

As for the most challenging, it would have to be the first cue during the ambush. Eddie can attest to my first viewing of it again. My reaction after the first viewing was just a mouth-dropped look with disbelief followed with the verbalised thought,”Is this real?” Man, they should’ve filmed it. Anyway, the cue is about fourteen minutes long, and I insisted and was determined to sync up the music to all the small individualised action sync points, rather than laying a generalised track over the action. While the latter would’ve worked, it would’ve have been as effective, and I wouldn’t have liked that approach. However, because the action was so tightly packed, the sync points seemed almost impossible for a cue to cut to all the points. Therefore, I chose an odd time signature to begin with, 10/8, and kept changing time signatures while hinting and teasing at thematic material here and there. Again, this was a magical cue, director liked almost nothing of my first two takes at it, but it was all smiles on the third take. I’m not sure what happened between the second and third take myself, but it is now what it is. Thinking back, I’m really glad I imposed that challenge upon myself, to get all the sync points because that created a drive, an extra source of motivation for myself to achieve, and when that cue was set, it was a very personal “wow, I actually did it!” pat on the back for me.

 Score releases for Chinese films, even big and successful ones, are few and far between. How important is it for you to have your music be available apart from the film?

Oh, it’s very important to me. I believe a film score should also be a standalone listening experience to relive the symphonic musical intricacies. However, for Operation Red Sea, it was actually director Lam who came up to me excitedly in December and said,”Elliot, we need to publish a soundtrack album for this film.” I was going to do it anyway, but with director Lam and producer Candy Leung’s support, it became really big in China and I’m very grateful for their help. A few years down the road I plan to stage some of these cues, perhaps rearrange an Operation Red Sea suite, but that’s a few years in the future.

 Speaking of the future, what are your upcoming projects?

I’ll be working with Director Jonathan Li on his upcoming detective film, and I’ll also be back with director Dante Lam on his next blockbuster, The Rescue.

Many thanks to Elliot Leung for taking the time to answer our questions. Expect this to be a recurring feature, as we’ll talk again with Mr. Leung which each new score of his, the chance to follow step-by-step the rise of a major new film composer.

You can buy Elliot Leung’s music for Operation Red Sea on Amazon, iTunes, or on his official website.

 


FILMOGRAPHY :

Think and Grow Rich: The Legacy (2017 – Scott Cervine)

Operation Red Sea (2018 – Dante Lam)

九龙城寨 (2019 – Jonathan Li)

The Rescue (2019 – Dante Lam)

逆火英雄 (2020 – Jonathan Li)

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