Interview with SAS: Red Notice Composer Benji Merrison

Supe Troop’s Laura Katz catches up with composer Benji Merrison, whom she was thrilled to bring onto the film SAS: Red Notice.

SAS: Red Notice composer Benji Merrison in studio

Supe Troop (ST): How did you get into film scoring?

Benji Merrison (BM): As a kid I was always into music and generally obsessed with sound! I had a piano in the house growing up, which I irritated my whole family with. Despite this, I got quite good at it. My dad was a teacher and brought back a Roland Juno 6 ‘borrowed’ from the school; it blew my mind! I bought it off them in the end and I still have it. I used to love music without lyrics and discovered soundtrack music as a result.

Then I went on to study music at university, followed by a Masters in Music Technology. My thesis was on audio-visual art forms. In the world of work, I started out working in motion graphics for a couple of years, somehow. Through this, I noticed that the music we were farming out wasn’t as good as I could do. I was vocal about this and I muscled my way into the industry! 

Gradually, the music composition side of things took off. It snowballed from smaller jobs for promos and TV spots, through to bigger TV series and then onto film composition. It has been a fascinating, organic journey so far.

ST: What do you look for when you are spotting a film?

BM: I love the spotting process. It is where all possibilities are on the table. Whilst spotting, some of the most amazingly creative discussions can happen with the director. I would generally start with three things: narrative arc, thematic anchor points, and musical pacing. These sound kind of weighty… but, simply put: 1) What is the shape of story, and how do we want the music to underpin this (or otherwise)? 2) How many thematic elements do we need (could be a tune but might also just be a rhythm or use of a particular instrument, etc.), and at what point in the film do they need to occur? and 3) What is the overall pacing of the score – i.e. is there enough variety? Are we giving the viewer a break so as to feel the full emotion when the music is present?

Obviously, this all depends on the film, but I have found that this is a good way of beginning to break down the spotting process.

ST: What was your favorite scene in SAS: Red Notice to score?

BM: There are so many great scenes in SAS: Red Notice.  It’s hard to pick one out as a favourite!

If pressed, I’d say a firm favourite is the scene in the channel tunnel where the SAS first make contact with the Black Swans. The cue is called ‘3m23 Emergency Response.’  It’s a real action romp type of cue but also combines a perfect blend of the distorted, fragmented Tom Buckingham theme along with the ‘Psychopathic String’ signature lines. It is basically ‘orchestral heavy metal’ masquerading as a soundtrack cue, which really appeals to me!

ST: There is a lot of tension in this movie! How do you sustain that on-the-edge-of-your-seat feeling in the music without getting repetitive? 

BM: Very good question. I think it’s a real art to write good action cues, that don’t feel like they are just treading water. I tend to put a lot of detail into these cues to try and achieve this. For example, if it feels like, harmonically, a cue might need to chug along on a bass pedal, then I’ll really go to town with the sonics and instrumentation of the percussion. Often I’ll track up multiple layers and have them come in and out over time, develop interesting pan techniques, etc., to provide the sonic interest. I sometimes go a bit overboard on this, as I find it a lot of fun.

Action is all about excitement and surprise; you have to keep people on the edge of their seats.  Sometimes the way to do this is more subtle and subliminal than you might think; it’s not all about hybrid booms and megahorns!

ST: Is there another composer you think really nailed a project or particular scene?

BM: Many! This would change daily also. I don’t really know where to start, but I’d have loved to have scored Fellowship of the Ring or Sicario for a start! Fantastic scores, and both very different. However, they have commonalities; they both illuminate the story impeccably through music, so that the edges of the cinema screen disappear.

ST: Do you have a favorite instrument to play? to hear?

BM: Again, there are so many instruments I love, and I have the fortune to be able to record many on my score. I just completed a day at Abbey Road with a wonderful Persian instrument called a Qanun. Such a lovely, characterful instrument, with some interesting microtonal possibilities.

I guess, since the piano has been a massive part of my life since the age of five, it would be remiss of me not to mention that. I’ve just taken delivery of a crazily good electric Hurdy Gurdy… I’m a big fan of this instrument, it’s like a medieval additive synthesiser really! In terms of woodwind, I think the Bansuri (Indian Wooden Flute) is lovely. 

ST: What music are you listening to right now?

BM: All sorts of stuff. I’m generally listening to a lot of other soundtracks and electronic artists, partly because I enjoy it and partly absorbing it as research for future projects.  

If it is music for relaxation, I’m practicing piano a lot nowadays. I’m playing lots of Mozart sonatas, some Liszt, and Debussy. I’m also going through some Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans transcriptions and learning loads from the amazing voicings and their stunning musical instincts. I was listening to Rite of Spring for the first time in a while the other day, and it still sounds fresh and timelessly contemporary to me. These kinds of things have always been an inspiration. 

ST: What would be your dream project to score?

BM: I was just chatting to a producer friend of mine today about this very thing! On the bucket list would be to smash out an 80s-inspired synth score. I’ve got all the vintage boards because I’m such a synth nerd, and they scowl and tut at me every day as a reminder of their untapped potential. I’d also love to do a ‘piratey’ score… and I know exactly how I would do it. It would be very different from Pirates of the Caribbean!

ST: What projects do you have in the future that you are excited about?

BM: I’m currently working on two new David Attenborough series for the BBC with my good mate and sometimes co-composer Will Slater. The edits are looking absolutely amazing already, and we have some really fresh musical ideas. I know people will love it, and I’m really excited to get them out into the world later this year!

ST: What is your favorite kind of soup?

BM: The hardest question of all! I’m going to go with a Thai Tom Yum. Also, you can’t be the old classic cream of mushroom! (ST: My favorite, too!)

Click on the tags below for more, and check out SAS: Red Notice starting today (12th of March) in the UK and Tuesday, March 16th in the US! Want to read more of our interviews with composers? All here for you!