Australian composer Stefan Gregory on how the historical themes in Ralph Fiennes-starrer ‘The Dig’ translate into his score
When Stefan Gregory was on the set of The Dig, he briefly ran into lead actor Ralph Fiennes — his character Basil Brown, rather. “He really did disappear into the role, and he is incredibly hard-working. He has such a charming smile, and Basil is such a lovely character, that I felt like I said hello to him” he says.
The composer, who had long been writing music for theatre, has scored the original era-appropriate music for the Netflix film — which received five BAFTA 2021 nominations — based on the book by John Preston and on the real-life discovery of a ship from the Dark Ages in Sutton Hoo, in pre-Second World War Britain.
During a video call from his home in Australia, Gregory explains how the audience appreciation around an OTT is different from that of theatre. “Millions of people watched The Dig in the first few days — that’s amazing. With theatre, the feedback is immediate. This is different because we finished it months ago and it just came out now, but I’ve had so long to sit with it and wait,” he starts.
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“I do a lot of work in theatre where the production is based on a novel which is turned into a script,” he reflects, “sometimes I read the original piece of work, but most of the time, it can be distracting. I did some research about Sutton Hoo because it was important for me to know the area and the landscape and the history of the time, but I didn’t read the novel, because I was scoring this project.”
Gregory, for whom The Dig is his first feature film, was brought on board by long-time collaborator director Simon Stone, with whom he has worked for almost a decade. This entailed a lot of trust given there is a responsibility to the real history behind Sutton Hoo. “Initially, we talked about orchestral music of the period,” explains Gregory, “and we knew there was going to be a lot of landscape. So it made sense to start in that world. The score and instrumentation are based in tradition but it is also quite contemporary, because a lot of the filmmaking is as well; for example, the handheld shots in the field in the beginning of the film. The concert hall music of that era was going to be adapted a lot as the music has a different structure and purpose. Music, in its own way, has to tell a story.”
Dipping into an experimental mode of composing at the beginning helped push things along, shares Gregory. “I like to try to be a bit radical at the beginning because it is then easier to come back to a place of known parameters,” he states, “so if you start with the obvious, you run the risk of ending up with something bland.”
Gregory chuckles as he recalls the trial-and-error period. He admits, “The piano arrived very late, I tried to avoid that because it was an obvious choice, but it worked.” He also experimented with contemporary ideas for the score, such as using synthesisers, “because we thought that would unlock something in the storytelling.”
Australian composer Stefan Gregory
Gregory shares the original version of The Dig was much longer, with stories overlapping and passages linking up, and it underwent a great deal of editing. “The film and editing has an almost dream-like quality to it,” he remarks, adding, “The score also felt right for it.”
He says he particularly enjoyed composing for the treasure discovery scene, “because it felt so satisfying in selling the excitement for that moment. I knew from that scene it would be an emotional experience for the viewer, and music was going to help that moment.”
During the film, as the scale of the dig itself progresses, so does the score. But Gregory was mindful in balancing and holding restraint so as not to overshoot the story with the score. “It’s both instinctive and trial-and-error,” he laughs, “and it’s a delicate thing that requires more precision to score for film, compared to scoring for theatre.” On the topic of the two mediums, “90% is the same, in that the score is subservient to the story.” Gregory, who also is a sound designer in theatre, says the balance between those two audio experiences is important to the story’s atmosphere as well, with the sounds of the surrounding landscapes.
As advice to composers who are keen on sealing a bond of trust between themselves and a director, Gregory concludes that one must not shy away from tough conversations in order to keep the work good and truthful to the story at hand, adding, “But, if it works, it works!”