Interview: Rachel Portman
by Scott Holleran
Rachel Portman
October 30, 2003

You've probably heard Rachel Portman's melodies in movie theaters: the haunting piano theme for The Cider House Rules, the festive music in Chocolat and the scores for Beloved, Hart's War, The Truth About Charlie, Marvin's Room, Sirens, The Legend of Bagger Vance and Emma, for which she won an Oscar.

Speaking from her home in England, the 43-year-old composer tells Box Office Mojo how she makes music for motion pictures, discussing her work on The Human Stain starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman and the holiday release Mona Lisa Smile starring Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst and Julia Stiles. The British native is composing the soundtrack for Wayne Wang's Because of Winn Dixie starring Jeff Daniels, Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson.

Box Office Mojo: What theme were you striving for in Human Stain?

Portman: I wanted the music to be another character in the film. It opens with a beautiful scene—with a car gliding through the snow and there's an accident. It's sort of dreamlike. The music continues in that voice as a thread that binds the whole thing together.

BOM: And for the upcoming Mona Lisa Smile?

Portman: That needed a big melody—it's an emotional film. I was trying to draw together an emotional theme that would serve [the] Julia Roberts [character's] story.

BOM: How should the moviegoer evaluate a movie's score?

Portman: It depends on the nature of the film really. Mostly, it can be very distracting. The function of music in film is to support the drama. However, if [one's] experience [of the music] is part of loving the film, it can be something that adds to the film. A lot of music can stand on its own. Music is there to serve the film, not to serve itself. The goal of the composer is that the music and movie are attached to each other.

BOM: Where do you write?

Portman: At the piano, at home in England. I don't have any computers. It's a very lonely, silent world, and it's nice to have a friend like a piano—especially at the beginning [of the composing process] when it's hardest.

BOM: Do you require complete silence?

Portman: I do. My studio is 99 percent soundproofed. I have three kids, and I find ways of coping. They're very young [ages 8, 5, and 4] but I'm far more focused than I used to be. And I'm very rigorous about my work so [that] I have time for them. I try hard not to overwork—I find things I really want to do. I'm a very hands-on mother, and I love being a mother.

BOM: Are you always at your keyboard while you work?

Portman: Yes.

BOM: How do you prepare for making a movie's music?

Portman: At the end of the day, it's a film that's being made. The essence of everything comes from the movie. For something like Beloved, I spoke to Jonathan Demme a long time before the movie, and he told me he wanted me not to use ordinary instruments—only those from Africa—and I had already read the book. I didn't have a chance to read [the books which were the basis for either] Chocolat or The Cider House Rules.

BOM: You've said that there were only a couple of times when you had to back out of composing a movie's score. Which movies?

Portman: Dangerous Beauty had serious problems and they were hoping the music would help, and I couldn't write any music that pleased the director. I was very upset because they didn't use the music.

BOM: You've described The Cider House Rules as a story of finding yourself. Did you see it as a tragedy?

Portman: No. [Tobey Maguire's character is] coming back to look after those kids [in the orphanage] and give life—he's coming back to do something wonderful. It really feels like that orphanage is real. He's coming back because that's where he belongs. It's about belonging.

BOM: You worked on Chocolat and The Cider House Rules, both directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Why didn't you compose Hallstrom's The Shipping News?

Portman: I was just busy [working on something else].

BOM: What's the most important element of a score?

Portman: The theme. Not to be boring.

BOM: How do you achieve an emotional response to music?

Portman: It's something you can't control. It's enhanced by studying classical music, but I have no idea which chord sequences will result in an emotional response. It does pop into my head sometimes—but only because I'm under pressure and I'm thinking about it.

BOM: Has melody lost its place in Hollywood's music?

Portman: It has—though I don't go to every film. I wonder if it's the advent of less and less education about music. People used to have to train to write music, and they don't [do that] now. They miss out on all that background.

BOM: What music do you listen to?

Portman: I listen to Bach—it's very uplifting and joyful. A lot of Mozart, Schubert. Ravel or Debussy. I don't like Rachmaninoff—he's too romantic. I used to listen to Chopin but I hardly do now. I do love his piano music. At the end of the day, he's not up there with Bach. I don't listen to much outside classical music. I used to listen to jazz and I was brought up on Joni Mitchell.

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