Scannain had the great privilege to talk to composer Patrick Cassidy and director Gerard Barrett about Cassidy’s work on Barrett’s new mini-series Smalltown, which airs on TV3 from September 1st. We also have the greater privilege of sharing some Cassidy’s beautiful score.
The series deals with a young man who is forced to emigrate to London for a better life. While away from his family he receives the dreaded phone call from home that bad news has struck.
In the word of director Gerard Barrett, “The first episode really deals with that call, and I think Patrick does incredible work with the music on that moment. He makes it incredibly personal and yet he’s making it an incredibly epic moment in that character’s life, getting that call. Everybody dreads it. I imagine that Patrick himself dreads it in some way, shape, or form having an elderly parent. What I’m trying to do is bring ordinary stories to life. I’m a person who strives to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. And that’s what I want to do. It really does light the fire in me telling those stories, because i know them and I live them. It’s where I’m from and it’s who I am. One of the reasons why I wanted to work with Patrick was because he has a beautiful essence to the creation of his music and score that is quite heavenly in a sense. There’s a very strong religious texture to the whole thing, and that was very important to me with Smalltown, to treat the story, which is a very extraordinary story in the sense of losing a parent or losing a wife, and trying to figure out where you belong in the world. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to work with Patrick. I needed somebody to bring that out with the music, and he could. He knows rural Ireland and he knows the world this is created in. And I hope it was something that Patrick connected to. Obviously he’s living in Los Angeles now, but I hope that working on it connected him to home a bit more. Ultimately for me it is really important to have that really strong presence that Patrick brings to any story.”
Composer Patrick Cassidy has been based in LA for a number of years, but is keen to stress that, “I’m still a county Mayo man at heart! With the score, I wanted it to be quite cinematic. I think, a lot of time in television the score is a little small. I know that they are different genres, but for this, especially because there were so many intimate moments and not so many action scenes, the music really needed to create drama and those types of feelings. I know that Gerard used my score from Calvary as the temporary music, but I think that possibly the theme for Smalltown might even be a better theme actually. It works very well I feel. For me, the series was something that resonated with me. And I think that all the characters are incredibly familiar, so typical, nothing extraordinary at all. Even the Priest, he’s a very typical small town rural priest and just the relationships…the way that Irish people use very little words. And the that do use a lot of words don’t really talk about things with their parents. I mean I shook hands with my father rather than giving him a hug, that was the type of relationship we had. It just seemed very familiar, the relationships, the people, and the situation. And that’s really the strength of the whole series I think. The drama.”
The series sees Barrett return to rural Ireland, the inspiration for his debut feature Pilgrim Hill. “The story of the series is not my journey in life, it’s not Patrick’s journey in life, it’s definitely not the journey of everyone in life, but there’s something in there that everyone will be able to connect with. That’s what I wanted to do with the series. I’m not telling everyone’s story here that’s maybe lost a parent, or that has emigrated, or who doesn’t know where they belong, but what I wanted to do was make a story where everybody could connect to it in some way, shape, or form. And I think that everyone is going to see their father in Pat Shortt’s character, everyone is going to see bits of their mom in Pauline [O’Driscoll] , and I think everyone is going to see themselves in Charlie [Kelly] who plays Conor in the series. Even in the other characters you are going to see a bit of yourself in them. And that’s all I can do, and hopefully join the dots to connect you to the story and let it go from there. That’s why Patrick was so pivotal to me in the series. He helped me to connect those dots emotionally. There’s one scene in particular in episode 3, and I won’t tell you what it is, but it’s a huge moment in the series and in the family’s life, and the music that is in that scene…from the very start, from the word go, from the editor to the sound designer to the grader all the way up to the person who was lighting it…it just brought emotion out in everyone. I think that it’s probably the most powerful scene that I’ve ever written or been involved in, because the music is just absolutely stunning. You’ll feel it when you see it.”
Barrett set out to make the series something completely different from the normal TV drama. “What we talked about was that this really is art-house television. Anybody who sees it thinks that it’s a film. It’s shot like a film, it has the pace of a film. It’s got the music of a film, but it’s incredibly intimate. For me it’s terribly exciting that TV3 would give 3 hours of prime-time television to something that is based like this. To something that is delivered like this. It is different. I really do think that kit is different in how it’s going to present itself to people. I think that some people are going to find it a challenge, because they’ll expect it more in a movie theatre than in their own living room, but I think that’s the exiting thing that we have here with it. Patrick is right. I presented him with drama, and he delivered for me with the music. Some of the stuff that he did is just beautiful. I think that Smalltown theme is absolutely beautiful. It’s just an incredibly beautiful piece of music. Insanely beautiful, but it’s got a tenderness and a sweetness to it, and a longing a well. It makes you think of home, and ultimately that’s what I want the series to do, and what Patrick helped me do with the music, is that wherever you are in the world watching this…I want you to think of home and of your parents and where you came from, and pick up the phone. That’s ultimately what I want you to do, and I want you to spend more time with your parents when you are home. There’s a great line in the series where Pat Shortt says “Yeah you were on the phone and on Skype, but you weren’t here”. That was a scene that I thought would work perfect without music, but I came in one day and Patrick had added the slightest bit of music and it just really, really made it beautiful. The thing you have to remember is I come from a world where, with Pilgrim Hill we had no score in the film because I just simply didn’t have the money for it. So I’m programmed to just not use music. It’s something that I’m learning as I go along. It was a real experience working with Patrick because he kind of led me through it.”
While he may be based in LA, Cassidy takes every opportunity he can to return to work in Ireland, “I’m actually thrilled that I’m going to be home for it. I leave LA on the 28th so I’m delighted that I’l be able to see it on television. I love coming home. In the last few years I’ve been home quite a bit. The first Irish project that I;d done in a long time was Calvary, and that put me back on the radar back home. And since then I’ve worked on 1916: The Irish Rebellion, which was the documentary on RTÉ. That was a huge job. It was 3 one-hour episodes, and a feature version as well, and it was wall-to-wall music. I happened to be in Ireland on that and I extended my visit to do Smalltown. I started on it in January, and I was on it for about 6 weeks. Usually, for a movie, the composer, even if they’ve agreed to do it before hand, starts by watching the rough-cut with the director. The normal thing for a movie is about 3 months. The vast majority of the time no music is written until after the movie is shot. Which is a shame as I think it would be great to get the composer involved earlier, but I suppose it’s the economics and that they want the composer to write to picture, rather than the other way around. Smalltown was a fairly normal one. I was in, and the first edit was only really the start, but in this case they were pretty much finished the edit when I came in. Scoring for TV is not really that much different than scoring a movie, the process is the same. It’s a different genre TV, but Smalltown has a lot in common with a feature film. Normally TV drama has very little music, but in this there is quite a bit, and it’s quite dramatic. Gerard wanted the music to be quite cinematic. So it was quite normal. I’ve been doing a lot of unusual projects lately. The 1916 one was my first documentary and that was quite unusual in that it was wall-to-wall music. I mean it was about 98% music, which was unusual but it worked. That was a lot of work, whereas Smalltown was a more typical project.”
And how did Cassidy go about approaching the task of scoring the 3-hour drama? “I felt there should be one central theme in this piece. But one central piece that would lend itself to a lot of variations. So I watched the whole thing, watched the whole 3 episodes, and then I wrote a theme. A theme with quite a lot of variation, perhaps 4 or 5 variations on the theme. And that was the start of it. I did about 10 days to two weeks work without doing anything to picture. When I felt that I had the thematic material then i started conforming to picture. That’s how I composed this one. It was kind of unusual a suppose, because it was TV there was no action scene, no car chase. It’s very intimate. But then there are movies like that too. Calvary was like that in many ways. Big epic heroic melodies are sort of my forte! It was the perfect project for me. I was playing to my strengths. I wanted that variations, rather than writing unconnected pieces. I didn’t think that would work for this. It was very much a symphonic approach. You start with an amount of thematic material, and you go “what can I do with this, can I express different emotions, do different things with this music?” so that’s what I tried to do. In a few places the music is quiet, warm, and welcoming, and in others it’s quite tragic, but its the same music. I think it’s incredible what music can bring to a movie. It can do things that words alone can not achieve. You can see that in some particularly brilliant movies. You will see the role that music can achieve.”
Smalltown will premiere on TV3 on September 1st at 10pm. Music from Smalltown is now available to buy on iTunes and in record stores.