David Arnold: The Hollywood composer on the scores that came to him in dreams, Puff Daddy, and why an MP3 is no match for a live orchestra

Grammy-winning, British film composer David Arnold, 52, has written scores for Independence Day, Godzilla and five James Bond films

You've got a live performance of your film scores coming up. Is there a wider move towards the 'experiential'?

Anything that you can't download probably has more value now. Anything which is not quite as easy to find is going to feel a lot more interesting. Just the sound of it: if you're sat in front of a 75-piece orchestra at full pelt, it's a very different experience to listening to an MP3.

Have you ever had a score 'just come to you'?

I've had that on a few occasions. Stepford Wives was quite traumatic to write music for, for many reasons, but ended up, I think, being one of the best things I've done. Two days before we were due to record in New York, I got a call from the producer who basically put a red line through everything. I had to rewrite the thing in a week, which I didn't think I could do.

How did you react to that?

I drove down to the beach in West Sussex and I just sat there staring at the sea for a bit. I was quite exhausted: I'd already written the score and I thought we were finished. I was down there for two nights and I had a piano and I was getting nowhere and was prepared to come back and say, "I think you better hire someone else". Then the entire new theme, which became the spine of the score, just turned up in my head when I was driving back. The same thing happened with the Stargate theme, actually, while I was driving past the M1 services at Toddington.

Is it moments like that, that you wonder if there's someone upstairs?

I don't know that many people who take that much responsibility for their music. Have you ever had a dream where you've heard a record you've never heard before and you think to yourself in the dream, "If only I could remember this when I wake up, I could have a number one record"? I have them all the time, and I'll force myself to wake up and remember it.

So did any of your scores come from a dream?

When I was writing Independence Day, I had a dream that I went into a keyboard shop and I was playing with this new synthesizer that had been invented specifically to write music for alien invasions. I pressed the button and thought, "Ah, that sounds quite good" and I ended up putting it in the film as the theme for the aliens. It's really weird, because I don't feel I have any part in it. But to an extent, all music happens subconsciously.

Do you worry you may one day be replaced by a computer?

Well, there are already programs which write film scores. But to me, it's like standing in front of a really good print of the Mona Lisa. It looks the same, it's got the same colours, but there's something oddly two-dimensional about it.

When you worked with Puff Daddy on Godzilla, you didn't know which of 11 studios he would be in until the last moment. Was he the trickiest person you've collaborated with?

Shirley Bassey was challenging in lots of ways. She'd done so much, and I think what I had in mind wasn't the record she wanted to make. With Puff Daddy, the world of the rapper is very real and a little bit frightening. It's an awful thing to have to fear for your safety.

Lastly, can you save a bad movie with a good score?

No, of course you can't. It will only ever be a bad movie with a good score.


Grammy-winning, British film composer David Arnold, 52, has written scores for ‘Independence Day’, ‘Godzilla’ and five James Bond films, including ‘Quantum of Solace’. His London concert debut is to be held at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 July, as part of the Songbook Series