Interview: Ransom composer Guillaume Roussel talks music, Hans Zimmer and negotiating a career between the USA and Europe

Starring Luke Roberts (Game of Thrones, Holby City), Sarah Greene (Burnt) and Brandon Jay McLaren (Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce), Ransom takes much of its storylines from the real life on-the-job experience of actual crisis negotiators Laurent Combalbert and Marwan Mery, who are some of the top negotiators in the world.

On TV, Roberts plays Eric Beaumont, who uses his expertise of human behaviour to resolve conflict. The conflict being – kidnap and ransom cases. Naturally, this calls for some pretty heart-pounding, adrenaline-rising scenes, and nothing aides a scene’s tension and atmosphere like the undercurrent of a good soundtrack.

Enter Guillaume Roussel. At 5, taking his cue from his composer grandfather, Roussel started taking lessons in piano, and went on to study at the CNR (National Academy of Music) in Saint-Maur, graduating in 1998. He then studied improvised music at the CIM in Paris, and at Didier Lockwood’s School. By 2006, Roussel was conducting his own music, which was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road. His composition work on his first feature, Tomorrow is Today, won him an award for ‘Best Score’ at the California Independent Film Festival.

Roussel has also composed the music for How Do You Know (Comment Savior, directed by James Brooks), Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (directed by Rob Marshall) and participated in writing the music for the Academy Awards Ceremony in 2012. By 2010, his success and talent led him to work at Remote Control Productions, a film score company run by celebrated composer Hans Zimmer.

Roussel has worked both in the USA and in Europe, and he continues to create dramatic, tension-filled pieces for equally electrifying television and cinema. Roussel talks about his experience working on the music for Ransom, and what drives him in his career.

How did you become involved in working on Ransom?

I was approached by the French producers WildCats. There were a few composers pitching a few short scenes and Frank Spotnitz, who has the final say, chose me. At the same time they were starting to edit the first episode, so I began sending material to the editors almost immediately.

Did the producers task you with a certain tone for the series Ransom, or did you read the scripts and generate ideas from that?

I had a lot of freedom to come up with ideas and colours for the show. The only request everyone had was for it to be less masculine. It was a clear statement for the writers and producers to present a show that was not about action, but psychology and emotion. It is more of an emotional show rather than action for sure.

The series is based on real-life hostage negotiators – do the circumstances behind how a project was written influence how you approach the composition of the music? For example, do you do more research into the real characters if the story is based on real people?

It did have a big impact but indirectly. The man that the main character is based on has helped the writers use some of the real aspects of negotiating. One very important aspect is that the negotiator does not show, as a general rule, his emotions. In fact, showing his emotions could potentially give an opportunity to find a weak point and use it against him. It is important for those security reasons, and led to the main actor, Luke Roberts, to act in a very interior way. Because of this, the overall tone between the characters is very subtle and reserved. So this has impacted the music a lot. The music is really there to help the audience feel the emotions, but at the same time not overplay it, since it wouldn’t fit with the maturity of the characters.

You’ve been able to work both in the USA and in Europe – how do you maintain that level of international experience, and what’s the secret to working with such a wide array of talent?

It is great to be able to work with a diversity of talents. The approach in Europe is so different than the one in the U.S., and I try to learn as I work on a project and embrace the best part of any culture. It also gives a really interesting perspective. The challenge is then to find your voice, but nowadays cultures really interact so much, we have more and more co-productions with Europe, and also China. Now is a very interesting time to share great talents with different sensibilities. To answer your question, the experience helps a lot in understanding different cultures and being lucky enough to work with people that like to open themselves up to different cultures as well.

You’ve been attached to a lot of projects that are quite dramatic and epic – do you enjoy these stories more, or does your style of music suit these stories more?

I like very much stories that are in a way extraordinary. That is a very personal taste, but I feel more driven by those kinds of stories. It may be pure coincidence that I’m attached to those projects, or not, I don’t know. As a composer I like any challenge, and more simple stories are really hard to work on, like comedies for example. I did a lot of comedies, and it is always a fulfilling challenge, finding the right balance between music and silence is an amazing work to do. Now, as a viewer, I like to escape in an unreal world that’s for sure, and I do feel like film scores can be freer in such a world. So, I’m sure I naturally like to be on those projects.

You were the assistant orchestrator for La Vie En Rose. Was there a lot of pressure on you and the rest of your team because the film was a biopic about an iconic singer (Edith Piaf)? How do you approach a project when the story of the film or series is about a singer or a musician?

That was a very technical project. I was far away from the craziness spectrum on that project. That is the bright side of not being the main composer. That project was the only biopic I have done as a musician. For a film score composer it was very interesting to be part of.

What do you love about orchestral music?

What I love is the mixture of colours! That’s why I love synthesizers so much as well. Orchestra is so powerful as well. I think it is because you have 60 people or so putting their best energy at the same time, it is such a blast, making those instruments vibrate at the same time, it is very intense. The range is huge. I always have been in love with the orchestra!

What is it like to work with Hans Zimmer, who is so well known for his music scores in film and TV?

I have been really fortunate to become part of Hans’ team. It is a unique experience. You work with the finest artists coming from all over the world. I have learned a lot, like how to work in collaboration with different people, how to manage a big project and how to face heavy deadlines. It is very intense, but you get to work on great projects with great people, it has been a big honour for me.

Do you prefer composing for film or television more, and is there much of a difference in the way you compose for them?

It is a very different approach indeed. Most of the time the difference is in the role of the music and that is because of the different setups. On a large screen, the visual information is more intense and with a loud volume of music. So you need to find the right balance for the music to play, not only in the mix but also in the writing. On a TV show some music elements have to cut thru, even on an average TV speaker, and even more because you don’t want the audience to leave, you have to constantly entertain and grab their attention. Music has those two different roles, it is very interesting.

What did you enjoy about working on Ransom?

I have loved working on Ransom because the show is different from the usual procedural show. It has this emotional size, non-violent and very psychological. I guess you could say it’s more feminine in a way, even though kidnappings will always bring a lot of tension and suspense of course. As I mentioned earlier, the main character has this very subtle approach so it makes my work very interesting. I need to be really excited but at the same time delicate. Also, working with Frank Spotnitz is a personal satisfaction I have to say. I am a true X-Files hardcore fan. Before I got hired for Ransom, I was just starting to watch all 9 seasons on the new Blu Ray release. So, when I heard I was going to work with Frank, I was thrilled. We have had a lot of fun working on the show and get along well, so I feel very lucky!!

We often hear the phrase “the soundtrack to our lives”. What is it about film or television soundtracks that inspire emotions in people?

That’s nice! This is the first time I have heard that expression, I love it! Well, I really believe that, especially in dramas, music is going to help the story get through to your heart! I think most of the time people cry when the music starts during a film. It does say a lot about how important the music is for people. The music helps make the connection between the viewer and character even stronger.

Ransom airs in the USA on TV network CBS