Award-Winning Composer Chris Roe on his work on BAFTA Nominated BLUE JEAN

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Award-winning Composer Chris Roe recently spoke with us about his work on the BAFTA nominated film Blue Jean, which premiered Feb. 10 in the US and UK. Set in 1988, the film spotlights a closeted teacher named Jean who is pushed to the brink when a new student threatens to expose her sexuality. The film won the Audience Award at the 2022 Venice Film Festival and received 13 British Independent Film Award nominations, winning four awards, including Best Lead and Best Support Performances.

Chris's previous work includes scoring the BAFTA-winning film After Love, for which he earned an Ivor Novello nomination and won Best Original Score at Les Arcs Film Festival. He also scored Jed Mercurio’s NTA Award-winning series Trigger Point, and he is currently working with Hartswood FIlms, the makers of Sherlock, on a new six-part horror series called Wolf for BBC1. Chris has also collaborated extensively with director David Fairhead on feature documentaries including Armstrong, Spitfire, Mission Control and Lancaster, and has been nominated for Music and Sound Awards for these projects over three consecutive years.

PH: Hi Chris! Can you share a bit about your professional background? How did you get started? 

Chris Roe: I got into music from an early age and it was always something I really loved, making up my own tunes/getting friends together to play them. I never really thought about doing anything else and I went on to study music at Manchester University then the Royal College of Music in London. So I had a lot of musical training behind me, but I now realize that was not even half the battle. I knew very little about how film really worked, and I’m so grateful to directors like David Fairhead for giving me my first break. We’ve now worked on five feature documentaries together and I learned a huge amount from bouncing ideas back and forth. More recently I’ve pivoted a bit more into drama, both TV and film projects which have been a series of lucky breaks and I’m just trying to throw myself into each project as much as physically possible!

PH: Who are some of your biggest inspirations and how did they influence your work?

Chris Roe: I feel like inspiration works on a couple of different levels. The more recent influences which are more surface level, then the deeper rooted ones which are probably less obvious but are part of the DNA of what you create. More recently some of my musical heroes are composers like Olafur Arnalds, Jon Hopkins, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Nicholas Britell, and Jonny Greenwood - I love the attention they pay to the texture and sonic quality of their music. Then working away under the surface I think there’s some Bill Evans jazz harmony, choral music, and throw in some orchestral color from composers like Stravinsky or Debussy

PH: How did you become involved with your latest project, Blue Jean?

Chris Roe: I don’t actually know how Georgia and Hélène came across me in the first place but I think they liked my work on Aleem Khan’s film After Love. It was such a fantastic experience working with Aleem and a real turning point for me - the first time I really understood the importance of stripping back the music to its bare bones. Georgia was also an incredible director to work with - she was both extremely clear with her vision for how the music should work in the film, but at the same time gave me a lot of freedom. I’ve been very lucky so far with the directors I’ve worked with!

PH: Can you share your composing process? When you land a new project, what's the first thing you do to prepare? 

Chris Roe: I always try to find a conceptual way into a project, some broad idea from the script/subject/setting etc. that I can try to translate in some way into something musical. Like for Blue Jean, I thought about how Jean is having to live a double life and repress a side of herself when at work which got me thinking of the idea of using a saxophone (usually associated with jazz/freedom of expression). And when I recorded it, it sounded very distant and played in a beautifully ‘classical’ way, like Jean’s sense of freedom was in there but couldn’t get out. 

Or sometimes more of a direct influence from the script, like for a new TV show I’m working on at the moment, it all centers around a big money transfer going wrong. So, I got various recordings of cash machines which actually have really cool rhythms buried in there, and I chopped them up into beats to use in the action sequences. I also slowed some of the bleeps right down into really evil sounding drones and textures. 

PH: How did you draw inspiration from typical 1980s music styles, as well as create a score that felt authentic to that time period? 

Chris Roe: The way Georgia and Izzy Curry, the editor, had worked with 80s tracks in the edit was brilliant, not only to create an authentic space for the bar/party scenes, but also really thinking about which tracks to place where in the scene to =ramp up the emotional intensity. So for the score, we wanted to find a way of sitting alongside these tracks, but with a clear purpose and separation. This fit quite neatly with the fact that Jean leads a double life, so the pop tracks sit on one side of Jean’s existence in gay clubs etc. and the score was more linked to her day to day life in school/at home. But, I also wanted to find a common ground between the 80s tracks and the score which was using more acoustic instruments (strings, piano and saxophone mostly), so I used some vintage synths as a texture in the music to try to bed it into the time period and feel more natural alongside the 80s tracks.

PH: Can you go into some of the biggest moments (and scores) from Blue Jean and how you created them? (For example, creating a feeling of claustrophobia and pressure build up when Jean's sexuality is threatened to be exposed? 

Chris Roe: One of my favorite cues in the film is where Jean is sitting in the pub at her lowest point (her ‘dark night of the soul moment’ as Georgia described it to me), with a guy trying to chat her up and a friend saying ‘you’d be a great mum.’ The dialogue and natural sounds fade out, and we wanted to create a sense of numbness and darkness in the score. So, as the camera slowly zooms out on Jean, the score is just a really deep - building synth drone, but then these sinister string tremolos gradually creep in. It’s an example of where one of the simplest pieces of music in the film can have the most impact I think.

I also loved scoring the moments where Jean’s sense of freedom and self expression is allowed to be let loose more, both in the dreamscape gym scene where the music swells into a big climax, and also after the kid’s party scene where Jean finally says ‘I’m a lesbian’ and breaks down in a laugh/cry moment - brilliantly acted by Rosy McEwan. For this sense of freedom, the saxophonist, Amy Green, who had been playing in a really restrained/distant way for the rest of the film, finally plays really fast/high scales, like they are bursting out and flying into the air. 

PH: What was your experience like working remotely with Director Georgia Oakley? 

Chris Roe: Georgia was a brilliant director to work with, not only for writing such a powerful film in the first place, but also in the clarity of vision she had. Georgia left detailed voice notes on each cue, which showed such deep insight into the characters in the scene and their journey at that point in the film. Her and Izzy had tried out a lot of temp music already, which was useful as they had been able to hone in on what felt like the right tone for the score, and the balance of creating something overbearing, but also not being too lightweight. Though they never seemed to have gotten attached to the temp which was great, and Georgia left me a lot of freedom to find my own way into the sound of the score. Luckily, Georgia was able to be at the recording session in person, and it was really useful to have her there to push me and the string players to play even more delicately, even more coldly at moments, more so than we would have normally been comfortable playing probably, but it really worked for certain cues where Jean feels at her lowest.

PH: Can you talk about some of your other recent projects and some of the challenges you faced? 

Chris Roe: I’ve just finished up on a great new horror/crime series for BBC1 called Wolf, which is coming out later this year. It’s the kind of series that has multiple storylines running in different locations that at first seem unrelated, but eventually all combine. It was really cool trying to establish distinct sound-worlds for each aspect of the story, but in a way that they could work when they come together at the end of the series. It’s set in Wales as well with quite a lot of references to cult stuff, so it was fun looking into Welsh folklore and traditional instruments like the harp and Welsh language singing, but recording them in weird disturbing ways, and I was lucky enough to work with an old friend and great harpist Olivia Jageurs and a brilliant Welsh singer-songwriter Eve Goodman, who were both really up for pushing their instruments/voice into new territory. 

PH: Do you have any general rules of thumb for composing? 

Chris Roe: Something I have to keep reminding myself when working on a project, is to take a step back and look at whatever I’m working on against the bigger picture; the scene, the episode, the series etc. But it’s also really important to look after the music on a really detailed level. So, I find myself trying to jump back and forth between detail and broad brush strokes, like a sculptor chiseling away at the rock face then stepping back to look at the whole and realizing I need to start again!

PH: How have some of the scores you've worked on varied? Does the type of project change your approach? If so, how?

Chris Roe: When I work on documentary scores compared to narrative/drama I find the start of the process quite similar, trying to find a conceptual way in etc. But then, the nuts and bolts of the process are quite different. I’ve worked a lot with director David Fairhead on feature documentary scores, and usually the process is more spread out, with me gradually feeding through ideas away from the picture which David then edits with as the story progresses. In a way it’s more of a return to my contemporary classical background, working with just music rather than music to picture, but I find both processes challenging in different ways, and they sort of feed into each other.

PH: Throughout your time in the industry, what have you learned about yourself (both personally and professionally?) 

Chris Roe: I think I’ve found that I really value having someone to bounce ideas off, both from a musical perspective working with great producers/mixing engineers like Olly Shelton who can help craft the sound of a score, but also getting feedback from directors/producers who are experts in their field and can take an even bigger step back from the canvas and think about how music is working in the wider picture. Personally, I think I’ve realized the importance of setting clear working hours, and that I work better after spending a good weekend with my family rather than doing all nighters/working all hours. Although this is one I’m still working on - there’s always at least one caffeine-enhanced all-nighter on each project!

PH: Do you have any other upcoming projects you're excited to share?

Chris Roe: I’m really excited for the new BBC1 series, Wolf, to be released later this year, and I’m also excited to start on my first ever second series of a project with Trigger Point Series 2 later this year (something you rarely get to do in the film world compared to TV I guess). It will be an interesting challenge stepping back into a sound-world which is already setup, but then finding new ways to invent within that and develop the score as the story expands. 

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