Interview: Emmy-Nominated Christopher Willis on ‘The Death of Stalin,’ ‘Mickey Mouse,’ and Scoring a Disney Ride

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Every few years, a score comes along that makes you wish there was still a divide between comedy and dramatic scores in film. This year, we already have a great contender in “The Death of Stalin,” scored by up and coming composer Christopher Willis. Christopher has already received 4 Annie Awards and an Emmy nomination for his work on the modern reimaging “Mickey Mouse” on Disney Channel. He also has scored “Veep,” written music for a new Disney ride, and had to deep dive into Classical Russian music. Christopher sat down with me to discuss his brilliant work in “The Death of Stalin,” and his rather amazing journey into scoring for Hollywood.

AF: How did you first find yourself composing for Film and TV?

CW: Well I always loved film, and I always loved music. It just didn’t occur to me for a long time to put them together. I had very much a classical music upbringing, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I had tried various things but was still a little restless. I had been a concert pianist briefly and had been a musicologist. Fairly suddenly, it occurred to me that I should take a closer look at film music. Quite suddenly I got a job working at the studio of Rupert Gregson-Williams. He took a chance on me very much, because I didn’t know much about films and film music. As soon as I got involved, I loved it and I never really looked back.

AF: Yeah, since then you’ve worked on a lot of stuff. How did you first get to work on “Veep?”

CW: It was through Rupert I think. We had been working together for a while and we were looking for something to do as a co-write. I think he heard about it, and we met up with Armando (Iannucci). We talked about American politics and American music. It just seemed to click and so we took it from there.

AF: Now when you signed on to “Veep,” I think I’m pretty safe in assuming that you didn’t think that Mickey Mouse was going to be your Emmy ticket. How did you join on to the recent “Mickey Mouse” shorts cartoon series?

CW: Well I was very lucky that lucky in that Disney’s TVA is in the business of having blind casting calls. They cast a composer without knowing who has written the piece. I was also the beneficiary of their success in the past using composers that are not well known. I was very little known, and very fortunate that I had the chance to audition for that. There was also some luck, I had been working for composers that had been writing for animations for years, so I had a secret weapon with quite a bit of experience behind-the-scenes. I was sort of ready to launch myself into something like “Mickey Mouse” when the chance arrived.

AF: Well you do an excellent job on the show. Was the Emmy nomination for Best Original song your biggest surprise from the show? Or would you say the 4 Annie Wins you have so far?

CW: Haha! Well, I’m just so lucky to be attached to a show that is so loved. With every cartoon I get, I’m always astonished and amazed at the brilliance they achieve. So I often just feel like I’m trying to keep up with Paul Rudish and the directors. Certainly a lot of the musical choices, especially the weird ones, are from inspired conversations with them. They have really eccentric tastes, so it really has been an education for me.

AF: Are you also doing the music for “Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway?” attraction at Hollywood Studios?

CW: Yes! Kevin Rafferty announced at D23, so I’m very very excited about that. Paul Ruddish and a bunch of the “Mickey Mouse” crew are working on it too. We’ve got a brand new song for the ride it’s focused around. The scene is secret, as is the song that it’s focused around. Yeah, that’s under wraps. But we hope that it has old-school school appeal. The ride is built around the song, like many of the classic rides in Disney. Although in other ways it is really really futuristic.

AF: Well I live in Orlando, so I’m very interested in the new ride. 2019 I think?

CW: I believe that’s right. I know from other people that are big fans that there was a lot of love for “The Great Movie Ride,” so we’re aware of that challenge. That said, we’re really confident that people are going to love what we’ve done.

AF: So let’s jump in on “Death of Stalin.” So while this is your first official credit as the lead composer on a feature film, you’ve worked on other films with “additional music credits. How did those experiences help you when taking the composer mantle?

CW: Well I’ve seen a lot of interactions between composers and directors. This gave me an opportunity to see things that have worked and things that haven’t worked. I must say that working Armando and working on “Stalin” was much easier than I expected. We very much spoke the same language, with both of us big fans of classical music. Even though we were on opposite sides of the Atlantic for most of the time, we understood each other very well.  There was actually very little friction. Of course, stylistically, the music here is very different than most of the music you hear in the cinema. It was really very different than anything I’ve done before.

AF: When you’re jumping into classical music, who are some of the touchpoints you research when writing an original score like this?

CW: Well the Soviets are a big part of this film. Especially the ones that were active during the time when the film was set. The most famous one is probably (Dmitri) Shostakovich, as well as (Sergei) Prokofiev, although he was traveling in and out of the country at the time. The big discovery for me was (Mieczyslaw) Weinberg, who was a younger contemporary that I think is wonderful. There’s also some older composers, Alexander Mosolov and Nikolai Myaskovsky. There’s even some more recent composers like (Galina) Ustvolskaya, who was a female composer who wrote some really really crazy music that was quite inspirational.

AF: Now the music at the very beginning of the film, when Stalin asks for the recording, was that original or pre-existing?

CW: That’s actually based on the historical story, so that’s a piece of Mozart. That is the piece that he was listening to on the radio when he died. It’s a Mozart concerto. And yes, they really did have to find another conductor. In the movie, the first one faints and the second one does the job. However, in real life, the conductor that actually conducted the orchestra was the third one. The second one was too nervous to get the job done. It really is an unbelievable story. So yeah, that’s one of a couple pieces that I pulled from history. The other is a piece of Tchaikovsky, which they really did play at Stalin’s funeral.

AF: What about the raids at the beginning of the film?

CW: Yes, that’s me. Everything other than the Tchaikovsky and the Mozart is written to sound Soviet.

AF: That piece brilliantly delivers tension into a scene that ultimately becomes funny. How do you write music that is classical, but still delivers humor in the moment?

CW: I think that the slightly old fashion music that is full on histrionic gives us some clue we are watching an unusual film. I think that a lot of the time, it’s very similar to acting. You simply stay in character. You know objectively that if you build up to this moment and then suddenly cut away, that it will be funny. Apart from that knowledge, you play it straight away, like an actor who does not giggle or wink. Sometimes play it knowing that the structure of the film will make it funny.

I also think there are some points in the film where it creates a nice effect when the music is over the top. I think that the seriousness of the music and the absurdity of what characters are doing plays well off each other. But the music is very straight, which helps it flip from a comedy to you remembering how tragic this situation really is. The music I think reminds you of the millions of people outside, and by doing that, the music is very sincere.

AF: What was your favorite piece you wrote for this film?

CW: I think my favorite is the piece that plays for the end credits, which on the soundtrack I called “A Comedy of Terrors.” It almost plays like an overture, but rather than at the start, it’s at the end. It’s something that sums up a lot of my feelings about the film and allows me to tie up loose ends that go musically throughout the film. There’s a kind of Soviet music that Armando and I were listening to and find very funny. It’s this supposedly celebratory, happy music, that has a tendency to not sound happy at all. It’s almost like a forced smile, it sort of goes happy for a couple of seconds and then it goes sour at the end. That kind of gave me the opportunity to have a go at that kind of music. It’s supposedly happy and supposedly comedic, but there’s also something frightening and desperate in there.

AF: So out of curiosity, what was the best music you’ve heard in a film recently?

CW: Well I adore John Williams, so it was wonderful to hear “The Last Jedi.” I thought it was wonderful towards the end, that was extraordinary. The sort of apotheosis for Luke Skywalker. I grew up on “Star Wars” in the 1980s, so to hear him coming back to that music is very pleasing to me. Just technically, he really is extraordinary.

AF: Well thank you so much for your time. One last question, what would you like the audience to take away from your score?

CW: Well the score could just sweep by, and people may think that it’s all borrowed music. But there’s so much you can do with a score if you set about to write like that rather than just borrow the music. There’s a lot you can achieve that you might not have thought possible. I hope that’s what they take away from my score.

What do you think of Christopher Willis’ score in “The Death of Stalin?” Let us hear in the comments below! 

“The Death of Stalin” is in select theaters nationwide. You can listen to Chris’ score on Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming platforms.