Rachel Portman began composing when she was 13 years old. Now in her late 40s, she has created film scores for dozens of movies and TV shows. She has done everything from "Benny and Joon" and "Chocolat" to "The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants." She was also the first ever female composer to win an Oscar with her music for "Emma."
"It's a very peculiar process to write music for film because it has such an enormously huge influence on a film," Portman said.
But she said it has to be done very quickly after almost everything else on the film is done so it all fits together. In the case of "The Duchess", she had less than two months to get the music written and recorded.
"I watched and watched and watched the film and identified with the director roughly where we thought music would go," Portman said. "And then I started coming up with themes, which then matured through the process as I was writing."
Portman said she felt very connected with the central character in "The Duchess." Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, was a hugely popular figure in 18th Century England, who used her social standing to influence politics in a way that was unprecedented for a woman at the time.
However, as is shown in the film, she was bedeviled by the inability to provide her husband the Duke with the one thing he wanted, a male heir.
"We tried to get some humor and some sparkiness where we could in the score because the end of it, the second half, is very sad," Portman said. "It was just about shaping it really."
All in all, much simpler Portman said than creating "Little House on the Prairie: The Musical."
"It's a totally different process, very difficult to compare the two," she said.
The Little House musical was based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but Rachel Portman said, in many ways, she and the rest of the creative teams were starting from scratch to develop Laura as a figure in a musical.
"Even though I and my fellow writers, Donna Di Novelli and Rachel Scheinkin, knew how Laura is, we were really creating her character," Portman said.
Now Twin Cities audiences are getting yet another chance to experience Rachel Portman's work. She wrote the scores for a number of British director Mike Leigh films, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Walker Art Center.
Leigh creates quirky domestic dramas which quietly deal with big issues such as bulimia, abortion, and interracial adoption. She said he is a dear friend, and a brilliant man, but working on his films is terribly hard.
She remembers sitting with him in her apartment in London as they tried to develop music for 1991's "Life is Sweet." She said she played him theme after theme
"He just said 'No. No. Oh, I'm so sorry Rachel, no, I don't like that, I don't like that,'" Portman said . "And in the end I came up with a tune that me liked but he didn't quite like the end of it, so he hummed a little bit at the end. That helped even though he was not completely sure what he hummed, when I took the tune in that direction he was happy and then we were off and everyone was happy."
Portman said she thinks "Life is Sweet" ended up being a very good film, and while the music could have been almost anything, the score ended up giving context to the story which gives her tremendous satisfaction.