THE PLAN 9 INTERVIEW
December 2011 marks 10 years since the release of the first of the films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and although many stories have been told concerning those who worked on them, both on camera and off, not much has been said about Plan 9 and David Long.
And so it was my great pleasure to be able to interview them on the occasion of this anniversary.
Just as The Lord of the Rings was a tale that “grew in the telling”, so too has this interview grown to become one of the most comprehensive accounts, if not the only one thus far, of Plan 9 and David Long's work on the films.
It was a pleasure conversing with David Donaldson, and I thank him along with Steven Roche, Janet Roddick, and David Long for being not just approachable but also generous with their time and information.
Onward to the interview...
QUESTION I Many stories have been told about the collaborations on The Lord of the Rings. One of them says that Peter Jackson had shot Bilbo's birthday party scenes to "Flaming Red Hair," a piece of music that you both composed and performed, and that he thought the tune fit in so perfectly that he decided to use it for the film. Is this how Plan 9 came to be involved with The Lord of the Rings?
PLAN 9 Some Background: The 4 of us all knew Peter and Fran for quite a few years before LOTR and worked on a number of their earlier films in various capacities. David Long was part of the band (The Muttonbirds) who Peter chose to play the end credits track on The Frighteners and Plan 9 (Steve Roche, Janet Roddick and David Donaldson) had scored Peter’s mockumentary Forgotten Silver. Although 3 of us work under the name Plan 9, the work we did on LOTR was very much a 4 way collaboration between Janet, Steve, myself and David Long. For the purpose of this work we called ourselves the Elvish Impersonators. The 4 of us have been making music together for over 25 years now. We all originally played together in a band called the Six Volts. Here’s us on a kids tv show in the 80s: Around the time that the films were green lit it occurred to us that there are many instances of songs and music in the books that are specific to the various peoples of Middle-earth and that there might be a place for us to create what we termed “cultural” music. This would mostly be source music ie. audible to the characters on screen and in some cases would be required on set for the shoot. We would endeavor to create distinctive and authentic feeling folk music for each race, be they Hobbits, Elves. Humans etc. We approached Peter and Fran about this and they commissioned us to come up with some ideas for the Bilbo’s birthday scene. I think we originally came up with 6 demos and once the more eccentric ones (Chopsticks played on Banjo, Uilleann Pipes etc) had been whittled down Peter and Fran settled on the 2 songs that were developed into Flaming Red Hair and Flowers for Rosie. We didn’t originally go as far down the Celtic route as it ended up but the brief became something along the lines of “the songs need to be really catchy on the first listen and we need to know these are the good guys straight away”. I believe they shot to both songs but by the time the scene was cut they only needed Flaming Red Hair. Once they started editing the film and Flaming Red Hair had sat in place for a while I guess it was doing the job well enough and it just stayed there. Following the contact we had with the production re the cultural music we were then employed as temp score/music editors, right from the animatic/preproduction stage of the trilogy.
QUESTION II How did the track title "Flaming Red Hair" come to be?
PLAN 9 The original title was “Flaming Red Hair, (On Her Feet)”.
QUESTION III Many people do not know this, but you had also composed a song called "Flowers For Rosie" for Bilbo's birthday party scenes that was eventually never used. Can you tell us something about this?
PLAN 9 As I’ve said above, they wanted to make sure they had enough music to cover what they might want to shoot, so wanted a second song as backup. Flowers For Rosie is another Celtic type piece using the same band lineup: Hurdy Gurdy, Rommel Pot, Jaw Harp, Bodhran, Fiddle, Whistles and Indian Harmonium. I seem to remember we also did a piece for Hobbiton Market that didn’t get used.
QUESTION IV The complete scores for The Lord of the Rings, including all of your work on the films, have now been released on the Complete Recordings, but "Flowers For Rosie" still remains unreleased. Is there hope that fans will one day get a chance to listen to this track?
PLAN 9 We would be happy for all of our LOTR music to be released but it is not up to us. We would have liked our music to be released on the original soundtrack album. I think it was a New Line decision to release just the score.
QUESTION V Your version of "A Elbereth Gilthoniel", titled "The Elvish Lament"/"The Passing of the Elves", is interesting compared to the rest of the score in that it is an almost exclusively vocal piece. How many singers were on this track, and were there any instruments used?
PLAN 9 The Elvish Lament was sung by Janet and Steve, The women’s voices were achieved by laying up numerous parts by Janet and the male parts layered up with Steve. The original demo was sung by Janet but they had wanted a male voice as lead in the film version. We auditioned and recorded several really good male singers but in the end they wanted the demo version they had grown to like. There is some very light musical backing, from memory it is Bowed Double Bass Harmonics and Bowed Banjo making up a shimmering bed.
QUESTION VI Talking about instruments, Howard Shore determined which instruments would represent each culture in Middle-earth and wrote music pertaining to those cultures using these specific instruments. Did you follow a similar process for the cultural music you composed?
PLAN 9 One of our starting points was to imagine the musical instruments for each culture. We began by investigating the types of materials available to make their instruments. Hobbits seemed likely to have wood, animal skin and gut strings where the Elves may have had more access to different metals. From there we considered the elegance and design sensibilities of the Elves and how that might potentially influence the look and therefore the sound of the instruments. We felt the Elves more intellectual outlook could mean they had studied the science of harmonics and so used them in their composition. As we weren’t necessarily thinking the Hobbit music would be particularly Celtic sounding initially we ranged widely in what instruments and style we used. We were slowly reined in and in conjunction with Peter and Fran settled on the style and sound of the Hobbit music. The Elvish music was informed by different musical scales. We listened to a lot of different European folk music and the scales it was built upon and devised our own scale which had it’s own special ascending and descending scale. The correct Elvish Pronunciation was taught to us by video from David Salo and the dialect coaches who were here in NZ during the shooting.
QUESTION VII Moving on to The Two Towers... how did you approach composing the music for "The Lament For Théodred" sung by Éowyn, a piece that was significantly different from your overall work on The Fellowship of the Ring?
PLAN 9 Eowyn’s Lament has a different sound to it because it is sung by Eowyn, one of the Rohan, a race of people. We were aware that all the different cultures needed to have a distinct character and sound to their music. In addition we had to compose the melody to the pictures that had already been shot. The actress had chanted the lines and we devised the melody for the main voice and then for the chorus of women supporting her. It was re recorded by the actress, Miranda Otto, plus a small group of female singers during post production.
QUESTION VIII You also contributed to the sound design for The Two Towers and The Return of the King. What aspects did you work on?
PLAN 9 Our musical sound design work was mostly based around the influence of the Ring on the different characters. In film 1 the Ring was voiced by Alan Howard. For film 2 and 3 Peter and Fran wanted to try and give the Ring a more seductive voice as it started having influence and control over the characters. They were aware of Janet’s distinct vocal talents and wanted us to use her voice to give the Ring more variety in how it interacted with the characters it came into contact with. It was a fantastic opportunity for us to help give the Ring a strong character. As well as layered and effected vocal elements including wordless voice and ‘black speech’ we augmented these with textures and atmospheric layers. A lot of time was spent bowing, scraping, effecting and producing all sorts of “instruments” to get the required results. The start of film 3 with Smeagol and Deagol fighting is a good example of this as is the final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum leading to the Ring’s destruction. We also created some musical sound design for the Ents and the Dead Marshes. It was our dream job really.
QUESTION IX Finally, for The Return of the King, you composed the music for "The Drinking Song" sung by Merry and Pippin in Edoras. You'd also composed music for another version of "The Drinking Song" for The Fellowship of the Ring sung by Merry and Pippin in the Green Dragon Inn. What influenced the tunes for these perfectly hobbity tracks?
PLAN 9 As the words for the songs came first it influenced how the songs could go. As they were drinking songs they needed to flow and scan easily and be able to be sung by the cast members. Working in conjunction with Fran we just followed our noses on those ones.
QUESTION X It's been 10 years since you worked on these films. Surely every moment of the entire experience was tremendously rewarding. But is there any one memory of your time working on The Lord of the Rings that you specifically cherish?
PLAN 9 We worked about 6 months a year for 4 years on LOTR in our different capacities: temp score and music editing, cultural music creating and performing and as musical sound designers. It was like doing a degree in filmmaking. We watched and were part of those films right from their drawing board stage through to release. We absolutely loved being part of it. A lot of our work didn’t make it to the release cuts as the areas we tended to work on weren’t necessarily forwarding the story so tended to get cut as the films got too long. That’s filmmaking. They have however tended to turn up on the Director’s cut. It’s great that a number of people have noticed our input into those 3 films. I can’t think of one instance that stands out. It was a pretty special time.
QUESTION XI I've asked you 10 questions to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of these films. But I'm going to sneak in one more that looks forward now... ... a prelude to The Lord of the Rings is in the works. Are you involved in The Hobbit at all? And if so, are you at liberty to tell us what your contributions will be this time around?
PLAN 9 I’m not at liberty to tell you of any possible involvement we may have with The Hobbit.