Harry Potter, Nick Cave and Me

From working as a receptionist and dump truck driver, film music supervisor Matt Biffa is now responsible for one of the most talked about scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One.
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Over the weekend of 19th-21st November 2010, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1 grossed £18.32m at the UK box office, the biggest ever three-day opening in the UK since Quantum of Solacetook £15.38m in 2008, and the biggest three-day opening for a Harry Potter film since Goblet of Fire's £14.93m in November 2005.

In perhaps the darkest chapter of the Potter series, a magical moment in a magical final penultimate comes in a scene written specially for it: a scene where Harry and Hermione share a dance in complete seclusion, in a tent, out in the wilderness.

Soundtracked by an obscure yet beautiful Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song, O Children playing on a crackly radio, the scene has become one of the most talked about scenes of the series so far.

Matt, tell us what your role in the film business is and how long have you been doing it?

I’m a film music supervisor, which broadly means working with the director and producers of a film to come up with songs that work to picture. I’ve been doing it nearly 14 years now.

In layman's terms, how does any pop song make it to a cinema screen?

To be brutally honest, a lot of it comes down to what you can afford. A lot of the job is managing the director and producers’ expectations of what can be achieved musically with not a lot of money. You have to gently disabuse them of the notion that they would be doing Blur a massive favour by having one of their songs in their film. Despite that, the song has to work for the scene, but I can’t explain to you why some songs just fit and others might make it drag, or play in a totally different way. I don’t look at a scene and immediately go “This song would be perfect” and get it right straight away, although that has happened, but only through sheer luck. In real terms, the process is pretty arbitrary, and there’s a lot of trial and error – they tell you what they want, and you go away and put together songs based on that brief. You’re dealing with something that is massively subjective…sometimes I think I’ve nailed it, and the director will say, “that’s total shit”.

When and how did you become involved with ‘The Deathly Hallows‘?

Well, in 2005 I worked on Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, putting the rock group that played at the Yule Ball together – Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey from Pulp, together with Philip and Jonny from Radiohead, which was one of the best jobs ever. Since then, I’ve been approached by various bands wanting to be involved, to the point where we actually could have had a pretty incredible super-group play the Weasley wedding for ‘The Deathly Hallows‘. I went to a meeting at Leavesden Studios in early 2009, and at that point the three Davids [Barron, Heyman and Yates] said “…actually, we won’t be featuring a band now, but there’s this other scene where Harry and Hermione dance together…read the script, and let’s talk about that.”

Anyway, truth is, I’d started listening to the song again because at the time my wife and I were going through a really tough time, and I was sort of using the song to help me through…we were about to separate

Why did you select Nick Cave's O Children for 'that scene' in The Deathly Hallows? What was your creative process?

Well first of all, my job here was to send songs to the three Davids, and David Yates made the final decision in consultation with the others. I try not to second-guess the director too much, and to that end, I always think my job is to just put the songs out there and see how they go down. It’s just as important to know what doesn’t work, and why, as what does, so you have to be as broad as possible.

First I read the script, at least five times to start with, and countless times after that. It was beautifully written, and there was this real palpable sadness in it – all those beautiful little touches, like the toy soldiers lying abandoned in the cupboard under the stairs, and Hermione tying the scarf to the tree after Ron’s departure - that was all there, and it was all really evocative.

So then I just focused on the dancing scene itself, which on the page was all of about five inches wide, just thinking about how Harry and Hermione felt. I did that solidly for about a month, reading it again and again, listening to hundreds of songs. Basically, it was pretty daunting, because I knew if we got it wrong we’d be crucified, especially as the scene wasn’t in the book. So really that meant we couldn’t have anything that had been used in a film or on television before, but also, there are certain songs that would pull you out of the wizard world and into ours.

Originally, David talked about some of the beautiful old soul songs, but we found pretty quickly that something like Otis Redding pulled you out of the scene. Oasis did that too, I remember, and in fact I deliberately pitched some songs that were too “muggle”, because it was a great way of finding out where the boundaries were.

I said to David at the time that my mantra was “the song should put a lump in your throat without making you puke”. But the song had to do a lot, it had to be uplifting but melancholic, not pointedly romantic, timeless…the script actually read as if the song was quite upbeat. In Nick Cave terms it read as if they might be dancing to There She Goes, My Beautiful World, you know something really joyous and exhilarating, but David explained how he saw it, plus of course there was the whole sub-text that something might or might not happen between Harry and Hermione, Hermione missing Ron – it tied my head in knots sometimes.

When did you first hear the song  O Children?

I first came across O Children in 2004, and to be honest, I’d been saving it for the right scene since then. You do that with songs, sometimes. I knew it would be incredible, but that it needed something extraordinary to really do it justice. Anyway, truth is, I’d started listening to the song again because at the time my wife and I were going through a really tough time, and I was sort of using the song to help me through…we were about to separate, and I was terrified we were going to really hurt our little boys, who were one and three at the time. I totally identified with the lyrics: “Forgive us now for what we’ve done, it started out as a bit of fun”, “we’re older now and the light is dim, and you are only just beginning”, and particularly ”we’re all weeping now, weeping because there ain’t nothing we can do to protect you”. So in many ways, it had become a sort of love letter to my sons, if that’s not too cheesy, and then when I started working on this, I realised that it seemed as if it had everything that David wanted.

How did you feel then about audience reaction to it?

You live slightly on your nerves with this kind of thing, because of course on the day they shoot it, it could be awful. But I was able to be there when it was filmed, and after the first take, I looked round and some of the make-up girls were crying – that’s when I knew we’d got it right. As for the reaction now, I honestly didn’t expect it to make such a hoo-ha…you know, it’s a pretty short scene in a pretty long film. I knew that the song itself was pretty much beyond reproach, so it all came down to whether the scene itself worked, and everybody seems to have really responded to it positively. Occasionally someone on the Internet will pitch in saying they don’t think it’s very “Harry Pottery”, but you have to remember that the three Davids consult with JK Rowling very closely, so if anyone’s qualified to judge whether something is “Pottery”, they are.

I’m thrilled that people are saying they never expected a franchise like Potter to use an artist like Nick Cave, thrilled that lots of people are discovering him as an artist through the film. I’m very quietly proud. Usually, the process isn’t that personal, so I love the fact that in years to come my boys will watch that scene and know their old Dad was thinking of them when he put the song forward…it’s not the same as writing a song for them, but it’s the closest I could get.

There were hundreds of songs…all of them were emotional, poignant, and moving in some way. It probably wasn’t very good for me – you know, my life was falling apart, and I was listening to all these massively sad songs.

Which other songs were on your shortlist to Yates and what were your reasons for pitching them?

If I may I’d like to keep the songs secret, but here are some of the other artists that I pitched: Elliott Smith, Gram Parsons, Scott Walker, Mark Lanegan, Ryan Adams, Oasis, Otis Redding, James Carr, Carina Round, Spiritualized, Radiohead, Beck, Fleet Foxes, The Carpenters, Sia, Paul Weller, Tim Buckley, Blur, The Faces, The Verve, Mew, Elbow, Cherry Ghost, PJ Harvey, Pink Floyd, Flaming Lips, Guillemots, The Gutter Twins, Massive Attack, Silversun Pickups, Blind Faith, Mercury Rev, Anthony & the Johnsons, Air, Athlete. I had early demos of Florence & the Machine. Nick Drake was in there. Oh, and Queens of the Stone Age. There were hundreds of songs…all of them were emotional, poignant, and moving in some way. It probably wasn’t very good for me – you know, my life was falling apart, and I was listening to all these massively sad songs.

How many Harry Potter books have you actually read? Were you a fan before?

I’ve read them all. I started reading them when I started working on Goblet of Fire. I needed to know as much as possible about that world, so we could properly work out what wizard rock music might sound like.

What do you think Old Nick thinks about all of this?

I gather that he’s pretty happy we used one of the songs from his catalogue that hasn’t been used in film. But I understand he’s a pretty forward-looking chap, so he’s probably thinking more about what he’s going to do next…

What kind of films do you usually like - any particular favourites?

I’m a sucker for Withnail & I, and I still love things like Blade Runner, but at the moment I’m forced to watch the Pixar movies by my little boys. We literally watch Cars and Toy Story every weekend.

What was your first job, or rather, what was your first job in the film business?

I started as a receptionist for the company I work for now. At the time, it was a real matriarchy, so they thought it would be really crazy to have a male receptionist they could order about. Lucky for me. Before that, I worked on a landfill site driving a dumper truck. It was shit, no pun intended. I’ve been very, very lucky…

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2 will be released in Summer 2011.

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