Chief Conductor of the WDR Funkhausorchester
Artistic Director of the Europäische Filmphilharmonie
Frank Strobel, a renowned conductor who commutes between France and his native Germany, recorded the music for the film Kaamelott : Premier Volet with the Orchestre national de Lyon last year. He tells us about his remarkable collaboration with Alexandre Astier, who not only directed the film but composed its soundtrack.
How did you meet Alexandre Astier?
I have a very close relationship with the Orchestre national de Lyon, which I have been conducting for some 20 years. One day I was asked if I wanted to work on the soundtrack of the film Kaamelott. Of course that interested me! I met Alexandre in Lyon, where he lives. He is a very nice guy indeed and I immediately felt a connection with him. We had a long discussion about the project and how he envisioned the recording.
Did you already know about the TV series Kaamelott and its frame of reference?
Absolutely! I may be German, but I’d heard about it. Right at the start Alexandre showed me clips from the film, but only a few. The way we worked was a bit unusual. You know, I have lots of experience with film soundtracks: in the nineties I was conductor of the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg and we recorded music for more than 100 feature films. Normally, the music comes at the very end of the film-making process. Everything is ready, from the editing to the post-production, and then it’s over to the orchestra and the final mixing. But Alexandre doesn’t work that way. He’s a genius and he does everything: director, actor, producer, screenwriter and composer. He can even look after orchestration.
In France, not many people know that Alexandre Astier is a composer…
I have to confess that it was a big surprise for me. He really has astute views on the orchestra. We all appreciated the quality of his writing for a very large orchestra of 96 musicians. He understands music completely.
That is unusual in the world of cinema.
Extremely rare. This was the first time I had met a director who was also such a talented musician. Anyway, his plan was that he wouldn’t finalise the editing until the music was recorded.
We rehearsed with the clips he showed me and he told us what he thought: “Faster, slower, change tempo …” I think he enjoyed the process. And when we had finally done it he was able to start editing the film. It’s a really surprising and refreshing way of doing things.
Did this way of working put you under greater pressure?
No, quite the opposite, actually. I felt freer. Normally you have to follow a pre-determined structure. The tempo is set by the editing of the film. With Kaamelott I had the freedom to find the story in the music and to make suggestions to Alexandre. I had an idea of the final content, but as the film wasn’t edited, we were able to put a very interesting creative process into action.
Alexandre Astier is known as a very demanding director who likes to retain control of everything. Was he open to surprises during the recording?
Oh, absolutely. That being said, he does have a very precise view on the function of music in his films. One day, in just two minutes of recording time, he was able to tell me exactly what he liked and what he didn’t like. And that’s because he uses the right vocabulary. Very often, we don’t achieve an understanding with directors because we don’t speak the same kind of language. But Alexandre could tell me exactly which instrument needed to be a little less loud or where something needed modification. So while this project was certainly a challenge, it made all the difference to be working with a partner on the same level – that changes everything.
When he arrived with his scores, did he ask you to do some tests with the orchestra as soon as possible?
It depended on which piece we were doing. The production was a bit unusual anyway because of the pandemic. We had been supposed to record in March 2020, but that turned out not to be possible. We postponed it several times, to August 2020. I think that, in total, we had to do about 40 takes … And what I was saying earlier wasn’t completely true: some sequences had already been edited and for those I recorded directly to picture. Except that, towards the end, he told me that he was going to re-edit everything anyway to match the music! (Laughter.) Everything else was decided between us, but Alexandre showed me the rushes and gave me context on the meaning of each scene. And sometimes I was given total freedom. I could let the music take on a life of its own and let the musicians offer me something unexpected, without pushing them in a specific direction. When I listen to the recording now I feel that it lives and breathes, and that’s good for the film, because even if the spectator is not consciously aware of it, he can feel it.
Alexandre Astier is a great fan of the composer John Williams and of Star Wars. How much can this be sensed in his music?
John Williams’ general influence on film music is a given, but there is a definite connection with Alexandre in the use of motifs, which he especially likes and which feature prominently in Williams’ work on the Star Wars saga. It’s a technique for telling the story through music. But Alexandre has his own style, sometimes with a very ‘floaty’ musical ambience. And he is quite capable of moving from something very medieval to music that is much more military in mood.
Have you seen the final edit of the film with the music?
No, I don’t even know if the editing has been completed. I don’t think anybody knows! (Laughs.) In any case, I am very, very curious to discover how it will turn out, to finally see the result of all the work we did together. The sooner the better!
The original soundtrack of Kaamelott – Premier Volet is available in physical formats and on streaming platforms.