Former Leeds University student who is striking the right note

Former Leeds University student Ilan Eshkeri who wrote the score for the Oscar-winning film Still Alice.
Former Leeds University student Ilan Eshkeri who wrote the score for the Oscar-winning film Still Alice.
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Ilan Eshkeri has written soundtracks for all kinds of films, but composing a score for Still Alice on the impact of dementia had a personal resonance. He talks to Chris Bond.

Shaun The Sheep almost stopped Ilan Eshkeri from composing the haunting soundtrack for the Oscar-winning film Still Alice.

“It came at a bit of a funny time,” says Ilan. “I was really busy, I was doing Shaun The Sheep and doing animation is actually really intense, and I also had the Black Sea with Jude Law. So I said ‘no’ because I couldn’t take on another project.”

However, his agent urged him to meet the film’s directors Richard Glatzer and Leeds man Wash Westmoreland, who were both fans of his work, to see what they had to say.

“He told me they really liked my work in The Young Victoria and The Invisible Woman with Ralph Fiennes, and just wanted to meet me to talk about it.” In the end he did and after watching the film, and being “blown away” by Julianne Moore’s performance as Alice, he agreed to write the soundtrack.

The film, about a doctor who discovers she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, won Moore the Best Actress award at the recent Oscars and as well as resonating with millions of people around the world has helped put dementia in the spotlight.

Moore’s astonishing portrayal of a woman in the grip of this dreadful disease wasn’t the only reason why Ilan, a former Leeds University student, felt drawn towards the project.

His grandmother has dementia, and he says her battle, and the fact two of his friends lost family members to the condition (director Matt Whitecross and Ash singer Tim Wheeler, whose fathers both had Alzheimer’s), was partly behind his decision to create the score for Still Alice.

“The subject matter for me was very important because my grandmother has old age dementia, which has been hard for my family,” says the 37-year-old. “More and more people are going to suffer from this disease so I feel it’s important to raise awareness about it.”

It wasn’t the first time Ilan had been involved in a project concerning dementia. Previously he and his friend Tim wrote and recorded an arrangement of I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends for the Dementia Friends advert, which features Chris Martin, Ray Winstone, Lily Allen and Terry Pratchett, among a host of others.

“Dementia has become a big part of my life,” he says. “My grandmother is 89 and has old-age senile dementia and her degradation has been going on for some time. But it’s been slow rather than the sudden process that happens to Alice in the film and happened to both my friends’ fathers.”

Ilan says that watching his grandmother’s condition deteriorate has been difficult to deal with. “She lives in Paris and it’s been heart-breaking not to be able to communicate properly with her any more.”

He found that writing the music for Still Alice was a cathartic experience. “Some of the lines in the film really hit me, and the process did take me to some dark places,” he says. “But emotionally it really connected with me and the film gave me an opportunity to express all these things.”

From the outset he had a firm idea of what he wanted to create. “I wanted the music to be very intimate, I didn’t want it to sound too classical. I wanted to have a very small ensemble and I wanted it to feel as though you were right next to the instruments.”

Although his own family’s experience of dementia drove him on artistically he says it didn’t directly shape the music. “Once I sat down and started creating the music I wasn’t thinking about my grandmother or my friends’ fathers, I was thinking about the film’s characters and Julianne Moore’s performance and what it is I have to say about that.

“In an abstract sense you could say I was drawing on my experiences, but my job is to look at what’s on the screen and to express that musically so it’s very much about being in the moment of the film.”

Although Ilan has made a name for himself as a film composer it wasn’t what he intended when he was younger. He was classically trained, playing the violin as a child, and at the age of 13 started to play the guitar and for a while was in a rock band. “I can still remember where I was and the person who put the headphones on me when I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time,” he says.

But it was a chance meeting with a film composer when he was 19 that steered his music career in a different direction. “I didn’t really have an understanding of what a film composer was but this guy was successful and I ended up doing some work experience with him.” This included working with an orchestra at the fabled Abbey Road studios during his summer holidays.

By this time he was studying music and English literature at Leeds. “Because I’d studied literature it gave me a solid grounding in narrative and understanding characters. Some film composers struggle when they have to read scripts but I don’t find it a problem,” he says.

Although he left Leeds more than 15 years ago he retains a great affection for the city. “I spent three years living in Leeds and it was a formative part of my life, so it has a certain nostalgia for me.

“When I first arrived there the Corn Exchange was part of the red light district and you were warned against going there, but by the time I left it had become the fashionable place it still is today. I come back sometimes to give talks to the students and it’s always special.”

Ilan has written the soundtracks for a string of big films including Layer Cake, Kick-Ass and Coriolanus, and his haunting score for Still Alice has garnered widespread praise.

But despite his growing reputation he wasn’t among the great and good on the red carpet at the recent Oscars bash in Los Angeles. “I’m not that cool,” he says, laughing. “You need to be Hollywood royalty or to be nominated for an award to get invited.”

He hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar yet, although he came close with both Still Alice and The Young Victoria, but it is surely only a matter of time before he does if he continues to create such beautiful scores.

The healing qualities of music have long been investigated and there have been a number of studies into the ability of music, especially singing, to unlock memories and help reach parts of the damaged brain in ways other forms of communication can’t.

Ilan is a firm believer that it 
has the capacity to improve our lives. “I’m not sure it can completely change your mood but it helps people feel things and it can make us feel better,” he says.

“I was sent an email from someone who had been in an accident and they said they had listened to The Young Victoria soundtrack while they were in hospital which really helped them. And I thought ‘that’s just little old me. I’ve made something up in my head and it’s really touched someone.’

“It would be wonderful if Still Alice did that, too, even if it was just one person.”