Stefan French is “feeling a little tired”, he says as he adjusts his seat outside his favourite trattoria, the menu closed in front of him. “I had a late night” he grins. “Sometimes an idea just hits me at 2am and I can’t let it go. I have to work on it immediately before I loose it. Soon two hours becomes four hours, and four hours becomes seven. You know what I mean?” I nodded, somewhat sure I did.
An aspiring professional film composer, one month before our meeting Stefan was making his way with sheet music wrapped in a towel and rain running down his face from Manhattan’s Upper West side towards Greenwich Village to complete a very significant moment, conducting an orchestra to a score of his own creation for a film sequence. Something, that was at the time, the most pivotal event of his career has only launched him further towards the stars of Hollywood.
At 22 Stefan has been working as a freelance composer for the last five years; completing short projects while plucking chords in a string quartet for extra cash. Having learned the viola from a young age, Stefan’s first steps towards his career were in an extracurricular music technology class in secondary school. “We covered the basics of playing around with music software,” Stefan recalls as he gives the lifeless gas heater above our heads a quick scowl. “But it left me wanting to learn more.” This interest led to the investing in a home system, the beginning of what would eventually become his studio and office. “It was just for fun at the time, something for me to experiment with.”
When Stefan talks, he does with a confidence that makes me feel uncomfortably self-conscious. He tells me how he dabbled in rock, pop and techno, experimenting with melodies and styles before finding his niche in film scores. “I suppose it came about naturally while completing my degree because it connects a lot of my interests. Artists and musicians draw from what’s around them and I’m always playing music and watching movies so it was a natural extension. Once I started I knew I wanted to make this my future.”
Operating from “gig to gig”, Stefan’s day-to-day is less than typical. “The process has no set structure. Mostly I get ideas out of the blue and have to run with them before I loose them. I’ll hear something in my head and I’ll take it to the keyboard where I can create any sound from any instrument I want. It might start as a single melody but then I can add a full orchestra. It wouldn’t be unusual to need fourteen hours to create a forty second orchestral piece, accounting for multiple instruments. Though the way to approach a film is a little different. There you have to read the script and get a feel for each scene. To think of the pace and emotion within each one.”
But how does he find working in such a demanding industry so young? The conversation takes a polite pause as our food arrives. “Most of the time I’m detached, locked away in a dark room. Everyday is devoted to work. Even when I just go for a coffee my mind is thinking about work. But at the same time it never really feels like I’m working, every project is different and I’m doing what I love.” He offers a foolish grin between slurps of pasta, one of the few signs of his age. “That’s also what makes the other side of this all the more exciting.”
Stefan refers to the social aspect of his chosen profession that he has discovered. Last year’s Galway Film Fleadh saw the young Mr. French make his way towards his first premiere as two films he had contributed to were being unveiled; his musical strut lit by camera flash. Nocturne Passage, directed by Amy Joyce Hastings, and Steven Daly’s Unfold, which has since gone on to screen in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. “Going to a festival and seeing music in its intended environment was amazing, and actually being on a red carpet was surreal. It wasn’t like anything you’d see in LA, but still. Attending parties with actors and directors and others dedicated to their art was what made it special. I got to work with some amazing people.”
And then came New York, a result of Stefan earning a scholarship to a ten-day ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Performers) workshop in New York University, which he states could not have been possible without the assistance of the Arts Council which funded the trip. “I applied for the Travel and Training Award through the Arts Council and without that I don’t know how I would have paid for it.” In embarking on these classes, he worked with some of the most prestigious names in the industry: “The trip was a first on so many levels; composing and conducting an open score in front of an orchestra, gaining tutelage from the likes of Sean Callery who worked on 24 and Homeland, and from Tim Starnes who was the music editor for The Lord of the Rings and The Departed. To get one-to-one feedback from people who work at this level was incredible.”
Back on home soil Stefan has accepted to score the upcoming feature I Live For You, produced by Los Angeles based Sobini Films. “It’s a dark comedy about two strangers who are drawn together by death, love, and other mystical forces, and has a lovely twist.” He is also scheduled to work with the RTÉ Concert Orcheststra for the animated film called, Ode to Love. This is being produced by Dublin based Brown Bag Films who have been nominated for five IFTA’s this April and have previously been Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy nominated. “It’s a pretty exciting time,” the young composer utters as I resist the urge to lick my plate clean.
In an business as cold as a butchers chopping board which is renowned for editing out careers, this confident young Irish man plays his way forward. What he has achieved thus far he has worked hard for, no matter how easy he makes it sound as I read this piece back to myself. Often glimmers of success come to freelancers teasing more. For this talent on the rise, it would be nice to see him representing Ireland in Los Angeles one day. “It can be tough. It’s not the kind of career you find on a list from your guidance councilor, and thankfully my parents have been very supportive in particular after realising this wasn’t just a hobby. You have to put yourself out there, but this is where I want to be. Even with the 2am starts.”
More from Ronan Brennan here.