Warren Ellis talks about scoring Bad Girl, returning to the stage with Nick Cave and the future of Dirty Three

Fresh from making the score for National Geographic’s Mars miniseries, Warren Ellis  acclaimed musician and member of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Grinderman and Dirty Three has just created an original score for the new Australian thriller Bad Girl.

He spoke to us about his approach for this project, recently returning to the stage with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the future of Dirty Three, the best soundtracks of all time and we broke the news to him about Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam recently calling for Nick Cave’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Thanks so much for your time, how are you going?

Perfect, hey. Thank me when we are finished and let’s see if I’ve been any help to you *laughs*

Where are you calling from today?

I’m in Paris. The sun is out, it looks like it’s going to be a nice Spring day.

How did you first get involved with Bad Girl?

I knew one of the producers, he was my lawyer. He sent me the script and I really liked it. I liked the energy of it, and it was also the style of film I hadn’t been asked to do. I liked the pacing of it, I particularly liked it was, you know, a different energy to anything else I’d done. I liked the story, I liked what it was. To be honest, because it was a small budget film, I really liked not having the constraints and people stepping in. There was a sense of adventure about the whole. It was very exciting to work, I worked on it in a very different way and it allowed me to do things that I probably couldn’t have in other films.

How did approach doing something you’d never done before? Did you find it harder to build suspense and anticipation?

Certainly, the tension lies in the editing. The editing is crucial and I think Simon’s [Simon Njoo, editor] editing is really effective in this film. The editing seems to be the thing that makes or breaks the film, so any suspense has to be from there. Because you can imagine the scene with music, but you should be able to get the same effect without the music there. What I was looking for ways to do a score that was economical and that kind of effective, that had something in line with Mad Max (1979). The Mad Max one really sprang to mind, it’s so economical. It sounds like they had a couple of ideas and really gone for it. It’s very efficient, that film was edited in a really exciting way as well. So that’s how I wanted to approach Bad Girl, it’s very raw and I also made a few restraints. It had to be made only on my laptop which I made on during the Dirty Three tour and I was just sitting there when I had a spare hour and I got really addicted to it.

Must have been a few late nights?

*laughs* I’d be sitting up doing it at 4 or 5 in the morning, and I had this TV appearance in Melbourne and I looked at my watch it was 6am and I couldn’t stop laughing because I had taken a sleeping tablet and I got the hours all wrong. I really enjoyed making the music because I put all these constraints on myself at how I would work with it because it was a very small budget film and I couldn’t go into a studio so I wanted to see how I would approach all these ideas I had floating around. It was very liberating. There was no editor, I was just sitting on my laptop making queues and then I would send it all off. A lot of the scores I do, at least half the stuff without any visual efforts at all, even films like Jesse James. 40 percent of that was made without seeing an image, except for 20 seconds of Brad Pitt searching for a gun. I like that sort of great accident when you work like that. A lot of those films that I work on are generally where I’m not locked-off. What I make a few months out is very movable.

How was balancing the Dirty Three tour and creating this score?

This was early last year and Fin [Fin Edquist, director] was still making the film and I wanted to see if I could make a soundtrack whilst on tour. I spoke to them about it, and they were kind of into the idea of me working like that.

Personally, I noticed a lot of similarities in the way the score sounds and Skeleton Tree [Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds 2016 album].

Well, it [Skeleton Tree] was recorded just after that but I don’t hear that too much. It might be as simple as the sounds you heard were ones I was using and I liked for those few months and some got instruments just stayed with me. But my brother bought me a synthesizer because mine didn’t work, and I just started messing around with that and then I got another one. I was just sitting there in hotels rooms just making stuff up for hours on end.

What are some of your favourite ever soundtracks?

I love Blade Runner. I love Pat Garret and Billy the Kid [music by Bob Dylan]. That’s a fantastic one.

Funny you say Blade Runner because when I was listening to the Mars soundtrack recently [made by Nick Cave and Warren for the 2016 National Geographic miniseries], ‘Space X’ felt like the perfect fit for the new Blade Runner with that dystopian build into epic pulsing, murderous ending. 

Right! I wish we got asked to do Blade Runner, I would of loved to have done that. But they gave it to Jóhann Jóhannsson [created the scores for Sicario, Prisoners, Theory of Everything and Arrival] and he’s really good. Its good they got him to do it. I love that Blade Runner score. The film really holds up and again, Mad Max. That Brian May score is so efficient and so brutal and economical, I really like that score. Ennio Morricone’s work on The Thing with John Carpenter is so great. There is a lot of good scores coming out now too. I mainly listen to soundtracks these days. Milan, the record label that we are on has some really interesting ones. There are some really exciting things, sonically going on. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ones for Sicario has some fantastic elements in there.

Yeah, there seems to be a different life for soundtracks now with such popularity and prominence on streaming services and vinyl.

It’s very different now. Soundtracks used to be a really big thing. Like Saturday Night Fever, soundtracks used to be on top of the charts. Things have changed now, we all move forward and we all adjust. It felt like when we were doing things like The Proposition, Jesse James and The Road, it was hard to find a home for soundtracks in a way. They were a bit maligned, perhaps we were in a different world and now people are genuinely interested in them.

I won’t keep you for too much longer. I’m not sure if you are aware but during Pearl Jam’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction a week or so ago, guitarist Jeff Ament wore a shirt with the names of different artists who deserve to be inducted. One of those names was Nick Cave, and naturally you can’t have Nick Cave without The Bad Seeds – do you have any thoughts on that? 

You mean the American one? I guess you have to be American to be inducted in there don’t you?

No, no. There is everyone from Cream to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in there.

O how sweet. Yeah, I guess I have no comment on that then *laughs*

You have some time off until May when you begin the North American leg of The Bad Seeds tour, what do you have planned?

I’m working on two other scores at the moment actually. Then I’ll go home for a bit, but not much free time *laughs* I’m just happy to have work to do. You know, I came out of the scene in the early 90’s and whatever came along I tried to do. I do say no to lots of things now, but it’s a bit of a problem for me. But I like to work, because I like that things are moving for me, hopefully move forward and work is a way of attempting that. It’s what’s great about doing lots of things; ideas are in different stages at all times.

How did it feel to play that first live gig back with Nick and The Bad Seeds in Hobart in January?

Unbelievable… Unbelievable. We’d never done a tour quite like it. It was extraordinary for many reasons and it was fantastic.

It’s been over a year now since you announced the Dirty Three would be taking a hiatus, are there any rumblings of a return soon?

Yeah, there is some rumbling but I kind of took on a lot of stuff. I guess the difficult thing is blocking time out for me. But hopefully something will happen soon, it won’t be immediate, but eventually hopefully.

Thanks so much for your time Warren, good luck with the upcoming tour and congratulations on Bad Girl, the scores terrific.

Thanks, I really liked this film and I’m really happy with the way the music works with it. It feels like a totally different thing for me. I like the energy about it.

It’s so great it is Australian too. There aren’t enough local psychological thrillers, let alone other genres coming out. It’s great to see.

It seems like a very hard time for the Australian film industry, people get behind foreign films but local films struggle yet there are great films being made. I was really happy to work on an Australian film, I hadn’t done one since The Proposition, I really enjoyed it.

Well, thank you so much again.

No problem, my pleasure. Take care. Bye-bye.

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Bad Girl (MA15+) is in select cinemas from April 27th. To find a location near you or more information head to the website here. The soundtrack is available now on all streaming services.

Director: Fin Edquist

Cast: Samara Weaving, Sara West, Felicity Price, Ben Winspear

Synopsis: Bad girl Amy, 17, is given one last chance by her adoptive parents, who think Amy’s friendship with local girl Chloe is a step in the right direction.  But when Amy discovers Chloe’s secret she finds herself fighting for her life, and for the future of the family she herself tried to destroy.

Photo by Jamie Williams for the AU review