It was her first-ever red carpet. First-ever feature film score, she adds. “Was it pleasant? Yes, but I’m not part of the team in front of the camera, so I was very low-profile,” she says. Yet the release of La chute de Sparte (The Fall of Sparta in English), an adaptation of a novel by Biz (of Loco Locass), directed by Tristan Dubois, had something rather exceptional about it: during the credits, under “Original Music,” it was the name Sophie Lupien – one of the very rare female film composers in Québec – that appeared on-screen.
Let’s be brutally honest: Québec doesn’t have a long-standing tradition of great film composers of the likes found in France, Italy, or the U.S. Sophie Lupien doesn’t argue, and adds that it’s partly due to the nature of the beast. “Film music is often there to enhance the on-screen scene or narrative, not to shine on its own,” she says. “Screen composing is a completely different trade than composing music for yourself.” Our singer-songwriters are acclaimed, while our film composers are often left behind the scenes.
Lupien is well placed to know that female screen composers are scarcer than hen’s teeth. In recent memory, Catherine Major (initially a singer-songwriter) distinguished herself for her work on the movie Le Ring in 2008, and in 2013, it was Viviane Audet, also a singer-songwriter, that stood out from the crowd with her work on the movie Camion, which she co-wrote with Robin-Joël Cool and Éric West-Millette. Prior to that, in 2007, Jorane – whose instrumental music is more naturally applicable to film –also shone, for her work on Un dimanche à Kigali. All three won the Jutra Awards (now called Iris Awards) for Best Original Music.
Lupien’s work on La chute de Sparte lives alongside the work of other composers and – as a matter of fact – goes out of its way to get out of the way of the action. In addition to original songs written by La Bronze, and other songs from the repertoires of rappers such as Rymz, Manu Militari and Muzion, the thirty-odd minutes of music composed by Lupien enhance the more nuanced moments of this intelligent teen movie. Chafiik, Loco Locass producer and DJ, also wrote a few instrumental passages.
“I was tasked with composing music that played after songs that stood out,” says Lupien, “like the very expressive songs by La Bronze or the stern raps of Manu Militari. It was a lot of scene-transition work. Sometimes this transition is easy, for example, by playing in the same tonality [of the song played before], but in a different musical style that inspires new emotions.”
This delicate transition work was necessary, “because it truly is a dense film with a ton of scenes,” says Lupien. “And that’s where musical transition is important, to help viewers properly understand the narrative, which takes place over a period of six months, and is condensed into 90 minutes. Music plays a role in that.”
She got into film composing almost by chance, through common friends with director Tristan Dubois, which led to her composing music for his first two shorts, in 2009 and 2012. It was natural for the Swiss-born director to call Lupien when the time came of choosing a composer to score La chute de Sparte.
“What I loved about this experience was the chance to dabble in all kinds of musical genres,” says Lupien. “For the close-up on the high school early on in the movie, it was something electro-tinged. Elsewhere, you’ll hear orchestral passages, or some jazzier stuff in the background,” says the composer, who spent two solid months writing, based on the director’s instructions.
“Tristan really mulled over the music he needed and knew what he wanted for his scenes,” Lupien recalls. “He worked with a rough cut over which he’d placed reference music. Then I had to write original music that matched his intentions. It’s not about mimicking the melodies or specific harmonies of the reference music, it’s about creating the emotion, the intent that drove him to pick those references. That’s the hardest part about film scoring: to always compose bearing in mind that the music is at the service of the narrative. You need to really understand the story to be able to compose music that enhances what needs to be enhanced. In the end, it’s like deconstructing every scene.”