Behind the Soundtrack for Cardboard Gangsters

The ending to the film Cardboard Gangsters had changed four times in as many weeks, and Dan Doherty had to make sure the piano music he’d written matched each new finish.

After eight months working with director Mark O’Connor on the film’s soundtrack, by this time, Doherty feared falling asleep. “Mark was appearing to me in my dreams,” he laughs.

But now the work’s done, the film hit cinemas two weeks ago, it’s won praise for its intense, realistic portrayal portrayal of crime in Dublin’s Darndale, and Doherty’s relaxed.

It’s Friday morning. He wears all black, sat in a swivel chair in the basement of the Chocolate Factory on King’s Inns Street and explains how he and director Mark O’Connor worked together to create the film’s soundtrack.

Sound from Scratch

Doherty says he was approached by star and co-writer John Connors to compose the original score, which includes rap, hip-hop, techno, and classical.

At the time, Doherty was working with MC God Creative, a mutual friend of his and Connors’. “John suggested that I give it a go at doing the original music,” says Doherty.

First up was a club scene where Jason, portrayed by Connors, DJs.

Doherty says he spent days composing samples and splices for the scene for director O’Connor, who he would meet each week over the eight months it took to complete the soundtrack.

He co-wrote the track Spaceships  first. O’Connor fell in love with the demo. “We’d a bit of an argument about that because it was the basic fuckin’ version of the track,” says Doherty, smiling.

Outside the mixing room to his studio, with its orange glow, two musicians have arrived. It’s a frequent occurrence for Doherty, though these lads weren’t supposed to come until Wednesday.

“One day I’m working with a Romanian rapper, the next day I’m working with a folk artist,” he says. “It’s always changing.”

So too was Cardboard Gangsters, which took the filmmakers four years to make. It’s now set to become the biggest Irish film of 2017.

It follows small-time dealer Jay (Connors) and several mates as they attempt to make their mark on Darndale’s drug trade by overthrowing the current bosses.

Doherty wrote, in total, 48 compositions to match the drama on screen. Eleven of these, mainly instrumental pieces, made the final cut.

Director O’Connor gave Doherty sample scenes and templates to work off in his studio. “You’re looking for the emotion in a scene,” he says. “How can you complement the picture?”

At times this meant Doherty tinkering away on Ableware, software for composition, or his piano, sat in the main recording area with two plastic severed hands resting on the keys.

After a 15-day shoot on location in Darndale, director O’Connor would send Doherty more and more scenes to compose for.

“He’d change his mind a lot or things would be cut, so I’d have to redo pieces of music,” says Doherty. “A lot of the time a composer would a get a finished edit at the end but I had, like, five different edits.”

But that’s the kind of “guerrilla film making” O’Connor is known for. “Even when he’s shooting he’s not regimental with the script or anything. He likes to see what’s in the moment and try and capture that,” says Doherty.

Cardboard Refrains

“I suppose the process was sitting down, looking at the scenes and talking about what they were,” says Cardboard Gangsters director Mark O’Connor.

He and Doherty essentially built the soundtrack from film stills. Before Doherty came on board, hip-hop from Dublin-based rappers like Lethal Dialect featured prominently.

It’s still in the final cut, but it didn’t always “fit tonally”, say O’Connor. Enter Doherty and his piano.

O’Connor explains that, for the soundtrack, they wanted a series of  “signifiers” – refrains that would build tension and come and go across the film’s 92 minutes.

A piano refrain, heard in the opening of this trailer, opens and closes the film, says Doherty. “It’s a really simple piece of music, but when it’s put to this film it’s really powerful,” he says.

The film’s ending didn’t always pack the punch the final cut does. The were four options for O’Connor and co-writer Connors to decide upon. And for Doherty to fit his refrain to.

“Without giving too much away about the film, the end scene something terrible happens. It’s really sad,” he says. “So I just went out to the piano one day and sat there and started playing along to the scenes.”

Doherty has played music – in bands and elsewhere – since he was 19. He’s 34 now. “I didn’t give a fuck about anything else really to be honest,” he says.

After a stint in the civil service Doherty thought he’d take “a few weeks off”. “I ended up on the dole for years,” he says. But he knew he wanted his own studio to compose and produce.

A space became available in the Chocolate Factory in 2012. “I got it rent-free for a few months after an initial deposit, so I was able to scrape together, get the lights in, paint,” he says.

He got to work, producing for MCs like God Creative. Then came Cardboard Gangsters, itself a trial to complete. “It was a really difficult film to make,” says director O’Connor. “Fifteen days shooting, 95-page script, multiple locations.”

But it’s gone down well. As has the film’s soundtrack, he says. For now, punters will have to head to the cinema to hear Doherty’s score, the hip-hop and rap paired with the depiction of Darndale’s gangsters.

Doherty says that he and O’Connor will sit down soon to compile the music properly, and upload it online in the near future.

It was a rough ride for all involved, says composer Doherty in his studio Friday, as the two musicians bash out a tune nearby.

“The premier of Cardboard Gangsters was really special, though,” he says. “For everyone, it was great. I know the heartbreak they went through to get it over the line.”

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