Category Archives: Film Composer

Back to Eternia: Talking with Composer Michael Kramer about Netflix’s ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ (2021)

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with composer Michael Kramer about his work on the recently released Netflix series He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. (note: this is not to be confused with Masters of the Universe: Revelation that came out this past summer).

Michael Kramer is a two-time Emmy nominated composer who works on film, television, and video games. He studied film scoring at USC and his past credits include LEGO Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu, producing music for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures and Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, just to name a few.

In this reimagining of the story of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, He-Man and his powerful friends Teela, Duncan, and Cringer learn what it means to be a hero while battling the evil forces of Skeletor and his minions.

Please enjoy my discussion with Michael Kramer about He-Man and the Masters of the Universe!

(*warning* plot spoilers for the show can be found below)

How did you get started as a composer?

I’ve always been attracted to music, I would go into the piano room and plunk out the pieces my sisters were playing for their piano lessons. I’ve also always had this love for stories, my mom would read to me so much, and reading was woven into all of our days together. I felt like I had this imagination for storytelling at a very young age. Those two things [music and storytelling] twisted through my life and eventually co-mingled into this thing called film composing. It’s a pretty magical thing, being able to manipulate people’s emotions with music and make them feel one thing or another. I always say it’s the closest thing to feeling like a wizard.

I went to school for music and eventually made my way to USC for their film scoring program. I had amazing teachers and an amazing network to get me started.


How did you get connected with this new Masters of the Universe series?

It was actually a pretty straightforward process this time. I received a brief to do a demo for the show from my agents and thought “Is this what I think it is?” I really swung big and took some chances with the demo. I wasn’t sure if [the showrunners] would be into what I would want to hear in a score for a He-Man remake. However they seemed to be on the same page with me and they picked me to score the show.

When you talk about a “demo”, is that a big thing, little thing, what is that?

That’s a great question. Oftentimes, and I feel this is more common in animation, you [the composer] are given a few test scenes [to score]. Usually they’re pretty rough because it’s early [in production] and you’re working with rough animatics or storyboards. Sometimes this can make it difficult to work out what’s happening on the screen and you have to use your imagination to say “Is this character doing this? Are they jumping up and fighting this character? Sure, I’ll go with that.” You just have to fill in the blanks a little bit.

I had three different scenes to score: one was an action scene, one was more under-dialogue, and one was a comedic scene. [The directors] were testing the different cross-sections of emotions to make sure I could hit all the different tones of the show. And that was [the demo] I submitted.


How familiar were you with Masters of the Universe before working on this series? And what did you think of the reimagined concept for the story?

Growing up, I was born in ’83, the same year the show premiered, so I was a little young to actually watch the show. However, the action figures were a huge part of my play time as a kid. And the show itself wasn’t a big part of my imagination. I watched some of the episodes later, but growing up it was mostly about the action figures. The unique thing about that scenario is, I felt like I had already built up my own conceptions of what these characters were. I had my own unique take on these characters, and this universe and the mythology. That made it easier for me to go on this journey of reimagining the series. Kudos to Mattel for taking a risk and daring to do something different.

When you’re doing a remake of something, the closest analogy I can think of is doing a cover song. I try to think of what makes a really good cover song. It has to be something that stays true to the melody and the lyrics of the original so that it feels like the soul of the original song is intact. It also has to be different with everything else around it or else what’s the point? The most exciting cover songs have this quality and I feel like the most exciting remakes also have this same quality. For us, approaching the series, we wanted to stay true to the lyrics and the melody, the “soul” of MOTU (Masters of the Universe). Everything else…we wanted to dare to do something different. I think it’s a pretty fun and fresh take that a new generation of kids will enjoy.


Since this is a reimagining of He-Man’s story, was any of the music based on the original series, or any iteration of the story, or was it decided to go completely original with the musical score?

It was all original. I went back and listened to a bunch of the original music, to get it in my ears. It’s so specific and of that time, and a lot has changed stylistically. When you think of the amount of film music history, what has come out between 1983 and now…so much has changed.

I did try to take some interesting nuggets, some things that maybe no one would notice but me. One specific example is Adam’s transformation music in the original score. It’s in a specific scale/mode. I wasn’t going to use the same melody, obviously, but I stuck close to that same scale. When you hear the two themes then, they’re different melodies but using the same scale. There’s a similar kind of emotion you feel when you hear that scale of music. Little things like that I tried to use to create some connections. At the end of the day I wanted to do something that felt honest and true to me but also true to the characters and the mythology of the show.


On a related note, was there a specific type of sound the directors wanted you to go for, or was that largely left up to you?

This project was amazing in that the showrunners gave me so much freedom. It’s kind of crazy how much they trusted me to just go out and try crazy stuff. I felt like I could try or do anything and they were always so encouraging. They were great about feedback and would tell me if I was heading in a wrong direction or going down a rabbit hole that they didn’t want to explore. For the most part I felt like I was off in my own sandbox, it was so much fun.

Are there any examples of things you tried that didn’t work out? Without giving anyway?

That’s a great question. The great thing about my job is that a lot of experiments that initially end up on the cutting room floor find their way into the score eventually. I found that if I was respectful of the things we jettisoned and didn’t forget about them, they would often come back in unique and interesting ways. That’s one thing I love about working in the medium of television; it’s such a broad canvas. When you’re working on a film, you have a fairly short story arc. But with television, it’s epic, it’s hours and hours that you’re scoring. The canvas is so large that there are plenty of places to play.


Did you create any specific themes for characters or places for this series?

When I first sat down to map out the thematic universe, it was pretty daunting because there’s so many different characters. There are dozens of themes in the show. One strategy that we decided to go with thematically was that the score would not only represent characters but it would simultaneously represent different ideas and places. A perfect example is in Star Wars with the iconic “Force theme.” Some argue that’s Luke’s theme, other’s that it’s the Force theme, to which I would say “yes.” It operates in a really great way as a character theme and a theme for this concept [of the Force].

For Adam, it’s a similar thing. His theme is also the theme for Castle Greyskull. And the first few notes of that theme is in itself the theme for the “power” of Greyskull. His character and his power all come from the same place, Castle Greyskull, so it’s all wrapped up together. When you start making connections like this to character and concept, the score can then start making interesting connections and opening wormholes to other moments that the viewer might not necessarily think of. That’s my job, as a composer, to try and make all these connections and help point out things that rhyme in the story.

I really wanted to ask about Keldor, who becomes Skeletor, does Keldor’s theme becomes Skeletor’s theme or does one feed into the other?

Skeletor’s theme was one of the first things that I really sank my teeth into. His melody, for Skeletor and Keldor, those melodies are the same. It’s the same person, the same character, the same story arc. However, what’s different is the instrumentation. He has this creepy, slinking, shifting sounds for his Keldor variation. And then, as soon as he transforms into Skeletor, it’s like running the orchestra through an amplifier. There’s tons of distortion, me screaming into a microphone for different shouting sounds. If it didn’t give me the heebie-jeebies then it wasn’t good enough. I really pushed this theme to live up to the “Lord of Darkness” as it were.


How much time did you have to score Masters of the Universe?

Generally it was a couple of weeks per episode. It’s an immense amount of music and really intricate. What makes this music so time consuming is that it’s not just big orchestral, thematic music, which takes forever to write. On top of that, pretty much every character has their own set of colors. Before I started scoring I did a ton of experiments so that each character has a sound that, basically when you hear that sound, it’s that character. Every character has their own iconic sound within the musical landscape. It’s a really colorful score and painting in all those colors is so time consuming. But I hope it supports the storytelling and helps the viewers fall in love with the characters.


Do you have a favorite piece of music for this series?

I think I really love how “We Have the Power” turned out. It’s the track where our MOTU characters power up for the first time. It’s also the first time you get to hear the full MOTU theme. It’s rare to have a really big canvas to write a big melody like that, the visuals in that sequence are just so stunning. I really love how that one came out.

I want to give a huge thank you to Michael Kramer for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Netflix’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe! I hope you enjoyed this interview and have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Behind the Music of Action and Comedy: Talking with Atli Örvarsson about ‘The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’

Recently I had the chance to speak with Atli Örvarsson about his work on The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. Atli’s credits include composing and orchestrating music for some of Hollywood’s biggest projects, including the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Angels & Demons, The Holiday, The Eagle, Vantage Point, Babylon A.D., Thick as Thieves, The Fourth Kind, and Season of the Witch.

Atli’s accolades include winning the HARPA Nordic Film Composer Award for his acclaimed score to Rams, several ASCAP and BMI Film and TV Music Awards, a “Breakthrough of the Year” nomination with the IFMCA Awards in 2009, plus he was nominated for the prestigious World Soundtrack Academy’s “Discovery of the Year Award” for his score for Babylon A.D in 2009 and his score for Ploey: You Never Fly Alone was nominated for a “Public Choice Award” in 2018.

I hope you enjoy the discussion we had about this film!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is, how did you get started as a composer?
I have been writing music since childhood but got “serious” about composition when I was attending Berklee College of Music and found out they had a film music program. I had always been interested in film music, as far back as the first Star Wars film when I was just a little kid, so this field of study really appealed to me and has been my path ever since.

I know you previously composed the music for The Hitman’s Bodyguard in 2017, was it always assumed that you would return to score the music for the sequel?
Yes. Patrick Hughes, the director of these films, started discussing a possible sequel with me right after the first film came out.

Speaking of, what did you think of getting to return to the world of The Hitman’s Bodyguard to create more music for it? Was it easier scoring this film because you’d also written the music for the first film?
I don´t know if easier is the right word but perhaps it was a bit of a luxury to have a lot of themes from the original film to work with and it just made sense to reuse these.

On a similar note, what was the discussion with the director like when it came to putting the score together? Were you building on the first film’s musical themes in the sequel or did you create something wholly new?
A bit of both. There is a new bad guy in this film who needed a new theme, obviously along with some other new characters and storylines. Salma Hayek’s character also plays a bigger role here so that called for some new music. At the same time the two main characters are the same so there is a lot of reusing and reinventing themes from the original film.

Speaking of themes, are there musical themes for specific characters?
Yes.


I know this film is considered an action-comedy. How did you balance the music in the score between action and comedy?
It’s usually pretty clear cut whether a scene is primarily an action scene or a comedy scene but there are certainly scenes in this movie that combine both. In these cases, I usually choose to score the scenes very much like serious action scenes as the comedy sort of speaks for itself but to be honest, there’s no hard and fast rule. It just depends on the scene and what feels right.

How much time did you have to score The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard?
I had quite a bit of time as the Covid pandemic kept interrupting the schedule, but once we got started “for real” it went quite fast. I’d say about 2 months from the start of scoring to recording with the orchestra.

How much did the previous score for The Hitman’s Bodyguard influence the music for the sequel?
Quite a bit! As I mentioned earlier, I did reuse themes from the first movie but perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that there’s more score and less songs in the sequel.

Do you have a favorite musical moment in the score?
It’s hard to say… I really enjoyed writing some of the comedy cues around Bryce’s personal backstory where the music plays very serious over the comedy, e.g. when we first meet his step father and for the flashback about his mom.

Finally, is there any musical detail you hope viewers notice when they go to see this movie in theaters?
There are many places where I geeked out and tried to sneak in my themes in disguises. Hopefully someone picks up on that!

I hope you enjoyed this interview about the music of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.

See also:

My Thoughts on: The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Remembering the Human Element in an Alien Invasion: Talking with Composer Frederik Wiedmann About ‘Occupation Rainfall’ (2021)

I recently had the chance to speak with composer Frederik Wiedmann about his work on the film Occupation Rainfall. Wiedmann has been inspired by film composition since he first heard John Barry’s score to Dances With Wolves at the age of 12. Wiedmann is the composer behind the hit Disney Junior show Miles from Tomorrowland, as well as the critically acclaimed Netflix animated fantasy series The Dragon Prince, which is from the writers of the popular series: Avatar: The Last Airbender. In 2016, he won a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of “Outstanding Original Song” alongside lyricist Mitch Watson, for the song “True Bromance” from Dreamworks Animation’s Madagascar spinoff All Hail King Julien

Recently, Wiedmann composed music for the thriller Hangman (directed by Johnny Martin, starring Al Pacino, Karl Urban, Brittany Snow), and two projects for Millennium Films, Acts of Vengeance (featuring Antonio Banderas, Paz Vega and Karl Urban), and Day of the Dead: Bloodline (starring Sophie Skelton and Jonahon Schaech). His credits also include Universal’s “Doom – Annihilation” as well as the epic civil war drama Field of Lost Shoes (directed by Sean McNamara), Paul Schrader’s feature Dying of the Light, The Damned, and Intruders

In Occupation Rainfall:

 This film takes place two years into an intergalactic invasion of earth. Survivors in Sydney, Australia, fight back in a desperate ground war. As casualties mount by the day, the resistance and their unexpected allies, uncover a plot that could see the war come to a decisive end. With the Alien invaders hell-bent on making earth their new home, the race is on to save mankind.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Frederik Wiedmann about Operation Rainfall!

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me! My first question is, how did you get started as a composer?
Ever since I heard John Barry’s score for “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, I couldn’t stop fantasizing about becoming a composer myself. This slowly transformed into reality when my studies in Jazz helped me to become a proper composer. And once I completed my BA in FIlm scoring at Berklee College of Music  in 2004, I was ready to go to Hollywood and dive into the industry. After having worked for a handful of busy and established composers in LA, I started my own journey as a film composer, and have since been writing cues every single day. My first film was the Warner Brothers direct to video horror  film “Return to House on Haunted Hill”, which opened the doors to several more feature films of the same genre, as well as many other fantastic projects. 

How did you get involved with Occupation Rainfall?

This happened through a rather unusual way for me. Generally I get work from either my agents, or previous collaborators, or by recommendation. In this case, I got an email through my website from the director Luke Sparke himself, inquiring about my availability. He said he’s heard a lot of my DC scores and has been appreciating them for a while now. So we started talking and he showed me some of the film’s incredible footage.  I signed on to this amazing and hugely ambitious project almost immediately and we were off to the races. I think in my excitement i scored all of reel 1 in just a matter of days, and the rest is history. 

I read that you and the director spotted about 117 minutes of music for this film, which is almost wall-to-wall music. How did you and the director decide on having a score that long, because that is a lot of music to write for one movie.
We both are a big fan of huge, adventurous blockbusters, and some movies we discussed as a musical concept were “Transformers”, “Independence Day”, and even older films like “The Rock” and even “Star Wars”. We both agreed that music can  become a driving force in this film, and almost another character, an element to guide us through this rather intense, and emotional story. It is a lot of music to write, no doubt, and I am sure this amount of music can be intimating for composers. But to be honest, it seems that I generally attracted music-heavy movies with a lot of score, and after having scored so many of these type of films, it sort of becomes second nature and simply a fun and exciting process for me. There are some moments of course where we decided to pull music out., but not that many. 

Was there a lot of collaboration on this score between you and the director on this
score?
Absolutely. Luke is incredibly knowledgeable in film music. He knows a lot about it and therefore could tell me exactly what he envisioned for his film. It almost felt like I’d known him for many years, since we had really great synergy and our ideas complemented each other really well. It is every composer’s dream to work for filmmakers that not only appreciate what you bring to the table, and give you the necessary creative  freedom to “do your thing”, but also know how to guide you and “direct” you in a way that is nothing but inspiring. 


What sets the music for Occupation Rainfall apart from earlier alien invasion films like Independence Day or Skyline to name a few examples?

Good question. I’ve seen all of them, and I am total sucker for this genre (anything with Aliens, sign me up!). What I liked in particular about Occupation: Rainfall was the human component in the story. The script had such wonderfully nuanced characters, that are constantly conflicted with their beliefs and values, and have to decide more than on one occasion how far they will go for the greater good. And this very human and personal dilemma plays a roll not only for our heroes, but also villains (the human ones). I think this is a very interesting topic to focus on in an alien invasion film, something that goes far beyond the Sci-fi and Action/Adventure element. So in terms of the music, I think this becomes very apparent, as there are lots of very emotional pieces, and even our “hero theme” is more about “human sacrifice” than an actual  “superhero”. 

How did working on Occupation Rainfall compare to working on earlier projects like The Dragon Prince, Doom: Annihilation, and the DC animated films, just to name a few examples?
Like I mentioned above, the amount of music was very similar (given the projects mentioned here are a lot shorter generally), all of them have a lot of complex orchestral music. The big difference from let’s say “The Dragon Prince”, which is a mostly “in the box’ score with the exceptions of soloists,  to “Occupation” was that we planned on recording a rather large live orchestra, and during the peak of a pandemic no less (Summer 2020). So besides writing a lot of music and getting it approved in time, I had to account for a lot of time for recordings in London and Macedonia, and for orchestration (done by my partner in crime Hyesu Wiedmann). So suddenly you have 3-4 weeks less for writing since you need a lot of time to get 2 hours + orchestrated and prepared for the individual players, and at least 1 week of recording, and mixing. So that changes things a little in the process, but if you know what you are going to do in advance, and you have people behind you that full support you, it becomes an easy process. 

How much time did you have to score this film?
I had close to 3 months from start to finish, which felt very comfortable. 

Did you create specific musical themes for different characters or ideas?
Yes. One of the first cues I wrote for this film was the hero theme I mentioned above. A theme mostly used for our protagonist heroes, that selflessly try to save humanity, while sacrificing quite a bit themselves. The female lead, Amelia, had a theme which introduces her screen presence, the aliens had a dark and ominous, almost leaning into horror, type theme, and we had a theme for “humanity”, which is also not quite uplifting so to speak, but a nice mix of darkness and optimism that gives the situation humankind finds itself in a nice and authentic color. 

Is there any musical detail that you hope stands out to viewers who watch this film?

I hope the audience will appreciate the thematic treatment throughout, the absolutely fantastic performances of my London Orchestra record at the famous AIR studios, the gorgeous string melodies performed by my orchestra in Macedonia, and the more unique instruments I layered in throughout, like the haunting Armenian Duduk, Japanese Shakuhachi, several layers of solo violins and cellos and dark female vocals, representing the rather scary alien queen.

I want to give a big thank you to Frederik Wiedmann for taking the time to talk with me about Occupation Rainfall and I hope you enjoyed the discussion!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Music to Describe Fear and Music for Superheroes: Talking with Composer Jeremy Turner about ‘Immigration Nation’ and ‘Marvel’s 616’

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with composer Jeremy Turner about his work on the Netflix series Immigration Nation and his work on the main theme for Marvel’s 616 on Disney+. For both of these scores, Turner is in contention for an Emmy, one for Documentary Score and one for Main Title Theme.

The docuseries Immigration Nation follows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on raids, at detention centers, and attempting to integrate with local law enforcement. The cruelty viewers see firsthand is gut-wrenching and the score depicts the tension and fear seen on screen. Turner scored the project almost like a horror film to match the devastating and unfortunate reality that many have been oblivious to. The revelations in the doc are uncomfortable and the audience feels the heaviness of the high stakes circumstances so many in this country have been subjected to.

Marvel’s 616, in complete contrast, is an anthology documentary television series that illustrates different pockets of the Marvel Universe. Some episodes revolve around Marvel cosplay, Marvel action figures, and even a Marvel Comics-themed musical.

Jeremy Turner began his musical studies on the piano at the age of 5 and started playing the cello when he was 8 years old. After growing up in Michigan, he attended The Juilliard School as a pupil of Harvey Shapiro and studied chamber music with Felix Galimir. As a composer, his music has been heard around the world, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House. Noted works include The Inland Seas, composed for violinist James Ehnes and mandolinist Chris Thile and commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Music Society; Suite of Unreason, a commission from the Music Academy of the West for their 70th Anniversary season; and a choral work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Wave Hill in New York.

Please enjoy my conversation with Jeremy Turner about his work on Immigration Nation and Marvel’s 616.

How did you get started as a composer?

I started writing music when I was a toddler, making up songs on an old upright piano in the basement of our family home. But then got sidetracked for about 20+ years, as I became a cellist in an orchestra in New York and had a performance career that kept my calendar pretty full. Eventually, I got back to doing what I was probably meant to do in the first place, and I’ve been composing ever since.

How did you get involved with Immigration Nation?

Through Shaul Schwarz, who directed the first film I ever scored—Narco Cultura back in 2013.

Given how important the story being told in this docuseries is, how did you decide where to start in putting the music together?

I knew it was going to be a fairly daunting task and would have a lot of emotional ups and downs. So, I just started at the beginning by writing a couple of sketches for the main titles, and that led to some established themes from which we could work with.

I find it very interesting that you chose to score the series similar to a horror film, was that your concept for the musical style for Immigration Nation from the beginning or did you come to that conclusion after trying several different styles?

It’s not all horror of course, but we discussed early in the process what fear might sound like. And much as I tried to leave the cello behind (since it is the instrument that I’m most comfortable with), directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau really wanted the full range of what the cello could bring. At its best it can be heart wrenching, melancholy, and probably is the closest musical instrument to the human voice. But when you start pushing beyond the limits of conventional approaches and experiment with extended techniques, you can draw out some incredibly unsettling tones.

How much time did you have to score Immigration Nation?

I’d say about 3-4 months. It was during the early days of the pandemic, so there were a lot of adjustments made on the fly, in terms of how we would work together and how we would finish.

Are there any musical moments in Immigration Nation that you hope viewers notice?

It’s a strange project to have any sense of pride about because it’s all so real and all so tragic. Honestly, I just hope people muster up the courage to watch it because I think it is something every American needs to see, regardless of what one thinks they might already know.

 Was there any part of Immigration Nation that you had difficulty scoring? Or any part where you decided music just wouldn’t work?

To be truthful, I had difficulty scoring the entire series. Not technically, but just emotionally. The final minutes of episode 5, I don’t think I’ve ever made it through without shedding a tear. But yes, there was a delicate balance to not score a scene that didn’t need to be scored. There is a lot of raw emotion on screen, so we made a conscious effort to not have the music force anything that wasn’t already clearly being felt.

On a different note, how did you go about scoring the title music for Marvel’s 616?

Marvel? Big heroic theme? Less than a minute of music? This is a dream scenario for any composer! 


Were you inspired at all by the Avenger’s theme that recurs throughout the MCU? I may be wrong but I swear I hear a musical resemblance between the two.

I flipped through some Marvel music from scores past to see where I’d be coming from for sure. Always helpful when taking over a shift in the kitchen to know what the previous menu was. But no, the themes aren’t related other than the fact that they are played by a big orchestra.

How much time did it take to compose the title music for Marvel’s 616?

Not terribly long, only in that the actual titles hadn’t been created yet. So, I just wrote a single sketch based on our initial conversations and that ended up being the final music. Yes, I realize that will probably never happen again! 

I want to say thank you to Jeremy Turner for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Immigration Nation and Marvel’s 616.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Music, Magic, and Dragons: Talking With Composer Philip Klein About Wish Dragon (2021)

I was recently blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Philip Klein about his work on the upcoming Netflix film Wish Dragon (which comes out on June 11th). Klein’s music has been heard in film and television projects for Sony, Disney, Pixar, Lionsgate, ABC and CBS. As a writer, Philip has collaborated with some of the finest composers working in film and TV, including Harry Gregson-Williams, Carter Burwell, Alex Heffes and Fil Eisler. He’s has had the honor of orchestrating for James Newton Howard, Alexandre Desplat, Ludwig Göransson, Richard Harvey, Steve Jablonsky, David Buckley, Stewart Copeland, Peter Golub, John Frizzell and several other amazing artists.

After a steady diet of drum corps and classical music throughout his childhood, Philip’s formal music education took him to Chicago where he studied trumpet and composition at Northwestern University. This classical foundation combined with a deep understanding of modern scoring techniques allow him to seamlessly compliment every project he works on. Selected as one of six fellows for the 2011 Sundance Institute’s Film Composing Lab in Utah, Philip has always had a deep love for the interaction of music and film. He owes much of his success to his mentors in Hollywood, Harry Gregson-Williams, Alan Silvestri, Penka Kouneva and Peter Golub. 

“Wish Dragon” is the story of Din, a 19-yr old college student living in a working-class neighborhood of modern-day Shanghai, who has big dreams but small means. Din’s life changes overnight when he finds an old teapot containing a Wish Dragon named Long – a magical dragon able to grant wishes – and he is given the chance to reconnect with his childhood best friend, Li-Na.

Please enjoy my conversation with Philip Klein about Wish Dragon!

How Did You Get Started as a Composer?

I was a trumpet player for most of my young musical life but I eventually found myself being drawn more to orchestration and composition.  I had a soft spot for film scores at a very young age and would spend hours picking out notes to my favorite themes, so it felt natural to fall into that world when I went to college and beyond.  Once I had scored a few student films I was hooked and moving to Los Angeles was the logical next step.  I’ve had the great fortune of working with some of the most skilled artists in film and music.

How did You Get Involved with Wish Dragon? Was there anything in particular that drew you to the story?

Producer Aron Warner is a dear friend and we’ve both always wanted to work on a project together. One of Aron’s superpowers is curating a team of creatives that all compliment each other.  He felt that director Chris Appelhans and I would mesh well so he reached out and I saw a very early cut of mostly stick figure drawing and early animatics.  Even in its most basic form the story was beautifully conceived and it was clear from conversations with Chris and Aron that the film was going to be special. I did all that I could to convince them that I was the right composer for the film and luckily they agreed.  Chris’ passion for storytelling, the characters and the culture is what drew me in early on; it wasn’t long before I was happily escaping into this world on a daily basis.  

I saw that you also worked on Raya and the Last Dragon as an orchestrator. Given that both of these films are about dragons, would you say there are musical similarities between the two or did you go out of your way to avoid any overt musical comparisons to Raya?

James Newton Howard wrote a beautiful score for Raya. I lucked out a bit in that I actually finished recording the score for Wish Dragon several months before we began orchestration work on Raya, so my window for being influenced (and intimidated) by James’ writing had passed. James’ score took advantage of musical colors from different areas of Mongolia and Southeast Asia, whereas Chris and I wanted to stick very close to Chinese culture for the color of the score.  Raya has a bit more fantasy whereas Wish Dragon is a bit more comedic. So in that sense, the scores were always going to sound different.

What was your starting point in putting the music for Wish Dragon together? Was there a lot of collaboration with the director during this process?

I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a project where the director was as much a collaborator as Chris was on this film.  The first 3-4 months of the process was just sharing music, videos and thoughts back and forth.  We sent each other any kind of Chinese instrument, folk song, vocal, opera percussion; basically any sound we could find.  Eventually, we started to hone in on the overall palette and approach we thought may work and then I started to experiment with those boundaries in place.  Chris was intimately involved with the music from conception through recording and mixing.  Chris had such a strong vision of what he wanted and needed out of the score, I loved every minute of working through this film with him. 

Were you inspired by any earlier films when putting the music together since this is a reworking of the “genie in a bottle” type of story? Or did you try to put an original twist on it as far as the music went?

While on its surface this film may seem like a “genie in the bottle” kind of story, the film is much more about friendship and redemption than anything.  The spectacle and theatricality of Long’s character sits somewhat behind the genuine connections we follow throughout the film.  While it is important to give a voice to Long’s over-the-top character, we never went too far in making him seem like more of a being than he is.  I think previous iterations of that kind of story maybe put more emphasis on the genie type character and their performance.  So musically, you have to match that kind of energy.  In Wish Dragon, we always wanted more weight to go towards the relationships and arcs of the characters so it naturally kept me away from drawing too much inspiration on other films or scores.  I’ll always be proud of how Chris and I blended these beautiful instruments of Chinese culture with a more Western orchestral palette.  We didn’t want either to ever overshadow the other.

Did you assign themes to the major characters? Or if not all of the characters, did you give a musical theme to Long the dragon?

I’m a huge believer that thematic writing is one of the most effective ways to create memorable emotional moments in a film.  Long has a theme we hear in the first cue of the film.  It’s broad and sweeping, almost always played with the orchestra to give his character scale and drama.  Din’s theme probably recurs most often but is played much more simply and with less fanfare than Long’s.  Much of Din’s scenes take full advantage of the energy from the Chinese instruments we used.  For most of the film Din is full of optimism so his theme is orchestrated with lovely and light, plucked textures.  There are two secondary themes; the first for our baddies and the other for Din and Li Na’s relationship.  For the goons in the film, I used a lot of darker bowed sounds from the Chinese instruments and mixed them into more modern, synth heavy orchestration.  For Din and Li Na, it’s a very simple fluttering synth with a three note motive that echoes their “day by day” mantra.

How did you decide on which traditional Chinese instruments to include in the score? And was it hard blending those instruments with a traditional Western orchestra?

It can be overwhelming at the start of a score like this because my brain and ears want to explore every new color out there.  Unfortunately, I’d still be working on the score today if I didn’t put a bit of a cap on what instruments we should focus on.  Honestly, we spent months early on just listening and me having video calls with players all over the world.  I’d ask them to show me the basics of their instruments, what it can do, and what it shouldn’t do.  Eventually I boiled down my core palette to around 8-10 Chinese instruments that would represent that side of the score.  The orchestra was always in place as it’s difficult to replace the sheer power of that vehicle, but the Chinese instruments became our color and our energy throughout the film.  We never wanted the score to sound like an orchestra blasting away with some Chinese soloists playing on top of them.  Rather, we wanted the two to become more homogenized so that the Chinese world melted into the orchestral.  Blending them together was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had because it opened my ears to brand new textures and colors.  It allowed me to explore a new musical world I had never heard before.  That’s always the most exciting part of working on a film. 

How much time did you have to score Wish Dragon?

I had the great fortune of working on this score for nearly a year.  This gave us plenty of time to truly flesh out all of our wildest ideas, themes and orchestrations.

Do you have a favorite track or moment in the score?

I will always love the scene and cue titled “Everything That Matters.”  It’s such a beautiful, honest moment between Din and his mother and their relationship’s arc in the film.  It was also one of those moments where Din’s theme just seemed to line up perfectly without me having to do much.  That doesn’t always happen, but it’s a pleasant surprise when the notes just seem to fit the film without much ado.  

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Philip Klein about his work on Wish Dragon. You’ll be able to check out the film when it releases on Netflix on June 11th, 2021.

Have a great day!

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Composer Interviews

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The Music of the Deep: Talking with Raphaelle Thibaut about ‘Secrets of the Whales’ (2021)

Just recently I had the privilege of speaking with composer Raphaelle Thibaut about her work on the Disney+ original series Secrets of the Whales. After she was born, Raphaelle suffered from a series of severe ear issues that led to single- sided deafness. At age 4, following doctor’s recommendation, she started an intense piano practice. She then continued studying music for 15 years at the conservatory of Lille, France, where she graduated in 2002. In 2015, she decided to leave her marketing job at Google to pursue her lifelong passion for music and film scoring. She quickly started writing for independent films and music houses. She then began to work for trailer houses and got featured in major Hollywood productions like Incredibles 2 and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.

Secrets of the Whales, from National Geographic, plunges viewers deep within the epicenter of whale culture to experience the extraordinary communication skills and intricate social structures of five different whale species: orcas, humpbacks, belugas, narwhals and sperm whales. Filmed over three years in 24 locations, throughout this epic journey, we learn that whales are far more complex and more like us than ever imagined.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Raphaelle Thibaut!

How did you get started as a composer?
I had a classical music education, starting age 4. I spent long years at the conservatory in France playing the piano and learning everything about reading and performing music. I was obsessed with movies and film music already as a kid which really wasn’t a thing at home so I’m not sure where it came from. I remember using an old recorder to capture sound bites in theaters and playing around with them in my bedroom. I don’t think I was even aware of the concept of film score until I bought my first CDs. I dropped out of music school when I was 18 because I didn’t enjoy the performance part of my training. I think this was an early sign that composing was more my thing. Another early sign was that as a kid, I was very attracted to the composers from the late Romantic era (especially the Russian composers). A lot of the cinematic music genre took inspiration from the dramatism, large orchestra, use of leitmotif, and emotiveness of the romantic era. After music school, I ended up working in Tech but continued to play and compose in my bedroom. In 2015, I finally decided to quit my job to become a full-time composer.

How did you get involved with Secrets of the Whales?
I was approached by two agents very early on in my career as a composer. They believed in me from the very beginning and still are my agents today. A while ago they met Brian Armstrong at Red Rock productions in the UK, who apparently remembered my work the following year when they were looking for a composer for Secrets of the Whales. Initially they were looking to hire multiple composers but I ended up scoring to the 4 episodes so I was thrilled about that.

Was there much collaboration between the director/producers while working on the music?
I was involved right after they were done filming and I started writing in March last year. I continued throughout the pandemic and felt incredibly lucky to do so. I worked closely with the production team at Red Rock Films and indeed more specifically with directors Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell. My experience working with them was fantastic. Very empowering. I was able to come up with my own ideas and this allowed me to let go and get my creative juices flowing.

How was your music for this series inspired by Le Grand Bleu?
As a composer and a French person, it was hard not to think of this movie and Eric Serra’s amazing score. As a kid, I was fascinated by those synthetic whale sounds that he recreated for the film. I wanted to have some signature sounds in the score that would evoke the whales, but not imitate them. Both the production team and I wanted to avoid overstepping the existing sounds of animals and nature so I had to be careful about that. I thought of them like additional instruments more than in terms of sound design. Like subtle familiar voices in tune with the music.

What was your inspiration to put the underwater sound world of Secrets of the Whales together? That is to say, how were you inspired by the underwater world of whales when making this music?
I had many issues with my ears when I was a kid; multiple infections that even led to one-sided deafness for a while in my childhood. One thing that remains from this time is that I can’t go underwater, so this just increased the already existing fascination that I have for those animals and places. They are very mysterious, almost mystical to me and I think that at some points in the score my music illustrates that. As a consequence, it almost feels like the deeper we go into the water the more I would use non-traditional elements like synths and processed sounds.

How did you go about making music that sounds like whale songs? They’re so beautiful, was it difficult making music that emulated them?
They are! I was worried that my music would never be able to top this beauty. I think that my strategy was to try to evoke their sounds, not to imitate them. They are already making music when they communicate, so I really didn’t want to overstep that.

What instruments did you focus on when putting the music together? Any non-traditional choices?
The score is hybrid. It sounds mostly orchestral but I actually used a lot of electronic elements to enrich it and ‘make up’ for the fact that there would be no live player at all. Everything has been done on Logic Pro X, using my piano Komplete Kontrol S88, tons of orchestral and electronic plugins, and my voice. It was great to be able to play around with electronic sounds along with orchestral arrangements. This led us to a “versatile” hybrid score and I think we were all happy with the result!

How much time did you have to work on Secrets of the Whales? Did the pandemic affect the process at all
I was involved right after they were done filming and I started writing in March last year. I continued throughout the pandemic and felt incredibly lucky to do so. This was definitely my “Covid project”. The pandemic did affect the process in a way because I didn’t get to meet the team in person yet. But it didn’t affect the creative process because there wasn’t a plan to work with live players apart from me. I actually continued working on the score after the release actually, because we are working on a live concert experience coming in 2022! Secrets of the Whales will feature highlights from the Disney+ original series on a giant screen paired with the triumphant performance of a full symphony orchestra. So I had to write additional music for this.

Do you have a favorite track?
I love The Mourning Mother in the official soundtracks. It was always a special cue for me because it was written for this moment where an orca mother carries her dead calf for days. The fact that she mourns like human beings would and can’t let go broke my heart and marked me greatly.

What’s one thing that you hope viewers notice in the music when they watch this series?
That’s a good question. Probably how the music, despite that it’s very rich and epic, never really overwhelms and leaves lots of room for the narration and natural sounds.

I want to give a huge thank you to Raphaelle Thibaut for taking the time to speak with me about her work on Secrets of the Whales!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Writing Music for Planet Earth: Talking with Composer Ilan Eshkeri About ‘A Perfect Planet’ (2021)

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak with composer Ilan Eshkeri about his work on the documentary series A Perfect Planet. This is my second interview with this composer, as we’d previously talked about his work on the hit video game Ghost of Tsushima. Eshkeri attended Leeds University, where he studied music and English literature. During this time he also worked with fellow film composers Edward Shearmur, Michael Kamen and music producer Steve McLaughlin. His extensive catalogue of film and TV scores include Still Alice, Stardust, The Young Victoria, Doctor Thorne, Shaun The Sheep and David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Ilan Eshkeri about the music of this spectacular documentary.

Have you worked on documentaries like ‘A Perfect Planet’ before now?
Yes, this is my fourth collaboration with David Attenborough. What made me to work with him again was the focus of this series on climate which is an issue that is also close to my heart. Silverback, the production team making the programme were also very supportive of my creative approach so the which made the project creatively very satisfying as well as feeling like I was getting an important message out to the world. 

Is scoring a documentary like this very different from working on a film? Or is it mostly the same?
It’s quite different because you are writing 40 short films. You have a sequence about ants that’s a heist or a sequence about whales that’s a love story or a sequence about monkeys that’s about guarding territory and protecting family and so you have to think of each story on its own terms, they have their own completely new themes and instrumentation/sound-world, so it is much more work than writing a film score where you would have a handful of themes or motifs that you re-use. 


Where did you start with the scoring process for ‘A Perfect Planet’? I hear what sounds like a recurrent theme that reappears from time to time, but I wasn’t sure if it was a central or main theme or something else.
My writing process was varied because there were so many stories, I decided to take a hit and run approach… look at a scene and pick up a guitar and put an idea down and immediately move on to another scene pick up another instrument and so on… if I couldn’t come up with an idea immediately I’d leave it out, then I would go back around the whole episode again. 
You are right that there is a recurring theme. I’ve noticed that these kinds of shows tend to go from one piece of music to another without a musical anchor and I wanted to keep taking the audience back to a theme that represented the planet / Mother Nature. The theme comes at the beginning the end and in-between all the set animal sequences. Typically it has voices and piano, voices because it’s connected to nature and humanity and piano because it’s an instrument of the home and I wanted to reinforce the idea of the whole of our planet being collectively our home. 


So, this may be the same question over again but, how did the overall process for scoring this work? Were you given any guidelines for what each segment should sound like or was it pretty much a free rein? 
The film and TV making process always and has always used guide music, it helps the director producer and editor work out what kind of music they need, which can often inform how they’re going to cut the scene. For composers the guide music can be helpful too, music is very hard to describe in words so examples are useful. For a perfect planet I had a very set approach on how I wanted to approach the music and so after th first watch though I worked without reference to the guide in the first instance, and then there were a couple of times where we needed to refer back but not often. I am grateful to the team for supporting my process and believing in it. 


Did you have footage of the animals to watch while you worked or was it described in storyboards? 
I was brought on at an early stage before there was much to see so I could think about it early on but I did a lot of my recording to early clips so this way the music and the editing could evolve together 


How did you decide on which instruments to use for the different animals featured in ‘A Perfect Planet’?
We all have a sense of what is appropriate, there is an unspoken semiotic language that both film makers and audience are aware of, for example, a harp might seem an inappropriate choice for an elephant and a trombone might jar for a butterfly.  As a film maker and a composer you need to take these things into consideration, but rules are there to be broken!


How long did you have to work on the music? Was the process impacted by the pandemic at all?
I recorded the first 2 episodes before the pandemic but recording became very difficult. Orchestras couldn’t come together obviously, especially not wind and brass because of all the blowing. This meant that the post production process had to expand. I was able to put a small amount of strings together in Iceland and then brass and woodwinds individually in the player’s living rooms. It was extremely time consuming to prep, but fortunately the technology exists where we can place those recordings inside of digital acoustic spaces which meant we could make the recording sound very real. I also had to take these limitations into consideration in the writing. It was fortunate that I had taken a more contemporary approach, not straight symphonic, and I like to think that that creativity comes out of limitations, so I enjoyed the challenge. In the end my producer / engineer Steve McLaughlin made it all sound incredible and I think anyone would be hard pushed to tell the difference, It was just incredibly labour intensive.


Was it hard to write for any particular animal?
Yes, one scene in particular at the end of the sunlight episode where there was a huge feeding frenzy in the Ocean with birds, whales and fish, the music I had written was good but something about it was not quite right and the day before recording the director and I decided that to do something completely new it was incredibly difficult to write a 7 minute sequence to end an episode. It is such a short time whilst also prepping for the recording but somehow I managed to make it happen. 

I want to say thank you to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time to speak with me about his work on A Perfect Planet.

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview and have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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The Music of Psychopathy: Talking with Composer Benji Merrison About ‘SAS: Red Notice’ (2021)

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with film composer Benji Merrison about his work on the film SAS: Red Notice. The film is based on Andy McNab’s novel of the same name and follows a Special Forces operator who comes face-to-face with an army of mercenaries who are intending to blow up the Channel Tunnel.

Benji Merrison is an award-winning composer who went on to obtain a BA (Hons) in Music and an MSc in Music Technology from York University. He also studied Jazz Piano with Howard Riley at Goldsmiths University. His selected credits include SAS: Red Notice, BBC Green Planet, General Magic, Dynasties 2, and Victoria.

I hope you enjoy our conversation about SAS: Red Notice.

How did you get started as a film composer?

Thank you for having me along Becky.

As a child, I grew up with a lot of music around. My Dad had a great vinyl collection and played folk guitar a lot. My mum played piano and so there was an upright in the house. I started getting really into the piano when I was probably five or six. I got a bit obsessed just trying things out to see what sounded good. I spent ages just working out little tunes and things, and then took piano lessons with a local teacher. When I was about eight I got hold of a Roland Juno 6, which blew my mind – I couldn’t believe all the sounds it could make and used to make up imaginary stories in my head as I cluelessly messed around with the knobs and sliders. Funny now, looking back, as it is such a simple synth. I still have it.

Fast forward a few years, and I went on to study classical music, and then a Master’s degree in Music Technology. After working for a few years in motion graphics & audiovisual arts, I started suggesting to clients that I could do the music as well as the motion graphics. So, I started out with small jobs really, which got bigger and bigger over the years.

It’s been a wild ride so far, a very organic process. To be honest, at the start I didn’t even know you could get paid to be a composer, I just muscled to the industry because I thought ‘I can do that, let’s see what happens.’

How did you get brought in to work on SAS: Red Notice?

SAS: Red Notice has been a wonderful project to be a part of, and landing the job was quite a chance thing really. I met the music supervisor at an event in LA and we got chatting about the project and the fact they needed a British composer. Of course, I put on my most over-the-top British accent at this point!
She put me in touch with the producer, Laurence Malkin. Larry rang me up and said, ‘can you be in Amsterdam tomorrow for a screening?’ Slightly flustered, the ‘yes man’ in me kicked in and I was indeed there the next day (this was pre-Covid of course). I think my enthusiasm must have impressed him because after some composition tests to picture, I got the job!

Where did you start with putting the themes together? How did you decide what this film should sound like?


I’m quite an improvisatory composer, so I often approach themes and writing in general by simply jamming and seeing what feels right.
At the start of the scoring process, I had a couple of these improv style sessions with Larry Malkin (producer) and Peter Clarke (music editor). I had a cool Cubase template prepared with loads of interesting instruments all stacked in a session, so I could go from an intimate piano sound to a full orchestra with mad synths and pulses mixed in. I had programmed some midi controllers to do all sorts of things to each instrument, including pitch bending the different layers (some going up, some going down in pitch).
In one of these sessions, we were trying to work out what kind of themes would work for the lead character Tom Buckingham, and also what musical device we could use to represent the unfolding of his psychopathic nature.
I started off jamming a simple ‘English Country Garden’ style riff, whatever fell under my fingers easily, which became the ‘Tom Buckingham’ theme. I then gradually wigged out more and more with the midi controllers until this massive, intense, swarming orchestral sound hammered out!
Larry and Pete were like ‘What was that?!! That sounds like psychopathy right there!’ This developed into cues such as ‘Emergency Response,’ ‘Two Psychopaths,’ and the end of ‘Finding the Player.’ As a matter of fact, quite a bit of the score came from this one improvisation. I find that funny and inspiring.

Did you create themes for specific characters?


Yes, for some. In particular, there are very clear themes, as mentioned for Tom Buckingham and also for The Black Swans. There are also other thematic elements such as the ‘Church of Psycopathy’ theme we first hear in the scenes in reel one with Will Lewis.
However, it was very clear from the beginning that these themes should gradually subvert, morph and degrade over the course of the movie. It seemed like the most ideal way to represent psychopathy. In addition, I took ideas of those themes, and, for example, shortened them into an ostinato figure, or played them in retrograde or inverted, that kind of thing.
Deconstruction was a big part of the process. This happened both on a thematic level, but also on a sonic and instrumental level. Over the course of the movie, I would take something like a timpani or snare (which very obviously says ‘militaristic’) and I would run them through various effects chains or spectral processing, to become something very new but derived from the same source.
I like this kind of idea, but only when it means something to underline the narrative. In this case, it was a logical and proportionate approach. I also think it worked.

What is your overall process for choosing which instruments to include (or exclude) in the overall mix?

I don’t have a consistent process, it will vary for each score. I always do a lot of exploring, trying all sorts of things out to see what feels right to picture and for the character or storyline. I often like to pair one familiar or obvious piece of instrumentation with another which is more surprising or arresting.

This way the viewers feel a sense of familiarity in one sense, and another which has a degree of tension, surprise, or questioning. This can be a very useful musical device, once clearly defined. You can use the relative push and pull of this pairing to play with the viewer’s emotions, and invoke more nuanced compound emotional states.

Were there any musical ideas you tried only to find they weren’t working out?

Oh yes, many.

In fact, for me, it is a huge part of creating a successful score. I think as you gain more experience, you develop the professional maturity to ditch an idea (however good it is or however long it has taken to write) if it isn’t right for the film. I used to feel anguish at this, but now I find it quite fun to destroy a carefully crafted idea. The thing is, sometimes you learn more from the things that ‘aren’t right’ as you do from the things that ‘are right’. It all feeds into the score as part of the process.

I like to float above the feelings around the creation of music, to hear the music objectively, just as the audience will. Things are either right or not right in that sense. The only important thing is the emotional response of the audience to the film, my own feelings are irrelevant.

To aid this I don’t like to spend long in any stint working on cues, or writing themes. I’ve found over the years that the longer I spend on things, there is a point where I lose perspective and start ‘taking away.’ I like to regularly hear my work as if it wasn’t me who wrote it. That way I am more objective and logical about how others will respond to it.

How long did you have to score the film?

The scoring took place around four months over the late summer/autumn of 2019. It was a pretty intense, but hugely satisfying experience. The recording sessions took place in the Hall at AIR studios in winter 2019, just before the pandemic hit.

It’s amazing to think of the intensity of that period, especially given that the release was put back so far due to the events of 2020. I’m grateful it worked out this way, as it meant we got all the recording sessions and mix completed in time before the restrictions came in.

What was the collaboration process like? How much collaboration was there with producer and writer Laurence Malkin on the score?

There was a lot of collaboration. Larry is a very hands-on producer and likes to be involved with all aspects of the film. I really enjoyed that about the process. We got into a great pattern, where he would come over to the studio every weekend and we’d spend the whole day going through two or three reels, chatting through each shot and working out how we could impact and add value to the storyline through the score. I’d then spend the week revising things, and repeat the process. This all created a score that was very tight and precise to the picture.

Whilst that sounds like it could be a bit regimented, it was quite a liberating and structured way to approach the score, which I really enjoyed. I had plenty of time to experiment and free-flow my ideas, but I had that focus point and second opinion so that I didn’t get too bogged down with a particular idea or section.

In this sense, I’d say it was one of the most collaborative scores that I have completed to date.

Do you have a favorite track? Or any detail that you hope audiences notice?

Ha! There are quite a few actually.
A firm favourite of mine (and others who have seen the film so far) is ‘3m23 Emergency Response.’ It’s a real action romp type of cue, but also combines a perfect blend of the distorted, fragmented Tom Buckingham theme along with the ‘Psychopathic String’ signature lines. It is basically ‘orchestral heavy metal’ masquerading as a soundtrack cue, which really appeals to me!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about SAS: Red Notice!

Cheers Becky, thanks for having me!

I wanted to say thank you one more time to Benji Merrison for taking the time to speak with me about his work on SAS: Red Notice! I hope you all enjoyed this interview!

Have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

Become a Patron of the blog at patreon.com/musicgamer460

Check out the YouTube channel (and consider hitting the subscribe button)

Don’t forget to like Film Music Central on Facebook 🙂

Music for Digging into the Past: Talking With Stefan Gregory about Netflix’s ‘The Dig’ (2021)

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Australian composer Stefan Gregory about his work on the Netflix film The Dig. Gregory makes his major feature film score debut with this Netflix drama, based on the novel of the same name by John Preston. Ralph Fiennes stars in the film as real-life excavator Basil Brown, who until recent years was uncredited for his work in unearthing the fossil of an Anglo-Saxon wooden ship on a young widow’s (Carey Mulligan) estate. With this project, Stefan makes the transition to film scoring from the world of composing and sound design for theatre. He studied mathematics in college, but his passion for music (mainly Jazz) overtook and led to him pursuing a career in writing music for theatre productions. 

Enjoy our conversation about The Dig!

How did you get started as a composer?

Improvising and composing were part of how I learnt music from a young age. My dad was a folk musician. My first paid gig was through a friend who worked in theatre, scoring a production of Hamlet for $500 which featured classical banjo and cello.

What was it like making the leap from composing for the theatre to composing for film? Was it a big difference?

It was fairly straight forward, the basic ideas are the same in film and theatre – support the story and the visual world, don’t get in the way of the text, find something that’s missing from the story that you can tell with the music. One difference is that theatre music sometimes needs to be a little bit flexible as the timing can change every night, whereas film music needs to be precise.

There are some subtler differences that are hard to put into words – something about the way we interpret film as truth, because it’s based in photography, even though the footsteps you’re hearing are probably foley. In theatre, we always know it’s fake, because we can look up and see the stage lights and the proscenium arch, so it relies more on the imagination. This changes the way music is interpreted. If you use certain filmic tropes in theatre, they might come across as cheesy or the audience might feel they’re being manipulated, which turns them off. Yet those same tropes work in film, or actually they’re essential because they’re part of the grammar of film. But all this is mostly very subtle.

Did it help that you were working with director Simon Stone, given that you’ve collaborated for a decade together? I have to imagine that would help with any transition from theatre to film.

It does really help to know you director well, as they are your main collaborator. Another flipped way to look at it is: it helps to work with directors whose philosophy and aesthetic you share, and then you’ll end up working together for a decade!

How did you decide on the overall sound for The Dig? It’s not how I imagined a film about an archaeological dig would sound, though I do love the intimacy of the music. I’m also curious about one thing: I read that your initial idea was to create music of the era. What, specifically would that have sounded like? I know you ultimately didn’t go in that direction but I’m curious as to how it differed from what you did go with.

We initially talked about referencing orchestral music of the period, and I did a lot of work on that before I saw the edit. However most of those ideas didn’t seem to work when we put them to picture – the contemporary camera and editing language seemed to beg for a more contemporary score. I avoided using piano for quite a while but eventually I relinquished, and that really helped unlock the whole sound for me. I guess there’s a reason it’s used so much. The strings and orchestra were great for the landscape but piano gave it the intimacy and human touch it needed.

On a related note, when you decided what the film would sound like, where did you start with composing the score? Was it with a single theme that expanded outward or was it more organic than that?

In this case it was a piano piece I wrote that was a breakthrough for me, the tone and style seem right and it suddenly became clear what sort of compositional world was going to work. It wasn’t the theme itself, but certain harmonic ideas in it that I ran with, and the simplicity of the melody. Interestingly, that particular piano piece was cut when there was a big change in the edit, as it resulted in the whole film feeling slightly faster and so that piece was now too languid.

How much time did you have to work on The Dig? Were you impacted by the pandemic? If so, how did you work around it with the recording process?

I was brought on before the shoot and watched the daily rushes. By the time I got properly started though, and had seen rough cut, I think I had about 3 to 4 months to write it. This coincided with the first wave of the pandemic in the UK, so in the middle of the process I and my pregnant partner and 3 year old daughter made the decision to come back to Australia. We had already sent my mother home as a precautionary, who had been helping us with child minding. My partner was now confined to bed with morning sickness, so it was becoming a challenge for me caring for my family and writing my first feature score at the same time. When we arrived back in Sydney on one of the last easily available flights we had to stay on a remote bushland property which turned out not to have phone, internet or even hot water at first. No-one would come to fix the internet and phone for weeks as everyone was in lockdown. It was a beautiful landscape however, and there was a magnificent view of a large river, which was inspiring for the music. The process of collaboration became difficult – I had to drive up a dirt track in a four-wheel drive and upload files over 4G to the director in Vienna.

Then when it came to recording, no orchestras were open for business. Eventually Iceland opened up, and we were lucky to have a fantastic orchestra and team over there who were able to provide online streaming of the session. There were people listening in from all over the world – Sydney, New York, London, Quito and Vienna – to a small studio in a picturesque coastal town a few hours east of Reykjavik. The sessions began at about 8pm Sydney time and went to about 7am. I was a bit tired by the end!

One question that I can’t get off my mind is, and forgive me if this comes out wrong, did you write some of this music to “mimic” what an archaeologist does? A lot of the smaller, more delicate moments remind me of the gentle brushing and probing that an archaeologist has to do to remove these precious artifacts from the ground, and I was wondering if that was done on purpose.

Haha! I love this observation. It wasn’t quite as deliberate as that, but it was scored to picture so probably something was going on in my subconscious.

What’s one thing you hope viewers take away with them when they watch The Dig and hear your score?

I hope they hear the score as part of the cohesive whole experience of the film, and don’t think about it too much – all the elements of film working together sympathetically. As far as the experience, it will resonate differently with different people, and everyone will find something slightly different in it. Certainly there are some big themes in there; life, death, time, earth, legacy, love.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

A few. I like the montage that starts just after the Piggots arrive, and continues under Basil showing little Robert the stars through a telescope, and cuts to the misty morning. I also like the section after they’ve pulled the body from the plane crash, with the sunset and Rory and Peggy – it feels slightly unexpected musically to me.

Thank you again for taking the time to talk about your work on The Dig.

Thank you for your questions!

A big thank you to Stefan Gregory for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Dig. You can check out the film on Netflix!

Have a great day!

See also:

Composer Interviews

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Soundtrack Review: Cherry (2021)

Late last month, Lakeshore Records digitally released the original motion picture soundtrack for Cherry by Henry Jackman. The soundtrack will be available exclusively on Apple Music for 60 days before becoming available to all other DSPs on Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

Henry Jackman has established himself as one of today’s top composers by fusing his classical training with his experience as a successful record producer and creator of electronic music. Jackman’s upcoming feature is the anticipated drama from The Russo Brothers, Cherry. He recently completed Jumanji 2, a continuation of the magical board game adventure story, and Detective Pikachu, following the story of the beloved Pikachu Pokémon character starring Ryan Reynolds. His other recent work includes Ralph Breaks the Internet, which was nominated for Best Animated Feature. His other diverse credits include Captain America: Civil War, Kong: Skull Island, Captain Phillips, Big Hero 6, and Kingsman: The Golden Circle.  

Cherry follows the wild journey of a disenfranchised young man from Ohio who meets the love of his life, only to risk losing her through a series of bad decisions and challenging life circumstances. Inspired by the best-selling novel of the same name, “Cherry” features Tom Holland in the title role as an unhinged character who drifts from dropping out of college to serving in Iraq as an Army medic and is only anchored by his one true love, Emily (Ciara Bravo). When Cherry returns home a war hero, he battles the demons of undiagnosed PTSD and spirals into drug addiction, surrounding himself with a menagerie of depraved misfits. Draining his finances, Cherry turns to bank robbing to fund his addiction, shattering his relationship with Emily along the way.

Speaking about his score for Cherry, Henry Jackman had the following to say:

Cherry’s soundscape never deviates from the core idea of emulating the internal. It’s music that ebbs and flows depending on the emotions and mental state of the main character grounding the film in Cherry’s subjective experience.

 Directors Joe and Anthony Russo said of Jackman and his score, “This is Henry’s most sublime work. Beautiful, poignant, riotous, devious. Breathtaking in its ability to manifest such complex tones, while unifying them at the same time. He’s truly a master of the craft.” 

The soundtrack for Cherry is definitely one that has subverted all of my expectations. Based on what I know of the film’s plot, I was expecting something that was extremely gritty, rough around the edges, or very action oriented. But Henry Jackman has created something that is none of these things. The music for Cherry is strikingly beautiful, with an orchestral mix that I wouldn’t have expected in a million years. But it’s also got a number of twisted elements at work, several of which I’d like to highlight.

First I want to bring to your attention ‘Carnival of Losers Pt. 1’ and ‘Carnival of Losers Pt 2’. The first iteration of Carnival of Losers will sound like a misnomer, because the piece sounds, for all the world, like a charming waltz with a street carnival vibe (hence the name I’m sure). It’s not until you hear Pt. 2 of Carnival of Losers that you realize the two pieces are mirror images of each other: Pt. 1 takes place before the trauma and Pt. 2 takes place afterward. I say that because Pt. 2 is a muted and twisted version of Pt. 1. It’s set to an almost identical beat as Pt. 1, but it’s clear something terrible has happened between Pt. 1 and Pt. 2.

The most twisted part of all though? That would have to be ‘Star-Mangled Banner’. This piece screamed volumes to me, and likely will to many other people who have had their faith in the government shaken as of late. It takes a while to become recognizable, but there IS in fact a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner in this piece, but one that’s so warped, discordant and twisted that it is barely recognizable. If I observe this piece as a commentary on the state of the nation, it’s a damning piece of musical commentary, and one that deeply moved me.

Those are the big moments that I wanted to highlight from the Cherry soundtrack, but the rest of it is equally fun to listen to. To reiterate, this soundtrack will completely subvert whatever expectations you had going in, but in the best way possible. This is a reminder that one should never let a film’s premise dictate your thoughts on what the music may sound like, you might find you’re proven wrong.

Cherry Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Track List

  1. When Life Was Beginning, I Saw You (2:51)
  2. Madison (2:01)
  3. Carnival of Losers, Pt. I (2:10)
  4. The Elusive Sensation of Bliss (2:09)
  5. It Was Perfect (0:43)
  6. A Thing for Weak Guys (2:19)
  7. Honeymoon (3:25)
  8. Star-Mangled Banner (2:26)
  9. Iraq (5:10)
  10. Triangle of Death (1:01)
  11. Cheerleaders (1:05)
  12. Huffers of 1st Platoon (1:54)
  13. Another Day, Another Mission (3:15)
  14. Night Tremors (2:52)
  15. Unholy Retribution (1:24)
  16. OxyContin (0:43)
  17. Date Night (2:51)
  18. Carnival of Losers, Pt. 2 (2:03)
  19. Acquiescence (2:24)
  20. I’m Your Worst Nightmare (3:34)
  21. Crossing the Line (1:34)
  22. Rob Another Bank (1:57)
  23. Overdose (2:28)
  24. Your Fate is Darkly Determined (6:21)
  25. One Last Job (3:00)
  26. The Comedown (9:23)
  27. What I’m Trying to Say Is… (Bonus Track) (5:06)

Let me know what you think about Cherry (and its soundtrack) in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Film Soundtracks A-W

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