Category Archives: Film Composer

Oh Romeo, Romeo: Talking with Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist About Rosaline (2022)

Early in October I had the opportunity to speak with Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist about their work on the music for the recently released Hulu film Rosaline. This film presents the story of Romeo and Juliet with a notable twist: it is told through the perspective of Romeo’s ex-girlfriend Rosaline, who very much wants her boyfriend back.

The composing duo of Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist are well-known for their work on the television show Dickinson, as well as Good Girls and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

I very much enjoyed this interview and I hope you enjoy it as well!

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What did you think about the premise for Rosaline when you came in to work on it?

Well, I think we were intrigued. I remember reading Romeo and Juliet in school. And I’ve seen all the adaptations and stuff, but it’s never really stood out to me that there was a character named Rosaline. So when we first read the script, I was like, oh, is this just a made up character? But then I was really intrigued and loved the fact that Rosaline was in Shakespeare’s original writings. I thought that it was pretty brilliant. The way that there’s jokes throughout the film of the story not going [on track] or moments where the story seems like it might go back on track with the original Romeo and Juliet. So I thought that was really clever. A clever way to turn the story on its head for sure.

Was the music for Rosaline always going to be the Baroque pop that it was? Or did that get worked out over time?

I think it was discussed pretty early on. I think in one of our first score meetings they asked us, what do you think? And it was our first initial thought upon reading the score. And knowing what kind of music we usually write together, the filmmakers were looking for something that felt fresh and exciting, and could cover a lot of ground. So there’s a lot of comedy. But there are [also] a couple of action beats. There’s some suspense moments, and there’s obviously some romantic moments. But we also wanted to try and make it feel a bit original. We don’t want the music to be necessarily wallpaper, which can happen pretty often with a lot of scores. I think we almost played a joke, in a way, with our opening cue of the film. We do a sappy romantic cue, almost like you would expect to see. But then we start cutting in and out with dialogue to help these jokes land, and you realize we’re playing at a different angle here.

Yeah, we’re kind of playing into the joke. And our first thing on this project, our first task was to work on the cover songs that are featured in the movie. So that took us into the direction of the Renaissance instruments just because we were supposed to have the sounds that are supposed to be playing at a party where you’re supposed to see this band, this Renaissance band playing. So with that we really dove in headfirst into the harpsichord and lute and harp and all of these instruments that were popular at the time.

How deep did you dive? Did you limit yourselves right away? Did you experiment with all of them before settling on the ones you did?

It’s interesting because there really wasn’t that much to choose from. If there’s not somebody who’s able to play it, or that instrument doesn’t exist physically anymore, then that would have been a challenge. But also, before we even got to the recording [stage], we had to mock it up. We had to find instruments that actually had virtual and soft synth versions of that. So in a way it’s not that it limited us because we definitely expanded in some of the mock up stuff that wasn’t quite the same thing. But that definitely limited us because a lot of those instruments nobody makes them anymore.

I’d like to say it helped us make our decision quicker. And we also on top of all that, we had to find stuff that could lend itself to a pop style arrangement at the same time. So we had to find instruments that were versatile enough to actually play different things and play fast enough. Oh, yeah. So a bagpipe wasn’t really going to cut it.

Was it just experimentation to see what would be good?

Yeah, a little bit. I mean, for the songs we had to dive in right away. So like, we would both songs we actually knew fairly well, just from when they first came out. It was just kind of looking at how they arrange things and then rethinking them in terms of what our ensemble was. At first, I think we tried to do it as true to picture as we could. I think we eventually did sneak in a low bass, a little bit more of a thump to things. Yeah, it was just kind of really looking at the different parts, really listening to it closely. And seeing how close we could get with our Baroque ensemble.

I really noticed the bass thump during the the ball when Romeo’s looking for Rosaline. Um, that was weird hear hearing the modern bass thump in the Renaissance?

Yeah, I mean, the whole point with this film was to kind of mix things up a bit. So like, we were never going to go for a completely authentic Renaissance score. The whole idea was to mix contemporary synth stuff with the Renaissance sound.

So it was it was it was never planned to go traditional at all ever.

No, because we’re not traditional composers. If they wanted something more traditional, they could have gone for sort of more like the more pen and paper and the more orchestral composers, whereas I think we were hired because of our previous work on shows such as Dickinson and our electronic music and our synth sound. So I think it was always kind of in the cards for us to do electronics and renders some Renaissance sound. But to be honest, like, that wasn’t even, as the incident early conversations, it was like, they were kind of leaving it open to us.

So you’re mostly left to your own devices and how this went? There wasn’t a whole lot of direction?

No, I mean, it was a conversation between everyone, especially for those first couple songs. And then as we got into the actual score, we were talking to Karen Maine, our director, and generally the editor almost daily.

At the same time, they kind of trusted us to follow our guide as far as what we think [would] work musically. So in that sense, they left it up to us, but it was a very collaborative thing.

I noticed that several times the music seem to flip back and forth between a traditional sound for a Shakespeare story and the modern sound. How was it worked out when the music would flip like that?

I think we just follow our instinct really. We didn’t necessarily plan like this is a synth cue. This is a string cue, we just wrote to picture how we felt it would work using our palette of sounds and some moments just kind of felt like they needed to pull from one side a bit stronger than the other.

About the instruments, were any of them vintage?

Yeah, we had a whole mix of things. For our recording sessions, we had a really fun session with woodwind players who brought in a whole fun goodie bag of different style flutes from all eras. So I’d say it was a big mix of vintage, contemporary, and just kind of rare. There’s one key where we have a petzl playing, which is a German wooden flute, with a really distinct tone.

Our percussionist Hal Rosenfeld brought a whole bunch of percussion that’s been around since the Renaissance as well. So when we were recording all of the drums and the action sequences and whatnot, we had a harpsichord player, who, I suppose, is kind of an expert in the instrument in New York City. We had an excellent harp player who’s absolutely wonderful and absolutely slayed, especially when it came to playing the harp part of “The Boy’s Mine”, for example, which is a really complicated thing, which was definitely digitally done. So yeah, we had all of these incredible players that our contractor Sandy Park was able to find in New York City when it came to recording.

Was the recording done all together?

Yeah, we were able to record at Power Station in New York City for three days. So all the strings were in the same room at the same time, which was great. And it was the first time for us in years and years because of the pandemic.

Yeah, the lute, harpsichord, harp and whatnot, those were just all playing at the same time, but in separate rooms just to not have [the sound] bleed. And so we had more flexibility in terms of editing and mixing. And the percussion Is this single percussionist. But yeah, everything was recorded. We were all there in New York City with the engineer and other folks that helped with orchestrating and score prep. And it was really great. It was so nice to feel like we had a team like that.

Did you have specific musical themes for any of the characters? I couldn’t tell listening to it?

Yeah, we had. I mean, a lot of it all centers around Rosaline as a character. So we kind of when we first started writing, we did like the Rosaline action theme, the Rosaline scheming theme. And some of those got broken up a bit as we progress through the film. But um, yeah, we have Rosaline’s theme, we have a Rosaline and Dario theme. We have an action theme that reprises a couple of times. We have a theme that comes in, kind of, which is the scheming theme, for example, when Juliet and Rosaline have a scene together where they kind of start butting heads. So, a lot of these things get repeated subtly. So I’m glad that they didn’t really like hit you on the head too much. Because you never want that to be too obvious. But I’m glad that it wasn’t too much.

I mean, I think what the most obvious to me was Romeo’s because correct me if I’m wrong, but his had the most flourishes.

I think his moments on screen just lend themselves really well for more silly embellishment, just because of the comedy that he brought to the screen. So I think that whenever we see Romeo on screen, very often is when we would employ chimes or do some harp or something just because his character is such a big puppy of a character in the movie that we just felt like we could play into that comedy

What about Dario, does he have a bit of music of his own?

Well, anytime we have music with him, it’s always kind of connected to Rosaline. We have some action stuff with Dario, but that relates to the Rosaline action theme again. She really is our centerpiece and any character we come into contact with in really any musical theme is always threaded back to her

So since Rosaline was the centerpiece, how did you determine her sound? Because she’s not quite what I expected when I started the movie, she’s very modern.

Yeah, she’s very multifaceted and has a lot more sides to her than you get from the beginning of the movie. When she comes around towards the end of the movie, and, there’s just so many ups and downs, and she’s quite temperamental and instinctive, I think we tried to find, ultimately, [that] all the themes are Rosaline’s themes.

It’s just as Ian was saying, it’s like Rosaline interacting with different characters in different moments. But, we just thought it had to be sonically something that was somewhat witty and sarcastic, and whimsical, but also intense. So I think that that’s also where the synths and using more electronics kind of helped because in a way, the character that is portrayed on screen is so modern for the times: she wants to marry for love, she doesn’t want to marry just because she has to, she wants to be a cartographer. I think employing modern instrumentation really helped to externalize what’s really going on in her mind, which was very revolutionary, and ahead of her time.

How much time did you all have to work on Rosaline? Where were they in the process when you came in?

They brought us on close to the end of filming, because we had to get these song arrangements done for those masquerade ball scenes, and I think it was actually the last day of filming. So I think that was around September of last year. And then we really didn’t fully dive into the film until around December or January. And then we’re on a for a few months, kind of, it’d be like we’ve worked really hard for a week or two, and then they’d be working on the edit for a bit [and] it’d be kind of quiet. So a lot of back and forth. And then our recording sessions happened in early May [2022].

Is three days typical? Or is that shorter than usual?

Um, I think it really depends, for the films that we’ve worked on in the past, it’s usually been just a day of a recording session. So this was definitely much longer than we’re used to. It was really great that we were able to break it up. And we knew at the beginning, we knew that there was going to be a lot of recorded things at the beginning. So it didn’t really come as a surprise. I’m sure you know a Marvel movie will record for a week or two, but we just haven’t really gotten to that point. So this was definitely the longest amount of recording that we’ve ever done.

You mentioned other stuff you’ve done like Dickinson, how did working on this film compared to those projects?

There’s some similarities. And just like, a lot of the same formalities you go through when working on a scoring project. But I think this one just felt larger in scale for us compared to something like Dickinson. We joke that this was kind of like an evolution in a way. But yeah, it was good. Like, we love working with Karen Maine. I had worked with her previously, a few years ago on a film called Yes, God, Yes. And that was also remote, but Zoom and virtual meetings weren’t quite what they are now. So this one felt much more like we were actually in the room together as a collaboration. It was a great experience, especially because we would meet with them so often. You really feel like you’re part of a team.

Is there anything musically that you hope audiences notice in Rosaline when the movie comes out?

I hope that they just come away liking the film, and hopefully feeling like the score was a a fresh take on the genre.

I hope that they can get lost in the story and have a good time. Because we certainly had so much fun working on this film and on the score, so I hope that it kind of translates through and that people can watch this with a bunch of friends. Just have a really fun evening.

The modern songs that were covered in this film. Did you pick those? Or did the director pick those?

Those were mainly coming from Karen Maine and Maggie Phillips and the music supervisor. We had a little input later on when we were deciding between a couple different options. But they ultimately decided which songs were going but then leave it up to us how we would want to arrange them.

Was it their idea to have Rosaline sulking to “All by Myself”?

Yes, yeah, that was always there from the temp [score], you know, that that was there from the first cut that we saw of the movie, especially since they wanted the joke that happens in that scene to land in a very specific way. I mean, the way the music changes, well, just the way that the it goes from score to just the single violin that’s in the room playing.

Oh, it works. That was one of my favorite moments. It works very well. Amazing. IS there anything else you wanted to make sure people know about Rosaline, a favorite moment, a moment that was difficult to work on.

I mean, my favorite moment is definitely when [Dario and Rosaline] are galloping through the countryside. You know, it’s like the big kind of montage moment. And it’s a cue that’s on the soundtrack. That’s called “Horse Escape.” And then definitely the hardest parts were the comedy parts. Just because we had to work around dialogue and work around the comedy that was being delivered by the actors. So it definitely felt challenging to not step onto the dialog and be able to kind of help the picture be funnier instead of taking away from it.

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I want to say thank you to Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist for taking the time to speak with me about their work on Rosaline. The film is currently available on Hulu and I highly recommend checking it out when you have the chance.

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Composer Interviews

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Talking with Dara Taylor about ‘The Invitation’ (2022)

Earlier this month I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Dara Taylor about her work on The Invitation, a horror film that puts a modern twist on the vampire story. Taylor studied composition at Cornell independently with Zachary Wadsworth and Steven Stucky. In 2009, she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s in Music and Psychology. Taylor then received a Masters of Music from New York University in 2011 where she studied Film Music Composition with Mark Suozzo.

I hope you enjoy our interview!

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How did you get connected with the film?

I heard about this film, and I sent in a reel and then I had a really great meeting with Jessica Thompson, the director. And I was able to read the script. It seemed like so much fun to work on the film and with the whole team. So that’s how that happened.

When you read the script, what did you think of the story? Because it’s a bit of a twist on a vampire story, isn’t it?

I think it was a fresh take with the twist that you didn’t necessarily see coming from the script standpoint. So, yeah, it was a really fun ride to read through.

As you were putting together the music, then, knowing that this was a vampire story, were you influenced by any previous vampire stories or films?

I tried not to look too hard into it, because we wanted to start fresh with the visuals and seeing the graphic nature of it, I know we wanted to try and find a way to speak to that Gothic nature but finding ways to modernize it.

How did you go about modernizing it.

Part of it was processing parts of the orchestra and then also adding these really processed and reversed vocals on top that are at the forefront of the score. And also adding just strange elements from found sounds or synthetics and those sorts of things to make it feel a little less traditional.

So speaking of unusual sounds, is there a theremin in the mix somewhere? I was listening to the score earlier and I swear I hear a theremin.

There is no theremin. Actually, there are some other synthetic sounds, there are a lot of vocals and processed vocals that make that sound strange. It depends on which scene or which track you mean, but there are things that are just whistles that by the end of it had this high screaming nature.

That is so awesome because it didn’t feel like vocals.

Yeah, it depends on where it is. It might be a combination of vocals and strings. but yeah, [it’s about] trying to find things that give you that eerie feeling without necessarily going straight to what might be in a traditional horror film.

What people have all known about this music is how it combines the modern sound and the romantic and gothic style. Was that always the general idea going into this? Or did that come about over time?

Um, no, I think it was always the purpose. It’s the purpose in the script, as well as trying to find smooth transitions from romance to horror to the Gothic feel. So it was definitely a thing that we planned on at the beginning and worked to find that balance of a modern gothic romance, or score.

So, are there are other themes then for each of the characters?

Yeah, so there are some themes: Evie has a theme that starts off with a soft acoustic guitar and grows more strident and bold as she does. There’s a theme for Walt, which also acts as a theme for the manor in general. And their mission for having her there.

Then there are a few other motifs. There’s this screaming reverse vocal thing with a lot of distortion in it, which are three vocalists that we recorded here in Los Angeles, and they represent the three brides. So [it’s] this beckoning siren call to Evie, but then there’s also a taunting theme that’s related to that as they toy with her as she’s going through the manor.

Is there any one theme that you would say is the most important or are they all equally important?

I think they all have their importance. But we probably hear the Carfax manor theme the most often and it’s full form. I think the other ones are often interwoven in, but sometimes they’re a little more variations of the theme. Just because they develop the most. Because Evie is the one developing the most during this.

So, I’ve been wanting to ask this, there’s jump scare moments in this movie, right? How does one go about writing music for those. I’ve always been curious how that’s done.

It’s seeing what works best for each moment and whether that’s leading up to the jump scare. A lot of times it’s being pretty violent. And then having both the music and the end of the scare come in, either at the same time, or having the music a half a fraction of a second after the scare, just because light and sound hit you at different times. So it’s jarring for both visuals and sound.

So when you do it, do you watch the film play out and just mark the spot?

Yeah, and sometimes there’s a little trial and error there. Moving it around a few frames at a time to see, okay, it feels like it’s giving it away a little bit here. Let’s try a few frames later. Or oh, now it feels too late. So there’s still a bit of a little trial and error in that regard.

So you said mentioned there’s a whole mix of instruments in this film, synthetic and whatnot. What specifically was used, because you said you modulated the orchestra.

There’s a lot of vocals, a lot of either found sounds or things that are reminiscent of found sounds. There are a lot of bells visually, like the service bells. It’s finding ways to have ethereal ringing bell sounds that make you think of bells to echo back having some sounds that are almost croaky. Because the vampires, they climb on the walls and the ceilings lizard-like. There are instances where we have things that sound like scraping tile, and which speaks to Evie and her love of ceramics. Yeah, so just a bunch of elements that are put together.

Could you define what found sounds are?

So [found sounds] are sounds you’d hear in nature. Or, for example, the sound of you scraping your fingernail, or a tile, or something like that, something that feels very organic and using that for more of a musical purpose.

So not traditional instruments stuff.

Yeah, exactly.

It almost sounds like what foley artists use?

Yeah, so it’s using some of those things, but using them musically, and using the rhythm of something or using the salient note that you might hear from that, and using that in a musical way.

How did working on The Invitation compare with other projects you’ve worked on?

I feel very fortunate to have a lot of variety lately in projects. I mean, [it was] definitely a very different tone than some of the more recent animation or comedy work [I’ve done]. But I love the freedom of finding strange sounds and having that sandbox to play around in. But something that’s very similar between, say, comedy and horror is how important timing is. And choosing moments that should have no music or when music should come in after the scare or after the joke. So that lead up to it. So like fine tuning those timings for the purpose of storytelling, it’s similar between a lot of genres.

You talk about timing, is there any one specific moment where the timing was absolutely crucial?

Actually, the moment when they reveal where the bride is, I suppose that would be it. But there’s not really a big reveal musically. I think we wanted to more feel the dread. But yeah, there are moments, other than the obvious jump scare moments, in terms of tone, and choosing when to change the tone from eerie and unsettling to dark. Like there’s a theme in the beginning where she was watching all these housekeepers being given their assignments and one thing that Jessica Thompson the director and I discussed where we should be eerie and unsettling, because she doesn’t know what’s going on. And then once she leaves the scene, then we can go back into the darker Gothic nature of everything that’s happening, but not to tip our hand too soon and really stay with [Evie] and her discovery.

So musically, you’re dropping hints to the audience, but not to Evie, as it were.

Yeah, yeah. In a way.

That’s cool. Where in the filming process, were they when you came in to do things?

So I was brought on right before they started shooting. And that’s when I started working on a suite of thematic ideas, just throwing everything at the table to see what was working and what wasn’t working. And that was a thing that Jessica [Thompson] specifically requested during production to be able to percolate these thoughts as early as possible.

So the director wanted you in there as early as possible, even before they’d shot anything.

Yeah. So we can all get on the same page.

I’d have to imagine that was very helpful for the process to have so much collaboration.

Yeah, it was great. And working with Jessica [Thompson] was a really phenomenal experience.

Did she give you a lot of feedback then?

Yeah, and it really gave me the license to just think outside of the box. And think of strange instruments and make it a little weird and unsettling.

Since you came in so early, how much time did you have for the actual scoring process?

I guess, from the time where we spotted so they finished, they finished a director’s cut. And we walked through where the music should come in and out and what the tone of that music should be. To the final delivering for the final mix, I’d say there’s probably two and a half months or so. But before then there was a couple of months where it was just working and thinking of ideas and all of that while they were in their editing process.

So I’m curious that as you were working these themes together, what theme, what part ended up coming first?

I started with Evie and Walt’s themes and the melodic structure of those, but then made some slight changes to the instrumentation and how they developed once I was able to see the picture.

Cool. So Evie and Walt are at the center of the whole thing.

Yeah, and then everything else came from from watching it. And the visuals really give you so much.

So now that the movie is out and people can go see it is there any musical detail you’re hoping the audience notices as they’re watching?

In the very beginning theme there’s a scene where one of the previous brides sees the grand piano and the piano wires. And she has to find a specific use for that. And when we see that I play around a lot with the prepared piano, which is like a piano, but things are done to the keys and to the inside to make strange sounds. That’s when I first introduced this instrumentation. And then, and in other instances of like escape and fighting back, I bring back these kinds of prepared piano sounds to harken back to that moment.

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I hope you enjoyed my interview with Dara Taylor about The Invitation. I want to thank Dara for taking the time to speak with me about this film.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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A Strange New World: Speaking with Herdís Stefánsdóttir about Y: The Last Man

Last fall I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with composer Herdís Stefansdottir about her work on the original series Y: The Last Man, adapted from the acclaimed graphic novel series of the same name. This was actually my second time getting to speak with this composer and I was really excited to get some insight into her work on this series, which unfortunately as of January 2022 is still cancelled and has yet to find a new home somewhere else.

Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavors — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films.

Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here (which I previously interviewed her about).

I hope you enjoy our conversation about Y: The Last Man!

Were you familiar with the story of Y: The Last Man before working on the series? 

Actually I was not, I had never heard of it before. I received an email that had details about [the story] and I was really intrigued by it. It sounded like a very interesting concept, how they decided to adapt [the story] to television and go to those philosophical questions like, how do you decide your identity in a world that has changed so much?

How closely did you collaborate with the producers while working on the music for Y: The Last Man? 

The producers were pretty cool, because they actually left me alone. They didn’t have any idea of what they wanted [the music] to be, they just said “What’s your idea?” When I started writing, there was a music supervisor and music editor working with me on the team. Before sharing [the music] with the producers and the show runner, I would ask them both “What do you think of it? Am I heading in the right direction?” And they both loved it. Having their experience helped a lot.

It doesn’t happen that often to find the musical identity [of the show] so early on, but it happened with this show that they loved [the music] from the beginning. So I was left alone and kept expanding and experimenting, doing something that I found exciting.

Did that make the process easier?

In this case I think it did. I felt really free and inspired and I enjoyed writing like that. Sometimes if you are glued to a temp track or an idea that they decide they really want, then you’re working in a more narrow frame, it can be quite challenging as a composer.

Was it always a given that the music for Y: The Last Man would be centered on the female voice or did that idea come about gradually?

It was my first small idea, like “What is the sound of this world?” When I had seen a rough cut of the first episode and gotten into the first volume of the graphic novel, I’d gotten a feel for the aesthetics they were going for, which involved a lot of realism. I didn’t it feel it was a very sci-fi or futuristic sound. It immediately spoke to me as being organic, in a human way. So my first tiny idea that I went with turned out to work really well with the picture.

Besides the female voice, what other instruments or sounds did you decide to include in the music for Y: The Last Man? How did you decide which instruments to include (or exclude)?

Well, this is during COVID so I was working alone in my studio. I have a stack of synthesizers and I’m an electronic musician apart from film scoring, so I used my own voice and whatever I could record in my own studio. I also got some friends to come over, including one who built a magnetic harp, an electro-acoustic instrument and there’s only three of them in the world. I thought it would be interesting to record that instrument to see what would happen. That ended up becoming the sound for one of the main themes of the show for the Amazons.

What was your general process for scoring Y: The Last Man, as in, which themes were created first and how was the music for the show built up?

I actually didn’t touch individual episodes. I wrote the entire score to script, and I went by inspiration and feeling. I think I wrote 85% of the score in the first couple of months and I’d only read the scripts. The music editor would actually edit [the music] to the episodes. The themes I was developing were longer and bigger than if I would have been writing to the picture. It was a really free experience of creating. I always knew what was happening in the production but I did not write to the picture.

Did the pandemic affect the recording and composing process at all?

I was lucky to be in Iceland, I think it’s one of the few places that allows recording. Well, strings are being recorded but not vocalists, because you’re breathing air, and it wasn’t allowed in a lot of places. I got lucky to be here and up north where there’s an Icelandic film composer called Atli Örvarsson, he founded a film orchestra that’s going well and it’s one of the few places where you can record during Covid. There’s also a beautiful professional choir up there that I recorded with and they became the foundation of the female voices in the score.

I like how there’s almost a tribal sound to the modulated vocal melodies in ‘Kimberly Campbell Cunningham’ and other tracks, was that done on purpose?

What I was doing was imagining the sound of the world and imagining a group of female voices talking to each other in the moment of the world collapsing. I heard this resonance of the female voice, kind of like talking and disharmony kind of clustering together. That became one of the fundamental sounds that I integrated into the themes and melodies [of the soundtrack].

Do you have any thoughts on the show, so far, not being picked up for a second season?

I’m pretty surprised, I think it deserved to finish the story. It was just starting and the fact that it got cancelled mid-first season…it’s not fun. There’s so much more to say.

I want to send a big thank you to Herdís Stefansdottir for taking the time to speak with me about Y: The Last Man!

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Composer Interviews

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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!

See also:

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

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

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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

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

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