Category Archives: Film Composer

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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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

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 🙂

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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Music, Basketball, and One Amazing Coach: Talking with Composer Grant Fonda about The House That Rob Built (2020)

Just recently I spoke with composer Grant Fonda about his work on The House That Rob Built, a documentary film that looks at the life and career of Rob Selvig, the iconic coach of the University of Montana’s Lady Griz basketball team. Underfunded and sidelined by men’s athletics, the Lady Griz bloomed under the fresh Title IX regulations that brought equal funding, scholarships and facilities to women’s collegiate sports. Selvig’s hard-driving style took the team from humble roots, playing before empty stands, and built them into the preeminent women’s basketball program west of the Rockies.

Los Angeles based composer Grant Fonda has collaborated with numerous creatives on a wide array of notable projects, including the acclaimed The Dating Project (dir. Jonathan Cipiti, 2018), the award-winning Down The Fence (Netflix, dir. MJ Isakson, 2017), and the multi-award winning Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton. Grant has been a collaborator in music departments for award-winning composers Thomas Newman and Heitor Pereira on Spectre, Finding Dory, Bridge of Spies, and Minions. He also has worked with with the late James Horner on Titanic Live! and John Debney on a live show for Disneyland’s California Adventure.

Please enjoy my conversation with Grant Fonda about The House That Rob Built.

How did you get started as a composer?

I’ve been around music for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a classically trained pianist and always encouraged me to make music, even before I started taking lessons. He and my parents fostered creativity by letting me pursue my passions, and I always gravitated back to music, always dabbling in creating my own tunes. One teacher after another said “Hey, Grant, you’re really good at this. You should think about composing for a career.” In a way, I guess you can say that I finally fell out of pursuing a career as a music educator and fell into composing. 

What was your starting point in composing for The House That Rob Built?

As is often the case in this business, it started with a relationship. I had been the composer for Jonathan Cipiti’s The Dating Project and Pray: The Story of Patrick Peyton, both produced by Family Theater Productions under the guidance of producer Megan Harrington. Jon and Megan really wanted to get the “team” back together again for The House That Rob Built, so I got the first call! Naturally, I was delighted. 

This might come out wrong, but when you were writing this music, did you think of this primarily as music about basketball first and the man second, or about the man first and the basketball second? Or was it an equal focus between the two?

Without question, Rob as a person, the team as a unit, and the individuals of the team always came to the narrative forefront over the game of basketball itself. I was always thinking about the intensity of basketball, but directors Jon Cipiti and Megan Harrington were quick to remind me that the story was firstly about the heart of the players rather than the game. That heart, legacy, and connection had to translate to viewers without getting lost. 

For the instruments, what did you decide to include in the orchestral mix? I hear a lot of strings, but I know there’s more than that.

You’re right, a string quartet forms the foundation of the score. The only other truly-orchestral instrument in the palette was a felted piano, but the soundscape also features the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle) and the voice of the amazing Hannah Rose Lewis. I suppose that you could also say that there’s an “orchestra” of synths –– I wanted the synthetic part of the sonic universe to feel simultaneously organic and forward-thinking while embracing a bit of a retro vibe at times.

What prompted your decision to go out and mix in the actual sounds of basketballs into the music? That strikes me as the kind of decision that will either work really well or not at all (I thought it worked great).

Thanks! That’s awesome. One of the things that kept coming up in our spotting session was the need to capture the intensity of women’s collegiate basketball, but there wasn’t going to be a lot of sound design to help us because reenactments were usually working in tandem with voice-overs, and the sound quality of archival footage was noisy. I had the idea that it’d be interesting to try and blur the lines between sound design and score by incorporating sounds of the court, but I knew it’d be a tough sell unless it was executed perfectly. It had to feel organic without being campy. Jon and Megan loved the pitch in one cue, so as I wrote, those source sounds started to become the backbone of the percussive side of the score. 

Are there other atypical sounds mixed into the score that we should be keeping an ear open for? 

The Nyckelharpa is a fun treat for the ears in this score! We had so much fun recording this at the session, and there’s part of me that wishes I had used it more often. The way that Malachai Bandy (our Nyckelharpa player) emotes in his performances is stunning and really exaggerates the sense of longing and feeling of nostalgic folk music. 

How long did you have to work on this score? Was it a close collaboration with the directors?

I worked very closely with Jon and Megan while writing, partially because I only had 21 days to write the entire score, and then about a week to record and mix it. I think I spent as much time on the phone as I did writing! Like a great coach, Jon and Megan checked in daily to see how they could help inspire me, give thoughtful feedback, and push me to elevate the story in every cue. Sometimes, solitude is a composer’s saving grace while they’re in creative-mode, but in this case, working against the clock with the team amplified the film’s narrative in a sublime way.

Was the scoring/recording process impacted by the pandemic in any way?

It wasn’t, thankfully (we recorded in fall 2019), but we almost did have to reschedule the recording session because my wife started having pre-labor for our daughter the day before the session! I’ll never forget calling Jon Cipiti and saying, “I know this is not the call that you want to get the day of a recording session, but I think that we might be having a baby instead of recording strings tomorrow.” Thankfully, our gorgeous daughter arrived about two weeks later, and the session went as planned.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack/score?

I love the cue Title IX because of the unusual textures and Hannah’s masterful vocal performances, but my favorite cue in the film has to be Strong, which is featured within the last scenes of the film. This was some of the first footage that I saw, but some of the last notes that I penned. To write it well, I knew that I’d have to draw from other parts of the score and also be emotionally up for the task because the different parts of the narrative come together to pack a wallop. The resulting almost nine-minute-long cue are some of the highest highs and lowest lows that I’ve ever composed, and I still feel a lump in my throat when I watch/hear it, a year and a half later. 

Anything in particular you hope audiences take away with them when they watch the documentary and hear this music?

I hope that people are reminded that inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places and through unexpected circumstances. I hope that they’ll remember that unity can be found and thrive in diversity. And, I hope that viewing and listening audiences will be inspired to invest in the next generation to build things that are greater than their wildest imaginations. 

I’d like to give a big thank you to Grant Fonda for taking the time to talk with me about The House That Rob Built.

See also:

Composer Interviews

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A New Music for Superheroes: Talking with Composer Andy Bean about Kid Cosmic (2021)

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with composer Andy Bean about his work on the Netflix animated series Kid Cosmic, which premiered on Netflix on February 2nd, 2021.

Andy Bean is an Emmy-nominated composer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He began his career barnstorming across the U.S. and Europe for nearly a decade with The Two Man Gentlemen Band before landing a gig writing music for the Disney animated series, Wander Over Yonder. He is currently songwriter and composer for Netlix’s Kid Cosmic, Disney’s Puppy Dog Pals, and Disney’s Muppet Babies re-boot. Between the latter two, he’s written over three-hundred songs across dozens of genres and scored over one-hundred episodes.

Enjoy this interview about his work on Kid Cosmic!

How did you get started with being a composer?

I was writing songs and performing with The Two Man Gentlemen Band back in 2012 when I was asked to submit a theme song demo for Craig McCracken’s last show, Wander Over Yonder. Craig and the team liked the theme song and asked me if I wanted to try composing for the show and I said… sure! Half the show was frantic banjo music, which I was comfortable with. The other half was synth-driven space orchestral stuff, which I’d never done before. I was a total novice writing and producing music for TV, so I basically locked myself in a room for 6 months and figured it out the best I could.

So I just finished watching season 1 of Kid Cosmic and I loved it! I have to ask, were you really not told anything about the premise aside from “imagine a 70s garage band”? How do you start composing for a show from that kind of starting area?

That’s definitely how it started. As Wander Over Yonder was finishing, I met with Craig and he basically said, “I’ve got this new idea for a show, but I’m not going to tell you that much about it. Just that the main character in the show has a favorite band called Dr. Fang and The Gang, and I’d like you to start writing music for them.” He showed me a drawing of the band and gave me some references – some older stuff and some contemporary fuzzed out garage bands – and I started writing music that night. I was a songwriter first before ever writing music for TV, so a “write songs like this” assignment was in my wheelhouse.

Of course, as I learned more about the show I started tailoring ideas to particular characters and refining the sound. But a handful of the tunes that I wrote early on are part of the score and soundtrack.

What was it like working with Craig McCracken again after Wander Over Yonder?

It’s great! On both shows we’ve worked on together, he’s given me really specific guidance on the concept he has in mind for the show’s sound. Then he gives me an incredible amount of creative license to figure out the nuts and bolts of it. For me, that balance of clear guidance and creative freedom is my favorite way to work. And just as importantly, we seem to be on the same wavelength musically. We like the same kinds of stuff.

It sounds like the story was written to accommodate your music, which doesn’t happen all that often. How did the process of making the story and music work together happen? Were there any unexpected difficulties?

Not so much the story, but I know Craig and the team built specific scenes around certain songs. Before writing and storyboarding started on season 1, I gave the team all the stuff I’d been working on while we were in development – songs and score sketches. I had some ideas about how they’d use some of them – fast rock songs for action scenes for example – but they also incorporated some of the ambient desert score stuff I did in really cool and surprising ways. So for me, it was great. I wrote a bunch of music then sat back and watched the incredible artists working on the show build super cool scenes around it.

Of course, the stuff I wrote ahead of time only covered a portion of the score. So one of the challenges was trying to match the energy and spontaneity of the early tracks when I was writing new music to picture. Most of the songs on the soundtrack were written before production started . But a handful are extensions of shorter pieces I wrote to picture.

How much time did you spend working on the music for Kid Cosmic? Where did the musical ideas start and how did it branch out as you kept writing the music?

Years. I started contributing musical ideas in late 2015 and actual scoring to picture didn’t start until late 2019. During that whole period, I was kicking around musical ideas and submitting demos whenever I had time in my schedule. The abnormally long development period allowed for a lot more experimentation than if I’d come on closer to post production. A lot of time was spent trying to incorporate synth and spacey sci-fi elements into the garage rock sound we started with. The songs ‘Galactic Interference’ and ‘Groundspeed Hustle’ are examples of that.

Also, If I write a bunch of songs in a short period of time, they tend to sound way too similar. So, getting to space out the writing over a long period helped with that.

What instruments are used in the musical score?

Traditional rock band instruments – guitars, drums, bass, organ – make up a lot of it. I leaned pretty heavy on some fuzz effects for guitar and vocal sounds. Distorted vocals with a slap-back echo are a big part of the Dr. Fang and the Gang sound.

I also got to work some pedal steel guitar into the desert country stuff. That’s always been a favorite instrument of mine, and I learned how to play just for the show. The rest of the score is a mix of traditional orchestral score, and synth-heavy stuff for the more sci-fi-y parts.

Did you create specific musical themes for each of the Local Heroes? As I watched the show I thought I heard musical ideas that recurred for different characters, particularly Rosa and Kid Cosmic.


Absolutely. The Kid has his theme. Papa G’s got a few hippy country cues I use for him. And Rosa’s got a recurring cue, too. We worked up most of those early on.

What inspired the “serious sci-fi” part of the score? For example, the awesome music when Kid Cosmic and the group are exploring the wrecked ship, it sounds like regular science-fiction music. It’s all dark and ominous and really fun for me to listen to, and I’d love to know how that came about.

Thanks, that episode was fun to work on. That was some great guidance from Craig and the team, to score an episode featuring a cat who can see the future with something John Carpenter-y.

Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

“Greasy Spoon Space Gal” is one of the jukebox source tunes I wrote for the show. That kind of simple country rockabilly with silly lyrics is right up my alley.

Thanks again to Andy Bean for taking the time to talk with me about his work on Kid Cosmic!

See also:

My Thoughts on: Kid Cosmic: Season One (2021)

Composer Interviews

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Creating Music Good Enough to Eat: Speaking with Composer Enis Rotthoff about ‘Love Sarah’

I recently had the opportunity to talk with composer Enis Rotthoff about his work on Love Sarah, a touching film about a daughter who works to open the bakery her mother always wanted with the help of her grandmother. Rotthoff’s composer credits include “Guns Akimbo” starring Daniel Radcliffe and Samara Weaving, “The Sunlit Night” starring Gillian Anderson, Jenny Slate, and Zach Galifianakis, as well as Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize nominee “Wetlands.” Rotthoff started his musical career working under Academy Award-winning composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (Finding Neverland). Rotthoff’s soundtrack album for Love Sarah will be available January 22, 2021.

Enjoy!

First, could you tell me about how you became a film composer?

As a ten-year-old I was fascinated by the music in films. I would memorize the melodies of the film scores in order to try to play them at the piano later. It was an early love for film music in a very playful way. At some point I started improvising on the piano and began journaling my emotions into little piano pieces which turned into my first compositions.

As a teenager I was so passionate about film music that I tried to learn as much as I could about films and their scores. A scholarship for young composers during my high school years is what gave me the foundation to study the works of classical composers and film composers. After high school, I studied Film Scoring at the Film University Babelsberg and Audiovisual Communication at the University of Arts Berlin. What really added to my journey was being an assistant to Academy Award-Winning Composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. With all of these experiences I felt ready to start this life-long adventure of composing for films and to enjoy the beauty in that.

How did you get connected to Love Sarah and what did you think of the film’s premise? It actually took me by surprise what the film was about, I misread it first and when I realized what it was about, I was very surprised.

The director Eliza Schroeder and I had met a decade before to work on a short film together. Because of scheduling conflicts, our collaboration did not happen back then. I was amazed to hear from her so many years later and she asked me if I was interested in scoring her debut feature Love Sarah.

The first thing she shared with me was a little teaser trailer about the film with first impressions of some scenes. When I saw the tasty desserts, the beautiful dancing scenes, the deep felt emotions and the uplifting energy of the film I was immediately drawn to it.

The story is about a daughter who wants to realize her deceased mother’s dream of opening a bakery in Notting Hill (London) with the help of her grandmother and her mother’s best friend.

The film has elements of drama, comedy, romance and a sense of presence in the scenes that I found refreshingly positive.

How did the collaboration process with director Eliza Schroeder work? Was it mostly a discussion before scoring began or was it a collaboration throughout, from beginning to end?

Our collaboration was very close and at the same time I had lots of space to experiment and come up with ideas. 

The film is directed in a way that every scene moves towards something. Even in moments of a feeling of emptiness the film moves forward. I was inspired by that.

In our conversations, Eliza gave me many emotional directions for the film but did not tell me how to achieve it with the music. Once I presented my musical ideas in connection with the film’s scenes, we discussed in more detail what to adjust and what to highlight. Eliza is an amazing filmmaker to work with.

How did you approach scoring a film like Love Sarah? Did you start with an over-arching theme, or a musical concept? In general, where did the score start and how did it grow as it came together?

The opening sequence connects all of our main characters, so the complexity of the beginning was high. We took a lot of time to adjust and fine-tune that sequence. Usually the Opening Titles (Album Track: Meet Sarah) would not be the first thing I´d approach on a film but we took the opportunity to create themes for all story lines and characters and incorporated them in the Opening Titles. 

In a way, the first music you hear in the film is like an Overture introducing the many emotional layers of the film. All themes are related to each other and to Sarah, whose passing away is the reason for all these characters to meet. So there is an idea of hope built into the concept.

Interestingly if I think of growing a score I’d think that it might build towards the end of the film. In the case of Love Sarah the music starts very energetically and builds over the course of the film. But the very end is reflective, healing and leaves lots of space. I love that, because for me clarity and healing can happen in calm moments.

On a possibly related note, how was it decided to make the music so whimsical? It sounds like a lot of fun in so many places, something I wasn’t expecting in a film that starts like it does. What was the thought process behind that? (I really like the whimsy, it makes the music a lot of fun to listen to).

I am glad that it transpires. Eliza early on said that she wanted the film to be hopeful. I liked that a lot and could also see it in the performances of the actors. It was a fine line to find the balance between deep felt emotions and a life-affirming sense of positivity. 

Since the film is also about the magic of baking and the adventure of opening up a bakery, this gave room to make the emotional journey fun and inspiring on the musical side. It is a message of the film, to stay positive in the face of painful events and experiences. 

For this one scene where the music is composed to this character who is dancing (instead of the other way around), how did that come about? It’s very rare for film music to be written in that fashion, was that decided from the beginning? Or was it tried the other way (dance moves choreographed to music) and it just wasn’t working out?

This was one of the gifts of the film. The scene of the character dancing did not have any music. It was a free dance performance. Beautifully done by actress Shannon Tarbet. That scene represented a moment of reflection, self expression, healing and the feeling of being in charge of your own destiny. Something very positive.

We decided that I´d compose music to her performances which was truly inspiring. I found myself studying and channeling every move of her dance. Sometimes I was going with the body movement, sometimes with the flow, sometimes with the overarching energy of that movement. I found myself creating a choreography on top of a choreography where the music and the dancer sometimes precisely meet and sometimes divert. It was a wonderful experience for me as a composer which I hope to build on in the future. 

What were the challenges of scoring a film in the midst of a global pandemic? Did this negatively impact the process or were you able to work around it fairly well?

The film was luckily finished before the pandemic. However, the release was delayed because of the pandemic.

Do you have a favorite part of the score?

My favorite parts are the dance sequence (Album track: The Final Dance), the moment where the bakery opens (Album track: Opening The Bakery) and the moment Mimi has an idea for how to create the right desserts. (Album track: A Home Away from Home)

What do you hope listeners take away with them when they hear the music to Love Sarah?

I wish that the music gives them a sense of hope. And that there is beauty both in sad and hopeful moments. That’s how I feel about the film and its music. That all feelings and experiences in the film can be enjoyed. And maybe that’s something to take with us into our lives.

One last thing, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work on this film! The music is gorgeous!

Thank you so very much. It was my pleasure and thank you for the great interview.

I hope you enjoyed my interview with composer Enis Rotthoff about his work on Love Sarah. Just as a reminder, the OST for Love Sarah will be coming out tomorrow January 22, 2021.

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 🙂

The Curious Case of Apollo 13 (1995) and Art Garfunkel’s “All I Know” (1973)

Of the many film scores that James Horner worked on during his career, Apollo 13 (1995) remains one of my favorites. Horner’s music leaves you on the edge of your seat as you watch the highs and lows of the infamous Apollo 13 mission. A notable example is a cue titled “The Launch”, which covers the scene where Apollo 13 blasts off into space. It’s classic James Horner; a stirring melody that slowly grows until it fairly explodes with the moment of launch. And yet…this particular cue hid a secret that I was unaware of for many years, and that’s what this article will be talking about.

I really should give credit for this to my mother, since she’s the one who made the connection first. Growing up, almost every time we reached the launch scene in Apollo 13 she’d pause and say something to the effect of “I know I’ve heard that melody somewhere else.” But she could never remember where, and so the matter would always drop. Then, a few years ago, when we were on a trip together, it finally hit my mom where she’d heard this particular piece before: it formed the base of an Art Garfunkel song from 1973 titled “All I Know.” I was understandably skeptical of this assertion, until I located the song in question and hit the play button, James Horner’s music fresh in my mind for a comparison.

Almost immediately, my jaw dropped to the floor. The melody of “All I Know” and a particular section of “The Launch” were more than similar, they were practically identical. Here are the respective pieces for comparison:

First, “The Launch” from Apollo 13 (relevant section starts at 6:11)

And now, “All I Know” from Art Garfunkel’s album Angel Clare (relevant section begins at 0:25)

This is undoubtedly the same melody, which begs the question, why did James Horner seemingly appropriate it? That’s what the bulk of this discussion will be about. As it stands, there are several possibilities for why James Horner would have chosen to incorporate the melody of “All I Know” into his score for Apollo 13. These include:

  1. The song was popular at the time the film’s events took place
  2. The lyrics of the song expressed a sentiment appropriate for the film and therefore Horner included it.
  3. Horner simply liked the melody and appropriated it for the film’s score.

The first possibility can be discarded almost immediately. While “All I Know” was released in 1973, the events of Apollo 13 took place in April of 1970. Therefore, this song would’ve been unknown at the time the incident took place. It is, however, plausible that Horner was looking for songs from that general time period to incorporate into the score, and may have included it even though there’s three years separation between the song and the film’s events.

The second possibility shows a little more promise, that being that perhaps James Horner chose to incorporate this song because the lyrics of the song expressed a sentiment appropriate for the film.

I bruise you
You bruise me
We both bruise too easily
Too easily to let it show
I love you and that’s all I know

All my plans
Have fallen through
All my plans depend on you
Depend on you to help them grow
I love you and that’s all I know

When the singer’s gone
Let the song go on

But the ending always comes at last
Endings always come too fast
They come too fast
But they pass too slow
I love you and that’s all I know

When the singer’s gone
Let the song go on
It’s a fine line between the darkness and the dawn

I could almost make the argument that this song bears the tiniest bit of relevance to the plot, that being the unending love between James and Marilyn Lovell. However, I can’t quite make it work because the times the melody shows up in the film doesn’t work.

That leaves the third possibility, and the likely answer: James Horner at some point heard this song, liked what he heard, and wrote it into the film’s score. It’s not unheard of for film composers to do such a thing, it happens way more often than you might think and Horner was particularly notorious for doing it. With that being said, one thing still puzzles me: why wasn’t the song cited in the end credits? I’ve double and triple checked the credits for Apollo 13, just to make sure I wasn’t missing it, and “All I Know” isn’t cited at any point. Unfortunately, fate has conspired to make sure that Horner isn’t here to ask about it, though I’d like to think he left some notes somewhere that would explain how “All I Know” ended up in the score of Apollo 13.

This is only a preliminary look at this interesting example, hopefully someday I’ll have the chance to analyze this example in full and find out the whole story.

See also:

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The Music of Snow Hollow: Talking with Composer Ben Lovett about ‘The Wolf of Snow Hollow’ (2020)

After getting to check out the soundtrack for The Wolf of Snow Hollow, I knew I had to speak with composer Ben Lovett about his work on this soundtrack. Fortunately for me, the moment came and I took it! It was so exciting to get to ask Ben Lovett about his work on this score and I can’t thank him enough for taking the time to answer my questions about the music for The Wolf of Snow Hollow.

Ben Lovett is an American recording artist, songwriter and composer known for crafting unconventional scores to a diverse range of films including the Netflix original The Ritual, Independent Spirit Award nominee The Signal, the Duplass Brothers’ survival thriller Black Rock, Amy Seimetz’s award-winning noir Sun Don’t Shine, Emma Tammi’s avant-garde western The Wind, and the time travel sci-fi noir Synchronicity which earned Ben a nomination for “Discovery of the Year” at the prestigious World Soundtrack Awards. Lovett’s latest work includes scores for the Hulu series Into the Dark, the colorful taxidermy documentary Stuffed, Orion Pictures tragicomedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow from director Jim Cummings, and a new collaboration with Ritual director David Bruckner on the Searchlight Pictures thriller, The Night House.

How did you get started with being a film composer?

I was tricked.  Someone convinced me I could do it even though I tried to argue otherwise.  Or more specifically, they convinced me I had no good reason not to try, and of course they were right.  That was in college at the University of Georgia in the late 90’s and I’ve been doing it ever since.

How did you get connected with The Wolf of Snow Hollow?

The producers at Vanishing Angle reached out early in post production. I scored “American Folk” for them a few years back and had a good rapport there. Jim is part of a great community of filmmakers that all share an orbit with Vanishing Angle and he was familiar with some of the scores I’d done. I watched “Thunder Road” and absolutely loved it. I knew after about the first 10 minutes that I had to be part of whatever he was doing next.

I saw in the PR announcing the release of the soundtrack, that you said that you and the director talked together and some big names came up, like Herrmann and Prokofiev, in regards to the music. How big an influence did they play in the film’s score? What other names came up in the discussion that ended up having an influence on the score?

When I came onboard Jim sent me a YouTube clip of a 75 piece orchestra performing Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet” and said “The score needs to be like this!” The budget was very modest and there wasn’t a lot of time so as reference points go that one was exciting and hilarious and terrifying all at once. Jim was super enthusiastic about the score though and I could tell he wasn’t afraid to swing big. He referenced Jon Brion’s score to “Magnolia”, and the Jerry Goldsmith score for “The Burbs” as spiritual reference points as well. So I dove in with this sort of Mt Rushmore of influences in the background and tried to just channel the spirit of all that into some kind of hybrid, low budget, horror comedy appropriate, musical jambalaya.

More specifically, how big an influence did Bernard Herrmann’s music have? I swear I can hear parts resembling Psycho (1960), especially in “Third Crime Scene.” Are there direct musical homages in there? If so, was that a thing decided on from the beginning or did it just evolve as the scoring process continued?

That evolved along the way. It was more a sense of feeling like that was a common language where all those other references crossed paths. There weren’t direct homages or specific Herrmann scores I was referencing, it was more channelling the spirit of his style as a general point of inspiration. There’s something very signature in the way his scores operate melodically, and some intangible quality about the nature of their relationship to the picture and how his music informs the overall aesthetic of those films.

“Third Crime Scene” is kind of a thought experiment of me going, “What if Bernard Herrmann had scored “Peter & the Wolf’? I was never afraid of landing anywhere in the vicinity of his talent so it felt like a safe exercise to swing for something with a similar mentality, or whatever I’d interpreted that to mean. I didn’t get too academic about it, it just seemed like a fun sandbox to play in and one that seemed appropriate for this film.

How did you approach scoring The Wolf of Snow Hollow? Did you have a lot of time to work on the music?

Definitely not. I’m not sure I’d know what to do with a lot of time, does that exist? It was a small window from start to finish, very much your classic race the clock, down to the write, 11th hour, head first slide into home plate kind of finish. But that’s also the job, honestly, so I’m no stranger to that.

In terms of the approach, I knew I would have a limited number of crayons to draw with so I made a decision to just pick just the boldest flavor of each color that I needed. I guess that’s where the Herrmann thing comes in – I wasn’t going to have a lot of instruments so I needed to make sure the parts could carry a lot of water for us. It was figuring out how to pack big ideas into small packages, in that sense. How to deliver on the ambition of the director within the logistical limitations of the schedule and budget. I felt like the film had the capacity to hold something pretty audacious, it’s just something in how Jim directs movies. The score needed a distinct musical personality that could address the horrible reality of the things going on in this town, but specifically in how they’re related to this manic central character trying to put a stop to them – to find both the comedy and humanity in his struggle, because that’s really where the movie takes place thematically.

On a related note, are there leitmotifs in the score or did you approach it another way?

There are certainly some thematic, recurring melodies and variations in there that map out the arc of the main character, but we weren’t too dogmatic about those always accompanying specific situations or thematic moments. You routinely have characters in the film that are introduced then promptly killed off, so it became more about the recurrence of certain instruments and sounds than melodies, and what those sounds might represent to the viewer. Because I was working to locked picture with a new director and very much doing both at full sprint, sometimes the process influences decisions as much as any sort of creative intention. You’re trying to do your best to help make the movie as good as you can, while you can, with what you have.

Do you have a favorite track in the score?

Nah. Once they’re done you love em all, because you no longer have to feed them and change their diaper and they’re not keeping you up all night. I don’t have kids so I don’t know if that analogy works but, it’s sorta like that I imagine. Once they’re grown and leave home you forgive them for all they put you through. Maybe that’s where the analogy breaks down, I don’t know. More to your point, I think I’m more likely to listen back to ones that either took an unexpected turn along the way or endured some interesting metamorphosis by way of film scoring being a naturally collaborative process. Generally the ones that are the hardest to nail are usually my favorites in the end. I think the progression of the three crime scenes is a pretty fun journey. If you play those in a row you really get a sense of the variety of ground we needed to cover. “Detectives” and “Returning Evidence” maybe best capture the overall spirit and intention of the score, and are both thematic pieces that contain recurring elements.

What do you hope listeners notice when they listen to this music?

Well I always hope the album provides the means to re-experience the story in a way that reveals another level to what you might have enjoyed or experienced in the film. I feel like there are elements of any story that only music can describe, or that it best describes, in some strange innate way that we experience things as humans. Once you have a reference point for the characters and the story, my hope is that people can throw on the album and revisit Snow Hollow and uncover some new clues about what was going on there the whole time.

Again, I’d like to thank Ben Lovett for taking the time to speak with me about his work on The Wolf of Snow Hollow. Please check this film and soundtrack out if you haven’t already.

See also:

Soundtrack Review: The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020)

Composer Interviews

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

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

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Talking With Composer Ilan Eshkeri about Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

This past summer I had the tremendous opportunity to speak with composer Ilan Eshkeri about his score for the video game Ghost of Tsushima. Eshkeri attended Leeds University where he studied music and English literature. He also worked at this time with fellow composers Edward Shearmur and Michael Kamen. Notable film scores from his career include (but are far from limited to): Coriolanus (2011), The Young Victoria (2009), 47 Ronin (2013), and The White Crow (2018). He’s collaborated on several films with actor/director Ralph Fiennes.

How did you get started with being a composer?

Well, really I wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band. While pursuing that dream I ended up working for a composer and not long after became close to Michael Kamen. And then I got my first break writing film music. And I really enjoy having such an exciting career that developed from many different directions all at once. It takes me in all sorts of directions.

How did you get connected with Ghost of Tsushima?

Playstation actually reached out and contacted me about this game. I was initially reluctant because I don’t really like violent, action games, that’s not really my thing. I don’t have any great, moral objection to it, I just don’t know how I can connect emotionally to that. Or, as an artist what can I say about that in my music? What peaked my interest is they’d been using music from an art house film that I had done a few years ago, a Shakespeare film called Coriolanus. The score for it is, I think, very unusual, quite extreme and uncompromising. Typically my work with Ralph [Fiennes, the director] is like that. It was amazing to me that this mass entertainment AAA game and video game studio would be coming to me and referencing this extremely unusual art house music that I’d created.

Then I went to Seattle for a meeting with Playstation and they spent 45 minutes to an hour with this incredible multimedia presentation that talked me through the entire plot of the video game. By the end of that I was completely blown away and sucked into it. It wasn’t what I thought. This is a game about a young man who is in a state of emotional conflict because he has been brought up and trained in a certain moral code. However, in order to save his home and the people he loves he has to go against all of that. This was, therefore, a rich place to write emotional and powerful music.

Was it different, working on the score for a video game as opposed to film or television?

No, I don’t think so, because to me it’s all storytelling. It’s the oldest of human art forms. If we look back at the history of humanity, the earliest form of art we have is cave painting. What were they doing in a cave painting? They were telling a story. We moved from cave paintings to songs, the Iliad, the Odyssey, to theater. That developed into dance and acting with operas and plays; you have all these different forms of storytelling and in the last hundred years we’ve had cinema and that came from the invention of new technologies. Since then, the next step in my eyes is video games. A new technology was invented and humans decided to tell their stories through that medium. And the story of Ghost is about the new ways versus the old ways. So really, Ghost is telling a very old story but through a new medium. To answer your question, my job is exactly the same. I tell the emotional narrative of the story through the creation of music. Whether that be theater or ballet or video games, whatever the medium, eventually I’m doing the same thing.

How did you approach scoring Ghost of Tsushima? Was there a lot of research involved in the type of music and sounds that would be appropriate for such a locale and era?

Yes, absolutely. This was inspired by Sucker Punch, they wanted to bring a sense of authenticity to the game, to the extent that they got reeds from the island of Tsushima in order to make it look more naturalistic. I was inspired by this search for authenticity and I wanted to apply the same thing to the music. I found a professor of Japanese music, Professor David Hughes, who is fortunately one of the leading experts here in London and he was very kind to talk to me and explain things and tell me where to look. I was learning about Japanese scales and harmony and how the instruments worked. Then I worked with a lot of amazing musicians and they inspired me a lot. These musicians were very patient and taught me how to write naturalistic music for the instruments.

So I used a lot of instruments that we know here in the West, like the koto and shakuhachi. But my explorations also took me to another instrument called the biwa. In fact it’s called the Satsuma biwa, there being several types of biwas, but the Satsuma biwa was the instrument that the samurai learned to play. And I’d never heard of it before. What happened is that towards the middle of the last century, the art of playing the biwa had been virtually lost. As I understand it there was one master of this instrument left and had taught a handful of people. One of those is a very inspiring lady called Junko Ueda. And she, fortunately for me, lived in Spain so it was easy to get her to come to London. She spent a lot of time explaining about the instrument, she played a lot and you can really hear about the instrument solos in the opening of the piece on the album. She’s a special performer and I was really lucky to be able to include her on the soundtrack.

When was it decided to blend the sounds of traditional Japanese music with a full orchestra?

That was always the plan. The thing was, how do we keep the focus on the traditional Japanese instruments, how do we highlight them? And for me, how do I use the orchestra within that language? All of the music in the orchestra, all the melodies and scales are all based on Japanese scales and I used two of those. And any Japanese instrument could play virtually any orchestral part. I also built my own system of chords using the notes from the pentatonic (five tone) scale. Everything in the orchestra is based on a foundation of Japanese tonality. Where I needed to, for effect, I broke the rules absolutely, but not often. That was the plan behind the orchestra.

How much time did you have to score Ghost of Tsushima? Did you have any game footage to work off of? Or was it more like storyboards?

There was a mixture, because I came on in 2018. When I started working on it there were storyboards, bits of footage. There was some crude gameplay where I got a feel for the character. It was a lot of different things, many bits of inspirational material. I worked on the game on and off for about a year and a half.

I’d like to give a big thank you to Ilan Eshkeri for taking the time to speak with me about his work on the music for Ghost of Tsushima.

Let me know what you think about Ghost of Tsushima’s music (and the game itself) in the comments below and have a great day!

See also:

Soundtrack Review: Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

Composer Interviews

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