Tag Archives: Interview

Bringing the Show to Life: Talking with Ian Eisendrath about ‘Come From Away’

I recently had the chance to talk with Ian Eisendrath about his work as music supervisor for Come From Away. Eisendrath worked on both the Broadway show and oversaw the filmed production that is now on AppleTV+. Come From Away, for those not familiar, recounts the real-life story of when hundreds of passengers were stranded in Newfoundland for a period of time in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s a powerful story of people coming together in a time of need and I recommend checking the show out if you get the chance.

I hope you enjoy this interview!

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Just to start with, can you explain what a music supervisor does?

It’s challenging to describe, and everyone will have their own definition. I have found that the role and responsibilities shift from project to project.   I have also spent the last year and a half working as an executive music producer, collaborating with some very talented music supervisors).  At the end of the day, we take responsibility for managing and bringing together all of the musical elements, from development through post. We support, manage, collaborate, and participate in the realization of the filmmaker, songwriter, studio, producer vision for how music exists and functions specifically and overall in the world of the film or show.  

It’s a bit more detailed than just being the composer for something.

Yes, I  often interact with almost every member of the filmmaking team, production team, and cast. I  get in the trenches with the songwriters, supporting development of the musical language, the musical structures, and overall vibe for how the story is being told through music. On the non-creative side, I often manage (and work closely with other members of the music team and studio) to schedule overall workflow for music development, music production, music rehearsal, on-set music recording, and the final stages of music production that take place during post.  Throughout prep – the period of time before rehearsal and principal photography begin – I interact closely with the director, providing support and feedback to ensure that music is headed in a direction that supports their vision. Wrangle and support the extensive noting/approval/revisions processes that take place between songwriters, directors, choreographers, producers, the studio, and members of the music team. I will often = produce or co-produce the demo sessions, hire and rehearse the demo singers and instrumentalists,  engage arrangers and orchestrators, oversee the creation of the scores that will be used for rehearsal and production, and really…just do what needs to be done to get the material ready for rehearsal and filming.   During rehearsal, I spend a lot of time coaching the actors on their vocal performances (connecting every musical choice to character, dramaturgy, and the acting values that the director and actors are discussing), work closely with the (very talented) vocal coaches brought on to support each specific actor (Eric Vetro, Liz Kaplan, Fiona McDougal), work closely with the songwriters, director and choreographer to ensure that they are getting what the need out of the music and vocal performances being developed, supporting the dance creation process – which often involves adding or shifting music to support what will be happening on camera, and working closely with the entire production team to plan how we’re going to record and playback music and vocals for each camera setup (what are we recording live?, when are we lip-synching to playback?, how do we get in and out of a each section of music?, what will the actors and filmmakers hear?)

During the shoot – principal photography – the entire music team is responsible for making sure that everything goes seamlessly from a musical perspective and that they are never waiting on music. I am also on hand to implement in-the-moment shifts and changes to the music, to coach and oversee  vocal performances. It is so crucial that the performance being captured on camera is both musically and dramatically sound because we will be living with that timing and performance forever!  

During post, I work closely with the music editorial department to support the director’s process throughout their picture cut, manage and oversee the recording and production of the final versions of each cue, and participate in the mixing process for the music in the film.  I am also sometimes lucky enough to conduct the orchestra, which is one of my favorite things in the world to do.

You worked on the Broadway version of Come From Away also right?

I was fortunate to be involved from the beginning and to work closely with David [Hein] and Irene [Sankoff], the writers – who are also the songwriters, the director, Chris Ashley, and the choreographer, Kelly Devine, on the creation and development of the Broadway production. I was engaged as the music supervisor, music director, and arranger, and in addition to my work as a music supervisor, I wrote the musical arrangements, conducted the band, and played keys and accordion. From a musical perspective, our goal was to use songs, themes, and motifs to create (what feels like) a 100-minute, through-composed documentary, something that felt unlike any other show currently playing on Broadway. [ I was so fortunate to be the Music Supervisor, Arranger, and Music Director for almost every phase of development, including readings, workshops, rewrites, out-of-town productions in La Jolla, Seattle, DC, and Toronto, and the original Broadway production.    After a successful opening on Broadway, we ended up opening four additional companies – Toronto, UK, Australia, and the North American tour, telling the story across the globe.   

When and how was it decided that you’re going to make a film version of this show?

The pandemic made this adaptation timely and necessary. There had been an ongoing discussion of adapting it for feature film, but with live theatre shut down, it became necessary. We were in a time when people were in dire need of stories that bring comfort and inspiration, and also in need of anything close to what feels like communal story-telling and music making. So – our producers and creative team decided to create a film version of the live theatrical production that gives people that experience of watching the show in the theater. 

So is the show that you created a single performance? Or were there multiple takes that were compiled together?

It was a combination of a single performance in front of a live audience – I believe it was the first audience that had been assembled in a Broadway theatre since Broadway shut down – and many shorter takes, from various angles and distances. 

So what changes, if any, did you have to make for the production to let it be filmed?

The material remained untouched, but we had to re-approach HOW we filmed and recorded the material.  This is what made my job as music supervisor most interesting on the film.  The show features live music – instrumental and vocal – that runs throughout 95% of the show, underneath intimate dialogue, solo vocals, and featured instrumentals. I really enjoyed working closely with our sound team (Gareth Owen, Sound Designer, Tod Maitland, Production Sound Mixer & Recordist and Russell Godwin, Sound Associate) and our music production team (Wendy Cavett, Scott Wasserman, Derik Lee, Chris Ranney, and many others) to figure out how to playback and record music in a way that would provide as much separation and flexibility for the editing process.

It’s sort of ironic, because, in order to create a film mix that gives the audience the impression of a live experience, we needed to get as clean and separate of an audio capture on the individual elements – solo vocals, group vocals, solo instruments, dialogue, foley/environment, etc… – as possible. We ultimately decided to fit every actor and musician with in-ear monitors, as you would on a film, so that we could keep the theatre as quiet as possible in order to capture live vocal and instrumental elements. We’d sometimes do a pass with the soloists singing out loud while the group vocals and instrumentals would be performed silently, and then we’d get isolated coverage on solo instruments, foley, shouts, etc…. Once we finished filming, all of the raw material that was re-assembled in the music and picture edit process (shoutout to August Eriksmoen, our Associate Music Producer who helped me balance this while working on a couple of other film projects), remixed the music and hopefully ended up with something that feels like a live theatre experience.

It sounds like it was a big job. How long did it take to like complete the adaptation from stage for film?

We found out about this, I think it was November of 2020. And then everyone started working non-stop, working on the changes that needed to be made to make it filmable, many, many discussions with the talented musicians and sound team members about how we were going to record and produce the music. [It also involved] working with the film team and working with general management on, how do we get everyone, an entire company, and film crew, quarantined, living in a hotel, COVID tested and COVID free so that we could all gather in a contained theatre with cast and  members not wearing masks. This was earlier in the pandemic, when we didn’t know how COVID worked, and the rules were constantly changing!  It was a massive undertaking, from many people across many facets of production – from creative to management, to talent, to catering, to transportation, to hotels…everyone had to think way outside the box. And, honestly, it was this beautiful synthesis of the film world coming together with theater world and figuring out how to bring together the people, cultures, and traditions of film and live theatre, because we all need each other to make this happen. Sort of like what the film is about…, all of these people from all over the world ending up together without any warning, during a moment of crisis, figuring out how to survive and make the best of a challenging time. So it feels like we were having our own Come From Away experience while we were filming and telling the story.

Yeah, I did have a more general music question too. I noticed that it said the traditional Newfoundland songs are included. How was it decided which ones to use?

David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the writers, and I immersed ourselves in the music. We fell in love with the music of Newfoundland, had playlists that last four to five days, and just listened and loved the music.  We brought on Bob Hallet (Newfoundlander musician, writer, producer of GREAT BIG SEA fame) to be our music consultant, August Eriksmoen (orchestrator/multi-instrumentalist with a massive background in folk music), and we hired several musicians from the Celtic/folk world to be part of our band from the first out of town production through the closing of our Broadway production.  These incredibly skilled and knowledgeable musicians – Ben Power, Caitlin Warbelow, Romano DiNillo – were great mentors to me throughout the process.  

Our goal was to honor and recreate the incredibly unique sound of that region.  Since the music in the film is almost entirely original music, with the exception of a couple references to pop songs, some traditional prayers, and two folk songs of Newfoundland, we spent a great deal creating and arranging themes and motifs that supported character and story, while also capturing the essence of the music of Newfoundland. In the end, we have a rhythm section (drums, keys, bass, and guitars) plus instruments that are part of the traditional and contemporary music scene in Newfoundland (fiddle, whistles, flutes, button accordion, octave mandolin, mandolin, bodhran, etc…)  I love that the ultimate sound is a mashup of traditional and contemporary, Celtic and pop…best of all worlds.  

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I’d like to thank Ian Eisendrath for taking the time to talk with me about his work on adapting Come From Away for the small screen. I hope you enjoyed this interview and have a great rest of the 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 the Female Gaze: Talking with Composer Karl Frid about ‘Pleasure’

Just recently I had the opportunity to speak with composer Karl Frid about his work on the movie Pleasure. Karl Frid studied classical music at the Royal College of Music in London with trombone as his main instrument, before making a musical U-turn. He went to study Afro-Cuban music at the CNSEA in Havana, Cuba before finishing his studies in Afro-American music at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. Since then, he has worked as a full-time freelance musician, composer, arranger, and producer. His vast knowledge in music ranges from classical and jazz to Latin, hip-hop, and pop music.

Since 2011 Karl has been working closely with his brother, Pär Frid under the name Frid & Frid. They primarily write music for film and TV and have scored several features and TV series of different genres. In 2018 they were nominated in the Best Music category at the Swedish Film Institute “Guldbaggen” Awards for their score for the documentary Citizen Schein

Karl’s latest work for film is the feature Pleasure, by Ninja Thyberg, which was in the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival 2020 and later premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2021, where it received outstanding reviews with special mentions of the score. At the Gothenburg Film Festival, the film was awarded the FIPRESCA Award by the international critic’s jury. The score is a mixture of sacred choral opera and hip-hop. 

I hope you enjoy our conversation about the movie Pleasure!

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  • How did you get started as a film composer?

I’ve always had an interest in film and film music. During my last year of my studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, I took some extracurricular classes in many different fields and one of them was scoring for film and games. I found it very fun, creative, and exciting to be able to create tension and different emotions to picture. But it wasn’t until a few years later when I teamed up with my brother Pär and started Frid & Frid that I really got started with scoring for film. At first, we did some commissions for children’s television and ads, and then we got to do more extensive and challenging projects.

  • How did you get connected with working on this movie? What drew you to it once you saw it?

Pär and I were approached pretty late in the process, about a month from the intended final cut. We had worked with the producers Erik Hemmendorf, Eliza Jones, and Markus Waltå before and they asked us for a meeting with Ninja and sent us a rough cut of the film without any temp music. I remember I was just knocked out by the strength of the film and the fresh and raw look into this special universe. It was so liberating with this obvious and genius take on the female gaze. At the time, Pär was tied up in another project, working on commission for a symphony orchestra, but I was so taken by the film that we decided that I would do the score by myself.

  • How did you come up with the idea to juxtapose sacred opera and hip-hop in the score for Pleasure, that’s not a genre pairing you usually encounter in a soundtrack. What’s the story behind this, I really like how it all turned out.

I had such a great collaboration with Ninja. It was a collective process of problematizing, analyzing, discussing and testing different angles and ideas. We had many long discussions about the patriarchal structures being displayed in the film, about female empowerment, and about our own preconceptions about the porn industry. The idea of mixing sacred choral opera with hip-hop beats came quite early in the process. We talked a lot about finding the inner voice of Bella, and about how she pictures herself, opposed to how the patriarchal society perceives her. This became the musical manifestation of the Harlot vs the Madonna. Heaven or hell. The hip-hop also represents the self-image of the female porn actresses as “bad ass,” with full control over themselves and their surroundings, and we found the clash between the hip-hop and the sacred opera very interesting.

The film has so many layers, and I was constantly reminded and enlightened by Ninja about all the different meanings and details. The film is also changing between many different storytelling techniques – social realism, dark comedy, and elevated scenes in slow motion almost seductive like a music video. We wanted to explore the sounds of the female body and the orgasm, and found this correlation between the fake orgasm and opera, as it’s not a ”normal” way of singing, rather a theatrical, constructed expression. There was also a reference to Hildegard von Bingen, a German nun in the 12th century who composed choral works for nuns. She was also pretty cool since she was pretty outspoken about female sexuality and actually is supposedly the first person to have written the first description of the female orgasm, with her text ”Causae et Curae.” She’s also been known to have had a positive and relaxed view of sex and often opposed to the church’s tendencies to demonize female sexuality.

  • On a related note, are there any themes in the music for specific characters? Or does the music not go in a thematic direction?

Yes, there are. The ”Confutatis” theme, along with “Voca Me Cum Benedictus,” and ”Oro Supplex” are all Bella’s themes – symbolizing her journey in the porn industry and manifesting her innocence and self-image. “Fata Viam Invenient,” is the theme of her antagonist Ava, and “Una Gioia Sempre Viva,” is written as the friendship theme of Bella & Joy, and also works as Joy’s theme.

  • Were you given any specific directions on what to include in the film’s soundtrack?

Not from the start. Ninja wanted an epic score and a unique and special sonic universe for the film. The music should be a statement and a character in itself. It was also very important that the score wasn’t generic or tried to push emotions or judgment on the characters. Music that shouldn’t always go with the emotions but rather be a juxtaposition on what we see on the screen.

  • Were there any musical ideas you tried for the score but ultimately abandoned because they weren’t working out?

Oh yes. The first sketches I made, featuring cello, all turned out too generic. Haha, so I had to restart and find a different angle. But that was great. I think it’s often better to try something out and realize that it doesn’t work, to help you find what does. If you don’t eliminate different options, you’ll have a much harder time finding what you’re looking for. 

  • Did the pandemic affect the recording of the score at all?

Yes, but not necessarily in a bad way. For one, it gave me more time to work on the score. It also limited my resources, which I often find, from a creative perspective, can be really inspiring and force you to explore and push the limitations rather than if you had all the choices in the world. Since so many concerts and events were cancelled during this period, it also meant that Caroline had a lot of time and could be at my disposal in a way that would have been unlikely under normal circumstances as she is often very busy. Which was great for me and the score. It created space for us to go into this creative bubble. Of course, at the same time things were really rough for so many of my fellow colleagues and musicians and times were really uncertain.

  • How much time did you have to work on the music?

At first, not that long, but because of the pandemic, with cancelled festivals etcetera, I got more time to work on the score. I would say that in total I was working on it for about four months.

  • Excluding the voices, is any type of traditional orchestra used in this soundtrack or is it all synthesized?

No, for this score there are no traditional orchestral instruments involved. I basically created the score around the voices of Caroline Gentele and Sofia Kappel. Then, I used those recordings as samples from which I built different voice synthesizers and drums. Apart from that, I basically worked with different 808 samples and drums as well as the Moog Grandmother synthesizer which I find myself returning to for every new project I’ve done since I bought it.

  • Do you have a favorite piece in the score?

I think my favorite piece is “Una Gioia Sempre Viva,” because of its warmth and meaning. But I also like the other pieces a lot. Then, of course, I LOVE the rap tracks I created together with Mapei and Ludvig Klint – “Una Gioia,” “Hard to the Core,” and ”Good Girl/Bad Girl.”

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I wanted to say thank you to Karl Frid for taking the time to speak with me about his work on Pleasure. I hope you enjoyed this interview, and have a great rest of the 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 🙂

Exploring a New World in VR: Talking with Composer Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon

Earlier this fall I had the chance to speak to composer Jakob Eisenbach about his work on the VR arcade experience Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon. In this exploration game, you and your team are teleported to an ancient Mayan temple where you must work to stop the awakening of evil during a ‘blood moon.’

I’ve been fascinated by VR for a long time, so it was really cool to get to talk with Jakob Eisenbach about his work on Tikal and I hope you enjoy our conversation about the game (and working in VR).

How did you get started as a composer?

It’s quite a funny story: I wished for a guitar on my 15th birthday because of falling in love with the sound of electric guitars, thanks to the game Guitar Hero 3.
Since I was somehow pretty quick at learning technique, practiced up to 12hours a day and advanced unusually fast, I got interested in more and more complex and high energy music. Then I joined a metal band, played lots of Dream Theater, Jason Becker and other very technical music, but became bored with only “complex and fast” eventually.

Since this really was the first time me being good at something, I decided to take my luck into my own hands and start a career in music. But to not be too crazy and only relying on guitar, I wanted to learn everything there is to learn about music.

And as crazy as it sounds, after starting to take piano and theory lessons for 4 years, I already managed to get accepted as one of four students at the Zurich University of Arts. Something which turned out to be my most lucky punch ever –
the year I joined the program “Composition for Film, Theater and Media”, was also the first year where all of the Universities Departments moved into a newly constructed building.

And there I was….studying my dream occupation while being surrounded by so many talented people, state of the art recording studios, concert halls, classical/jazz music students, while having yet the craziest advantage to come: Collaborative in-house programs with students from game design, film, theater, dance, conducting, recording, you name it.
Somehow our field of studies turned out to be at the intersection between a lot of those disciplines, so any project we did could be recorded live with real instruments since the very beginning – simply because the musicians were next door and we simply had free access to the infrastructure.
We literally recorded full-size orchestras for fun little school projects, because the most difficult thing was to only find enough musicians. The rest was already there and free.

Fast forward a few busy years, students graduate, some find jobs at different production companies or game studios and then you eventually get a call: “Hey Jakob, since you worked on my MA graduation game, my company and I have this new project….”
And suddenly I find myself inside this incredible VR startup “True VR Systems”.

How is composing for VR different from composing for, say, a regular video game or a film?

Basically, as with any kind of storytelling, you’re aiming to re-create human experiences. And there’s only limited ways of doing that. Film for example, is something that you’d call a “linear” story: You as the consumer can only go forward in time. The most interactive a movie gets, is you pausing it or adjusting the volume.

Then there’s games: some of them also have a linear tendency, like Journey.

Most games however tend to have more “non-linear” gameplay: open world games like Red Dead Redemption or World Of Warcraft, where you can spent as much time as you want, where you want, and even do things repeatedly.

Depending on how the story is told, the music has to connect to either the environment/mood or a linear sequence, like in cutscenes or timelines.

Actually, since the definition of music is anchored at the “perception of organized sound” it’s the job of me as the composer to create those organized chunks that a consumer may eventually perceive as music. They can consist of many different possible sections with lots of outcomes, transitions and different versions of the same story and mood.
Or you can create one singular timeline, that you have to experience in one in one sitting.

In the projects of TrueVR it’s the same: the only extension is that you could place the music in virtual spaces and environments. But no matter how much technical extension you add to a story, it still has to make sense in the consumer’s head.
Those VR projects are mostly non-linear but have a few linear timelines where the music has some straight moments (for example on the Lava River).

Fun thing to think about: The reality we experience every day can also be observed as some kind of linear story with moments and chunks of non-linear, repeatable timelines.


What inspired the sound of Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon?

The main inspiration lies in the idea that you are experiencing a “strange” world, but you are some kind of main character/hero that’s solving the ancient riddles and mysteries of this temple.

As the game itself aimed for the “wow effect” experience of huge dimensions, especially in the vertical, we decided this is achieved best with a real symphony orchestra.
The 24-piece choir really added the feeling of an ancient magic being at work.

To achieve the “strangeness” I was strongly inspired by Balinese Gamelan culture, since this has a strange character to most western ears, and I was familiar with their theory. Extended with Arabic and Asian instruments it became less specifically on one culture though, while retaining the character of something “different” and “tribal” next to the orchestra. Nobody really knows how Mayan music sounded after all. We only know of some self-made instruments like bamboo flutes and drums.


Why was it so important for the music for Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon to be recorded live? 

Two reasons. The first: This game should evoke the feeling of being impressed and stunned by perceiving the virtual world, but not the kind of “gimmicky impressive” you have in most trailer music.
The second reason: Since we established a kind of “real instrumentalists only” trend, coming from the amazing experience in my studies, I simply had the experience how to pull this off. Since we did small school projects with real orchestras and ensembles all the time already, I very strongly felt that this project, which became internationally available and feels like something exceptional in its way, especially deserved to have a real soul.

How did working on Tikal compare to the other VR projects you’d composed for? It sounds like this one was bigger than the ones that came before.

Tikal was planned by the studio as their flag ship project in their “explorer genre” from the very beginning. They wanted to have one very high-quality game, and Tikal was going to be that one. The other projects that have music of mine (like Patient Zero) are more focused on the interactivity and shooting zombies had a different approach from the studio. And they felt that for PvP and PvE shooters there’s other necessities than having a huge score. 

How much time did you have to score Tikal?

Not much time, then suddenly a lot of time, and then suddenly not much time again.

So, while designing the core gameplay with the visual artists and creative team, we really went hand in hand. I scored a 10-minute suite within a few days, then we split this into different sections that could work to what we transcribed in the storyboard.
During the level design, we tested a lot in the actual VR environment, like how you perceive the time for different locations etc.
But because the new licensed partners in Canada wanted to open their franchise with a new game, we had to go into beta very early. So from first draft until beta, I had around
3-4 weeks.

Then this got stuck, because the dev team and me (hired as sound designer) had to go to different projects, so the composer side of me was left in the dark for quite a while.

But then, more than a good year later we got back to this refurbished the game for the new 4K hardware and the arenas in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Which was when we felt this was the time to finally record the music – but then there was COVID.

So, lots of stop and go, then during the “European summer break of covid” we sneaked into a little timeslot where travelling and recording full orchestras in one room was allowed and finally managed to pull this off in Budapest.

Let’s just say the composing part of this project was the least difficult part by far, ha ha.


Do you have a favorite part of the soundtrack?

Yes! My favorite part is “An Ancient Awakening”.

And you really need to play the game in the arena to understand why.

I’ll try to transcribe it though: When this cue starts, you’re already in the game for a little while and managed to advance to an ancient grave chamber.

You solved the riddle in this level and then the wind machines of the VR arena start, the scent dispensers are activated and in the game, you see a lot of beautiful particles flying around in the environment that slowly materialize into an ancient Mayan ghost in front of you. This ghost is the first NPC character you meet in the experience and since you’re inside the VR environment, he really is about as tall as you and your teammates.

I also carefully sound designed his voice and sound effects. He carries I think 5-7 individual binaural SFX sources in his prefab, which blend in with the music.

When I tested the game, I always liked to stand pretty close to his animation.

Little fun fact: The ghosts’ animation is a motion capture of the lead developer Mischa Geiser himself. They recorded this full sequence while repeatedly playing my music mockup on speakers in the VR arena and performing the movements to the music.

I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jakob Eisenbach about Tikal: Night of the Blood Moon.

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 🙂

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

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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

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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)

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Going ‘On My Way’: A Brief Talk with Alex Lahey About ‘On My Way’ and The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

To my surprise and delight, I was given the opportunity to speak with Alex Lahey about their work on the song ‘On My Way’ and its inclusion in the hit Netflix movie The Mitchells vs The Machines.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, Alex started playing both guitar and saxophone when she was 13 years old, and studied art and jazz when she first enrolled in university. She broke through in 2016 with her song “You Don’t Think You Like People Like Me”, with her first full-length album ‘I Love You Like a Brother’ following in 2017.

How did you get started as a musician?

I’ve been playing music my whole life, but I really got serious about it when I was in high school and fell in love with playing the saxophone in the school big band. As I was getting into learning the sax, I was teaching myself guitar on the side just as a way to play the punk, rock and pop music I was actually listening to in my spare time. After leaving school and playing in a few bands with mates, I came to realise that I’m a better songwriter than saxophone player and I’ve never looked back.

How did you get connected with The Mitchells vs The Machines?

I was really lucky that my song ‘Every Day’s The Weekend’ got included in The Mitchells quite early on in the production process. So early on that they didn’t have a song for the end credits of the movie! So I got sent a brief of what the director and music supervisor were looking to fill that space with and that’s how ‘On My Way’ came to be.

What did you think of the film’s story?

I loved the story of the film and especially loved the character of Katie. Growing up as a queer kid, it would’ve meant the world to me to have seen a character like Katie on screen and I’m so glad she exists now for all the young people who need someone like her. The themes of family, growing up and being yourself that are so central to the story really resonate with me too.

Tell me about how ‘On My Way’ was developed for the film, what was the process for that song coming together?

As I mentioned before, the song was prompted by a brief the creative team provided me with. Between lockdowns in Melbourne, I took the brief to two artists I’m very close with, Gab Strum (Japanese Wallpaper) and Sophie Payten (Gordi), just as something to do while hanging out for the first time in ages and ‘On My Way’ was born. I guess we had a lot of good creative vibes waiting to be unleashed after so much time without face to face collaboration. Gab and I ended up finishing the recording virtually as Melbourne went back into lockdown. A big shout out must go out to Scott Horscroft who tracked all the drums and mixed the tune for us at The Grove while we were beamed in via Zoom during Stage 4 lockdown!

Aside from ‘On My Way’ were you involved in any other aspects of the music for The Mitchells vs The Machines?

To have both ‘On My Way’ and ‘Every Day’s The Weekend’ included in the film was really awesome. It was so great to be a part of this project in a really meaningful way. I’d never written a song intentionally for screen before and it was so wonderful to be part of the process of bringing this film together, even just in a small way. I hope it’s not the last time I get to be involved in a project like this. 

I want to give a big thank you to Alex Lahey for taking the time to talk with me!

See also:

Soundtrack Review: The Mitchells vs The Machines (2021)

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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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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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 🙂

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

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 🙂