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I loved the CW3PR Behind the Music events at Comic-Con this year. The first of the two, featuring composers from shows about Crime, Death and Resurrection, was the only press room where I was also able to attend the panel (my first event of the con on Thursday morning) and might hold the title of the most interesting set of interviews all weekend.
Because their job is so specific, each composer was able to answer detailed questions about their actual craft rather than promoting their shows. We learned that D minor is a favourite key for score-writers and how character and relationship themes are developed to serve as building blocks so that each episode’s music is constructed using pre-existing pieces with new variations.
I wish SDCC had more events like the Behind the Music panels, a chance for artists to really talk about their work without as much pressure to raise hype for a specific product. The highlights from the fascinating conversations that were the result of said chance are below.
*Special thanks to composer Kristjan Bergey (music assistant on Murdoch Mysteries and Remedy) whose expertise helped me prepare for the CW3PR events.
Fil Eisler gets to work with a full orchestra on Empire. “There are times when producers don’t know it’s a possibility” so they spend money to have an orchestral score when it could have been done “in the box” (meaning on the computer) for a lot cheaper. On UnREAL, however, he uses all synths to help create the purposefully artificial feel of the show (specifically citing how hard it was to replicate The Bachelor’s sweeping score for the theme of the show-within-the-show; “it’s not cheesy enough!” was always the struggle).
When asked about developing the score around the original songs in Empire, Eisler mentions that they’re mostly separate but there are sometimes “happy accidents” like when Taraji P Henson was singing “You’re So Beautiful” in Cookie’s jail cell and it happened to be in the right key to be able to meld perfectly with the score.
Compared to the songs on Empire, which are often directly linked to the plot, Eisler characterizes his job as “scoring the subtext” to help suspend disbelief and move the audience implicitly.
Film and TV, because of the music’s ties to the story and the visual aides, “liberates composers” he says when talking about his favourite scene to score in Empire so far, the return of *spoiler alert* Bunkie’s ghost. “I got to write the weirdest A-tonal piece of music where we took the theme and deconstructed it”.
Daniel Gillies, the panel’s moderator, is an actor on The Originals (scored by Mike Suby) not a musician but, when asked about his favourite score on TV, he gave an extremely thoughtful answer- “Fargo [scored by Jeff Russo] was phenomenal… the silences, the complexity and the sparseness of the space, I thought it was masterful”.
Jeff Russo is constantly asked how much his score for FX’s Fargo was influenced by the original film score and he starts off his answer with “musically, not at all”, referring to the actual notes on the page. Rather, it’s “the vibe” of Fargo that was so well-established in the film (including Carter Burwell’s score) that he tried to bring through in his new score. “The juxtaposition of beauty vs. evil- that’s a lot of what The Coen Brothers do. The beautiful score against the beautiful backdrop against a guy getting his throat cut. It’s that sudden absurd violence against that backdrop that is a hallmark of their filmmaking and I feel like I had to take a little bit of a hat tip to that”.
I asked whether Fargo’s distinctively frigid climate came into the score at all and Russo mentioned his frequent use of sleigh bells “because why not?”.
Because Fargo is an anthology show, season two will be almost completely different from season one. Jumping back in time to 1979 (which Russo laughingly calls “a brown period”), the second season will feel a bit more barren within the same “snowy white expanse” that characterized the first season.
“It’s a very effective dramatic key” Russo says when asked why he is “a big fan of D”. According to him, this fandom is shared across most composers and he proves this by shouting across the room to Mac Quayle who confirms that he means D minor, “the saddest of all keys” (a Spinal Tap reference, of course).
“Helping to get from comedy to dark, a good way to do that is to switch from major to minor” Russo says, which is important because in Fargo “there’s a lot of that [comedy/drama] juxtaposition”. He rarely writes in major keys for Fargo but he avoids using thirds “so you never really know if you’re in major or minor; it feels unsteady”. (If you were ever wondering what makes Fargo so tonally thrilling, the metaphorical and literal idea that you never know if you’re in major or minor pretty much sums it up).
“Happy songs are terrible”. says Russo when asked why he’s drawn to (and finds it easier to write for) darker content. “It’s difficult to write effective happy music because 9 times out of 10 you’re too on-the-nose” he says, singing a cheesy little ditty to illustrate his point. He sidestepped this problem in Fargo by leaning into that show-defining juxtaposition again, “playing the dark against [Allison Tolman]’s character worked very well” in contrast to “Malvo, the main evil character in season one- this pizzicato bass line, more light and bouncy, against his evil-ness”. “You can really highlight an emotion pretty well when you play against it. When you play too much into an emotion, all of a sudden you’re leading the audience and the audience feels taken advantage of”.
Someone asked why, if happy music makes you happy, you would want to write anything but happy music. Russo responded by saying that you can only write happy music if you’re a happy person and most artists are darker than that. “When you create something from nothing, it comes from somewhere, and usually it’s the deep dark recesses of your subconscious”. He says he’s never written a good song from a happy place because, when you’re in a dark place, “you’re trying to express something that you’re afraid to, so you find better ways to do it” meaning it comes out in song.
“I thought it was going to be a really easy show to work on” says Sean Callery about Homeland. “The show is filmed real-world style, almost like a documentary in how you’re observing people. And the acting is so good that, when the music comes in, it’s almost unnatural because there’s no underscore in our daily lives. So the music was designed to be extremely minimal”. But it turned out to be a surprising challenge because everything is so subtle that the scrutiny is extreme and any slight missteps are noticeable.
Like many of the composers in the press room, Callery felt that, at its best, music doesn’t dictate- “the litmus test for the show is that the music should never be informing you of how you should feel”- but in the first season of Homeland he had to be extra careful to stay away from guiding the audience lest he accidentally reveal suspected traitor Brody’s true allegiances- “low, brooding tones might suggest he’s bad or making the music too happy might mean he’s good, so you had to find a way to make the music sit almost ambiguously”.
One question that was asked of almost every composer was some variation of “where do you start?”. Callery’s answer was particularly insightful: “When I watch an episode for the first time, I watch it kind of like you all watch the show. The moment something happens, you have an emotional reaction to it. Hope, anger, betrayal- whatever comes up for me, I pay attention to it”.
Television composers assemble their score by building themes, often one for each major character, relationship, setting or thematic element (you’ll recall Michael Giacchino’s famous “dum da dum da…” that served as the death theme on Lost). Callery walked us through the development of Carrie’s musical identity on Homeland, starting with the use of single piano notes to convey her isolation. “The improvisation and spontaneity in her personality” informed the jazz language that comes through in some of the score (and definitely in the opening theme) and Callery is consistently inspired by Claire Danes’ performance, hoping she wins yet another Emmy before the series is over.
Mike Suby writes for CW shows The Vampire Diaries and The Originals which both run 22 episodes a season. I asked, as those shows are renewed year after year after year, whether he struggles keeping the melodies fresh. “It’s not always up to me”, he said, citing the often surprising ways the editors choose to use the melodies he writes, sometimes reassigning themes to new characters as they go along.
Composing for a spinoff, Suby is able to use his own Vampire Diaries score to influence his work on The Originals. “Daniel’s character Elijah has a wonderful, powerful theme that we now use on The Originals because he’s there”. Though he makes a point of saying that “that palette is different because the show is different; similar but different”.
Working on three shows simultaneously, Suby devotes 3 days a week each to The Vampire Diaries and The Originals “and somewhere in between I’ll do Pretty Little Liars”, even if that means fitting it in during his lunch break. That tight a schedule means he simply doesn’t have time to work with an orchestra even if it was in the budget. Luckily, he plays so many instruments himself that he’s able to record a lot of solo tracks live to mix with the electronic stuff he comes up with in the box.
“It’s hard. You’ve just got to keep moving the dial in different ways; it’s all about dynamics” Suby says when asked about the constantly rising suspense on which Pretty Little Liars is built.
For Wayward Pines, Charlie Clouser talks about setting the tone with unorthodox instruments. “A lot of the instruments I like to use are unsteady, unstable. Like using a violin bow on these metal rods- they sound very unsteady on their feet. In the beginning of the series as Matt Dillon’s character is recovering from his head injury and you don’t know if maybe he’s still in a coma and dreaming all this stuff- those type of unstable sounds were super useful”. As the series progressed, he turned to electronic manipulation of more conventional instruments to create interesting effects like “a strings section playing tremolo but slowed down on the computer becomes this wobble, an unsteady, possibly brain-damaged feel”.
He also talks about the importance of saving the music for late in the production game because he finds it very difficult to pull the right musical feeling from words on a page instead of being able to see “the actor’s performance and the camera work and the lighting, all that other stuff that comes together to make it what it is”.
The balance between sound effects and score requires close work with a sound designer, which Clouser says is sometimes difficult. “I’m getting better at it, I swear!” he says, describing how as a young composer his instinct was to match the sound design by using, for example, violent drums to accompany gunfire. Now that he’s more experienced he knows to provide contrast with more sustained sounds.
When asked about using practical effects in the score, Clouser talks about his favourite moment working on the 2005 CBS series Numbers when he was able to use the screeching sound of a subway train pulling into the station in the score “to evoke and remind you of the weird space that we’re in” throughout a tense hostage negotiation set on a subway.
Clouser described the revelatory moment that led him to composing for film and television: “One of the first pieces of the music that, as a child, I can remember seeing in a movie and thinking ‘oh my god, that’s amazing’ was the music in 2001 A Space Odyssey when they’re on the moon and they’re seeing the first buried [monolith]. There’s these choir pieces, these clusters of otherworldly sounds, but they’re totally acoustic. It’s not some far-out synthesizer; it was human voices doing something totally unique and serene. I must have been 8 years old when I saw that film”.
American Horror Story composer Mac Quayle called creator Ryan Murphy a “mad genius” (half of which is definitely true) and described his hands-off leadership style as “he either likes it or he doesn’t”.
There were a ton of disparate story threads in AHS: Freak Show, Quayle’s first season composing for the anthology series, but he claims that marrying the contrasting tones was simpler than it looked. “The show is so weird that something that didn’t make sense on paper just worked. Like, take this whole carnival thing and mix it with classical, throw a dash of sci-fi 50s on top of it and, great, [the tones are] married! It was like the weirder the better; almost anything goes”.
“I just sit down and start writing” Quayle says of his deceptively simple process. “If it helps tell the story, it works” he says when asked about editors using certain themes for purposes other than their intended.
When asked what he knows about the upcoming AHS: Hotel (premiering Oct. 7), all Quayle can tell us is that “it’s going to be bloodier and gristlier than every before”. But, working on an anthology series in contrast to Suby’s ever-repeating and evolving themes in the Vampire Diaries universe, will Quayle have to scrap everything from Freak Show and start completely from scratch as if AHS is a completely new show? A simple but loaded answer of “Yes”.