Words by Amon Warmann

Daniel Pemberton is a busy man. Composer Magazine experiences this first-hand when his phone rings repeatedly during our interviews, but a quick glance at his IMDb page will tell the same story. This year alone he’s provided the music for four movies – DC hit Birds of Prey, Rising Phoenix, Enola Holmes, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 – and a documentary for a TV series. 

That those movies are all scored by the same composer is a big reason why Pemberton is so sought-after. Every one of his scores is unique and innovative, from the otherworldly music of The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance, the percussive swagger of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the hip-hop infused sounds of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

That latter movie is one of many reasons we were excited to sit down with the composer (and we did get an update on that much-anticipated Spidey sequel). But in addition to going in-depth on his 2020 output - including why he felt it was important to work with disabled artists for Rising Phoenix - our wide-ranging conversation also broaches the side of film composing which most fans don’t know about, and his “confusing” relationship with sound editors. The musical interludes that punctuated our chats may not translate very well to print, but one thing should quickly become clear: when Pemberton is composing, the audience is always at the forefront of his mind. 

Photograph: Tristan Bejawn/ Composer Magazine

When did it click for you that film and TV composing is something you wanted to do?

I don’t know if there was ever a moment where it just 100% clicked. I was always interested in sound, and music that created sound worlds. I did a record of slightly odd electronic music when I was 16 and my first TV score when I was 17, which is kind of weird. And then a director called Paul Wilmshurst asked me to do a small scale documentary that he was working on [Diceworld]. That was the first time I really got to put the music I was working on to picture, and I really enjoyed the freedom I had to create different worlds for each project. And so every time I do a new project I liken it to being in a band, and it's like I start a new band for each film.

How long have you been working from your home studio, and how has it evolved since you first started using it? 

I've been here probably about 18 years. It’s really not evolved, and it’s a bit chaotic. It's sort of interesting at the moment. I've got an SX 1000 which is being powered through a foot pedal. I’ve got a Korg Mono/Poly there. I've got the piano over there – I’ve just been recording myself hitting the piano lid – and I’ve also got a CS-80. It's really badly organised and it's in no way an effective working studio, but it somehow kind of works. I'm trying to work that out myself. 

It's interesting in the sense that it’s really un-designed. Aside from being visually messy it’s just not really thought through. It’s the sort of thing that’s just grown organically. And there's something to be said for that, and there’s something against it as well. I think if I organised a bit better, I could probably do better stuff. But I also sometimes quite like the limitations of forcing myself not to get pulled away by other things. But I am going to try and sort of rebuild it at some point.

The next time we speak I’m gonna remind you that you said this…

The thing about Freddie Mercury years ago is that he didn't want to get his teeth looked at because he said that it was his office. That's where everything comes from and he didn’t wanna fuck with it, and I kind of get that. Even just little things being close by does make a big difference to your sound and how you work, so I'm always a bit superstitious about changing it up. I probably should do it at some point.

Photograph: Tristan Bejawn/ Composer Magazine

Congrats on your Critics Choice nomination for Rising Phoenix

Thanks! It's super great. I think the film is really fantastic and I wish it got a bit more love. I feel part of that film more than most films I work on. We all pushed so hard on that film to just try and get people to see and experience it. All my projects are labours of love, but that was a particularly challenging one. And I'm really pleased with how we met that challenge.

Rising Phoenix is a really fantastic documentary about nine Paralympic athletes and disability representation. I’ve read that it took you a while to take the initial meeting with the directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui. What did you fear it was going to be and what made you change your mind?

My main fear was I didn't have enough time because I still do everything kind of on my own. There's quite a lot of composers who don’t, but I'm still trying to do everything I can on my own. So I'm not looking at doing films which are just about getting the work in and then feeding it through a sausage machine. I'm also conscious about trying not to do too much. But they were really on my case and so I agreed to meet with them. I'd liked the McQueen film they did before, and then I really loved their energy and attitude. And then they showed me a bit of the film, and once I saw what the film was trying to be… the stories behind the film were amazing. I think it's a really powerful subject, and I felt we could do something good not just with a film, but having an impact beyond it. So I agreed to do it and turned down some stupid action film as a result.

Can you talk about why it was important to you to use disabled artists for this project?

That was something I wanted to do right from the beginning. It felt very important to me to have artists with disability behind the screen as well as on it. I originally met with Charles Hazelwood who runs the Paraorchestra. They’re a really cool, really fascinating orchestra with a real myriad of different instruments who have a lot of players with disabilities. I wanted to try and write some stuff for them. But by the time we got to that point, it got too complicated because of COVID. It was hard enough to do anything anywhere, and it was even more complicated to do it with disabled musicians and try and get them in a room because a lot of them were quite high risk.

So I went to a plan B, which was to try and get soloists and try and record them remotely and then stack them up or do whatever we can do for them. And that was really fascinating and interesting just in terms of actually having to reassess quite ordinary things that you take for granted. For example one of the artists was partially sighted and asked if we could print the scores out at twice the size because it's a lot easier for them to read. It’s one of those things I’d never have considered and it really got you thinking about the world through someone else’s experience, which was quite humbling.

How did you find horn player, Guy Llewellyn?

I had a chat with him, and what was amazing was he'd been in Stoke Mandeville – which is featured in the film – and that encouraged him to get into music as part of his therapy to help him get better rather than sport. He’d been an Olympic torchbearer as well. So to have him play on this score about Stoke Mandeville in the film I thought was really neat, and a surprise coincidence.


When you write a score, you're trying to find that thing that captures something of the essence of the film.

Rising Phoenix really leans into the idea that these athletes are superheroes. Did you approach this like it was a superhero score?

Ian and Peter really loved Spider-Verse, and that was one of their big references. But I never want to do the same thing again. So if you come to try and hire me and say “we love this score, please do the same thing again”, I'm always gonna say hire someone else. The opening is all about them being superheroes so that definitely had a big impact, but I'm not the world's biggest fan of generic superhero music. So it was about trying to find a way of giving a nod to that type of music but also trying to give it a different spin. That ended up being a really cool bass riff in the main theme. That was put through a ton of octave pedals and processing and filters, and it turned into this really awesome riff. 

When you write a score, you're trying to find that thing that captures something of the essence of the film. And with that repeating riff, you got that dedication and drive and the power and the anger and the passion that never stops with these athletes. And on top of that, you could throw in everything else. When I worked out it was a real breakthrough. It was interesting because at first, the directors weren't as excited about it as I was. But I knew that this device was the key to the whole film. That’s what you want with every film but you don’t always get it on every project. But when you get it and you notice why I'll always fight for it like crazy, because I know how that can pull the whole film together.

How challenging was it to find the right instrumentation for each athlete’s story? 

Some projects I'll go into with a really strong idea of what I'm doing at the beginning. Other times it'll be like fumbling about in the dark. And I think with Rising Phoenix there was quite a lot of fumbling early on. I started off writing stuff that was very abstract. And while it worked for a few moments, it didn't really work for the whole film. The directors were actually quite happy with it, but I wasn't because I knew we could do more in a number of key places. I knew there were bits where the emotion in the film is so strong that you could really, really heighten key moments by pushing things a bit more. It took a while to figure that out. When you get to the end of a project it’s so obvious that that is what it needed. But at the beginning, especially in documentaries when you’re trying to discover what the film is sometimes, it can take the editing process to really work out what the viewpoint and attitude of a film is.

George Tragic, Toni Hickman, Keith Jones all collaborate on the final track. Can you speak a bit about how that came about?

I think what was probably the most exciting thing for me on this project, was that we got to work with a bunch of hip hop artists with disabilities. We wanted to do a song to end the film with and we played around with the idea of having a big name artist, but it didn't really seem right. It felt like that kind of went against everything the film is really about, so we started looking into trying to find some disabled rappers. There's a music supervisor on it as well called Gary Welch, and together we found this organisation in America called Krip-Hop Nation. And that was run by this guy called Leroy Moore, who's a big disabled rights activist. He'd been sort of assembling this community of different disabled hip hop artists. He gave us loads of contacts and loads of tracks by a lot of these artists, most of whom are relatively unsigned.

And me, the directors, and Gary went through all these tracks and picked out the ones we felt were the most interesting for various reasons – be it lyrically, sonically, or performance-wise – and through that, we found three different voices: Toni Hickman, George Tragic, and Keith Jones. It’s a really good mix of voices and styles and backgrounds. We showed them the film, and then I chatted with them. I said just write about your experiences and what you feel like having watched his film. 


One of the artists was partially sighted and asked if we could print the scores out at twice the size because it's a lot easier for them to read.

Obviously, I think the film is hugely impactful for anyone, but if you've lived your life through the kind of lens of society which has been somewhat unkind towards you, generally, I think it makes it even more powerful. The stuff we got back from them was dynamite. I remember just getting these lyrics in and these performances and getting really excited. And I think with that track we kind of made something bigger than all of us, in the same way, the Paralympics change how people see disability. 

It's a really defiant track, and the performances from them are amazing. There's no part of that track where you feel like “oh, that's a nice gesture that they've got disabled artists performing on this”. You just think of them as amazing artists. Apart from the lyrical content, you don't really think about their disability, which is how it should be really. It’s got a really powerful message, but it's still somehow a really good track that ties in with the whole film. And, you know, we’ve had such a great response from the people who’ve heard. The CEO of the Paralympics loves it. When it first came out someone from his office emailed and said he's been listening to it all day trying to learn the lyrics!

Two of the rappers have got cerebral palsy. Keith Jones has probably more noticeable cerebral palsy in terms of his speech. But as a result, he has this amazing rapping style that is like nothing I've ever heard. And as a composer, I'm always looking for different things to everyone else, to try and find something. So that got me super excited. I just kind of wish more people had heard the song or seen the film because I feel it's slightly slipped past a lot of people at the moment. It’s such a powerful film. I’m hoping it gets out there.

Photograph: Tristan Bejawn/ Composer Magazine

In addition to disabled artists, there’s also a lack of people of colour and female composers in the industry. What steps do you think should be taken to improve this? 

I think the industry has gotten a lot better. But it's still got a long, long way to go. When you look at so many other areas of music, it’s perplexing that the make-up of people working in film music is still mainly white, middle-class males. It's definitely getting better in a small, slow way. I don't think anything is going to change instantly overnight. But I'm hoping that the fact that people are more aware of it now and are actually trying to make moves to change it…hopefully that will really widen the demographic of people working in film music. 

Because it's boring if everyone looks the same and has similar outlooks on life. Everyone may not have had the same experiences, but the richer the pool of composers the better it’s going to be for everyone. So I hope more people who don't think about being film composers can get inspired by some of the new people coming through. I think having composers who are more individualistic makes a big difference as well. There has long been a perception that for film music on a high level, you have to be part of an industrial complex of teams of writers to succeed. I think that in its very essence ends up unconsciously creating a kind of office environment where it's very hard for individuals to breakthrough. Whereas when you have something where it's more artist based, I think the work can cut through louder. At the end of the day, deep down, all I really care about is this – is someone's work good? Yes or no? Am I getting to hear that work from those people? Are there other people who should be getting those chances, and they're not? Hopefully, it will change. I try and do what I can behind the scenes.

Has a Holmes movie always been on your radar, or was there something specific about Enola Holmes that made you want to do it? 

Well, there are lots of Sherlock Holmes movies, and a lot of them have very good scores. And so I wasn't in a big rush to try and join that slightly crowded marketplace. But I'd worked with the director Harry Bradbeer years ago on a few TV shows. I felt Enola was very different from a typical Sherlock Holmes character and I really liked what he was trying to do. I also felt it was a film where I could bring a bit of my own personality. With every project, it’s always like okay, do I feel I can do something that's me and not just sound like everybody else? 

That was the main concern for ​Holmes​ because I think Hans’ [Zimmer] and Lorne’s [Balfe]​ Sherlock scores are really fantastic. I think David Arnold and Michael Price’s score for the ​Sherlock​ TV series is similarly fantastic. You can even go back to things like Bruce Broughton who did ​Young Sherlock Holmes,​ which is also really enchanting. There are lots of very good ​Sherlock Holmes​ related scores out there, so I was also quite conscious not to end up being the one that wasn't very good.


I think having composers who are more individualistic makes a big difference.

Well, you succeeded! When you come to begin your initial ideas for a score, where do you start? Do you head straight for the computer or pick up your go-to instrument?

Well, every project is very different. What was interesting with ​Enola Holmes​ is that Harry was always very keen on having very strong themes, which was great for me. Often you don't get someone actually asking for themes. Lots of directors sort of say they want themes but they actually don’t - as soon as they get big strong melodies they start to get a bit scared. Whereas Harry really did want themes. I played around with a few ideas, but we hadn't really nailed them yet.

And then it came up to Christmas 2019 and I went to go and see my parents and sisters. The house I grew up in is actually very much like Enola’s. It's no way as grand but it is crazy messy with stuff everywhere, so that felt like quite a good place to start from. We've got this really knackered old upright piano at home. I just sat at that a lot over Christmas and recorded a bunch of ideas on my iPhone and sent them to Harry. What was funny is this piano is in this room where everyone hangs out all day and it was basically impossible to get my family to shut up so their voices are all over the recordings. I would just record them on my voice memos, and you can hear everyone chatting and arguing on top of them in the background. There’s one pass where a neighbour pops up halfway through and they’re like “oh hello, how are you?” And I'm like “yeah, I'm fine!” It's easier just to say that and keep playing the piano rather than say I’m recording!

And so I'd send those to Harry and he responded very well to a bunch of them, and then we started working them into the film. When I got back to my own studio I started turning them into proper scores, and it worked really well. We have an Enola theme. We have what I would call the mystery adventure theme. We have Tewkesbury’s theme. And there's a lot of variations on those throughout the film. It's nice to do something that had some strong melodies that I could actually adapt and work with.

How did you land on the oboe for the foremost instrument in Enola’s theme?

We wanted to do something that had an energetic drive to it but that felt a bit more wonky and eccentric. Enola as a character is quite tactile and rough. She's not poised or necessarily elegant in the way people normally perceive that ideal. So I wanted music that had a bit more rough and tumble to it, and the more bangy piano sound was a really good way to get that rhythm going. Then I wanted something that floated on top of that – that captured another side to her – but I also wanted something that was a solo instrument. Her name is Enola which is ‘alone’ backwards, so I wanted something that very much captured just one individual. And the oboe just seemed to work really well, and it doesn’t get used that much. It's a really beautiful sound, and it also feels very British to me. So it felt like a good way to introduce her and the world and start the film.

Given that you love experimenting with different sounds, is ‘Tick Tock’ – which incorporates the sound of a ticking clock and the “clip-clop” of shoes – your favourite track on the score?

I don't know! I really like being experimental, but I also really like not being pigeonholed. All my scores are trying to be different, so you don't really know what I'm going to do. That way I can kind of have the freedom to always be creative. And part of doing this score was I just wanted to write something that's a bit more traditional in some ways. It’s really good fun writing traditional scores because you don't have to invent the language all the time. The hardest thing that I have with most projects is that I'm trying to invent an entire language of scoring for every film – which is exhausting – and you’re trying to come up with tools that don't exist. 

With more orchestral scores there are zillions of very good sample sets that allow you to write orchestral music, whereas most of my other projects… all the things I want to do, don't exist. So I have to make them or build them or find a way around. And I think that's one of the things a lot of people don't think about when they think about film music. Listeners don't know about the journey to get there. And I feel like there's already a lot of great orchestral music in the world, so I'm always trying to do something different. But with this, it felt like that was the most right thing for the film, and so it was really fun for me just to really concentrate more on melody and big emotion. For a lot of films, the more over the top kind of scoring where the emotional moments are signposted doesn’t work. It doesn't feel very current or very engaging. Whereas with Enola Holmes it really worked. 

My favourite track is actually the mystery theme. There’s a track called London Arrival. I really love it because it’s really catchy. It’s nice to capture the essence of a character in a very simple musical phrase and then adapt it to lots of different circumstances. It was the gift that kept on giving in this project. 

Are there any other interesting sounds you implemented into your Holmes score?

The thing I'm most proud of was a squeaky door that I recorded at an Airbnb in Greece that’s in the score. I was on holiday and my girlfriend rarely gets very excited when I find something that makes a good noise, like a squeaky door. I basically spent 20 minutes opening and slamming this door backwards and forwards and recording it on my phone, killing the atmosphere when we were supposed to be having a holiday. But I was just like this is the best door I've ever heard in my life! Sometimes you can spend hundreds of pounds on sounds but you’d never get it as good as the authentic sound.

Photograph: Tristan Bejawn/ Composer Magazine

Given your experimentation with sounds, how important is your relationship with the sound editor on these movies?

My relationships with sound editors have been somewhat confusing for me. One of the biggest problems with big scale films at the moment is there's a desire to cover every single element of the film in sounds. I've done a lot of thinking about this, trying to process it, and it's almost a bit like writing music. If you write a track with 73 different things going on at once, you have nothing to really focus on. And there's a lot of modern film scores that have that. I've done things like that where we have loads of noises all piled up. And as a result, there's a physical connection and a visceral connection but there’s no real emotional connection because your brain just focuses on the fact that there’s a lot of noise. So if you can pair that back and strip it down to some very simple concepts like a melody and a couple of very powerful sounds in there, it has a much bigger impact. Which goes down to the idea of overwriting. If you overwrite a scene, it doesn't really land in the same way an underwritten scene does.

In some ways, it's the same thing with sound. If you have a scene which has a bazillion sounds and you've got a score, your brain doesn't really know what to focus on. And so as a result, it just doesn't focus on anything and it becomes very chaotic. If obviously, the scene is very chaotic, that's cool. But if it's not and you want to focus on something, if you pare it back it's far more memorable. I re-watched Lord of the Rings​ recently, and what was amazing is that the sound mix of FX and music is really minimal on a lot of it. You'd think it'd be really busy, but there are scenes where they just have wind sounds and score and just a few little noises of movement. I think that's another reason the music lands so well emotionally in that film. The fact that your brain only has a few things to focus on means it really sinks in. 

Audiences have to process a lot of information when they watch a film, and if you think about the moments that really connect with you from films you've seen, it's often the music that has a big key part of those moments landing. I think that's what makes them so special. You’ve got this art form that can create very powerful emotions and memories. If you've got 77 sound effects playing on top of a piece of score at the same time, at the same level, I'm pretty sure that memory won't be as strong or as impactful.


One of the biggest problems with big scale films at the moment is there's a desire to cover every single element of the film in sounds.

I completely agree. I actually re-watched Gladiator the other day, which has my favourite score of all time. The music in the scene where Maximus reveals who he is to Commodus will always stick with me for all the reasons you’ve just talked about.

That’s a fucking great score and I totally remember that scene and I remember what the music does at that exact moment. Which means it’s a great movie moment. You remember those moments. They sink in. If you ever get to pull that off, it’s gold. Also, the mix is great - the music holds back at the end and then you get the roar of the crowd. The sound effects are telling part of the story, the music is telling part of the story, and great storytelling is simple storytelling. You're hearing the roar of the crowd but you're not hearing the horses neighing at the same time or birds flying or metal armour clanking. You only want the key information to have the desired impact.

Moving on to The Trial of the Chicago 7, this project reunited you with Aaron Sorkin. What’s something that you learned working with him on Molly’s Game that served you well on this project? 

Aaron is a very generous collaborator. He's always very upbeat and very enthusiastic. But again, each project is quite different. On Molly's Game, we kind of felt our way through what the film was, but on this one, Aaron had a very strong idea of how he wanted the film to be right from the start. That’s really cool as a composer because often directors haven't really thought enough about how the music should work through film, but Aaron had really thought very heavily about it. 

He basically wanted four key pieces of music: The opening, the two riots, and the ending. And he wanted the opening to be kind of an ironic counterpoint to what you're seeing on screen, the riots to feel like you’re in a riot, and he wanted the ending to really raw and tell you everything is gonna be OK. It's interesting because with the opening I originally tried to score it with some psychedelic rock and he was like no, I don't want that at all. He wanted the music to be a lot more bubble-gum to go against the imagery that you see. The way that that works is very much how he wanted to present that opening, where you've actually got pretty terrible stuff of America basically sliding into a hole of darkness on screen but the music is ludicrously upbeat. And Aaron wanted that juxtaposition and that counterpoint to what you're seeing on screen. It was the same with the end. He wanted a really, really big soaring ending cue. 

And then the riots were like these very visceral scenes. I wanted the viewer to really feel the kind of chaos and energy and physicality of those moments. Those are big bold pieces that I really want the audience to notice. And then around those you have the courtroom music which is generally a lot more restrained and subtle. That’s the music that you hardly notice. It is there to emphasize key beats and key story twists. But it's really about four big pieces, and then the song at the end with Celeste called ‘Hear My Voice’, which I co-wrote and for me is incredibly key to the whole score.

When a director’s vision is that distinct, is that all you need or do you still go to the history books or research the music of the time period for additional inspiration? 

With this one, I was working very closely with Aaron to try and get what he wanted from the score. When the films are finished it always seems really obvious what it should be, but we spent a long time trying to work out how these sequences should work. And, you know, I'd retrofit things so I'd have a thematic idea that might come later. So I'd then be like, let's pull that back. Even though all those elements we just talked about, musically, might be completely different, you’ve got the same theme running all the way through them. 

I think you've also got to look at what the film is. With Aaron's films, the dialogue is such a key part of it that you really have to make sure that you are leaving the space for that. But his writing has an amazing rhythm so you’re trying to pick up on that. So things like the second riot scene which has a cue called Blood On the Streets…I scored that trying to make the music work at the same kind of tempo and rhythm of his writing and the performances of the actors.

You also incorporate Celeste’s voice into the score in really interesting ways… 

I really like that Celeste opens the film and ends the film. For me, she's kind of like the voice of a generation. I feel like she's the voice of contemporary 2020, and with this film, we're back in 1968 and it's trying to make parallels between these two worlds. And that song [Hear My Voice] is the idea of hope and the idea of being able to bring about change. The song is really important for me when you look at the whole structure of the score because the whole score is all working up to that end moment. 

So all these things you hear throughout the film are really about seeding through the ideas that when the song comes in it’s basically saying you need to get your voice heard, which is one of the big messages of the film. I co-wrote the song with Celeste, and we were trying to take a lot of complex ideas in the film and distil them into a very, very simple idea. A protest is really for people who are not getting their voices heard, and that's why they're protesting because they want to hear people hear their voice and hear their dreams for what they want the world to be. So it was really cool to eventually work that out and distil the entire idea of the film into just a few very simple lyrics. 

And what was really weird is we'd written all of that before the world changed around us. I was working on a film set in 1968-69 Chicago, and then all the Black Lives Matter protests in America happened after we'd written the song. So it was amazing that we now had this song that suddenly felt even more current, and all the sentiment and messages behind it work just as well for now as they did in 1969.

Photograph: Tristan Bejawn/ Composer Magazine

COVID has stalled many aspects of the film industry, but many of your recent projects have been on streaming services like Netflix. What’s it been like to work during a pandemic? 

I'm working on an animated film right now. We're not recording that until next summer. I'm just throwing ideas at them at the moment. Every project is slightly different. I did all of Chicago 7 remotely. I met Aaron [Sorkin] once in a bar at LA in January, and then the rest of it we had to do remotely because of COVID. It was quite a weird process of not actually physically seeing anyone, which is a bit of a shame, but we managed to kind of make it work.

You’ve worked with a lot of great directors: Guy Ritchie, Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott…in what ways are they similar and in what ways are they different? 

Every director is completely different. And that is what’s really fascinating, and exciting, and testing. Because every project you do with someone…it's kind of like going into a new relationship. It's probably like dating lots of different people. Once you've worked with them you get to know what they like and what they don't like, and how they like to work and how they don't like to work, and how you get the best out of each other. That's always like a big puzzle, especially in the beginning when you’re trying to suss out each person's personality. And they're all very different. Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle – the way they approach work is completely different. Same with Ridley, same with Aaron. Everyone has a different take, my job as a composer is to sort of work out how I can best serve what they want, and at the same time inject why they hired you into the project. 

You have to remember that most directors have had these films in development for years. I know Aaron had Chicago 7 in development for a very long time. They only get one shot to make it, so you have to understand how much time and effort and headspace they have dedicated to this film. And so you've got to really respect that and understand that you're there to help them achieve what they want from the film, but at the same time, they're hiring you because they like your work and they like your vision. So it's a mix of pushing back when you don't think it’s quite working and trying to convince them if you don't think they're making the right call, while at the same time understanding it's their film. That’s a very tricky balance all the way through because I think if you push back too much they'll just get annoyed, which kind of makes sense. But if you don't push back at all they're probably not gonna get the best score. The key to being a composer trying to do exciting music is just to find that middle ground.

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What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten from a director? 

The best advice actually wasn't from a director. It was from John Powell. He once told me that “in Hollywood, nobody ever wants to hear the word no”.

Every director is different, and every project is different. You get some who are really receptive to some things and not to others. You might have one project which is a relative walk in the park, and the next one's a complete bloodbath. And that will be due to countless reasons. If you've got a film that's not working as well as it should do, a lot of pressure gets thrown on the composer to try and make it work better. And if you've got a film that's working really, really well, you probably don't have to do a lot as a composer and you can probably get away with being very lazy. But, you know, those are the ones where you really, really want to push it as a composer, because that's when you make something really fantastic.

I think every job is always different. I'll have directors I get on with really well, and then I'll be like here is a great piece, it's the key to everything! They'll be like no, I don’t want to hear that ever again. I've had that happen. I've had other times where I’ve pushed on something and they got fed up, and then they go with it and realise it was a really good device. But sometimes I'll be wrong as well. I've had certain things I've pushed on and in retrospect, I'm like, oh, maybe that wasn't what one I should have pushed on. 


The best advice actually wasn't from a director. It was from John Powell. He once told me that in Hollywood, nobody ever wants to hear the word no.

But I think the most important thing is always servicing the film. For me, it’s always about what will make the film the best experience for the audience. If you write music that gets in the way of key information and distracts from key moments in the films – even if it's a great piece of music – then it’s not good film music. But at the same time, there are bits when you can totally amplify scenes through really, really pushing music. There’s a lot of political lobbying that goes on due to things like trying to get people to turn things up in the mix. It's exhausting sometimes. I've had projects where I've had to write pages and pages of emails laying out the emotional story and the reasons to turn the music up and not to turn the music up. Like, ‘the music needs to be loud at this point and this point because of these 10 factors to do with the character's story’, or something like that. 

I think that's one of the sides of being a film composer that people don't really know about. The political side of really just trying to make sure the producers, directors, editor’s studio, and everyone makes the best film possible. At the end of the day, no one wants a film to be rubbish. Even the films that you might think are terrible...no one really goes into them wanting to make a terrible film. Everyone wants to make a good film. So it's your job to try and help them achieve that.

I’m a big fan of your score for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Have you had any discussions with Guy Ritchie about a sequel?

No. I think it's unlikely because I remember asking the producer about it ages ago, and I think all the actors were going to cost too much. So it would cost too much money just to get it off the ground. But I really love The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I'd definitely be up for doing a sequel. 

One sequel you are presumably working on is the follow-up to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. How excited are you to evolve the hip-hop sound you utilised so effectively the first time?

Let's just say that what they do with Spider-Verse 2 is going to make Spider-Verse 1 look like a walk in the park from a compositional point of view. Spider-Verse 2 is both unbelievably exciting and also unbelievably terrifying. I know it's got to be better than Spider-Verse. And, Spider-Verse is pretty good. I'm a fan and you know, I worked on Spider-Verse, so I want the sequel to be one of the best films of this decade. So let's see what happens.

It’s still insane to me that in a year with both Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War – both films that I loved – Spider-Verse was the best superhero film of 2018. And I wasn’t even all that excited for it!

Interesting. I remember doing it, and telling everybody that I’m doing a Spider-Man movie and they'd literally be like “oh, I don't really care about Spider-Man”. And then, because it was an animated Spider-Man movie they were even less interested in it. Even when the film came out loads of people I know were like “I didn’t see it”. And then maybe a year later they're like “oh shit, I saw that and it was amazing!” And I was just like yeah, you should have seen it when I told you to!

What will you miss most about working on The Dark Crystal? Had you started working on any ideas for season 2?

I really love that world of The Dark Crystal. I think Louis Leterrier and everyone at Henson just created something that was so magical and unique, and it was a really fun universe to sort of play with as a composer. But it was also a very giant universe and they have so many episodes, and it was a bit exhausting doing that project. It's a shame it’s not coming back, but at the same time, there are 10 hours of a really magic universe they created. If they did a second series I was looking to play on a bunch of the themes established in the first one and do more variations on them, but I guess it's not happening.

Do you keep up with current scores from your peers? What are you listening to right now?

Yeah. If there’s a good score I’ll always listen to it. I really like Ludwig Göransson’s score for Tenet. I really like Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score for The Third Day. Those are probably the two scores I listened to most recently. I've been listening to this amazing band called Bacao Rhythm & Steel band, who do really awesome cover versions of things like the Crockett theme in Miami Vice on steel drums. It's really cool. 

I don't necessarily keep up with what's current. We have 100 years of music that’s accessible to us in our pockets. So I'm always just trying to soak up anything good I can find from that.

Have you ever considered doing music for big blockbuster trailers? I saw your tweet recently lamenting how boring and predictable some trailers have become, especially when they use a song that has nothing to do with the movie…

Yeah, I've tried to score my own ones. If I'm really involved in a project we try and work on doing that, but it's very difficult because it becomes marketing driven. And it's one of the few places where directors don't actually have a lot of control. I just find it frustrating that marketing decisions are not made in a way that ties up everything someone's trying to create on a film. With Star Wars or Marvel, you wouldn't put a different logo at the end designed by someone else that's got nothing to do with the logo of the film. So why would you do that with the music? When you think of things like Mission: Impossible or James Bond, one of the first things you think about is the music. And that's because they've had that key at their core. And they've always used that very successfully. The Star Wars music is also used very successfully in the branding. But if you don't use that you don't get a stronger connection with a project, and I'm always mystified at the poor choices I feel are made by trailer makers. 

Photograph: Tristan Bejawn/ Composer Magazine

Is there any genre you haven’t worked in yet that you’d like to? Why?

I'd like to do a more unusual sci-fi score. My original background is kind of abstract, avant-garde electronic music, and I haven't actually got to do a score like that. I always try and put abstraction in my ideas, and sort of have avant-garde techniques, but they're often disguised under a slightly more melodic, mainstream sensibility. But, yeah, I would like to try and do something maybe a bit more abstract at some point.

Where does your desire to innovate and think outside the box as much as possible come from?

It stems from being not very good, and it stems from trying to keep yourself engaged with the project. So I think every time you have something new that you haven't tried before, you're instantly kind of fascinated by what it can be. And I think once you start repeating yourself a lot, you become a lot more mundane in how you approach things. Sometimes I think that idea of trying to create something new, is exhausting as well, though. So part of me doesn't mind not having to do that on every project. But I think trying to create a new sound or a new experience or a new way of looking at a piece of music is always very thrilling. 

I want the sound of every project to feel unique to that world or that film. So if you listen to all my scores, hopefully, you hear them and you'd instantly go that’s The Dark Crystal or that’s Spider-Verse, or that’s Chicago 7. If you use the same palette every time, you're not going to be able to do that. If you're writing every score in the same way, you're not going to have that uniqueness.