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"The best kind of music comes from experimentation and messing up" - on Scoring 'Steve Jobs'

Daniel PembertonAs we move towards the Oscars each year the public tendency is to look back and reassess the most interesting contributions to cinema in a given year. From this impulse, a good one we'd argue, top ten lists, "best ofs" and awards traction are born. Though the legendary names of film scoring all seemed to be quite active this year -- even recently absent giants like Morricone and Williams -- some of the most innovative and exciting work was being done by the relative newcomers.

One of the buzziest among them is the 38 year old composer Daniel Pemberton. He made an award-winning name for himself in British television but his feature film work only began in force just a few years ago with highly praised work on the supernatural period drama The Awakening (2011). It's safe to say that 2015 will be regarded as his breakout year. He did stylish rethink work on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and in just a few weeks he'll presumably be at the Golden Globes where he's nominated for his innovative triple-scoring of Steve Jobs

Will an Oscar nomination follow? It's tough to say given the temperament of Oscar's notoriously insular music branch but it would not be undeserved. He recently spoke with The Film Experience about innovation, 80s synthesizers, and how he'll keep it fresh moving forward.

NATHANIEL R: So I'll be up front with you. I find music, particularly scoring, completely mysterious. I can read music and play piano a bit but it feels like a foreign language. How does a film composer even discover their talent for it? 

DANIEL PEMBERTON: I basically started messing around with on the piano when I was very young, and I just started writing music just for fun. And then one day I saved up enough money to buy myself a synthesizer and a tape recorder, and I started making music. Pretty much from that is how I got to here!

NATHANIEL R" But there are so many different careers in music. Did you imagine yourself as this type of composer or did you want to be a rock star when you were young? [More...]

DANIEL PEMBERTON: You know, if you were like a rock star or something, you’re often better known than your work. The thing I’ve always wanted -- I’ve always wanted my work to speak louder than me. I think that’s the best thing about being a film composer; your work is better known than you, what you actually produce and what you make is bigger than the person. And all the people I liked growing up, their music was kind of like that.

NATHANIEL R: So here's a thing I find curious about film scoring versus traditional composition. When you’re writing the music are you thinking of the work being able to stand on its own, like when people listen to soundtracks, or are you only thinking about it in terms of what it’s doing in connection to the images?

DANIEL PEMBERTON: You can write a great piece of music but it might stamp all over everything in the film. So actually the most important thing is what works in the film. When it comes to the soundtrack albums, I always try and make what I’ve done for the film a listening experience. Sometimes that means remixing things or reediting things. Because I’m quite a soundtrack nerd myself, and I love good soundtrack albums, I always spend more time on that than normal to make the best listening experience.

If you have a film like The Man from UNCLE, the music is incredibly upfront, strong and bold, because that’s what the film needed, whereas with Steve Jobs, the music has got a very different job, a very different purpose. You've got to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of the dialogue and the performances, because they’re such an integral part of the film. At the same time, you’ve got to give it momentum, you’ve got to give it emotion and hit the story beats, and still try to create something that has an identity. It can still fit within the film without getting in the way.

NATHANIEL R: Right. And Steve Jobs is very much a dialogue picture.

DANIEL PEMBERTON: When music becomes overpowering, it’s not going to help the film, because the music takes over. You’re not going to take in the story, you’re not gonna take in the dialogue, it distracts from the actors’ performances. When I first got the script, I got a nearly 195 page script. I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing. But what am I gonna do? There’s no real space for music.' But that’s what’s fantastic about working with a guy like [director]  Danny Boyle. He wants to constantly give amazing visual information and he wanted to do the same with the music. He wanted a really rich score. We could have done quite a boring score, but he’s got such a great mind and such an easiness and openness in trying to push what we can do with cinema, and film and music, larger than what you would expect. So early on we talked about embracing the Apple slogan, 'Think different.'

The film is shot in different formats for each of the three acts. Were you given any sort of similar instruction to think of compartmentalizing the music that way?

Yes. When we first met, he described the film in this fantastic way. 'It's three acts, three very clear acts. The first act is vision, the second act is revenge, the third act is wisdom.' We talked about trying to write it as three different scores. So the first act, 1984, the launch of the Macintosh, we wanted to embrace the optimism of the time, the belief and potential of technology and computers and how they would change our lives and change the world.

 The synthesizer felt like such an obvious choice, because it was something that felt very of the period and also of the future, the same as computers did at that time. And so I basically started writing that act on synthesizers that only fit in in 1984. I ended up buying a lot of old synthesizers, which is kind of a nightmare when you’re used to modern technology, and going back in that time and working as if you were composing as if it were 1984 was totally different. Those limitations changed how I wrote that score. I had to put myself in the mind of a composer in 1984, and you’re affected by like things like, 'Oh... If I want to get a new noise on one of my synthesizers, I have to spend a long time programming it!' And when you find the right sound, you take a photo of it so you can do it again, because the machines have literally no memory!

That's fascinating. It's so hard to even remember before modern technology.

[Now] you can just click a few songs, next one, next one, next one, and next one. Whereas if you’re pulling a record out and you’re putting it on a record player, you’re going to be listening to it differently. Doing that first act, I’m using keyboards that can only take one note at a time, and you have to play them by hand, because they won’t even talk to any modern computing technology. And that changes the way you write.

And the second act? 

Danny describes it as the Shakespearean tragedy, and a tale of revenge, he wanted it to be theatrical and dramatic, and it’s set in the San Francisco Opera House. So we were kind of like, 'Why don’t we write an opera?' It’s like a massive orchestral score for the second act. 

I love "A Circus of Machines," is that what it’s called?

Yeah. It's kind of a crazy idea when you’ve got this script that’s so heavy and so dense with information, the last thing you kind of think that would work would be a 74 piece orchestra going for it for like an hour!

But I love that part. I'm not sure if the soundtrack is ordered the same as the film with the tracks. There are pieces that seem to be callbacks to previous pieces and I don't remember this much of the opera in the film.

 Yeah, there’s – I mean the soundtrack, even with the opera pieces in the film, we ended up taking a lot of the soprano and the chorus stuff out or really down because it battled too much with the dialogue. And there are pieces where for the soundtrack I’ve remixed them or made them longer, because who wants to listen to cues that lasts one to ten seconds when you could have one cue that lasts four minutes and has more progression?

The soundtrack is not in the chronological order of the film, because I kind of found that boring to listen to, not a very good listening experience. But yeah in the film there are callbacks, like you have the father/daughter theme that plays with Lisa, and that’s echoed in the end when Steve talks about his own father.

I particularly love how that repetition goes from a higher pitch (child) to a lower pitch (father). I was just listening to that.

Speaking of callbacks... the original TV show of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has such a famous theme which you only hear once in the film, briefly. So was that daunting at all?  Did you have to have a massive ego to take on a project like that? [Laughs]

DANIEL PEMBERTON: No. Guy Ritchie wanted to approach that film in a very different way -- he didn’t really want to use the original theme. He wanted to do an original take. So you have to respect what the director wants to do, and I was really pleased with how that turned out, because I basically got to live out my 1960s by film composing. I mean it’s so different form Steve Jobs.

The best thing about being a film composer is that you can kind of embrace these different types of music and this is almost a result of the world that Steve Jobs and Apple kind of created. They were kind of the first people in computers to understand the artistic side of computing, the creative side that technology depends on. I would not have been able to have a year where I got to write a crazy 1960s throwback score, an opera on synthesizers, and some weird digital sound designs if I didn’t live in an era where technology could help me create those scores! 

You’re still in the beginning of your film career, but I noticed on your website it says, 'No two scores will sound the same.' Your scores have been very eclectic, which is great. But a lot of composers start working a lot once people realize how good they are. They do like four or five movies a year. How will you keep it fresh going forward since you're more in demand?

I don’t know. I’m going to try to not be the composer that takes on a million jobs a year. Because I don’t have any assistance, I don’t have a team of people who do all the writing for me. I do everything myself. Which means I have to be really on top of everything. I have to turn down tons of movies because I don’t want to become a factory. When people do too many scores sometimes, you can tell it quietly suffers. And I’d rather create work that’s interesting and new.

But that’s hard to say because you don’t know what the project’s gonna be. Even though I'm kind of fresh in the film business, I’ve been doing TV music for 20 years now. I was trying to do that all through TV, and I kind of sort of got away with doing stuff most of the time. Whether I can continue that in film, I don’t know, but it would be great if I could. That would be great typecasting -- 'You’re the guy who doesn’t do the same thing every time!'

[laughs] That would be quite a feather in the cap, because a lot film scores, people who’ve been around for a while, you’re like, 'Ooh, that’s a ___ score.' Not that it’s bad to have a signature.

The problem is now, everyone just temps movies, the scores are based on other movies, and then they temp scores, and so on. You know you're kind of a soundtrack nerd when you’re like, 'Oh there’s that cue that someone had to rip off. They used The Dark Knight Rises again on the score.'  When I come on a film, I usually come on right at the beginning. Like on this film, I was collaborating with Danny all the way through the process, from script before they start shooting to the final day of mixing. So you become a really integral part of the film as opposed to someone who just turns up at the end. As a result of that, you can experiment more. There’s so much you can do with film music. If you get in early enough on a project, you can keep it a crazy exciting medium. The best kind of music comes from experimentation and messing up!

More on: Steve Jobs, The Man From UNCLE, composers
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Reader Comments (3)

I recall that his work on The Counselor was pretty excellent as well. The film was such a bomb that no one really noticed.

December 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I know this post and interview are about the man's work, so I apologize in advance, but Daniel Pemberton looks like Ryan Gosling cast in a biopic of Richard Linklater.

December 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

Brevity - HAHA. I love it. that's a good mix of men, though.

December 28, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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