Alex Moreland chats with composer Dominic Lewis…
So, first of all, how did you first get involved with DuckTales?
How did I get involved? Well, I had a meeting with the head of Disney TV, a long time ago, two years ago, and we’ve been trying to work together for a long time, but my schedule just wasn’t aligning with what they needed. Eventually, DuckTales came around, they offered it to me, and I jumped at the chance, with it being a large part of my childhood and very close to my heart, so it was great to get involved with it.
When something is so close to your childhood like that, how did that influence the way you approached it?
It is a weird one, because you don’t want to mess with people’s memories and something close to their heart really, so you do have to tread very carefully. But at the same time, you do want to focus on the nostalgia and to draw paths with the old one, because you wanna create some new and something cool and something that kids today can get involved in, while also having something for parents too, so we can watch it and remember the good old days of spending Saturday mornings watching DuckTales. So, approaching that, my first breach on the project was getting involved with the main title, the new version of Mark Mueller’s main titles.
And I think at the time, they really tried to make it fresh for kids, to make it fresh and cool and modern, and in doing so they got rid of – I mean the theme tune for me is the biggest and closest thing to my heart, I absolutely adored it and it’s still in my iTunes library now, even before I got the gig. So, you know they’ve really gone for it, and some of the chords have changed and I was a bit like “oh, I don’t like what you’ve done there guys, I don’t think you can change the chords”, so we changed the chords back, the very memorable Jerry Hay horn line wasn’t in there. And I know the executive didn’t want horns because they thought it was too much of a call-back and it sounded a little bit 80s. So, we decided to do a string arrangement, and I did a string arrangement, brought it into this new world and they wanted a big, cinematic approach, so I put the strings in the new titles and made it sound a bit Jerry Hay horn like, but on strings.
So that was my first experience, that was the most kind of treading on eggshells, really nervous about even touching the main titles because it’s so beloved by everybody. And then when it came to the show and recording the episodes, it was just kind hard to do my thing, a big orchestral, cinematic with hybrid – they’re going all over the world in these episodes. It ranges from Chinese to Egyptian music to whacky, kind of, Chuck-e Cheese music. For English people, that’s like a chain out here, I don’t know what it’s similar to. It’s like pizza with video games, it’s crazy. But yeah, that kind of influenced what my hybrid sounds would be, and then the orchestra, much like the original, is the tentpole of the theme.
You’re also working on The Man in the High Castle. With series three coming soon, where are you taking the sound design his year, and how’s is it going to develop?
Well, I’ve got the first episode tomorrow. I’m very excited to see where they’ve gone with it. I’ve had a number of phone conversations with the executive producers about where we’re gonna try and go with this season, and I think we’re gonna try and pull it back, gonna try and go a bit more minimal with it. Last season, really big and epic, the end of the world was at stake, and I think we’re gonna go back a little to where the pilot kind of was, with a very smallish imitation. Not commenting so much on the action, and really letting the picture do a lot of the work. And both in kind of, how much music there is in the episode and… not necessarily mimicking what’s happening on screen but more like what we should be feeling about it. If there’s a big fat action sequence going on, we could be feeling sad for these people and not getting wrapped up in the action.
That’s the way the music is gonna go – just an extra notch to really try and think about what the audience need to be feeling emotionally. And that’s not all the time, of course, there’s gonna be times where you’re gonna get swept up by the action, but we really wanna think about those moments where we wanna reflect and, kind of, in a feature way, where it’s not really obvious, not to do the first thing that you think of and really think about what people and what the audience are gonna be thinking. Specifically, I don’t really know as for sound, as I haven’t sat down and gone through my sequences yet, I haven’t gone through it and started yet, but I think it’s gonna be a lot more minimal. Probably not relying so much on the orchestra this season. Looking to find different instruments that can shape these characters journeys.
How do you try and reflect character and theme through music?
How do I reflect them? Yeah, it’s tricky, when I first started doing this I’d have to watch it a number of times. Of course, then they were introing the characters and what you initially feel about them, but to really get to grips with what they’re going through and to really understand what to do musically, I have to watch it a few times. And reading scripts help because you can really get to grips with what’s going on. That you’re not distracted or caught up in the world in front of the TV; it’s all very romantic and it looks great on paper. I find that after watching it, you’re back on the script and see what needs to happen. You know, certain instruments do certain things – the cello, partly because I can play it, but for most people it has an emotional quality and versality with the voice of Juliana.
She has so many things to her… you know, she’s this very emotional character, and at the beginning of her journey she’s very delicate. And then she becomes this action hero by season two and she’s a complete badass. And the cello can do that. There are more obvious choices for the German thing – sort of east coast, rough instruments reflect the bombastic nature of Nazis, which would have been stereotypical, but there’s a reason why it works. And the more complex characters. Smith kind of inherits bits of both worlds. Like during the piano moment, you feel it, you feel pain and sad, but at the same time he’s a Nazi, so, you know, there are other instruments that play into the scene too. But they’re a very different level for that character. So, one instrument can capture all of it. But I hope that answered the question!
Yeah, that was really interesting! Now, you’ve also done the score for quite a few movies X-Men, Money Monster – and I was wondering how your approach is different between movies and television, and what each, sort of, different demands what format on?
Yeah, I mean they are very different. My initial approaches are very similar, which is to find themes and motifs that are gonna work after watching the movie and reading the script. And then I think the main difference is time – obviously with the movie, there’s not all the time. With Money Monster, I had three and a half weeks for the whole thing, that’s not very long… On TV, you work week by week with a TV show, an episode of the TV show, and the normal time for movie is about six to eight months. So, there’s a lot more time to go through ideas, think about stuff, to go down the wrong path then bring yourself back with a movie – which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
The great thing with TV is that you just have to rely on your experience and just go for it, because you don’t have time to go “oh, is that the right thing?” You just go for it and hope you’ve made the right decision or the director, producer, or number of executives will tell you you’ve made the wrong decision and you have to fix it in 24 hours [laughs] But TV is exciting because of the time frame. You really just have to, like, “I like this idea, I’m gonna go with it.” Whereas with movies, you have more time to just sort of go through it. “I like this idea, but I like this idea.” And then, and for me personally, that can be dangerous because I go down the rabbit hole and after two days I come back saying “Oh that’s terrible, I wanna do this”. So, they’re very different, and I love both, I love both of them. And I like to do both because it keeps me on my toes. I think if I just did movies, it would get – not boring – just having a different pace, doing two things at the same time, it’s good for me, and I enjoy it.
I just want to pick up on what you were saying at the beginning there in finding different moments and motifs. When you’re scoring something, do you do it chronologically in order, or do you build outwards from those key moments?
Yeah, I mean, normally I like to go in order, only because I can see where I’m coming from. But, sometimes, a director will say “I really want you to start with this. This is ‘the moment’ and I want everything to span out from this point.” So, in those situations, it’s tricky for me because I do like to go in order, a sort of discovery process, because I find when I score a movie, if I start from the beginning, then I’m going through the journey, and I want the audience to go through that journey, living the movie. If I had to begin in the middle, then I have to recalibrate a little bit. Because the director wants it, this is the moment for him, and we can’t move on until he knows this is the right thing.
So, I have to sit down, score the movie without actually scoring it, until the moment, and then go back. A lot of the times, I’ll be scoring a movie, and I’ll get to the middle, and I’ll really nail it, and be like “oh, I have to go back and change that, because then that relates to that.” So sometimes it happens without me knowing, that I’m not going in chronological order, but it does help my brain, especially with the movies that have a lot of songs in them. To work in and out of songs and make everything fit. It really helps my brain if I’m going plot point to plot point to get a sense of where I am, if it’s working. If I’m going in for like different bits of the movie, and there are songs, I just kind of go through the fog. But if I go from the beginning, I really know my arc, and I’m gonna do a better job.
Yeah, that makes sense to me. On another note, then, what would you say are your chief musical influences?
Uhm, I was a cello player, my dad got me into it, until I was about 16 and then I found hobbies and cooler things to do than play the cello! But I still play it, I play it a little bit on my other projects. I mean I play a lot of things sort of, okay. I dabble on the piano, that’s the way I write. I’d say piano and cello are my two main things, and I dabble in guitar and other keyboard instruments, but I’m not great at them!
What would be your desert island discs?
Oh wow. Um…how many do I get?
I think five is conventional.
Okay, five. Umm… Off the Wall by Michael Jackson. Abbey Road, the Beatles. I’d have Four Last Songs… What else would I do…? Ugh, this is hard! Ooh, what would I have, what would I have? I’d need some… I’d have Revolver in there. And my last one would be… I just don’t know. It would have to be another classical theme though, I’d just get bored of pop music. It would be…um…probably, um, Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.
Would it be too cruel to get you to narrow that down to one of the five?
Cut it down to one?! I don’t think I could live without Off the Wall. So, it’d have to be Off the Wall.
Okay. Now, so, like you were saying, you play the cello and you’ve got classical training. Do you think that influences your approach, to draw on those things and – you went to the Royal Academy of music, didn’t you?
Yes, I did, yeah. It’s amazing. I think it’s – I got very lucky to have grown up listening to the things that I listened to, and having the influences of my parents, and lucky I had an older sister who is into all sorts of stuff, so I’ve had a very eclectic selection of music in my iTunes and in my head. So, while your mum and dad was listening to opera and very classical music, my sister was listening to drum and bass and all sorts of crazy stuff. She introduced me to (Brit Pop) and just a whole range of stuff.
And that has sculpted the way in which I write a lot, you know like George Bolton having that same sort of background influencing me, and having that pop-classical mix, I think it’s really great. And it enables me to do multiple genres for film and TV. One minute I’m doing Money Monster, which is very electronic and crazy weird sounds, and the next minute I’m doing DuckTales, which is very orchestral with pop stuff thrown in. So, having a broad range of background knowledge of different genres is invaluable. I can’t thank my parents enough for letting me listen to all this stuff, and making me practice the cello, and I feel very lucky.
Just a final question then – what’s the main thing that you hope someone takes away from listening to your music?
Wow. that’s a really good question. You know, obviously my job is to serve the picture. And that is my first box on my criteria for my music. But being a musician, you do want to walk away and remember it. You want people to – aside from “oh, I have a sound” which is what every composer is looking for, sort of mould their sound into the world of the movie – but I want people to remember my music, and remember it with the movie, in the way that Hans does it, all those great guys. You know, it becomes part of the film, becomes part of the franchise. And that’s what I would love people to take away from my stuff. My tunes, my markings, becomes associated with the movie as much as those guys. Then I’ve done my job properly.
Dominic Lewis, thank you very much!
DuckTales launches in the UK with the Woo-oo! Special this November on Disney Channel. Catch the full series in Spring 2018.