We chat with composer Darien Shulman about American Vandal…
Season 1 of Netflix’s mockumentary American Vandal followed stoner Dylan Maxwell as he had been accused of spray-painting 27 cars in his school faculty’s parking lot. Season 2 of the breakout hit finds itself with new characters and a new crime, as someone from the elite St Bernadine High School poisons the cafeteria’s lemonade with laxatives. You can imagine what ensues in an event that was later called “the brownout”. Adding to the dark and outrageous subject matter is the stand out score by composer Darien Shulman. It could be difficult to score a project that is one-part mystery, one-part parody but Shulman finds that balance and effectively heightens whatever emotions are thrown at the viewer. In this exclusive interview, Shulman shares what drew him to American Vandal and what kinds of sounds he specifically chose for this project.
How did you become involved with American Vandal?
I’ve been collaborating with Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, the creators of American Vandal, for a long time. We first came into contact over a decade ago when they were undergraduates at Emerson College; I scored several of their (and their friends’) student films. Over the years, we developed a very close professional relationship. I was thrilled when they told me that they wanted to bring me on for American Vandal.
What has been your favorite episode to score of American Vandal? Why did it resonate with you?
It’s a challenge to pick a favorite, because every episode has at least one or two scenes that stand out to me. For example, the cold open in season 2 episode 1 is really striking in the way in contrasts with everything that had happened previous – new city, new school, new crime. It’s a decidedly darker, more serious tone, and the stakes are much higher for everyone involved.
Did you make a conscious effort to change up the tone of Season 2?
Definitely. It was clear from the beginning that this new direction for Vandal would require a new sound palate and new themes. The setting is St. Bernadine, a very conservative Catholic school in Bellevue, Washington. The crimes of the Turd Burglar have actual victims. So the score sounds more like that of a psychological thriller; the orchestration is denser, the sounds more dissonant. A lot of the familiar melodies of season 1 are brought back, but they are heavily reimagined.
Does the director of the show, Tony Yacenda, have a lot of say about how he wants the score to sound? Or do you have full creative freedom to decide?
One of the things that makes Tony such a great director is his ability to provide input without being overbearing or dictatorial. His direction always allows me to maintain a certain level of creativity, even when his notes are very specific. It was Tony’s suggestion that we lean more heavily on electronic elements and I thought that instinct was spot on, considering how much of this season takes place in the digital world of social media. From there, he let me figure out exactly what kind of electronic sounds would be used, and how they would be fused with more traditional methods of scoring. It’s a true collaboration, and I really appreciate it.
Was it hard to find the right sound for the show because at first glance the show has a serious demeanor, but the dialogue is actually quite humorous? So one is always wondering if you should laugh or not.
Throughout the entire process, in both seasons, I treated Vandal as if it were a real true-crime documentary series. I feel very strongly that the humor in the dialogue would be diluted if I were to try to musically wink at the jokes. The juxtaposition of serious music with ridiculous subject matter actually heightens the satire.
What has been the most challenging part of scoring American Vandal?
In my experience, the most challenging part of any composing job is that first day, when no music has been written yet, and you’re staring at a huge blank canvas. It can be incredibly daunting! But once you’re brave enough to put down an idea, other ideas soon follow, and you quickly build creative momentum. So what starts as a the biggest challenge ultimately turns into the biggest gratification.
Is there another show you are currently watching that you think the score is particularly good?
There’s so much great stuff out there right now. I just finished the David Fincher series Mindhunter (also on Netflix) and I’m absolutely obsessed with Jason Hill’s score. That music is really striking and unique. I also absolutely love Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon’s music for Stranger Things.
Thanks to Darien Shulman for taking the time for this interview.