Alex Moreland talks to composer Nathaniel Blume about Prodigal Son, his musical influences, and more…
So, how did you first get involved with Prodigal Son?
I first noticed that this was being developed by Chris Fedak – he has a partner on this one named Sam Sklaver, but I’ve worked with Chris previously on a show called Deception on ABC a couple years ago. When I read the premise [of Prodigal Son], I was definitely very interested in the project and definitely interested in working with Chris again because he’s great. So, I got in touch with him – really early in the process, months before the script was really ready, and got on the radar. Sure enough, when pilot season came around, I got back in touch with him, and the wheels started rolling on the project.
Earlier, I was reading another interview with you where you spoke about how you started writing the music by sampling sounds from surgical tools, a bone cutter, that sort of thing. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
One of the central characters is a serial killer named The Surgeon; I got on eBay and found a surgical tool kit, a pair of bone cutters, things like that. We have a nice live room here at the studio, and I just set up shop in there, laying out all the various tools on a table, as well as a plastic tarp to approximate a body bag sound. We just turned on the recorder, and I went to town with all the various things that I had.
There was a little bit of a process afterwards of going through and finding the best sounds, and chopping them up, and making musical instruments out of them on the computer – essentially attaching all of those sounds to the keys on the keyboard, so that it became a playable instrument, almost like a drum pad of sorts, for the percussive elements. When I wrote the initial suite after reading the script, it came in handy to use those sounds as a starting point for the show.
Do you often start with that sort of… not method acting, but method composing, as it were?
Not always, in terms of creating original sounds by going into the studio and recording them. But it certainly does start with finding the instrumentation, which could be acoustic instruments, or that could also mean synthetic software instruments. I mean, there’s just loads and loads of companies and libraries out there, so there’s plenty of opportunity to create a unique sound by picking one thing from this library, and one thing from that library, and mixing it with violins, and maybe extend the techniques on the string instruments, and trying to create a soundscape based on the themes of that particular project. But yes, I was just kind of inspired to find something even more original, something that no one really had out there, which was these surgical instruments, bone cutters, and whatnot.
Prodigal Son isn’t exactly a straightforward procedural – it’s got a bit more of darkly comedic tone, and you’ve said it skews a bit more towards a thriller than a crime drama. How do you try and reflect that in your score?
Where we can find the opportunity to do so, we want it to feel fun. Although I wouldn’t say we go too light on the score – we don’t really want to play as a comedy, necessarily, we don’t want to sting the jokes too much. Maybe leaving space for the jokes seems appropriate here and there, but whether we’re having pizzicato strings lighten the mood, or a twinkly piano or something, that’s not necessarily always the style of the show. I think all the actors are extremely strong, so their delivery is plenty to get the jokes across. The score just maintains the mood, either being at a crime scene or [when the main character is] at the prison with his father. That’s the role of the music, not necessarily to sting the comedy.
Are you still working on Prodigal Son at the moment, or have you finished writing the music for the series?
Yeah. Well, we actually just got news a couple weeks ago that Fox bought nine more episodes. So, I’m on… right now, I’m on episode 7 of 22 for this first season.
Ah, congratulations! This might be getting a bit ahead then, but have you had a chance to think ahead much about you might approach the music for Prodigal Son if it continues for a few more years?
Well, I really hope that’s the case! I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, but I am curious to see. Because they just added these nine episodes, I’m not sure if they’re going to consider season one still one, large arc, or if the thirteen that had been previously bought, if that’s going to be an arc that gets closed, and then we have another one for the next time. If that’s the case, then I may have to think about how we feel the next arc.
Otherwise, we’ll probably wrap on post-production for season one around April or May, and then I’ll have a few months to mull over season two. But it is a challenge! Since I’m on Arrow and The Flash right now, and Arrow’s in season eight, and The Flash in season six, we’re always trying to find ways to freshen it up, but it still has to feel like the show.
On the flip side, then, writing music for an ongoing television series is obviously quite a different task than writing music for a discrete film. Do you have a preference, in terms of writing music for film or for television?
I wouldn’t say I necessarily have a preference, but you do have to embrace the pluses and the minuses of each when you are working on those projects. A TV schedule is extremely gruelling, it’s just a grind of one episode after the next. Sometimes, you only have a week until the next one. For instance, for these first seven episodes, it was back to back for seven weeks straight. We finally get a little bit of a break here, before episode eight – only two weeks by the way, which isn’t extremely luxurious, but it’s something.
So, you do have to lean on what you’ve done so far, and be able to take previous cues, to make them new and adapt them as you go – but you also have to be constantly coming up with new material every week. It’s difficult, but also putting yourself in that position with the pressure can be a little bit liberating as well, because you just need to get these ideas out. You can’t overthink it or second-guess yourself: you’re just throwing all these ideas at the picture to see what works.
Whereas a film, while you usually have a lot more time, you also just have, whatever it is, maybe a 90-minute film. You have that much space to come up with ideas and develop them. For this 22-episode season of Prodigal Son, with at least 30 minutes of score per episode, we’re talking 11 hours of music right there. So, it’s just different. You have to know the game for each, and just embrace it, I guess.
You’ve also written the music for the CNN documentary series The Decades. What sort of challenges did that present, in terms of evoking different time periods?
On the surface, the first thing I think is that I’m writing music to convey the mood for… for the 60s and the 70s for instance, two decades that I didn’t live in. Or the 80s, when I was a kid – I was there, but I wasn’t experiencing all of these political events and everything in the same way that I would as an adult, with an adult perspective. There’s that process of trying to immerse myself in that time, not having been there, but still collaborating with the producers and trying to bring to it what they were asking for.
But it ended up not being extremely difficult in that regard because we also didn’t go for a period approach to the score. It was more of a timeless, orchestral approach. There wasn’t so much pressure to make it feel like you were in 1965, but rather the feelings and emotions that you would’ve experienced if you were there on a more human level.
A while ago I was talking to another composer, and she said there was a perception that drama composers wouldn’t be able to do documentaries, and vice versa. Have you ever come across that perception yourself?
Luckily, I don’t think I have really come across that. The distinction I would see is that there does still exist a little bit of a wall between TV and film still, in general, where there are very successful TV composers who get thought of as TV composers, and it’s hard for them to break into film. But I think those lines are being blurred more and more these days, just with the sheer amount of quality TV that’s out there now. And it’s nice that there are more producers who just see that that’s a really good piece of score for that project, and that could apply to my project. So I think it’s a little bit less that way these days. But I hadn’t really seen that perception, or experienced that perception, between drama and documentary.
For a few instalments of The Decades, you collaborated with Blake Neely, who you’ve also worked with on The Flash and Arrow and so on. How does that sort of collaborative relationship influence your creative process?
Blake has definitely been a mentor of mine for years, and I’ve learned a lot from him. At first, it came from a place where I’m watching someone who’s at the top of his game in the TV world and learning how to be efficient, how to work on multiple projects at the same time, and all of these things. Now we work side-by-side together, and it’s really fun to have someone to lean on when there’s so much music that you have to do each week.
Maybe one week, it’s like, “Can you take the villain this week? Because I did so much villain work last week. And I’ll take the comedy on The Flash or something”. So, it’s nice to have someone to be able to talk to, and come up with ideas, and share the workload with. It’s definitely different than working on a show like Prodigal Son, where I’m all by myself, and I don’t have that person to bounce ideas off of or share the workload.
What would you say are your chief musical influences?
I think it’s really inspiring I get to work where I do. I’m at a studio in North Hollywood, and Blake is here, and there’s a couple of other composers that do other shows with Blake. Everyone, or almost everyone, in the building is a composer or a musician of some sort, and we all have lots of work on our plate, we’re all dealing with multiple deadlines and things like that. It’s really nice to have someone in the next room who’s going through the same thing that you are, and just being able to talk about it, and share in it. And when you see someone else doing a really good job and pumping out a lot of work week after week after week, it’s definitely inspiring to see and to be around. It helps you kind of keep moving – or it helps me, at least, to just be around other people who are equally as good of a work horse. I would say that, for sure.
Finally, then – what would you most like someone to take away from listening to your music?
I would like for there to be something that doesn’t sound like something they’ve heard before, especially in the rest of the genre. So if there is someone, for instance, who comes to Prodigal Son because they like crime procedurals, I would hope that maybe they notice the music a little bit and feel like it fits the show, but it’s maybe not necessarily what they expected, exactly, in a crime procedural – even if only little bit. I just hope that someone experiences something that they didn’t quite expect.
Nathaniel Blume, thank you very much!
Prodigal Son is airing now, Mondays on Fox. Picture of Nathaniel Blume: Robyn Von Swank.