Interview: Oscar-Shortlisted Composer Daniel Pemberton Talks ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Four-time Golden Globe nominee, Daniel Pemberton, has been receiving plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding his score for Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, and Netflix’s Best Picture hopeful, The Trial of the Chicago 7. He’s also on the Oscar Shortlist for the film’s original song “Hear My Voice,” which he co-wrote with British singer-songwriter Celeste.

On Wednesday afternoon–evening in the UK where Daniel was calling from–we convened on Google Meet to chat about the Oscar buzz surrounding his score and song. We also spoke about what influences him as a composer and how music and screenplays work together.

Read the full, transcribed interview below:

Miles Foster: So, you’ve been getting a lot of Oscar buzz around your work on Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, The Trial of the Chicago 7. Personally, I think it’s a really great addition to your already impressive body of work. Your work’s been very versatile, working electronic influences into the score of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and jazz into the score of Motherless Brooklyn. What was your creative process when it came to developing the genre of music for the score of The Trial of the Chicago 7.

Daniel Pemberton: I think, like with every film I do, I try to create something unique for that project. I don’t come into any project like “here’s my sound, this is my system.” It’s more like “what’s going to work best for this film and make the most emotional, unique, cinematic experience and the most engaging experience for the viewer.” And I’m always thinking about the audience and what’s going to make it the most exciting and engaging it could be, really. With [The Trial of the] Chicago 7, I met up with Aaron Sorkin a little bit over a year ago–It was actually at the last Golden Globes when I was there for Motherless Brooklyn. I was in LA, so we arranged to meet at a cocktail bar to talk about film. And already he had mapped out sort of how he wanted the film to work musically, which is actually quite rare for a director to be so astute and aware of the impact score can have on a project. He had already mapped out that there would be these four big pieces in the film: the opening piece, the two riots, and the ending. He talked a lot originally about how these four bits of music have to carry the movie. That’s where we initially started, trying to look at how we make these things work as effectively as they can. And then there’s a more subtle part of the score that is more discreet; it has to almost be invisible, and that’s the courtroom music and that’s really about highlighting specific emotional beats and story moments. And then you have these four big pieces that are meant to be really full, strong characters in their own way.

MF: I know it’s important for the screenplay and score to work hand in hand, how the music has to capture what each scene is showing. For example, during the riot scenes, there were many more rock elements. What inspired you to use those certain influences rather than booming orchestral themes?

DP: With the riot sequences, I really wanted to kind of like throw the audience into the middle of the riots and really give a sense of the moment. One of the things I found most interesting about that was that I needed to capture a sense of tension and a sense of chaos and a sense of physicality. The idea of using a kind of rock lineup was exciting because it has far more instability, and there was a lot more opportunity for chaos and a lack of control. When you work with an orchestra, a big orchestra, in some ways it’s a bit like an army. It’s actually quite difficult to get real chaos in that uncontrolled way. And if you look at, like, how that whole sequence often works, the beginning where the crowd is kinda marching together and the music is actually quite stable, there’s like a stability to it, with kind of a militaristic beat underneath it. But as the tension grows, you feel the other elements start to push it more and more and it grows rather unstable until it eventually explodes and then it goes crazy. And I wanted that sound of that explosion and to really get you feeling what it’s like being in the crowd, because you can feel the tensions growing and you can’t control a crowd. And one of the things I wanted to work with was the guitar feedback in there, because you can’t control the guitar feedback. You can try to tame it, but it’s almost out of your hands. I wanted that feeling in the score because when that riot kicks off, no one’s in control. So I’m musically trying to make a score that almost feels like it’s just about to fall apart but it’s somehow, somewhat holding it together. 

MF: Are there any composers that have inspired your work, especially on this film? Or even, outside of composing and music, where do you draw your inspiration from?

DP: I mean, I draw my inspiration from everything and try to pull inspiration from anywhere I can. If you actually look at the riot, in some ways what inspired me there is actually sometimes more like visual artists in the way they might work. Someone like Pollock or Picasso the way they’ll work incredibly quickly with very deft lines in the way they paint. I try to do that with the music where I make very distinctive choices so there is an element of random to them. But I try to contain that within a musical form. So the riot sequences, if you watch that whole sequence, the first sequence, there are all these points that I’m trying to hit and trying to institute random elements and chaotic elements alongside the element of control. Sorry to get boring and techy. But musically– there’s loads of things– I’m sort of like a magpie, I’ll just take inspiration from anywhere. Anything from like the music of Jimi Hendrix to like John Cale to Gene Krupa and they’ve all just been thrown into the mix of what I’m doing. You know like– a tiny little thing– Buffalo Springfield they have that great protest song [For What It’s Worth] and there’s just a really great guitar sound. Sort of that “ping… ping” that’s like a little guitar sound with a tremolo going on. I tried to incorporate that as a very small element in courtroom scenes that gives you a slight sense of […] but is something very different.

MF: Now, the song from the movie, “Hear My Voice,” has also been receiving lots of praise and Oscar buzz as well. What was the process that went into creating the music and writing the lyrics with Celeste, and how does it fit into the film to sort of cap it off?

DP: Well “Hear My Voice” is interesting because Aaron always talked about wanting to end the film on a song and try to allow people some kind of cathartic moment at the end and an element of hope and optimism. So I started thinking about doing a song for the end, so I thought about an effective way of doing that. I started fiddling around on my own and the hardest thing is how to encapsulate an entire film into one song. Like “what is the film about?” And I was looking at it and I was thinking that if you look at this film, it’s about justice, it’s about democracy, it’s about protest. And I was like, “why do people protest?” People protest because no one’s listening to them. And the only way they can be listened to is through the act of protest; it’s the only way they can make themselves heard. It’s the only way they can get their voice heard. And suddenly I thought “Ah… hear my voice.” And I kind of came up with a very simple idea and it was really powerful because it encapsulated everything about the film. So I started writing a melody, sort of starting it off, but I only got so far and I knew I needed to work with someone else to finish the song. I was a huge fan of Celeste’s work already in the UK and I thought she would be really perfect– she’s like a perfect choice for what I wanted to convey with the song. So I reached to her and she was up for it which was amazing. And so then we kind of tried to carry on finishing the song over lockdown, which was really surreal, because none of us could leave our houses at the time. Like we were kind of working together over like WhatsApp and Zoom and FaceTime. I was having to send her terrible voice memos of my ideas of how we should sing it and then she’d send me ones that were much better. But even then we were trying to do a recording so I could play it for Aaron and she was recording voice memos on her WhatsApp in her bathroom, and the sound wasn’t good enough so we were trying to get her a microphone and tech lessons over FaceTime on how to record it. But we started recording and we’d work on some lyrics back and forth and then eventually we kind of got the song into shape where it was good enough to show Aaron. And then Aaron heard it and loved it and then eventually we got the chance to go into the studio and do it properly. But I’m really proud of the song. Another thing about the song is we originally wrote it for the film and the events of ‘68 and ‘69. By the time we finished it, the world around us had changed and the ideas behind the song were really universal, it turns out, for so many. Even more relevant today. Aaron always wanted something that would cross the barrier between then and today’s generation. That’s also why I wanted to work with Celeste, she’s a very contemporary singer, and I wanted to bring the generation of now to connect with the generation of then and see the similarities between both their worlds. Another part of the song that’s really important for me is that it’s not just a song that turns up in the end credits and has nothing to do with the film. For me, for a song in a film, it has to be a really integral part of the journey of the film, so that melody– not only do we have Celeste open the film, she sort of bookends the film. She opens the very beginning, humming the melody and then all through the film I’m working in that “ba… baa… baaa” in many different ways throughout the score so that by the time it does get to the end, it’s already an integral part of your cinematic experience and it makes that payoff at the end so much more cathartic and rewarding because you’ve already been teased with this theme and this melody and these ideas all through the film.

MF: Are there any filmmakers you’d love to collaborate with in the future, and do you have anything new in the works you’d like to share?

DP: Yeah, I mean, there’s loads of filmmakers I’d like to work with, but they also learned to have good relationships with other composers. It’s like I don’t want to steal someone’s wife, ya know? Some of them, though, I like the work that they do but like “Ah, maybe I’m just a movie fan.” For me, really, it’s about working on great projects and things that really inspire you. I like to do something different each time so I try not to do the same movie over and over again. I’m always trying to do things I find challenging and that I feel like I could do something interesting and different, because for me cinema should always be about surprise. The best cinema is always the stuff that surprises you because you don’t expect it and it excites you. And I think that’s always what I’m trying to go for in what I do because I think that there’s lots of films these days that are just like a reheat of a meal you’ve had like tons of times before. Like, you see the poster and you know what it’s going to sound like and be like before you even see the movie. I like things where you have no idea what it’s going to be. That for me is the most exciting thing to work on. Like, I’m working on Spider-Verse 2 at the moment, but like I’m kind of slightly sworn to secrecy, but like already workshopping weird ideas for that because it’s really important for me that that film is musically as groundbreaking as the rest of the film is looking like it will be.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is available on Netflix and you can listen to Hear My Voice here:


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Written by Miles Foster

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