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Interview: Academy Award Nominee Daniel Pemberton Talks Composing During COVID and ‘Being the Ricardos’

Four-time Golden Globe nominee, and now Oscar-nominated composer, Daniel Pemberton has amassed a very impressive body of work. From films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Molly’s Game to more recent projects like The Trial of the Chicago 7 and The Rescue, his scores are very versatile and immersive. His most recent project, Aaron Sorkin’s latest directorial effort Being the Ricardos, recently earned significant acclaim.

On Thursday, we met on zoom to discuss Being the Ricardos and ended up additionally talking about COVID’s effect on the film industry, the composing process, and upcoming projects.

Read the full, transcribed interview below:

Miles Foster: Being the Ricardos, Aaron Sorkin’s latest film, details kind of a very eventful week in the filming of I Love Lucy within the personal lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. The whole movie, while it does feel very calm, the stress sort of palatable  But yet there’s a lot of whimsy to the story too. And I was wondering, when it comes to composing, what sort of inspirations did you take? Did you take a lot of musical inspiration from that era of time or any from I Love Lucy itself?

Daniel Pemberton: Well, Aaron [Sorkin] early on– he didn’t want me to be influenced by the show in terms of the theme tune of I Love Lucy. It was really about the characters of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But one thing we both agreed upon straight away was this was a film that needed a grand, lush orchestral score. And there’s multiple reasons for that. One is the emotional complexity of the story, but it was also really about capturing the magic of that era in some ways and I really wanted a score that felt like a slightly classic timeless–so to speak–film score. The sort that was more prevalent around that time. And I wanted to approach it, to write it as if I were a composer in that time. So you start at the piano rather than in front of the computer and record it all in the room at the same time rather than separately. And I wanted something that evokes sort of the magic of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

MF: When you approach a new film score, do you try to approach it with as clear of a slate as possible or do you workshop different ideas or motifs from previous scores and compositions you’ve done before?

DP: Every film I do I try to do it very different. I try to make every project I do quite different, so that’s part of the fun for me of being a film composer. If you look at, like, this year I’ve had The Rescue, which is a documentary, and that score is completely different than [Being] the Ricardos– it’s a very sound claustrophobic and electronic-driven score compared to the kind of richness of Ricardos. So I always like to approach everything with what would work best for the film, for the project. Rather than “here’s my sound let’s slot it in.” And sometimes it can take a while to work out what that sound is, like there are often a number of projects where we try to work out in, but something like Ricardos clicked very quickly. Me and Aaron right from the beginning were like “this should be orchestral” because I did a film with him ages ago called Molly’s Game, our first project working together with him as director, and he wanted an orchestral score for that and I said I actually feel it should be a contemporary score ’cause it’s a very contemporary story. And he wasn’t sure so I said “let me try it out and if it doesn’t work we’ll go to orchestral.” But when we started down that path it was the right way to go. And what’s great about the relationship we’ve built through like three films with him as director now is the level of trust and freedom to talk to each other and never be afraid to push ideas that I think are right and he’ll push something and I’ll push things and that for me is like the key to great filmmaking is when you’re collaborating people that you trust and that trust you.

MF: That actually touches upon one of the other questions I have here. I noted that you collaborated with Aaron Sorkin a lot of times and I was wondering if there’s anything in particular with the style of his directing that really speaks to you as a composer. Like, do you find it any easier to work on a film directed by him or is there some spark there?

DP: Well I think the thing that always drives Aaron’s films is dialogue. The dialogue is such a huge huge part of his films. It’s kind of like the central pillar of them in a way. And that’s always an interesting challenge because you’re like “how do I not get in the way of this information, of these performances? How do I still create a score that’s got some identity, that has emotion, that pushes things forwards and hits the right beats but doesn’t become so prevalent that it obliterates the dialogue, or becomes so bland that it just doesn’t exist?” The thing I love about his projects is every time your doing something with him it’s always a whole new world, it’s not like he makes “action film one, action film two.” Every world is very different. The world of Steve Jobs is very different from the world of [The Trial of] the Chicago 7 which is very different from Molly Bloom which is different from Ricardos. So there’s always a challenge with his projects right from the beginning. Like, what sound world are we gonna play in? And I think that’s often the first thing we try to work out. I like to build a world of sound for every film. For me, great film music should be stuff you can hear away from the film and it reminds you of being in that film. It doesn’t have to necessarily be super memorable themes–obviously that’s nice–or big orchestras it needs to be something that feels unique to that film. And I always find creating a sound world and a pallet that is different for each thing, and he really helps that.

MF: When it comes to filming a scene or when a movie comes together, I’m curious whether certain scenes are filmed with certain musical cues in mind or if the music more comes in after the fact and helps aid the performance.

DP: Well, every film is different. Like on the last film I did with Aaron, the Chicago 7, what was really fascinating with that is he said straight from the beginning he was like, “Four scenes. This film is four big musical moments and that’s it. There’s the opening, there’s the two riots, and it’s the ending.” And he had always been, in his mind, leaning on the music for those scenes. Whereas in this film, I would say the music was playing a different role. The Ending was a very big piece, like he always had this idea of a big theme paying off at the end, which we do. But elsewhere it was kind of like us going through the film and trying to work out “where is this gonna work” ’cause every time you read a Sorkin script, they’re brilliant, but you read them and you go “what the hell am I gonna do?” Right? It’s not like– you read some scripts and it’s like “and then there’s a massive car chase for two minutes” and you’re like “alright I’m gonna be doing a car chase.” I often go into his projects like, “What am I gonna do?” And it’s always a really fun part of the process between me, the editor–Alan Baumgarten, who’s fantastic–and Aaron. We all kind of like– I’d like to say we sit together, but nowadays we do it on Zoom; I haven’t seen them all for like two years. But we’ll do a lot of backwards and forwards and working out which bits of the film are going to work musically, which bits aren’t, and then it’s a lot of experimentation and collaboration which is always great.

MF: When it comes to that collaboration– I remember I actually had the pleasure of interviewing you last year for The Trial of the Chicago 7, and I remember you touched on the whole COVID-19 pandemic kind of upending the process a bit. and I was wondering how much that has changed when it comes to working on this film.

DP: It still sucks! [With] Chicago 7 I saw Aaron for half an hour to an hour in a cocktail bar and then I did not see him again until the Oscars. When I saw him at the Oscars–which is quite a cool thing to be like “hey I saw you at the Oscars”–we talk about this movie and he’s like “oh yeah we start shooting next week” and I’m like, “Really? Like, I knew you were going to be shooting next week but we’ve just finished the other film, that’s why we’re at the Oscars, and now you’re making your next movie and it’s covid?” I kept thinking that’s not gonna happen. So he goes away to make the movie, I fly back to England, then the whole world shuts down again. I haven’t seen him since. And it’s been really weird thinking– obviously I’ve seen him all the time on Zooms. You know, we recorded that score– actually, I’m in AIR Studios at the moment. So, like (shifts camera and indicates that back of the room) through there downstairs is where we recorded the score to Chicago and then we did Ricardos at Abbey Road. And, yeah it’s been a weird process. I mean the biggest problem for me on Ricardos was it was really important to me that we got a big room and a lot of musicians in there. I didn’t want to record it in separate– I wanted to capture the magic of just one performance. And we got very lucky. The covid restrictions had just lifted over here so you can have 70 people in a room. Two weeks earlier, you could only have 40. And so that was a really big part of the score for me. I wanted the lushness of those scores and I wanted all those musicians playing off of each other. I didn’t want them all having to lay stuff down on the click ’cause that’s not how things would’ve been done at that time. And those are small differences, but those small differences are really what makes something feel more special and more of an era, of the time.

MF: And, you know, it’s pretty easy to talk a lot about the hardships covid has brought everyone and in this filmmaking process I imagine it’s been difficult having to piece everything together virtually. But… are there any positives that exist? Like, has covid inadvertently caused any breakthroughs in the process? Are there any strategies you’ve learned?

DP: Yeah like, the weird thing is, I live in London and London has stamped out zillions of tourists, zillions of office workers so where I work is actually super quiet now which I really like. Even the office downstairs–I live and work in a flat, there’s an office below me–their air conditioner unit’s not on all the time anymore and that’s just a nice little extra bit of peace. I always try to make the best of the situation, I’m that kind of guy like “let’s see what I can get out of it.” You know, if something’s a bit dark, I’m always like “I can learn something from this.” And I think, what I did during lockdown is I did a lot of projects where I had to do everything myself. Like normally– like if you look at Ricardos, I’ve got a huge orchestra, I’ve got amazing musicians, I’ve got amazing recording engineers, mixers, conductors, and those people are lifebloods of music in the film industry. But during covid, in lockdown, you couldn’t do anything, so as a composer you had to be like “okay I’ve got to think on my toes,” so the projects I did, like The Rescue and also this series called Welcome to Earth which is on Nat Geo from Darren Aronofsky, I knew I couldn’t use any real, live recordings on that. So that was me stuck at home back to fiddling around with synthesizers and samples, which was nice to me. It’s like being a filmmaker where you’re used to making these big budget productions and someone says that now you’ve got to make a film in your flat with an iPhone. Those limitations will force you to think differently. But, I’m very happy it’s kind of like ending because I don’t want to do that all the time. But yeah for me it was like “let me turn this negative into some sort of positive if I can.”

MF: Yeah. Well, to kind of draw this to a close on a further positive point, you’ve done a plethora of different movies, from Molly’s Game to Being the Ricardos to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Are there any film genres or any other different types of projects you’d like to take on moving forward?

DP: I would love to do– I don’t think I’ve done enough, like, world building films that are kind of more atmospheric. So I’d like to do some of those. I’d have liked to have done Dune. But to be honest it’s like every film is a different experience. Every project, every director it’s always a different challenge and I love the fact that you go into it with– you’re starting again every film. You’re not doing more of the same. Even Spider-Verse 2, it’s going to be crazy what they’re doing. And it’s like I’ve got to step up to that level of craziness.

Being the Ricardos is now streaming on Prime Video.

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Written by Miles Foster

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