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Interview: Composer Alex Belcher Discusses Scoring ‘Citadel’

Citadel is one of the biggest television series of the year. One of its biggest highlights is its incredible score from composer Alex Belcher, who has frequently collaborated with executive producers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, working on additional music for Captain America: Civil War, Cherry, and The Grey Man while also scoring AGBO-produced films like 21 Bridges and co-composing Extraction with Henry Jackman.

We recently spoke with Belcher about scoring the show, composing its incredible opening theme, collaborating with the Russo brothers, and using Alfred Hitchcock films as one of its main inspirations from the score beyond James Bond. There was a lot to talk about, particularly when the score for such a massive show is diverse, expansive, and rich.

Read the full conversation below:

You’ve collaborated with the Russo brothers for quite some time. With a project like Citadel, how did your partnership with the two of them evolve?

This project happened right after we finished working on Extraction. I think Joe sent me the Citadel script as we wrapped up Extraction. And, of course, COVID happens. It was this weird thing where the significant evolution was that we weren’t meeting in the same room every week and doing playbacks for the music. In the meantime, I was also working with Henry Jackman and the Russos for their film Cherry, and we went through this virtual filmmaking process during COVID together. To go through that period with two of the biggest directors in the world felt very lucky to have them guiding and taking the reins. So in that sense, it was a unique experience and a lot of fun.

For Citadel, there was a lot of trust between myself and the Russos. They wanted to take big swings and do things you might not expect from a series from the get-go. They talked about this series and pitched it to Amazon by wanting to treat it like a massive film, which is how we approached it. I was lucky to have done a few movies with the Russo brothers and bring that experience into the world of making Citadel.

What excited you the most about working in the spy genre for Citadel?

I think it’s every composer’s dream. This genre has so many fantastic scores that everyone knows. Even if you don’t know many film scores, the ones you do will probably be somewhere in the spy genre. That was fun because it’s not a project that lands on your desk daily. You can also have an entire music career and not do any spy or espionage films. So I was thrilled and felt lucky to get that call to do it.

Can you talk about the process of composing the show’s opening credits theme? How was it envisioned?

For the opening theme, I knew I only had 75 seconds to tell the audience that this was the world they would live in. Visually, the opening credits sequence has some fantastic graphics, and the graphics team did an incredible job on them. Apart from that, there’s no dialogue, nothing necessarily tangible, and you’ve got to tell the show’s overarching story as a composer. I was very nervous about that because I had never done something like this before. So I was like, “Ok, I’ve got 75 seconds to set up this world and to put the audience in it. How do I do that?” The first theme I came up with was when I read the script for the first time and started writing some suites. I had this idea of a simple yet lyrical theme. It had a singable quality to it. Maybe on the show’s 20th anniversary, we’ll release it [laughs], but there’s a terrible video recording of me banging out the tune on a piano. After recording it, I texted Joe nervously, saying, “I think this is something, but please don’t kill me if you don’t think it’s very good.” [laughs] But he immediately loved it. After that, we started developing the tempo, pace, and instrumentation we wanted to use for the main titles. But it all started with an iPhone recording of me, very sloppily, playing this little piano tune that I just came up with.

Obviously, James Bond seems like a very strong influence for the show in general, but were there other inspirations from the spy genre, or perhaps from other movies, that fed into Citadel’s score?

Of course, you can’t do an espionage title without James Bond standing over your shoulders, which was definitely an influence. However, we didn’t talk about that one a lot in the making of the show. Many films from the 1940s to the 1970s weren’t necessarily spy movies fed into the score. North by Northwest and Vertigo were frequently talked about, which were scores by Bernard Herrmann. I’m also a big fan of his and the Russos, but North by Northwest was one that we talked about quite a bit in terms of the emotional narrative we wanted to convey with the music. When you’ve worked with someone for a long time, there’s a bit of a shorthand. When I was working on a scene, sometimes Joe or Anthony would tell me, “Remember that scene from this movie?” And I’m like, “Yep, I know exactly what you mean.” Of course, we don’t want to copy that style or anything like that. However, it’s that dramatic narrative idea that we feed into the music. Because we’ve worked together so much, it’s easy to translate that little snippet, which is how we collaborated on the score.

Regarding scoring the show’s multiple action scenes, what is your approach like in adding rhythm and energy to what is featured on screen?

If you have good editors, which we were so lucky to have for this show, the scenes will already have a natural rhythm before you even begin writing the music. It’s now your job as a composer to find the rhythm and punctuate it to see what exciting things you can do with that. A cut does not always have the tempo of the music; sometimes, it’s slower, and sometimes it’s faster. However, you must know where that is, and good editors cut at a good pace and tempo. It always starts there. Then you take the lead off the showrunners, editors, and directors to get their pace and what they want. We use music to support that or do something they couldn’t do in the edit.

Was that approach similar to working on the action scenes of films like 21 Bridges and Extraction?

Yes. For me, that’s the way I like to work. With every action scene, if it’s cut, shot, and acted well, which all these projects were, there’s a natural rhythm. I take my lead from there. Of course, it’s not copying what I’ve previously done. You can vary the tempo of each scene. For example, in the bathroom brawl in Citadel, which is a fantastic fight sequence, the cut is quite a bit quicker than the tempo. But I slowed that tempo down a bit from the cut, and it worked well because it draws you in; I hope it draws you in because the music keeps you grounded. Amidst all that fighting in the bathroom, we’re cutting away from it to form a less intense scene. You’re cutting from an action scene right back to two people talking at a table, cutting back to an action scene in the back of two people at a table. Matching the tempo of the action doesn’t work because when you cut away, you’ve got to downshift, and it’s noticeable. It’s a give-and-take approach. You have to remember what you’re doing and where the story arc is going for those action scenes because if you play them viscerally and respond to exactly what you see on screen, it can be discombobulated or make the audience feel disconnected.

How do you balance out scoring these massive setpieces by adding some levity to the show or accompanying the bigger and more dramatic moments of the latter half of the series?

I think that’s a natural thing that happens in music, especially in classical music. Some of the best performances you’ll ever hear in classical music are when the performer isn’t playing anything but pauses the momentum and breaths before they start the music between notes. When you have wall-to-wall music, which is pretty much what Citadel is, there’s music in every ounce of the show; it lent itself very well to having those moments where we’re going to change the rhythm of music after a massive action sequence just happened. That goes to the writing team, Joe and Anthony, and everyone at Amazon for creating this show where it’s hot and cold. You get these massive action setpieces but also these intimate moments that give you a break from the action. In that regard, when it came to music, in those moments, it’s pretty easy to sort of want a little bit of a reset and have a light moment strip out a lot of the instrumentation and the orchestration and be a little bit calmer to give the audience a minute to catch their breath. Because if they’re anything like me when they’re watching one of these sequences, you’re just sitting back and going, “Oh, my gosh, that was incredible.” And it would be best if you had a minute to reset. We spent a lot of time toeing that line and giving these moments of pause when scoring these moments.

Were there any specific themes or motifs composed for the show? What was the process like in figuring those out?

When I first read the script, Joe and Anthony asked me to start writing some suites based on our initial discussions. A lot of those ended up in the show. One of the funny things about working with them is, and I’ve done this for them in the past, sometimes I’ll write a theme and go, “This is the theme for this character.” Then they would go off and shoot it and spend months shooting and editing. Then they would bring me the cut and say, “Actually, that theme doesn’t work for that character. However, it works well for this emotion or this scene.” For example, we had a theme for the opening of the whole show, which was a big orchestral waltz. That became Nadia Sinh’s [Priyanka Chopra Jonas] motif. We also had a cue for Manticore. All of these came up through trial and error. We had small musical ideas early on when I was writing the score based on the script and not knowing if it would fit the cut because I hadn’t seen any footage from the show. So I would try them out based on a pitch and determine if it would work well for the character’s storyline and development.

Is there a particular piece of music you’ve composed for the show you’re the proudest of?

I would say the opening fifteen minutes of episode one. I was so concerned with writing that because I knew how important it was. You’re throwing the audience into this world they don’t know anything about. And you’ve got to keep their attention while telling them what they’re watching and showing them what the show will be about. The opening sequence contains Nadia’s theme, which is a massive and romantic lyrical tune. I spent quite a long time writing that, and I was very nervous about playing it for everyone, just like the central title theme, because we’re starting a massive action production with a waltz. And I thought I was going to get laughed out of the room. Fortunately, I wasn’t, and we used it in the show. I’m very proud of that piece, and we were able to use that in quite a few places throughout the series in some form or another.

All episodes of Citadel are now available to watch on Prime Video.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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