'The Counselor' Soundtrack: A Song-by-Song Walkthrough With Composer Daniel Pemberton
From "Blade Runner" to spaghetti westerns, Ridley Scott's personal pick runs down the inspirations for one of the most diverse, spine-tingling scores of the year.
Ridley Scott courted composer Daniel Pemberton for his new movie The Counselor after hearing his work in the 2011 British horror film The Awakening. "He came in one day saying he thought it was the best film he saw all year and loved the music," Pemberton tells The Hollywood Reporter. The two worked together briefly on a short film Scott produced in 2012 based on the video game Ghost Recon, but this would be an entirely different beast. The Counselor was a dense thriller from author Cormac McCarthy that juggled a large ensemble of characters in a variety of locations. One style wasn't going to cut it.
"I'm used to doing something with a long-running coherence," the composer says. "It's a very unusual film. Most films are very apparent, in a kind of genre. This is something quite different -- that was one of the big challenges in doing the score. How do we solve this big puzzle?"
Pemberton describes himself as a musician with feet planted on both sides of the composer spectrum. He's part electronic "sound guy," gravitating toward layered sounds and ambience, and he's part orchestral classicist, but says he rarely finds the form "sonically challenging."
To demonstrate the eclectic score of The Counselor, Pemberton described his approach to a selection of tracks from the upcoming Milan Records soundtrack release.
"Ridley responds to unusual sounds. He wanted something more 'philosophical,' representing the philosophy of the world," Pemberton says of the movie's first cue. Whereas the composer would describe most of the film's music as visceral, he found his experimental guitar sounds to be a unique sound that grounded the film emotionally and defined the world. Pemberton is a rabid fan of legendary Western composer Ennio Morricone, a major inspiration for the New Mexico-set drama. "Most of the score is about the underlying emotion — [this cue] pushes it more to the front."
After reading the script, Pemberton knew how essential the spoken word was to the themes of the film. This meant being cautious with music, always putting dialogue first. And yet, he never wanted the music to lose its purpose, always filling the screen with dread and menace. "One of the main themes is the idea of a warning. The kind of sound you hear in the beginning. That was to represent the warning, every time the Counselor [Michael Fassbender] is told to be careful," he says.
"A Glorious Woman"
Exercising a different muscle, Pemberton wrote a simple piano score for a key scene where the Counselor proposes to his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). "I was trying to limit what we were doing," Pemberton says of the snippet of music. Originally, the track wasn't planned for the soundtrack -- it was so faint in the actual picture. But the contrast and elegance was too great to resist. "On the Blade Runner soundtrack there's a great track called 'Memories of Green' and it's one of my favorite Vangelis tracks. This is similar, but that one's better than mine. I like that this is the 2013 version -- the memory before the memory."
"Wire to the Head"
"The Brad [Pitt]-walking-down-the-street piece came about because Ridley really loved this one bit of temp music, an action dance track. So that was tricky because it was a bit incongruous and it had to fit with everything else," the composer says of one of the more intense moments in the film. To evoke a unique palette in each location, Pemberton allowed geography to inform the music. London was cold, America was dusty. To bind them, the composer returned to a familiar sound he drew from an image in the script. "I really picked up on the use of wire. That was an early reference point. There are sounds in the mix that are like scratching wires, some sustained that played more melodically, bending noises. I like a place to start from."
A repetitive "ping" sound heard throughout the film had a unique origin. Pemberton describes the intricate process: "That is a load of guitar harmonics re-recorded through a guitar amp with spring reverb, then bent in a sampler so they're slightly out of tune with one another. Moving slightly in and out of tune to give you a very uncomfortable feeling. I like making sounds you haven't heard before."