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Emmys: 10 Music Nominees Reveal Their Toughest Scenes and How to Battle 'Composer's Block'

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's August Emmy stand-alone issue.

A submarine, Tahitian ukuleles, music written in Renaissance Italy — these were some of the elements put in play by this year’s Emmy-nominated composers for music composition for a series and original main title theme music. The categories saw Netflix’s new presence emerge arguably even more forcefully than elsewhere: David Schwartz, nominated for dramatic score, nabbed the only nom for a comedy in either category for Arrested Development’s season premiere. House of CardsJeff Beal earned noms in both categories, two of the show’s nine overall. And Netflix’s supernatural series Hemlock Grove received one of its two overall noms for Nathan Barr’s main titles. (Barr also is nominated for his title theme to FX’s The Americans.) Meanwhile, freshmen series are well represented for dramatic score. Replacing such category regulars as 30 Rock, The Simpsons and Family Guy, PBS’ Mr Selfridge was nominated for Charlie Mole’s score and ABC’s Last Resort for Robert Duncan’s. Rounding out the new series nominated are the other main title theme nominees: BBC America’s Copper, by Brian Keane; CBS’ Elementary, by Sean Callery; and Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons, by Bear McCreary. Returning in the score category are last year’s winner, John Lunn, nominated again for PBS’ Downton Abbey, and Trevor Morris, for Showtime’s The Borgias. For an inside look at the Emmy composers’ craft, THR spoke with the nominees.

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The Hollywod Reporter: What was your show’s toughest scene to score?

John Lunn (Downton Abbey): I think the most difficult cue to get right was the moment when Thomas, the butler, attempted to kiss the sleeping James, having been led to believe that he was in love with Thomas by the scheming O’Brien. The music had to reflect the risk that Thomas was taking, particularly in that era, but equally to portray the scene as quite a beautiful moment with all the right intentions.

Jeff Beal (House Of Cards)It’s a scene where the vice president sneaks into the Oval Office, and he basically sits down at the president’s desk and steals a pen. The actor did such a great job of it. It’s darkly comic, but it’s also sad and tragic — you know he’s never going to sit in that chair. It has this great combination of dramatic tones that I was struggling with and confused by. I did a very simple solo-piano version of the main theme, and that just clicked for me.

 David Schwartz (Arrested Development): We were outside on a pier, and there’s a mariachi band of which I am one of the angry white mariachis. … We tried all this stuff and did this mariachi stuff and rock music, and then [show creator] Mitch [Hurwitz] and I had the idea — both at the same time — that, no, we have to go back to a ukulele theme to open the show.

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THR: Do you have a favorite genre in which to work?

Schwartz: If it’s a good drama, that’s my favorite thing to do. If it’s a good comedy, that’s my favorite. Duke Ellington said there’s two kinds of music — good and bad — and that’s how I look at everything.

Sean Callery (Elementary) I would love to write a musical. … When I got out here, I briefly was a rehearsal pianist for Francis Coppola, who wrote a musical based on the movie Gidget. … It’s such a unique songwriting and preparatory experience in terms of all the trades working together.

THR: A main title theme sets the tone for a show. What’s the inspiration behind yours?

Bear McCreary (Da Vinci’s Demons): One of the things I’ve always been fascinated by is [Da Vinci’s] mirror writing. He is documented to have been able to write forward and backward, and he wrote with both hands. … I thought, “If he can write words like that, maybe I can write a piece of music like that.” So I set out and wrote the theme as a palindrome: You turn the music backward, and it’s going to be the same. It was a tremendous challenge because I wrote a theme I really liked, and I thought it might work in front — but then I turned it backward, and it sounded terrible. Then I did a backward version so it sounded good, then I’d turn it forward and it sounded terrible! So I really had to rethink my entire approach.

Beal: We thought we needed a call to arms. One of the sketches I was thinking of was grand and almost heroic but with a contemporary and darker sense, obviously. That was the original sketch, that bass riff and the song that became the main title. It could be almost a postmodern march or something.

Callery: With Sherlock Holmes, there’s a sense of precision, elegance — his brain moving many parts at once, thinking of multiple things at once. When I was a classical pianist in college, the closest I ever had to function to that capacity is when I played baroque music, played the music of Bach. … And it didn’t hurt that he played the violin.

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THR: When it comes to period pieces, how much do you base your score on the music of the time?

McCreary: I spent a lot of time researching Renaissance music. … Lorenzo de’ Medici is a prominent character in the show, and he in real life commissioned a lot of music from a composer named Henricus Isaac. Isaac composed a theme for the Medici family, a little six-note motif, and I used that piece as the Medici theme. If you could build a time machine that could bring Lorenzo de’ Medici here to watch his show, he’d perk up because he’d go, “Oh, that’s my theme.”

Charlie Mole (Mr Selfridge):  It’s always a difficult balance to satisfy the purists and keep the production team happy. … The first [Selfridge] series took place in 1909, and the music of that period — there’s one or two great songs that have lasted the test of time, but generally it’s pretty dull stuff. So they wanted this sort of Chicago [feel]. … There’s actually one or two people who wrote in and complained.

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THR: When composing a new episode or project, where do you start?

Robert Duncan (Last Resort): One of the things I like to do when I’m just coming up with sounds is to try to find something that’s native to the environment the characters are in and use that in a musical way. Almost half-joking, I asked my assistant, “Can you find me a submarine?” A couple days later, he called. … He found a maritime museum in San Diego, and it had an old Cold War-era Soviet submarine. He said they would let us on board with recording instruments, and I could make a percussion library there. We went down at the crack of dawn, three hours before it opened — actually, it’s on YouTube. There’s a video of us going into the submarine and just banging around with mallets and brushes and all sorts of things.

Nathan Barr (Americans, Hemlock Grove):  I have a really big collection of all sorts of instruments from around the world in my studio, so for me the process is really to sit down and start picking up some of those instruments and just improvising. … I have a lot of different band organs, and I have a human-bone trumpet. I have a lot of one-of-a-kind instruments.

Brian Keane (Copper I look at the film once through with a notepad and write down the essence of what it needs, then I confirm that with the director. The reason why I watch it once is that’s how a viewer’s going to watch it.

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THR: Do you ever get writer’s block?

Trevor Morris (The Borgias I don’t really believe in writer’s block. The reason is, in scoring for television and film, all the ideas you need, all the inspiration, is on the screen. It’s not like writing a song, where you’re in a dark room and wondering what you should write about. … There are good days and bad days, of course, but I never am stuck for an idea with a show as awesome as The Borgias.

Keane: I have, on occasion, had writer’s block in the first couple days of a new project. And I think how I pull out of there is probably fear and adrenaline.

THR: What music do you enjoy listening to on your own time?

Morris: I grew up on Rush, being a Toronto boy. But if I’m working out  or in the car, I usually listen to, like, Linkin Park — and then at night, when I’m cooking, it’s usually jazz, like Miles Davis.

Mole: Earth, Wind & Fire and The Doobie Brothers. For me, that kind of music is just never going to be bettered.

Duncan: Peter Gabriel. I love his scores as well as his pop music. The richness with which he layers his music has always been inspiring to me.

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THR: What’s your favorite TV title theme?

Beal: I’m a trumpet player, and I remember very well the theme for The Bob Newhart Show. It was this cool, jazzy but very sophisticated big-band thing. I remember that was really fun and stuck with me.

Barr: The Incredible Hulk. The original TV show, way back in the day — it had that really sort of haunting piano theme.

Callery: You have to look at things like Hawaii Five-0, The Twilight Zone, Route 66. But in terms of real themes and just magic, then you’ve got to think about The Beverly Hillbillies — there’s too many! I’m glad themes are around still. They’re kind of like folk songs.

THR: If you could score another current show, which would you choose?

Lunn: I do like Mad Men and admire the music they choose to end each episode.

Beal: We started watching Sopranos this summer, after James Gandolfini passed. I love the show, and it works great with songs. But I love the show so much, I wonder what it would have been like to score.

Barr: I love Downton Abbey. Those sorts of period dramas are really appealing to me: They often require music that’s sort of lush and beautiful, and the characters just are wonderful. I think that would be at the very top of my list.