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

John Lunn
Dominic Nicholls

Competitors for best series music composition and main title theme talk to THR about the shows they wish they could work on and how they get inspired.

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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