Emmys: 'Maniac,' 'Romanoffs,' 'Succession' Composers Reveals Unusual Inspirations

Courtesy of Subject; Chris Frawley/Courtesy of Dubject
'Yellowstone' composer Brian Tyler previously scored 'Now You See Me' and 'Crazy Rich Asians'; Along with 'The Romanoffs,' Marcelo Zarvos works on 'Ray Donovan' and 'The Affair.'

Top scorers share how they start from scratch for new shows, using influences from "18th century courtly classical music" to hip-hop and every instrument from the hurdy-gurdy to the fiddle.

For a composer, scoring a brand-new TV show means creating, from scratch, its musical identity, the sound of the fictional world the audience is experiencing for the first time.

When working with Matthew Weiner on "Panorama," the sixth episode of anthology series The Romanoffs, composer Marcelo Zarvos brought to life Mexico City as seen through the eyes of Abel, a Don Quixote-type dreamer and idealist. As Abel falls in love, he shows the object of his affection the city’s most beautiful sights, from the Metropolitan Cathedral to the ruins of Teotihuacan, and accordingly, Zarvos’ theme is painterly and romantic.

"What [Weiner] wanted was a love letter to Mexico City," says Zarvos. "He wanted for us to see the incredible beauty of the place, and he wanted the music to really bring you in. You're a spectator by watching the show, but also a spectator of the city itself. It was kind of two layers of gazing at this place." The guitar was "always the soul of the score and the soul of that episode," he adds. "And the score is quite classical in many ways. I would say [it’s a] classical Latin-American score.”

"Classical" also applies to Nicholas Britell's score for HBO's Succession — but with a heavy dose of hip-hop. That mashup of genres makes for a catchy main title theme and creates a musical duality that suits the obscenely wealthy Roy family's absurd comedy and high drama.

“[Hapless Roy scion] Kendall, from the very beginning of the show, you can see that he loves hip-hop,” Britell says, describing the pilot’s opening scene, which sees a headphone-wearing Jeremy Strong rapping with a farcical lack of self-awareness. But for cranky patriarch Logan, Britell tried to "imagine the music that the Roy family imagines for themselves," landing on "an element of a late 18th-century courtly classical music sound, that kind of dark and serious and courtly music.”

Dan Romer, who scored Netflix's limited series Maniac, had to establish the sound of not one conflicted world but two entirely different ones: the "real" world where Jonah Hill's and Emma Stone's characters live, and the "trip" worlds their psyches travel to during pharma­ceutical trials. 

“The biggest obstacle was discovering what our real world was going to sound like,” Romer says. “It takes place in sort of an alternative reality, and figuring out what that alternate reality should sound like [was the challenge].”

 

Maniac's "real" world feels tenuous and unmoored, so Romer opted for almost entirely handheld instruments, creating a feeling of both lightness and intensity. Outside some harp and marimba, "pretty much every instrument is something you can hold in your hands," he says. "Even the percussion — there's no drum set. It's all playing one drum at a time."

The choice of instruments was just as important to Brian Tyler, who scores Paramount Network's YellowstoneSet in Montana, the series also straddles multiple worlds: of history and modernity, of nature and encroaching land development and of communities on and off the state's Native American reservations.

It's a story that revolves around "ranching in the modern era," Tyler says, "but has a very kind of Shakespearean, or even further back, kind of mythological tone to it," and neither he nor co-creator Taylor Sheridan wanted it to feel "like other Westerns."

To that end, they talked about how the music of the Old West was really "the music of immigrants," Tyler says. Tyler researched instruments that immigrants brought from all over the world, using the rebec, hurdy-gurdy, chitarrone, accordion and fiddle, as well as Native American flutes and drums, to evoke a sense of history. "That's why the music almost sounds hundreds of years old," he says of the melancholy, evocative score. “It's not a modern score. It can sometimes almost feel like 17th, 16th, 15th century — like very early music.”

But whether for a multiseason series or a one-off episode, the music must suffuse and support the fictional world. Says Zarvos: "It's sort of like its own literature. It might be like short stories or a 12-volume epic novel, but you try to honor its dimension and complexity with your work."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.