Inteview with Daniel Pemberton

By • December 20, 2017

Money, as they say, might be the root of all evil. But for composer Daniel Pemberton, it’s one big Christmas stocking full of musical gold with the twin debuts that day of “All the Money in the World” and “Molly’s Game.” At first glance, the two movies, and scores couldn’t be more disparate other than their links to real life. One is the story of a billionaire John Paul Getty’s Scrooge-like behavior when it comes to paying his grandson’s kidnappers. It’s an appalling act now paling in notoriety to original Getty senior actor Kevin Spacey being replaced at the last minute by Christopher Plummer due to sordid behavior. In contract, the heroine of “Molly’s Game” uses the avarice of men, and the US government in particular to win against the odds with her celebrity-filled poker games. Combine both stories, and it’s cash being used for evil, good and the gray areas in between, providing a rich playing ground for Pemberton.

With the Golden Globes taking a nominated shine to the composer with his work on “Gold” and “Steve Jobs” (two more films about money buying visionaries anything but happiness), Pemberton’s wealth of stylistic scores has impressed from the crazed spy antics of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E,” to the classically chilling “The Awakening” and this year’s distinctly un-knightly music for “King Arthur” and the ticking suspense of “Mark Felt” bringing down the Nixon administration. First given a big Hollywood spotlight by director Ridley Scott for the notorious “The Counselor,” Pemberton’s new, captivating score for the filmmaker contrasts the almost satirically classical strains of unimaginable, robber-baron riches with the ethnic rhythms of kidnappers out to cut a slice from his pie in the form of a terrified young man. It’s an astonishingly varied “World” of scoring that mixes the voices of the angels with hallucinatory, Arabic-styled rhythms as we plunge into a nightmarish rabbit hole, music that mixes melodic beauty and percussive barbarity to powerful effect.

Equally hip in its own way is “Molly’s Game,” where Pemberton deals in on the alt. rock rhythm and blues game played by movies where gambling and shady behavior are king, especially when dealt by a queen of the game. Here the chips are the rapid-fire words of Aaron Sorkin, now typing as well as taking the lead behind the camera for his card sharp directorial debut. Pemberton is focused on the dialogue’s fun, crafty rhythm for music the crackles with energy as it mixes retro and alt. rhythms. Yet Pemberton also knows when to hold his percussion to hear inside of a woman for whom image, and intelligence are everything when calling the not-so bluffing hand of a man’s world out to shut her down. Play Pemberton’s two big holiday scores back to back, and you’ll clearly hear a composer with a straight flush style both refined and raw when it comes to a potential winning hand at the awards derby.

Your first score with Ridley was for “The Counselor,” which a lot of people feel was underrated. Why do you think that the audiences who saw it had a strong reaction, one way or another?

I think that people had a problem with that film because it’s not your typical Hollywood film. It’s a very bleak one, with no happy ending. It goes against all the rules in cinema in that sense, I think people were expecting it to be something else. What’s fascinating is that it’s a very divisive film –a great number of people really hated “The Counselor.” But at the same time there are those in the audience who are hardcore who really loved it. I even met a guy who tells me who watches it every day! Every time I see Ridley he always tells me that it’s one of his favorite film he’s done. He also told me that since “Blade Runner” he doesn’t care what people think about any movie he makes. He just wants to move on to the next thing. We always stayed in touch after “The Counselor,” and he told me one of these days that we’d work together again. And now here we are. It’s really great working with him again, fantastic, really.

Director Ridley Scott and Daniel Pemberton

How did your collaboration differ on this one?

It’s really not that different. I went to visit Rome where they were shooting. We sat through the rushes to decide what music would work. At the time I had this idea of using local folk singer they had in Italy. But in the end it didn’t seem to work with the imagery in the film. So we started playing around with ideas, such as the grand way that Getty Sr. didn’t live in a modernistic world. His was more of a classical one, which had a very grand style. We used that element of his world through music. Ridley is fascinated with architecture as well with the way he shoots around buildings, I think you get a real sense of that in this film, especially when you see Getty’s mansion.

Whenever you think of the idle rich, there’s always this kind of sinister quality about how music plays their money. Yet there’s also a satirical quality to it that you capture here.

Getty Sr. is a very enigmatic character, and the orchestra is always the grandest, slickest piece of music you can create. That symbolizes the kind of power and confidence the wealthy have. If you were to just give them the lonely oboe, they would look a lot more vulnerable. Now if you look at the kidnappers, they live in a separate world. Their lives are quite rough so the music for them had to be very different.

In that way, you certainly traverse a whole bunch of styles that symbolize “world” here.

When I saw Ridley in Italy, I played him some music that I wanted him to hear of these folksingers from there. He said “I love them! Record them!” But I told him that we didn’t have that much time. Ridley looked at me and said, “I’m sure you can make it happen.” I had to go out and record them the following Saturday! We managed to track them down in Sardinia. Sardinia, But they couldn’t read music. I showed them what I wanted and we ended up getting them on they score. They added a very different vocal texture. I think the score is about voices in that way. We have a lot of sacred medieval voices, which harken back to the grand, operatic nature of Getty and his flamboyant world of luxury. For the kidnappers we have this equally beautiful but very different Italian folk singing which has this almost Arabesque sound in Italian.

There are so many beautiful themes in the score, with one of the most strikingly haunting being a flute and brass motif that you hear on “minotaur” cue. It’s music that could have easily been in one of Ridley’s “Alien” movies.

That was a simple flute and brass motif that opened the film. I felt that it was very effective in depicting the enigmatic quality of Getty Sr. Ridley would always come to me saying, “Getty is an enigma. You cannot work him out. I want to have something that is quite simple that doesn’t say a lot about him. You should never feel one hundred percent about Getty.” Sometimes we played that theme straight and sometimes we wanted to make it more uneasy I would double that with this kind of microtonal clarinet note which is basically in D, slightly detuned. That created a basic uneasy feeling, which we feel is very effective in the film.

The score gets stranger and stranger as if you’re falling into this rabbit hole with Getty Jr.

The score definitely has got different elements in it. It gets darker and weirder because I wanted to capture that state of isolation and violence of the kidnapping, which give the score its edge as well. That also contrasts with Getty Sr.’s life of luxury and show how much he is removed from the world of his grandson, as well from the kidnappers.

What was your reaction when Ridley decided to reshoot all of Kevin Spacey’s scenes as Getty Sr.?

Kevin Spacey as John Paul Getty

I was in America when I heard about it – at the same time everybody else did. I found it to be crazy, but I know Ridley and I know what he’s like, he’s an amazing character. He has so much energy, more energy than you might and what I might have, or anybody else. He is this guy who says, “Let’s get this done. Go!” Half the thrill of working with Ridley is that you have to keep up with him the whole time. He is the captain of the ship. He can do anything.

Do you think it was necessary to replace Kevin?

Yes. The public perception around the person outside of the film influences how you watch their character, and the movie. So I think it was a crazy, ballsy move from Ridley. And I think it will be proven to be the right move.

If Christopher Plummer was originally cast in the movie would you have scored it differently?

Christopher Plummer as John Paul Getty

Kevin’s performance was a lot more cold and distant. I think Plummer’s is warmer and more charismatic. But I think both actors had valid performances. It’s fascinating to see this film twice now in that way. Ridley certainly knew what he was doing, and he’s made a fantastic movie with “All the Money in the World.”

How did you come across Aaron Sorkin’s attention for “Molly’s Game?”

Aaron told me he was a big fan of my score for “Steve Jobs,” a film that he wrote. We ended up going to the Golden Globes, with the real Molly Bloom, and it was there where he asked me to score the movie.

Given all the scripts that Aaron has worked on, it’s almost surprising to think that “Molly’s Game” is his first outing as a director. What kind of collaboration did that make it?

I was really amazed at how comfortable Aaron was as a director,. It was as if he had been doing it all his life. He was very open about what he wanted the music to do, and, had a bunch of ideas about it, especially the idea of a theme that would carry out to the end of the film. He also talked about orchestral stuff, whereas I wanted to do something more contemporary – an approach that he did let me do at first. Aaron was just really opened to whatever I showed him. He was a really strong collaborator, very supportive and very enthusiastic.

With a director and writer who really loves dialogue, did you find Aaron’s use of words was essentially like music?

Yes. There is a lot to process about Aaron’s dialogue, which is a very important part of the film. Musically, you’ve got to give the words space and match their tempo. You want to give them a personality, yet at the same time not get in their way.

Composers usually employ kind of a retro, rock and roll, rhythm and blues approach when they’re scoring gambling movies centered on gambling like “Ocean’s Eleven.” How did you want to put that kind of stylistic spin on “Molly’s Game?”

I always felt that poker movies seemed a bit more jazzy in terms of their approach. I wanted to go for something more contemporary like “Oceans’” did. While I love those scores, they’re also kind of self-consciously retro. I wanted “Molly’s Game” to be more like it was being written by a band than by a film composer. But I wanted it also sound like the band had the skills of a film composer to make it all work out.

When you’ve got a character as tough as Molly, is it important at all to give her a “feminine” quality in the score?

I didn’t look at as giving her a sense of “femininity,” because Molly is a very strong-minded person. I think I would have scored Molly in exactly the same way had she been male or female. But there were also definitely moments where I wanted to give the score a sensual, emotional edge, especially because there are some characters in the film that use their sensuality to influence people. But most of the time I tried to score Molly as a fighter, to give the idea that she doesn’t give up.

The score has a “western” quality to it, at times playing Molly as if she was some gambling gunfighter.

I originally wrote her theme on a baritone guitar, which Aaron liked. But we had had to change it a little because it sounded even more western than what was in the final version. I thought that sound just really worked for her character, as it had a theme that could build through the film and resolve in the end.

What was it like scoring Watergate with “Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House?”

That was kind of crazy. “Mark Felt” was another Ridley project, and he recommended me to that film, I came in rather late in the production and had to score it very quickly. It’s another movie that’s very dialogue heavy. The score is like a supporting actor that helps the story move along. I wanted to infuse it with a 1970’s paranoia to create a very David Shire-like score in the tradition of “All the President’s Men.” I also tried to infuse it with more modern elements as well to create something that had a sense of period and paranoia. I think that “Mark Felt is a fascinating kind of film.

Another movie, and score that got quite a strong reaction was for Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur.” I’d never quite heard a score, or watched a movie for the legend that was quite as crazy as this.

Bold and unusual scores it can have a really powerful effect on making a movie feel a lot more fresh. “King Arthur” was a crazy, crazy experience. It’s a crazy bit of cinema and I loved it. Guy wanted something that didn’t sound anything like a film score. And that is a very big challenge when you’re trying to score a film! Guy isn’t big on melody. He’s big on sound. A lot of it was very unusual. I tried to make something that’s not from the period, and something that you have never heard before. But I also tried to capture the texture of Arthur’s world, which is an important part of that score.

“Black Mirror’s” new season is returning to Netflix on December 29th, with one standout “Star Trek”-esque episode being “U.S.S. Callister.” What was it like scoring what looks to be a satire on sci-fi’s most famous show?

It’s a nutty episode. I am a massive “Black Mirror” fan myself. Weirdly enough, I used to work on a video game magazine with “Black Mirror’s” creator Charlie booker back in the nineties. I was like, “We should do something one day.” So this turned up. I was very busy but I wanted to do the episode. It’s really complex stuff, I can’t give too much away about “U.S.S. Callister,” but it’s almost like two film scores that slowly collide. One is very retro 1960’s soundtrack inspired by Jerry Goldsmith. The other is something that’s a lot more near future and something you’d expect from “Black Mirror.” It was fun to write unashamedly overly dramatic orchestral music for it.

“All the Money in the World” and “Molly’s Game” are essentially both movies about money. How do you see their thematic link about how money is spent and what it does to people?

Well, you know “Star Wars is about people with money, and how they want to take over the universe and all! I don’t know how much bearing this has on the scores but there’s a sense on the sound. I always try to encapsulate the worlds of the films through sound. Here, one has the adrenaline rush while the other is about living a life of luxury. These guys are both incredibly rich, but their worlds are completely different. But yet they’re all kind of equal.

What’s more fun for you to do? Stories based on stranger than fiction characters like these two movies, or fictional ones?

If it’s a job that is different than my last, I get excited. Different projects keep me on my toes.

How good are you at poker and how much should your ransom be if you’re kidnapped?

I’m very bad at poker. I have only played it once, I must have the worst poker face on earth. I’m very easy to read, very bad at lying. And how much should my ransom be worth? It depends on who’s paying it. If I were paying it, I’d probably pay a lot. But if I could pay that, I could get kidnapped! If they kidnapped me now, they can have a box of my CDs!

“All the Money in the World” and “Molly’s Game” open on December 25th, with Daniel Pemberton’s scores on Sony Classical. Buy “Money” soon, and play “Molly” HERE. Then go Deep Throat with “Mark Felt” HERE and rock out to “King Arthur” HERE

Thanks to Alexander Portillo for transcribing this interview

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