Interview with David Arnold

By • May 31, 2019

In a career that’s going on nearly four decades, David Arnold has always impressed with his boldness. He’s symphonically jetted across the universe, patriotically liberated earth from an alien invasion and reinvigorated 007’s orchestral action with state of the art beats. His numerous styles shut everyone’s mouth with “Shaft’s” Afro-funk, collided strange percussion while “Changing Lanes” and liberated slaves to the moving orchestral strains of “Amazing Grace.” But if his scoring has been missed in Hollywood of late, it’s because Arnold’s been quite busy on his side of the pond with a modern-day re-invention of “Sherlock,” (scored with Michael Price), staging the worker power West End musical “Made in Dagenham” and providing a heroically melodic stage for The Olympics themselves.

As a composer who’s always thought creatively big no matter the medium, David Arnold is now ready to unleash what just might be his most devilishly wonderful work yet for “Good Omens.” Think the cheekiness of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” meeting the Antichrist endgame of “The Omen,” and you’ll hear the stream of apocalyptic satire that has its jolly way with the musical tropes of heaven, hell. Based on the book by Terry Pratchett (“Discworld”) and Neil Gaiman (“Sandman”) and directed by “Sherlock’s” Douglas Mackinnon, this Amazon miniseries has angel and demon frenemies Aziraphele (Michael Sheen) and Crowley (David Tennant) haplessly uniting to stave off the much-desired final war of their bosses. It’s an Avengers-worthy teaming between effete halo-ism attitude and Queen-blasting infernal attitude that drives Arnold’s score, all as an ironically rebooted four horsemen lead a hapless witch finder and the antichrist and his tween pals to their fateful destination, with Frances McDormand’s God ironically narrating the way.

Good Omens’ writers Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

It’s not as if “Good Omens” is the first black comedy score to goof about with the stalwart music of heaven and hell. But what makes the difference here is the sheer, insane fun that Arnold has with iconic absolute good versus total evil stuff. Jumping about history with elfin cheekiness and surprising humanity that never forgets the big stakes at play, Arnold’s “Omens” are a constant shifting soupcon of whimsical whistling, raging choruses, Spaghetti western strumming, delicate Renaissance-era music, alien visitation electronics, grave symphonic suspense and tolling bells among the seemingly infinite approaches on hand that occasionally hearken back to Arnold’s “Stepford Wives,” “Stargate” and even his Bond scores. Yet as batshit as “Good Omens” might get, Arnold keeps the thematic reigns on, with a witchy, waltzing theme that ties together an infernal and do-gooding tapestry. “Good Omens” is a gleeful danse macabre that not only blows up the genre’s scoring clichés, but will likely make David Arnold’s fans hear a whole new musical trickster at work for this delightfully insane miniseries.

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What was your experience like of moving more from films to TV?

Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a film, pretty much since I did the Olympics in 2012, where I couldn’t do any films, because I was 19 months solid on that event. So I had to sort of say no to a few things, and in a way, got out of the habit of doing them. The first thing that came up after the Olympics was “Sherlock” and plays that still just involved me writing music. It just happened to be for a different medium.

Did that affect your more epic cinematic style?

I’ve always listened to lots of different sorts of music, and to a certain extent, the fact that I suppose my cinematic style was broadly symphonic was just because that’s the way the films were. I mean, the ones that didn’t have to be like that weren’t like that, but the bulk of them I appreciate, were. So for me, there’s not really any difference in the job. I’m still in the same room with the same equipment, looking at something moving on a screen and figuring out what the musical answer to the questions that it asks me is.

Did TV give you more artistic freedom?

I think artistic freedom is afforded to you by several factors. One of them is the project itself. One of them is the director’s attitude to the music and to his working with a composer. The other one, if it’s a movie especially, is whether the studio and the producers are interested in something that’s a bit less predictable and safe, a project that’s rather than out the box.

“Good Omens” in particular was a project that demanded that you went everywhere musically. The show, as coherent as it is, is also a vast, sprawling story with characters all in focus, and very much on the same path towards the same focal point at the end. But the characters also have their own agendas and stories to tell across the world, across heaven and hell, across the universe, and across time as well. So there’s not really a way of doing that without trying to match the program for its reach with the immense creative canvas that it presents us with. If you don’t step up to match and understand it, then I think you would do this show a disservice.

How did you come on board “Good Omens?”

I got asked to do “Good Omens” by the director, Douglas Mackinnon, who I’d previously worked with on the Victorian Christmas special episode of the series “Sherlock. I had a great time working with Douglas on that. When Douglas was himself pitching for the job of directing “Good Omens” he asked me that if he were to be successful if I would come on board with him. Douglas is one of the great collaborators because he listens to what you have to say and he listens to the music that you’ve written. He’s a person with a huge amount of trust and a very good understanding of how his cut is working. So the process of “Good Omens” was an absolute delight once we got going.

Director, Douglas MacKinnon

Was it easier to have Doug direct every episode as opposed to having different ones, which is often the case with episodes of a miniseries?

Obviously with “Sherlock” there had been directors who’d done more than one episode, But for a show of “Good Omen’s” size and scale, it helps to a certain extent because it’s consistency of understanding and of a view of how it should be. The great advantage of “Good Omens’ was that I was only ever really dealing with Neil and Doug. I met with several people from BBC and Amazon as we were going along, but they were largely watching what was happening between me and Doug and Neil. And once you get over your initial hurdle of “What is this going to be and do I like it,” it’s very much an exercise in complete trust. Douglas and Neil looked to me to solve the problems of the show musically, and weren’t dictatorial. The only thing I was encouraged to do was “The more out there, the better,” and every time we did that, it worked. “Good Omens” was a show that would should great creative leaps of faith, partially because what it’s about, but also because it’s so structurally strong. Upon that, they let me dance around as I saw fit.

How did you choose the instrumental styles for “Good Omens?”

To a certain extent, when you see things that are set in a certain period, then it dictates an approach for you to belong to that world. The show itself starts at the dawn of time as far as mankind is concerned in a biblical sense, with Adam and Eve in the Garden. It then shows how they’re cast out by committing the first sin. From there, it travels through time to the present day or not so long ago, not quite the present day. When we are in 14th century with the witch finders, then there’s a certain amount of traditional instrumentation, which you’d be stupid to ignore. It’s the same way when we’re in Rome, Shakespeare’s England, or the 60s in swinging London. Part of what you’re doing is making a sound that belongs to the world that we were in at the time when we’re watching it.

How did you want to convey the love-hate relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley?

I never felt that it was a “love-hate relationship.” I always felt it was just a love relationship with a little bit of chafing at the edges. So to that extent, the beauty of that relationship was so much on the page and in the performance that there was very little that was required for music to do other than agree with it as it happened before us. Sometimes, it had a little bit of sort of storytelling twists and turns, where the attitudes may have indicated one thing or another may or may not be happening, and we collude with those looks from time to time. But the heart of their relationship is, I think, unadulterated and pure, and unspoiled, – though it’s tested from time to time. I do sort of fall on just such admiration and surprise at how fantastically well Michael Sheen and David Tennant played against each other, and on screen as those characters. They’re utterly, completely believable. They created two characters that you sort of fall in love with immediately. It’s a trick that very few actors are able to pull off, but when it works, it’s fantastic.

How “funny” did you want the music of heaven and hell to be?

I never want music to be funny. I think it’s a huge mistake. It’s a bit like waving a flag and saying “laugh here,” which draws attention to itself in a very unbecoming way as far as score’s concerned. So, if the comedy is there, then you have to create the launch pad for it to succeed and to land properly. And that usually means timing more than anything. So I wouldn’t know what “funny music” is. Every time I’ve done a comedy, I’ve done it sort of deadly seriously and completely straight because comedy works against a background of truth, even when it’s ridiculous. So I never, ever tried to write funny music. The show, when it’s funny is funny and certainly didn’t need any help. But what it does need is a score that keeps out of the way of the jokes and lets them work while keeping the story telling process going.

As far as the idea of music for heaven and hell, if there is a kind of expected relationship between them, it’s presumably that heaven is harps and choirs, and hell is sort of metallic clangs, moans, and possibly heavy rock. So, I adopted those two styles, I suppose, and the sounds of them rather than run away from them. So, heaven doesn’t have a music of it’s own. It has a sound that I’d describe as a factory for love, while hell sounds like a factory for evil. So the sound for heaven, is made out of all the things that we normally expect heaven to be, but there’s something sort of industrial about it. It’s choirs and it’s harps and it’s bells and things of great beauty, but they’re messed with and mangled a bit and made to be functional in that it’s almost like a work environment where people are trying to produce “good.” It’s the same for hell, with bells made awful with distortions and guitars and rock drums and moaning choirs. It’s a production line of great misery, and like all of the show, it was enormous fun to score that.


What about playing the seriousness of the impending apocalypse?

What the show does quite brilliantly is to make you laugh and then knocks you on the head with something quite profound or beautiful or prophetic. When those moments arrive, you go with them in a very, very honest way. I treat those moments of serenity, seriousness, and contemplation with the utmost respect, so they almost live in a different way in the score

Tell us about developing the main title

The script originally had the Buddy Holly song “Everyday” to open and close the episodes, with a different version of the end title reflecting what had happened in that given show. I liked that idea, and recorded a sort of Shakespearian version of it, a sort of death metal version of it and a sort of folk-y version of it. But all the time I was thinking that what I love about doing shows is to write an original theme that opens the world of the show up at the beginning. It’s a bit like the shop window isn’t it? You’re walking past it, and it catches your eye, and you go, “What’s that?” You look at it deeply, you go, “Oh, it’s all of these things. I want to go in.” So I asked Neil and Doug if they’d give me the chance to write a title sequence. Having done the Buddy Holly versions that they wanted. I said, “Look this is no pressure and no obligation, but give me a chance to write something” because I had an idea. I wrote the lullaby quite quickly because it was something that they needed quite quickly to shoot to, as they were shooting a scene where David Tennant had to sing the song on the set,

I felt like what I wanted the lullaby to be as if Walt Disney had been possessed by Satan – to sound kind of sweet, but be very much in contrast to the lyrics about blood and brains and ruling the world when everything’s destroyed. That was the first thing I wrote, and I sort of knocked it down quickly, sang them the demo and sent it off. Then they were shooting it, and it was in the show. All the time I was thinking that I really liked the melody and thought, “What if we abuse that quality? What if we do things to it which maybe you shouldn’t do with darker intentions?” I sort of carried on with this idea of a waltz. These things can be like a demonic kind of world.

The main title thing became a sort of demonic and angelic thing together. The opening section of it is the demonic waltzing of Mephistopheles’ dark side and the middle breaks into a sort of boy soprano, which sounds very angelic. In a way it’s not a staggeringly original concept, but it seemed to work. Thankfully, Neil and Doug liked it, and then we dumped the idea of doing the Buddy Holly song and stuck with the theme. That theme became the gateway to the entire rest of the show working musically. I think it ticked a lot of boxes for Neil and Doug and gave them confidence that they could leave me to run wild and respectfully go to all these different places, all while constantly checking with them that it was okay.

Did you want to musically differentiate mere mortals from the supernatural characters?

I didn’t make an effort to differentiate music either stylistically or emotionally, because if you start adopting a style for everything that crops up in the show, then it would be a terrible mess. What made sense was to try and identify the human emotional part of all of their stories because that’s the only way we can really relate to it. So I sort of relied on just a very basic, quite normal in a way, interpretation of what was going on. Because how else could we see what was happening than by being “us?”

What was your approach to the adolescent Antichrist?

The Antichrist is an unaware kid. And when he realizes it, he’s only going to be aware of that a relatively short amount of time. So I didn’t really play the Antichrist from an internal perspective. The relationship with his group of friends was this sort of very bucolic English countryside, gentle, pure relationship that they all have as kids together. Our first sort of suggestions of something going wrong is when he’s asleep and hearing the voices. So we would go from a sort of very innocent sound to something being dredged up and dragged along from a dark place. It’s music that I wanted to sound as if this stranger was coming up from behind you in the dark. You’re sort of aware he’s there, but you don’t look round to see him, even as he’s getting closer.

Did you see the black humor of “Good Omens” as tying into your score for “The Stepford Wives?”

I suppose that “Good Omens” has a spiritual cousin in The Stepford Wives, which in itself was a slightly demonic, perverted situation of a film, in terms of its story. I certainly liked the tonal color of that score, and it did feel like it was slightly devilish. But I suppose if you do anything in 3/4 with some choir, then it’s going to sound a bit like that.

“Good Omens” makes the best use of Queen and their guitar licks this side of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” How did the band’s music and style end up in the series?

Queen was in the original “Good Omens” book in the book, which had the idea that if you leave a cassette in a car for any amount of time than it will turn into Queen’s Greatest Hits – whether you like it or not! So the sound of Queen really belongs to Crowley’s Bentley, and most of what you hear when Crowley’s in the car is Queen playing, no matter what goes into the CD player. I was a massive fan of Queen when I was younger. I bought all the sheet music and learned how to play it. I saw loads of concerts with them, and I even tried to copy what Brian May was doing by watching his fingers when he was performing on telly. So Queen was a very welcome addition to “Good Omens.”

Queen

I’d worked with Brian and Roger before on the Olympics. Where I’d demoed stuff in a Queen style for them. Now I could orchestrate that here with guitar, in the same way that Brian May had done so brilliantly in so many of their songs. I mean, if I’m sitting down for fun with a guitar, I’ll probably still play a Queen song! So to actually do it and have it in a show is fabulous. One of my favorite pieces in this is a sort of Queen-ified black metal version of the main theme that closes episode one. I applied a lot of my Queen wish-list of things to do on that, and I recorded that with my Brian May copy guitars, with a brilliant programmer and guitarist named Toby Pitman, We’re both massive fans of playing guitar loudly. And I think that’s true of most people who play electric guitar.

How did you choose Tori Amos singing “The Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” to end the series so beautifully?

Tori Amos

I can take zero credit for that being in the show. It was in the script from day one, and Neil, who is friends with Tori Amos, had asked her to sing it. Lucky for us, she said yes. And it was lovely for me because I had written a song called “Play Dead” for my very first film “The Young Americans” and I wrote that after seeing Tori Amos do a songwriter’s showcase in London before she was well known. I think she’d just finished making her first album and it hadn’t come out. I was transfixed by her physical performance, the songwriting, her piano playing and the nature of what she was saying in the music. So I went home that night wanting to write a Tori Amos song, and I thumped out what became “Play Dead.” So it was a lovely little squaring of that circle to be able to add a little bit of extra something to her piano vocal performance. Obviously, it’s a very beautiful song, and beautifully performed, and it holds our hands so delicately as that show comes to an end that you feel like you were delivered somewhere familiar, but better.

What can we expect from your music for the forthcoming British “Dracula” series?

It’s a few weeks before I really start on “Dracula.” It’s a show that I’m doing with Michael Price again, whom of course I wrote “Sherlock” with. It’s going to be three 90-minutes episodes, which is the same format as the Sherlock series. Michael and I at the moment are creating the sound world for it to try and define what the tone of it will be. We both feel very strongly about what we should be doing with it. It’s a few weeks after conception, and it’s growing healthily and we’ve yet to find out whether it’s a boy or a girl.

La La Land Records has released any number of complete editions of your scores. And now they’ll be putting out an extended anniversary edition of “Stargate,” which was the score that really put you on the Hollywood map. What’s it like to have the music be so remembered years later, and what was the experience like of creating an epic score like it?

It’s always really lovely when a company like La-La Land puts out complete versions of scores. To a certain extent, I think I was quite reluctant when I did the original ones to put everything on it, because I thought it was going to be quite hard as a listening experience, I tried to make Milan’s first “Stargate” album as much of a coherent and listenable a journey as I could. That one is still out there. But what’s great about this new one is that it’s an additional thing for collectors. La La Land does such a brilliant job of locating things that have never been heard and then getting the permission to release it. They do great sleeve notes, good artwork, and it’s remastered, so everything sounds better. So if you like soundtracks, I think their reissues are special. And that’s a word that people use more frequently than they should. But it’s a really lovely thing to have because finding rarities is trickier.

In the day when I scored “Stargate,” there weren’t that many computers. Everything was on fax. There were no electronic files or anything. Anything that I sent as an idea was on a cassette, and it was FedExed across the ocean. Those initial ideas were listened to by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. And once they said “Yes we like it,” or, “No we don’t,” they probably end up in a bin somewhere. So, there’s still a few more places I have to search to see if there’s anything I can find, But sometimes it feels nice listening to old things. I think probably most people would say that it only seems like yesterday, but it actually does to me!

Good ideas make me think of music. Listening to those old cassettes made me remember when I was told the idea of “Stargate” by Roland. He had all of these original concepts of the great what-ifs, like “What if we found a doorway to somewhere else buried underneath the pyramids?” Those are the kind of what-if’s that let you go anywhere you like, and I just remember being very enthused by the idea, and hearing some of those themes appear. It was an enormous marathon period of writing in America. There’s a lots of good energy, honest intentions and enthusiasm in my writing for “Stargate.” You can hear that kind of enthusiasm in “Good Omens” as well. I’m happy that “Stargate” became so popular and created a lot of TV shows that were part of that world. It only really struck me when I heard other people sort of doing versions of what I’d done for the TV shows that I realized that the world of “Stargate” had a “sound.” Something that I’d come up with was now a thing that was travelling around to be adopted and recognized. It’s like shaking hands with everyone without having to get on a plane.

John Singleton, for whom you’d scored “Baby Boy,” “Four Brothers” “2 Fast 2 Furious” and “Shaft” for was a vibrant filmmaker whose passing is a tragic loss. What are your memories of working with him?

David Arnold and John Singleton, photo by Dan Goldwasser

I feel like I’ve lost this unfair amount of collaborators, with Chris Cornell, and Scott Walker. John was a huge shock. He was young, and I’d done four movies with John. That’s a lot of experiences to go through with someone. The main thing that I recall and remember from my time with John Singleton was that I spent most of it laughing because he was funny. He made what were sometimes quite tricky projects enjoyable to be on. He was protective of his cast and crew. He was protective of his ideas. He was doubly protective of music. He understood music and musicians and why it worked. He would trust you to do what you did. I was initially a bit shocked and surprised that he would allow me, considering where I came from, to work on a film like “Shaft.” But that worked so beautifully that he asking me to come back and do his next film, and then the one after that and then one after that. That’s a really special thing, when you feel that you have the trust of someone as important as a filmmaker as John Singleton was. It feels like an honor to be asked to be a part of the team.

John was at heart the sort of person that I like the most. You just wanted to hang out with him regardless. You feel like you would be a friend whether you were working on his films or not. It’s a strange industry at the best of times, but when it throws up opportunities to become friends with John Singleton, then I’m more grateful for that aspect of it than I am for the work aspect of it.

What do you think that shows like “Good Omens” signal for television music?

There are lots of interesting shows on the TV, but I do think that “Good Omens” is very much of its own world. I don’t think it is like anything else. If it’s a success then it will hopefully open up opportunities for bigger creative leaps in writing and filmmaking and scoring in general, with bolder attitudes towards everything. I think we’re starting to see that already on TV in a way that maybe isn’t happening in film. People on TV shows like “Good Omens” aren’t afraid to be different, and trust creative people to come up with something new.

Do you think that “Good Omens” redefines that kind of music that people might expect from you?

The Good Omens chorus at Air Studios in England

I’m not sure that I mind what they think I can do. If I’m being so perfectly honest, I only really want to do what I want to do. I want to be able to spend my day writing something that I enjoy writing, with people that I enjoy working with. I want to look forward to it and feel supported and safe in the process. So I don’t particularly mind if people think that I can’t do a certain “thing.” Before I did a Bond movie, I’d never done a Bond movie. Before I did a sci-fi movie, I’d never done a sci-fi movie. At some point, someone will say, “Well, maybe we should give him a go and see what happens.” And if it’s something new, I think that’s always when the best results happen, because it’ll be on something that I’ve never done before.

Would you like to return to blockbuster scores like “Stargate” and “Independence Day?”

If I’m interested in something, and I want to do it, then I’ll do it. Now, if that means that it’s a $200 student movie, or $200 million studio movie, it doesn’t matter. I don’t really want to do anything that I don’t want to do. I’ve been offered some films where it’s been something that I didn’t care about. I like working on musicals performing, writing songs with people and doing charity work with Care International. They all take time, and time is hugely important. I just want to be on projects that are hugely enjoyable, and make me happy.

What stands out from the experience of “Good Omens?”

The execution of these things is still very much a team sport. We had a very tight, friendly, fantastic group of people getting “Good Omens” musically across the line – in particular, Toby Pitman who was programming guitars, and Ben Foster who did orchestration and conducting. Both of them were just fabulous. It’s having those support networks of having brilliant engineers like Nick Wollage and Adam Miller. Being able to record the amazing string section, and the Crouch End Festival Chorus, who were full of enthusiasm and ideas. The weirder the music went, the happier they were.

I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now, and you start thinking, “How much more can you learn about the process?” I think I might have learnt more on “Good Omens” than I ever have before. And because “Good Omens’ was a team sport as far as the music was concerned, I really did have a door kicked open for me. Like those monkeys that get out of captivity and you see them leaving a compound for the first time and touching grass. I was the monkey thrown out of that compound and told to run and live in the trees and make the most of it. This might not be the best analogy to make, actually, but I was trusted with it.

“Good Omens’ was certainly a great joy to have done. I can’t imagine it ever being like that ever again, somehow. This show is so much of itself, and so much of its own world, maybe the only way it could have been done is for us to be in a little room by ourselves, creating it for ourselves and not really worrying too much about all the other things that you normally worry about .

“Good Omens” premieres on Amazon Prime Video May 31st HERE with David Arnold’s score available HERE

Find David Arnold soundtracks HERE

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