Interview with Carlos Rafael Rivera

By • October 23, 2020
Composer Carlos Rafael Rivera

In the genre of sports scoring replete with the tackles, kicks and punches that play the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, perhaps no competition is more pumped up than the entirely cerebral game of chess. From James Horner’s “Searching for Bobby Fischer” to James Newton Howard’s “Pawn Sacrifice” and Alexandre Desplat’s “The Luzhin Defense,” composers have done memorable heavy lifting when it comes to the mental moves of players who are usually in their own socially distanced, if not insane world (one notable exception being Alex Heffes’ positively sunny score for “The Queen of Katwe’s” female African prodigy). In a seemingly unexciting field where composers are trying to leverage as much excitement and emotion as possible to make up for physicality, leave it to seemingly come-from-nowhere composer Carlos Rafael Rivera to arguably checkmate them all with his rapturous score to Netflix’s miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit,” a score that makes one symphonically old-school winning play after the other in not only making the game as pulse-poundingly exciting as any sweat-flying male-oriented match, but also hears the distinctly feminine emotion within its master player. 

As based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, who wrote of pool hall angles in “The Hustler” and alien disaffection with “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Queen’s Gambit” has been brought to cable by “Don’t Look Now” screenwriter Allan Scott and co-writer and series director Scott Frank (“The Lookout”). Most importantly, Frank is also responsible for bringing the talent of his one-time music teacher Rivera to the screen to score every major project he’s made since. With 2014’s criminally underrated, super dark investigative film “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” Rivera’s scoring debut impressed with is psychological relentlessness, capturing a transfixing sense of doom from the killers that Liam Neeson’s haunted P.I. pursued. Rivera showed he could segue from a twisted urban landscape to the killer vastness of the old west with Frank’s deadshot 2017 Netflix series “Godless,” which brought women to the heroic forefront of a man’s world. Capturing the kind of music from which the movie west was one, Rivera’s won an Emmy for its main title and received a nomination for limited series underscoring. 

Now with the 1960’s set “The Queen’s Gambit,” Scott Frank continues his theme of female empowerment, but in a whole new setting where the kill-or-be-killed mindset is applied to an existential playing field. It’s lovely come-from-nowhere combatant is Beth (a truly bewitching Anya Taylor-Joy), who first discovers the game from a gruff janitor in the orphanage where her destructive mother has landed her. Developing a taste for pills, and alcohol down the line, Beth strategizes her games on the ceiling. Adopted into a family whose selfish father is nowhere to be seen, Beth matures into a chess force to be reckoned with, accompanying her boozy new mom through the world chess circuit, and developing a host of male admirers on and off the board along the way on her climactic, chess king of the world match with Russia’s Cold Warrior Borgov (“Anthropoid’s” Marcin Dorocinski). 

Of the many things that make “The Queen’s Gambit” different from its predecessor’s openings is a heroine who might be withdrawn and self-destructive, but is decidedly, and sensuously not a basket case. And though there’s high drama to spare, it’s a series devoid of any operatic melodrama. Instead, the beautifully acted and shot miniseries is a sharply observed character piece, no more so than with Rivera’s approaches. With strings and piano of particular importance in his superbly thematic score, the classically-attuned, upcoming composer delivers a masterclass in musical storytelling – with the score often the only thing on the soundtrack for long, glorious stretches. Embodying both the ticking clock of the matches along with Beth’s fourth-dimensional moves, Rivera plays the long game in way that can be as exciting as a The Big Game or have the rhythm of a waltz. Keyed off the piece-pushing and the unfolding of Beth’s strategies, Rivera creates a sense of momentum and suspense for these face offs. There’s just as much fragile poetry in how he embodies Beth as a tough cookie yet yearning to break from her shell as she finds her emotional place in the world. It’s an overarching, empathetic approach that truly sings with its melodic content that makes “The Queen’s Gambit” as much of a binge pleasure to listen to as it is to watch with Frank’s visual artistry, as he and his court composer making chess perhaps the most interesting, and challenging sport to score to of all.

Tell us about your first moves as a film composer. And how did having Randy Newman as your mentor set up your own scoring style?

The timing of many events synced up to afford my first opportunity back in 2008, while a guitar teacher at the Pasadena Conservatory. One of my students, Michael Legato, took a liking to some of the music I had written and showed it to his dad.  I had no idea his father was/is VFX whiz and three-time Academy Award winner Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book,” “Hugo,” “Titanic”)! Rob happened to be looking for a composer to score a short film he was directing, and Michael happened to show his dad this music. During my initial meeting with Rob, both he and his producer, Ron Ames, treated me as if I could pull it off, no problem – while I had NO IDEA if I would. Through USC’s mentorship program, as a doctoral student, I also happened to be mentoring with Randy Newman, whom I showed my first cues.  His advice helped me get the music approved and has stayed with me to this day.

You were songwriter for the likes of “Firefly Lane” and “Scrubs” before becoming a full-on composer. What’s that aspect of your career like? 

I was in a band called Zoo Story that was signed to Universal Records. As a collaborator with the main songwriter, Randy Coleman, throughout the years, some of our songs have been licensed to Film and TV.  It amazes me to know that these songs still have a life past our initial creation as a band.

You really came to notice with your score for Scott Frank’s excellent “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” Could you tell us what brought you to his attention, and the experience of scoring this relentless, underrated thriller?

In the summer of 2003, Scott Frank walked into Old Town Music in Pasadena looking for a guitar teacher.  He opened a binder and picked my name. It never crossed my mind that nearly a decade after our first lesson, I would be composing the score to a movie he wrote and directed, starring Liam Neeson as Matt Scudder, a character who was one of author Lawrence Block’s finest creations.At the time, Scott was simply looking to get better at playing guitar. As one of the most respected screenwriters in the film industry, it should come as no surprise to know his mind is quick and deeply curious. I was helping him the best I could in understanding the broader picture of all things musical through his instrument.

Filmmaker Scott Frank

As Scott was gearing up to direct his first film, “The Lookout,” he first gave me a chance to play guitar for another composer who was doing the demo for the film. This was before James Newton Howard came on board to score it. After that, he started suggesting I write some music to scenes he would write – scoring to the script.  And that’s where my experience with Rob Legato came into play. I at least had a handle on how to go about it. This was the birth of our quite unorthodox relationship with Scott, as he would fill me in on things he was working on, and I would do the same. During that time my mentorship with Randy Newman had been going for a few years, and Scott took great interest in that. Flash forward to 2012, and I found out he was set to direct “Tombstones” with Liam Neeson attached.  I emailed him (I’d moved to Miami back in 2010) and let him know there was NO WAY I wouldn’t be involved in the film, even if it was simply writing the temp score.  Surprisingly, he sent me the screenplay, and I began writing immediately – sending my first sketches within a few days of reading it. So began the demos for “A Walk Among the Tombstones” from the script stage.  Before a single shot was made.  We were both looking for the musical tone of the film.  He’d send me links to songs he loved, and I’d write cues to scenes he’d written or even re-written based on the music. 

Your next major project with Scott was for the girl-power Netflix western series “Godless,” for which you got an Emmy main title win and a nomination for best limited series score. What was the challenge of scoring a western that was essentially about women as the heroes in an unforgiving man’s world?

The challenge was more about scoring what is essentially Scott’s love letter to the Western genre without being derivative, nor getting in the way. Additionally, trying to be respectful of the work by such greats as Morricone, Bernstein, Tiomkin, was difficult, in that these musical tropes work really well.  But avoiding them forced me to address the story and character, giving way to the thematic elements upon which the score was built. Additionally, making “script movies” had become our norm, where I create a QuickTime of the screenplay, set at a reading pace and score the scene. It can be very effective in finding the rhythm of the music, and undoubtedly helped us in some of “Godless’” set pieces. 

With chess players studying each other’s games, did you look at past “chess” scores like “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “Pawn Sacrifice” to see what it was about those soundtracks that worked so well? 

To me, writing is research. On every project, I try to learn as much about the context against which the story is taking place, whether historical, socio-political, etc. For “The Queen’s Gambit,” the first thing I did was to watch as many chess films as I could, including the above-mentioned ones, as well as documentaries (“Magnus” is a fantastic one by the way), in order to study what decisions have been made by the directors/composers.  

Did you want to convey the idea of chess as being as exciting to its players as something like football?

Absolutely, because it is an exciting game. But making the game visually exciting, as it does not readily lend itself to cinema – two people sitting across from each other, pushing wood on a board – there was the challenge. And as I mentioned earlier, every game needed to be scored differently. There were about 25 or so games that were scored, and each one needed to be treated uniquely.

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R) ANYA TAYLOR as BETH HARMON in THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. Cr. CHARLIE GRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

In a way, do you think that being a film composer is like being a chess player?

In having to manage time and be ahead of the clock while on a project, perhaps. Or in having only so many musical choices while scoring a scene and suffering the consequences if they were wrong (revising/rewriting a cue). And having played daily for the past year, I find the problem-solving aspects are also quite similar to composing.

Given that the “heroes” of chess movies tend to be introverts, how important was music for getting into Beth’s head, and making her more of a fully rounded “human” than she might appear to the outside world?

The main challenge was to avoid writing a “Beth Theme,” but rather themes for aspects of Beth’s character: Addiction, Genius, Mischief, Growth, etc. By resorting to different themes, I found myself applying them throughout the seven episodes, whenever one of these aspects were guiding her character in a scene, creating a more holistic representation of Beth.

Tell us about setting the pill-popping pieces up of Beth’s childhood in an orphanage

The final scene for episode 1 was a thrill to work on, because it was borne out of making a script movie for it. For that scene, Scott described that the entire orphanage was watching “The Robe” (scored by Alfred Newman), and Beth slipping out of the room as she was up to something. Reading the screenplay, I realized this was going to be a scene that needed music.  So I made the script movie and was going to score it with original music.  But, I had just watched “The Robe” to get a sense of the context against which Beth’s mischief would play and found Alfred Newman’s music from “The Robe’s” final scene lent itself perfectly for it.  To me, this ultimately works because Scott and our film editor, the amazing Michelle Tesoro, worked tirelessly to see it through. 

Beth plays her moves on the ceiling. How did you want to convey that particular analytical quality of hers?

Whether it was on the ceiling, or against another person, it was my initial thought that I should find a way to characterize all games under one sound/musical template. But after many months of trying, I realized that every scene required a particular kind of music, because what mattered was the context around which music would be living.

“Queen’s Gambit” overall has a very lyrical, classical quality to the score for piano and strings. How did you think your own background in the classical world contributed to that approach?

The decision to use classical music was suggested in the novel by its author, Walter Tevis, whereas there were several mentions of classical music throughout. Upon reading it, I realized classical music was needed to help tell the story and convey the back and forth (counterpoint) between the pieces. My interest in the music of composers such as Stravinsky and Copland informed my earlier work, and I was also particularly obsessed with mixed meter, and how to use it in an organic, seamless fashion.  Being able to use this technique has helped me tremendously in scoring to picture, as it is par for the course when trying to match cuts.  

Could you talk about your main themes, and how you wanted them to weave across the score, especially given that the mystery of Beth’s mother plays through the series?

As I mentioned before, Beth’s themes were about her characteristics. Borgov had a leitmotif made of simultaneously ascending and descending intervals. Benny had his own melodic idea that occasionally appears alongside him.  I had written music for Alma, but realized it was not about her, but her role in Beth’s life and their relationship.  Beth’s mother’s music is one of her themes played in a lower register, hopefully evoking not only their relationship, but the darkness that surrounded her.

Beyond Beth, there are many extended sequences in “Queen’s Gambit” where the music is doing the heavy lifting of storytelling. Could you talk about those challenges?

I was warned by Scott, as well as Wylie Stateman, our sound supervisor, that music would be doing a lot of heavy lifting.  They were right.  Not only in the chess matches, but in montages, which are opportunities I love to take on, specially since I feel Scott is really good at making them. I also work with a great team, and as the deadlines got increasingly harder to meet, I relied on their help to get to the finish line.  My music editor was Tom Kramer, whom I’ve been working with since my first movie with Scott. I also had David Stal, whom I worked with on “Godless” as well as Asuka Ito, with additional music. Jeremy Levy and his team were orchestrating. Knowing I could rely on them really helped write and deliver close to three hours of score. 

For the most part, nothing grandly melodramatic happens to Beth in “Queen’s Gambit.” Did that in turn give the score its fairly restrained quality, especially in helping it not go over the top?

Thanks for saying that, as it was always a concern not to overcompensate what is on the screen, but rather support it. Steven Meizler (our cinematographer) composed some incredible shots that in conjunction with Uli Hanisch’ production design made it a thrill to score to. The key word that was in my mind throughout every cue was to make the music entrances and exits elegant.

How did you incorporate the ideas of chess itself into the score, from its clocks to the rhythm of the pieces’ movements?

There was a particular piano library by Native Instruments, called Noir, that has a setting where the felted hammers of the piano repeat in a delayed sequence, that to me sounded as if one was inside a large wooden clock. This conjured up many of the images of gameplay, where the timer is ever present, and made me feel as if I was somehow inside the clock next to the board, watching the matches. There was another library by Spitfire Audio (which I used for most of the orchestral mockups) called Keppler Orchestra, that really helped characterize much of what was going on in the ceiling.  

All of “The Queen’s Gambit” builds up to the big match with Borgov. How did you want to play this challenge he presents to Beth, both as a player and as an embodiment of her self doubt?

Ideally, I wanted to represent Beth’s life in the orphanage with the piano as the main color and increase the palate of instruments through each episode toward the full orchestra by the time she has her big match with Borgov. Although her reality in the beginning was just the Piano, what she visualized in her head would always be orchestral. By the time Beth arrives in the USSR in the final episode, she is fully developed, and so the music matches the reality she always envisioned.

Did you want to capture a Russian musical aesthetic once you were behind the Iron Curtain with Beth?

Absolutely, but, as you mentioned earlier, in a restrained fashion. The work of the Russian masters (Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky) was always looming, and I leaned on instruments such as the Oboe, as well as some harmonic motion throughout those sequences to honor their tradition. 

Talk about scoring the ultimate game with Borgov?

This was the greatest scoring opportunity I could have wished for, since I have always loved underdog stories like “Rocky” and “Rudy.” The moment I saw the assembled scene I knew it was something special, as it already worked well without music. Here was the chance to bring all of the themes that have been slowly developing into a fully matured state, playing into one very tense, dramatic, and ultimately exhilarating sequence.

If any of “Queen’s Gambit” was scored during corona, how did you deal with that challenge?

I have been working remotely on all productions since I moved back to Miami ten years ago. A lot of the technical challenges presented in not being physically near post-production studios have been sorted slowly over the years.  It was nonetheless a challenge, as many of the other departments (editorial, VFX, Sound) had to transition into working from home. 

Why do you think your collaborations with Scott work so well, particularly on “The Queen’s Gambit?” And how do you think this will stand up in the ranks of chess films / series and their scores?

There were very difficult months early on in post-production, where Scott would tell me: “You’re scoring the wrong movie.” Getting the musical tone right for this kind of story has been the greatest education of my life, and it is again thanks to Scott’s patience and most of all, trust, that allowed the music to find its way. I have no idea how “The Queen’s Gambit” will stand against other chess films/series, but I hope it stands well as an entertaining story.

What’s up next for you and Scott, and would you hope to expand beyond his work? 

I worked for over two years on this project, and just finished at the beginning of August. So the recent break has been really welcome. I do not take my relationship with Scott for granted and would be thrilled if he chose to work with me again. My hope is to work more and collaborate with other compelling story tellers, as well as Scott.

For me, “The Queen’s Gambit” checkmates with its gorgeous, melodic quality. Do you think that’s something that’s missing now in films and television? 

I am certainly a fan of good melodic writing but find there are many stories that may not require it to be best told. The use of color as tension can be as effective as melody. As an example, some of the more haptic composers, such as Cliff Martinez, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and to a certain degree Jonny Greenwood, are making music that attracts at least as much for its sound/color, over the melodic content. Their work shines in stories such as “Drive,” “Birdbox” or “Phantom Thread.” Being open to any musical means to support the story the director wants to convey feels best for me.

How good of a chess player did “The Queen’s Gambit” make you?

It certainly made me better than I was. The difference being that before, I was pretty bad at it. Now, I know HOW bad at it I am.

Listen to “The Queen’s Gambit” soundtrack on Maisie Music Publishing HERE

Watch “The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix HERE

https://www.netflix.com/title/80234304

Listen to Carlos Rafael Rivera’s soundtracks HERE

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=carlos+rafael+rivera&ref=nb_sb_noss

Visit Carlos Rafael Rivera’s web site HERE

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