Daniel Pemberton has been busy creating a wonderful array of film scores over the last few years, and quarantine has been no different for him. In fact, at the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, he was working on his now Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated song “Hear My Voice” alongside artist Celeste for The Trial of the Chicago Seven. Along with scoring the six-time Oscar-nominated film, he’s also composed for unique and sometimes offbeat projects such as Birds of Prey and the Fabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Enola Holmes, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Most recently, Pemberton scored Netflix’s lesser known but critically acclaimed Rising Phoenix. The documentary focuses on disabled athletics and the Paralympic games, extrapolating those observations to comment on the larger understandings of success, disability, and diversity. In fact, during the production of the film, Pemberton partnered with three disabled rappers known as georgetragic, Toni Hickman, and Keith Jones, who are all a part of Krip-Hop Nation, a showcase for rappers with disabilities.
Currently, Pemberton is working on the music for the anxiously anticipated sequel of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. While he also scored the beloved original film, expanding on such a complex web of established music can be daunting. In the midst of this endeavor, Pemberton was kind enough to speak to us on his recent nominations, what it was like crafting some of his most recent work, and how it feels going into Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2.
First of all, congrats on your Oscar nomination! It’s for The Trial of the Chicago 7, your song ‘Hear My Voice’. How was it partnering with Celeste for that piece?
Daniel Pemberton: I’m super proud of what we’ve done with that song. One of the things that’s most interesting about it was when we wrote it, we were locked down over here. We were working pretty much remotely, me and Celeste. I started the song off, but I always really wanted to get her involved because I think she’s got such an amazing voice. She’s such a great artist. We ended up finishing the song over WhatsApp and text messages. It was quite crazy because we were completely locked down. The first stuff she was saying, she was recording in a bathroom on WhatsApp messages. I was like, “Nah, we’ve got to find a way to do this a bit better if we’re going to present it to where it’s all good.”
One of the things that is really crazy about that song is, when we wrote it, we were writing about the events in the film – the 1968 riots in Chicago. But the ideals behind that song, you know, the world changed around us by the time the song came out? We saw the protest movements again in America, with Black Lives Matter and things like that. It was really interesting to watch how the universal ideas behind the song, which were basically people wanting to have their visions recognized, even though originally written for the events of ’68/’69, [are] just as relevant today.
Obviously, this movie was based on true story. Did you do any research into what actually happened? And do you think that’s necessary for creating a piece of music to accompany a story like that?
Daniel Pemberton: It’s always good to get as much information as you can when doing a project, but deep down, it comes to what the emotion is (the most important thing) and trying to capture that in the story. Sometimes having an understanding of the setting, of the time period, can be a good way to help convey that emotion, sometimes not. I did a bunch of research. I’m reading the script which Aaron Sorkin has written and talking to him about his research, so that’s kind of what we focused on.
But for me, it was always about trying to capture the emotional moments in the story and really try and make the audience feel like they’re in there. Those key moments, especially the riots, are probably the ones where I really wanted to throw the audience really into. I wanted to capture the physicality and the soreness of those scenes, have the chaos and the unstable nature of the riot, which is very uncontrolled, and have the music with that same energy and unstableness to it
The way the movie is set up, there’s like a lot of dialogue and then there are the riots. It’s a lot of either very quiet music or very loud, in your face, high-energy scenes. How did you and Aaron Sorkin determine which moments needed that kind of push in the score?
Daniel Pemberton: When I first met Aaron Sorkin on this, we had a cocktail and he straight away was like, “There are four big moments in this film; the opening, the first wave, the second wave, and the ending.” It was already mapped out, which is actually quite rare for directors to be that confident of where the key music moments are. Originally, we just talked about having these four really big musical moments, and everything else, no score. Then when working through the film, we thought, “Actually, there are some bits that could probably help.” Like little bits of highlighting certain emotional beats, but I always wanted those to be very subtle.
Aaron’s original vision for the film had these four really big, bold moments, and the only way in film where you really get music to have that massive power is when you hold back. You hold back music and use it in key moments, and that’s a real skill for a director to use. I didn’t want those other moments of support to get in the way. There are bits where we really want the performances and dialogue to be central and there are other bits where we want the music – in the way Aaron originally visioned – to be big and solid.
It was interesting. I just watched Aliens, the James Cameron movie, which I haven’t seen for years. And what’s amazing, I mean, it’s such a great movie, but it’s really interesting how it’s spotted in terms of the music. Re-watching it again, they really hold the music back, and when they do use it, it’s really powerful. If they made that movie now, it would be wall-to-wall with music and it wouldn’t have the same impact. It’s really interesting how judicious they are with the use of score. I always think that’s important in film music. It’s like the less you have the more impact it has. When it’s wall-to-wall, it loses the power. So hopefully, the reason the movie felt powerful is partly because of that restraint in how often music is used.
Speaking of watching other movies and award season in general, what are your favorite films from last year and what are your favorite scores?
Daniel Pemberton: I’ve really liked Emile Mosseri, the composer for Kajillionaire and Minari. I really enjoyed those scores, I think there’s something very beautiful but also quite playful in them. There’s a lovely sense of melody and emotion. There are loads of nice scores, but those are probably the ones that really stuck out to me. I also enjoyed the music on The Mandalorian, I thought it was very strikingly bold scoring. That’s a pretty scary thing to try and change the sound of Star Wars – very, very difficult. So I was really impressed with it. Tenet was a lot of fun. Soul was a phenomenal movie, and I loved how the music works in that
Looking at your more general work, we’ll start with The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which I saw! There’s a very particular feel and association that comes with the fantasy genre, and your score was true to that. But you also made a lot of instrumental changes from the original Dark Crystal film. What was your thought process behind making those changes?
Daniel Pemberton: Louis Leterrier, the director of [Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance], really liked the music I did for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the Guy Ritchie movie. He loved the way the music sounded unconventional for those kinds of films. Age of Resistance is a prequel to the film, the time is set way before the original. We originally talked about trying to make it very organic and having instruments that only feel like they could exist on Thra, the planet. Trevor Jones’ score is phenomenal for the original, but Louis wanted to try something that wasn’t so symphonic and orchestral.
We tried to start off writing stuff that’s actually very simplistic, as if it was the kind of instruments these characters would play, the instruments you would have in that world – as opposed to an orchestra, which is a much grander concept. As we got going, we realized that we wanted to bring orchestral elements in because we weren’t getting the same depth and level of emotion. It was an interesting project as we were trying to marry these two worlds: one of unconventional instrumentation, creating instruments out of weird flutes and unusual percussion and sounds, while at the same time, marrying that with something a bit more conventional from an orchestral palette.
It was like passing the baton of the Trevor Jones score to the next one. We wanted it to feel like something different and by the time we hit the very end of the last episode, the two themes (the theme I’ve done and Trevor Jones’ theme) kind of weave together. The idea of passing it on to the next film. It was meant to feel like a more simplistic and humble score compared to the epic complexity of the Trevor Jones stuff. I’m glad you saw it, I really like that show. I really loved that project, it was weird how it just disappeared as “Oh no one saw it”.
I feel like people would have watched it if they knew how good it was. Speaking of another Netflix project, Enola Holmes. How did you approach balancing the spunk and brightness in that movie with the traditional sounds of a period piece?
Daniel Pemberton: Every time I do a project, I try and do it slightly differently. And I also always ask, “What does the film want?” I felt with Enola, it was really fun to write unashamedly melodic and orchestral music and the film could take it. A lot of films, it’s quite hard to actually write that kind of thing without straining back because it doesn’t really work with the picture or the emotion. But Harry Bradbeer, the director, was just like, “I want loads of big themes.” So for me that’s like, “Oh, great. Let me just go write tons of themes.” We wrote all these themes for Enola like adventure themes, like Tewkesbury’s theme, and it’s really good fun to just go and write a sort of unashamedly melodic orchestral score.
Then we tried to get other things in there to give it a slightly “wonky twist”, we used to call it. We didn’t want it to feel too slick, so there’s everything from a slightly wonky piano playing to even a squeaky door I recorded on holiday in Greece. I stayed in an Airbnb that had an unbelievably squeaky door, and I spent about 20 minutes squeaking it and that is hidden away in a couple of keys to make the rhythm sound a bit more unusual.
Another movie you scored, which is a big female character piece, was Birds of Prey. The score for that is very unlike anything else DC has done, so where did that inspiration come from?
Daniel Pemberton: The thing that got me excited about what Cathy Yan, the director, wanted to do with Birds of Prey was that she didn’t want it to feel like every other superhero movie. For me, that’s exciting because then you want to try and do something different. I always think great cinema should be a surprise. It should always be trying to surprise you and give you something you haven’t seen before, rather than just reheating the same meal every time.
The thing about Birds of Prey is… Harley Quinn is such a great character to write for because she’s got so many different personalities. She’s quite almost schizophrenic. I always used to say I could imagine her going to the opera, I can also imagine her at a heavy metal club, I can imagine her at a 50s diner, but I can also imagine her at a rave or hip hop club. I wanted to take all these different musical elements and just shove them all together, in the same way as her style. She’ll just take these high and low fashions, high class, low class, and just stick everything together to make her own character.
So you’ve got opera singers on top of like heavy metal rock riffs with acid 303 baselines and drum machines. It was really good fun to do that score because I just got to play around with anything I wanted and just try to make it work. I really like that score. I think that sort of got slightly lost on people. Me and my mixer were in LA for about two months making that score, it was mental. It was really crazy. There’s really heavy stuff in that score hidden away.
The fact that Birds of Prey had an accompanying soundtrack with all these songs that they included in the movie, did that impact anything at all? Or did you just do what you wanted?
Daniel Pemberton: When you have a film with songs, everyone pays more attention to the songs. That can be sometimes slightly disappointing as a composer, but you know what the reality is. I ended up writing some of those songs anyway. One of the biggest songs from that film, apart from the Doja Cat one, is ‘Joke’s On You’, Charlotte Lawrence’s track. That came out of me writing a queue and saying we should try and turn this into a song. You know, that originally was Harley’s theme that we tried to turn into a song to make it fit better with everything else. The same with ‘Danger’, which is one of the rap cues, that was based on Harley’s riff, and then we tried to turn that into a rap track.
At the moment, film music still generally approaches things in this really archaic way of like, “Here’s a film music composer. Here’s pop songs. And these two things have nothing to do with each other.” Whereas they really should work together. As a film composer, you’re creating this world for the film that hopefully feels completely unique to that universe; it makes sense to try and keep these ideas you’re creating, and then bring in the singers and tracks to put them together, rather than just make these two things completely separate.
That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Even on ‘Hear My Voice’ from Chicago 7, that theme is woven all the way through the movie, so it pays off at the end. If you pay attention to that score, that theme is everywhere; it only really comes together at the very end. You have a real kind of symbiosis between song and score which is what you should have, rather than just like, “Here’s some stuff the record label wants to try and throw into a movie.”
You did that with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse too. The very famous ‘What’s Up Danger’ scene has the pop song and then your score.
Daniel Pemberton: Spider-Verse is a good example of taking those things together. I really try to push harder and get them more integrated, but there’s always a lot of politics. In films, once you start dealing with pop people and record labels, they are less, how should we say, collaborative. They’re not used to collaborating in the way that filmmakers and film composers have to collaborate. It’s quite a mutual process so you have to be very good at collaborating.
Talking more about Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is a character we never saw before on the big screen, but Spider-Man isn’t, and there’s a lot of music already associated with Spider-Man. How did you try to set your score apart from previous iterations? Besides, you know, just adding hip hop beats and electronic influences.
Daniel Pemberton: Spider-Verse is actually a very complex score. Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s a very complex score on two levels. One, from a production point of view – there are so many crazy concepts in there. It’s probably the most ambitious score I’ve done in terms of multiple production ideas in there. Then also, from a musical point of view, you’re trying to come up with all these themes and motifs that can work for different characters that can all combine. Hopefully, you notice in the movie that there are tons of themes present.
[Turns on piano] I mean, people don’t always notice this sh*t but if they do, it doesn’t matter, because it just makes the experience more fulfilling for everyone, but let me just get you a better sound on here. So you’ve got Miles’s theme, which you sort of recognize, there’s two bits to Miles, you’ve seen [plays Miles’ theme on the piano] which is his destiny theme. And then it goes [plays on piano] “Spider-Man!” Then Peter has a theme that’s sort of like [plays Peter’s theme], and that theme combines with Miles’ theme towards the end. I knew that was gonna happen, obviously, because I read the script. So you’re trying to make these themes that will work for Peter, [and] when Miles takes over Peter’s mantle and becomes Spider-Man, the ideals behind Peter’s theme can incorporate into Miles’s theme.
With the next movie, there’s stuff where all these things are gonna combine even more and it’s really f*cking complicated. But the idea is trying to have a very concise thread with all the thematic elements. So even this kind of like [plays Miles’ theme again], which we call the destiny theme, whenever his mom gives us hope you hear a bit of it, but it doesn’t play off in the same way. It’s all about these things playing off and resolving. Like the Prowler sounds never really resolve properly until you see the Prowler being Uncle Aaron. There’s zillions of different musical concepts in there that are all intertwined and lots of different weird musical Easter eggs as well as complex production things, like scratching and electronics. Spider-Verse one was super complicated and I’m starting Spider-Verse 2 now and it’s gonna make the first one look like maybe one of the easiest scores I’ve done in comparison.
Oh my God, what can we expect from Spider-Verse 2?
Daniel Pemberton: I’m not really allowed to talk about Spider-Verse 2, but I’ll say what I want to try and do in Spider-Verse 2 will make Spider-Verse 1 look quite tame musically.
I’m so excited for the next one.
Daniel Pemberton: Yeah, well I’ve got to do it, so I wouldn’t get too excited.
When you get it done, you’ll feel the relief, right?
Daniel Pemberton: It’s scary. It’s very scary, Spider-Verse 2, because I know what we did with the first was really, really special. I want Spider-Verse 2 to be like Empire Strikes Back rather than The Matrix 2.