Dominic Lewis performs scoring duties on popular TV shows Duck Tales, The Man in the High Castle and, earlier this year, completed work on Sony Animation's Peter Rabbit and is the composer for spooky kids' movie Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Here he tells Mandy News about his process on the film and more.
Could you tell us a little bit about Goosebumps 2, which came out at Halloween?
It’s a little bit old for my kids but it’s been great to do some kids’ stuff and to use the orchestra more than in my last project so that’s been really nice. I hadn’t really done it since Freebirds. I wanted to make it an hommage to my ’80s influences like Williams, Silvestri and Dammy Elfman, who did the first Goosebumps but at the same time, not wanting to copy Danny’s style or anyone’s. I just wanted to to tip my cap to the scores that got me really excited about movies and got me into doing it for a living. It was really fun to do.
How did the project come about?
Well, I worked with Ari (Sandel) before on Duff, about three years ago. Obviously my relationship with Sony is growing – I’ve done four movies with them. I guess because I’ve worked with Ari before, it seemed like an obvious pick, so I jumped at the chance to do that.
You were talking about getting to use the orchestra more, could you talk us through the process of where was it recorded and what orchestra you used?
Well I hadn’t actually recorded anything in this orchestral, floral style. That Amblin, Spielberg-esque, Lucas-esque style of movie-making. Before, I’d been doing R-rated comedies, so it was all kind of drones and a few ostinatos thrown in there but nothing they could get their teeth into playing-wise. So, this one, I really made a point of challenging them, knowing that they’d absolutely nail it.
It’s just really nice to be able to give these musicians something closer to what they’ve grown up playing. I was really trying to create something that was a homage to my film-scoring heroes, but at the same time, calling on my classically trained upbringing, you know, Strauss and Debussy and Ravel, all those guys that I love. I could draw from the musical library in my head and come up with something that was challenging yet fun to play.
It was cool – a lot of musicians came up to me after the session to say, “Thank you so much, I had such a great time. Thanks for treating us with such great respect.” I think Hollywood treats them as a machine, something to replace the demo. With my dad being in the orchestra in London, I grew up being in sessions seeing how he reacted to being poorly treated. It’s really important to me that these amazing musicians get treated with respect. It was nice to give them something challenging and fun to play. It was a very rewarding experience.
We were lucky enough to be sent four of the demos, not mastered finished versions, and they sound absolutely immense, extremely rich. What was the size of the orchestra and whereabouts was it recorded?
It was recorded on the Barbara Streisand stage on the Sony Dock and I had, I think, altogether, 70 pieces, which was pretty awesome: about 40-45 strings, double woodwinds, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, three percussionists and then - I did this separately - I added a 30-piece choir on top of all that as well, so it was pretty massive!
Wow! In terms of logistics, dealing with the technical side of it with all the different instruments, do you approach it as though you’re working on different channels in the box? The technical aspect sounds mind-boggling!
My days at the Royal Academy were spent scribbling down notes for musicians to play on paper. I really have to be careful writing and working on a computer because it does change the way that you write. Sometimes you rely on your sampled sounds. I’ve been more guilty of putting a tune on a horn, when it should be on the trombone, just because my sample for the horn is better.
Especially for movies, you have to be careful not to do that. If I do have a crummy top-end sample, it tends to be the lower-end woodwind that doesn’t sound great. The oboes and the cor anglais and things like that… people haven’t quite got the samples right and it would sound absolutely amazing if a player plays it, but the sample is crap. Sometimes a director will throw it out because of that, but when they hear it on the stage, they say, “Wow! That’s amazing!”
It’s a very taxing process and sometimes you have to try it and put it in front of a director and say, “I know it sounds rubbish but please trust me, it’s going to sound amazing.” I had to do a bit of that on this.
Process-wise, I was very fortunate to be at the Royal Academy of Music where I trained in orchestration. I had an amazing teacher called Chris Austin who taught me everything he knew. It’s different. I really have to put myself in the headspace of putting pencil to paper as opposed to playing on a keyboard. It takes a bit longer to orchestrate, making sure it’s all legit and that it’s going to sound great on stage.
Sometimes you put it in front of players and they say, “What’s this? I can’t play that!” so it is important to put my orchestration hat back on, because sometimes, making cool film music, you get into this headspace of “I can break rules, I can make it sound different.” And especially training with Hans Zimmer for so long, most of the composition is about breaking rules, which is not something that you would normally do in order to make it sound different.
For example, you could take a bunch of col legno strings like in Dunkirk and just repeat them super-fast – completely unplayable, but it sounds really cool. When you’re in that world, there’s a lot of pressure to update. Suddenly, you get this project and you want to be traditional with it. You want it sound like a big sweeping orchestral score and it’s really great to put that hat back on. That’s how I trained, that’s what I grew up with. That was the music that raised me. It was really awesome. We’ll see what people think of it!
What have you got coming up that you’re allowed to tell us about?
I’ve got Duck Tales Season 2 that I’m working on now and I believe season 3 has just been greenlit, so I’m going to be Duck Taling for at least another couple of years. Then next year, I start another Disney TV show called The Rocketeer, which is loosely based on the movie with a young female lead who happens to come across the suit. It’s super-cool, it’s going to be a little different to the Duck Tales vibe. That’s going to be fun.
Then I’ve got The Man in the High Castle Season 4 starting at the end of November. No movies as of yet but hopefully the phone will ring in the next couple of weeks and something will come up.
We did advice last time but since you’ve worked on Peter Rabbit, is there anything you learned on that project, or since then, that you could add to the advice that you gave before?
A good piece of advice that I struggle with even now, is to believe in yourself, because if you can’t believe in yourself, how can you expect other people to? It’s a fine line and I don’t want to be pushy or arrogant about it, but at the same time, you need to know that you can do this and that’s all you want to do.
The second part of this advice is, if this isn’t what you want to do 100% of the time, especially as a young musician or a young composer, or you’re at all unsure about it then think of something else to do because it takes up all your time.
Even now as a somewhat established film composer, it’s really difficult to create a balance between home life and work life. And I’d say that it’s so demanding early on that if it’s not what you want to do, then rethink. I know that sounds a bit mean but I’m just trying to stress the point that you’ve got to want this – I mean really, really want it.
On top of that, know that you’re good enough, know that you can make it. Be confident, but be aware of other people’s space when you’re hassling or hounding them. It’s really tricky. It’s a fine line.
Check in with people. Ask for advice from people you admire. See if they’ll have a coffee with you. Soak it up, absorb what you can, whether it’s from their music or their advice, or listening to the classical greats, whatever it might be.
Everyone’s path is different. Your path will be your path. Don’t model it on someone else’s career path. Carve you own way.
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