Daniel Pemberton: No Risk, No Fun
A luxury hotel in Tenerife. It is 12:00 in the morning. The man from U.N.C.L.E. has just arrived, with some delay, to one of the hotel’s private rooms. It must have been a full day already.
Daniel Pemberton smiles behind his sunglasses. With his summer attire, he goes completely unnoticed among tourists. He jokes, but does not lose any detail of his surroundings. A comforting breakfast is served while the microphone gets fitted. The special operation will take less than fifteen minutes. It is vitally important that things go smoothly. The time comes and, after a sip of coffee, the questioning begins. He is used to it and has everything under control.
You may find below the transcription obtained by our northern secret service. And remember, it is for your eyes only.
Daniel Pemberton (United Kingdom, 1977) released his first album, Bedroom (1994), at the age of 16. He spent the next decade working in British television for such cult shows as Peep Show (2003-2015), Hell’s Kitchen (2004-2009) or The Great British Menu (2006-2020), in addition to countless drama series and documentaries.
Pemberton moved into the world of film with the period supernatural thriller The Awakening (2011). He has collaborated with directors such as Ridley Scott, Guy Ritchie, Danny Boyle or Aaron Sorkin in the films The Counselor (2013), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), Steve Jobs (2015), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), Molly’s Game (2017) and All the Money in the World (2017). Works where he displays his ability to jump genres, from intricate electronic sound design to classical orchestra, going through big band jazz set ups.
After Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) or Yesterday (2019), his latest efforts include Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), Enola Holmes (2020) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), where he keeps showing that he is one of the most inventive and experimental voices on-screen.
What could you tell us about your beginnings in film music?
I started off being into abstract electronic music, making music in my bedroom: a four track and a synthesizer and nothing else. It was just for fun. People heard my music and when I was sixteen I had a record out. Because I was young and quite a novelty, a director asked me to score his TV documentary. I did that with him and, then, he asked me to do another one and another one… At this point I was still at school, so I’d do my homework and then do the film. And that just kept going and it hasn’t stopped since.
What do you remember of those crazy times in television?
I think it was really good, because it was like a playground. I got to try so many different styles. I worked with no money, worked with some money. It was very good training for me. I learnt just trying, rather than being afraid of ideas and sounds. It was interesting when I first started working with Ridley Scott. He looked at all my TV stuff and said to me “it looks like you’ve spent your ten thousand hours in the garage.” He said he’d done the same with advertising. That’s one of the coolest things someone has said to me.
How was the experience of working on The Awakening?
That was a great film to work on for me. Nick Murphy is a really great director, very proficient in music. When you work on a film with someone like that, you end up getting good results, because they know the power of music and they know what they want the music to bring. That’s still one of my favourite scores, because it’s so contained. It’s got a style that’s very unique just for that world. I really enjoyed working on that movie and it’s always got a special place in my heart as well, as my first score.
You mentioned Ridley Scott before. How is it working with him? He’s known to be very demanding.
Everyone says that, but I loved working with Ridley. He’s really nice. I think he’s demanding only in the way he expects everyone to be working the same level he is. He’s unbelievably workaholic. You’ve got to be ready when you’re working with him. If he wants something, you just do it. I’m a bit like that, so I find it quite exciting to work with him. It’s great to be in the room with him, just throwing ideas around, arguing… You know, it’s really fun arguing with Ridley Scott over scenes. Remember he’s made so many films, and he’s a very driven director. He’s always like moving on to the next thing. If you cannot keep up, it’s painful, because you’re just left behind.
Let’s talk about Guy Ritchie. How did you get to work on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.?
He was trying to get a new composer. I happened to be in LA and he’d heard my “showreel”. As it seems, he said he’d heard every “showreel” in Hollywood and that was the only one that sounded any different. I went to meet him. We had a crazy meeting on set.
Listening to your score we may hear Roy Budd, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin… and, of course, Daniel Pemberton. How was the creative process?
I love the world of the 60s and 70s. It was very strong in rhythmic and melodic ideas, which I really like. It was interesting in terms of instrumentation, quite exotic and unusual. I loved those kind of scores and they had a massive influence on me. We were trying to do a sound that didn’t sound like the Barry one, which I love, but has become such a cliché for spy films. Whereas people like Edwin Astley, who is a British composer, could sound more unusual. I wanted to try onto that type of feel, to get that nostalgic reflex, feeling like it was in the 60s, but then trying to do something different with it.
The same year you scored Steve Jobs for Danny Boyle. The film has three distinct acts and three distinct musical approaches. How did you work this out?
That was an idea we had right at the beginning.Aaron Sorkin had written this great script that was clearly three different acts. And Danny was going to shoot themin three different ways: each in a different block, shot in different film stocks. The look of each act would be different, and the feel of it. So we just said we should try to do this with the score as well and that is how we started.
A cue in particular summarizes the internal turmoil in Jobs’ life, Revenge. Cinematically, it’s one of the most powerful scenes in the movie. Was it easy to reach the final version?
No. It was like the hardest thing ever. It was so hard to do that piece of music. We wrote it so many times… We went back and forth so many times… I think it got to like three days before recording and Danny still wasn’t a hundred percent happy with it, so I was rewriting that cue. It got signed off on a Saturday night, finally, and we were recording on Monday morning. That was a very tough cue to write, because you’re trying to write music that has a musical integrity and, at the same time, hits the action. It needed to feel like a piece of music rather than a piece of score that just happens to work exactly with what was happening on screen.
In King Arthur: Legend of the Swordyou decided to innovate again: screams, breathings and percussions together with medieval textures. What’s the trick?
A lot of that is also Guy Ritchie’s influence. He is quite a difficult director to work with, but he does really like scores that sound different, and feel different. As a composer it is always exciting because it gives you the space to try unusual ideas. The breathing came from his brilliant editor, James Herbert, who is one of the real secrets behind those films. He said we should just try breathing, as an idea. We tried it and totally changed the feeling of the score.Then that idea became a bigger part of the score.
I love doing things where it doesn’t feel like something you’ve heard before. I always think about someone watching a film. I wanna hear things I have no idea what they’re gonna be and I wanna be surprised and excited. If the cinema can do that to you, then that will make you excited every time you go and see a movie. There are lot of things where you go “I know what I’m gonna get here: more of the same”. Whilst if you are like “I have no idea what this is gonna sound like”, it is a lot more exciting.
Today it’s quite difficult to find new musical voices… What piece of advice would you give to young composers?
It’s really easy to say “Hey, find your own voice”, but it’s really hard to find it. I’m always trying to come up with a new voice and it’s very hard to do that and service the film. I think… don’t copy how other people work. How you work is really important, your way of creating a different sound. To try and vary how you work, trying to put yourself in uncomfortable positions and different ways of doing things. That’s the way you’d come up with something that is more unique.
AsturScore would like to thank Fimucité (Tenerife International Film Music Festival) for their kindness in making arrangements for this interview and for their support during it