A Crowning Achievement: The Music of Netflix's "The Crown"
By Sarah Finegold, ASCAP Marketing + Communications • August 18, 2017
Pictured (l-r): Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown (courtesy of Netflix); Rupert Gregson-Williams (photo by Benjamin Ealovega)
This is a big year for Netflix music at the Emmys, with 10 nominations spread across the five music composition and supervision categories. One of the jewels in the Netflix crown is the acclaimed original series The Crown, which offers an intimate and compelling perspective on the British royal family. The series has earned 13 Emmy noms in total, including an Outstanding Music Composition for a Series nod for ASCAP composer Rupert Gregson-Williams. The nominated episode, “Hyde Park Corner,” is a tour de force of emotional complexity; all the nuance is captured by the resolute and thoughtful score from Gregson-Williams.
The British composer is at the crest of an incredible run in his career. There’s nothing this virtuoso cannot do -- from Hollywood blockbusters like Wonder Woman and Hacksaw Ridge to gut-busting small screen fare like Veep, Gregson-Williams always strikes the right tone. We caught up with him ahead of this year’s Emmys to talk The Crown, Britishness, what’s next for him in composition, and whether he’ll ever get to meet the Queen.
I wanted to talk to you about your own personal British perspective on The Crown. You’re a subject of the royal family that the show follows, do you feel any personal connection or responsibility when it comes to composing for a story that is so entrenched in your national culture?
I do feel responsible, but I don’t feel responsible to represent it, or to try and make it immediately represent the crown. I’m just trying to tell the story of the politics, and also of two people who are in love, or two people who are trying to work at their marriage in the face of [the roles] they have to play. So no I don’t feel responsible to represent them, otherwise I would be writing, you know, [British composer Edward] Elgar. All sorts of pomp and circumstance - which I’m not doing too much of.
“Hyde Park Corner” - the episode for which you were nominated for an Emmy - has so many of those scenes that operate on just a million different levels. There is Elizabeth and Philip, the majesty of these safari animals, but then there is the whole spectre of colonialism; there is Princess Margaret and her father singing together, and we know that he’s not long for this world. How did you make those scenes grounded in humanity, despite these people being important figureheads to a lot of people in England and the world?
Elizabeth was a very young woman, and at the beginning of this episode, she’s really at the happiest time of her life, or the happiest point of her independent life. She’s married and she’s on honeymoon with the man she loves. And you get a lovely, peaceful time with them when they’re on safari. Where they relax, and they laugh, and they don’t realize the enormous responsibilities that are just about to hit them. In fact, the moment the King dies, it takes a while - because at the time, the news traveled by paper, and then by phone - in that time, it was interesting for me just to flow from the death of the head of the empire, the King, through to the next head of the empire, the Queen, and the young girl who is going to receive the news and go into mourning...as you say, there are a lot of levels. But I went for the simplicity and the joy of the newlyweds to set it up - because it gets dashed, and from that moment on, nothing is the same between them.
A lot of the plot in The Crown is very dialogue driven. So when you’re composing, how do you approach creating enough space for that dialogue, while still balancing it with the tone of your compositions?
Well [Showrunner/Writer] Peter [Morgan]’s writing is so sharp, that I try not to interfere too much. There is no need for me to comment on it, because he tells the story so very well, but I hope that when music appears, it has something to say. I don’t really underscore much of the dialogue-driven scenes; they speak for themselves.
So did you and Peter Morgan, did you guys work very closely to develop this sort of world-building, the musical language of this story that you had in mind?
Yeah we did. We worked together for three months before I really had a finished article to work to. Actually, in the second series, I spent many hours on the phone with Peter this year, just talking about upcoming episodes, upcoming stories, and where are we now? We’re in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s - with those huge stories that are happening. Peter is very much tapped into [the music] - he knows every single note I’ve written. Yeah he’s been along for the ride with me every day.
You have scored copious fiction projects. Do you approach scoring from a different angle when it comes to scoring a story based on real events and people rather?
No I don’t. For me it’s still a story tied to an epic tale of drama, which is the whole politics of it all, or it is the intimate tale of a love story that has immense pressure on it. So for me, it’s a drama just because it’s a real story. I feel life is a drama, and I score it the same.
Is there someone in The Crown whose story most compels you, keeps your interest, who you resonate with emotionally?
When I’m writing The Crown I’m in tune with Elizabeth the most, from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep. But Phillip is a character I’ve always been really drawn to. He’s a very strong character. Quite tough and complicated. His life has always been complicated. He is a very complex character, and I try and relate to him, because he’s more interesting.
Was there a particular moment or character that really challenged you, where you were not quite sure how you wanted to approach it?
I guess the hardest for me was Winston Churchill. He’s such a noted subject, a noted actor in our history. When we jump to later on in the series, when he comes to retire, it was hard not to be sentimental about it. That was always hard for me. But I mean, all the characters are so beautifully written out and illustrated by Peter - I didn’t have any difficulty in understanding.
Did you have any particular places, music you listen to, books you read, that you used as inspiration - to get you into the mood for these compositions?
No books. I did do some more research on a number of things. Being British, and growing up in the culture, one does know a lot about the crown. But I didn’t know lots of details about the actual personality. I had made that ultimate mistake of seeing Elizabeth as the Queen of England, and not seeing her as a person really properly until I found work on this series. So I did a little bit of research to do with Elizabeth and Phillip, and Churchill. Churchill was a figure who I didn’t understand fully. And also, as a matter of fact I listened to him. A major part of his spirit lies in how he would talk. So YouTube is my friend!
Like you said, British people have a certain working knowledge of the monarchy, what they represent and what they do, but it’s not always considered quite as appropriate or pertinent to think about their personal lives, the way they feel as people. What do you think the effect of that would be for people who have never thought about that from that perspective?
Well I don’t know. It has been increasing over the last 20-odd years - the British people have been more interested in the inner focus, some of the love lives and goings-on of the royal family. Since Princess Diana, really...and Diana’s death. It sold newspapers, even 10 years before she died. There are some quite shocking facts, which appear especially in the next series [of The Crown], that people may or may not know about, which I think is fair to discuss, at least. But there's not much that people don’t really know. As long as I’m trying to get to the truth.
Is there a particular character or moment in history you are looking forward to taking a bite out of?
There are a couple of extremely interesting episodes in this next series that I can’t really talk about. You know, ultimately this is a drama, and there are some epic tales, but there are some historical facts that people maybe haven’t been aware of, or aren't really openly discussed. So yeah, very interesting.
It seems as though you have been getting a rich experience as far as exploring them as people and their history a little more. Is there anything else that you’ve gotten from this project that you’ve found to be really valuable or especially fulfilling?
I’m working with Peter Morgan and [The Crown directors] Stephen Daldry, Philip Martin, Ben Caron, all these really lovely and very talented bright spots in the industry. Working with them has been a real treat, and I feel very lucky. They keep you on your toes, and make you push yourself to do something that you wouldn’t necessarily have done. And it’s hard to be pushed. looking back on it, that series was hard on my brain, but I’m really thankful for that, because it pushed me to where I haven't gone before.
Your repertoire is extremely eclectic when it comes to genres. You can do things that are funny; you can do things that are very serious and harrowing. Is there anything in particular that you haven't been able to do yet? Something that you’ve just always wanted to tackle.
Well if you had asked me that two or three years ago, I would have had a long list. But actually, the last couple of years, like you say, I’ve covered a few of them. Veep, and Hacksaw Ridge, and Wonder Woman of course. That has been special, and I’ve been really lucky. Something I haven’t done, which may seem surprising, but I’d love to something otherworldly and very dark. I certainly have that in me. I’m British after all!
I haven’t been given the opportunity to do anything superbly dark, but I’m actually just about to start this over the next year, something called The Alienist, which is very dark. So hopefully that will provide a palette for me to investigate the dark side.
Are you going to get to meet the Queen?
I'd love to - we'd talk about breeding racehorses.
The Netflix Original Series The Crown returns for Season 2 on December 8. Click here to find out more about it.