We Create Music Blog
October 18, 2013

Film Music Friday: Daniel Pemberton on The Counselor

By Simon Greenaway, Director of Film & TV Music, UK/Europe

Daniel Pemberton

Daniel Pemberton during recording sessions for
The Counselor

From writing for kazoos and a drum machine to scoring Hollywood movies with a 70-piece orchestra, Ivor Novello Award-winning and multiple BAFTA-nominated PRS composer Daniel Pemberton's musical offerings are always an exciting prospect. With an impressive list of credits to his name (from feature films The Awakening and Blood to Emmy-winning documentaries Space Dive and Hiroshima), Daniel has supplied what promises to be an epic yet distinctly unique score for Ridley Scott's latest movie The Counselor, in theaters October 25th. I managed to steal him away from his busy schedule to chat with this self-confessed "foodie" about it over lunch.

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What a year so far! Writing the music for legendary director Ridley Scott's The Counselor. Can you tell us how that came about?

It seems amazing to me that it even has – I still haven’t really got my head round the fact that I’ve scored a Ridley Scott film! I’d written the music for a movie called The Awakening a few years ago – a supernatural period piece starring Rebecca Hall [ed. - click here to read our Film Music Friday interview with Daniel about it]. I was really proud of the film but it slightly dropped off everyone else’s radar. However, luckily for me, one of the few people who got what I was trying to do in it was Ridley Scott – apparently he was telling anyone and everyone how great he thought it was. I’d worked with his editor before, the amazing Pietro Scalia, on a short prequel for the Ghost Recon film so he knew how to get hold of me and how I worked. 

As a result, I got invited to have a meeting with Ridley and we seemed to get on pretty well. We talked about a million different things including my past work. I ended up explaining how I’d been scoring tons of TV over the past decade and using that as my learning ground. He said he’d done the same thing in advertising, using jobs as a platform to hone his filmmaking. As I left, he said "You’ve done your 10,000 hours in the garage." I just thought I’d have a cool story about meeting Ridley Scott I could tell people and nothing more. But a while later I got a very early morning phone call when I was still half asleep saying "Ridley wants you to do the film." I can still vividly remember that call – felt like an incredibly surreal dream…Still does almost!

Was it a daunting experience working with such an icon?

At first, massively so. I have never experienced anything like it – you’re working with one of your all-time heroes of cinema, someone whose work has shaped so many of your own personal attitudes towards both film and music. I mean when I was 17 I even wrote an album just for myself that was pretty much a tribute to Blade Runner – I loved that world! You’re stepping into shoes that have been filled by many of the greatest film composing legends – Vangelis, Hans Zimmer and Jerry Goldsmith to name but three – and that is very, very scary. So at first I almost couldn’t write anything – I had to mentally block out all that history and just concentrate on the film itself. 

But Ridley himself was fantastic. I know you’d expect me to say that but he really was. He always responded to the most unusual stuff, which I loved, as it would push me into trying more experimental ideas. He’d really listen to what you thought and be up for a good argument, which I found amazingly refreshing. He’s a great collaborator and once you’ve got his trust he’ll back you massively, which is really what every composer dreams of.

What can we expect from the score?

I don’t want to give too much of the story away but there was a lot of stuff in Cormac McCarthy’s script that involved wires. So I wanted to try and find a way to incorporate this into the score. I experimented with a lot of different ways of playing tuned wires – from piano wires to steel guitars and so on – that would make them feel more visceral. This might involve scraping them with an object or vibrating them rapidly with an electromagnet for example. I’d then try and use this in a musical way rather than just making strange noises for the sake of it. For me, I want to create unusual, exciting sounds but at the same time use them within a melodic setting, rather than just atonal noise, as I think this way you can produce a score that is far more particular to a film. Alongside this, I then used a lot of guitars, metallic and wooden percussion and very low string and woodwind sections. It’s quite a dark, dread-laden film which is reflected in the sound of the score.

With that in mind, when starting to write the score for a movie, do you gather a palette of sounds and ideas that will define the score first, or do you have another process that you like to follow?

I’m always very keen to try and create a unique sound world on a project, and I find creating a limited palette is a great way to do this. I like to try and make as many of my own sounds as possible as I think it’s a good way to make something that hasn’t been heard before. So that might be anything from a particular combination of instruments playing together (we did some very interesting things doubling certain guitar parts with an electric cello, for instance) to a type of pulse you can use in a number of places. I like to write my own temp musisc, as this way I can be far more experimental and try out more unusual ideas. It’s a lot more work, as you create so much music that is destined for the bin, but I think it’s a great way for original ideas to come through. I would write a ton of sketches and feed them through to Ridley and Pietro. They’d both respond to certain things better than others and that would guide you through the score. As the film progresses you could refine these ideas, or rewrite them.

So what's next for you?

Well I’ve just finished another project with Ridley called The Vatican, which is a TV pilot he’s directed – the first time he has done a TV show. It’s a contemporary drama set in the Vatican, and again it was great to work with him on a very different project with a very different sound – score is a mix of choirs, organs, electronic arpeggiators, strange bells and even some hip-hop breaks! I also co-scored a very inventive low-budget British horror film called In Fear which got a great buzz at Sundance and is out in the UK on exactly the same day as The Counselor. And then next year I have the feature Cuban Fury starring Nick Frost and Chris O’ Dowd coming out. I got to write a very expressive, Cuban-influenced score which we recorded with some great musicians at Abbey Road just last month – very different to my last few jobs and a lot of fun!

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There's a lot to know about Daniel Pemberton. Here's where to start: www.danielpemberton.com

The Counselor is in theaters on October 25th, 2013. Find out more at www.thecounselormovie.com.