Daniel Pemberton is the powerful musical pioneer behind an array of evocative films including All The Money in the World, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, King Arthur: Legend of Sword, Steve Jobs, Molly's Game, The Counselor, and many others. After deep exploration into electronic music, Daniel broke into the field of film scoring at the age of 16, crafting musical treatments for documentaries after school. Over the years, he has defined his career by conjuring musical worlds that stand on their own merits. His lush sonic mosaics have attracted prestigious collaborations with industry titans including Ridley Scott, Aaron Sorkin, Guy Ritchie, and Danny Boyle. In celebration of his thrilling fusion score for Ocean's 8, Daniel reveals the unique flavors he brought to bear on the popular franchise and his ongoing mission to surprise his listeners.
Can you tell us about your introduction to music making in England?
I started off making music when I was quite young. I got very into electronic music, particularly how to synthesize things when I was about nine or ten. I had a little keyboard and I messed around on that. Around the early 90’s in Britain, this whole scene emerged around ambient and experimental electronic music. I found The Future Sound of London and people like that, which was really exciting because it was this world of music that was about creating sound worlds. It was something that I really responded to. At the time, I had a job as a writer for Video Game Magazine, so I basically saved up a load of money and bought my first keyboard and a four-track. I started making music in my bedroom, putting together tapes and creating strange, quite atmospheric albums of electronic music.
Eventually, someone wanted to put a record out of my tapes, which was called Bedroom. I was 16 at the time. From there, a director heard that album and asked me if I'd be interested in scoring a TV documentary he was making. It was about this TV presenter in Britain called Janet Street-Porter. It was mostly her talking about how the internet was this flash in the pan thing that would never last, saying it was just a gimmick. It was quite funny. So, I was working on that after school. I'd do my homework and then I'd work on the music for the TV show after I’d finished. That experience went down quite well and he asked me to do another one. And then, he asked me to do another one, and then other people liked what I was doing and they asked me to do their shows. It just went from there. I’ve always been busy making music ever since.
Who were some of the most significant influences on your journey to becoming a celebrated composer?
When I was a kid, it was people like Jean-Michel Jarre. When I was a bit older, it was people like The Future Sound of London, The Grid, Brian Eno, Aphex Twin. Those kinds of people. And then, I started getting into the music of John Barry, The Beach Boys, and Ennio Morricone. After that, I just absorbed everything and found things I liked in music from all over the place, everything from classical to hip-hop to opera to metal. I love manipulating and experimenting with sounds and discovering how you can create brand new worlds when you combine them. I’ve always been interested in cross-pollination across genres and thinking, “Why is this music exciting? What makes this exciting and how can I make my own music more exciting?”.
Congratulations on the success of Ocean's 8! I understand it was the strongest opening weekend of any film within the franchise. What were the initial inspirations and first ideas you entertained when deciding upon your musical direction for the film?
That's pretty awesome to hear. I began wanting to honor the past of the previous Ocean's films because I think they had really fantastic scores and soundtracks. I think what David Holmes did for those film was very groundbreaking at the time. We did a lot of experimenting for the film because the director, Gary Ross wanted to try a lot of different approaches out. I always felt that the original formula worked very well in terms of the overall feel of the music. I wanted to try and stay close to that.
I'd say with Eight, I think what we did was make things sound slightly more quirky and a bit more varied in the instrumentation. Musically, it’s got a bit more of a lightness in some ways than the Soderbergh ones. These films demand music that's bold, fun, in your face. They have a consistent groove and a really good taste to them. I think that’s the key to scoring an Ocean’s film. The music’s got an attitude and commands a sense of attention.
Can you elaborate on your collaborative experience with the director, Gary Ross?
It was pretty intriguing. Gary's always interested in trying a lot of different ideas out on a scene. So, there’s a lot of back and forth, seeking different approaches. You're always on your toes with Gary because he likes to look at things from lots of different angles. Musically, you’re often creating many different versions of something for the same scene. I ended up writing quite a lot more, but doing that often leads to more interesting work. Looking at a scene over and over again, you're having to attack it and write it with a different sort of mentality each time. As a result, you take on more of an 'anything goes' mentality because you keep chasing something else.
Your vibrant score fuses musical elements from classic espionage films, the heyday of British rock, bossa nova style percussion, and big brass band arrangements. Can you take us through your process to assemble the sonic palette of the film?
I felt that with this film, I call it a musical heist. We basically blended the last 60 years of music and tried to take everything we could that would feel fun. So, it might be the kind of fantastic rhythms of late 50's Bossa nova, or the experimentation of 70's film scores, or the attitude of late 60's psychedelic rock, or the grooves of 80's or 90's hip-hop. What’s great about Ocean's is that you can really jump around musically.
I was just trying to take whatever elements I thought would be exciting for the scenes I was working on. When we recorded it, it was a lot of fun. We worked in New York and had great musicians involved. Going back to what you said earlier, those early 50's, 60's scores were influential. Things like The Italian Job by Quincy Jones. Records from that time had a sense of real musicianship, a sense of spontaneity. I was looking to get that feeling in there. Recently, I’ve felt like that live feeling has been slightly lacking. You can tell that people have been on a computer. This score hopefully feels like it’s being performed by a bunch of really fantastic musicians in a great room.
New York City plays an important role in the storytelling and overall attitude of Ocean's 8. While working on the score in revered studios like Electric Lady and Power Station, did your surroundings in New York inspire your compositional approach?
Working in New York was just fantastic because I work in London most of the time. It was really nice to go there and get a different feel, working with the New York musicians and in the New York studios. We recorded at Power Station, and then we mixed Electric Lady. The whole film is set in New York, so I wanted to try and harvest some inspiration. Overall, we were there for about a month. Being in the city, I would go running every morning in Central Park before the studio. I needed to start picking up just the energy of the city. I think that definitely influences how you write and record things. There's definitely so much energy in New York. It’s not a very relaxing place. For me, it’s a very intense place. So, I think a lot of the rhythms we used came from that.
During Ocean’s 8, there is a flashback sequence that features Bach’s Fugue in D Minor within your score. It was really cool and different to hear it rendered with a swing drum beat. Can you tell us the story of how this came about?
I'd like to take credit, but a lot of that was the editor and director messing around with some different ideas. We tried lots of different ideas in there, but they found a piece of music they really liked that was essentially a burst of Bach, so we ended up doing a version of that. We thought, “Let’s record it with our guys”. I think it closed the circle to bring it back at the end of the film as well. I really like the way Bach did this. Phenomenal. The first version is played on a Hammond and the second version is played on a Wurlitzer. We also chucked some Cuban bells in there, guitar, bass, a whole bunch of things. The previous Ocean's had Clair de Lune, so I thought it was a good continuation to have something classical in this one.
What’s wonderful about your score is that it stands on its own. A lot of film scores elevate the movie but aren’t as engaging when listening separate and distinct from the picture.
I always try and make a film score album feel like something special. To feel like it's own entity, something you'd want to listen to rather than just hear the collections play as they are in the film. I often spend a lot of time working on re-editing and remixing the cues, so they're a bit more special for the album. I've done that overall my releases like King Arthur, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Steve Jobs. I might add some ideas that we originally took out. I tend to re-edit because sometimes, the film is a completely different experience. These films get cut and edited all the time right up to the last minute. The glory days of being given a final cut and being able to go away and write…Sadly, those pictures don't seem to exist very often. So, you can write how you like but sometimes, a scene has changed and you’ve had to chop a bit out. So, what I try to do in the album is present the cues in a way that is more true to how originally created them. Hopefully, that results in a more enjoyable listening experience.
You have the reputation of challenging yourself and pushing the limits of your artistry with every project. What drives this chameleonic approach to scoring?
I think it’s just two things. One is, I don't really know what I'm doing, so I constantly try and change it up. I get quite bored if I'm doing the same thing. I don't really want to do the same thing again each time. Attempting different approaches is my way of creating excitement in a project. It's always a new set of problems and a new way of exploring. I approach it like, "Today, how can I write something different?" because I want to be excited by my scores as much as I want the people who go see the films to be excited. A lot of it also has to do with what's going be right for the film.
The approach on Ocean's Eight felt similar to what we did for the Ridley Scott film, All the Money in the World. For that, I wanted to capture the grandness of Getty's world and contrast it with the kidnappers. It was the kind of film where we went from huge orchestral works to solo core stuff and also brought in more electronic and sound design work to round it out.
What are some of your tried and true methods to create dramatic tension and draw a deeper emotional response from your audience?
Geez. I’d say do something. If you want to get the best emotional response from the audience, you need to give them something they haven't really heard before. You can give them an emotional response in a way they've heard a million times, using certain tricks, chords, and sounds, but the most exciting response you can have during a film comes from hearing something that isn’t familiar and that works. That’s what I’m always striving for. Sometimes, you get lucky and sometimes, you don’t.
Is there a special moment in one of your scores where you feel like you accomplished that?
I think it's the run-in sequence to King Arthur. The breathing in Run Londinium. It's something I'm super proud of because I think it's such a great sequence. The music is such an integral part of why that sequence works and it's so exciting when you see it in the film. It feels very different. So, I'm really trying to get that feeling back again, but who knows if I will?
Considering you are known for your rich use of melody, the music of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was a bit of a departure from your previous work. What is the story behind the modernist, sound design-driven world you created?
My absolute favorite kind of film score is something where you're hearing something, you have no idea what it is. I think one of the great successes of King Arthur is you often need to ask, "What genre is this?”. I don't know how to answer that because it was a world we made specifically for that film. I think being a film composer can lead you to discover creatively exciting forms of modern music. You’re not bound by any rules or genre like so many are. You're just free to try and create your own world. With Arthur, it was such a stylized world and the real challenge of that film was to create something different for Medieval London. I did tremendous research and it took a long time and a lot of recording. There was a lot of work with musicians, finding out what they could do and what the instruments could do. We came across so many ideas through experimentation.
One of my big heroes is Ennio Morricone. I’ve always loved his approach. I don’t think he gets talked about enough. He was very avant-garde in his choice of sounds back in the 50’s and 60’s He had an orchestra and then supplemented it with weird found sounds, concrète sounds, human sounds. It was very exciting. I look at people like Stockhausen and what they were doing in the 60's. I love that approach to sound because the way they take those experiments and then combine it with something that has more of a melodic structure and more of an emotional base. My mission has always been to strive for a middle ground between avant-garde experimentation and more mainstream melodic sensibilities.
Your score for Aaron Sorkin's Molly's Game invokes an unexpected intimacy. How did you achieve this? What characteristics of Molly did you endeavor to highlight with your music?
That came from working with Aaron Sorkin. It was the first time he actually directed and he was amazing. He was so supportive and enthusiastic throughout the process. At first, he told me that all he wanted was a big orchestral score. I basically said, “Yeah, I’m not doing that because it's not going to be right. Let me do what I think is right and then if you don't like it, we can always get rid of it and do an orchestral score.” I always felt that Molly's character needed a very contemporary score. I wanted it to feel more like a rock band or a modern act. When it came more to her tender emotional moments, we had this theme. Aaron was always very keen on a theme that paid off at the end. So, I'd written a piece for the ending and it took a bit of a reverse engineering to take the thematic ideas from that and then translate them elsewhere in the film.
A year before I’d even done the film, I actually met Molly Bloom at the Golden Globes because she was Aaron’s guest at the table. This was after we’d worked on Steve Jobs. She was a lot of fun.
Do you have any rituals that help you to initiate or embroider your creative process?
I run every morning. Other than that, I stay in front of the computer and a keyboard until I meet deadlines. I come up with a lot of stuff that I'll throw away. So, I do a lot of things. I can't talk about it yet, but for the next film, which I'm totally terrified by, I'm throwing things down at the moment. I start off just writing stuff that sounds like garbage. In doing that, I come up with quite interesting ideas.
What DAW do you work with and what would you say are your top three plug-ins?
Oh, wow. Sexy question. I think my favorite plugins would have to be Soundtoys. They make amazing plugins. I absolutely love their stuff. Devil-Loc and I use EchoBoy a lot. I've been using Waves Abbey Road and Tape J37 a lot recently. It's a very nice way to put some vibrato on sine waves. That’s something I've been doing. I like Alti-Verb for lots of different reverbs, but those are probably my three most used ones.
I use Logic. I just find that I can come up with ideas very quickly in Logic. I don't think it's so great for recording audio, but when we're doing a big film and we get to that stage, we're doing that in Pro Tools anyway. Logic is how I paint. It's for the quick sketches. It’s where I create everything early on and get down the ideas.
Outside of music making, what do you do to blow off steam and refresh your creative energies?
I like cooking and I like walking. Those are probably my two main interests. I’ll admit that I like eating and drinking quite a lot. If I can, I stake out London. I try and walk in the countryside. I like eating out probably a bit too often. I love Mexican food.
What would you say is your signature dish?
Oh, man. It all depends. I wouldn’t say this is my ultimate signature dish, but it’s been given signature dish status amongst a certain set of people. It’s not very exciting but it’s this sausage pasta. It doesn’t sound very posh, but it is an amazing comfort food. I haven’t given it a name yet but it uses Italian fennel sausages, which I cook in white wine with Dijon mustard, chili, cream, and a bit of basil. You can’t make it too often because you will get very fat.
Catch Ocean's 8 in theaters now. Stream Black Mirror: USS Callister on Netflix.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research | Ruby Gartenberg, Paul Goldowitz
Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Daniel Pemberton and Costa Communications.