Dave Porter is an eternally adventurous, almost supernatural composer, who is recognized for his experimental nature and eclectic musical innovations. A radical force, Dave provides the imaginative music for some of the finest, most culturally relevant shows on television, such as Breaking Bad, The Blacklist, Better Call Saul, Flesh and Bone, and Preacher. Next up is his lush original score for James Franco's The Disaster Artist, which chronicles the making of cult film, The Room. In our insightful discussion, Dave reveals how he transformed from a driven Sarah Lawrence college student into a cutting edge Hollywood music maker.
You trained as a pianist throughout your childhood and went on to study classical and electronic composition at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. What was the core impulse behind your choice of music as a career path? Did you ever have a plan B?
Making music was always the dream, but to be honest, I had a plan B up until only a few years ago. My history of pursuing music as a career has essentially been one extended hedged bet. I chose Sarah Lawrence over going to a music-specific school like Berklee or Juilliard because at age eighteen, I wasn’t sure that music was something I really could do for a living or even something that was economically feasible. At a place like Sarah Lawrence, I was given the opportunity to study a lot of music but still pursue other interests as well.
It also put me close enough to New York to start interning at recording studios. When I graduated, it was an easy transition into the city to officially start my career. At first, I considered being an engineer and a record producer more than anything else because I absolutely love working in pro studios. Opportunities came up, however, that led me to work directly for established film/television composers and I quickly fell in love with that world. It was an independent path towards a career making music that, while incredibly competitive, felt more realistic than the long odds of trying to be a rockstar.
At the start of my career in NYC, I was making music for television — primarily for advertising, commercials, and various documentaries. I did a ton of work for ESPN and Fox Sports as well. I had a great time doing that in my twenties, but I always wanted to pursue something that was more dramatic in nature— and all of those opportunities seemed to exist in L.A. That’s what eventually drove me out here.
When I first arrived in L.A., I was naive enough to think that all of my credits from New York would have me working right away, which was definitely not the case. The phone didn’t ring much for several years and I thought about quitting. I considered going to business school or doing something totally different and non-music related. Thankfully, though, I stuck with it and got some lucky breaks along the way. I happened to fall into the right world at the right time.
I read that you officially started your career as an assistant at the studio of three time Oscar-nominated composer Philip Glass. What were the most valuable lessons you collected from this experience?
In my studies in college, I took a huge interest in the compositional works of the New York minimalists — Philip, Steve Reich, that whole universe of music was very intriguing to me. My first job out of school was working as an assistant engineer at the Looking Glass, which was Philip Glass’ in-house studio. I don’t believe it’s there any longer, but at the time, much of his music was recorded there and he also rented it out to a lot of other artists as well. People like David Bowie and Laurie Anderson would come through there. It was a wonderful melding of worlds.
It was a fantastic place to be because I got to witness how things got done from the earliest stages to the very final ones. During my time there, I was primarily working on one specific project for more than a year, which was an opera that Philip did based on La Belle et la Bête, the original Jean Cocteau version of Beauty and the Beast. The opera was synced to the footage with the dialogue in sync with the singers for the length of the film. It was quite a massive technical undertaking, particularly at that time, which was pre-Pro Tools.
It was a trial by fire for me. I had come from the relaxed and sheltered environment of a school where you were encouraged to be very openly creative, speak your mind, and freely offer advice or criticism. But now, I was in a real professional workplace with palpable stress and demands. I quickly learned that nobody wanted to hear anything from the inexperienced assistant engineer in the back of the room. Once I put my head down and recognized my role, I realized that the true value of being there was in witnessing all of these professionals do their jobs.
When young composers ask for my advice about how best to learn and get involved, it seems obvious, but I always say the best thing you can do is just find a way to be around it. If you are there and privy to what is going on, you are already way ahead of the game. You learn so much from the firsthand experience of understanding how things get composed and recorded. When I was young, the reality was that there was nowhere to study that in school. You had to be in a work environment to see that stuff. Even though music schools have changed a lot and become much more diverse since then, I would guess that real world scenarios are still very hard to beat.
I will always admire the career and work of Philip Glass because he's one of those very, very few people who have straddled so many different creative lines. He's respected in academia and he's a working classical composer. He's also doing film scores, he's doing operas, and he's working with rockstars. That versatility is admirable, and if I had a career that managed a tenth of that range, I’d consider myself very fortunate.
You are a master of executing eccentric, complex, and experimental projects, bringing so much nuance and technical knowledge to the table. What is your typical thought process when crafting a new musical landscape? How have you built your musical vocabulary over time and how do you continue to challenge yourself?
Thank you but of course, much of that starts with the projects I’ve been fortunate enough to work on. I've been lucky to be around some immensely talented folks, and I've also been selective about the projects I sign on for. This definitely wasn’t always the case, but I’m now at a place in my career where I can be a little bit choosier. I'm very conscious about picking projects that I find creatively interesting and will ultimately challenge me to grow as a composer. My hope is for everything I work on to push me to be better. If you are not creatively invested, then you are probably not going to do your best work. Just like any other job, there are times where we have to do things to make money, but a creative challenge is what I always strive for.
There is no question that the most daunting moment occurs at the very beginning of any new project. At it's core, how are you going to best serve the project you are working on? What is the range of tone that you will have to achieve musically and how are you going to help the storytellers tell their story? That's where it all begins. I try to arm myself by having a lot of conversations before I even think about music. I want to understand the motivations, ideas, and concepts that the folks that I'm working for have for their projects.
In television, those answers tend to lie with the creator or showrunner. In film, it is usually the director, although it varies. The hard part is translating all of that knowledge into music. I always consider how I can achieve those goals in a way that will play to my strengths as a composer because we all have them. Every composer is better at certain things than others. I’ll always work to push myself to try things I haven’t before, but of course, I will also want to include a bedrock of something that I’m well versed in and confident I can make work to help tell the story. After that, it evolves into building the palette of instruments and sounds that you believe will address everyone’s needs.
Part of being a film/television composer in this day and age is working on multiple projects simultaneously. In many ways, it is a fantastic time in the business, especially now with cable and the streaming services all producing original content. However, there is no longer a set schedule, season, or time when shows are made. They are made when they get made and the schedules are constantly changing. You get hired for something and then it ends up being in a completely different time frame than you originally planned for. The reality is that projects are going to overlap at certain times, but that’s the nature of working for yourself. I think anybody who works for themselves probably relates to the “feast or famine” nature of it.
We are eagerly anticipating the theatrical release of The Disaster Artist, which examines the story behind the creation of cult film, The Room. Had you seen The Room prior to being hired to compose for the film? How did you become involved?
No, I was familiar with it, but I had never seen it. I arrived in L.A. back in 2002, which was a little after The Room’s premiere and original run. I’ve had the pleasure over the past few years of working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg on their AMC series, Preacher. It was during one of our Preacher meetings that I overheard them talking about a James Franco project that sounded intriguing. My first step was to go out and buy the book, The Disaster Artist, which was written by Greg Sestero. You may know him as one of the main actors in The Room and his account of the making of The Room is the basis for The Disaster Artist. The book is fantastic and I really recommend it to anybody who is interested in either The Room or The Disaster Artist.
After reading the book, I approached Seth and Evan and expressed my interest in the project. They were kind enough to introduce me to James and I ultimately got to work on the film, which I am so thankful for. I’m very proud of the work we did. So many people worked incredibly hard on this project and I think it is a really unique film. James Franco's performance is truly something to behold. Anybody who is a fan of this story will be very excited to see what an amazing job he does playing the role of Tommy Wiseau.
From the few teasers we've seen, The Disaster Artist does not feature overtly comedic music, but instead translates a nostalgic and uplifting warmth. What themes determined the musical identity of the film?
I actually came on quite late into the process of The Disaster Artist. By the time I got involved, they were well into editing. I think they chose that moment to bring in a composer because music has such a strong power to influence tone, and they were in the midst of a lot of discussions about which way to go with the film. I don’t think the tone of The Disaster Artist was easy to come by. It was a challenge, not because anybody was unsure of what they were doing, but because although the film is very funny, that’s not the emotion at the center of the story. At it’s core, the film is also very relatable, emotional, and human. Most importantly, although paradoxically, it is a success story. It is also a very Hollywood story, which needed to be emphasized. Combining all those ingredients in the right amount took some trial and error.
I got to come in and start throwing music at them, which worked in two ways. By experimenting with a lot of different musical ideas, it helped me figure out where to go tonally. On a broader scale, I hoped that my music, beyond the temp tracks they were originally using, helped create a consistent emotional backbone for the film. All of this was a collaboration with the picture editor, Stacey Schroeder and of course all the producers, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver, and Alex McAtee. Together, we worked to figure out what worked and what didn’t and ultimately, tie everything into a cohesive story. This led to a primarily orchestral score with some modern elements like electric guitar that pays homage to big swelling hollywood scores of old, but hopefully, still feels contemporary.
Preacher tests the limits of what's possible on television, melding magic realism, apocalyptic themes, and dark irony. Many comic book fans were skeptical about the story being adaptable for the small screen. Your music is a main character of the series, mirroring every bit of humor, fear, and gore. What have been the most challenging aspects of abruptly shifting between genres within the score? What instrumentation is essential to this zany musical journey?
You are exactly right. The biggest challenge of working on Preacher has been the constant shifting of gears. I also believe that's what is brilliant about the show. On a dime, it shifts from absolutely horrific or gory to incredibly funny or sardonic, then to sweet and even romantic. It's got a little bit of everything to it. For me, it's about remaining open to those possibilities and being brave enough to push myself to try things that obviously wouldn’t work for almost anything else. I’ve learned that through a lot of encouragement from Sam Catlin, Preacher’s showrunner, as well as from Seth and Evan. There’s no such thing as too much when it comes to Preacher. There is no limit to the extreme. Every episode is wildly different from the last. In that sense, shifting between ideas is a ton of work. However, having the ability to experiment with these things is one of the greatest things about my job.
For example, creating the main title theme for Preacher enabled me to explore a world of music I had never written for before. The theme features gospel singers and a very dirty harmonica part, which I had a good time creating. It’s great to live in a place like L.A., where I have access to this big rolodex of wonderful performers, who are experts in things I don’t know nearly as much about. I learn something new from every recording session of my music.
How did you originally cross paths with Vince Gilligan and land the Breaking Bad gig?
Around that time, I happened to work often with two gentlemen who were hired or were in the process of being hired for the Breaking Bad pilot. Namely, Thomas Golubić, who is a music supervisor, and Tom Villano, who was our music editor for the first several seasons. I have great relationships with both of them and had recently worked with each of them on separate projects. They both ended up calling me on the same afternoon and said, "You won't believe this pilot I just saw. I know you'd love it."
I had the opportunity to go to Thomas' house and watch it while he was preparing for his interview with Vince to be the music supervisor for the series. I got an early glimpse at the pilot and of course, I immediately loved it. Through my relationships with Thomas and Tom, I was able to feed some music to them while they were piecing together the final versions of the pilot to show the network. Thankfully, it was music that everyone happened to like and when it came time to hire a composer, as far as I know, I was the person they spoke to.
From the start, we had many important conversations collectively about the music. Thomas’ contribution was integral. I think it’s really important for the composer and the music supervisor to have an understanding as to what the other is doing early on in the creative process. Obviously, the two roles differ, but there’s a synergy that should be there so that everyone is working to create a cohesive musical environment.
Breaking Bad was an amazing experience in so many ways, and those of us lucky enough to be involved in it made lasting professional and personal bonds. Thankfully, through many projects currently underway or planned for the future, I am fortunate to still be working with many of them.
Did you have any idea it would go on to become an American pop culture phenomenon and enjoy five seasons of success?
I think we were all surprised. Speaking for myself, when I first got involved with the show, I was enormously excited about it because I believed it would be very well received critically. However, I wasn’t sure if very many people would end up watching it.
In truth, at the end of season one, we were all just hoping and praying to get renewed. It took quite a while for the show to catch on. I didn't really have a sense of it growing into a larger, social phenomenon until very close to the end of the series. In a sense, we were all along for the ride and it took on a life of it’s own, which we are all grateful for.
I will also add that AMC was and continues to be a tremendously supportive network. They allow creative shows to remain on air and have a chance to capture an audience. Breaking Bad has made way for many other terrific shows to surface since then. Without outlets like AMC, it simply wouldn’t be the same landscape for shows like that.
Your work on Breaking Bad was a thoughtfully executed combination of sound design, instruments from all around the globe (everything from Andean flute to Indonesian gamelan), synth programming, original samples of found objects being used as instruments, and more. What about the concept and vibration of the show lent itself to this type of musical treatment?
When I watched the Breaking Bad pilot for the first time, I was astounded by it. It was so refreshing, so different at the time. Revolutionary, if I can call it that. Despite all of my classical training and background, I instantly felt like anything orchestral or from that palette would immediately put the story in a box of sameness. Approaching it that way would have been far too predictable for a show that constantly had you wondering what would happen next.
Therefore, my first decision was to rule out traditional classical orchestra. Yes, I used some classical instruments as soloists in certain places, but the performances were always very processed and manipulated to become one with the palette of the Breaking Bad world. After that initial decision, I wanted to have more conversations about the overarching scope of the show. There was a conscious effort to tell an every man’s story, starting with a normal, milque toast guy living in a particularly unglamorous part of the world. (My apologies to all New Mexicans…) We knew the story was eventually going to greatly outgrow the small confines of Albuquerque. That information really put everything else on the table for me outside of classical music. Electronic music, found sounds, ethnic instruments, external processing, etc. The ethnic instruments I used were by no means meant to work together in a normal context. For example, I had no issues blending sounds from Asia and Africa. More than anything, what I wanted to do was create an entirely individual sonic universe for Breaking Bad.
Was it a strategic decision to build emotional ambiguity with your score, confusing and complicating the audience's loyalty to particular characters?
Absolutely. From the very beginning, we wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t going to be a simple story and that we wouldn’t be appointing black hats or white hats. Every character should exude some level of gray. I think it was really important to allow our audience to form their own opinions and apply their own sense of morality to the storyline without having my music dictate how they should be feeling.
Of course, one of the primary roles of music in a television show or film is to accentuate whatever feeling exists there. I try to do that, but without being too obvious or calculated about it. On other projects, it might be appropriate to present how to feel to the audience through music, but I believe it wasn’t the right choice for Breaking Bad.
Over the course of Breaking Bad, you went the extra mile, crafting everything from unique ringtones to the music for Saul's TV advertisements to bespoke end credit cues for every single episode. What were some of the most tricky, labor intensive, and enjoyable moments of the series for you?
I loved being involved in all those ancillary parts of working on the show. Some of those things don’t normally fall under the role of a composer, but they were very kind to let me be involved in those details. I continue this work on Better Call Saul, which is great because it allows me to really expand that universe of sound and make all of those things matter. A cellphone ring doesn't have to just be a cellphone ring, it can be a tune that says something or holds some sort of importance. Like the elevator ding at Hamlin, Hamlin, McGill — it has a tune that I wrote and it has become a part of the storytelling. It projects an air of sophistication and power bordering on arrogance. Any chance that is available to have music help advance the story is a terrific thing.
One of the most rewarding yet labor intensive parts of working on Breaking Bad was creating the custom end credit cue each week. There was a unique version for almost every episode, which always included some aspect of the show’s main theme. The reason that came up was because the show often ended up in wildly different emotional places. Sometimes, using the original theme music worked, but most times, it felt jarring or totally inappropriate for the moment. We got into this habit of creating a new one each week, which I loved because it was always a unique challenge. It served as my moment to create music that didn’t have to relate to picture, which is something I don’t get to do very often. It was my weekly 30 seconds to speak my mind musically.
The score of Better Call Saul is an evident sonic departure from the dark, experimental sound of Breaking Bad. How do you maintain the bridge between both shows while accentuating the fact that Better Call Saul is possessed of it's own stand alone integrity and internal consistency?
Better Call Saul is its own show. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould were rightly adamant that it be entirely distinct, at least at first, from the Breaking Bad universe. Because Better Call Saul is a prequel, as time goes on, the score has moved closer to Breaking Bad along with the storyline, but where it ends up is anyone’s guess at this point.
You have worked with the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul team for almost a decade. What are the best things about this collaboration? Can you describe the choreography of how such a complex web of communications is handled?
I would say the magic about working with this crew is that we’ve built ten solid years of trust. It reflects ten years of belief in the amazing talent of all the people I get to work with, everyone from the producers and writers down to the picture editors and sound crew. Almost everyone has remained on the team for the entire run. It’s all about the environment that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have fostered for us. Creatively speaking, no idea is a bad idea and everyone from the executive producer down to the intern is allowed to speak their mind, offer their ideas, and contribute to the process. Of course, not every idea is seen through to fruition, but they all get discussed with equal merit and weight.
Looking back ten years ago, having the opportunity to engage in dramatic work in that kind of fostering environment was hugely comforting. As a much younger composer, it was a chance for me to grow and become better at what I do through risk taking. If you aren’t taking chances, you are terrified of being fired, or your only goal is to please one person, you aren’t going to be in a position to put your best creative self forward. That environment we’ve worked in was not created by accident. I firmly believe that all of us, who have worked on both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, consistently elevate our skills because of it. It’s one of the reasons why these shows are so strong.
Your work on dark crime and espionage thriller, The Blacklist is industrial, menacing, and action packed, which is a radical difference from the lion's share of your other projects. Your score is a key element in summoning and deploying an undeniable sense of forward momentum. From the gate, were there any distinct musical influences or cinematic references that shaped your approach to this project?
To be honest, there weren’t any specific influences. The goal was to harness power, tension, drive, and darkness, which are all key components of the show. Creating a big enough stage for James Spader to do his thing, because he is a fantastic presence. I’ve been a fan of his since I was a teenager. Everything he does has so much gravity. On The Blacklist, his reach and powers are global, the stakes are always high, and the music has to make sure it feels that way.
There is a lot of fun in that. It’s my weekly exercise to take out my pent up aggression. It is also a real pleasure working with Jon Bokenkamp, who is the creator of the show. They just finished filming their 100th episode in New York, which I’ll be scoring in a matter of weeks. The Blacklist has been a big worldwide success and I absolutely love being a part of it.
You had the opportunity to showcase your classical music chops on your unsettling, dramatic score for Starz's miniseries, Flesh and Bone. The story showcases the alluring and truly damaging nature of the ballet world, exploring heavy themes, such as sexual abuse, incest, and eating disorders. What was your strategy to musically articulate the stark polarities in the show and highlight the fragility of the characters?
Yes, I got to work with Moira Walley-Beckett on her limited series, Flesh and Bone. She was a writer and producer on Breaking Bad and we knew each other well beforehand. She was the first of those Breaking Bad writers out of the gate with her own project, so I was thrilled that she asked me to work with her. I knew it would be an opportunity to explore a very different musical avenue.
Of course, when you think of ballet, you first think of the traditional classical standards and those would certainly be present. The idea for the score was to do a very dark and modern twist on classical orchestral music, specifically stringed instruments coupled with some low woodwinds, that would juxtapose with the more traditional ballet pieces. Moira and I talked about using the score as a tool to lift the beautiful façade from the ballet world, accentuating the realities of the competition and internal struggles that dancers go through on a day-to-day basis.
How much of your approach to composing is improvisational? How much is reliant on theoretical concepts and "rules" of music?
100%. All of the musical theory I’ve learned from those years of classical training, as a kid on through college, exist in the back of my brain, and of course, impacts what I write whether I realize it or not, but everything I do starts from an improvisational place.
If I find myself stuck, one of the things I typically do is have as many instruments as possible on hand and ready to go. I’ll loop the footage of the scene I’m working on so I can experiment over and over again. I’ll walk around and experiment with different instruments. Eventually, you land on some little kernel of an idea. It could be rhythmic or tonal. It might be a melodic phrase or a sound design thing. Whatever it is, that little seed sparks interest and some way works harmoniously with the dialogue, the picture, or something. From there, I’ll record that idea and hopefully it’ll become a building block to create what’s next. I can’t speak for anybody else, but that’s how I work.
Sometimes I wish I could figure out another way to just push a button and get there, especially when I’m facing deadlines, but that’s just not how it goes for me. I have to try many things to get there. I’m not one of those people who suddenly sings a tune while they are in the shower.
What DAW (digital audio workstation) do you use?
I’ve written and recorded everything in Pro Tools for almost 20 years now. I think this choice stems from my background working as an audio engineer. Later, I learned composing under a lot of guys who worked on Synclavier systems, and in the early part of my career, I wrote on them as well. The beauty of the Synclavier, especially at the time, was that it did everything in one box. Back then, Pro Tools was nowhere near as sophisticated as it is now, but it could handle both audio and MIDI. With the addition of early versions of Native Instrument’s Kontakt software plugin, it could handle all of my sample oriented needs as well, so that combination ultimately replaced the Synclavier. While I love external synthesizers and effects, I was never a fan of hardware samplers and was a very early adopter to the idea that whatever tool or computer you were writing with was a much better tool for that.
In your opinion, what are the most significant errors a composer can make that convolute the storytelling of any given project?
Early in my career, I learned two key lessons. The first was to never follow a bad idea for too long. I have learned to quickly identify when something isn’t working and bail on it. With television, we generally have a short window of precious time allocated to get things done. You don’t have the luxury to try and shoehorn in bad ideas that you’ll later end up abandoning. The second lesson is something I think is an obvious one, which is to know it’s not about you. As composers, we have to be subservient to the broader goal, which is to craft a great audio and visual experience no matter the medium. If you’re actively collaborating, then you are much more likely to be successful. So I savor those moments when my music plays a featured role, but have always appreciated the importance of it in its supporting roles as well.
If you were stranded on a desert island with only 5 records, what would they be?
My answer to this question would change on any given day, but let’s see… I would need Piano Preludes and Etudes by Alexander Scriabin. I would definitely want Shostakovich's 5th or 10th symphonies, one or the other, not necessarily both. Let's say Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Philip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi. And in honor of my college years, I’ll finish with Skinny Puppy’s Too Dark Park.
Catch The Disaster Artist in theaters nationally on December 8th.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Dave Porter and White Bear PR.