David Schwartz is the artful and inventive award-winning composer, who has contributed to numerous beloved television shows and films including The Good Place, Arrested Development, Trading Places, Lady Dynamite, Rules of Engagement, The Inbetweeners, Deadwood, and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. A clever songwriter and a true master of his craft, David’s eccentric musical brand permeates the stories he illustrates with whimsy, tact, and frequent elements of surprise. In our brief exchange, David speaks on his fateful entrance into film music through the popular 90’s show, Northern Exposure and what he hopes is waiting for him in the afterlife.
You attended School of Visual Arts in New York and Berklee College of Music in Boston. During your formative years, what experiences helped you cultivate such a broad, eclectic musical knowledge?
I guess I’ve always had a very broad interest in varied musical genres. Without knowing the Duke Ellington quote at the time — “There are only two kinds of music, good and bad.” — I’ve always subscribed to that theory. I come from a family of visual artists, and for my first year in college, I went into the photography department at SVA. Although I really loved the school and the subject, I missed music.
Can you tell us about how you were introduced to the field of film scoring? What project lit a fire from within and gave you the confidence to pursue this profession?
A good friend of mine asked me if I knew someone who could score his self-financed feature film called Skeeter’s Wings. My wife, Jody thought that I should suggest myself for the job. He suggested I write a theme, and he would listen to it. I did, and he fell in love with it.
In lieu of payment, we split the cost of a Roland s760 sampler. Although Skeeter’s Wings was never released, it caught the interest of Cheryl Bloch, and she called me a year and a half later. She said, we have a new television show called North to the Future [the working title for Northern Exposure] We’re looking for a composer and haven’t found what we’re looking for. Would I be interested in writing a demo for the theme?
The demo that I wrote became the theme for the show. When Cheryl called to tell me they had picked my theme, I was thrilled. Then she told me I was also the show’s composer. I was still thrilled, but also panicked! The seven years of Northern Exposure were an amazing education in everything about scoring. The music changed every week and included almost every genre known to man, yet still felt like the show had a musical identity. I was lucky to start with such a fantastic vehicle.
The Good Place is an intellectually sophisticated fantasy comedy, which dives deep into the concept of the afterlife. It begins with Eleanor, a pharmaceutical saleswoman, who dies in a freak accident, and is mistakenly sent to a heavenly utopia known as 'The Good Place' instead of a lawyer with the same name. What were your initial impressions of this narrative and what were the very first musical concepts you experimented with?
The Good Place is unique and wonderful. When I first heard the narrative, it was really hard to visualize. Once I had read the script, and especially after seeing the pilot with the cast, it became a lot clearer what the direction would be. The cast is absolutely fabulous and inspires me weekly. The producers hired me after a meeting, which is unusual. There is often a long process of demos and trials, etc. Mike Schur, who created the show, is fantastically creative, but he hadn’t used a lot of score in his previous shows.
There was one scene in the pilot, the initiation scene that ran two minutes. I felt like if I could get the tone of that piece right, I would have the key to the musical universe of The Good Place. I actually wrote six or seven versions for that scene, and many of them became thematic material that we use in the show still today. Most of my shows have been extremely diverse musically, and involve many genres. One of the things I love about The Good Place is that it has a very unique and specific palate. One of my favorite things about the show, I believe that because of it we’re all trying to be better people in ways both big and small. Mike Schur and everyone involved in the show is inspiring that way.
As the show has progressed, we came to realize that The Good Place is, in fact, The Bad Place, a realm designed to engage in unusual psychological human torture. The narrative draws inspiration from famous French existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre's emblematic work of fiction, No Exit. Can you tell us about how these devious twists and turns impact your score? How has your musical palette changed from season one until now?
There was a meeting where they revealed what was going to happen before the second season started. So, I set about writing a lot of darker material. With The Good Place, it’s always about degree. I feel it can never get too dark, or too funny, and to this day, the trick is always finding the right amount of each emotion in the music. It’s always about the story.
To what extent do the conflicting ideologies, cultural differences, and ethical dilemmas presented within The Good Place influence your writing? What are your strategies to musically articulate the stark polarities in the show and highlight the uniqueness of these characters?
I may not be the best person to answer those types of questions. Although I’m aware of all of the above, I tend to write almost always by feel. I watch the scene and get an idea, usually quickly. Then, it sometimes takes a long time to make an idea work and flesh it out. After it’s written, I spend some time to make sure it fits what I believe is the producers' emotional intentions.
In season three, Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are sent back to Earth by the immortal architect, Michael. What instrumentation and musical devices felt most appropriate to mirror where they presently stand?
I don’t think I intentionally made big changes for season three. I tend to focus on the needs of each individual scene. I think all of us on the show feel that it has a pretty specific sound that we don’t want to stray too far from. As I implied before, that’s unique and special for me to have a show that’s so thematic.
Arrested Development had a very peculiar journey. Originally debuting in 2003 on Fox, the show developed a cult following and received much critical acclaim, but was ultimately canceled in 2006. Six years later, Netflix rebooted the series. In your opinion, what about Arrested Development made the show resonate so deeply? Do you have a personal anecdote you'd like to share from your long-term collaboration with Mitchell Hurwitz?
Arrested Development is, was, and will always be super special for me, as is my relationship with Mitch Hurwitz. I think if I were to guess on the appeal, it would be that there are just so many levels to the show. It’s hysterically funny, brilliant attention to detail, social commentary, and, as dysfunctional as a family as the Bluths are, it’s still a show about family. That's the first thing I noticed in the pilot, that this is a believable family, albeit a whacky one.
Starting with the pilot episode, Mitch was aware that the network wanted to include popular songs in the show. His attitude was…well…why should I put those songs in? We can write original songs. Once early on, I can clearly remember him saying, “We can write a song called “Balls in the Air”, right?” He would often follow up with original lyrics of his own that we would incorporate into the songs. I’ve done many shows with Mitch, and he is one of the most creative, brilliant, and nicest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of collaborating with. We have become close friends.
There are very few television shows that have engaged in cultivating such a varied, detailed, and exuberant musical landscape as Arrested Development. I understand you were tasked with creating roughly 50-80 cues per episode, in addition to writing the original songs on a deadline. In your experience, which pieces that you created for the show pushed you the furthest out of your comfort zone? What were the most significant challenges you overcame in sculpting the wildly unpredictable, genre-hopping musical world of the Bluth family?
I think the songs were both the most fun and the most challenging from a time perspective. Often, I wouldn't start writing the songs until very late at night after I had already done a full day of score composing. With most of the songs, I’ve had an array of talented and wonderful co-writers. It gave me a burst of energy to have them in the room. Another challenge about writing the songs, even though we usually needed one minute or less for the show, we had to keep going and finish it fully. We knew if we tried to come back to it later, we’d never be able to capture the same feeling we had in that moment. Many if not all were written to be full two and a half minute songs in that first night.
If your time on earth suddenly came to an end, can you elaborate on your ideal 'Good Place'?
Well, I’ll just say this. My time will come, and I hope when it does, there will be frozen yogurt.