Fil Eisler is the striking musical mastermind who has contributed his talents to a colorful array of popular television shows and feature films, including Empire, UnREAL, Shameless, Proud Mary, To The Bone, and Life of The Party. Fil began his early professional life as a hired gun and touring artist for the likes of Robbie Williams, Ryan Adams, and Kylie Minogue. After years of supporting the musical dreams of others, Fil transitioned away from his rockstar lifestyle in pursuit of writing his own original music for visual media under the moniker, iZler. In 2013, he received a BMI Film & TV Award for the riveting orchestral score he created for ABC's Revenge and has been thriving ever since. In advance of the series premiere of AMC's Dietland and in celebration of yet another well-received season of Fox's Empire, Fil speaks on his fascination with organic instrumentation and the power of minimalism when it strikes an emotional chord.
I understand that you were raised in the time of Soviet censorship in Prague and then relocated with your family to London. How did that influence the music you were exposed to at an early age? Can you elaborate on your discovery and exploration of music during your formative years?
I think, in a lot of ways, my parents kept me on a good musical path, as did my grandmother, who lived in London and was allowed to come and visit us. We weren’t allowed to travel out. My folks had a small record collection, mostly Beatles albums, some CSN, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Deep Purple (odd record collection, right?), Bob Dylan - that kept me going for a little while. There was a good amount of jazz in there too. Some Miles, Roland Kirk, Oscar Peterson, and a lot of classical music. As far as the classical side, my grandma was the main gateway that introduced me to it. She was an amazing musician. My earliest musical memories are of playing around on the piano with her, probably around the ages of 3 to 6.
What events led to you becoming an in-demand session player and touring artist? What was the primary impulse behind your transition into film scoring? What was your first big break?
It’s hard to talk about “big breaks” without really looking at the whole picture because there really isn’t one “big break” that sort of just makes everything ok and suddenly, you’re a successful artist. It’s a constant process, but I can definitely point to events in my life where looking back, I can now go, “Oh, ok. That was important" or "That turned into something important for me.” Joining Robbie Williams’ band in the late 90's didn’t feel like an important thing at the time. I joined despite having a lot of skepticism about what kind of artist he was. I joined because I really liked him when we first met and we just got on. Very shortly after, I discovered how talented he really was. That became an important time in my life. I toured through most of my 20's.
We are nearing the finale of the fourth season of Empire. I read that you were steered in a bold, dramatic musical direction in your first conversations with show creator, Lee Daniels, drawing inspiration from the 1980's hit series, Dynasty and classic mobster films like The Godfather. Can you tell us more about the specific instrumentation and motifs you have deployed to define the musical aesthetic of Empire?
It’s purely about melody and orchestration really. It’s such a great opportunity to have an orchestra at your disposal every week and to see how far you can stretch their limits from utter minimalism to how virtuosic they can be when needed. It allows me to really spend time thinking about which instruments convey what and for which character. Terrence Howard’s character for instance has been scored quite a lot with clarinet duets, which gave us that feeling of old world gangsterdom. Not in the hip hop sense, but in a much more old world crime family way. Lee didn’t want him to feel like just another rapper who’d made it, but someone who had risen above all of that to live in this rarified world yet still understood the streets. Empire can be quite operatic in some senses. You have to tread that line of being minimalistic, so that it isn’t overwhelming, but not be afraid to be dramatic when it’s called for.
Part of the magic of Empire comes from the dynamic range of musical performances we experience in each episode. Your lavish orchestral score provides contrast to the original songs in hip-hop, R&B, and pop styles. Both play a significant role in the storytelling. What are the benefits and challenges of writing score to support such a complex landscape? To what extent are you collaborative with the other musical minds who contribute to the show like Timbaland and Jim Beanz?
The benefits are really that we’ve now introduced the audience to this dual musical approach and they’re comfortable with it, which means that the onus isn’t always on me for the storytelling. I think the juxtaposition works on a practical level because you feel like every song is a breath of fresh air after we’ve been in storytelling score mode and vice versa. Like I said before, there are two very distinct yet connected worlds in Empire, the street and the Empire offices “above the clouds” so to speak, which also represents the 1% life that the Lyons live. There hasn’t been much direct collaboration with Jim and Timbaland since our timelines are so different but often, I’ll get something they’ve created and have to find a way to weave it into the fabric of the story, which is fun. I’ve spent some time hanging out with Jim and we’re always brainstorming to do something together when we both have enough time.
AMC's Dietland is based on the critically acclaimed novel by Sarai Walker. The narrative examines the journey of a 300-lb ghostwriter at a leading beauty magazine, who winds up in the crosshairs of a violent feminist vigilante organization. What musical path will you be taking for this subversive and timely series?
I can honestly say it’s not like anything I’ve ever worked on before, nor is the music like anything I’ve ever written before. The score is a mixture of modular synth work, string quartet, and a really eclectic mix of percussion, tabla, frame drums, programmed beats and sampling. All sorts of crazy stuff! It’s minimalistic but not simplistic. It comes down to a good tune in the end. It’s always about the themes and the colors.
Dietland is not your first time working with director, Marti Noxon. You have previously collaborated with her on UnREAL, Girlfriends' Guide To Divorce, and To The Bone. In your opinion, what makes your relationship so synergistic?
It’s really hard to pinpoint what specifically makes a relationship with a particular director synergistic. In many cases and certainly with Marti, it’s about being in a room with them and being comfortable with each other to the extent that you’re not afraid to try new stuff at the risk of it failing, maybe a few times! In my opinion, that’s the only way you’re ever going to find something new and original. With Marti, we both share a total love of movies and even if we haven’t come from the same musical backgrounds, it feels like we’re always playing each other music that the other person hasn’t heard before, yet we always like what we hear.
Your score for Life of The Party transcends predictable musical treatment for comedy, magnifying the emotional depth of Deanna's mid-life crisis. Can you tell us about how you originally became involved with the film? What did you set out to achieve by taking a more subdued, whimsical approach?
First of all, thank you. That’s very kind of you to say! I first became involved with the film after Dax Shepard recommended me to Ben Falcone, the director. I met up with Ben and we just started having fun with it right away. It was always about finding the heart of Deanna’s character. Her endless optimism tempered with that uncertainty and a little bit of sadness to start. Ben’s just a lovely bloke to work with and he’s not afraid to go straight to the heart of what his film needs. In this case, that was a very minimalistic, stripped down approach.
Your sublime work on Revenge is a prime example of when a score takes on it's own life and functions as a character within a series. In your opinion, what are the key characteristics of memorable thematic material? Are there any particular musical devices or tricks that you have seen resonate with audiences repeatedly?
Again, thank you. Revenge is a show I actually really miss scoring because it was so thematic and full of character. By the end of the series, there was literally a library of themes for every character and situation, so it was sort of easy to know what to reach for when I was writing. It’s hard to put my finger on what makes a good theme. I guess the ability to recognize a good tune when it hits you and the willingness to really spend time editing and throwing away ideas before you reach the right one. It’s all very subjective and comes down to what your taste is.
On the technical side, what DAW to do you use? What are the essential plug-ins and instruments that you consistently reach for from your arsenal of musical tools?
I’ve been a Pro Tools user for years now. I was in Logic for a while but I’d always used PT for recording, so as Logic became less and less pro and more like Garage Band, it kind of made sense to just go with PT. To be honest though, I think whatever you get used to and whatever you can create with the fastest is the right tool for you. They’re all good in their own way. I’ve been threatening to switch to Cubase for years now, but I can never seem to find the time to learn it properly as I never get much of a break. When I do get a break, you’ll find me in a bar on a beach in Maui, not in a windowless room learning a new sequencer.
As for instruments, I’m a big fan of real instruments especially for writing. I just find that even though you can bring up just about any sound in the world in the computer, it never has that tactile feel and that idiosyncratic thing that instruments and especially weird slightly ropy instruments can have which is ultimately more inspiring to me than a computer screen. That said, I love manipulating sounds in Pro Tools and really taking it to a new place. I think my beginnings in making records really made me fall in love with recording, production, and just coming up with strange sounds. Working with live players is just an extension of that really. Even though I love what you can do in the computer to create and manipulate sounds, it’s always a bit more exciting to me if that sound at least has had a human source at some point, some kind of performance element. I’m into music and musicians ultimately, much less so computer generated performances, which is certainly not to say that you can’t get a performance with, say, a synth, but again, I get much more excited about things like modular synths, which have a rather chaotic, happy accident type of element to them.
What are your thoughts on the rise of film music being translated into live concert settings? As someone with a varied history as a musical performer, do you have any intention of presenting your work in public forums in the future?
I absolutely love that film scores are finding more and more of a live audience every year. I think it’s fantastic. I think, in a way, it’s not only keeping the orchestral tradition alive but bringing people into classical music that may have gradually started to die out otherwise. It’s also very heartening to see what brings a lot of people into a Hans Zimmer concert, for example. What gets them excited about it is perhaps first, the movie itself and through that, they discover new music. It means there are real movie fans out there and that the magic of actually going to see a film or going to a concert is by no means dying out and I think that’s wonderful. I absolutely have every intention of bringing my music to audiences at some point soon and in fact, I’m working on something like that over the summer, which I can’t tell you about quite yet, but I’m very excited about it!
Tune in to AMC on June 4th at 9/8c for the series premiere of Dietland. Catch up on season 4 of Empire streaming now.