Theodore Shapiro

Theodore Shapiro is the sophisticated composer behind numerous beloved blockbuster films including The Devil Wears Prada, Old School, Why Him?, Spy, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Marley & Me, Tropic Thunder, I Love You, Man, Ghostbusters, and Blades of Glory. Through advanced study at Brown University and Juilliard, Theodore cultivated sharp compositional skills and learned about the art of storytelling through his exploration of theater. These meaningful experiences prepared him for a truly decorated career in film composing. Combining his expertise in classical music with strong pop sensibilities, Theodore’s sublime versatility has enticed collaborations with the likes of David Mamet, Mike Judge, Theodore Melfi, Nancy Meyers, David Frankel, and many more. In our illuminating discussion, Theodore describes how he constructed a clever, film noir flavored score for Paul Feig’s comedy thriller, A Simple Favor and tackled the gritty world of Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer.

Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez

Source: Alberto E. Rodriguez

I understand that you started playing classical piano as a child. Which artists provided impetus and inspiration during your early exploration of music?

I would say the first music I looked into and remember loving was The Beatles. Growing up, I was always on multiple tracks of listening. I followed pop music all through my life, which was influential to me on one level, and then I developed a lot of interest in classical music. Throughout my life, I’ve listened to a lot of 20th-century music — Debussy and Stravinsky. My taste also stemmed from the material I was playing as a musician. I had a pretty wide sphere of influences —The Smiths, I had a big U2 phase, Led Zeppelin. A lot of classic rock from the 60’s and 70’s was super important to me.

Did you ever explore the art of live performance?

As a classical pianist, I wasn’t really good enough. As a kid, I would play in competitions, but I wasn’t going to make it any further than that. I played in bands through college and absolutely loved playing live. It was a huge part of my life, and I miss it tremendously —playing with other people and playing in front of people. Once in a while, I get to do it, and it’s always thrilling. It feels like a missing piece of my history that’s coming back. It’s really exciting that it’s a growing part of our business. It’s something a lot of people are going to be exploring again. 

You graduated from Brown University with B.A. in music and Juilliard School with an M.A. in music composition. At what point were you introduced to the possibilities of film scoring? 

From the time I was an undergrad at Brown, it was something that I knew I was interested in doing. I was a film lover. In that environment, I was surrounded by people who were interested in film, and I knew it was a medium that I was really into. Even though I love concert music, I really responded to the populist aspect of film music. It appealed to me and was always something I wanted to pursue. So, I went to Juilliard to get a traditional education in composition. At the same time, I was scoring my friends’ student films and working on a show that was on MTV. I was getting the experience of writing to picture while I was honing my chops as a composer.

What are the primary skills you picked up through your college studies that have served you throughout your career? 

In terms of my undergrad life, I did a lot of theater, both as an actor and as a composer. I wrote music for theater, and I acted in plays. Through that experience, I think I gained a pretty good understanding of storytelling, some perspectives on how we create narrative, and maybe the language to be able to speak about it. Those skills have been really helpful in my career. A big part of being a film composer is writing music, but there is another part that’s focused on communicating with your collaborators. I would say that my undergrad studies prepared me well for that. When I was in graduate school, they didn’t offer anything related to writing for film at the time, but I did get a very strong grounding in compositional skills. It’s funny because you put all these tools in your toolbox, and you don’t know when you’re going to use them, but you can pull them out at will. For example, you can be scoring a film like Dodgeball, which is a broad comedy, and find yourself pulling out the tool of writing a fugue. Something like that would seem to be connected to something much more classical in nature, but these arrows are in your quiver, so you can shoot when you have to.

A Simple Favor follows a mommy vlogger's thrilling quest to solve the sudden disappearance of her mysterious best friend. The film transcends genre, offering an intricate fusion of film noir references and humor supported by an undercurrent of tension. Off the cuff, what stood out most to you about this twisted narrative? 

The first thing that was really interesting about working on A Simple Favor was finding the tone of it. It was unusual and very tricky because it’s a mystery and a thriller, but also genuinely funny at the same time. This was an instance in which the music had to match the tone of the film precisely. When I worked on Spy, one of Paul Feig’s earlier movies, the musical strategy was very different. There were all these funny things happening on the screen, but the music is completely straight. It doesn’t acknowledge what’s happening; it doesn't acknowledge the comedy at all. The comedy came from the gaps between the seriousness of the music and the actual plot on the screen. A Simple Favor wasn’t like that at all. It couldn’t feel satirical or feel like we were goofing on a genre at all. It had to feel perfectly in sync. The fun of the project was figuring out exactly what that was. They did such an excellent job of keeping you guessing throughout — so many twists and turns all the way up until the very end. It’s such a fun movie to watch.

Can you tell us about the conversations you had with director, Paul Feig to define the musical trajectory of this film? 

What was neat about this experience was that I happened to have time to write early on in the process. Paul and I had some very, very basic conversations about music when I read the script, but I was able to start writing ideas while he was while he was shooting and put it in his hands. So, rather than have conversations about an idea for the music, we could have an actual piece of music to listen to, talk about, and think about. 

One of the things I remember Paul saying was that he wanted to have something that functioned as a central theme for the film. An overarching memorable theme that comes back and carries you through the story. It was always my intention for the score to feel sophisticated. All these things were working in lockstep towards the same goal. The elegance and the tone of what Paul wanted to achieve were there on the page. Happily, all these things fit together as we worked together.

Your score strikes a beautiful balance of intrigue and child-like innocence throughout A Simple Favor. Can you tell us what themes within this layered plot led to your choices of instrumentation? 

As far as an overarching idea, I wanted to create a nice blend of modern and classic sounds. I wanted the score to nod to a more ‘Hitchcockian’ approach, but I also knew that I wanted it to feel totally contemporary. I got all of these synth sounds to create the bubbly percussion and the driving bass line you hear through the score. These sounds were very helpful because they not only provided energy and propulsion, but they also possess a lightness to them that made space for comedy. They were my secret weapon. Then the orchestra fit on top of that, playing to the dark and romantic side of the film. The bell-like tones were another instrumental choice that occurred in so many of the themes — processed toy piano, vibes, clock chimes, processed celeste. I wasn’t conscious of it when I was writing, but all of these sounds relate to childhood and play into the mommy world that the story springs out of. It was not something that I set out to do, but I think it resonated with that aspect of the story.

What were the cues that needed the most attention to realize?

It's really interesting because I started writing most of the score very early and it was set. There were a couple of spots in the film where it just needed a little bit more lightness. There were other times where the initial instinct was to play it a little bit more for the mystery, but then it really needed to shift a little bit to bring out more of the comedy. That process was fascinating because some movies aren't that malleable musically. A Simple Favor was different because it was perched so well on the edge between mystery and comedy. If you tipped the music a little bit, you could really tip the meaning of the theme. It was really cool.

Destroyer follows the tormented path of Erin Bell, an LAPD detective, who is placed undercover in a seedy gang in the California desert. When the gang leader resurfaces after many years, Erin is faced with reconciling the traumas of her past. How did you become involved with this film and what challenges were presented during the creative process?

The director of Destroyer is a woman named Karyn Kusama, and I've worked with her on all of her movies. She's not only a very close and important creative colleague but a very, very close friend of mine. So, I will work on anything that she's doing because she's a hugely important person in my life. Her husband, Phil Hay and his writing partner, Matt Manfredi are the screenwriters of the film, and they are also two of my closest friends. I went to college with both of them. That's how I became involved with the project.

In the process of the last two films I’ve worked on with Karyn, I’ve done much more writing at the beginning of the process rather than at the end. I wrote an hour of music for Destroyer before they even started shooting. When you’re not writing to picture, it enables you to do things you would never think of doing otherwise. You can make bigger, bolder choices and then put it in the hands of the director, who will then work with that music while they are in the process of editing the film. This method doesn’t work for all directors, and it wouldn’t work for all types of film, but for Karyn and this film, it was a great way for us to work and we’re both really happy with the results.

Can you tell us about the palette you assembled to accent this grim world? 

Absolutely. At the very beginning of the process, I did a session with two string players, a synth player, and a guitar player. I created some musical structures for them, and then let them improvise over those structures. I came into the session with some basic thematic ideas, but I just let them go and explore creatively. Then I took the material from that session and started assembling it, creating music out of the chunks of audio that we recorded. I was able to use that material as the building blocks of the score, then wrote more alongside it. At the end of the process, we added brass and strings, but those early sessions really defined what the film score is.

What would you say was the most significant responsibility of scoring Destroyer?

Destroyer features an incredible central female character played by Nicole Kidman. It’s beautifully written, beautifully acted. When I was writing the score, it was based on just having read the script without seeing any picture. The challenge was to find the right music to honor this super complex, gritty woman. That was the central consideration of my jumping off point.

As someone who has scored an impressive range of popular films in the comedy genre including I Love You, Man, Why Him?, Dodgeball, Blades of Glory, Central Intelligence, and Spy, what are your secrets for reinventing the wheel and bringing unexpected elements into play within your musical treatments?

I approach every film as a storyteller, and none of that changes because it’s a comedy. For a movie like Blades of Glory, I approached that material like it's a serious sports film. Same with Dodgeball. Spy was approached like a serious spy film. When the music is straight, that often leads to the best results because the comedy plays in relief to that. I'm not the first composer who's done that. Leonard Bernstein did that very brilliantly, and others. It's a tradition that I believe in very much, and am proud to carry the mantle for.

Paul Feig once said, "If the music is not playing it straight, it's like somebody saying to you, "Oh, I'm going to tell you this hilarious joke. It's so funny," and laughing while they tell you the joke." It’s hard for a joke to be funny when it hasn’t been told with a straight face. I think music for comedy works in the same way. Those are the movies that are the most fun to work on. I'm grateful to all of those brilliant actors who have given me countless, countless hours of sitting in my writing room just cracking up watching their brilliant performances. It's really a joy.

From your perspective, what is the key to longevity in the business of film music?

Relationships. That is the key. A career in this business is built on relationships and finding the directors who want to keep working with you, and with whom, you want to keep working. I've been incredibly, incredibly lucky to work with a lot of great directors, who I love as people and are fun to work with. That’s really what it's about. There are a lot of brilliant composers who are perfectly capable of doing the work part of the job, but who are less capable of doing the relationship building part of the job. You have to have both of those abilities as a film composer, and then there’s a little bit of luck involved too — who you meet and whether the film turns out to be amazing or not. I’ve been fortunate to work on some excellent movies with some really great people. Hopefully, I can continue to do so.

Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg

Extending gratitude to Theodore Shapiro and Costa Communications.