Interview with Amie Doherty

“Spirit Untamed” composer Amie Doherty

It’s been 19 years since a 2-D animated, non-talking horse with the DreamWorks brand rode the big screen to the rapturous, anthemic rock and symphonic teaming of Bryan Adams and Hans Zimmer with “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” A manly, often perilous telling of the plight of a horse caught in the westward expansion that pits a calvary officer against a young Lakota rider, “Spirit” engrained itself as an animated favorite that captured the magic of horses and their human bonds at a perilous time when a nation was carving its territory with no account for its true inhabitants. Now the stallion’s western saddle is taken up in CG cartooning with a brighter tone whose emphasis is on young women riders, a spirit that rides strong with orchestrally traditional, Spanish and Spaghetti inflected music by Irish composer Amie Doherty, a talent now galloping up the Hollywood range. 

For a film with its reigns confidently gripped towards the hearts and dreams of a target audience accustomed to an animated heroine with dreams of the bigger picture. Soaring voices, boisterous old west orchestrations, ethnic energy, whipping dastardly villains and tips to the Morricone hat make for a mighty impressive first time in the saddle for a female composer at DreamWorks. Doherty captures the symphonic energy that’s made for any number of memorable trips to animated prairies, paying off the genre’s comedic nature while effortlessly steering the score to more emotional and exciting paths. Just as impressive is how well Doherty conveys the feelings and bond of a non-wisecracking critter, something that’s still just as rare in this arena, all while instrumentally showcasing a number of pop-empowerment songs. Doherty’s spent no small amount of time highlighting heroines from the darkness of “Here and Now” to the light of “The Hight Note,” as well as navigating the way more surreal animation of Amazon’s “Undone.” Her prolific work as an orchestrator and conductor for such Jeff Russo shows as “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Umbrella Academy” also result in a sumptuous, string-heavy sound that makes Doherty’s work for “Spirit Untamed” particularly joyful. It’s a talent that combines for a strongly thematic passion and melodic gusto to make this iteration of “Spirit” Doherty’s own score spirit animal as a girl takes up the reigns of her late Mexican mother, proving herself as a rider while ensuring the freedom of her new best friend – music that ensures “Spirit’s” brand will keep afoot for new, empowered generations to enjoy. 

Tell us about your musical upbringing, and if animated movies and their scores played any part in you wanting to become a composer?

I come from a small town in the West of Ireland called Ballinasloe, and from a pretty large, and very musical, family. I was always surrounded by music growing up and had a lot of great role models within my family alone. I learned to play piano very early and would accompany the local school musicals that my Mam would write and direct. Animated musicals and films were a huge part of my childhood, and I would save up my money to buy piano books of songs and scores by Alan Menken, and Randy Newman, to name a few. Animated film scores definitely inspired me to want to be a composer – the emotional depth, the sense of adventure, the excitement, how the music helped guide the emotions of the film, I thought it was magical. 

How did you end up in Hollywood after being a world traveler, and what were your first experiences like here?

I moved to Los Angeles in 2013 after having graduated from Berklee’s first masters program in film scoring, in Valencia, Spain. Previous to that, I had done my undergraduate degree in music at Trinity College, Dublin, and then took off for a few years to travel. I lived in South Korea and Vietnam, and traveled all over Asia, India and South America. One day in Korea, during my lunch break (I was working as a kindergarten teacher), I randomly came across a press release for Berklee’s new masters program. I went out that evening and bought a MIDI keyboard and got to work writing some cues for the application. Long story short, I ended up in Spain, and then came to L.A. in the summer of 2013 for the ASCAP film scoring workshop and decided to stay (once I went through the long visa process…). 

You’ve done quite a bit of orchestrational and conducting work, especially when it comes to such diverse Jeff Russo soundtracks as “Discovery,” “Fargo” and “The Night Of.” What’s that experience been like, and how do you think it’s helped you grow as a composer?

Orchestrating and conducting on all of those shows was an invaluable experience and I feel really fortunate that Jeff trusted me to orchestrate so many of his scores over the years. Working with the orchestra, for me, is the most exciting part of the job, so getting to be in the studio and on the podium pretty regularly was amazing. 

Your first major scores were on such dark dramas as “Here and Now,” and the surreal animated Amazon series “Undone.” What were those experiences like? 

‘Here and Now’ was a really exciting score to write. Director Fabien Constant really wanted to push the boundaries of the score and use it to help the audience dive deep into the mindset of Vivienne (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) as she navigates one single day after receiving some devastating news. I recorded SJP singing, humming, and various vocal fx which were woven into the score, and used some solo cello, violin and piano to create a very intimate setting. ‘Undone’ had a somewhat similar palette, and I used some vocals for Alma’s character, too. It’s very rewarding to score (we’re currently working on season 2), as the show’s creators, Kate Purdy and Raphael Bob-Waksberg have created this incredible visual palette that inspires the score. The show has a really wide range of emotions and ideas – there’s comedy, heartbreak, perception-versus-reality, etc, and so each episode is really fun to score.

How was it to get to show your lighter side with “The High Note” and “Happiest Season?”

I had a blast working on both of those scores! “The High Note”, while it’s not a musical, had a lot of original songs (as well as existing songs), and I worked with director Nisha Ganatra to incorporate some of the song elements into the score to unify the musical palette. “Happiest Season” was just a delight to score. I’m a huge fan of Christmas films, so it was a wonderful and welcome distraction from the dark days of 2020. The whole team, led by director Clea duVall, had an infectious spirit and were very inspiring to work with. 

I imagine you were quite a bit younger when you may have seen the first “Spirit.” What did you think of it?

I was 15 when the first “Spirit” film came out. I loved the soundtrack, both the songs by Bryan Adams and the gorgeous theme by Hans Zimmer. I recently re-watched it when I was first hired on “Spirit Untamed” and cried my eyes out. It’s a really beautiful film. 

How were you brought onto “Spirit Untamed?”

In 2018, as part of the Universal Composers Initiative, I had the opportunity to score a DreamWorks animated short film called “Marooned” and got to meet and work with lots of amazing people at DreamWorks as well as Mike Knobloch and his team at the Universal film music department. The following year, when DreamWorks were looking for a composer for “Spirit Untamed,” I was one of the composers that Mike recommended to them, and we met via zoom after I had read the script. From that very first meeting, it was clear that Elaine Bogan (director), Ennio Torresan (co-director) and Karen Foster (producer), and I were on the same page in terms of how the score could contribute to telling the story.

Where many animation scores, including Hans Zimmer’s first “Spirit” soundtrack, use a hybrid approach between electronics, pop and rock instruments and orchestra, “Spirit Untamed” stands out for its symphonic nature. What inspired that traditional approach?

Elaine, Ennio, Karen and I discussed the palette and vibe of the score and agreed that an organic approach would work best for this film. While it’s largely orchestral, there are also acoustic guitars (performed by Bryan Winslow), nylon guitar (performed by Andrew Napier) and vocals (performed by Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes), that were used to add a more modern flair. The film is set on the frontier, so the score has a somewhat Western feel in parts, and some sweeping orchestral moments to encapsulate the breadth of the stunning landscapes on screen. 

Talk about your main themes for “Spirit Untamed.” 

The two main themes in Spirit Untamed are Milagro’s Theme, which Milagro (Lucky’s Mother) sings during the opening sequence, and Spirit’s Theme, which you can hear for the first time when Lucky “meets” Spirit from the train. Milagro’s Theme is the melody of the song “Fearless,” which began as a lullaby that Milagro sings to her daughter. I used it throughout the film as a reminder that Lucky’s Mom is always with her. “Spirit’s Theme” can be heard throughout the scenes where Lucky is slowly getting to know Spirit, and it’s sung by Robin Pecknold, with some tight 3 and 4 part harmony, in most of the scenes. There are five other themes woven throughout the score – the Miradero theme, Jim’s theme (Lucky’s Dad), Abigail’s theme, Snips’ theme, and Hendricks’ theme. For the character themes, I tried to capture each personality in the melody as well as the instrumentation. For example, Abigail’s theme is quirky and light, and there’s some ukulele in there, as her character sings and plays ukulele throughout the film; Hendricks’ theme is quite dissonant and dark, and is performed ominously on low brass. Jim’s theme is sweet and a little sad. For the Miradero theme, I wanted to tip my hat to the Old West with a symphonic sound with some light guitar accompaniment, to capture the beauty of the landscape around the frontier town. 

Robin Pecknold

What was it like working with the cast as well as Robin Pecknold?

One unexpected but amazing experience I had working on this film was writing the song ‘Fearless’, and then working with Isabela Merced, Eiza Gonzalez, Marsai Martin, and Jake Gyllenhaal to record them singing it for the film. They’re all super talented and were such a pleasure to work with. The directors, producers and I would be on zoom while they were in the studio at DreamWorks and I would help coach them through learning and performing the song. Each of their performances blew us all away.

Working with Robin Pecknold was a definite “pinch-me” moment. I have been a big fan of the Fleet Foxes for years and years, and I was inspired by their vocal harmonies and thought it would be a great, modern addition to this score. Elaine, our director, is also a huge fan and had also brought a Fleet Foxes song to the table that was eventually used in the film. Mike Knobloch and Angela Leus at Universal reached out to Robin and his management with some of my demos to gauge his interest, and to my utter shock, he was excited to come onboard to record the vocals. We kept it as a secret from Elaine until he was officially on board, and she was over the moon when we eventually told her. 

Tell us about working with directors Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan. Were they of a singular opinion when it came to your collaboration? 

Elaine and Ennio are great collaborators. They trust each other’s opinions and vision, and were so welcoming of my ideas, too. They gave very clear, concise direction, and created a very positive, inspiring, and open environment. They were a dream to work with. 

How did you want to capture the Mexican heritage of Lucky, especially when it comes to her mother’s horse act?

The film opens with Lucky’s mother, Milagro, performing ‘Fearless’ on horseback at first in Spanish and then switching to English. Miradero is a frontier town where there is a mixture of cultures, including Mexican, and I wanted the score to reflect that melting pot. In the opening scene, and later in the festival scenes, I combined the more symphonic sound of the orchestra with some mariachi-style trumpets, as well as some more bluegrass-type fiddles, and some nylon/Spanish guitar. I wanted to use the instrumentation to represent the mixture of cultures in this particular time and place.

What was the challenge like of meeting the comedic demands of an animated score alongside the more dramatic ones here to create a score that’s far less antic than some? And did having your orchestrational skills help in a genre where you’re often asked to quickly change direction?

Scoring animation is a pretty big challenge, but it’s one I thoroughly enjoy. The sudden gear shifts from comedy to action, to emotional scenes can be daunting, but with an entire orchestra plus the extra elements in the score, I had infinite options in terms of instrumentation and a range of emotions within each instrument. I think it’s really important to work on the transitions from emotion to emotion, be it sudden or more gradual, to help the forward momentum of the film in a unified way. I’ve always been fascinated by the way different instruments, instrument combinations, intervals in a melody, rhythms, etc, can have an effect on our emotions as an audience, so I tried to pay attention to the emotion intended by the directors in each frame of the film, to help guide the story. 

One of the musical highlights is when Lucky first tries to ride Spirit. Could you talk about scoring that scene, especially with how you were inspired to start with a tango?

That was such a fun scene to score. The tango was the directors’ idea long before I came on the project. They loved the idea of Lucky and Spirit doing this dance where one steps forward, one steps back, etc, as they learn to trust each other. The trick to scoring the “dance” was to find the right tempo to hit their footwork. It starts out quite tentative, and as Lucky begins to learn and Spirit begins to trust, the music becomes more rhythmic and stable, and concludes with a variation on Spirit’s theme as they edge closer to each other.

How did you want to capture the old west spirit of the score, from the genre’s more traditional orchestrations to the fun Spaghetti western music of the train chase?

While the film is set in the Old West, and has some sweeping, pastoral areas, we wanted the score to have a more modern flair to it also, using the vocals and guitars as I mentioned above. However, in the “Fantasy Sequence” we decided to really lean into the spaghetti western vibe in a big way. This scene steps outside the “norms” or “rules” of the film in many ways, both visually and in sound design, so we wanted the score to reflect that change. I used some traditional spaghetti western sounds such as an opera singer, the percussive male choir vocalizations, tremolo baritone guitar and harmonica. Lucky is pulling some pretty crazy superhero moves, which inspired the use of some power chords on the big hits to give that fantastical, punchy, exciting feeling. 

How did you want the score to play alongside the songs, as well as to write your own here?

The first thing I wrote for the film was the “Fearless” lullaby that Milagro sings to Lucky during the opening. Initially, it was to be a more intimate moment after Milagro performs for the crowd, but I took a stab at arranging it as a celebratory, exciting opening “song” and the directors loved the idea. I loved the idea of using Milagro’s lullaby as her theme throughout the film to signify her presence, even after her death, throughout Lucky’s life. When writing the melody, I spent a long time working it in different ways to convey the various emotions so that it could lend itself to the various genres and emotions throughout. 

DreamWorks Animation Portraits on Tuesday, May 11, 2021 at the DreamWorks Aimation Studios in Glendale, CA Photo: (Alex J. Berliner/ABImages)

You are the first woman to score a DreamWorks Animated feature film. What does that mean to you, and what it says about the changes occurring within the industry? 

I was a few months into scoring when I learned that I was the first woman to score a DreamWorks Animated feature film, and that blew my mind. I’m incredibly honored and excited, and the significance of this milestone is not lost on me. I’m truly grateful to everyone at DreamWorks and Universal for the opportunity. I feel very hopeful and encouraged by the change that we’ve seen happening over the past number of years, with more and more female composers scoring major studio films and tv series. My dream for the not-so-distant future is that seeing a woman’s name next to the “Music By” credit won’t cause anyone to bat an eyelid, that it will be nothing out of the ordinary. It’s programs like Universal’s Composer Initiative & the Sundance film music lab that are making great strides towards change for women and people of color, and I feel very grateful to them for creating a space at the table. 

See “Spirit Untamed” in theaters, with Amie Doherty’s score on Back Lot Music HERE

Visit Amie Doherty’s web site HERE

Special thanks to Ray Costa and Lana Lay