Interview with Daniel Pemberton


(Photo By Chloe Pemberton)

In 1982, movie audiences ventured to another time, and another place to enter the world of Thra, a magical kingdom whose shattered gem sundered its world into good and evil in the forms of gentle mystics and the cruel skeksis. These rulers of the realm were on the verge of using their soul-sucking talisman to create eternal darkness, until the last two gelflings set out to fulfill their prophecy of light. It was a quest unlike any viewers had seen before as they encountered a world of living, breathing puppets, whose landscapes and sets were designed down to the last cultural detail. As a collaboration between fantasy illustrators and sculptors Brianand Froud (“Trolls”) and Muppet creator Jim Henson, “The Dark Crystal” showed off the state of the hand-piloted art in a way far outside of child-like constraints, even while offering a more menacing sense of wonder.

Jim Henson with Wendy and Brian Froud

Though some Kermit-loving adults’ consternation at “The Dark Crystal’s” unexpected peril made Henson take a far lighter, human-populated approach to bigger box office results with “Labyrinth” (also scored by Jones), “The Dark Crystal” has continued to enchant viewers, if not create an outright cult through the ages with the daring realization of its handmade universe. Now in our darkening times where real realms and puppet physicality has been replaced by CGI, Netflix and director Louis Leterrier (“The Incredible Hulk”) have turned back the clock and made fans’ seemingly impossible dream come turn with the ten episode prequel series “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” With Lisa Henson as executive producer and the Froud family in the creature department, this series shines with a spot-on fastidiousness to the original’s techniques, but with an eye and ear on expanding Thra’s conceptual boundaries. Though crystal healers Jen and Kira might be far in the future, “The Age of Resistance” offers dazzling recreations of just about every other character and race from the original film, as newly populated by gelflings, pod people, land striders and Fizzgig furballs whose realms and lifeforces are yet to truly be decimated.

director Louis Leterrier

Yet if there was one spark that truly made Thra truly believable the first time out, then it was mythically melodic flesh and blood magnificently bestowed by South African composer Trevor Jones. Having brought an epic spell to King Arthur’s realm with “Excalibur,” Jones approached “The Dark Crystal” with enchanted commitment, weaving lavish symphonic music and ominous electronics with the instrumentation of cultures to whom music was an on-screen essential. It’s a kind of magic that now falls into the hands of Englishman Daniel Pemberton. A composer who’s swiftly on the rise for with his inventive scores for “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Steve Jobs,” “Black Mirror’s acclaimed “U.S.S. Callister” a grungily tweaked take on the legend of “King Arthur,” and an electrified hip-hop superhero score for the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,”

Pemberton has specialized in rebooting film score genres by shattering stylistic boundaries while not leaving richly traditional orchestral melody in the dust. It’s this unique musical approach that fills Pemberton’s take on Thra, taking the cosmically medieval tone of Trevor Jones’ classic score and hearing it for a brave new world that the Gelfling-filled lands used to be. With a tip of the shard to Jones’ main theme, Pemberton (along with Samuel Sim) fuse together eldritch orchestras, otherworldly electronics, massive percussion and of course majestic strings into their own fantastical sound, opening up a whole new world of musical possibility. Using a host of medieval instruments that reprise the joyful podling dance as well as delineate the distrusting Gelfling realms that must come together before their souls are drained, “Age of Resistance” is if anything way darker in creating a cunning, and beastly sound for the skeksis overlords – which takes on terrifying motion like never before for their apex predator. Orchestral might and magic rises in the bewitching form of Aughra as throttling battle music throws of Thra’s shackles. It’s scoring as fantasy world building, given all of the intricate care, experimentation and rich ethnic imagination that went into a “Dark Crystal” past and present, all combining for a rich musical tapestry that brings a mythic film with all of the delight of the past while opening up a new TV series world of adventurous, hand-fashioned possibility.

Were you a fan of “The Dark Crystal” as a kid?

I really wasn’t familiar with “The Dark Crystal” until I did a film music concert in Tenerife where I saw a whole suite from Trevor Jones’ score with video. I remember thinking, “What the hell is this film? It looks insane!” I was kind of familiar with it as a part of pop culture, but I realized I’d never seen the actual movie, as it came out when I was four or five. Then once I saw “The Dark Crystal,” I realized how unique it was. It was like nothing else in cinema. Today the film seems even more so that way with all of its imagination and just how complex the morals and ideas in the story are.

What was your impression of Trevor’s score?

Trevor’s score is beautiful. It’s got such richness, romanticism and depth that makes the world really come alive. It’s also really interesting with all of its unusual instrumentation with things like electronics and voices. “The Dark Crystal” had the advertising line of “Another world, another time.” And it’s the same thing with this series. So there’s one side of me that wanted to create our own sound world, but to also pay homage to some elements of Trevor’s theme, which you hear in the first episode. But we’re a new entry into the musical vocabulary of “The Dark Crystal.”

What were the challenges of taking on “Age of Resistance”

Doing a 10 hour Netflix series has a whole different level of pressures and constraints, both time wise and financially. Our director Louis Leterrier is brilliant. He’ll keep pushing to make every episode better and better. So you kind of have to work out a system that allows you to try and create something unique and special for the series, but still deal with the whole logistical infrastructure of doing a modern day TV series. That means you’re not going to get a lot of scenes cut in the same way that Trevor likely would’ve gotten the picture. A film will usually give you a lot of time and resources to spend on four minutes of music and really, really work on that. Every episode of “Age of Resistance” was is in flux in a series that would end up have eight hours of music. When I first came on it, we talked about having a lot less music, and it’s approach as not being orchestral. Louis’ intention was to make the soundtrack very unique with specialist instruments and unusual sounds – kind of like similar to what I did in the “King Arthur” film, which Louis was very taken with.

Did you come on board “The Dark Crystal” because of “King Arthur?”

Louis was a fan of my work. But he really loved “King Arthur.” They’d temped music from it into early “Dark Crystal” tests. It really fit that world, because “King Arthur” was a very organic and visceral. A big part of this score has been trying to make a soundtrack that’s very visceral in that way It’s a series that feels so real because it is real, and I wanted the music have a physicality as well.

Because it’s a prequel, this “Dark Crystal” really opens up a whole new world, with different lands and kingdoms that these disparate characters emerge and unite from. Did you want to have specific music for each region and character?

The project starting off was so daunting because there were so many worlds and characters. I had to find different ways to tie everything together. I came up with a bunch of themes that represented certain characters, which sound was a bit part of. We have a lot of these pre-tuned string glissandos that you always associate with the skeksis, a sound that also is heard with the crystal sometimes because they’ve tainted it. There’s also resistance theme, which comes back in different ways. Characters like Rian and Aughra have themes. So you tie all of these motifs together in different aspects through the series. It’s been very tricky because I wanted all the themes to feel very simple so they can be easily grasped and easily modulated and manipulated between the different worlds.

One thing that also stood out with Trevor Jones’ approach to this world was his use of “ethnic” music, especially for the pod people, whom we revisit here. How important was it for you to give the characters a similar cultural identity?

composer Trevor Jones and orchestrator/conductor Marcus Dods

Originally I didn’t really want to use orchestral music. I wanted it all to feel like instruments you’d never heard. I’m always immediately drawn to unusual instrumentation and sounds because I think they have a kind of otherworldly resonance with an audience. That’s because the more you hear things that you’re not familiar with, the more exciting it is. You see the characters playing these unique instruments, and I wanted them to sound in the score like they could have been made by someone in Thra. So there are a lot of interesting instruments like the nickel harp, crumhorns, bansuri flutes, and sazes, along with a lot of unusual, more medieval instruments in the mix to create that visceral feeling that plays like part of this world. You also had this cute podling character that I played with very staccato-y recorders. It’s all just me responding to the characters, really. But as we went on, I felt we needed the emotional weight you get from orchestral themes.

Maybe the quality that your score has most in common with Trevor’s is in its use of low strings and electronic sustains for the skeksis.

Playing the skeksis took a lot of experimentation. They’re freaky-looking characters, so I wanted to make something that had a real edge to it. One of the big things we did for their music was a lot of de-tuning and micro-tuning on the orchestra, like playing it at a quartertone rather than a semi-tone. It creates an unstable, rough feeling in the score.

Some adults criticized “The Dark Crystal” for being too dark to a genre that had once been viewed as a simple, juvenile “puppet” film. “The Age of Resistance” certainly equals the original when it comes to its more nightmarish scenes.

There are really traumatic scenes in this series! When I was asked to score “Age of Resistance,” I didn’t really want to score 10 hours of music because I was already exhausted, and I didn’t think I could do that much work on my own. Yet they urged me to come visit the set. And then if I still didn’t want to do it, there’d be no hard feelings. But as soon as you visit the set, it’s all just absolutely mind-blowing. Everything is real. There’s no green screen, but massive, massive worlds in this huge warehouse. Then you go to another room and here are all of the creature workshops. They’re braiding hair. They’re making swords. So you’re in this amazing cathedral of creativity and imagination, which I’ve never seen on any other project. As soon as you see that, then you’re like, “I’ve got to do this show!” This was like nothing I’d really seen in my life as a composer. Then they played me the horrific sequence in the first episode where a character has his life forced drained by the dark crystal, and I found myself really moved by it. I was close to tears. And I said, “Wow, if you’ve managed to do that with puppets, then this is going to be really special.”

How were you helped on the score to finish this enormous task?

For “The Dark Crystal,” I brought in a great British TV composer I’ve known for years named Samuel Sim (“Maigret”). He wrote some really nice themes and bits of score. I ended up doing about 75% of the soundtrack of “Age of Resistance” and he did the rest. That was interesting for me, because I don’t want to be like certain other composers who basically pretend to write everything, but don’t. The idea was for me to set up “The Dark Crystal’s” tone and the themes. But then I couldn’t really let go because I wanted everything to be fantastic. So I ended up doing a lot more on this than I thought I would during the year and a half we were on the show.

Samuel Sim

How important was it for the music to convince you of the living, breathing reality of Thra?

I always think cinema or TV is always about trying to take you to somewhere else, so it’s special when you have any kind of project where you really believe you’re entering a different world. And I think this project really does take you into the world of Thra. I wanted to do the same thing musically by giving you that kind of escapism. So I didn’t want the score to feel conventional because if it did, you’d be reminded of other worlds you’ve been to.

In “Age of Resistance,” the characters truly seem to be alive, and often scary in a whole new way, especially with the Predator-like Skekse named The Hunter.

Because The Hunter has this size and stature, I wanted this sound that felt big and scary every time you saw him. So I got a lot of bass players play together and then detuning them very slightly. From that we created these sounds that we re-sampled and manipulated through this sort of 1970’s phaser. It just creates this really horrific noise, and you don’t know what it is!

Who’s your favorite character musically, and why?

Aughra has my favorite theme because she represents what’s noble and best about Thra. The main’s “resistance” theme pulls in Lian’s thematic ideas into it, so I like that a lot as well. A lot of my musical process of discovery in “The Dark Crystal” was figuring out the overall theme of the show, because there are so many aspects to the series. It was very hard to try and come up with one piece that would capture every character, because the show is about all of these tribes trying to resist against this sinister power base, which is the skeksis. In fact if you want to look at it, “Age of Resistance” has many parallels to our current political climate. You have a bunch of people who are very powerful. They maybe don’t have the best interest of their planet at heart. They’re more concerned with their own self preservation. In that way, I think that’s one of the most interesting things about this show is all the parallels from everything like global warming to how we treat the country and the political structures of different groups of society. And even within that “good” society there are parts where characters go to one part of the world and they look down on the people because they’re kind of racist. It’s funny to watch these parallels in this puppet world, which you can just draw into modern day life.

Does it weigh upon you that we’re only going to end up with two gelflings by the time we get to “The Dark Crystal” movie?

This is still quite a way before that time. I think there’s a lot of space before we get to the movie. It’s like humanity. We might not end up with any humans left on the planet, so you might as well enjoy the stories that are there are right now before they screw them all up!

One of your most unusual scores was in the superhero / scratch / hip-hop approach you took for “Into the Spider-Verse.” Were you surprised that the film became an Oscar-winning hit?

Daniel Pemberton scoring the Spider-Verse

When I was working on “Spider-Verse,” I remember thinking, “Oh my God, this is so special. This film is so unique and all of us working on it felt that way – that we were doing something new, fresh and really exciting, which sadly is not as common as it should be in cinema. It was funny hearing other people’s reactions when you told them you were working on it. They’d be like, Oh Spider-Man, I’m not really interested. It was really funny having this project that you knew was really special and was going to blow people’s minds then watching people’s reactions change over time. They said, “I didn’t want to watch that movie because it sounded kind of rubbish. But I just saw it, and it’s amazing!” That’s such a testament to all of the departments on that movie that gave it everything.

“Into the Spider-Verse” really created a new hip-hop sound for superheroes, especially animated ones. You almost functioned like a record producer in that sense with creating a “street” sound for its urban hero.

Production is a really important part of how I create scores, just as much as I do in my writing. In the same way that Ennio Morricone always wants to conduct an his score’s orchestra, I want to be producing everything on my scores, because it’s a whole world where you can really create something totally fresh. For me, being a modern film composer means using the modern production techniques that you can only do now. It’s about how you can make the most exciting scores because you want to create something that you haven’t heard before. “Spider-Verse” is a really great platform for that because I was always obsessed with record scratching and hip-hop culture growing up. When I was 19 I began going a lot of hip-hop clubs in London, which is the first time I really saw turntable-ism. There were places called The Blue Note in Hoxton Square, which is a really influential London Club. I always thought this could be a great language if properly explored in film scores, where scratching and hip-hop were usually throwaway elements. “Spider-Verse” suddenly gave me the opportunity to incorporate hip-hop as part of the score.

What was the challenge of adapting The Beatles for a one-man band in a world without them for “Yesterday,” let alone writing a score that could encapsulate their music?

With “Yesterday” I wanted to make a score that felt less like a Beatles pastiche but more trying to think ‘What would this film sound like if The Beatles got to score it?” So I used a lot of similar recording techniques, gear and instruments they did, but then tried to write with the same spirit of invention and experimentation I thought they might have used. I was really lucky in that the lead actor Himesh Patel was an unbelievably dedicated performer and we spent a huge amount of time trying many of the songs in many different ways until we found the approaches that our director Danny Boyle was happy with for the film. Beatles songs are very hard to adapt because they are so unique really. It’s not just four chords going round, there’s a real musicality and originality to the structures that weirdly makes it very difficult to change into something else.

An upcoming Oscar prestige movie you’ve scored is Edward Norton’s period mystery “Motherless Brooklyn,”

I’d literally just recorded the last note of “Spider-Verse” with the orchestra, when I had to go meet Edward Norton one hour later at a hotel bar. I was a big fan of his work, but I didn’t think I was going to do the movie, because I was just exhausted. But after a half an hour of chatting with him, I’m like, “Wow, this guy is really awesome, smart and insightful with his ideas of music that don’t go for the obvious choices.” He wasn’t named dropping the trendy scores of the day. He was really thinking about stuff. So I agreed to have a look at the film, and saw that Edward has made something special here, and what he wanted to score to doo was just as exciting. So I went straight away into “Motherless Brooklyn” after “Spider-Verse.” Edward was brilliant to work with. He was really supportive, and wanted the score to bring a whole extra character to the film and not just use it to paper over cracks.

What makes “Motherless Brooklyn” particularly distinctive is that it’s about a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, which is usually something that Hollywood plays for laughs. How does that affect the style of the score?

My American agent Robert Messenger heard the score and thought it was really cool, but didn’t know what it was. I thought that was great, because the best kind of music is what you can’t put a label on. It’s something very new and fresh. I kind of call this score “neo-noir,” because it takes place in the 1950’s with music that could only really exist today. There’s a jazz band in the film and a key character who’s a trumpet player, and is modeled on Miles Davis. Wynton Marsalis’ band is also in the film. So I basically took the traditional instruments of jazz and approached them in a very modern way. I work with a great saxophonist in Britain called Tom Challenger to make a lot of Avant-garde abstract ideas that would be a starting place for me to build the score. Then I’d have Wynton Marsalis playing trumpet on top of a lot of cues. Overall, I was trying to take the abstraction and imagination of jazz and put that into film scoring in a way that you haven’t hopefully heard before. Yet alongside that there’s still more classically melodic film score writing. So the music of “Motherless Brooklyn” is a mixture of both things I love, which is an experimental way to score films, but also to have melodic, emotional pieces that are very musical.

What unique take to do you plan to put on the adventures of Sherlock’s sister with the upcoming “Enola Holmes?”

I can’t tell you a lot, because I haven’t started it yet! It’s a weird one, because I think the Hans Zimmer’s “Sherlock Holmes” score is one of the best soundtracks of the last two decades. It looms over you in a way where you say, “Well, I can’t make my score sound like that.” And then you’re like, “Shit! That’s got so many good ideas.” While I haven’t worked out what I’m doing yet, I’m thinking that “Enola Holmes” might feel a bit more “British” somehow, but I’m not sure yet. I’m still formulating ideas in my head.

Given how you like to work in the worlds of traditional and cutting edge scoring, what kind of place do you think that puts you at?

There are barriers around a lot of different genres of music that can pigeonhole you. The same exists with film music. But I’ve always tried not to repeat myself with, with my work. I’d rather do something that will push me into an uncomfortable position. For me, it’s always about what will make the most impact for a film or series. With every project that I do I think about the audience, and what’s going to be the most exciting score for them to hear. I personally love hybrid scores because they give you an opportunity to create something you haven’t heard before. While I love writing orchestral scores, there’ve been a million orchestral scores done by people way better than me who spent all their life doing them, and know every single great trick. I got to write a pretty straightforward orchestral score for the “USS Callister” episode of “Black Mirror,” which was a lot of fun, But I think the thing that excites me the most is trying to make these scores that you aren’t able to describe like “King Arthur.” Is it traditional orchestra? Is it vocal? Is it metal? I like writing music where you can’t explain what it is.

I’ve read rumors about them creating a spin-off “USS Callister” show within the “Black Mirror” universe. If true, would you want to score that?

The crew of the USS Callister

I’ve heard those rumors as well. A lot of people from “USS Callister” have become friends of mine. They’re a fun crew to go out and get drunk with! But I don’t know what’s happening. It’s all up to Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, who run “Black Mirror.” Though they’ve got a lot on their plate, what really admirable is that they don’t just farm things out and try to do everything at once. They want everything to be good and that’s the way I try to do my music as well. I want it all to feel unique and special so it won’t sound like every other piece of film music. I want it to feel like me. All I can say is if they pull off what they’d like to do with a “USS Callister” show then it will be very interesting. You’d be wrong if you think it would just be some “Star Trek” series, I can say that!

Watch “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” on Netflix HERE, with two volumes of Daniel and Samuel Sim’s music available on Varese Sarabande Records HERE (Vol. 1) and HERE (Vol. 2)

Listen to Trevor Jones’ “Dark Crystal” soundtrack HERE

Listen to Daniel Pemberton’s soundtracks HERE