Interview with David Buckley

From Jason Bourne to Mike Banning and Batman much of David Buckley’s musical career has involved racing against time. Starting his cinematic career as a choirboy on “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Buckley would jump from London to Los Angeles with singing compatriot Harry Gregson-Williams to give his underscoring voice to such distinctively energetic scores as “The Number 23,” “Shrek the Third” and “Gone Baby Gone” before making his solo breakthrough with the fantastical Oriental action rhythms of 2008’s “The Forbidden Kingdom.” A muse of Joel Schumacher’s latter, darker films “Blood Creek” and “Trespass,” Buckley continued to excel in suspense with “ATM,” “Gone” and “Parker” while showing a more mysteriously sensitive side with his BMI-winning scoring on the series “The Good Wife” and an Emmy nomination for “The Good Fight.” With ever-more muscular rhythmic work developing on the gaming adventures of “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” “Batman: Arkham Knight” and the major Hollywood chases of “Jason Bourne,” “Papillon” and the mutant show “The Gifted,” Buckley’s intriguing meshes of symphony, sampling and synths provide a singularly dependable and creative shot of thrilling adrenalin and emotion. 

Now when the entire world has understandably lost its mind in the midst of deadly, overwhelming panic, Buckley’s new scores for “Unhinged” and “Greenland” tap into the theme of racing for life like never before with two distinctly different approaches. For “Unhinged,” Buckley dispenses with much melodic niceties and organic instrumentation to get across the road rage of The Man (Russell Crowe). Embodying a fury way beyond being honked at, the burly psychopath’s vengeance towards a society done him wrong goes top speed for Rachel (Caren Pistorius) and everyone she loves. It’s a demolition derby between monster and seeming mouse that Buckley slams home with ever-accelerating rhythm, his musical sound design turned into a percussive duel that never ceases its tension – all the while never letting up its pulse over long stretches of road. It’s an effectively nasty film and score that ride into the shape of rage as Buckley embodies the cars and cell phones that its cunning cruelty is driven on. 

Where Buckley’s barely merciful, step-on-the-sample gas approach for “Unhinged” is about hell on asphalt earth, “Greenland” is an apocalyptic beast of a whole different musical color as it deals with an unstoppable threat from space. Having last accompanied star Gerard Butler and director Rick Roman Waugh for secret service superhero Mike Banning to save America for the third time with the franchise best “Angel Has Fallen,” “Greenland” decidedly strips away the confidence that comes with Butler’s action heroes. Instead, he’s an architect here with a decidedly unstable marriage who receives a call from the president that guarantees a flight out of range from an extinction-level comet chunk. But being put on a list of chosen survivors is zero guarantee that Butler and his family can reach safety in said country’s bunker as the clan is terrifyingly separated with seemingly no hope of salvation. 

Given a world-ending disaster film far more in the humanistic tradition of “Deep Impact” than the effects-a-paloozas of “Armageddon” and “2012,” Buckley brings a melodic vulnerability to “Greenland” that keeps its focus on family, while also delivering flaming meteor excitement. With a soulful guitar and angelic voices as its key instruments amidst a powerful orchestra, Buckley thematically conveys both wonder and terror as delivered from the great beyond, with feeling that ranges from surrender to the inevitable to a determined drive to persevere against impossible odds. The result is a soulful and exciting disaster score that captures the big percussive picture as well as an intimately moving family drama.

Now with “Unhinged” and “Greenland” taking on an emotional power that they couldn’t have begun to reckon on, David Buckley talks about their scores’ distinctive approaches to outracing the end of their respective worlds.   

How do you think that working with Harry Gregson-Williams helped set you up for your own career as an action-centric composer with a specialty in “hybrid” scoring for orchestra and electronics?

I know what you mean by hybrid scoring, but I don’t really think of myself as a ‘hybrid’ composer, and I suspect Harry doesn’t either. Rather, I think both of us share an interest in embracing non-traditional sonic elements where appropriate or desirable. There’s nothing really hybrid about “Unhinged,” as there is no orchestral component at all. My projects have ranged from full-on electronic scores like “Unhinged” to those that use both traditional elements and synthetic, like “Greenland,” to scores like “The Good Fight” or “Papillon” which are entirely acoustic. Semantics aside, my time spent with Harry certainly helped put me on the map as a composer who can score action movies. 

You scored “Blood Creek” at the beginning of your career for the recently passed Joel Schumacher, a truly terrifying and unsung film for the director. What was it like working with him on such an unusual vampire film?

When Harry completed his score to Joel’s “The Number 23” (to which I had contributed some cues), Joel asked him about scoring “Blood Creek.” Harry wasn’t able to do it but suggested I could be his man. When Harry mentioned this to me I was shocked and uncertain I would be right for it. I had only been in LA for 18 months, and I really didn’t have any ambition to become a film composer in my own name. But I would have been foolish to refuse and glad I didn’t, not only because the film was very good (particularly the first reel shot in black and white), but also because I got to spend time with a legendary film maker, fascinating raconteur and a truly great human being. It was a huge learning curve for me, but with Harry’s guidance and Joel’s patience I was able to cross the finishing line. It’s a shame no one has seen it!

Before “Unhinged,” had you ever had road rage, or been the victim of it? And if so, how did that play into the score?

I have not been a victim or perpetrator of road rage before, during or after “Unhinged!” Furthermore, I’ve never driven a car in my life!

Tell us about your collaboration with “Unhinged” director Derrick Borte? 

The collaboration was pretty typical: I would send demos to Derrick mixed against picture. He would call and we’d talk things over. From our first conversation Derrick let it be clear that he did not want orchestra in the score and did not want the music to get too big and overbearing. We were in sync, especially concerning the orchestra – some scores need it and others don’t. It’s a sound design score, so a lot of our conversation would be discussing elements that Derrick liked or didn’t like. As we couldn’t be in the same room at the same time, this did prove challenging on occasion; with a more traditional score, a director might say, “Oh, I don’t like that horn melody over the guy running.” But when you are dealing with more esoteric sounds, it’s harder to know you are both talking about the same thing. But we figured it out. 

“Unhinged” has an especially impactful main title that use real footage of rage. Tell us about working on this cue.

The main title takes the localized events happening between Rachel and The Man and blows them up to a macro level. It’s a curious artistic choice for the film, as it suddenly makes everything feel big, but I like it. Having the real footage and a variety of different backdrops sends home the message that unfettered rage exists all around us, but after the credits, we zoom back into our story and the small tense world inhabited by our characters. It stands almost as a set piece, and obviously there’s lots of open space for music in which I planted seeds for sounds and textures which appear later in the score. 

How did you want to embody the idea of cars and cell phones, the two devices which drive “Unhinged?”

With the car scenes I needed to find the correct ratio between action and tension/terror. I think composers often test these things when they begin to score action sequences. Intuition and past experience will tell us that we will need to provide rhythm, but our desire to try something different means we might try and pull away from the purely kinetic. I initially tried to keep the rhythm subdued so that the psychological elements could be more upfront, but certainly some drive was still required. The cell phone calls were studies in tension, never big and bombastic, but subtle, uneasy modulations that make you feel on-edge. I suppose as well as the score trying to get inside The Man’s head, or represent him getting inside Rachel’s head, it’s also trying to unsettle the viewer. 

Would you say that your work on the tv series “Evil” helped set you up to play a deranged character like The Man. Or do you think he’s truly evil?

I think they are very different beasts. There is always a question mark hanging over the antagonists in “Evil,” whereas The Man loses his humanity in the first 5 minutes of “Unhinged” and his fate is sealed – it effectively becomes a suicide mission with collateral damage. I can’t say for sure that he is evil personified, but there’s no suggestion of redemption within his character – he has no moral compass.

How intense was it for you to be in The Man’s enraged headspace?

Russell plays it big in this movie, there’s no question of that. I never wanted the music to be larger than his performance, but I knew I had to live in his deranged mind. So as with any other project you try and find a way in. The experience is as intense as you permit it to be. I’m a firm believer that you need to really get into whatever you are scoring before you write. You watch the movie countless times, you talk with the director, if you’re lucky and there isn’t a global pandemic, you go on the set and talk with the actors. All this stuff informs your compositional choices and the deeper you go, the more connected the music will be to everything else. 

One powerful sound design idea driving through “Unhinged” is a siren like effect. What kind of sampling went into the score?

As I knew this was going to be a sound design only score I could allow more time than usual to be in the laboratory, as it were. I have the usual array of synths and plugins available to me, and lots of raw audio recorded from here, there and everywhere. Before I wrote anything to picture, I would muck around with all this stuff and build up an arsenal of sounds that I thought would work. Some of this you discard when you start writing to picture, and some of it proves invaluable. With the stuff that works, you continually shape and sculpt so that the sounds fit with the drama. 

Your action scores have mostly revolved around hard-hitting men as the heroes. What’s it like to have a female protagonist with “Unhinged” against a seemingly unstoppable force like The Man?

Rachel has to remain grounded in this movie, the music can’t turn her into Wonder Woman. She’s an average single mum, struggling with real world crap, who, with one tap of a car horn is forced into a horrific nightmare. Despite the crummy life we see of hers at the start of the movie, her character grows, and she focuses on what is important to her – her family and her fight for their survival. What was key for me was that the music should never hold her back from her triumphs, but it should not cheapen the experience by trying to turn her into an action hero. 

Given that Rachel’s character gets the most melody in the score, how important was it for you to make those emotional moments count?

To give contrast to the synthetic squalor of The Man, I wanted to provide Rachel with a clear and simple melodic idea on either a Rhodes or piano. There isn’t a whole lot of space for it in the movie, but when it does appear, I hope it provides a moment of calm and lets you engage with Rachel as a woman who is fighting for her life and the life of everyone she loves. 

With percussion playing such a big role in “Unhinged,” how did you want to vary the rhythm, and keep it interesting for such long stretches?

At their core, scores such as these are based around the principles of techno music and 60’s minimalism, both of which have repeated rhythmic motors. Keeping things interesting is really about modulating the sound: subtle adjustments so the patterns are ever evolving and not overstaying their welcome. It would drive me crazy if I were only asked to write this type of score, but when you embrace it, the challenge of keeping things interesting with such minimal initial material can prove to be really satisfying. 

“Greenland” reunites you with both star Gerard Butler and director Ric Roman Waugh, a filmmaker for whom you did “Angel Has Fallen.” Did your collaboration differ here given a completely different subject, and approach?

When you work with a director for a second time, you can draw on all the experience you gained from your first outing. Ric and I didn’t know each other particularly well when I started scoring “Angel Has Fallen.” With any relationship it takes time to understand what the other person needs and likes. But you figure it out as you go, and by the end of “Angel,” I would say Ric, Gabe (his editor), Scott (my music editor) and I were all totally in sync. With “Greenland,” yes, we were making a different movie and the tone was different, but we still had a shared DNA we brought to life during our first collaboration and it was upon that which we could build.

“Greenland” is also a film that involves no small end of driving to escape a hellish force, but it takes far more of dramatic approach. Did you appreciate that this was an end of the world movie centered around emotion, as opposed to effects like “2012?”

This is the second film Ric and I have worked on together, and in both cases, despite being categorized as action movies, Ric wanted me to mine for every last drop of drama and emotion. In doing so, we haven’t betrayed the expectations of action fans – his films always have impressive set pieces – but I hope we’ve welcomed in people who want a more human experience. I’m not a big fan of action for action’s sake, so I’m happy to share this common goal with Ric. 

On the other hand, what opportunities do you think that a disaster film gives to a composer? Were you a fan of the genre before “Greenland?”

I’ve always liked disaster movies, everything from “The Towering Inferno” to “The Day After Tomorrow.” I can’t imagine there’s any musical language or approach that unites this genre, but I suppose it gives composers the opportunity to write stuff with some teeth and grit. Also, there will almost certainly be characters within this genre with an instinct for survival, so amongst all the madness and mayhem there will be moments for the music to soar and be inspirational. And conversely, during catastrophic events, one often witnesses societal collapse where good people start doing bad things, so one can also play the other end of the spectrum and show the inherent awfulness within our species, especially when under stress. 

Tell us about “Greenland’s” main themes.

There are three themes or motifs. Gerry’s is the most intimate – a simple guitar thing which we first hear as he drives home to see his estranged wife. The idea of this theme was to always keep things real and grounded – even with the world potentially coming to an end, a family can still huddle together and feel love. The choral theme was intended to provide a sense of innocence lost. All parents want to shield their children from danger, but this becomes impossible when you have a comet hurtling towards earth; parents become as helpless as children, governments become as helpless as parents. Wealth and power buy you nothing. Catastrophic events such as those in GREENLAND are massive levelers to society – no one is immune from the fallout. So I wanted this theme to have a universal feel to it which can sound like the voice of one small child or the whole of mankind. Finally there is the motif for the comet. It’s not really a theme, but a series of cascading chordal gestures, growing in size as the comet gets closer to earth. I didn’t want the comet to have a ‘bad guy’ theme. While of course it does serve as the antagonist in the film and the characters are rightly terrified of it, there’s also something powerful, inevitable and mesmerizing about it – it’s awesome in the truest sense of the word. There’s a moment towards the end of the film where the grandad (played by Scott Glenn), looks up to the sky and accepts his fate. He’s not shaking his fist at the universe but rather he’s smiling at it.

A note on the choir: I recorded Wells Cathedral Choir, a group which has been in existence with only a few interruptions (one of them being now, during this pandemic) since the early 10th century. I sang in it as a boy chorister, and met Harry there, some 30 years ago, when he sang for a brief spell before heading to Hollywood.  

Gerard Butler is usually playing an invincible character, but here he really gets to show his vulnerability against impossible odds, not to mention a damaged marriage. How did you want to bring more humanity to him with the music in that respect?  

I think that’s why I wanted his melody to be on a guitar. There is something humble and honest about a guitar. If I were to use strings or brass, I think I’d transport him back to his strong-man roles. Even when he’s in an action sequence I stay away from the now ubiquitous string ostinato, as it would take Gerry out of his blue-collar family-man existence and turn him back into “Angel’s” Mike Banning. 

Given that this doesn’t have the level of non-stop effects as a movie like “Armageddon” and “2012,” how did you want the music to convey a catastrophe we’re often hearing about, though not seeing?

I definitely had to help give a sense of urgency or keep the idea of the comet alive if not on-screen. Even with emotional cues there will be something pulsing underneath giving a sense of anxiety. The score never tries to musically replicate the on-screen catastrophe, but it does try to play an unnerving ticking which only releases towards the very end of the film. 

How did you want to use a hybrid approach with the orchestra and electronics on “Greenland’s” action sequences to convey both the drama and a race against time?

Curiously there aren’t that many action sequences in the film; I would say the majority of the cues are playing drama or emotion, and even in action-heavy moments, Ric would say ‘Buckley, let’s make them cry at this point’. Ric doesn’t like everything trying to say the same thing at the same time. So during an action scene, by necessity there might be some rhythm pumping away, but with additional layers that might make you scared, or sad, or whatever. Ric likes to intermingle these ideas. For example, during the opening measures of an action sequence in the third act, there are distorted percussive and synth pulses grinding away, but on top of it the choir sings something that keeps the humanity in play. 

As a family man yourself, did you find yourself emotionally affected while scoring the film, especially as hope seems progressively lost?
There are some very moving scenes in the movie especially towards the end when people accept their fate. Even if I didn’t have children, I think my job requires me to try and put myself into the heart of the drama. Of course this becomes particularly poignant if I imagine my own family in this situation, but I don’t think there’s any other way to score a movie other than to get inside the characters and try and imagine what they are going through. 

How difficult was it to finish “Unhinged” and “Greenland” with the corona crisis? And what kind of problem solving did you learn on these films that you think will serve you for whatever future scoring takes?

I finished “Greenland” just before Corona became very real in the US. While I was able to finish on schedule, the dub stage had to stop as LA locked down, and it took a good couple of additional months before they could complete. “Unhinged” was happening during the eye of the storm, as it were. Editorial shut down, people were taken off payroll and we were basically told to hit pause and see how things would unfold. Rather than sitting back and waiting for things to improve (which they clearly haven’t in the US), I thought it was better to move forward as best I can. Again, this was a lot easier to do as I was the composer, orchestrator and performer. 

What’s up ahead for you, and how do you anticipate you’ll score it, given that orchestral sessions are taking place in the world?

I just finished a score for Universal called “Nobody” with Bob Odenkirk as the lead. There were a lot of songs in the movie and what score there was concentrated on guitars, keyboards, drums and solo forces which I could get recorded remotely by brilliant players in their home studios. I am now starting work on an Amazon series called “Wheel of Time.” Stylistically, this couldn’t be further from any of the films I have mentioned and will require every instrument to be recorded live. How it all comes together given the Covid-restrictions and general uncertainty of the future is yet to be determined, but for now I’m just writing the themes!

How do you think that “Unhinged” and “Greenland” capture the apocalyptic zeitgeist we’re in, especially as both films couldn’t have foreseen what we’re going through now? Or do you think both film’s message about what it takes to try and survive the worst has an optimism to it at the end?

Both films definitely finish with a cautious optimism, which I think is no bad thing. Having said which, I recently read some market research that suggested moviegoers are chomping at the bit to see darker movies at the moment. I had imagined that after being locked down at home for months on end and reading all this grim news in the papers people would want to watch a light romantic comedy or something like that. But it seems road-raging psychopaths and planet killers are what people are craving right now! 

What do you think that scoring “Unhinged” and “Greenland” taught you about how to make it through a road rage incident, let alone a comet?

Remember to give a courtesy tap and buy a timeshare in a bunker!

“Unhinged” is now in theaters and VOD, with David’s score available on Solstice Records HERE

“Greenland” lands on September 25th with David’s score on Lakeshore Records.

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