In a plethora of mayhem-is-cool cinema where lights get punched out faster than conductor doing business during action body count rush hour, “Bullet Train” is deliriously fun first-class compartment of seditiousness where nearly all seriousness gets de-compressionized quicker than the villains get sliced, shot, hacked, poisoned or otherwise bisected on a furiously fast ride through Tokyo and its Japanese environs. Aboard chasing a McGuffin briefcase is the hapless, very lucky Ladybug, a role that’s infinitely more Dude than Keanu for Brad Pitt as an errand boy with mad assassin skills he’d rather not use as he tries to survive a plethora of killers only happy to display their wares.
It’s certainly the most fun action-palooza from stuntman-turned-director David Leitch (“Atomic Blonde,” “Dead Pool 2”), with a score that often plays like a jukebox whose tunes keep flipping as the victims keep crashing into its record player. Credit Dominic Lewis’ deliriously fun hybrid score that’s just as much retro song geek-out as trip-hop state of the pop art. Having shown his own mad action scoring skills as he barreled through the ranks of Hans Zimmer’s big action-centric engine (that cute rabbit Lewis scored twice would be Hasenpfeffer in this dojo), Lewis has his most ingenious ticket to ride yet with “Bullet Train.”
Seamlessly carving his own sampling with groovy instrumentals as quick to burst into hair metal voice as the tunes might leap into Spaghetti Western whistling, mythic samurai vengeance or “Footloose” beats, Lewis’ “Bullet Train” score is one with the in-your-face action spoofery Zen of this delirious two-hour ride that seems to reach its derailed destination in about two minutes. For just when it seems that you’ve heard everything under the action scoring rising sun, Lewis’ batshit approach is the genre’s jolt Cola, managing to pay off such old Fogey ideas as themes and melody while taking score-song sampling in an electrifying, hallucinogenic direction for a soundtrack that never loses its sense of energetic fun for a looney tune collision of killer characters and a guy who just can’t seem to get off at the next stop.
Tell us how you came to board the Hollywood train, and how do you think your collaboration with Henry Jackman set you up for your own studio ticket to ride?
I’d say I “boarded the Hollywood train” when I moved here 13 years ago. I’d been studying at Royal academy music, I’d been sort of under Rupert Gregson-Williams wing, then eventually I made the move out here and I came to Remote Control Productions and I met Hans, but he was crazy busy with “Sherlock Holmes” so I would write library music and eventually got invited by a mutual friend to hang out with John Powell. We played tennis, drank ate had fun and one evening John offered me an additional music position on “How to Train Your Dragon” I managed to get through that without getting fired and from that point on I was lucky enough to work with Ramin Djawadi on “Clash of The Titans,” and then I worked for with Henry Jackman for the better part of five years doing additional music on everything he did. Working with all of those guys was really an amazing experience, just turning myself into a sponge and learning as much as I could, not only on the creative writing side, but on the political side. Being able to talk to directors and take meetings and all the really important stuff that you don’t necessarily think about when you want to become a film composer. So, it’s the whole experience that has enabled me to “stamp my ticket”, if you will, to becoming the named composer on movies and TV, so I have a lot of people to thank for these amazing experiences.
One of your first major credits was for “MI5” (aka “Spooks”). How would you describe your pilgrim’s progress through action scores like “Jolt,” “My Spy” and “The King’s Man?” And what do you think makes your particularly adept and in-demand for the genre?
Well I don’t know if I am “in demand” for the genre, but I love doing it! I love doing action movies! They are all different, although they have common denominators, “MI5” and “Jolt” were both heavily electronic scores with little bits of orchestra sprinkled in there, and “My Spy” was a traditional hybrid with orchestra and synths and guitars and stuff. Then there’s “The King’s Man” which was just a straight up nod to old orchestral scores that I did with Matthew Margeson, so they all have their different processes. “King’s Man” was obviously different because I was working with Matt, and “My Spy” is a sort of hard-hitting action film for a younger audience, and “Jolt” and “MI5” is for an older audience and very heavily synth-y, and I just had to approach each one differently. I enjoyed all of them and their different challenges.
What for you are the great “train” movies and scores?
I think “The Polar Express” would have to be in both of those categories, movies and score. Alan Silvestri’s score for that is timeless and just iconic. I love Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for “Murder on The Orient Express” I think there are a couple of Agatha Christie’s on a train! I love that kind of old noir feel score too.
“Bullet Train” is your first time aboard with director David Leitch, who takes a rhythmic, visually “musical” approach to his films. How was that collaboration, and what do you think distinguishes him, particularly when it comes to the music he’s looking for?
Well, David is a huge needle drop guy so that was a big indication of where my head needed to be at for this score. I really wanted to approach the score with a needle drop mentality. My concept and my pitch to David and Kelly before I even got the gig was I wanted to approach it as if “what is the perfect needle drop?” because often times when you’re trying to put music to movies and TV and you’re trying to make a song fit into a sequence, it will work for 20 seconds. Then it won’t work. So my goal was to straddle both worlds and have it be very difficult to distinguish what was a song and what was score, yet still be able to tell the story in the way that songs can’t do as well as a specifically designed score for those moments. So, that was the concept, and I think it also really helped that there was no temp for this film. I specifically said I didn’t want any temp. I want to come up with an original temp and then polish that into the final score. It was a blank canvas. I could spot music wherever I wanted and to be able to spot and no one had gotten used to any placement of music. It was a really organic experience in that way and a huge advantage in trying to create an original approach to the music.
Tell us about creating your “train” effects, particularly when it came to sampling?
There are a couple of train effects that could be thought of as “on the nose,” but I think they work really well because they have a human element to them. The main one is the material that often accompanies the Lady Bug character played by Brad Pitt. It’s sort of like a train crossing bell chord that I do on a Rhodes and a whirly combined with a mod wheel to go up and down to make it sound a bit like a train crossing. That was really handy for creating suspense and tension. It’s kind of the sound where, as an audience, you sort of have to prick your ears up and really listen to what’s going on as it blended really well as an underscore. Then there are a couple of train horns that I did both in the brass section and with my voice, tracking my voice up and doing a Doppler effect. The ones with the brass sometimes happen in the horns but sometimes they happen on the trombones. The cool thing about that was that I used 1970’s trombones, which were actually quite a bit smaller, so they have more of a nasal vibe to them. That was a really cool effect. There may have been some other train bells made with the guitar strings, around the pegs of a guitar. I used a sort of blues train-based riff for The Hornet in kind of a very 1960’s TV way, with the left hand of a piano doing that kind of like “chugga chugga” train blues riff.
How did you want the Japanese setting to filter into your music?
I didn’t really. I actually made a conscious decision not to approach situation and location because it was more about the characters and their journeys although the setting is Japan. But musically I was trying to embody all genres and all cultures because that’s what the movie is doing. So there was no real specific musical nod to Japan other than the “fate” material. I used an Enka singer because it was so unique. I couldn’t think of a score, off the top of my head, that uses an Enka singer in western cinema. The demos were kind of very operatic and then I replaced my scratch with Enka and it was just amazing. It just took it to the next level.
Ladybug definitely isn’t a John Wick or Atomic Blonde type of assassin. How did you want the music to capture his laconic, hip character?
I think Ladybug is actually a bit of a chump and I think Brad and David would agree that he is almost just bumbling through this train trying to get out of the situation. He’s struggling to find his purpose after a short hit man hiatus. He is an assassin who’s been seeing a therapist, so it was a tough challenge to not do too much, but not do too little for that. So often times it was more about the other characters’ themes and music being affected by Ladybug’s presence and how that increased tension and increased suspense. As I mentioned earlier, the sort of whirly Rhodes train chord that bends up and down was a very big part of the music when Ladybug is on screen. I used an upright bass bend, pizzicato bend and these kinds of very frenetic voices, almost as if he is trying to figure out who he is, and they were sort of bending in and out, which seems to gel to him really well like his kids conflicting voices. But Ladybug’s music was a challenge because he is the central comedic character in the film and often times you just want to leave comedy alone and you want to just let it play. Often times we just let it play dry because Brad does such a great job of holding the audience without music a lot of the time.
On that note, how did you want to capture the multi-ethnic assassins on board?
I wasn’t really thinking about where people were from really, I was just trying to mix as many genres as I could, to come up with cool and different ways of creating film music, that was inspired by needle drops, and inspired by all cultures, whether it’s Latin America or Japan or England or Russia. Those cultures have so many styles of music, and I just wanted to mix as many cool things together as possible. So I wasn’t ever really thinking about where the characters are from. After I read the script, I wanted to get more of a musical backstory for them, like what they would listen to, and oftentimes that could be inspired by where they were in the world, but it was more about their musical taste, and their characteristics and mannerisms as opposed to where they were from.
There’s a truly fun “anything goes” feel to the music in the way that “Bullet Train” is a much an alt-rock, trip-hop and pure rock and roll soundtrack as much as it is a symphonic score as such. How did you want to fuse both approaches, and was the sky the limit to the stylistic choices?
The sky was definitely the limit for the stylistic choices! Nothing was off the table. I could do anything I wanted, and I was pretty sure that David would go for it, and he encouraged me to do that. Right from the word “go” he said be bold, be brash, swing for the fences and take chances. So I did. And that’s why I tried to mix as many crazy different styles together as possible. Like you mentioned, trip hop with rock, with classical. I was sort of creating my own concept album really, and I wanted to give the feel of finding an old record and use that as my sample for my score. That was the fate material, the more serious material that I came up with, and then I used that to weave in and out of the characters and weave through the story. For the big climax I recorded at the Sony scoring stage with close to 80 musicians and it was great and the right evolution from the more needle drop feel in the earlier reels. I got to record in so many different studios, really trying to find each legitimate retro sound. Whether I was trying to create something from the 60’s or 70’s or more of a modern feel I would record at the studio that made the most sense for the vibe. If it needed to feel old I recorded at Capitol Records in Studio B. If I wanted a specific rock sound so I recorded drums in Sunset Sound to have that really authentic retro sound. A lot of thought went into recreating these genres for all these different characters.
How did you want to capture a comedic, yet still-thrilling approach to the film as opposed to the route taken by a more ‘serious’ hybrid action score, all while still hitting the suspenseful beats?
The last thing I wanted to do was create something that we’d heard before in a big action film. I really wanted to try and do something different, and we are in 2022 so a lot of stuff has already been done and heard. Like I said before, I was trying to mix genres and different styles of music, ones that wouldn’t normally go together like trip hop and classical, or rock and hip hop – things that were kind of crazy to put together. Instrumentation that wouldn’t normally go together and were a bit strange, all just to find something different. And I think oftentimes I would leave the comedy alone and let it play, and then when I did have to be in with the comedy. It was more about tone as opposed to scoring around it. Having that fun popcorn feel really helps the audience feel like they are allowed to laugh at anything at this ridiculous amazing gonzo train ride. So that was my main job in creating tone for the comedy. And then there were a few moments when I went too serious with the bad guys and I had to kind of “fun them up “with rock elements and with more fun musical elements. But I always had that suspenseful beat in my back pocket, I could always go there with the orchestra, I could always pull out that retro 70’s orchestra that we recorded in Capitol B and get really suspenseful cool moments that sounded old with a layer of new 2022 production underneath. It was a really fun way to come up with something slightly different.
With your use of bell percussion, whistling and voices, there’s a truly nutty salute to Ennio Morricone going on here. What was it about his music that made you want to play such unique homage here?
I don’t think I really am paying a specific homage to Morricone, I think it’s more of a homage to the style of the 70’s and the way they did it before Mr. Williams and Mr. Silverstein came along. Those more kind of quirky, B-list movies that Morricone would often score, but other people would score too. I just wanted to create a retro feel and if you’re hearing Morricone then that’s because The Man is a legend, the best to ever do it, so I guess that’s a compliment but in the same way that Henry Mancini or Lalo Schifrin or Roy Budd or John Barry are to some extent, it was more about creating an old retro feel, like you just found a vinyl in your friend’s collection and it really did something for you and you wanted to turn it into your own concept album. But yes, there is whistling and bells and percussion and that exists in other forms of music too. I’ll take it as a compliment, but it wasn’t what I was trying to do, I was just trying to tell a story, and trying to create pathos and a certain atmosphere that was sticking to the picture. The voices were actually super crazy, they were more kind of frenetic and psychopathic and schizophrenic. I was really just trying to come up with something that sounded cool and sounded old.
“Bullet Train” is a pandemically done film. What were the challenges of composing the score?
The only real challenge was kind of being on a screen, as the whole pandemic has been going on! But we had an amazing system. I could just text David whenever I had something ready to show and we’d jump on PACPOST and it was really easy. There is picture sync, there is good audio. It was the best thing without it being in person. I met with David a couple of times but he was shooting the whole time and I wasn’t allowed on the set obviously because of covid so most of this was done via PACPOST and on a screen and we were all in our separate places, which was kind of great. I was just allowed to be a mad scientist in my studio and come up with stuff. We were at the point in the pandemic where I was going a little crazy anyway so I think that really comes through in the score and the songs. I think it really helped give it a unique feel. It was a bit nuts, so the challenges were not really from the pandemic, the challenges were figuring out how do I score this certain scene? Or this needs to be more fun, and I’ve done it too serious or just like the normal challenges you have scoring a movie. So the pandemic didn’t really create a problem for us.
Is it particularly refreshing for you to do a mayhem-filled film like this after the musically charming sweetness of “Peter Rabbit?”
I always love to do as many different styles as possible. I love doing kid and family things but I always jump at the chance to do the more hard hitting R rated stuff as well. Keeping that balance is really important for me as it keeps me sane and hopefully prevents my scores from becoming tired and stale
On a more serious note, do you feel like you were scoring prophecy with “Man in the High Castle,” and how important do you think it was to musically communicate the need for resistance amid seemingly insurmountable darkness?
I don’t think I was scoring prophecy with “The Man in The High Castle.” Obviously there were some similarities going on at the time with Trump. I think often times I wasn’t musically communicating resistance. I think I was actually musically buying in to the whole post WW1 and the Nazis, and I was actually glorifying it to make you feel more uneasy and just a bit sick to your stomach, I think that’s what made it so convincing. By buying in to the situation and making it so horrible to look at that you’re repulsed by it because you’re having proud moments with Nazi salutes and horrible things that are happening on screen. But rather than play it to an audience that wants to hear horrible music, I often times, would write “proud” music in a major key that made you feel so uncomfortable. It was important for the show to have light and shade, it was important to have resistance to oppression. Musically that was depicted by tension and struggle in the form of sound design-y elements and pulsating ostinatos.
What’s up ahead for you?
Well I am scoring a Pasek and Paul musical called “Spirited” directed by Sean Anders. It’s very Christmas-y and very traditional. I recorded a massive orchestra in London all together in one room, no striping, as it was back in the day, and it was so much fun. I’m also doing another Christmas film called “Violent Night” which is very different. Dave Harbor plays Santa Claus and he has to get a family out of a very tricky hostage situation. It’s sort of like “Die Hard” meets “Home Alone.” It’s very cool. I am doing an awesome TV show for Netflix called “Kaleidoscope,” which is a heist show that’s really cool, and I’m starting the second season of “Monsters at Work.” So, yeah, I am a busy boy!
Where do you see action films and their scores going? And do you personally prefer a more symphonically old-school “King’s Man” or bonkers “Bullet Train” approach to them?
I love them all. Honestly, I love anything that feels awesome! They are both so different but yet I get so much joy out of doing each of them. Every action score I have done has its own merit and you find things in there that makes you tick and allows you to express who you are musically. So I don’t prefer one way or the other. the process of “Bullet Train” was new and fun because it’s been so different for me. I have really been able to express myself musically and creatively and push myself, where as “The King’s Man” was definitely an awesome thing to do with its throwback old school feeling, as you say. But “Bullet Train” was about finding new things musically and really trying to push my brain. If I HAD to choose, I would probably say the “Bullet Train” process just because it gets more of the creative juices flowing. “The King’s Man” was great because I worked with Matt so I had an amazing time with him, coming up with stuff and collaborating in a different way. All of these action scores have their pros, and I love doing them all.
See “Bullet Train” in theaters with Dominic Lewis’ score available on Milan Records HERE
Special thanks to Nicole Bonelli, Jana Davidoff and Alix Becq-Weinstein