Interview with Dominic Lewis

Few shows start off as impossible alternate reality fiction, only to transform into a horrifying variation of the truth like Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle.” Adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel that posited the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan winning WW2 to split the spoils of America. Linking the fates of the rebellious Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos), the traitorous American Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), Japanese trade minister Tagome (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and relentless “pawn” Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) are black and white films that show a counter earth where accepted history played out – the images of which become key to determining the destruction, or salvation of “High Castle’s” nightmarish future.

Told in muted, oppressed colors and ever-surprising moral shades of grey, the new season of “High Castle” is more darkly fantastical as it has the Nazi’s pursuit of “travelers” who can skip between free, and subjugated worlds inspired the Reich to build a machine that will let them invade the multiverse. Yet the ten-episode season is also far more intimate in domestic scope. Its main story strands find Juliana dealing with the shock of her murdered sister who’s seemingly coming back to life, all while the ruthless John Smith shows an unexpected, emotional side as he tries to keep his family together in the face of the “sacrifice” of their genetically doomed son to the Reich’s euthanasia. Amongst the “pawns,” Tagome does his best to shelter Juliana, even as Kido tries to break the minister’s stoic stance to find out why he’d abet the enemy, especially when her compatriots bombed Japan’s San Francisco’s headquarters at the climax of last season.

Tying the myriad story threads and characters of this formidable “Castle” together is the mesmerizing score by English composer Dominic Lewis. For a series based on the nature of time, the pressure of evil closing in plays a central scoring role in season three. Rhythmic music becomes a countdown as the Nazis try to control the multiverse itself, a far more fantastical angle that also suffuses Lewis’ approach with an otherworldly, dream-like atmosphere. Brass becomes twisted patriotism, where violin hears the tragedy of relationships rent asunder in a series of betrayals. Though mostly played in brief, impactful portions through “Castle’s” ten episodes, Lewis also gets to revel in epic orchestrations as the Japanese fleet sails under the Golden Gate Bridge, emotion dances with a forbidden Bar Mitzvah, and the symphonic piercing of dimensions becomes scoring that would do any arch villains’ super-science lair proud. So too does the show’s ersatz Leni Riefenstahl feel soaring Wagnerian triumph for her propagandistic goal, even as the music will make our hearts sink. However, there’s also a new sense of musical hope on the horizon for a “Castles” that’s been renewed for a fourth chapter, as the leaflets of a rising sun inspire the striving, patriotic melody of a populace finding the hope to struggle out of fascism’s jackboot.

Thankfully, Lewis’ singular rise as one of the most talented, next-gen composers of Hans Zimmer’s musical fortress has been far less traumatic, if no less creatively challenging. Trained in the cello and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, Lewis made his Hollywood pilgrim’s progress through booth reading, synth programming, vocals and copious additional scoring for such composers as Rupert Gregson-Williams (“Bedtime Stories”), John Powell (“How To Train Your Dragon”), Henry Jackman (“Wreck-It Ralph”) and The Man himself (“Rango”), Lewis’ contributions on dozens of scores ultimately saw him break out with solo work that’s included swooping animation (“Free Birds”), propulsive suspense (“MI-5”), frantic comedy (“Rough Night,” “Fist Fight”) and social drama (“Money Monster”) before entering the door of “High Castle” via his long association with Jackman.

Even though Dominic Lewis might have found himself in grim surroundings as the walls between oppressive fiction and reality have broken down in the face of a homegrown tyrant, the composer has also indulged his far more child friendly talents this year with the rambunctious treats of “Peter Rabbit” and the rousingly terrifying tricks of “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween.” Like the “High Castle’s” dimension-shifters, Lewis knows how to segue from one musical tone to the next, an ability learned from The Masters that he now reveals.

Tell us about your path to film composing.

Both of my parents are musicians, which always helps a lot. My Dad was in a quartet and my mom’s a singer. So from the time of being a young kid I was exposed to live concerts and classical music all the way through to rock music. My sister exposed me to dance music or electronic music. Then my dad started doing sessions in London with Isobel Griffith’s orchestra. So that perked my ears up to that world. Then I was lucky enough to go on a couple of sessions. I think my first was “Shrek” with Harry Gregson-Williams. Then I did other sessions with Craig Armstrong and George Martin. It just sort of unfolded from being a musician and playing the cello and singing in choirs and doing all sorts of stuff. Film music was just a natural progression for me. I had many greatest hits soundtrack Cd’s and tapes in my dad’s car and tapes, all of which made me fall in love with it. But it was being at those scoring session that made me say, “Oh my God, this is what I have to do!” subconsciously there all the time. And then I went to these sessions and I was just like, oh my God, this is what I have to do!”

When I was old enough I went to down Rupert Gregson-Williams’ studio and started programming stuff up when he’d go out for a cigarette break. I was very lucky to ease into the world because then other people get thrown out of college and want to be a film composer. But they get coffee and food and stuff for years before even doing tech work. I was lucky enough not to have to do that because Rupert had me under his wing and taught me loads of stuff. Then he told me to go to LA and visit people.

How was it getting started by doing additional music for people like Hans Zimmer and Henry Jackman at their studio?

Both composers were extremely talented and very different. The world of Hans Zimmer is something I never thought I’d be part of after studying and listening to his music in school. Then cut to two years later and I’m sitting in a room with him and John Powell talking about dragons and fighting pandas and whatnot, all with Dreamworks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg in room. That was a dream come true, but also extremely scary to me. Hans’ world was very daunting at first because the man is a genius and you constantly feel the pressure of being at your very best – that you must not let him down, the you always needed to prove yourself.

When I started at Hans’ Remote Control Studio, I didn’t leave it for like three months. I would have interns going to get me spare underwear and I’d used the shower in the building just to let Hans know – and he probably had no idea I wasn’t leaving the building! It was just that, that hunger, that need to prove that I was good for this, and that his cues were in safe hands with me. Where things were a bit easier with John Powell on “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Rango” with Hans was really tough because he’s got so much faith and loyalty in his guys that he will pretty much gave them the stage for their cues which I think is fantastic and extremely ballsy. That’s why he’s one of the greats. Oftentimes it is was only me and “Rango’s” director Gore Verbinski talking about cues, which was very daunting and scary. When I later worked with Henry it was a more relaxed atmosphere because I was writing from the wings and not really being involved in meetings with the filmmakers and the executives. I was just sort of me doing my cues, making sure they were up on the server and then hearing later after the meeting whether the music was approved or not, or what fixes there were to come. I became far more confident and relaxed in what I was doing. And I was a better composer. Henry and I pumped out a lot of music over three or four years. Yet all of the experiences I’ve had writing for composers has been amazing in their own ways.

You got involved with “The Man in the High Castle” with Henry scoring the pilot.

Henry and I scored the pilot together, and I took over from episode two using the things. Then after season one it was sort of a reboot because the characters moved on to different things. Seasons two and three have just been me, and I just signed a contract for four – which will be me too

How do you think the show and the music have developed to the point of season three?

Each season is extremely different in my eyes. The first one was very character-based and very intimate as it followed them through journeys. We got to know their struggles and where they would be going. Then in season two you have this big story arch where you’re faced with the end of the world. So that change was huge as I went from very small, intricate character-based melodies and harmonies to a more elaborate Austrian-Hungarian classical palettes with Straus-ian melodies. Now season three has gone a bit noir in a sort of Hitchcockian way. Things also get a little bit more sci-fi n the way of Phillip K. Dick because you dive more into these alternate worlds and the craziness of their “travelers.” other travelers.

Musically through all three seasons I’ve taken organic elements, and messed them up by stretching them and, sticking the instruments through delays to make the music feel weird, creepy and strange. And then on top of that you’ve got these traditional instruments playing melodies and harmonies – yet always with that underlying current of the strangeness and eeriness. So that’s what musically ties the three seasons together, even though they’re all very different because of their stories’ contexts.

The “sci-fi” nature of season three brings in a particularly ethereal sound.

I started season three with the “Trudy Suite,” suite, where I wanted to create that “daydream-y” sound when you don’t know what world you’re in, who can travel or who’s going to travel. You have to be in a particular meditative space to be able to travel. It was important for me to create that dream-like stuff with chimes, bells and things that repeat in a nursery rhyme / music box kind of way. The suite is made out of celeste, struck chimes, warped Glockenspiel and things like that with strings as and undercurrent. There are some voices in there too. It’s a more musically dreamy way of time traveling I guess.

Would you say the scoring has gotten stranger as whole?

It’s so great that they’re kind of letting me do what I want on season three. There’s a lot of trust now, which has kind of pushed the musical envelope a little bit. I’m not trying to blow my own trumpet, but I’m just saying that I was trying to think outside the box and to really push this strange classical harmony that you necessarily wouldn’t do in a TV show. And I get away with it because the show is so great. It holds it. You can just keep pushing on it in terms of experimenting with new weird things and hybrids between different genres of music because it works. But that’s essentially what “The Man in the High Castle” is. It’s a hybrid of a lot of different genres that are now going all over the place, and you can do that with the music as well.

How did you want to musically differentiate between the Japanese and the Germans?

It kind of changed because everyone’s moving around so much. The music was a bit more clean cut in season one where the Japanese took on a more woodwind-based palette and the Germans tended to be more brass-orientated. But actually as the seasons progress, and especially in season three, we see different sides of different characters, which ties into what the Japanese and Germans were doing season one. Their instruments cross over, the neutral zone. Now John Smith’s melody might be on the cello, which in season one was mainly Juliana’s instrument. Inspector Kido might have more of flute- based thing. But if he’s being really evil, then I’d bring in the brass. So it’s kind of boiled down to strong brass instruments for the bad guys, and woodwind instruments for the good guts, for want of better words, because everything’s crossing over now. The Japanese and Germans have all got their fingers in different pies.

What’s especially interesting in season three is how a once completely nefarious character like John Smith is almost a “hero” for want of my better word. How do these twists give more emotional depth to the music?

It’s great to be able to flip the script on some characters, especially with John Smith, because in the first season I didn’t really score him. There was a noise he got from a piano pedal that we stuck through a feedback and just let it go. I took elements of that and made more intense, because I didn’t want to do the whole “evil Smith” thing, you know, low strings and brass and whatever, because then it becomes too cliché and annoying. So it was more of a sound design way of scoring him. With season two, we got into the whole thing with his son Thomas’ illness. I could come in with brass with John being the bad guy, or use a cello or piano to show how he was feeling for Thomas, and in turn make us respond sympathetically to John. With season three you’re undecided because John seems to be going against what the Nazi vision for America is. That made it really difficult to paint him in a way that the audience could make up their own minds about John. So his stuff was done with more neutral instruments. For example, maybe I’d take the horn and double it with cellos or use instruments that don’t necessarily paint John as a good or bad guy. But I feel the same with you, because Smith almost comes across as being a hero in this season.

How did you want to choose when to bring in the big orchestral moments as when you have Japanese fleet sailing through San Francisco or introduce the Nazi’s dimension-channeling machine, which is almost like a scene out of a James Bond’s villain’s lair?

It’s a mixture of me and the temp tracking process. Some people get very used to the temporary soundtrack that they put in while editing the episode, which is very difficult to get away from when I’m spotting my own music. I’ll say that we don’t need a cue here. But because they’ve had music there for a while, they want it in the same place. Sometimes with those longer cues, I’d personally rather have them be shorter so I could let the action breath a little bit. But I think those longer pieces work, especially as a lot of the time those scenes have sound design that just blend in with the score.

The show can be very depressing, as it seems there’s no way the Axis will ever be overthrown. But this season brings in the idea of the hope of the rebellion. Was it a relief to play that kind of guarded optimism into this overwhelming darkness?

I think it’s great because season two was super dark. There was no hope, But I like season three’s new element of resistance. It creates more of a balance because we’ve had two seasons of the Nazis doing their thing, which is a lot to process. Maybe that’s why season two wasn’t so well received by critics I think because there was no real light at the end of the tunnel for anyone. It was just massively depressing. So now it’s really lovely to have just a little glimmer that maybe they can pull this off. And then you kind of come back to thinking “Well, how the hell are they going to pull that off with something like twelve people?” But it’s still nice. I think the danger with dark shows is that they just drag you down. I know from friends and family that even in season one they’d be like, “Oh no, I really liked the show, but it took me a long time to get through it because it’s just so dark!” I think it’s really good to bring in that strand into season three, which I hope they do in season four so we can get to have a hero.

The running joke is that “Man in the High Castle” is a documentary show. Do you ever get depressed while working on it, especially as it seems that there’s no stopping the rise of fascism in America?

Righter after I finished season two where the arch was the end of the world, I joked that next week we’d have President Trump. And then it fucking happened! “The Man in the High Castle” has been close to home. But now with this season’s new theme of hope I think the show is easier to stomach. Yet there are certainly moments for me when it’s depressing, especially when you have a huge group of people chanting “Sieg Heil!” for 45 seconds. That’s time to turn the dial down. I can’t hear that because I have to watch a scene a number of times in order to score it. But then I get to work on other shows like “Duck Tales,” which are happy, fun and the complete opposite! So that helps me stay sane.

One truly charming kid’s score you did this year was for “Peter Rabbit” Now you get to scare them with the sequel to “Goosebumps.” What was it like to take over the musical reigns from Danny Elfman for “Haunted Halloween?”

Oh my God. It’s so daunting. I was very scared. But the director Ari Sandel and I were adamant that while we didn’t want to do away with Danny’s themes from the first one, we also wanted to give this score its own sound. I think I’ve come up with some cool new themes. The main villain in this movie is Slappy, the ventriloquist dummy. He has a very creepy side, but he’s also the master of puppets – the sort of maestro who’s bringing Halloween to life. So I wanted to give him a march of sorts for him commanding his troops. So I wrote the “Slappy March,” which is a lot of fun. Ari really loved it, and it’ the main theme in the movie. “Goosebumps 2” has been an amazing experience for me. I mixed all my musical influences for the score from Strauss to Ravel to John Powell to John Williams to Danny to Alan Silvestri to Mahler. But it’s the most “me” I’ve been writing for an orchestra and I’m very proud of that. The last big orchestral score I did like this, even though the tone was a bit more “fluffy,” was for “Free Birds.” “Peter Rabbit” was a bit more of a hybrid.

What’s the trick of scoring a kid’s horror film where the music has to be scary, yet not too scary?

That’s tricky to balance. There are moments where you want kids to jump and be scared, but you can’t go too far, otherwise you’ll have them screaming and running out of the cinema! So it was a tough line to toe. But the execs and the director definitely leaned towards the scary stuff and wanted to push that envelope a little bit and make it scarier. So I think that’s, that’s a big difference between the two scores. Danny’s isn’t necessarily “scary scary,” where there are very definitely scary moments in mine where I used horror scoring techniques, like you’d have in “It.” But I think “Goosebumps 2” has been shot in a way where I can afford to have that little bit of extra horror in the music. The picture holds it well. We’ve really had incredible musicians who’ve achieved those strings effects and drones that would accompany an R-rated horror movie. It’s been really incredible for me to write for an orchestra like that, and I’d love to keep doing it.

Madison Iseman, Jeremy Ray Taylor and Caleel Harris star in Columbia Pictures’ GOOSEBUMPS 2: HAUNTED HALLOWEEN.

You’ve had a pretty swift rise as a composer in the last five years. What would you attribute that to?

Being a film and television composer is so much more than just writing music. It’s the whole thing. You’ve got to be good in a room with the director and the producers. You’ve got to be able to produce the goods musically and you’ve got to think on your feet to let everyone know that they’ll be safe in your hands. John and Hans and Henry are all great like that. I was a sponge and fed off of their musical brilliance. It was incredible to be in a room with them and the directors and execs to see how they reacted to tough stuff, like flipping scenes around and deadlines and all that kind of stuff that comes with supervising a score. I was able to be in that for almost five years before I went out on my own. That helped me really understand that your job as a film composer is to fulfill the vision of the director and the producers and the studio. So yes, obviously you want to have your voice and you want to bring what you bring, but at the end of the day you ‘re a filmmaker too. That’s a huge part of being a successful film composer is being a fellow filmmaker and part of the collaborative process.

Obviously there are times when you need to stick up for what you think’s right, but you also need to do away with a bit of your ego.

That’s why being a team player is huge. The people I work with are getting what I bring to the table. But at the same time, they’re also getting what they want. It’s very easy to throw in the towel and say, ”Okay, well I’ll just do that.” But there’s an interpretation line of like. “They said this, but I think that what they really want is this music.” That’s the tricky part, because a lot of directors and producers don’t necessarily speak the music vernacular. So translating what they mean is very important. To anyone else, it might be “What the hell do they mean by that?” But because I’ve been in it, I say, “Cool. Moving on.” That’s probably one of the main reasons why it’s been maybe a little quicker for me to get to where I am, just because I had such great training and great great mentors. They really set me up to hit the ground running.

Watch the third season of “Man in the High Castle” premieres on Amazon Prime HERE.

“Goosebumps 2 Haunted Halloween” opens on October 12th from Sony Picture, with Dominic Lewis’ score available soon on Sony Classical Records.

Listen to Dominic Lewis’ scores for the first two seasons of “Man in the High Castle” HERE

Romp with Dominic Lewis in the animated animal kingdoms of “Peter Rabbit” HERE and “Free Birds”