Interview with Lesley Barber

In a comic book movie year, women have shown a winning talent for super intellectual powers from “Long Shot” to “Booksmart.” But there might not be a more comically fearsome, or sweetly emboldened dynamic duo than Katherine Newbury and Molly Patel. One is a bitingly imperious Brit who refuses to acknowledge that her talk show has long lost its sharp teeth in the face of crass social media comedians. The other is her number one fan whose ethnicity, gender and talent have gotten her in the door of an all-male writer’s room. There she attempts to save Katherine in spite of herself with fresh-faced ideas that are bloodily shot down by her firing-happy boss from hell, as enabled by chauvinists with no desire to have a woman in the women’s room. But with a good dose of perseverance, “Late Night” blazes a path as a delightful new take on the kid-makes-good boardroom genre that follows in the fine tradition of “The Secret of My Success,” “Working Girl” and “The Devil Wears Prada.” A big credit goes to comedian Mindy Kaling, who impressively rewrite her own book as both Molly and as the author of “Late Night’s” terrifically acerbic, and heartfelt screenplay, its bon mots delivered with droll relish by Emma Thompson as the force of nature behind The Katherine Newbury Show.”

However, if you’re expecting a score that plays every dialogue-driven joke and heartstring here like a TV band drummer enthusiastically hitting his cymbal, composer Lesley Barber defies expectations with a score as smartly energetic, and vibrantly attuned to its material as “Late Night’s” winning sisterhood act. Beginning her career with lyrical, female-centered scores as “When Night is Falling,” “A Price Above Rubies,” “Mansfield Park” and Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar nominated “You Can Count On Me,” Barber’s intimate talent for strings, guitar and orchestra received particular accolades in the choral company of grieving men with Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” Yet her work has steadily been breaking out of its arthouse conceptions with hip rom-coms like “Irreplaceable You” and “Nappily Ever After” while schooling itself in eeriness for “The Moth Diaries” and “Boarding School.”

Now reteaming with director Nisha Ganatra after the fantastical adventure of “The Hunters” and a kid’s Groundhog Day holiday in “Pete’s Christmas,” Barber has carried off her most mainstream dramedy yet with panache. Artfully letting Kaling’s razor-sharp dialogue take care of itself along with the ensemble’s exceptional performances, Barber delivers a soft-spoken, strongly thematic score that accentuates both Molly’s can-do drive as well as her vulnerability, all while digging out the fragility and humanity behind Katherine’s beyond intense personality. Rhythmically conveying the starstruck wonder of being in the big city, as well as the process of crafting comedy itself, Barber’s music is as smart and melodically poignant as ever. But no talk show would be worth its monologue without a band to send its host in with, a swinging energy that Barber jazzily hits to segue from golden oldie to the hip beat of a re-energized Katherine. In the end, Barber walks onto a whole new mainstream scoring stage with “Late Night’s” especially catchy soundtrack about sisterhood, music that shows the empathetic vibe she’s always had going while finding a new, energetic groove to deliver for a nationwide audience.

Had you watched late night talk shows before tackling “Late Night?”

Yes. As a watcher of late night talk shows, I was aware of how their bands had changed over the years. For “Late Night,” I needed to come up with a central theme that would permeate the harmonies and melodies of the score that would stem from the music of Katherine’s show. The theme needed to feel really authentic as a late night theme, as the music had to be in place before filming began so the band could play it on set. It was crazy fun listening back and studying late night bands from Doc Severinsen on The Tonight Show to Jay Leno’s band and the more “New York” sound of Paul Schaffer on David Letterman and the band on Saturday Night Live. And I also looked at the bands on Jimmy Kimmel, Fallon, Stephen Colbert – and other Late Night shows as well.

Once I’d found a theme for “Late Night,” it was important that it could evolve and change with the characters, showing how they in turn make Katherine’s show evolve. So “Late Night” is a score within a score within a score, one that accumulates in meaning over the course of the film. When we first meet Katherine Newbury, she’s had her show for some time, and it’s in need of a shake-up. In my research, I realize that the one thing that really drives each shows’ sound, and marks how they’ve evolved, is the percussion approach. Late night bands are now very drum-driven – and this led me to a theme that had a drum driven voice that evolves over the course of the score and film. In the beginning of “Late Night,” Katherine’s theme has a classic swing style to it that was more reminiscent of Doc Severinsen’s style. And as the story and Katherine evolve, the sound of the band changes as well. It’s taken over by new arrangements for the drums and guitar, and ultimately gets closer to the Saturday Night Live meets Kimmel meets Colbert sound. The other aspect of having a theme that could permeate the other motifs was that it allowed me to create a theme for Molly and Katherine. As their two lives really begin to interact with each other, the writer’s room, and the bigger world, their music comes together as well. So it’s a score that has many moving parts, and maybe more music than people realize. Yet it’s all very cohesive and part of the same world. That’s what I was hoping to do, and it’s exciting to hear how it all turned out.

“Late Night” definitely does bring out a new jazzy side of your work.

Yeah. It was fun looking at recent dramedy/comedy driven films and coming up with the right voice that could be closer to my a lush, orchestrated contemporary sound. By getting close to Katherine’s character I found walking base line and drums based on her talk show theme worked well in the writing room scenes. Katherine’s an acerbic, tough in-control character, annoyed and impatient with everyone around her. She’s also hilarious, so we looked at creating themes that walked hand-in-hand with Katherine and could also open up into a bigger orchestral – the sound that people are aware of through my past work, which often has intimately played guitar, warm piano, lots of percussion and a string orchestra. For “Late Night,” I varied that sound from twenty strings to the sound of a bigger orchestra that brings a musical depth of field to the emotion, and the city. That’s a challenge because you have this very authentic house band style that you have to put in its most cinematic light.

What do you think that Katherine’s unique standing as an at-first uncompromisingly intelligent American talk show host brings to the score?

This might sound funny, but sometimes when I’m looking at scores that enter into different male points of view is that their characters’ themes don’t enter into the score or scene with them. Marking Katherine and Molly’s entrances into the room, as opposed to male counterparts observing them, gives their characters the space with the music that expands the depth of their voices in the film. I really thought of “Late Night” as the musical connection between two characters who are from two different worlds. At the beginning, they each have their own themes. But as the story connects them with each other, their themes connect. And by the end, the music shares their story and emotions, and hopefully draws their separate worlds together. The backdrop of the writers’ room brings their themes together. That was what I was most excited by in doing the score.

How did you want to reflect the more personable, and vulnerable character of Molly, who wears her emotions on her sleeve apart from the guys who are climbing over each other for Katherine’s attention?

That was fun. Both Molly and Katherine are dead serious in their own way, which is where the movie’s incredible humor comes from. It’s being committed to these two women who are separated by their culture and generation. But they become united by their love of good work, writing, humor and punch lines. That’s what was so exciting about composing for them. Of course the film looks at diversity, feminism and inclusion at a time when particularly the entertainment industry is being pressured to become more inclusive. That also creates a backdrop that underlines the humor in the film.

How difficult is it to write music that doesn’t try to go for punch lines in a film that’s so dialogue-driven?

When I look at classic films that have humor and accumulate emotional meaning at the same time, usually the writing goes hand-in-hand with the character, whether it’s a subtler like “About Schmidt and “The Big Sick,” or an Adam Sandler film. When comedies and their scores are at their best, they’re connected to character, and not commenting on them. They’re expanding, and deepening the characters. So with comedy, I try to be intensely inside the scene as composer.

There’s also a wonderfully touching relationship between Katherine and her Parkinson’s-afflicted husband Walter. How was it literally playing those scenes?

They were an interesting place to start since John Lithgow’s character plays the piano. When I got the script, I realized that I had to play the piano pieces and set those in place before the film was shot. The piano represents the world, and relationship that Katherine and Walter share. So while some of the music in the score is a little more extroverted, their cues are more intimate. For those scenes I wrote closely to picture to get inside of their emotional world and the structured the cues through my piano solos.

How did you want to capture the rhythms of making it in the big city?

When we first meet Molly, there are a few themes I use, one of which is a piano theme that is also used at times with Katherine’s character. It’s a relationship theme that works at first for Molly, and then for both of them. When we first meet Molly, there’s a kind of intimate, “indie,” close-up sound in the score. I wanted it to sound like we could hear the hands on the guitar, and more up close performances. I worked with percussion to come up with something that was drum-driven as well. I used close-up strings and a large indie string sound, almost like a pop sound, and that evolved into some lusher orchestral arrangements. It was an interesting challenge.

Tell us about working with Mindy Kaling.

Late Night director Nisha Ganatra and Mindy Kaling

I’d worked with the director Nisha Ganatra before, and we had a real shorthand in terms of what we wanted to do. Right away Mindy and I were in touch, as I had to write the theme for Katherine’s show, and she emailed me back let me know from the set about how much she loved it. Then as the project moved on, Mindy and I checked in about the score, as I worked with Nisha It was a wonderfully collaborative experience. We had a Sundance deadline looming and there was an incredible amount of work to be done between December 1st and January 14th. All of our collaborative conversations were really great. It was really a dream project.

How did you identify with Molly’s character?

It’s part of the composer’s world, work that we’re constantly putting all of our passion and emotion into our music, and then sending it out into the world. It can be surprising what the response is, especially when it’s not always what you think it’s going to be. Those collaborative moments between composers and the filmmakers are going to have humorous moments when you’re trying to figure out your way forward. With every score there’s the pressure for authenticity and to get the music right. Often you only have a few days to do it right. Yet those moments of pressure and criticism are when the best ideas can happen.

When people hear “Late Night,” do you think they’ll hear another “rom-com” side of you that will be new to them?

I think most recently my work has been associated strongly with my score for “Manchester by the Sea” and a variety of films that are orchestral. At the same time, when I started out I was very much doing percussion, loops and string driven work. So “Late Night” was certainly a great opportunity to write a different kind of score. I’ve done more comedy and dramedy over the last couple of years – “Irreplaceable You” and “Nappily Ever After” come to mind – and they’re really fun. Because like “Late Night” they’re about people and emotion, which are great places to write from and get inside of the characters. The scores coming up are also giving me a chance to get into this kind of writing. Right now I’m working with Mindy on Hulu’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” and have another feature coming up in the fall. “Four Weddings” has been one of the most inspiring projects I’ve worked on in recent years, and Mindy’s writing is again genius and fun. It’s a hugely exciting project.

Do you think you’ve helped blaze a trail for female composers, much as the way that Mindy is doing for female writer-stars with “Late Night?”

For me it’s been an amazing series of working with great people on stories that I care about. Every film has been an amazing experience and opportunity to try something new with my music while also recalling my past scores. I don’t know how to describe my own work, but I just know that it’s about commitment to the story and where that story takes me that excites me as composer.

Late Night’s cast and filmmakers at Sundance

“Late Night” opens in select cities on June 7th, and then wide on June 14th. Strike up the band with Lesley Barber’s score on Lakeshore Records HERE

Listen to Lesley Barber soundtracks HERE

Visit Lesley Barber’s website HERE