Interview with Marc Streitenfeld

Marc Streitenfeld

The philosophical debate of nature versus nurture questions whether growth can be warped or blessed by their parents’ genes or instead determined in environments whose tones range from the harsh to the heavenly. But in the mind-bending hands of series creator Aaron Guzkowski (writer of “Prisoners”) and co-executive producer Ridley Scott, “Raised by Wolves” posits the question to the farthest reaches of science fiction television. Set in a future where the war between atheism and absolute belief in “Sol” has ravaged the earth, two rogue androids “Mother” (Amanda Collin) and “Father” (Abubakar Salim) arrive on a harsh new world with embryos in tow, their brood replenished when the all-powerful female catastrophically kidnaps youths from the space ark above them. In pursuit are the parents Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and Sue (Niamh Algar), who aren’t exactly what they seem to their beyond faithful followers bent on retrieving their kin. 

Pitting absolute belief versus tough love with the idea of just what it means to be a human able to produce new life, the ever-bending viewer allegiances and expanding cosmic consciousness of HBO / Max’s “Raised by Wolves” make it into one of the more mind-bending and suspenseful shows in a new, intellectual age of cable sci-fi – all while carrying the roots of strange planet survival that date back to “Lost in Space.” But as opposed to the immediately graspable symphonic style that could have been applied to a show where menacing natives and technology abound, leave it to “Wolves’” composer Marc Streitenfeld to once again take the musical road less travelled – propelling the score into a haunting, religiously-minded textural realm that’s as much about big concept ideas as it is about small bands battling each other for the future of their most precious seeds.

Hailing from Munich, Streitenfeld landed in Los Angeles at the age of 19 to become a fresh face among composer Hans Zimmer’s’ true believers. Abetting him on the likes of “Crimson Tide,” “The Thin Red Line,” “Black Hawk Down” and “As Good as It Gets,” Streitenfeld’s work caught the ear of director Ridley Scott, who was making the quite different wine-loving dramedy “A Good Year.” While their collaboration has included “American Gangster,” “Robin Hood” and “Body of Lies,” perhaps none was more striking or eagerly awaited than 2012’s “Alien” prequel “Prometheus,” in which Streitenfeld took the franchise’s sound in a strikingly different direction to convey the idea of a god-like race impregnating humanity as well as siring its worst monsters.

With Scott directing the first two episodes of “Raised by Wolves” and his son Luke handling the third, the series takes on a feeling of the high-tech and elder god “crude” that makes the viewer, and listener feel like they’re on familiar “Prometheus” territory – especially given “Wolves’” next-gen androids. But there’s far more musical food for thought, as well as visceral jeopardy in Streitenfeld’s beautifully eerie mix of the electronic and organic. Having captured the real wolf deal in “The Grey” as well as unleashed another dimension itself for the “Poltergeist” reboot, Streitenfeld’s brave new tonal world in “Raised by Wolves” goes in search of a higher power as it probes into what it means to be a parent, let alone human. With bubbling sounds, hallucinatory voice and a miasma of extra-terrestrial textures, Streitenfeld accompanies the mad visions of Mother and the increasingly unhinged Marcus to the series’ conclusion. It’s one that that’s pays off this beguilingly strange show and its scoring with the promise of an evolution to come. For Streitenfeld, “Raised by Wolves” is the newest birth of a distinctively thematic sound rising from the continually fusion of melody and sonic experimentation for a show whose characters evolve into beasts of a whole new musical nature. 

Marc Streitenfeld photographed by Michael Lewis in his Venice CA studio for Variety Magazine on 5/11/15.

How do you think your work alongside such progressive composers as Hans Zimmer influenced your solo sound? 

I was Hans’ assistant in the mid 90s. Fun and exciting times. I love Hans and admire that he always set the bar high for himself and wanted to try something different on every single project I worked with him on. I think it is my nature and in the nature of many artists and fellow composers to strive for something unique, so if that approach is modelled for you as a 19-year old by one of the most influential film composers up close, it’s very encouraging and inspiring. A lot of my musical influences are outside of the film music world, so I don’t think I was ever in danger of becoming a purely traditional sounding film composer.

Could you talk about your work on “Prometheus,” and finding a new sound for the “Alien” saga?

“Prometheus” was a very special project to work on. Ridley gave me a lot of freedom for experimentation. I was going for an unsettling sound. The intention was that as the audience or the listener can never be sure what you’re hearing. I mostly used organic instruments but recorded them with unusual techniques or manipulated them. Many of the orchestral parts, mainly the strings and woodwinds were notated in reverse on the score paper and then digitally flipped around, so the result was the parts playing back as originally written, but with an unusual, awkward sound. Logistically that was quite a big undertaking with a whole orchestra being involved. The woodwinds players sang and blew into their instruments at the same time, which resulted in a pretty spooky sound. I also played around with microtone harmonies, so a lot of sonic experimentation went into the project.

Marc and Ridley Scott at the recording session of “Body of Lies” Photo by Dan Goldwasser/

Did “Prometheus” bring you to Ridley’s “RBW?”

That’s really a question only Ridley can answer. In my conversations with Ridley about the music for RBW, “Prometheus” never came up. Our talks were about the characters, the “Mother” character in particular and the emotional arc of the story, not the sound of the score or other films. 

It’s struck a lot of “Raised by Wolves” viewers that this show could be taking place in the same universe as “Prometheus.” Did you have that reaction?

When I first saw “Raised by Wolves,” I didn’t really draw that connection. RBW has its own unique identity, but I can see where it could possibly crossover with the universe of “Prometheus.”

What was it like collaborating with Ridley and his son Luke on the initial episodes of RBW? Did he want to give it a different tone than his previous science fiction work?

As always, it’s an absolute pleasure to collaborate with Ridley. We have done so many projects together, that it makes it very easy and comfortable to communicate about music. Ridley doesn’t seem to concern himself what he’s done in previous projects. It’s all about what is in front of us, what works for this project, not how anything relates or doesn’t relate to his prior work. We mostly talked about the emotional story beats that were important to him and the general progression of the characters. Ridley wanted the score to have warmth. When I joined the RBW, Luke already had moved on to another projects, so I didn’t have any direct communication with him.

There’s a constant shifting between who the “bad” and “good” guys are in RBW. How do you think that’s reflected in the score?

Yes, that’s one of the really interesting characteristics of RBW. In the show you can’t really be sure who is “good ” and who is “bad”. I guess it depends on your own religious inclination how you initially see some of the characters. Especially since two of the two non-religious main characters pretend to be religious and then gradually actually start believing themselves. The “Mother” character goes through so many changes. The score plays with those shifts and changes, and at times also gives a counterpoint to the characters’ on-screen actions. Externally bad behavior can sometimes have a good internal intention. I think in life, the motivation for some actions people take can be misinterpreted. For example, in an argument between two people, the score could follow what’s happening externally and be played as anger or aggression, but if you look deeper, the underlying emotions are hurt, and a form of fragility and the argument is caused by the strong feelings for each other. I was trying to observe what’s happening internally in a character, which can contradict the character’s actions. As a composer you have the choice to emphasize what’s transpiring on screen or to express what’s happening internally and bring another dimension to the story telling. Both approaches can be relevant at different times.

Mysticism and belief play as much of a part in RBW as science fiction concepts do. Could you tell us about the spiritual quality?

RBW is set in a fictional world on the planet Kepler-22b, which appears to have a hidden history that includes mystical forces. When the Mytheraic experience those forces, they interpret them as part of their own religion. The “Mother” charter, who is not religious, connects those forces with her own creator at first. So there is an underlying spiritual belief system in RBW that ranges from a form of mysticism to religion.

In a similar way, there’s a juxtaposition of high technology stranded on this primitive alien world whose inhabitants are regressing. Did you want to hear that with a contrast of “futuristic” electronics and gritty musical sounds?

The interesting visuals of high-tech electronics mixed with the primitive environment definitely gave a license to open up the sonic palette. Every musical tool was on the table.

Tell us about playing the character of “Mother,” and how the music follows her changes through the series?

The “Mother” character is my favorite character in RBW. I think Amanda Collins performance is extraordinary. Her range within this character is remarkable. She goes through extremes with great nuances, from rage to tender vulnerability and innocence. The “Mother” character had a big influence on the score in general. Her qualities ranges from incredible strength to fragility. She has to navigate being an android mother who is confronted with human emotions and relationship issue and irrational human behavior and she struggles as she discovers those human traits developing within herself. The intention was for the score to musically develop the same range of emotions and qualities.

A highlight of RBW is the very human relationship between “Mother” and “Father.” How did you see their music?

The constantly developing relationship between “Mother” and “Father” is a treat to follow. Their relationship has a theme that shapes its way through the episodes. I definitely get a kick out of them arguing and trying to grasp human emotion and the irrational behavior that comes with it. Those scenes are so well written and acted, they still make me smirk after months of working on the show.

Tell us about the haunting religious tone of RBW.

Religion and belief play a big part in RBW. Humans have divided into believers and non-believers. As I mentioned earlier, there is also a mystical element that’s part of the story. The show raises the question if there is a godlike force or some other greater spiritual power vs. religious fanaticism or possibly madness and the score plays with that.

In a way, do you think that Marcus who goes mad with thinking that he’s a God-given leader has something in common with the character of Pernell Harris, a judge who becomes a holy vigilante in your music for the Amazon show “Hand of God?”

That parallel didn’t really come to mind, I think the Marcus character takes this to another level, but there certainly is a commonality between them. You first can’t be sure if they’re really hearing the voice of a godly force or if they are going mad or maybe both and miracles seem to happen for both of them.

Parenthood is another important theme in the show, especially when it comes to the nature of birth. How do you hear that?

Yes, parenthood is an important part of the show. It’s obviously a big part of the “Mother and “Father” characters, but it also plays and important role for “Sue” and “Marcus”. Those characters react and relate differently to being parents or pretending to be parents and then gradually becoming parents. I addressed those relationships separately with the music, but then there are parallels and connections between them , like how they are affected by parenthood, that some of the themes cross over in certain moments. In some ways parenthood in a very personal and individual experience, but also a universal one.

Did you own role as a father influence your music?

Being a father to my son is the most joyous and meaningful part of my life. I am sure those experiences and feelings will come through in my music somehow.

Did you try to give a sense of innocence to the children who are being manipulated by both sides, yet are the hope for the future?

I think children by nature, no matter how grown up they act, have an innocence about them, so I didn’t have to try very hard. The interesting part for me was that “Mother” and “Father” also have an innocence about them. They obviously have other sides, especially “Mother”, but there’s a childlike quality about them that is reflected in the music. They are very inexperienced at being parents, dealing with human emotions or being in a relationship and are often very honest and unfiltered when they communicate.

Ben Frost

How did the musical collaboration with Ben Frost work?

Ben and I shared a musical canvas, but we didn’t collaborate directly. I really enjoyed getting to know his music. He is a very talented and interesting composer. When I joined the project, Ben had done his pass at the score and I was asked to explore different directions and expand the musical vocabulary. My involvement progressed from episode to episode and I ended up composing the majority of the score for the show. When I began writing the score for RBW, I approached the episodes in order. The first episode starts differently and doesn’t have the same opening titles sequence, so there is no song. I composed the opening for the first episode and also developed the majority of my themes while working on the first episode. So the song didn’t really play a role, but Ben’s score was a factor. Even though I was asked to explore a different direction and to open up the musical palette, I wanted to make sure we would end up with an overall cohesiveness for the music.

What was the most difficult RBW episode to score? And did you have a favorite among them?

Every episode had different challenges.  The most difficult component was really the logistics of recording in a Covid world, since it was much more time consuming than the usual in person recording process. Towards the final episodes I was feeling the time pressure. I just finished writing the final episode a little over two weeks ago and it’s being aired in a week. Because of the pandemic, the scoring process was very time consuming and more difficult than usual. All the musicians and vocalists recorded themselves individually, since in person recording was not possible. Normally I would just push a button in the control room and talk to all the musicians at once and would give comments after each take. In this situation I spoke to every player individually for the first sessions to establish a style and sound. I was very happy with the results, but I think everyone involved prefers the in-person process and the creative exchange.

How did you want to use voice in RBW?

In a story where androids are having human emotions, it was an important musical tool. The human voice is clearly and easily recognized as a human characteristic. So I played with that musically, going from a natural sound to a sound that’s hardly recognizable as a voice. I also used voices to imitate other instruments and some of the sounds that appear voice like are actually something else.

Tell us about the gear that went into RBW?

My score was mixed by Pete Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley in their mix room in London and they used all kinds of analog goodies like vintage space delays and other sound toys.

How do you think the struggle of the atheists versus the believers in Sol that destroyed the earth, and now is happening on this alien world, plays into what’s going on with earth and our politics today?

The hope is, that if you see that kind of divisiveness and destructive human behavior in a fictional story and have a distance to it, that it might make it possible for us to see it as a mirror for what’s going on our planet. I think if you have a distance to something it often helps to see things clearer. Realties can get distorted if people are too emotionally involved or too close to something.

Do you think there’s something to be said for “head trip” genre shows like RBW and their music that don’t give you the expected, especially when they have the usual sci-fi suspects like spaceships, androids and aliens in it?

I don’t know what I would do if I was asked to do the expected. And I wouldn’t really know what it is to be honest. I just follow my instincts and I see the story and the characters as the most important thing, not the genre.

With RBW renewed for a second season, where do you see the show and its music going?

I am excited to see where the show will go. I think I will see the first scripts in the near future and that will determine where the music goes.

Do you think composers with an electronically based and alternative style have a brighter future in the “new” normal of composing and recording? 

I don’t think so, at least I don’t hope so. I hope live players will maintain their important role in film scoring. Even if the process is more complicated at the moment, I believe that we will find ways to continue to score with live players. I see this only as a temporary hurdle.

“Raised by Wolves’” finale airs October 1 on HBO / MAX. Watch the series HERE

Listen to Marc Streitenfeld’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Marc Streitenfeld’s website HERE