Interview with Nathan Barr

By Daniel Schweiger

Composer Nathan Barr

We’re now in a seeming end of days when tuning back to TV shows set in the past is an especially welcome binging proposition – letting alone watching a literally cutting-edge film that has its most dangerous game way with present-day PC run amuck. Credit composer Nathan Barr for playing a winning trifecta with “Hollywood’s” dream of a socially progressive Tinseltown, “The Great’s” German-born empress out to defiantly change Russian and human targets of both political persuasions desperately trying to survive “The Hunt.” 

With a prolific Emmy-nominated career that’s numbered numerous episodics and big screen features, Barr has tackled vampires (“True Blood”), a budding warlock (“The House with a Clock in its Walls”), Soviet moles (“The Americans”) an imposing oil baron (“The Son”) and Broadway hoofers (“Fosse / Verdon”) in styles ranging from thundering westerns to eerie bayou instrumentation and pulsing suspense, always pushing himself into unexpected territory that’s kept him unclassifiable vibrant. There’s something especially striking about Barr’s most recent work that displays the kind of inventiveness that it’s going to take to musically thrive in the new Hollywood normal – not to mention an even more politically outraged one. 

Originally slated to come out last year until Donald Trump got a hold of its provocative red vs. blue state meat, Craig Zobel’s “The Hunt” is a gloriously oh-so wrong movie on every count that thrusts Barr back to his outrageous breakout days with Eli Roth’s “Cabin Fever” and “Hostel” films. But here the humor is every bit in one’s face as the Troma-level violence and insanity (though in far more respectable Blumhouse / Universal studio-distributed surrounding). Finally released in theaters the weekend Covid pretty much kiboshed them, Barr takes his orchestra to an exciting, ironic level of cunning for “The Hunt” in a way that lets you know the whole enterprise isn’t so serious, which makes the score no less thrilling, especially for the film’s climactic womano-a-womano death match. 

“Hollywood” has just as much killer energy to spare as gay / minority / female underdogs climb the big sign through equal parts sex and moxie in a way that could only exist in the movies, or more specifically socially conscious cable circa 2020. Unleashing big band swing alongside deeply emotional scoring and ravishing emotion that pays tribute to the golden age scoring masters of l40’s yore, “Hollywood” is a gorgeous, lush life soundtrack that swing through with noir stylings, brassy comedy and surprisingly moving drama that befits “Feud” creator Ryan Murphy’s deliciously catty, and finally greatly moving fact-turned-fiction claw through La La Land. 

With “The Great,” Barr has his way with snooty classical scoring in much the same way the seditious creator of “The Favourite” now has his way with the court intrigue of history’s seeming sexpot – depicted here as a brainy heroine who outwits the vainglorious son of Peter the Great, who’s anything but. Subverting what could have been a Masterpiece Theater approach, Barr brings in distinctly anachronistic electronics amidst the balalaikas to depict a forward-thinking empress. It’s a stylistically bawdy, madcap Slavic approach perfectly in irreverent, yet tuneful tone for a show that mixes bawdy hilarity with potent emotion in a way that brings real alt. pop life to a dusty genre. Now Barr’s “The Great” joins with “The Hunt” and “Hollywood” to proudly defy the apocalypse with entertaining vibrancy to spare for a composer pondering a future, one where necessity will be the mother of scoring invention.   

From “Hostel” to ​“The Hunt,” do you think it’s fun to score visceral genre projects that will shock audiences? 

I have always enjoyed scoring controversial films like these two because they incite dialogue between people by approaching their dark subject matters with satire and a sense of humor. The score is very much center stage in helping to set this complicated tone and so I enjoy that challenge. 

What do you think that the level of satire amidst the gory thrills adds to “The Hunt’s” score that might have accompanied a more conventional most dangerous game, especially given the orchestra’s outright dark humor? 

I think just as the directors and screenwriters of these films approach their subject matter head-on with no apologies, the score is asked to do the same. By going over the top with orchestra and composing themes that overtly have a “wink-wink” quality to them, we’re pulling the audience in and letting them know that it’s okay to laugh at what they’re watching on the screen – even when it’s horrifyingly gory or disturbing. 

Snowflake (Betty Gilpin)

Did you want your “Hunt” score to play favorites? And if you’ve had your own fill of PC, was it fun to score a movie whose point was letting everyone have it? 

I think with ​“The Hunt​”it was important that we give our lead protagonist, Snowball, a rooting hand from the beginning. From the time we first see her, I introduce the simple and chunky motif in the celli and basses that carries her along throughout the entire film. This theme is essentially rooting for her from its first introduction. And in terms of scoring a film whose point was letting everyone have it, yes it was refreshing to play in an arena where there were no “toes” to worry about. 

Snowflake versus Athena (Hilary Swank)

“The Hunt’s” standout musical scene is the knock-down drag-out climactic fight between Betty Gilpin and Hilary Swank. Was it particularly tricking scoring this given the literal beats in the scene, which is as full of dark humor as the rest of the film? 

The trickiest part about the final showdown between the two lead characters was how to balance source music with score in the scene. By the time I came onto the film, a couple different approaches had been tried as far as how far into the scene the classical piano source carries us before the score jumps in. It’s a really wonderfully choreographed and violent fight sequence between two powerhouse characters and that part of it was really fun to work with. 

It’s likely no project you’ve worked on will have the controversy of “The Hunt.” Were you at all expecting the Trump level of it, even though you were one of the few people who had actually seen it, let alone worked on it? 

I think at the end of the day, “The Hunt” couldn’t catch a break as far as a proper release. Several gun violence events and a tweet by Trump made it prudent to delay the release date in the interest of good taste and sensitivity. I don’t think anyone expected POTUS to be tweeting about this film and like the other detractors, they ultimately all got it wrong because we all know how it ends now. Based on the first round of trailers, there was an expectation about the finale of this film and who comes out on top, and all the detractors were dead wrong about it. I think anytime anybody judges something before they’ve seen it themselves, we’re in dangerous territory. That goes for all art, not just films. I think in the long run, “The Hunt” will stand out as a really fun, subversive, over-the-top, un-PC film that will become a standout in the genre. 

Had you scored period-jazzy projects like “Hollywood” before? And if not, what was your learning curve for that style like? 

It was such a treat to explore this style and I enjoyed it very much. I’m so grateful that based on my earlier work on ​“The Americans”​ that Alexis Woodall and Ryan Murphy felt I could pull off a period jazz score for “Hollywood.” It’s the kind of project composers live for – super melodic and sweeping while constantly paying homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood. My first feature film ever had some period jazz cues in it, but it was really a genre I haven’t explored since then and this was 20 years ago. Writing in this particular style came fairly naturally to me and while I am probably not fooling “serious” jazz composers, I think most listeners will buy into it all! 

Given your love of old films, was this a particular treat to score? Are there any stars, movies and scores from that period that stand out for you, and that you wanted to emulate? 

I do love old films and old film music. Afterall, they are responsible for establishing the “road map” for all filmmaking since. In particular, I’m a huge fan of the films of Victor Fleming. Two of the three films that are absolute standouts for me in my childhood were directed by Fleming – ​1934’s “Treasure Island” and 1937’s “Captains Courageous.” Another important film to me from my childhood was 1938’s ​“Angels with Dirty Faces,” which was directed by Michael Curtiz. ​“Captains Courageous​” has a score by Franz Waxman that was, in a way, the score of my childhood. I just love the sweeping orchestral nature of it as well as the themes, the main one of which starts on a humble hurdy-gurdy played by Spencer Tracy’s character Manuel. That becomes the main theme of the film as young Harvey transforms from a spoiled brat into an honorable young man with Manuel’s guidance. As a side note, this film was also where I first became fascinated with the Hurdy-Gurdy. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that the music heard that was supposedly being generated by the Hurdy Gurdy played by Manuel was actually a couple violins dubbed in! It was a little disappointing to realize that, but the Hurdy Gurdy has still been a featured instrument in many of my scores from the beginning. 

A

Jeanne Crandall (Mira Sorvino)

Tell us about writing “Hollywood’s” main title? And what’s the key to being memorably catchy given the increasingly short time a composer is given with them? 

“Hollywood’s” main title was one of the most challenging I have ever written because the pace of working on it was so fast and furious. The picture was constantly changing, being tightened, and having shots added. The minute I’d have the score in a great place over a cut, it would completely change and would involve re-jigging moments and reordering themes to match the new picture. The main themes featured in ​“Hollywood​’s” main title are Jack’s theme and the Golden Tip theme. It’s actually just the B section of Jack’s theme which is a longer tune. The piece starts with the simple Golden Tip motif and then launches into quite an interesting arrangement of Jack’s theme. In terms of being memorable, that is of particular importance to Ryan Murphy and Alexis Woodall. They are very committed to strong and memorable melodic content in the scores of all their shows, which I’m a fan of. In terms of writing a catchy theme in a very short amount of time, it’s always a challenge but as long as I remember that the great tunes are all hummable, singable, and easy to whistle, that’s a good starting point. 

How do you personally identify with “Hollywood?” And is there a character here that you feel particularly close to?

When I first came to Los Angeles in 1996, I had just seen the Kevin Spacey film “Swimming with Sharks,”​ which is about an abusive boss and the enablers around him who are willing to sacrifice anything and everything for a leg up in Hollywood. This was a scary film to watch just before landing in town, but fortunately for me it proved to be more of a cautionary tale then something to mimic. At the end of the day, ​“Hollywood​” is about people who are enormously ambitious and are often willing to go too far to get the success they think they need to make themselves happy. At the end of the day, the show is about being true to oneself regardless of how those around us will judge us. I give kudos to the showrunners for giving the darker side of traditional Hollywood history a positive spin. And to that end, I can find something to identify with in most characters in the show because there is an earnestness and an innocence in their enthusiasm to make it in the business that I can relate to from when I first came here over 20 years ago. 

Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) and Camille (Laura Harrier)

You’ve had a long history with shows that are sexually progressive when it comes to depicting gay relationships, and “Hollywood” might be the most sympathetic, and powerful of them all in handling that, as well as a number of social issues from racism to women’s rights. Does that give your approach an extra reverence? 

I think as a composer the most important thing to focus on are the journeys of the characters, emotional and otherwise. If I can approach the story from their point of view and stay away from overtly tackling the issues with the music, then any story becomes less heavy handed and more relatable. I believe it’s always about plugging into the humanity of the characters and finding that common thing that anyone can relate to despite their differences. 

Super and salacious agent Henry (Jim Parsons)

“Hollywood” has many powerful monologues of characters talking about how injustice has shaped them, and the music is particularly impactful during them. Could you talk about scoring them, and was there any particular one that stood out? 

The monologue that stood out for me most is the scene where Eleanor Roosevelt comes to Ace Pictures and sits down with Avis to discuss the importance of releasing “Meg” with an African American actress in the lead. In terms of scoring this moment and others like it in the show, the score is there to support the humanity of the moment and not underscore the larger social issue at stake. One of the interesting things about working within the Ryan Murphy world is that when I write a piece of music and hand it over to the editorial team, it may end up anywhere and in any scene. They have a particular sensibility about what music goes where and are very passionate about how they use the score. Oftentimes they surprise me by using cues in ways I never expected. I have had to learn to surrender the need to be very specific about themes and placements of cues and trust that they know best as far as the vision they are trying to create. If memory serves be right, the cue under this scene is one of those times. 

Jack (David Corenswet) and Ernie (Dylan McDermott)

Conversely, how did you want the music to reflect the fun of Hollywood’s underground sexual playground, especially when it came to its “full service” gas station? And on that note, were you aware of the real-life character of Scotty that the character was based on? 

One of the great characters of the season is Ernie, the head of the Golden Tip service station. He’s such a broken and corrupt character, and yet deep down there’s a good heart and a great sense of loss of not having had the career he thought he was destined for. He has turned to the darker side of life with no apology in order to keep himself afloat, and he becomes a collector of Hollywood secrets and indirectly helps some of the characters get a leg up through prostitution. And so musically while Ernie’s theme has some mystery and darkness to it, the business he runs needed a theme that was fun and peppy and about plugging into the dream he was selling at The Golden Tip. As I researched the story a bit I did know about the real character of Scotty and was intrigued though I have yet to read the book. 

“Hollywood’s” scoring varies between period music and more dramatic and humorous approaches, and often all three. How did you want to vary that? 

Going into a show like ​“Hollywood​,” I knew that the music should be thematic and memorable with its themes. In terms of instrumentation and style, it needed to live in period jazz. I knew that percussion would come in handy with some of the humor. This was as opposed to the tried and true, yet slightly tired “oom-pa oom-pa” plucky strings that are often leaned into. The tone of the show is quite complicated in its humorous approach to charged and often-times dark material. This was the trickiest line for me to walk, but once I had my themes in place it became easier to approach those moments by focusing less on the humor and more about plugging into a specific character theme. 

Avis (Patti Lupone)

Could you talk about scoring the movie-within-a-show “Meg,” and what kind of old-school music you wanted to capture? 

With much more time, I had ambitious plans for the period-scoring of the actual movie within the show. But the time crunch on that episode was so enormous that I was flying by the seat of my pants. I tried to plug into that wonderful, old, melodramatic orchestral music that nowadays seems so ham-fisted and corny, and yet back in the 30s/40s, was so perfectly wed to the style of acting and storytelling that existed at that time. I suppose everyone from Bernard Herrmann to Franz Waxman were influences in scoring these scenes. But again, my vision of what that could have been was quite different from where we ended up. While I do think it is successful, I wish I had had all the time in the world to get into the detailed kind of writing that it ultimately wanted, in addition to recording it with real orchestra. I have to give a shout-out to Spitfire’s Bernard Herrmann library which was of enormous use during the time crunch on these sequences. 

Claire (Samara Weaving) and Camille

Do you think the years since have made breaking into Hollywood any less dog-eat-dog, especially when it comes to composers who might do anything to get up that ladder? 

I think there’s more competition now than ever because there are so many younger people taking college courses about film scoring and that kind of curriculum hardly existed when I was in school. They are being turned on to the idea that one can make a living writing music for film and television. With a larger pool of people hoping to get their break, I think it’s more important than ever to have a unique voice as a composer. I think there are probably just as many people today as there were back then – in terms of an overall Hollywood approach – who are willing to do things that many of us would gasp at to move up the career ladder. Obviously while ​“Hollywood”​ has quite a funny approach to using sex and intrigue to develop one’s career, the dark and real side has come to light over the past several years as the Harvey Weinstein scandal and others have hit. While I think there is enough distance between us and all of this sexual pay-for-play that went on in the 40s, it is still very much a part of Hollywood today, although finally there is a light being shined upon it and people are beginning to take back their power, sense of decency, and hold those accountable who are using their positions of power to gratify themselves. 

Would you say that “The Great” is the most stylistically different project you’ve done? And given its setting, did you do any of your own digging into the historical era and its music? 

I absolutely adore ​“The Great” ​from start to finish. I got the gig by writing a demo that was about as far away from period as one can imagine. The wonderful music supervisor, Maggie Phillips, told me there had been many demos written and the ones that stuck to period orchestral music were not of interest to the show’s producers. They were looking for something completely different. My first pass on the demo was entirely synth-sounds with solo violin. To approach a beautifully shot period-piece in 18th century Russia using just synthesizers was certainly new for me. Once we got into the actual scoring though, Hulu felt that doing the score all-synth drew too much attention to the music. We ended up settling on a happy medium where it was oftentimes orchestral with synth elements which seemed to work well. Tony McNamara and Marian Macgowan always pushed me to lean into the synth more whenever I could and that was a fun part of the process. In terms of digging into the historical era of that music, we only did that in some of the source cues by using balalaika, violin, bass drum, cello, and some other instruments that one likely would have found in a palace band of that time period. 

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great

“The Great” has a lot of wildly different tones going on in it, from outright vulgar court comedy to the far more serious threat, and repression that Catherine is facing. How hard was it for the music to balance that? 

Honestly one of the largest challenges of “The Great” was its use of many smaller cues as transitional moments or mood-setters. Even if there was 20-25 minutes of score in an episode, that might be broken up into 30-35 different cues. There were certainly times, like in the pilot, where the score was really able to stretch out and develop themes and be as lush as the gorgeous cinematography, sets, and costumes. But more often than not, the music wanted to just give a little giggle at the end of a scene or transition from one mood to another over the course of a 15 or 20 second cue. I had a lot of fun with the darker aspects of the story because in the world of The Great, darkness was always treated a little humorously, and that was interesting. I think of the General Velementov theme which is done humorously with bassoon and low strings. He is ultimately a very capable general, but his mistreatment by Peter and bumbling-drunken-flirting behavior with Catherine gave him a bit of a roly-poly quality which wanted to be supported by the score. 

Was it important that the instrumental approach of “The Great” wasn’t hamstrung into “classical” mode, especially given how the show is going after a younger audience? 

As I mentioned with the demo, the last thing Tony and Marian wanted to do was the straightforward approach of orchestral classical music. I think that choice was less about going after a younger audience than it was playing to the fact that Catherine was quite young, controversial, and forward-thinking during her life. So going left of center and incorporating synths played to that part of her character. While there was lots of orchestral music recorded, the pulse was often electronic and the melody, if played on a violin, was often doubled by a synth and wildly over-vibratoed. My wonderful assistant Harry Risoleo played all the solo violin parts in this show and nailed the sound I was going for. This approach was really fun. 

Catherine and the not-so great Peter (Nicholas Hoult)

How did you hear the character of Catherine?

When I first saw the pilot I was blown away by the entire thing, but especially Elle Fanning’s approach to Catherine’s character. She brings a real humanity at the deepest level to who Catherine was and what she was trying to accomplish in a time that was all about using oppression and violence to maintain status quo. Catherine begins as an innocent, naive, and whimsical young woman with stars in her eyes and dreams of what her relationship with Peter will be. Yet even in the pilot there are a few character moments that set up the change that is to come. From the perspective of the score, I set that up with a very simple six note motif sung by boy soprano that has an electronic sound to it. I always looked at this as Catherine’s calling to larger things than just a subservient housewife to Peter. I think ultimately while playing the fun and humor of her approach to things, the score is often taking moments to remind the audience that she has intelligent and powerful changes that she wants to make to life in 18th century Russia. 

How did you want to convey Peter’s brand of evil, especially given that he can be charming, or completely unaware of his own viciousness? 

Peter was an interesting character from a musical standpoint. At the core of the music for Peter is a drum ensemble that plays up his bull-in-the-china-shop style of ruling the court. Yet oftentimes any scene with Peter became less about playing him and more about playing who he was interacting with. And then there was the rather care-free guitar and balalaika tunes that played to Peter’s “ho-hum everything’s fine” approach to ruling. His truly evil moments were often played best without score, or with very subtle scoring. 

How did Corona impact the scoring of “The Great,” and how were you able to problem-solve your way to finishing the show? 

These strange times we’re living in with a global pandemic began to occur just as we passed the halfway point through the ten episodes of the show’s first season. By that time we had recorded quite a bit of orchestral music in London and some solo musicians here in LA. In some cases we were able to repurpose those recordings for use in later episodes when it was thematically and dramatically appropriate. When it wasn’t, I tried to lean into more synth elements rather than too much orchestral writing that would have stood out given how much of the show had been recorded with a live ensemble already. It certainly was a challenge, but we got to the finish line and I’m happy with the final result. 

What kind of future do you see for scoring, or do you think we’ll ever be able to go back to conventional symphonic sessions as we know them? 

I don’t know in the near term when we’ll be able to return to conventional symphonic sessions, but certainly at some point, it will become viable again. In the meantime, I suppose the worst-case scenario would be to sweeten orchestral samples with smaller ensembles that are able to record. It’s certainly interesting to think about how music overall has changed and will continue to change throughout this quarantine. On the positive side, it’s been so wonderful to see how many creative people are taking something as challenging and frightening as Covid-19 and bringing their artistic powers and humor to bear over the situation. 

One of the projects that’s gone on hiatus was the second season of “Carnival Row.” How far did they get? And could you talk about your scoring for the series, and creating another memorable main title? 

“Carnival Row” was only part way into shooting season 2 and did not have enough completed on any one episode to move forward into post when everything ground to a halt in March. I’ve very much enjoyed my experience scoring “Carnival Row” given it’s another show with a rich world realized through amazing costume design and production. Needless to say all these things are very inspiring in terms of my approach to writing music for the show. Given the steampunk nature of the story’s fantasy world, it was a perfect vehicle for the Wurlitzer theater organ that I have in my studio. When it came time to write the main title, I leaned heavily into the Wurlitzer, a solo violin, and a women’s choir. These are the three elements that make up the entire main title and when you hear how much is going on outside of the fiddle and choir, you realize the power and versatility of an instrument like the Wurlitzer theater organ. That has been an exciting part of the process. The show’s creators several times asked to hear more of the organ and so it was really fun to score an actual action sequence with it, which I can’t imagine has been done that often, if ever.

Nathan and The Mighty Wurlitzer organ

In the first episode where Philo is chasing a sailor across the rooftops, the majority of the drive of that cue is the organ, utilizing some of its loudest reed ranks. I also implemented an instrument I invented with a friend called the Stout-o-phone. Me and my assistants experimented with many different pipes and wind sounds to create percussive, driving loops that fuel this cue and show up throughout the rest of the series as well. It’s been a memorable show to work on with some nice themes that I’m proud of, including one for Imogen and Agreus that has a lovely melody that really plugs into their forbidden romance. 

Nathan and “Uncle Frank” filmmaker Alan Ball

What have you finished that’s awaiting release? 

The only other project that hasn’t been scheduled for released yet is a film I scored called “Uncle Frank​” that was written and directed by my friend Alan Ball. It premiered at Sundance this year and was acquired by Amazon. I believe it should see a release towards the end of this year. The film is another period piece that takes place in the 70s and is very dear to me. In addition to working with Alan again, which is always such a joy, it explores themes of identity and sexuality in a very powerful and poignant way. In the years we worked together on “True Blood,” Alan and I developed a shorthand that really came in handy with this film. I love Alan’s ability to communicate the deepest emotions and desires of characters and those are all at play in the beautiful story that unfolds in “Uncle Frank.” As far as the score is concerned, it was orchestral and again leaned on the Wurlitzer to create haunting, atmospheric textures that float above the orchestra. I’m proud of this score and am excited for the world to see the film. 

How has your stay-at-home been going​? 

I’ve been hanging out with my two dogs and shuttling back and forth between the studio and my home. My staff have been in their respective homes working on mobile rigs when necessary. It’s been a very interesting time with one of the greatest elements to contend being one’s mind and what it does with the isolation. I’ve actually been meditating a lot and taking the dogs on walks in between all the work that has continued. I feel very blessed to have had work throughout the quarantine and am very troubled by all those who are out of work and what’s to come. 

Do you think this period is going to bring out a new era of necessary invention from composers and film music? 

I know it’s been an interesting time for me because given all the time in the world, I felt like my imagination would run free as I continued to work. But it’s been quite the opposite. Given all the time I have, it’s been quite a struggle to settle down and focus. I do think it has been so wonderful to see some of the orchestras and ensembles around the world who have come together online to perform larger works. I saw an orchestra come together to play some of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and that was incredibly inspiring. So certainly that is something that never would have happened without the quarantine. 

Watch “The Hunt” now on VOD (with its soundtrack available on Back Lot Music) and “Hollywood” on Netflix. “The Great” premieres on Hulu May 15th with its soundtrack available digitally that date on Lakeshore Records.  

Buy Nathan Barr’s soundtracks at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=nathan+barr+soundtrack&ref=nb_sb_noss

Visit Nathan Barr’s web site at http://nathanbarr.com

Special thanks to Kyle Rodriguez

1 Comment

  • Pablo
    May 3, 2020 @ 7:55 am

    Thanks for the great read, Daniel! I always love your interviews and the way you focus in depth on specific works of composers. Now I’m really curious to hear what Nathan Barr has come up with for The Great and Hollywood, he’s got such a unique voice. (His music for The Americans and The House with a Clock in Its Walls is incredible!) Thank you for publishing these interviews, this site is such a gem for film music lovers!

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