Daniel Pemberton Talks Working With Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle & More on Film Scores That Make You Go 'Wow'

Daniel Pemberton in 2015
Karwai Tang/WireImage

Daniel Pemberton at Odeon Leicester Square on Oct. 18, 2015 in London.

In the short time that Daniel Pemberton has been scoring films -- his first movie was 2011’s supernatural thriller The Awakening -- he has become a favorite of such top directors as Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle and Guy Ritchie. 

The 38-year old Brit, who was named discovery of the year at the 2014 World Soundtrack Awards, spent more than 15 years scoring such television series and documentaries as Upstairs Downstairs, Complicit, Peep Show, Hiroshima and Desperate Romantics, for which he won a Ivor Novello Award, as well as writing BAFTA-nominated scores for video games Little Big Planet and The Movies, before moving to the big screen on Scott’s The Counselor, Boyle’s Steve Jobs and Ritchie’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

'Steve Jobs' Composer on Going Retro to Score the Danny Boyle Film

His ability to shift effortlessly from symphonic to electronic instrumentation came in particularly handy on his Golden Globe-nominated work on 2015’s Steve Jobs, for which Pemberton wrote a different score for each of the three acts, utilizing both a 74-piece orchestra and, appropriately enough, an Apple.

Billboard spoke with Pemberton, who just completed work on Marion Cotillard's new film, at the Transatlantyk Festival, which took place July 23-30 in Lodz, Poland, where he was a guest speaker. The Transatlantyk Festival, created by Oscar-winning composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek in 2011, gathers both established and emerging voices in film and film music and has featured such artists as Yoko Ono and Thurston Moore.

Six years ago you hadn’t scored a movie. Since then, you’ve worked with some of the top directors and been nominated for a Golden Globe. How did your TV work prepare you?

I’ve done, like, 20 years in TV, and that massively prepared me. When Ridley and I met, he told me, “You’ve done your 10,000 hours in the garage.” TV was an amazing place to learn so many different ideas, try so many different methods of working, learn the politics of being a composer, how to create great work cheap and how to spend money when you’ve got it and make it even better. British TV is an amazing arena to learn. I would not be sitting here with you today if I hadn’t learned my skills in British television. 

What is your goal for each project you score? 

I always want to create something new and unexpected. With great cinema, you always come out of it going, "Wow," and I want to do that with music. I want the film scores I do to get [people] interested again in film music and not be the same generic music you’ve heard in 20 other films that year. 

A case in point is your music to the opening of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, which is very percussive and built around rhythm sticks. Do you generally find an instrument that’s going to be your main instrument for that score? 

In the film, there’s a lot of dramatic elements based around wires and a dead body is transported in an oil barrel, so they were starting points for places to think about sounds. I like to try and find an unusual palette and work from there outwards and see what I can do with that, see what the limitations are, what kind of sound can you get? How can you get something emotional or something that has an element of tension or action from something that doesn’t usually do that? It’s really hard, because it means you’re on a film for about three times longer than normal.

You like coming in at the beginning, whereas a lot of composers are brought in after the film has completed shooting.

The downside [to coming in so early] is the filmmakers don’t know 100 percent what [the movie] is [yet]. There’s a period of working out what is the tone of this movie, so you kind of have to help them explore that. That’s a long, long process, and it means you have to bin tons of work you do, but I always think that’s the way you’re going to get the best new work done.

If you come in after [the picture’s] locked, you’ve got to do something like the music [they’ve temped with]. In an ideal world, you create your own temp score and try and create a whole new language for each film that is different and unique to that film world. I think the best music is music you can hear away from a film and instantly be taken back to that story.

How hard is it to balance what you want to do with what the movie needs?

There’s no point in just turning up and saying, "I’m doing this," if it doesn’t help the story, doesn’t help the emotion. So certain scores, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I could be really big and bold because Guy Ritchie likes for music to pretty much drive the movie, whereas with something like Steve Jobs, I had to step back a lot because you couldn’t overpower the dialogue, which is the most important part of that movie.

Guy Ritchie has such a distinct style with really quick edits. How does that affect you as a composer, especially when you’re trying to hit a beat?

It’s very hard. Guy has an amazing editor named James Herbert, and we work together very closely. James just calls me up and says he’s recut it. I shout at him, I swear a bit, and then try to make it work again. And that process continues about a million times before the movie’s finished. 

You’ve recently completed From the Land of the Moon, Marion Cotillard’s next French film with noted French director Nicole Garcia. What was that like?

Nicole was a really fantastic director. I got asked about [scoring] this film, and I really loved the French films Marion [did] previously, so I thought if she’s making another French movie, it’s bound to be really interesting. That was one where I came on really late -- they’d cut the whole film. I had this phone call saying, "The good news is we’re in competition at Cannes. The bad news is you have to finish the score in 2 1/2 weeks." So it was a pretty intense 2 1/2 weeks to get it ready for Cannes and record it. We’re  doing a couple of tweaks in Paris next week, and then the film will be finished. 

You’ve joked that no one saw The Counselor. Does it bother you when no one sees a movie that you’ve worked so hard on? 

I actually don’t really care. I would rather do loads of work on films that I’m proud of that no one saw than films that everyone saw that I wasn’t proud of. Every time I see Ridley, he says [The Counselor] is one of the favorite things [he’s] done. There’s a guy who doesn’t care at all what people think. He made Blade Runner and everyone said it was sh-- when it came out.

Are there types of movies you have no interest in doing?

Superhero movies don’t excite me because they all sound so similar, but if I could do something exciting, then it would interest me. Anything where I can try to do something different. I don’t want it to be avant-garde noise just for the sake of it, but I like to try. The difficulty is, will you really get the support to do that?

You haven’t worked with a U.S. director yet. Who is on your wish list? 

I like [Phil Lord and Chris Miller] who did The Lego Movie a lot. I like Wes Anderson, David Fincher, J.C. Chandor. There’s a lot.

A few weeks ago, you put your online royalty statement on Twitter. You earned less than six pounds for the quarter. What did you hope to achieve by posting that? 

That was meant more as a sarcastic joke between me and some other composers. It’s a tricky one because composers actually do quite well without getting residuals off their music. There’s a culture of "you got paid." Any world where something’s making money off your work, I think it’s a good world where the people who make that work see some of the money rather than just going to shareholders and corporations.

What are you listening to right now? 

I’m listening to the new M83 album. It’s quite good. The new DJ Shadow album, which I’m enjoying. With what’s happening in Britain, Pink Floyd suddenly sounds really, really good. Jessica Curry, who’s a video game composer, her soundtrack is brilliant, and some Esquivel.