“Revenge” composer Fil Eisler will next turn his attention to the Showtime event series “Years of Living Dangerously.” James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger are executive producing the six-to-eight episode series on global warming that will bring together journalists, actors such as Matt Damon and Don Cheadle and climate experts.
“It will be orchestral, but it will be a hybrid between that and electronics,” says the composer who recently starting going by his given name rather than the moniker iZler. “I started listening to a lot of the electronica stuff I was listening to in the ‘90s and got so burned out on. Film music and TV music are always five years behind anything that’s coming out on records and I’m trying to not do that.
“At the moment, I’m playing with ‘how do you suggest a geographic spot without reaching for the standard? We’re in the Middle East, here’s your generic Middle East music. I’m approaching it by asking ‘what if you have a melody that is pure Americana, but you start hearing scraps of that melody on instruments that are endemic to a region?’”
Eisler is among the composers who will be participating in the Billboard & Hollywood Reporter Film and TV Music Conference on Oct. 29 and 30 at the W Hotel in Hollywood. Billboard sat down with Eisler to get his thoughts on composing, creating a TV soundtrack and conducting.
What was the decision-making process in creating a single disc soundtrack for the first two seasons of “Revenge”?
I had 40 hours of music by the time season two was over -- more music than I had written in my entire life. A lot of it was thinking about what fans wanted to hear because they’ve been super vocal about the cues. At the end of the day it was ‘what will be fun to listen to?’ We’ve got action stuff in there and the main theme, which I tucked into every nook and cranny.
Armed with a full orchestra – as many as 50 pieces – you have been able to execute some pretty ambitious pieces. What do you consider highlights?
I had the stupid idea of setting an episode to (Morse code) of SOS; it was the rhythm of the entire episode. I had that idea long before I had written anymusic and I was dumb enough to tell the producer and he liked it. Then I thought if this doesn’t work, I’m the biggest asshole of all time. Fortunately it did. I spent 200 bucks on a load of scrap (metal) – we all had to get tetanus shots afterward – and I was bowing, hitting, scrapping these thing for days getting great percussion (sounds).
Most shows do not budget for orchestral scores. How did you get that to happen and how do you work it out financially?
Phillip Noyce was directing the pilot and he had come off all these massive movies that were orchestral scores and it always felt it needed to go in that direction. I was trying to do something electronic -- guitar noises, manipulated instruments – to enhance the orchestral component. I spent my own money hiring people because I wanted to get live musicians in there whenever possible and I think that ABC realized very quickly this would sound better with live musicians.They backed me right from the beginning. We’ve had big dates and smaller dates. At the beginning, we had little chamber orchestra of 22 players (for major episodes) and the smaller dates would be eight players. When we got the back nine, we got the budget to do roughly 22-25 players every week and when I did the season one finale, I remember telling the producers it’s like ‘The Bourne Identity.’ We’re going to need a bigger boat. So ABC said fine and we got a 50-piece orchestra. When we came back for season two, we had 50 players, full strings and winds.
Having a consistent set of players has to be helpful in how you write, correct?
In doing a show with an orchestra -- and you’re recording once a week -- you have to have your shit together as a conductor or it will fall apart. You find out how far you can push them, too. I remember on the second episode there was an action scene and I wrote something challenging and in a half-day session with no rehearsal and, of course, they smoked it in the first take. OK I should have gone way farther. So the next time you push it a little further. One thing I will never forget, I had to write a requiem, a send off for the Amanda character and I had only read the script and there was no picture because special effects were being added last minute. It was like making ‘Die Hard’ in a week. Because of some lag time in the schedule I had a little time to study and one of the things I came across was Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten by Arvo Part. There’s a very specific formula he wrote that to and I had a melody, an idea that was nothing like it, but I wondered what would happen if I applied that formula to it. I ran with it and when the orchestra played it – it was one of those moments where you (he mimics sobbing) can’t believe how well they respond.
Does having an orchestra spoil you?
I think it's great when people do things with electronics and programming -- there are awesome scores like that. Even though you can do great things with samples, you miss out on the heart and soul you get from having real musicians. All of these layers of quality matter to a show. People might not know the difference of music vs. samples underneath dialogue, but when the emotion is there versus almost being there, it’s like someone saying we don’t really need to color correct an episode. Peel away layers of production and you feel the difference.
You have a midseason show, “Reckless.” What’s the musical plan?
Very guitary. It’s a (police) procedural so I am trying to turn elements on their head, not the standard instrumentation. A lot of the percussion is made out of guitar sounds. I’m using my time to make building blocks of weird sounds.