If you want to have a blockbuster film, the score has to be just as important as the storyline itself. Ocean’s 8 is currently the No. 1 movie at the box office, with the female-heavy cast raking in $41.5 million over the weekend. Along with its thrilling plot surrounding the heist of a multimillion-dollar necklace at the Met Gala and the cheeky characters, the music serves as an anchor that drives the film’s intensity and humor.
Thanks to British composer Daniel Pemberton (Molly’s Game, All the Money in the World, Steve Jobs), Ocean’s 8 gets a jolt of mischief that’s backed by vibrant live horns and a collection of badass songs from popular artists like Nancy Sinatra and The Notorious B.I.G. Billboard spoke to Pemberton about his sonic inspirations for Ocean’s 8 and being a fan of the cast — including Rihanna.
Do you remember the first time you fell in love with music?
Yeah, I can remember very vividly. I saw a laser show at a planetarium in London, when I was about 10 years old or something. My dad took me there. I wasn’t particularly interested in music before that, but I saw this show and it was all lasers and synthesizer music and planets. And my mind went, “Whoa! What the hell is that music?” I remember sitting outside the place afterwards and felt like my entire world had just changed overnight. After that, I got obsessed with weird soundtrack synthesizer music. And the weirdest thing about that is the place [is on] my drive home from where I recorded [my first score for The Counselor] on Abbey Road. I often get stuck by the traffic lights on that same spot.
You could’ve ended up being a musician or an engineer, but what attracted you to composing scores?
I’ve always been quite into this “creating sound” world that felt very much like its own entity. And I found film and TV music were great outlets to do that. I found that if you’re in a band, you have to do the same set all the time. And by writing music for what is essentially slightly more mainstream media, I actually got to be way more creative as an artist.
How did you end up landing the gig for Ocean’s 8? Did the director contact you?
A lot of people involved [with the film] were big fans of a score I did for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and they felt that soundtrack’s vibe fit well for Ocean’s. So they just invited me onboard sort of quite late in the day. I’ve always been a massive fan of the [Ocean’s trilogy] soundtracks and the scores of the previous films, because music was a very big part of the feel. And I love doing things were music can be the feature rather than the supporting artist. It was really exciting for me, because I love when I can do bold, upfront music. And Ocean’s 8 gave me the chance to do that.
Was it difficult to try to not replicate the sound of the previous movies but still maintain that essence that ties them together?
I’m a massive fan of what [composer] David Holmes wrote for those films and the needle-drop source music they put in them. A lot of the things that influenced him also influenced me, like Serge Gainsbourg and a lot of British library music. So in some sense, we had a similar education when it comes to that kind of score. And I wanted to capture the groove and swagger of those films, but at the same time wanted to give a twist to this new version of the story. We probably went a bit more quirky than David’s stuff.
This score reminded me a lot of classic Hollywood films from the ‘50s and ‘60s and even some James Bond films with the big brass instruments.
Yeah, film scores during that era were rhythmic, groove-based scores, and it was very exciting. I love those scores, and I wanted [Ocean’s 8] to not feel like it was written on a computer. I wanted it to feel like it was played by musicians. You look at things like [the original] The Italian Job by Quincy Jones, or some of the Lalo Schifrin and Roy Budd scores of that time — they felt very inventive in terms of instrumentation, and they’re a lot of fun. I think they’re timeless, and I wanted to bring the best bits of them into something that would work in a modern piece of cinema.
What was the process like for this film? Did you work alongside the producers to create the score?
It’s different for every movie — it’s like starting all over again with each one. On this process, the director Gary Ross was very particular about what he liked and didn’t like. So I worked quite closely with him to try and get somewhere that he’s really happy with. This film was interesting for me, because we recorded and mixed the whole film in New York. It’s set in New York, so it was cool to score everything there. So we got a really great band of musicians from New York together and worked in the most iconic studios like Power Station and Electric Lady. That was a really exciting and fun part of the process, just having great players and using their energy to feed off each other to make the score something special.
Aside from the instrumentals, you also integrated a few artists’ songs — like Kelis’ “Bossy” and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”
There was so much discussion between so many people involved in the project, including the music supervisors Gabe Hilfer and Devoe Yates; Gary [Ross]; and Sandra Bullock. Everyone had an opinion on what worked, but I loved the eclecticism of the previous Ocean’s soundtracks, and there were some artists’ tracks on there as well.
I loved your choice of using the instrumental of The Black Keys’ “Gold on the Ceiling” in the final scene.
That track’s got a great attitude to it, so it worked with the culmination of [the characters’] lives and going on their next journey. With those kind of choices, a lot of it is between the music supervisors and the director, and people will ask my opinion.
Did you have a favorite character?
I loved Awkwafina’s character, Constance! She’s hilarious. I loved all the characters in the film, but she’s my favorite.
I’m a huge fan or Rihanna and she’s the sole musician in the cast. What about you?
Oh yeah, Rihanna’s awesome. I was really hoping we could do a track with her, but it didn’t happen. There’s loads of songs I like from here, but “Bitch Better Have My Money” is a great track.