Daniel Pemberton is one of the most unique and fascinating composers working in film. Even his physical approach to composition – such as his Golden Globe-nominated work on Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, where he utilized a different workstation and technologies for each of the film’s three time-hopping settings – feels like an immersion within the work itself that is incomparable to any other composer. “The thing that’s exciting is being an explorer,” said Pemberton. “As a film composer, you don’t get to explore quite as much as you’d hope to. You’re often going to lands that have already been discovered.”
Pemberton’s sense of exploration, experimentation, and innovation is no more apparent than in his score for this year’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, which follows up his standard-setting work on its predecessor, Into the Spider-Verse, from 2018. In addition to cues already established in the first film, Pemberton has amped up the electric-symphonic tone, and crafted new themes for characters, from Gwen Stacy, to the villain Spot, to Miguel O’Hara. It’s a career triumph which has landed Pemberton another Golden Globe nomination. “I like doing the work, but it’s nice when other people say they like it, too,” said Pemberton, in response to the recently-announced nod. “I think this is the most artistically and technically challenging score I’ve ever done, so it’s nice when that’s the one that gets recognized.”
When asked about the process of creating Across the Spider-Verse’s musical web, Pemberton elaborates: “you have no idea how much work this score was. It’s like, think how complicated the score is in the finished film, and then add so many more iterations and ideas.” This extends to Pemberton bringing the score to a live orchestral setting as well. “When I did the live show, I was really hesitant at first, because I thought, I don’t really know how you do this,” said Pemberton. “It’s not like, hey, this is just a symphony orchestra score with a drum kit. There are so many different levels of ideas and techniques, and trying to work out how to turn it into a coherent live show is very complicated. The biggest challenge was the record scratching, like how do you create a form of notation that a virtuoso record scratcher could understand?”
Ultimately, Pemberton aimed, with Across the Spider-Verse, to extend his reach into unexplored sonic lands. “That’s one of the things I always try to do with film scores, and I think one of the main reasons people responded to Spider-Verse is because it’s doing things that are new for the audience,” said Pemberton. “When you manage to pull that off, the reaction to the film is way greater.” However, getting there comes with a certain level of risk, and a willingness to fail. “To get to that point, you have to fail massively, because if you’re really experimenting and pushing at the edges, you’re going to get it wrong a lot. I think the thing people don’t see with the film is the amount of time spent on things that didn’t work, or didn’t feel as strong as they could.”
When asked about things that didn’t make the final film, Pemberton remarks on a time-manipulation program that he developed, which would have deliberately thrown specific elements of a given piece in and out of tempo. “I built this time-stretch engine, which would time stretch multiple audio files in real time,” said Pemberton. “The plan originally was to try and move within time in each part of the recording. So the drums could slow down while everything else sped up. It was so cool, but it was also mental and chaotic. It was a shame, because we spent ages building this idea, only to go, you know what, it sounds absolutely bonkers, but it didn’t help the film.”
For Pemberton, the storytelling always supersedes any musical direction he might go in, and he refuses to enhance the latter at the expense of the former. “I’m influenced massively by the film I’m working on, and when it’s a great film, it makes your job a hundred times easier. Across the Spider-Verse allows that,” said Pemberton. “I’m always trying to treat the audience with respect.”
Daniel Pemberton has spent over a decade rapidly becoming one of the most defining voices in film scoring. Check out our conversation with the one-of-a-kind composer below, where – among other things – we dive into his penchant for giving the musicians performing his compositions some freedom to reshape the work, unused musical ideas for Spot, his desire to make music that sounds of its moment rather than a throwback, and the things movie trailers could be doing better to establish their respective film’s soundtrack in audiences’ minds.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is available on streaming and physical media. Watch the full interview below.