Whether it’s a plucky string from Luca or a soaring horn from Beasts of the Southern Wild, you probably know a Dan Romer score when you hear it, and that’s a good thing.
An accomplished, Grammy-winning music producer (he’s been behind hits for Christina Aguilera and Shawn Mendes), Romer is a bit of a renaissance man when it comes to music. While film scores put him on the map, he admits he never really listened to scores growing up and fell into it while at college producing and playing in bands. It was there he was introduced to Behn Zeitlin, with whom he’s collaborated on Beasts of the Southern Wild, Wendy and most recently A Chiara. He’s even scored a video game, 2018’s Far Cry 5.
For Station Eleven, it was also an existing relationship that propelled the creative collaboration that spawned his Emmy-nominated work. Romer had previously scored Netflix’s Maniac for Station Eleven creator Patrick Somerville and the pair reside close enough to each other that they could experiment in person on some of the series’ more eclectic and abstract compositions.
In his process for creating the aural scape of Station Eleven, Romer scored an edited version of Hamlet to create and establish the vibe for the post-pandemic series, a show that features a traveling band of misfits who perform Shakespeare (including a devastating performance of Hamlet monologues). The result of the the inspiration is remarkable and creating a post-pandemic world during an actual pandemic was not lost of Romer or the cast and crew, giving the ‘virus’ itself its own theme.
During our conversation, Romer and I talked about the biggest challenges, and advantages, between scoring a two-hour film vs a 10-hour series, the joy and closeness of working with family and those he’s known for years, his process and more.
Erik Anderson: Hi Dan. How are you?
Dan Romer: I’m good. How are you?
EA: I am well. It’s about to be a busy season and time of year and all that.
DR: Let’s do it.
EA: I’m always more for busy than not.
DR: For sure.
EA: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination. How did you hear about this one?
DR: Oh, I woke up. I went to sleep knowing that they were going to be there in the morning, but I woke up and someone had texted me and I was just completely overwhelmed. We just worked so hard on this show and it’s so great that it got recognized, that it got so many nominations. We were just so happy with what had happened.
EA: Absolutely. I am admittedly a very big fan of yours.
DR: Thank you. Thank you so much, Erik.
EA: The number of times that I’ve listened to the scores for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Luca and sobbed incessantly, that continued with Station Eleven too. There are some similarities and motifs that help identify, “Oh, I know this is a Dan Romer score,” and I love that. It embeds itself.
DR: Well, I will say for Luca, I was listening to so much Italian film score and that 100% affected my Station Eleven writing. No question.
EA: What was your experience working with Patrick Somerville again after Maniac and was there some sort of unspoken language or what is that like for you?
DR: Yeah, we really honed our personal language with each other a lot more on Station Eleven. We spent so much time together. We live fairly close to each other, and we were able to meet up and play instruments together. He was able to just say, “Oh, I want this crazy sound over this part that’s like a [makes BLARN sound] kind of thing,” and I’m like, “Here’s a keyboard, Patrick. Go for it,” and he’ll just do an incredible performance of that thing that’s just… I never would’ve had the guts to do that on my own. Well, whatever. He nailed that alarm sound in a way that I would not have been able to and it’s so great having such a collaborative process with someone you love working with so much.
EA: Oh, for sure. What is your process for beginning a score? Is it based all the way back in the script or finalized sequences? Where do you begin?
DR: Yeah, well, with Station Eleven, I read all the scripts first and Patrick and I started writing songs for them to sing around the campfire in the show. And we actually, even though there’s only two songs in the show, Patrick and I wrote about, I think, 10 songs total that we could use for the show. So before filming even began, we wrote these songs to get a feeling of the world and for them to be able to sing on set if we needed to. And then I started writing the music for the Shakespeare before the filming also, because they needed to be able to perform the Shakespeare music on camera. And that was an interesting process. There was a lot of back and forth with the Shakespeare music between me back in LA and then in Canada filming it. But there was a thing where… This is a much longer thing to talk about, I guess, but should we go into that? Is that interesting?
EA: Yeah, absolutely.
DR: Okay. The process for that, so David Eisenberg, the editor, cut together a bunch of Hamlet for me. There were a bunch of scenes of Hamlet that he was like, “We might need these scored. We might not. We’re not sure exactly what we’ll need yet, but here are the things that we might have,” and it was maybe six scenes or something. And so, I scored the six scenes and then we really focused on the opening of Hamlet as the thing we were going to do. I wrote music over the video that Eisenberg had given me from another movie of Hamlet. And I was like, “All right. I’ll score to this movie of Hamlet, and then they’ll be able to do it at the same time,” and then I got a call, I think from Jeremy [Podeswa], the director.
And he said, “Yeah, they’re taking about twice as long to do Hamlet in the time you are. Can you extend every section to double the length?” And I did that. Then it came back with, “We love it. This is great, but now it’s double the length again,” and I’m like, “Cool.” They’re like… And then ultimately, on set, it was still even longer, which is great. They’re all digging into the performances and taking their time. Because I think the movie that I scored to was very back and forth and very quick. And so ultimately, the thing came back to me with the performances they had done, which were incredible, and it was such a great part of the process that we were able to have the music that they were playing to, and they nailed it.
But then it kind of became a thing with editing where it’s like, “Okay, now whenever they move, I want to make it a dramatic thing in the music, so it feels like we’re cutting to them for a very good reason musically.” Then every time we cut to them, I would try to look at their movements and try to say, “Well, what could be a really magical thing that could happen from that movement?” So, it was sort of like a back and forth, a give and take, between me and the orchestra for the writing and the performance.
EA: Just you mentioning having to expand the music is a great segue to what I wanted to ask next, and that was the differences between scoring a two-hour movie and a 10-hour series. What are the biggest advantages and challenges between those two mediums?
DR: Well, it’s interesting. There’s a big difference between scoring a television show that’s going linearly and you’re making it as it’s going on the air. There’s a certain amount of lead time. You write it and then it ends up on TV, and then when it ends up on TV, you’re writing an episode in the future while that is airing, where something like Station Eleven, we finish the entire show before it gets released. And that’s how a movie works also. So ultimately, something like Station Eleven or like Maniac, which is done the same way, pretty much any of these streamer shows are going to end up that way, or probably not all of them.
But the way that it works… The Station Eleven thing is very much like a movie where it’s like, “I can write all the themes and then disperse them to the show, and I can watch the whole thing.” Maybe I won’t see a finished edit of everything, but I read the scripts. I know where things are happening. It’s an entire 10 hour or whatever it is piece of work. It’s probably less. We didn’t do the episodes in order for Station Eleven. We went one, three, seven, two… I can’t remember. I know it was one, three, seven. So, it’s first episodes that take place pre-pandemic, because that’s what we filmed. We got to film the pre-pandemic episodes pre-COVID. So those were edited together first, and then the quarantine episode, which is episode seven, was what we did third. And so, in those three episodes, almost every theme was written.
There were, I think, two other themes that still needed to be written. There’s the conductor’s theme and the prophet’s theme, but otherwise, it was all written and so we were able to move around in a really fun way where it’s like, “Okay, I know what the music in this part’s going to be like. I know what it’s going to be like at the end of episode seven. I know this piece of music is going to be there. Let’s reference it in these places.” Sorry, this is a very long-winded answer.
EA: Not at all! Each answer is the jumping off point for the next thing I wanted to talk about, and that is what you were saying about themes, because I think a lot of people know that scores, people have themes, there are reprises and you hear the same thing and it triggers, in your mind, what you’re thinking and what’s happening. How do you create these individual pieces for a person or for the theme that you want to land on?
DR: Yeah. I try to think about who the character is and what they want and how the music’s going to be used in this show. I think about how we view them and how they view themselves. I think Luca is a really easy one to look at where Luca’s theme has all these big jumps in it where he’s searching for another world, and then Alberto’s theme is very rousing and repetitive, but energetic and fun. And then Giulia’s theme is more Italian and sort of the region, and very kind feeling. I think it’s very character motivated, and then after that, it becomes situationally motivated. On just a very basic level, you don’t want to write a theme that requires it to be a major if there’s going to be a lot of dark stuff happening.
EA: I see what you mean. The virus itself pretty much has its own theme, which is a very intense, there’s an impending doom to it, which is really cool.
DR: Yeah. Thank you. The virus cello sound was the first sound we came up with for the show on a call with Hiro and Patrick. The three of us were going back and forth, trying to figure out what kind of sounds that the virus would have, and then we got this idea to have it be a natural sound that was going through an unnatural process. So, we got the idea of putting a cello through a harmonizer, which is like what Bon Iver or Imogen Heap uses on their voice, that kind of electronic-y processor sound that it’s sort of like auto tune. It has a similar sound, but it’s actually harmonizing. Then that whole virus cello sound, we call it demon cello, was just one note through a harmonizer, essentially.
EA: I love that. What are your thoughts on collaborating compositions? I know you have with Behn Zeitlin. Is there someone that you would like to work on a score with?
DR: In terms of other composers or directors?
DR: Yeah. I know this is maybe a cop out answer, but I love working with my friends that I’ve made music with forever. For example, my friend, Osei Essed, I joined his band when I was 18 years old, maybe 19. He was playing banjo and singing. I was playing accordion. I started out on bass and moved to accordion, but he taught me how to make Americana music, because I’m from Brooklyn. I had no knowledge of that kind of music.
Playing with Osei, I learned how to make that kind of music, and then I was back in Brooklyn producing indie bands and singer songwriters, and then I scored pieced The Southern Wild and it had this kind of Americana sound, and then people kept asking me to do Americana scores. I started saying, “Yeah, but can I bring Osei on with me?” and then Osei and I scored three films, and then he went off on his own to be a composer, and then now we’re getting to come back together. We did a movie that’s going to come out in a little while and then we’re doing a TV show that’s going to come out also.
EA: Is that the Johanna Block movie?
DR: No, it’s not. Johanna Block is my cousin though.
EA: Oh, that’s so cool.
DR: Yeah. That’s how this happened. I’ve known her since she was born. I’ve got a little family of… My family’s starting to become… It’s funny. The younger generation are all becoming artists. It’s fun.
EA: I like that. That’s great to have that intergenerational experience.
EA: You talked a little bit about producing music and I know you wrote songs for Station Eleven, but you produced songs for Christina Aguilera and Shawn Mendes. Have you ever wanted to venture into songwriting on a pop mainstream level?
DR: Yeah, I’ve done a bit of it here and there. It’s interesting. I love being involved with pop music. That was my first love, and it still is my… Whatever. I love pop music. It’s what I grew up listening to. I didn’t grow up listening to film scores. I didn’t even think about the idea of being a film composer until I was 22 or something. I was just playing in bands and producing records and stuff, and then it was Ben Zeitlin and Ray Tintori. Ray Tintori is the director of the film, Death to the Tinman, and I’ve known Ray since I was seven years old. We went to elementary school and high school together. But Ray just asked me, “Will you score my senior thesis?”
He was at Wesleyan, and I said, “I’ve never scored a film before,” and he said, “Well, I had this friend named Behn Zeitlin and he doesn’t know how to actually make music. He can’t make music with his hands, and he can’t make something on his own, but he can tell you how to make music for a film. Let’s put you guys together.” So, he put us together and then we just loved working together so much, and since, I’ve learned how to do the film part of the making music for movies. And then Ben is also learning how to do more of the actual music making part. Now, Behn sometimes comes to me with very fleshed out Pro Tools demos of pieces of music he’s making for films. With A Chiara, our latest score together, he had a lot of themes ready to go on his Pro Tools rig.
EA: That’s exciting.
DR: Pro Tools being the software that we write on, not that all composers do, but Behn and I write on.
EA: Gotcha. Dan, thank you so much for giving me some time today. I love chatting with you.
DR: Of course. This was such a blast. Thank you.
EA: Congrats again. I wish you the very best of luck. I have such a special place in my heart for this show. It’s really remarkable and it’s incredible work.
DR: That’s so great to hear. I really appreciate it. Thank you, Erik.
EA: Absolutely. Have a wonderful day.
DR: All right. You too, talk soon.
Dan Romer is Emmy-nominated in the category of Outstanding Music Composition For A Limited Or Anthology Series, Movie Or Special (Original Dramatic Score) for the episode “Unbroken Circle” of Station Eleven, currently available to stream on HBO Max.