David Norland is an absolutely charming and wonderful English composer who is based in Los Angeles. Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his work on HBO’s upcoming film My Dinner with Herve, which stars Peter Dinklage and Jamie Dornan.
David’s music encompasses all styles and genres of television and film, and it’s almost a guarantee that you’ve heard his music in shows like 20/20, Good Morning America, and Nightline. His passion for the work he does began at a really young age, and has blossomed into something he has been able to make a career out of.
I particularly enjoyed learning about David’s collaboration process and how he works with the director, editors, and the like to dissect and understand every aspect of the given project in order to give it the proper feel and vibe. He has an amazing talent and process with which he brings life to scenes of television and film and without his talent, we would cease to enjoy what we are watching. Check out my conversation with David below as we talk about his beginnings, his techniques, and some of his favorite projects!
How did you get into composing? And was there anyone in particular that inspired you to become one? I always wrote music from the youngest age. My folks had a piano in the home and I’d spend hours playing on it. This was around age 5 or 6, and I was having formal piano lessons at that point. But I was just interested at sitting at the piano and making abstract pieces of my own at that point. That carried on throughout my childhood and my teen years, I was always in band and choirs as a kid. I was in this choir that went around the U.K. singing 16th century church music in cathedrals in Britain. Then at age 13, I discovered the electric guitar and I took a hard left turn into rock music at that point.
But the whole time, I was writing pieces for no purpose other than just because it was the most intriguing and entertaining thing for me to do at that point. In my late teens, I had a basic recording setup and you could not pry me away from that thing. I would sit there with the headphones day in, day out and just record. The happy ending is that I got turn all of that into a career because otherwise I’d be really badly out of luck because it was all I was interested in doing.
I am inspired by lots of composers! Growing up, singing in choirs I loved the music of Thomas Tallis who was an English church composer in the 1600’s. I took composition lessons at age 11 and at the time I was really interested in baroque music. In terms of film composers, the two things I was most smitten by was Vangelis in Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner and, Ennio Morricone’s score for Once Upon A Time in America – I loved the film the first time I saw i,t and I think I recognized that there was something in the music that was really enhancing the music for me.
What is your scoring process like from start to finish? And how much research are you doing during prep? I like when the process germinates early which I’ve been fortunate to do on some projects. I’ll start writing around the time the script is finished. I like the dialogue starting early so I can find what the story is that the storyteller is trying to tell. As a composer, you’re always trying to find what the director needs to tell the story in the way they want to tell the story.
If I’m lucky enough to start at a stage where the script is in its final stages, then that’s great and I start writing at that point and then when they start shooting I spend some time on the set. Writing early is very helpful because when you get that opportunity one of the things that can happen is that then when you first see the assembly which is the first version of the edit everybody says it’s a disaster because it’s not edited and there is no finesse to it and it’s a bunch of footage stuck together.
If you have pre-written stuff from the script, what can happen is you can put it against the picture and it doesn’t work – that’s a risk, and it’s always possible that this could happen. But generally for me is that some of those pieces have been useful in terms of putting it against picture and a lot of times they don’t end up in there but it starts the dialogue. So even if the answer is no these aren’t it, at least we can talk about why that’s not it and over a period of time gradually we can develop things that are more successful against the picture. It allows you to determine by process of elimination what the musical language of the film is.
For November Criminals, which we did a few years back, I had written this dark-sounding sort of distorted atmosphere. It’s a sad film about loss against a pretty disturbing background. Although none of those original cues ended up in the film, the soundscape of the cues were right for the film.
As we go through the edit and lock it, quite often I have a lot of music in the film already and then it’s a question of going okay what’s missing and how can i expand on this. Rather than one of the things that can happen is that as a composer you’re presented with a locked cut and you only have one month to go through the entire process.
As you’re scoring, how often are you collaborating with others on whatever project you’re working on? Quite often actually! There are a couple of really key components in the post production process for music. Firstly, there’s the picture editor who is essentially pulling all the pieces together to tell the story and determining the order and speed with which the story develops. So, that person is usually influential in what I do.
Carol Littleton, the editor of My Dinner With Herve who also worked on E.T., is a legend. She’s amazing to work with! Whenever you get to work with a director, editor, or music supervisor looking at the picture and seeing the music you’ve written affects the scene, I always end up learning from them. Carol has so much amazing experience and how the music affects the telling of the story. The beautiful thing about that is that all of that is available for me to learn from. Another key component is the music supervisor that tends to be involved in the casting of the composer and selection of music outside the score.
In terms of my team, I have a brilliant assistant and arranger who orchestrates and conducts the orchestral sections. Sometimes, he will design sounds for me and he’ll take pieces that I’ve put together and enlarge and enhance them when we’re on a deadline. So, there is a team involved, and then there are a number of musicians who I’ve known for ages who I can go to when I’m working on something and need them. The best part about this job is you can never really get bored with it!
When you are working on a film or television, what aspects or elements are you looking into to help you score? There are a number of ways to look at why you would place music at a certain point. One of the things in the process happens once there is a locked edit–the spotting session. The director, the composer, editor, and music supervisor sit in a room and watch the film through and observe the music where there should be music and where there shouldn’t be and sort of create a blueprint for what I will do. One question worth asking is what needs to be communicated that isn’t being communicated by what’s happening on the screen. If everything is being communicated, then there is no need for music there. It can be as simple as atmosphere or precise as we need to tell the audience something that the characters don’t know. If I’ve written a sheet of music then I often move it around and see what it brings in various places. The development is trial and error, there isn’t an exact process always. In some places, experimentation is your friend!
You’ve created music for some world famous TV shows including 20/20 and Good Morning America. How do you score specifically for these types of shows? It is super different to other projects, like films. The way it works tends to be those things are put together on a tight deadline, and you’re not always scoring to picture. One of the first things I did for ABC was a Barbara Walters special on this incurable childhood disease that was a very tragic story of these little children who have a disfiguring disease and talking about what life is like for them. It was being turned around really quickly and the call I got was that they needed five or six cues that will break people’s hearts but not in a sentimental way, but rather in a way that reflects the difficulty of living with a disfiguring, incurable disease. It just all happens so quickly so the process is very different than scoring a film.
You’ve also done film composing including November Criminals and the upcoming HBO film My Dinner With Herve. What challenges do you face with doing film over television, or vice versa and what are some of the benefits? The challenge with turning stuff around quickly is literally just that, the speed of that. But in a way that can be helpful because you don’t get time to second guess yourself. You take an idea and run with it and I have a discipline in terms of that I don’t start something I won’t finish. Having this discipline, sometimes the things you think wont work, years later I realize they did. On a film, there is a lot of time to second guess yourself. But the beauty is that you really get to dig into the narrative and have a long dialogue and collaboration to try and make something that really transcends.
There is usually a barrier between what you do and bring to the table as a composer versus a director that may or may not have the background to understand your process. How do you communicate in that case? This is such a great question! That’s the key to doing this successfully, especially as a composer. It would be easy to assume that everybody has a facility with the same musical language that the composer does and that would be a mistake. I think the best way to do it is play the music and talk about the music in a very informal fashion and find out what triggers a reaction in the director or the person telling the story. And talk about what they are getting from that and then the hope is that you can build up a unique means of communicating with the person you are communicating with and build up points of reference. It’s the composer’s job to open the doors wide open for dialogue.
Out of the work you’ve done, what are you the most proud of? I’m proud of the score for My Dinner With Herve and I’m still very proud of Anvil: TheStory Of Anvil. I have a personal project that I’m working on that I’m really proud of – it’s modern classical piano with some distorted stuff behind it.
Advice for others aspiring to do the same? Keep creating, no matter what.
Find out more about David Norland on his personal site here, or check out the trailer for the upcoming My Dinner With Herve.