‘Arrested Development’ composer David Schwartz talks Emmys, writing fun music


David-Schwartz_0204Arrested Development fans had to wait six long years before getting new episode before Netflix helped to ease their pain. The series managed to nab three Emmy nominations, including one for composer David Schwartz’ score. It’s a rare instance that a score for a comedy gets nominated in the category of Outstanding Music Composition For a Series (Original Dramatic Score). I chatted with composer David Schwartz about what it’s like to write music for a unique show like Arrested Development, working without a review process and what it means to be an Emmy nominee. Enjoy!

Terence: Hello Awards Circuit readers and welcome to another Spotlight on Scores! I’m here with David Schawrtz, composer, Emmy nominated composer of Arrested Development. How are you doing this afternoon?

David: It’s a very nice day in New York. Beautiful. I went for a short run, but other than that it’s been a slow day.

Well I’m sure I’m not the first, nor will I be the last person to congratulate you on getting nominated for your score for Arrested Development. What is your Emmy story? Like how did you find out about the nomaination. Were you asleep or anything like that?

I don’t think I even had it on my mind. I just sort of wasn’t sleeping in the morning and noticed my phone making those sounds. I went over and [executive producer] Mitch Hurwitz had sent me a congratulations and you know, it must have been about six in the morning so it was wonderful to get it from Mitch because everything about Arrested Development and he’s one of my favorite people. Then I had to figure out what category I had been nominated in because I also submitted a song which didn’t get nominated. But I was very glad to be nominated and really thrilled in that category because it’s the category of Best Dramatic Score. Because of the name and the way the category works it’s rare that comedy gets recognized so I just felt like that was a big win. The other composers who are nominated are just fantastic and doing very good work, and all their shows are good shows, so I felt great about the whole thing.

That’s good. That was going to be my question to you. When you read the category it sort of feels like it would exclude comedies, but you know a show like Arrested Development has so many recognizable themes and cues so it’s good that they nominated you. I know there are a lot of sound cues in the episodes, so what is the process for scoring an episode of Arrested Development?

Well it’s, um, you know I get together with Mitch and Jim Vallely, usually Jim Vallely, one of the other writer producers and our unbelivable music editor who keeps everything either in his head or on his computer, Jason Tregoe Newman, and just we sit there and watch the episode. If we have time we use it up, sometimes we can go three or four hours but we try and go through faster than that and just look at scenes and discuss what would be good there. Sometimes trying a lot of older cues against scene and Mitch will say “Well this worked right here, so we can use this” and I’m always there like “No, I want to write a new one.” As much as I can I try to write new stuff for every episode and write to picture because that to me is the job, and it’s fun and I get the best results. Sometimes we discuss themes there and sometimes the themes just develop, like oh this is the spot that this joke is trying to pull and it would be great here, and sometimes it’s less thematic. One thing that I always do, it’s not so much about the spotting, is when I start to write it’s to say ok here’s the spotting and I go back to my studio, in as long as it takes to get back to my studio, I get the show on my computer and start to write. Like most episodes of Arrested Development I like to start with what we call a swing tune, you know the ukelele tunes that are based on 30s/40s swing music and I think my influences are clearly Duke Ellington and Django Reinhart. It comes out really different because it’s soaked through my sensibilities and soaked through a Tahitian ukelele and so a majority of the time I’ve started out with a swing tunes and that becomes a theme throughought that episode.It’s really fun, also very time consuming to write a new swing tune and I’m always afriad of have I written all the ones that I have? When the musicians come in they definitely add it to and the way it’s orchestrated, but usually the ukelele is the lead instrument. In season 4, they sometimes lasted up to 2 minutes.

I know that especially with this fourth season there are a lot of interconnecting scenes and multiple viewpoints of the same scene, so what kind of challenge does that present you in scoring the show?

It was challenging, definitely, because we were working so constantly and out of order and sometimes unlocked. I’d skip to another show and see the same scenes they did or what initially seemed like the same scene and realized “Oh, this is a bit different.” Sometimes I would call Mitch and ask if he wanted it to be thematic and the same everytime they’re in this room or the penthouse or every time they’re on the dock? He’d tell me yes or no people are going to think they ae watching something they already watched. So we take it on a case by case basis. Mitch has an unbelievable faith in his audience and often like to make things more complicated [laughs] He just doesn’t want things to be too obvious. Outside of a few tunes, most of the songs are written for the show. I get to write a tremendous amount of vocal songs, I often write with Gabriel Mann, who is a great singer. He can sing in like 20 different voices and accents and we just have a great time doing that. It adds to the schedule to write full production songs and we rarely get to write full length productions. But for the upcoming soundtrack we have gone back and expanded the songs. It was a fun challenge going back and trying to figure out the second verse or where the song goes.

That’s interesting. I’ve long held the belief that in comedy that timing of everything is more important than drama. Well maybe not more important but just in a different way. You’ve mentioned times when you had to pull back, are there times when you feel this is just the right amount or is it a conversation with you and Mitch?

There’s certainly a lot conversation about it and once we developed a huge library from other seasons, we would write things against it. Until you’re really doing it, you don’t know how well it’s going to work and even then you’re in sort of your own personal vaccuum and space. Arrested is very unique, we don’t have a review process. I finsih the music, the musicians come in, I record it and usually that night its mixed and sent to the stage, and it’s going in either that day or the next day. So Mitch doesn’t usually hear everything before and if I have a question I’ll always try and send him a video and he’ll get back to me. Not having that review process makes me work harder. That said, on the stage, Mitch is apt to move cues and try and edit, and he’s brilliant at it.

What was your favorite moment or episode to score?

That’s always the toughest question. I don’t really have a favorite but Flight to Nowhere, a new ukulele swing tune that opens and almost closes the first episode of season 4 and “Getaway” the song that the character Mark Cherry writes about his feelings for GOB might be the standouts. I wrote the song with Gabriel Mann, who also sings it.

What is the difference in scoring comedy as opposed to working on something like Wolf Lake or Deadwood?

Well obviously different, but I think there’s always drama, what’s going to be emotionally right. There are television shows that really want you to enhance what’s going on on the screen and I’ve worked for ones that have more often said “what’s the element on the screen that we can bring out here?” Sometimes on Arrested we go for ultra mock over-drama and it’s funny because people don’t know where we were going. We worried that people might not understand it but they did. I’ve said before that I don’t try and write funny music I try to write fun music and I think a lot of that is pace and rythmn.

What have been some of your favorite scores that you’ve heard recently?

Hmm another tough question. I really liked Thomas Newman’s score for Skyfall, Argo (Alexandre Desplat), Life of Pi (Mychael Danna), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (Music from the Motion Picture).

Is Arrested Development coming back for a 5th season?

Well I’ve heard rumors of a 5th season and everyone says it’s coming back. I hope it’s less than 6 years. I’m ready to go now. I’ve loved working on it and it’s really a team and that includes the fantastic musicians that work for me like George Doering who’s my guitarist and does all the ukelele work. They bring it to another level.

I’ll get you out of here on this. You mentioned the length of time between the 3rd and fourth season, what was that feeling like of being able to come back?

We all thought it would be great and when we started we put this pressure on ourselves. Then we just decided to do what we did before and make it the best. We did grow, I was a different composer six years later, and though I was inspired by the old stuff, it was exciting to get back into it. Also I started working to dailies and started writing.

Awesome. Well thank you so much for your time!