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INTERVIEW: ‘Birds of Prey’ Composer Daniel Pemberton Talks Harley Quinn and More

Daniel Pemberton pic

There aren’t many film composers who would think of blending Rage Against the Machine style rock with sweeping Ennio Morricone style orchestrations to create the sound of a comic book character. However, those composers aren’t Daniel Pemberton. His unorthodox approach to film composition harkens back to the experimentation of John Barry while an emphasis on rhythm and electronics feels rooted in London breakbeats. Yet, that doesn’t even begin to describe the work Pemberton has crafted over the years.

The English composer has collaborated on such a wide variety of projects ranging from Guy Ritchie‘s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” to Ridley Scott‘s “The Counselor” and “All the Money in the World.” Pemberton even wrote three different musical compositions for one movie in Danny Boyle‘s “Steve Jobs.” He redefined what exactly a comic book movie can sound like with his beloved hip-hop-inspired score for “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” Most recently Pemberton recently stretched his jazz muscles for Edward Norton‘s “Motherless Brooklyn” which garnered him a Golden Globe nomination.

There are so many films where you look at the poster and know what it’s going to sound like before you’ve even seen the movie,” said Pemberton. “If I’m doing the score, I want people to have no idea what it’s going to be like. I want to give you a surprise.”

Needless to say, there’s no one scoring films quite like Pemberton. He throws out the rule book and allows for his creativity to pave the way for what exactly movie music can be. His latest work on DC‘s “Birds of Prey” further proves this.

“Birds of Prey” sees Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn with a target painted on her back after her breakup with The Joker. Unprotected and on the run the mobster Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) places a bounty on her head. Harley must team up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) in an effort to seek emancipation.

I recently had the privilege of chatting with Pemberton about his work on “Birds of Prey,” what he looks for in a collaborator, creating music in tandem with a soundtrack, what we can expect from the “Spider-Verse” sequel, how “Uncut Gems” fucking rocks, and much more.

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Griffin Schiller/Awards Circuit: I’ve always been fascinated with your unorthodox approach to film composition. With “Birds of Prey,” it felt like you were going for a mix of Rage Against the Machine and Ennio Morricone. Could you talk about the process of discovering the sound of that film?

Daniel Pemberton: Those are two big references, Rage Against the Machine and Ennio Morricone. This film felt so different from other superhero movies and comic book movies. I talked to Cathy Yan, and she said to me, “this is Gotham City like you’ve never seen it before, and it’s a side of Gotham you haven’t seen before.” You don’t normally see Gotham City in the day, with colors, and the costumes are amazing and highly fantastic.

Harley has such an interesting personality because it feels like she’s got multiple personalities, and I felt like she could be at home anywhere. She could go to the opera or go to the mosh pit of a metal night. She could be at a rave or a sixties kind of retro gig. I felt like she would go towards things and enjoy them and not give a fuck if they were cool or not. She’s got this sort of badass side, but then she’s also got this kind of crazy side and this sort of elegance but also this sort of recklessness. I wanted to take the fact that she had all these different personalities, sometimes at the same time and say, shop like an opera singer over a sort of sixties track, or like shop a rapper over a Rage Against the Machine style metal track. I thought the music needed to reflect her style of just putting things that almost shouldn’t go together, but are sort of effortlessly working.

GS: That’s something I think goes for the film as a whole because it’s told like her stream of consciousness, and her thought process is all over the place. But, you’re also working in tandem with the soundtrack, which isn’t the first time that you’ve done something like that. I’m curious as to how that affects your composition and if you are involved in the creation of that soundtrack as well?

DP: I mean, the Holy Grail I’m always trying to aim for is this thing where both sides work together really well. I still haven’t been able to achieve that, but with this movie, I really wanted to take the scenes I’d been working on and develop those into songs. We managed to do that a couple of times in the film with “Jokes On You” and “Danger, Danger.” Of course that needed to be worked out with the record company, and there was some back and forth. But I wanted to blur the the lines between score and song and ultimately that was the end result. I’m part of the filmmaking process, so my number one thing is always what’s going to be best for the film. Some people come at it with different viewpoints, and they’re not necessarily bad, they’re just different. I always think great movie music is the stuff that feels unique to that movie, and, created for that movie and lived in that world that Harley lived in.

GS: I completely agree. That’s why the James Bond songs are so good! They’re not only there to accompany the opening sequence; the composers will usually interweave the title song into the composition. And so you’re right, it becomes a part of that musical DNA.

DP: Bond’s a really good example. It’s a shame that in recent years it hasn’t happened so much, because I think film composers are still quite looked down upon by people for their ability to work on, produce, and write songs. It’s a shame because I think when it does happen, it’s spectacular and you get really iconic moments in cinema. I’ve always been keen to try and do more of that. We did it a bit with “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and managed to incorporate the theme together with “What’s Up, Danger,” but to do that kind of stuff is really complicated, and you need everyone on board to embrace it. That’s the key to it. [Albert R.] Cubby Broccoli hated “Diamonds Are Forever.” He thought it was too rude. He didn’t want that in a song, but John Barry was a genius, and that’s one of the most iconic Bond songs, and it goes all the way through the film. “Goldfinger” did the same thing, and it makes for one amazing experience. That’s when you get the real magic.

GS: I want to go back to “Spider-Verse” for a second because I feel like, in a way, it prepared you for “Birds of Prey.” While they’re totally different films, they both balance multiple characters with different sounds associated with each of them, and there’s definitely a grungy sort of underground element to the music. Did you find that to be true when you were working on “Birds of Prey?” 

DP: Yes and no. Every time I do a project, I’m always thinking about what’s going to be right for that film. I think there’s a similar pop culture, comic book aesthetic that “Birds” shares with Spidey. Like the color, I love the color, and a sense of not taking itself too seriously, which I like. “Spider-Verse” is an amazing movie, but it also has a lot of winks in it. I’m always just reacting to what’s in front of me. The next movie I’m doing, “Enola Holmes,” is a kid’s adventure film with Millie Bobby Brown as young Sherlock Holmes’s sister, and it’s directed by the director of “Fleabag,” Harry Bradbeer. I’m doing a full-on orchestral score for that. You have to go with the film and try to give it what you think is going to make it the most exciting and engaging experience that it can be. I find that if you can give people surprises in the cinema, that’s what makes it magic.  

GS: I think that speaks to your collaborators as well. They’re all filmmakers who have such a distinct visual style, and they’re doing things that only they can do. Is that important for you in a collaboration?

DP: I mean, just look at the movies I choose to be a part of. I don’t choose movies because I think they’re going to be successful or I think they’re going to make millions of dollars. I always choose things because I think there’s an opportunity to do something different. I felt with “Birds of Prey” if we did what I hoped we’d do, we’d be able to move the goalposts a bit in terms of changing the sound of superhero movies and comic book movies. When you have directors with strong visions like Danny Boyle, Ridley Scott, or Cathy, you’ve got more opportunities to do that. I think what all those directors share is they want to do something original and unique, and they don’t want stuff that sounds like every other movie. They’re leaders. They don’t want to copy what’s already out there. They want to be the people setting the new standards.

GS: That’s very true. The most exciting talent right now is often those making smaller independent films, like the Safdie Brothers with “Uncut Gems.”

DP: That’s a great example. That score is fucking insane. I met them [the Safdie Brothers] recently at a party. I love that film. I love that score. [It’s] a really great example of, you know, even though it sounds like sort of late seventies Vangelis or Tangerine Dream, it just feels completely fresh, and really exciting. It’s a great example of cinema where you’re like, “I don’t know what this is. This is really weird. They’re pushing buttons; I don’t even know what they are.” 

GS: I’ve seen it so many times, and I can’t believe the stress it still causes on repeat viewings. What they’re doing there is just pure magic.

DP: But also the way they use music is really weird. I’m watching and going, “Man, they’re hitting stuff in really weird ways I wouldn’t do.” But this is great because you need people to push the boundaries and change things to keep making cinema exciting and different.

GS: Many film composers come from an electronic or producing background, which I believe you do as well, right?

DP: I come from a kind of make-it-all-up-as-I-go-along background [laughs].

GS: Fair enough! [laughs] Why do you think people who find themselves in say rap producing or DJing or electronic music, etc. are drawn to film composition?

DP: ​I think film music, when done well, is an incredibly, hugely exciting, expansive, creative toolbox. My last score, “Motherless Brooklyn,” was a sort of by the avant-garde, jazz score, and my score before that was, like a semi-orchestral sort of fantasy folk score for “The Dark Crystal.” Before that, I was doing stuff that sounds like the Beatles with “Yesterday.” The way we look at music, everyone has to be pigeonholed in a box, and you have to do one thing and do that over and over again. Whereas, because film composers aren’t really in a box, they get to play around with so many different genres and sounds. It’s very exciting and fun. DJs and producers, they’re people obsessed with sound, and film is a world where you get to play with sound all day.

GS: Before I let you go, I have to ask about the “Spider-Verse” sequel. I assume you’re working on it, and I know you probably can’t talk about it much, but what can we expect from that?

DP: I mean, obviously can’t talk about it much. I’ve been told things and let’s just put it this way: as someone who worked on the original “Spider-Verse, but is also a massive fan of the original “Spider-Verse,” I was worried that with a sequel it would be a lazy cash-in with just a wisecracking Spider-Man. But from everything they’ve shown me, it just looks like they’re going to raise the bar even more on the second one. The first one’s almost a warmup for what they’ve got in store for the sequel. So I think it’s really, really exciting. Complicated as fuck, but very exciting.

“Birds of Prey” is now playing and Pemberton’s score for the film is now available at all digital retailers.


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