"I thought I would invent a new genre, which was film for the screen. I thought that was the most exciting way of marrying film and music." We interviewed TV and film composer Dominik Scherrer
British Swiss-born Dominik Scherrer is one of the UK’s top composers. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for BBC / Starz production The Missing and last month won his second Ivor Novello award for his score on BBC / Netflix’s Requiem, which he co-composed with Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes. From Baptiste to Primeval to Ripper Street, Scherrer has provided musical score to some of UK television's biggest drama series.
I had the opportunity to chat to him from his from his studio in London.
Congratulations on your second Ivor Novello win.
Having won the award before [for Ripper Street], were you confident when you were nominated for Requiem that you might win again?
For me, getting a nomination is great. I think we got my first [Ivor Novello] nomination eight years ago for Agatha Christie's Marple and I was over the moon with that. Because I was thinking, with music, you can't really go better than that.
When we were nominated - Natasha Khan and I - for Requiem, we were really happy. Winning of course was even better, but we were happy with the nomination
You mentioned there that you worked on the Requiem score with Natasha Khan. How did that collaboration come together?
Natasha had worked with Chloë Thomson - who was the cinematographer on Requiem - on a short film that Natasha directed. It was Chloe who made the suggestion to bring Natasha in, in some capacity. I liked her work, though I didn't know her personally before working on the show.
So we did a test day; she came round to my studio and we tried out some stuff and it was really nice. It was nice to work with someone else. So then we watched about four or five episodes and put down a load of material and played with sound and recorded a load of different vocals. Some of those recordings were then used when I scored the series in more detail during post production.
You also won an Ivor Novello award for your work on Ripper Street, a period piece like Agatha Christie's Marple. Do you approach your work on a period drama differently to how you would do on a series with a modern setting?
I don't think so. I guess I tend to get hired because they want something modern. Maybe [Agatha Christie's] Marple was a bit of a mix between old and new. With Ripper Street, the show was set in the 1890s and there wasn't much point in scoring a show to use music that was totally appropriate for the time. I wanted to make it music that comes from the street , has a slight illusion of roughness against the classical orchestra used, to get the feel of the East End streets.
For me, that was quite close to my heart, I've worked in London not far from where Jack the Ripper was active. I've been in this area for a long time. I was scoring it as if it was happening now, in the modern era. But of course, you give the illusion; so there wasn't anything particularly synthetic about that score. I did use a lot of instruments that would have been used at the time and there is a period-ness to it.
But the trick is to make it sound a bit old and period and give it the weight it needs from a modern thriller - like Ripper Street is, by giving it a bigger orchestra and some big synth and some heavy drums, etc. It's more about creating the illusion of the period setting.
What was your approach to scoring the music to Requiem?
One of the really exciting things as a composer working on Requiem was that the central character was a musician and she is an accomplished virtuoso cellist. So early on in the first episode, you see her performance at the Royal Festival Hall in London. That gives you a way into the score pretty much straight away. You don't have to justify having some types of music as it's all part of her. So that was a way into the music.
Another way in was that I wanted to have a kind of period reference, a sort of 70's horror style, art-house horror. Stylistically, there was a bit of old fashioned organ type sound, to create that gothic horror element. And then part of the story is the main character goes down this place in Wales and records in this kind of 'home studio.' So that was again a kind of inspiration into how to create the sounds we make. We used a lot of tape effects and tape delays. Because that ties into the story.
As we're chatting, I can see Kate Beckinsale from The Widow. Can you tell us how you approached that piece?
I was on that show quite early on, because I'd worked with [writers] Jack and Harry Williams before on The Missing and more recently Baptiste and another show called One of Us. So they called me in early just as they were stating to shoot, which was exciting because I could contribute my themes during the edit process.
The show is set largely in central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and there needed to be a reference in there to that place, because the location is important to the story. I've seen too many shows recently set in Africa where there's nothing African about the music, so I felt there had to be some kind of African element in there. But of course, it's a kind of international action thriller too. So I plotted some African rhythmical elements into the score and there's a lot of colloquial African music that works really well within that thriller context. I went out to South Arica - they weren't shooting in the DRC because that's not really a safe place - and I had a studio for a while in Johannesburg where I recorded with a local choir and some percussion sections. That blended with the recording of the score in London. It created an exciting, cosmopolitan mix.
Let's talk a bit more generally about how you create the score. Do you like to work from the script when you're composing the music or does it come together when you've seen the footage?
Now, I like to work with the script. It's different. It used to be that I would only come on board when there was already a blocked cut. It depends on how these productions choose their composers. Maybe at the beginning of my career, I wasn't necessarily the first choice. They'd start high and it filters down and it comes down to another thirty people and Dominik Scherrer is the last person on the list. He'll do it! But by that stage, it's so late that you've only got three weeks to do it.
Now, these days I come in much earlier and work with the script. The start for me normally is an event called the read through, which is where all the cast and producers meet in one place and they all read the lines and do a little bit of acting. There you have for one hour or two hours, a real time experience and I find that really exciting. I've started to take manuscript paper down to these events, because I can feel the music as they read the lines. And then I go to the studio and expand on those themes and start to send some sketches through to the director to producers and they give a bit of feedback. I see it as a kind of organic, collaborative process.
The music in essence, helps shapes the direction of the production rather than being simply overlaid?
Yeah, I mean, I don't think my music will help change the way they shoot it. But maybe in terms of the edit. Certainly we're avoiding putting some other music in place; they always need something to finish the edit. If you have that original composition of the score, you are a lot freer and come up with much bolder ideas.
What led you to become a film and TV composer?
I think it was a gradual process. It certainly wasn't the plan from the beginning. I was always fascinated by film music. I was classically trained and then was in a band and did some touring. At the same time, I went to film school and learned film making and was always making music at the same time; everyone would ask me to write soundtracks for their short films. And things sort of went on from there.
I knew people who came back to me when they started to make their first films or longer projects. So it was a kind of organic process, going from short films to longer films and then a few years I started doing some TV. But initially I worked on independent films.
What were your musical influences growing up and have they changed today?
Growing up it was classical music. I come from a musical family where we sang in choir. The big thing was Bach; he influenced me for a long time. And then my music tastes developed more into the rock and pop world; interestingly, one of my heroes was Nick Cave. He continues to evolve and offer a different type of music and ended up doing a lot of film music as well, making possibly his most successful music at the moment. I still adore his work.
Early on I was excited by the music of Star Wars and the like - that big Hollywood sound. When I came to England it was a time where Peter Greenaway, Michael Nyman were at their creative peak with films like Drowning by Numbers, The Cook The Thief The Wife The Lover, A Zed & Two Naughts: for me that was something really exciting, that's when I got really excited about film music. Suddenly you don't have to do it the Hollywood way with the familial romantic scoring and do something that has a kind of modernist aspect to it as well. I love the way the music drives filmmakers; that, for a while, was very influential.
What music do you find most interesting at the moment?
In terms of film music, I love Nicholas Britell's work; I think these are fantastic scores. And I love the music of films The Lobster and The Favourite. Those are exciting films with exciting scoring and possibilities as well. Musically, there is a new classical wave that is exciting and more global, ethnic music that I love listening to. I love listening to a lot of Eastern European music. And doing The Widow, I discovered even more African music; there's a lot of good stuff around.
As well as your work for TV and film, I was fascinated to read about your work directing and composing kinetic opera Hell For Leather. Can you tell us how that came about?
I have always thought I would do film making and music at the same time. I wanted to do film soundtracks, so when I was a teenager I had to make my own films because no one would ask me to make soundtracks for theirs! And they were potentially very labyrinth adaptations of German literary works; they were always very score heavy, these films. Then I thought I would invent a new genre of film, which was film for the screen. It had been done before, but not very much, particularly something that is specifically written for the screen. I thought that was the most exciting way of marrying film and music.
So then I did a few of those and the most successful was Hell for Leather. It was a motor biker opera, the story of a fallen angel. It had classical opera singers but it was quite tongue in cheek, the whole thing. It did very well; it premiered at Sundance and won lots of awards. I'm still pursuing that - not full on operatic work - but this kind of creation of music-driven film excites me.
I was reading about your music composing for art installations, most notably with artist Suki Chan. How did that collaboration come about?
We had common friends in Manchester and we liked each other's work. For me, I just love working in completely different disciplines at the same time. Doing an installation is different to scoring a show and it gets me out of the studio. The way you perceive timing and use the space and multi-channel audios, I'm very interested in. They're big surround pieces but we also did One Hundred Seas Rising, which was a one-hundred channel audio installation. And I love the big technicality of it as well. I like anything that breaks out of the norm in terms of working method.
Of all the scores you have produced, what would you say you are most proud of?
Oh it's always the last I think. Though I'm very proud of Ripper Street because we did five series and I think it hangs together as one long piece thematically. I did it from beginning to end over the course of three to five years. It was quite quick and it had a proper epic ending.
In the end, I'm not sure I can say I'm proud of something, because whenever I listen to something, I can say this is okay but this could have been better. It takes me a long time to sit back and enjoy my work.
Wrapping up, is there TV series or films you would love to work on as a composer?
Well, I'm just watching Chernobyl. That would have been a nice show to work on. Something like The Handmaid's Tale; that kind of genre of TV show. There in terms of film I have a kind of obsession with submarine movies, they're my guilty pleasure. I've never scored so I wouldn't mind doing one of those some day.
A big thank you to Domink Scherrer for taking the time to chat to The Digital Fix and and to Impact24 PR.