"That's one thing I really love about themes in film or TV music, it's a question of perspective and a question of contrast." - We interview Unorthodox composer Antonio Gambale
Antonio Gambale is an Italian and Australian composer based in Paris, France and the man behind the music for recent Netflix drama Unorthodox (check out our review here). Film Music Magazine praised Gambale's 'breakthrough score', which was produced between Paris and Berlin.
Antonio has a varied musical career, working collaboratively with colleague and mentor, Parisian composer Nathaniel Méchaly on the Taken film franchise as programmer, additional music composer and score producer - as well as contributing to the music for films like Columbiana and the live-action Beauty and the Beast. Antonio composed the score for the cult horror-comedy film Stung (co-scored with David Menke), which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2015 and the film adaptation of Helen Garner’s true crime novel Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which was based on the true story of an infamous murder at the university where Antonio was an undergraduate.
I had the opportunity to chat to Antonio over Zoom from his home in Paris about his career and work on Unorthodox.
Thanks for taking the time to chat to The Digital Fix. Before we talk about Unorthodox, let’s start with a bit about you. As a musician, what are your biggest musical influences?
Oh, the good old chestnut! [laughs] I have many! I have an interesting background in the sense that I grew up in a family where music very appreciated. My father was a research scientist, who was also an amateur artist and he used to paint and play classical music all the time; everyone in our family was encouraged to learn a musical instrument from when they were very young. I had quite a large extended family too, being Italian. It's quite a stereotypical thing, at least in my parent's generation it was. And, I have a cousin who's a lot older than me, who is now a very famous jazz guitarist in the United States and his career was taking off when I was in late primary school, early high school. It became quite a dominating thing in our family, that you had to love complicated, extremely brain-twisting jazz, because of this cousin; he's the one in the family that has Grammys and that kind of thing.
I love it and I appreciated what he does to a great extent, but it never really was my thing. In a way, it was almost like you had to be in the closet that you liked Steve Reich or Laurie Anderson or just weird electronic music, or even a lot of pop. A lot of my family and friends would turn their nose down at great pop music, because for them it didn't have enough chords, you know, it wasn't complicated enough. I always felt that there was something wrong with being the younger brother in my family and the youngest in a lot of ways; you feel like you should just keep your mouth shut and agree with everybody.
But I always was really drawn to like weird sounds. Like for me, music was never just about the notes and the harmony and what's written on the paper, but also about the aesthetics, the actual texture and that kind of thing. I loved anything that was really unique or strange, you know, I got into a lot of electronic music. I loved all of the big films. As a kid of the 80s and 90s, we had a great era of big cinema as well, so a lot of that was a big influence. But also a lot of obscure, weird electronic music and contemporary composers were something that I really got into. And yeah, I ended up getting into making a lot of electronic music as well, which was part of my circle back to getting into film.
If you wanted to names, anything from the ones I said before, like Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich. That was the sort of intellectual side of composing that I was really impressed by. A lot of what they do, and a lot of what they did, has found its way into film. You know, Philip Glass is famous for repetitive arpeggios and building stuff on repeating loops and that concept is hugely influential in cinema nowadays. Laurie Anderson did a lot of weird, kind of spoken word stuff and synthesiser voices and all that kind of thing, that was hugely influenced influential on so many composers. In terms of pop and things like that, not to sound like a hipster, but anything that was a little more edgy and a little less known, I was in to.
It's nothing too original, but I think a lot of what I like is, if you had to put it into one category, would be stuff that brings an image to your mind. Music that is very visual and very ambitious. I've been thinking a lot about the new version of Dune and I'm terrified because I don't want it to be bad! I re-watched the original recently and I just remembered, even though the film is super flawed, the music is incredible. There's just so much epic, amazing and such weird music in it too, which I remember connecting with this kid when I first saw it. And I realised that every note and every sound was printed in my head, like, reading a book that I read when I was twelve, you know? So yeah, I think I'm really into stuff that has this kind of this kind of evocative dimension to it.
You mentioned your cousin's music career. How did you get into music professionally yourself?
Kind of by accident, but also by will. Like I said before, most of my family were encouraged to learn an instrument and for me it was piano. We all did music and theory and did all the exams and that kind of thing; I started when I was very young. When I was around fourteen or fifteen, I loved synthesisers, even though I didn't have one. Interestingly, the brother of the cousin who went on to be the famous jazz musician, owned a chain of music equipment stores, and I remember as a kid, when we dropped by to see them, just instantly going to the synthesisers and just tweaking the knobs because I liked the sound. When it came to piano, I didn't have the discipline to stick to learning lots of repertoire. I wasn't that interested in it, I was much more comfortable just making stuff up.
Then actually what happened was that my brother, my older brother, started working in a studio, which was also a production house. They did commercials on local TV, documentaries, that kind of thing. I was nineteen and they needed someone to do music for a commercial, and that was my first ever paid gig. When I went into university - most people have a side job, you know, like in a bar or a pub or a clothing store or something while they're studying - mine was doing cheesy terrible local acts, which lead to other things because when you're doing that kind of stuff, you meet directors who are doing that as their as their money job, but they're also making their own short films and I ended up working on those short films. When I finished my degree, which has nothing to do with music, I found I had a job already; I was already getting hired to do these things.
A few years later, after I won a few fairly big competitions for short films and documentaries, I was living in Sydney in Australia and was strongly recommended to apply to the biggest film school in Australia, which is quite famous for being the place where people like Jane Campion and a lot of other famous filmmakers went on from there. They were just starting a music course for composition. They never had that department before; they had directing, producing, editing, that kind of thing. Because I've won these awards, I got a call from one of the Guild of Screen Composers, who sort of subtly recommended "hey, why don't you apply for this new thing at the film school?" I was like, well, that's not a bad idea, because I've been sort of winging it for so long, working on this instinct to want to work on the kind of films that I saw as a kid. So, I got into the school, which was really selective; you only had three students per year in the music department.
On the one hand, it wasn't so great for me, because what they were teaching at the time was more of what I already knew, like the technical side of how to do things. Whereas, I really wanted to learn more about the creative side of films and study what people had done. But what it did give me, was this context in which you went into a massive, super ridiculously funded film school; it costs them more to put a student through a course there than it costs to make a doctor, you know, it's that kind of that kind of institution. We had real film studios, real meeting theatres, the whole thing inside. And what it did, was it gave me a new sense of value of what the career was. Because when you've been working on your own, doing productions that just fall into your lap in order to make it, you know that this big world exists out there, but you don't really see it. When you're in school, you're just like, wow, this is like, for real. This is a real thing. It's like a real career path here, and so that was a real turning point, I guess.
Then I moved to France and worked six months on a project with Malcolm McLaren, the guy who invented The Sex Pistols. And then I met Nathaniel Méchaly, the composer of the Taken films. We hit it off, and he was like, "wow, I love your electronic stuff, and I want you to work with me". And about a year later after I started working with him, he did Taken and Taken 2. So that was really the sort of path that I kind of stumbled down.
I imagine the Taken films were quite a good project to cut your teeth into?
Sure. Not being in the hot seat on those projects yourself, you learn so much. On one part of your mind, you're thinking, well, I could do this and on the other hand, you get to be that fly on the wall, watching it. And you learn so much because you learn things that you didn't expect would be hard. I knew when we did those films that for the most part, musically in terms of the challenges of doing the job. I could do it, my version of what Nathaniel did. But on the other hand, seeing him deal with the stresses of the production, the pressure and the different opinions; Nathaniel said this is something you don't get, unless you work on the production like that. It's not just about, you know, how we want to approach this and it'll be great. There's a lot more psychology to it, than that.
Before composing, you were on the music department for films like the Taken trilogy, Columbiana and Beauty and the Beast. I guess they all helped you to develop your career in music?
Yeah, I mean, with for example, with Taken, as I said before, when we first met, Nathaniel really liked the electronic stuff that I was doing. At the time, that was really becoming a thing, especially in action films. It was around the time that the Harry Gregson-Williams sound was becoming the thing, which was a real blend of straight up orchestra and synth, you know. So when he heard the stuff that I did, he was like, well, that's really cool, he can do that . But he's got more of a classical background too. And he thought, you know what, it'd be cool to have someone working with me. And he also needed an assistant straight up at the time. So I started out working, doing some programming and also assistant work, learning, like sitting next to the hot seat, seeing how it goes. By the end of the trilogy, by the time Taken 3 came out, I was writing cues and was score producer. So yeah, that's how that worked out.
Okay, so let's talk about your work as a composer and your work on Unorthodox. It's the first Netflix series that primarily uses Yiddish language and yet the score itself doesn't really have that kind of stock, almost cliche Jewish tone to it. Can you tell me how you prepared the score for the show?
That's a really interesting, very good observation. That was a rule right from the very beginning. Before I was picked as the composer, the producers had a pitch document, which they sent out to twelve composers and a kind of Bible. This is the kind of thing we want, a brief description and three excerpts; three scenes in script form because obviously nothing was shot yet. One thing they told us from the very start was, we do not want an overly Jewish cliche music score; we don't need it, it shouldn't be there. And it makes complete sense because the in Unorthodox there are really three worlds in terms of diegetic sound.
One is the Yiddish culture and the music within that, and that we have plenty of, the authentic music chosen very carefully for the wedding, and what they play in the houses and what they sing in the rituals, all that kind of stuff. We had a consultant actually who worked with the music supervisor. He's actually one of the cast members, but also from that world and he guided them for that. Then there's the classical music, which is obviously important as well, because that's what she learns and what she comes for, but also what she used listen with, with her grandmother. It's not just about, you know, this new world that she wants to become a part of; it's also a way a bridge between her culture and her community, all the things that she's been told you're not supposed to do and you as a woman don't do that, hearing her grandmother's stories about what they used to do before the Holocaust, back in Europe. When Esty does finally meet the students that are learning this music, it really serves as a way for her to not reject them, to sort of think, hmm, well, these people that I've been told all my life are corrupt, awful people outside the community. How bad can they be, if they like the same music I do? You know? And then there's the electronic Berlin world.
So they were all going to be there anyway, we didn't need that for the score. So, the challenge for the score was to really make a sound that felt right rubbing shoulders with those things, that didn't jar with those worlds. But also, it had to have a little bit of an influence from them. Of course, when it comes to cultural music you can get away with doing techno-y things much more than doing religious or cultural things because then seem they seem fake and there was nothing about this show that was meant to be fake. The producers really wanted to make the representation of this community authentic, you know. It's first time they've ever had a Hassidic wedding for example ever. So it was more a question of what we didn't want defining what we did.
Music is is a significant part of the opening scene of episode one. There's very little dialogue when Esty escapes New York. Were you aware the music would drive the opening of the whole series?
Yes, there was a lot of talk about that from early on. Actually, interesting story; the opening credits has a kind of graphical depiction of the wire that they put around on the Sabbath. That music for that was one of the first things I ever did. I was asked to pitch something for the opening credits and their direction for that was we don't want it to seem like a Jewish, cultural, weird spiritual show that will only appeal to people who are interested in that particular topic. It isn't about that. The show is more general than that; it's about people. There's this escape, there's this drama and then there's the techno world of Berlin; all of that had to be folded into the content of the title. They really liked what I did with the pitch to the title. That was always going to be where that whole long opening of the first episode ends up; you had your landing point. And so, that whole piece of music for the whole start of the show is like one long intro into the opening credits. A lot of things change while you're editing. So a lot of those scenes in the opening were switched around. So it was challenging to score. We had to redo it many, many times to sort of get the mood right.
The last thing I'd say about that is nowadays in the in the era of streaming, you know companies like Netflix really know, a lot more data about what people watch, then, in the traditional ratings models from TV. So we were very aware of the fact that they this opening section was crucial to the show because they know from, from the data, that if people tune out from the first beginning part of the show, then they're not that interested and won't come back and keep watching. So we had to walk a little wire to make sure you didn't overdo the tension and the drama but still draw people in. I think by avoiding the sort of Jewish cliches and things like that, it made it a much more generally appealing.
There's lots of tension in the music throughout, from the opening sequence to that scene where Esty's being observed by her future mother on a supermarket. It's a really awkward scene where she's being watched and I noticed in the music there is very almost underlying tension to the whole thing. Was that your intention as a composer, to amplify the awkwardness of that whole situation?
Yeah, there were quite a few scenes like that and we use a kind of variation of a similar piece, for all the times when that kind of thing happened. The supermarket scene was pretty amazing. One thing that I would say in general about Unorthodox is that acting is scenes like that is so good that you really didn't need to put as much music in, you know. There are a lot of long scenes in the miniseries that don't have music at all. So when we put it in, like, for example, that supermarket scene, we were really just about heightening that sense of awkwardness.
What's so weird about that scene, you know, is being in a supermarket, and then suddenly you're the product that's being shopped. It's almost impossible to imagine that happening, but it does. And so, there was this one turning point that I really talked about a lot, when she's sort of walking away and she finally turns around, and you see that she sort of gathers her composure. She decides, okay, okay, this is what we're doing, I'm going to show you a little bit of grace and she walks back towards them.
That was really important to music because on the one hand, yes, the music was generally there about tension and awkwardness. But it was really important to support the fact that there was a decision moment, where she kind of realises, okay, I'm gonna play your game, and I will walk past you. It plants the seed that, you know, she's gonna do something, she's takes control, she's not just circumstantial in her world. She's really got this inner strength. If you've got direction like that on your music, it's just as important as when you give direction like that to an actor. You're really choosing these flexing points in the story where you said, now they say this.
One of the other things about the first episode was the scene where Esty throws the wig into the water of the lake. The music feels more hopeful, a bit more of an uplifting. How do you approach that moment?
Okay, that was one of my favourite scenes to work on. That's Esty's theme that you hear in that scene. The first moments of that theme were actually sort of hidden, because we hear it first in the actual opening titles at the start. The notes of the theme are in there. But it's obviously in a different, pacey, sort of electronic version. The first time we really hear that theme is when she arrives in Berlin, and she's in the taxi. We see her face reacting to seeing that this isn't just a city, it's like, this new, unknown place she's gone to. This is where she is going to finally find her mother, and also all that history, because the Satmar community of all the Jewish Orthodox communities, is probably the one that has the strongest sort of self narrative about the Holocaust. When you're in Berlin, your in the belly of the whale. So there was all of that on her face while she was looking at the city.
That's the first time we hear that that theme and the reason why I mentioned that, is because you said it had a hopeful edge to it. Now, that's one thing I really love about themes in film or TV music as opposed to just writing individual music per scene, you know, internal logic to it. Because the very same theme, when you bring it back again, as she goes into the water, the only thing that's really different about that obviously is it's, it's a different length and it's been stretched out differently to fit the scene. But there's the moment when she does take the wig off, and then sinks into the water. That's when we get to the part that we haven't heard before. I wrote this cello movement that kind of descends; it's actually written downwards, as she sinks into the water and it's really cathartic.
It's really amazing, it's a question of perspective and a question of contrast. Because if you put that in a scene where she's feeling all this weight of history and not knowing what she's doing, it gives you one kind of side of the Rubik's Cube. When she's in this other scene and you see her liberating yourself, that very same music pulls your emotion strings in a different way. At the same time you're associating it with her and building more attachment to her character. That last bit of the cello, as she goes on with the water - it's like that thing where you can't tickle yourself; normally when you write music, you never give yourself chills - but when I did that scene, I almost felt chills. Also from her [Shira Haas'] performance.
That was a great performance. The last thing I wanted to talk about on Unorthodox was that final scene, where Esty leaves Yanky in the hotel and she just goes and sits in a café. It's another sequence where's no dialogue, but it's very uplifting and hopeful in the way that it ends the story. The music is a very big part of that.
Again, that's another variation of her theme. We had a few different directions that we tried going with for that scene before we ended up with the one that we went with. That was an important scene.The show had two co-creators, Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski; they both co-wrote the script. Anna was the showrunner and Alexa really took point on music. We talked about that scene a lot. Alexa said it's an important historical point when she walks through the Brandenburg Gate in in Berlin; Alexa grew up in Berlin and that's a super important part of history. Because Hitler did that, you know, that's one of the first things he did when he came to power. He walked with his supporters through the Brandenburg Gate.
The showrunners didn't do that for no reason. They didn't just choose to have Esty walk through that part of Berlin, just because it was a nice shot. They chose it because beyond the level of just what the characters are going through, and what they personally feeling, there's another layer of history as well. There was this idea that she is finally taking the steps she has to take to sort of take her destiny into her own hands; maybe it's wrong decision, maybe it's the right decision, but it's her decision. And she walks through the gate. If you know German history, you know that that it's about reclaiming it from Hitler. So we had to be very careful to not be too triumphant or flippant with what we did; we quite reserved in how we approached that.
Just in terms of that history, there's another scene which was super important, as well, which is the one where Moshie takes young kids to the cemetery. It's inter cut with Esty when she's first getting an ultrasound, that's the very first time she hears the heartbeat of her baby for the first time ever. It's really real for the first time in your life and there's a layer of history to that. It's like Yanky, he's just completely in his own world, his girl has left him basically. Moshie's trying to snap him out of it, to say you're part of a bigger picture, part of this, this big story and look at what happened, think of our community. She thinking the same thing when she hears that baby's heartbeat and realises I'm going to be a mother.
I went to the theme that I use for her and her grandmother, the same music that we hear when she calls her grandmother crying, and her grandmother doesn't know what to do and hangs up. I put the same music there again. So you have that same effect of contrast for one that that scene when she's crying - it's a heart-breaking moment - to the scene when she realises "Oh, I'm getting the baton handed to me for my mother to my grandmother" bringing it out in the context of the history of the Holocaust as you hear that same music again. We're sort of playing with your mind subtly and you feel hope from that same moment that it connects you to those people. That was a good experience and why I like working with themes.
It's a beautiful score. Before we finish, let's talk about some of the other work you've done as composer. You recently did horror comedy film Stung. How was that to work on? Was that fun to compose?
That was super fun. There's a big difference between working on very powerful, very minimal character dramas, and genres. I love both. I have to say I probably enjoy working on genre films more. Because the difference is character driven films, they're super hard to get right. Your music can be an annoying, pesky sound that ruins a scene if it's wrong. There's so much of a tightrope to walk, to not turn something into melodrama, by overstating things. There's a careful balance you have to do have to keep the focal point on the honest storytelling. I draw a real parallel between horror and comedy. Unlike sci fi, where you never give away a gag, or ruin a joke, or destroy a fright moments with music, in comedy, if you do something wrong, musically, you can be the one that ruins the joke, because of there's comedy timing. In horror too, you've got the same kind of restricting constrictions, not to do with making a joke work, but with preparing the terrain so that people get a fear moment. You know, that's fun to play with.
With Stung, we had a director who's super on top of that. And again, you really worked with themes. There's a scene in that film where they're finally realising that they're going to be trapped inside the house because the wasps have sort of formed an army and they're coming in. I co-wrote this with another composer and we totally messed up our first interpretation of that scene. Because we wrote it as a scary scene - this is terrifying, we're being invaded. The director came in and said "look, that's great. It sounds amazing and everything but no, I want actually this to be a battle cry. We're telling the scene from wasps' perspective. We want drums and beating, to see the siege that's about to happen.
Of course, when you turn it around, the scary "oh my God", screeching, frightening sounds, turn into this big army gathering, you're telling a completely different story from the very same scene. That's the thing that I love about horror, and genre music in general, compared to things like Unorthodox. It's a bit like the difference between doing a Shakespeare recital, without any costume, where it's all about the words, versus going to a really fun fancy dress party. When you do a genre film, the more you pour on it, the more they want. It's fun.
I read that you did the score for short film Fish Lips in 48 hours. How did you achieve that?
[Laughs] Ah, I recently broke my record, because I did a documentary about Ireland, which was ten tracks, which is more than an hour long. It was like music from Harry Potter, they wanted that kind of thing. Obviously, we didn't have the time or budget to get a full orchestra, so we used an electronic version of an orchestra, which sounds good nowadays. I had to do that in less than a week. It was almost an hour and twenty minutes of practically wall to wall Harry Potter kind of music. Honestly, again, it was the genre thing. Fish Lips was a genre film.
When you work on things like Unorthodox, you're always asking questions about every scene and the thinking very carefully about which move to make. Whereas with genre films, like Fish Lips, once the ball gets rolling and you've got the style established, it's actually kind of fun to do; it's pretty much non-stop and writes itself.
Finally, looking back at all your work you've done, what's been the most rewarding part of your career so far?
Oh, it's hard to say. Well, Unorthodox is up there obviously, because quite honestly, none of us expected the reaction it got. As you said at the very beginning, it's a show almost all in Yiddish with subtitles. So, I didn't expect people, apart from my friends and family, to say we finished this Netflix show, you should watch it. Really I - all of us - expected that it would be something that would appeal to a few people who are interested in these sort of niche things. A few good reviews here and there. We really didn't expect such a crossover appeal. Now that we've seen how people are talking about the show, you sort of understand, retroactively, Oh, wow, it wasn't just us that couldn't take our eyes off the scene with Yanking and Esty crying. So yeah, that's definitely a highlight.
In terms of what was unexpected, Stung was great fun. Getting to watch it, you know, at Tribeca. I think all the Taken films as well and really up there. We had a really good ride working on those things. I had been working with Nathaniel Méchaly for a couple of years before he got offered Taken. That was more a career highlight for Nathaniel, but it was a great experience to be on.
I also did a film called Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which was a highlight in a personal sense because it was based on a true story of a very messed up murder that happened at a university I went to. So, that was a personally cathartic experience, because that was such a horrible thing that happened; the book on it is incredible. It's one of those things that when you find out what happened, you can't stop thinking about it. I guess in a similar way to Unorthodox, the film makes you ask yourself so many questions so much of that time. We also had the added weight of having to do the right thing by the story.
So yeah, I think when it comes down to it, in terms of career highlights, the genre films, because I love working on these big, brash things. It's a lot of fun. And Unorthodox, because we're so proud of the results.
A huge thank you to Antonio Gambale for taking the time to talk to The Digital Fix and Impact 24. Unorthodox is available to stream on Netflix here (and don't forget to read our review too.
For more information on Antonio Gambale, check out his IMDB profile or head to his website http://antoniogambalemusic.com