[Interview - Jeff Beal]

Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal recently received three Emmy nominations for music that he's written this past year. Two were for the critically acclaimed HBO television series Rome, and the other was for a miniseries, The Water is Wide. Currently Beal's work can be heard on the TNT miniseries Nightmares and Dreamscapes, and SoundtrackNet had a chance to talk with him about his work on this show, and his other works.

First off, congratulations on your three Emmy nominations! Two of them were for Rome, so let's start there: how did you get involved with the project?

Thanks! - It was wild and great news getting those three nominations.

I had just finished the second season of Carnivale for HBO - the producers invited me to audition for Rome, as they were having trouble deciding on a composer. They sent me a rough cut of episode seven, and I wrote a demo score for them, so they could hear what my approach might be to the project. Quite a few themes and ideas from that first pass made it into the show. It was the beginning of a very interesting process of trying to define a take on that time period that was different that what had been done before, and that would be true to the way the show was written and realized. [Play "Rome: Main Title" MP3]

When working on the show, what kind of turnaround time would you have for each episode, and what is your work process?

We spent a lot of time on the first three episodes. By the middle to the end, there was about two weeks to turn in a finished score from spotting to final mix. I would usually spend the 1st week writing and recording the instruments I was performing on the score (duduk, oud, percussion, rababa, etc.). I would then do the producer's notes, orchestrate and record the other live instruments (string section, oboe d'amore, bansuri etc.) in the second week. [Play "Rome: Egeria End Credits" MP3]

Do you have an opportunity to use live instruments on the show?

Yes. I decided early on that the more live performances I could include the more depth and resonance the score would have. The trick was that HBO clearly didn't want a traditional approach to the piece (i.e. a big orchestra sound). Bruno Heller (the show's head writer/creator) had some really great ideas about trying to evoke the sense of this different time. It was very much a gritty, violent, passionate, pre-Christian society. Although there is some we know of the instruments that were in existence at the time, there is also a lot of specifics we don't. I also had the idea in choosing instrumentation that would evoke the scope of the Roman empire at the time of our show, which is immense - basically all of Europe, Eastern Europe, North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East.

I also felt that a lot of previous contemporary scores done about this types of subject matter involve a traditional more modern western score, with a few ethnic instruments added in for spice. My concept was to build the music from the ground up as much as I could using more ancient gestures as the base of the music, as opposed to the musical "seasoning". This led me to the performance side. As much I could, I learned many new wind, string and percussion instruments and performed a lot of the parts myself as I was composing the music. This was especially fun for me, because as a jazz trumpet player, I come from a performance and improvising background. [Play "Rome: Attacking the Legionnaires" MP3]

The second season is due to come in 2007 - when will you start working on it?

Yes, I actually visited the set last month, which was a real thrill to see. I started writing a few things for on-screen performers, but I probably won't start writing the new episodes until the fall. We are scheduled to premiere in January of 2007.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes just started airing, and you had a unique opportunity there, scoring eight different hour-long short-films. How did you get involved with this project?

The producers contacted me directly - I met with Mike Robe, and I recall he mentioned the music for Carnivale and Rome had specifically sparked their interest. They also sent some scripts for me to read. I had a certain idea of 'what' the show was going to be, but when I started reading the stories, I realized what a great dramatic and narrative range the different pieces had. [Play "Nightmare and Dreamscapes: Main Title" MP3]

Was it a challenge to work with the various directors? How hands-on were they?

Yes, they all were very committed and involved. Unlike a lot of other series or miniseries type pieces, the producers had the goal of letting each director make their personal statement with their films. This was a really talented group of guys - Rob Bowman, Mikael Solomon, Brian Hensen, Mike Robe, Mark Haber, and Sergio Mimica- Gezzan. I feel lucky to have made so many new relationships with them thanks to this project.

In the episode "Battleground", you were given a rare opportunity to score an entire show with no dialogue. With the music providing a very important role in telling the story, how did you approach this particular assignment, and in what ways was it different than the other episodes?

Yes, even in the script stage I realized that was going to be an especially fun episode for music. I worked on a commission a few years back - a new symphonic score for a Buster Keaton silent film The General - it was an eye opening experience to see what fun you can have with score in the absence of dialog. It was also amazing to see how creative filmmakers can be, when they don't rely on dialog to tell their story. As Brain Henson (our "Battleground" director) described it - he felt the music had to be in essence the "narrator" of the piece. In the case of "Battleground", I felt even freer to experiment with layers of sound, and more complex shapes and orchestrations at times (things that might be considered too "dense'" to fit with dialog, etc.). [Play "Nightmare and Dreamscapes: Battleground - Toy Coda" MP3]


William Hurt's character, performance, and the great story gave me a lot of stuff to play off of. There was an almost mechanical and primal precision to the way Hurt's character goes about his actions. He actually went to the zoo in Australia to study predators to see how they moved, etc. I layered a few more "tribal" elements into my score as a voice for him at times.

As the piece builds and the visual effects start to really ramp up, I gradually used the full forces of the orchestra - brass, strings, and lot's of percussion. One of the other challenges was to "pace" the density of the score so not as to tire the listener over the 53 minutes. In addition to size, I also wrote some sections with a much simpler and intimate level of sound. We used silence in several spots, and our wonderful sound designer Mike Graham also created a lot of sonic punctuation to the overall piece as well.

The variety in storylines allowed you to write in all manner of musical styles. Which one was your favorite, and which one posed the biggest challenge?

Yeah, I recall joking with a friend of mine this was the perfect gig for an ADD composer like me! <laughs> It was a bit like being a character actor- each score could be it's own little world. I especially had fun writing the score for "Umney's Last Case" for two reasons. First as a jazz trumpet player, I was able to play some of my horn on the score. Second, I really loved that story and William H. Macy's performances (both of them!) are just incredible. "Battleground" was of course another favorite to do, and highlight. It's been of dream of mine quite some time to score one of Hurt's performances. [Play "Nightmare and Dreamscapes: Umney's Last Case - Shootout at Blondie's" MP3]

"The Road Virus Heads North" was an especially tricky one. It was kind of a hybrid between a horror film, and a meditation on one's fear of mortality. Doing justice to both those thematic threads was especially tricky. [Play "Nightmare and Dreamscapes: The Road Virus Heads North - The Real Nightmare" MP3]

I also really enjoyed the fact that that Nightmares and Dreamscapes also shows the darkly humorous side of Steven King's writing. Writing "They've Got a Hell of a Band" and "Autopsy Room Four" were a lot of fun. I've always loved the kind of broad Elfman-esqe approach to comedy - "Hell of a Band" seemed to suggest that a bit, and we had a lot of fun (hopefully not too much) with that one! [Play "Nightmare and Dreamscapes: They've Got a Hell of a Band - Rock & Roll Heaven" MP3]

You also received an Emmy nomination for The Water is Wide. What was your approach to scoring this biopic?

Well, to start off, it was a replacement score, so my first goal was to get the writing done on time! I had worked on a previous project for the guys at Hallmark, and felt I had a lot of trust and leeway from them, which really helped me get through it. Basically I saw it as noble, and emotional story - a kind of throwback to an Americana (in the best sense of the word) of something like To Kill A Mockingbird. [Play "The Water is Wide: Main Titles" MP3]

I remember I rented that movie, and had the image of trying to impart that sense of quiet nobility as I was starting. It was also a very joyful story of discovery - this gift of learning this teacher gives these kids who are basically shut off (by the geography of the island they live on) from the modern world. I tried to support the energy, innocence, and humor of the kids - that part wasn't hard - the young actors were just fantastic. [Play "The Water is Wide: End Credits" MP3]

Did you have any influences from the previous film version of the novel, Conrack (music by John Williams)?

No, now that I'm done, I'd really love to rent that and see what the Maestro did with it! It's funny when I was working on "Battleground", I learned there was a rather famous no-dialog episode of "The Twilight Zone" ("The Invaders") with no-dialog that was scored by Jerry Goldsmith. That's a pretty terrifying precedent! After I was done, I rented that to see the film and what he'd done.

What are you working on now?

A few new things. I'm just finishing a wonderful little movie called Where God Left His Shoes, and I'm just starting another indie film, He Was A Quiet Man. It stars Christian Slater, William H. Macy and was written-directed by Frank Cappello. It's a very unique film, kind of a cross between Brazil and Adaptation.

I'm also working on a new hybrid-documentary feature directed by Jessica Yu called Protagonist. It kind of a study of people in extreme situations - she profiles a former back robber, a former terrorist, etc. I did Realms of the Unreal a couple of years ago with Jessica. She is an amazing film maker.

Do you have a dream project?

I've got a few - I'd really wish to do an opera some day, and I also have a couple of musical theater pieces in the works. I'd love to broaden out into these areas, and perhaps a ballet. Working with Ed Harris on Pollack was a thrill - I'd love to see him direct again and be able to score something with him again. I'm a huge Terry Gilliam fan from a long way back. I'd also love to score something of his someday.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes is currently airing on TNT. The DVDs for the first season of Rome will be released on August 15, 2006. For more music clips from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, visit Jeff Beal's Website.

Special thanks to Tom Kidd at Costa Communications.