ScoreKeeper Chats With Composer Jeff Beal (NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES And HBO's ROME)!! With Audio!!
Published at: Sept. 8, 2006, 11:26 a.m. CST by staff
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here with a recent conversation I had with composer Jeff Beal.
You know, it’s becoming more apparent to me that television is revealing itself to be a great source for some fantastic music. In recent years, this hasn’t always been the case. Jeff Beal is among a handful of composers working on a handful of shows which are elevating new standards for television music higher than they’ve been in a long while. Jeff recently composed the TNT mini-series “Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King” (2006) and is the composer for the HBO series “Rome” (2005) which is about to enter its second season.
I first noticed Jeff’s work with his aurally hip score for POLLOCK (2000). Since then, I’ve seen his name attached to a variety of great projects for both the large and small screens. Jeff Beal is part of a new creative trend in television music that should really excite fans of the art form. After the interview be sure to check out the sound clips of Jeff’s fantastic score for “Rome.”
Friends, Romans, countrymen. Lend me your ears!
ScoreKeeper: Jeff, thanks for taking the time out to talk with me today. I wanted to start off discussing “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” and we can work our way around from there.
“Nightmares and Dreamscapes” seems to me to be a very ideal project for a composer. Not only do you get to accompany stories born from the mind of Stephen King, but each one is so different it’s like scoring eight mini-movies instead of a single mini-series. Take me through your creative approach to this series and to each episode individually and talk a little about your experience working on this show.
Jeaf Beal: Absolutely! It was a real pleasure to work on this show. They sent me some scripts when we were first talking and one of the things that grabbed me was not only the interesting stories being told, but the huge variety of these pieces as well. I’ve done a lot of long-form television series or mini-series where there’s more of a through-line and this was the exact opposite. So I really did approach these as mini-movies. Each one had a different director. There were a couple directors who did more than one but even in that case their films were so wildly different that it didn’t really matter.
There were some elements that tended to be similar in the sense that Stephen King’s writing definitely has this kind of “other-worldly” dimension to it. A lot of the stories, whether or not they had a specific scary or horror element, had a sense that they were all like fables.
We tended to use quite a bit of music in most of these which was fun for me because the music was definitely supporting a certain arc that a lot of these stories had. You had an exposition, you meet the characters, and somewhere in the first or second act, there’s the classic Stephen King twist and you realize that things aren’t going to turn out quite like you expected. It was fun that the music for each of these, in its own way, was a character.
SK: It seems to be a little more so than your usual project just because of the nature of the material.
JB: That’s true. One of the episodes especially, “Battleground,” the one that starred William Hurt, was extremely unique in the sense that it didn’t have any dialogue for the whole hour! This was an incredible opportunity for a composer. In my own career and opportunities I’ve had as a composer I had to look all the way back to the film POLLOCK (2000) that I did several years back starring Ed Harris, where there was some scenes of Ed painting with no sound really accompanying him other than the music. They were really features for the score and it was fun in that way with (“Nightmares and Dreamscapes”) too. It’s almost like the music got to step forward and be a more upfront voice in the storytelling.
SK: Would you say that was the biggest challenge surrounding this project?
JB: Yeah, in some ways. Some of them came easier than others. One of the tricky ones, just in terms of the storytelling, was the one that starred Tom Berenger, “The Road Virus Heads North.” Just because the theme on that was very interesting.
On one level it was kind of a classic horror tale, but on another level it was kind of a meditation on this guy’s mortality. He gets diagnosed in the first act with something that might be cancer. He buys this painting which morphs and changes as he makes his progression back to his home. There’s this whole symbolic connection between what’s happening in the more fantastical horror part of the story. That one was really tricky because we wanted to remain true to the horror genre but also there’s some pretty heavy emotional processing of this news going on. That one dramatically was really fun, but also a challenge to find that right balance.
SK: How is it working with the different directors? Do you find some episodes go a little smoother depending on who the director is? Is it an obstacle working with so many collaborators at one time?
JB: I wouldn’t call it an obstacle. I would call it challenging. Luckily we didn’t do these right on top of each other. There was usually about two to three weeks allotted for each piece. But there was obviously some overlap.
There are a few things that you run into. Each have their own sense of music. Maybe their own personal likes and dislikes that you have to adjust to and work with. But it was also fun in that sense. I actually enjoy the back and forth.
I used to play a lot of jazz when I was younger and I use that analogy for what I see my role as now as a film composer. When I play jazz it was a lot about listening, paying attention, and trying to make your creative contribution a part of a greater whole. I’ve often found with good directors, like we had on all of these episodes, they usually make you better. If you just calm down and listen to them and let them have their input…a lot of it is really trying to be true to what they’ve already done.
I talked with one of the directors, I think it was Brian Henson, and he said ‘They’re not really letting us talk with the other directors very much.’ Which I think was an intentional thing on the part of the producers. They didn’t want there to be any sort of collusion. So these guys were really free to put their own stamp on each piece. I think that was actually a really smart idea.
SK: Were you given ample freedom to explore your own ideas? How did the schedule affect your creative process?
JB: That’s a good question. It’s very indicative of the kind of schedule we have to work on all the time. I actually made a very conscious choice with this project to not be safe whenever I could. I felt like the music would be better, and would go over well in the long run, if I actually went out on a few more creative limbs.
So I went out on several of those. Happily in this case, a lot of them did go over. There seemed to be a real spirit of ‘let’s not play this safe, this is grand storytelling going on here.’ It didn’t seem to be a problem and I was actually pleasantly surprised by that fact.
SK: Is there any word yet if your music for “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” will get a CD soundtrack release?
JB: There’s a little bit in the works but I don’t know if it’s going to happen in this case. But I have posted a bunch of music on my site for the fans (www.jeffbeal.com). There's a whole page for "Nightmares and Dreamscapes" ( which you can access here) for that very reason.
SK: How about a DVD release date?
JB: Yes! That’s the good news! In fact I was just visiting with our executive producer, Bill Haber, and he showed me the copy of the package that’s going to be released soon. I think they’re planning on having it out in October around Halloween time.
SK: Well, if one cool project weren’t enough for you, you’re also scoring the HBO series “Rome” which again from a composer’s vantage point must be a fantastic project to work on. It’s definitely not your typical television work. Take me through your approach to scoring this series. What makes “Rome” different from other projects you’ve worked on?
JB: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s a really unique piece and I feel very lucky to be working on it. That, and the series I did before that “Carnivale,” are both two really adventuresome HBO pieces of work. They’re doing ten more “Rome” episodes right now which I’m really excited about.
I finished the second season of “Carnivale” and I got an invitation from the people at HBO to submit an audition. They wanted to hear some music from me. There was at least one composer that they had been working with who wasn’t working out. They were trying to find their way with music so they sent me an episode and I started looking at it and thinking about it.
One of the things that evolved through that early process of working in collaboration with Bruno Heller, who was the writer and producer on the show, was this point-of-view about an ancient world which was different than a lot of film treatments, especially the classic Hollywood “sword-and-sandal” pieces, had been. It was much more a character driven piece like all the great HBO shows. The point-of-view was more willing to show sort of the gritty, street-level view of the society, vis-Ã¡-vis our fictitious characters Vorenus and Pullo who are the legionnaires in Caesar’s army. We see their lives as plebians. But it’s also the world of the high society of Rome. Those people are shown warts and all and it’s a much less romanticized view of an ancient time.
One of the things that was really fascinating about that concept was that it was a pre-Christian society, it was a much different world, much more brutal and graphic world than we’re used to. It was a challenge to make the music reflect that.
SK: How about your choices in instrumentation. Did you do research and use instruments from that particular period?
JB: We know some of what historically might have been the sound – instruments used and that sort of thing. I did some research in that area obviously. But I also did research on the whole geography of the empire at that time.
If you look at the Roman Empire at the time period of our show, which is about 52 B.C., it comprises all of Western and Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. It’s a huge geographic region that this Empire controlled. I cut a slightly broader swath in terms of instrumentation and I started to research all sorts of instruments that might be around at that time period.
I tried to weave those into the fabric of the score.
Another thing that was kind of fun to do – like I was saying earlier about the pre-Christian mentality, was that a lot of music was not written down at that time, it was improvised which was interesting for me being a jazz trumpet player. Another thing was that there was not the same Western organization in the way the music was made. A lot of it was driven more by the performance of a solo instrument with a very simple melody and percussion. It was much more primitive musical material.
Also, one other thing that was interesting is that I learned to play a lot of instruments. I actually wanted to be more of a music-maker as opposed to just collecting performances from a lot of world music specialists. A lot of times those guys are more improvisers than readers anyway. So I actually learned to play several things that I’ve never played before like the oud, the duduk, and the rababah which is a really cool Egyptian, two-stringed violin. I supplemented the score with several other musicians, especially a string section and a woodwind player who specialized in oboe and some other things. But I did play a lot of these things which was really fun for me because I felt more connected early on in my process while I was creating the music.
SK: So please tell me that they’ll definitely release a CD of the music for this show!
JB: We’re working on it. We thought we had it all in place. We’re still trying to get the final OK from HBO. We’ll know hopefully in a few weeks. The goal would be to get it out by the premiere of season two.
SK: So now you have three new Emmy® nominations this year. Congratulations are definitely in order for that. You’ve got two for your HBO series “Rome,” and one for the TV movie, THE WATER IS WIDE (2006) for CBS. Feel good to get recognition for your work?
JB: Absolutely! I was just at a party last night with a bunch of the composers. It was quite the evening. I feel really lucky. When you work on something as great as “Rome,” it’s wonderful. It gives you a great start in terms of people recognizing your work. It’s one of the things I’ve thought about in my career. You can never plan this stuff but I’ve always tried to seek out projects that have a good role for music. That’s always been my first goal.
SK: Well, that pretty much wraps up the bulk of the questions that I had. But I have one final “desert” question that I’ve always wanted to ask you. Is it as crushing as it seems to have your Emmy® winning main title from “Monk” (2002) replaced after its debut year?
JB: (laughing) Good question! It was when it first happened of course. It was funny because…
SK: I mean, who does that? It wins the Emmy® and then you never hear it again.
JB: I know. Its funny because they decided to dump the theme before…
SK: That’s what I figured.
JB: (laughing) Yeah, the Emmy® was very ironic and a sweet validation of the work. A lot of years have passed and I’m certainly over the disappointment. One of the ironies of the situation is that of course the controversy that caused – of dumping the theme and going on to win the Emmy® – probably brought my career more visibility and attention than anything else that’s happened to me. I have an appreciation for the way that played out for me.
It was also very funny because the writers wrote a whole episode called “Mr. Monk and the TV Star” in the second season where they lampooned themselves a little bit. Sarah Silverman played a character who was upset because a theme song to her favorite TV show had changed. They just totally lampooned themselves which was great. Listen, it’s show business. One of the things about this business is that it’s all so subjective. Something you absolutely love and think is perfect somebody else can hate or just not like. That was the case with this piece of music.
To survive in this business and not lose your mind, you have to a sense of humor about it. You have to learn how to detach your own psyche from your work as proud as you might be of anything that you do. Just let it have its own life. There are certain things you can control and there are some things that you can’t control.
SK: It’s like you said earlier, what you can control is being a part of great projects and working with great people. I hear that sentiment echoed often.
JB: Absolutely! It’s fun for me. Thanks to sites like (Ain’t It Cool News) and many other places on the internet now people are noticing and appreciating music for film and TV more than they ever have which is really fun for me as a composer.
SK: Well said. Jeff, it’s been a sincere pleasure talking with you this evening. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for more great work from you in the future.
JB: Thank you so much!
If you’d like to hear some selections from Jeff Beal’s Emmy® Award nominated score for the HBO series “Rome,” check out the clips below.
It’s truly some fantastic music and representative of the high-quality scoring that exists in television today. Hopefully we’ll see a CD release soon.