John Lunn, the Emmy-winning composer of Downton Abbey, talks to Awards Daily TV about his return to Starz with the The White Princess.
From the early 20th century English countryside of Downton Abbey to Tudor-era England on The White Princess, John Lunn is the go-to composer when it comes to sweeping British costume dramas. The 2-time Emmy winner (and 6-time nominee) returns to Starz tonight as the composer for The White Princess, the follow-up to The White Queen.
I spoke with John about his work on the series, the difference between composing for Great Britain and America, and having a couple of martinis with Shirley MacLaine.
In your own words how would you describe the score you composed for The White Princess?
The music is directly related in many ways to The White Queen, the previous series. There were ten episodes in that series and the music started off romantic and by the end it had become in a way much darker. The White Princess starts off in that much darker vein, and we took a lot of those themes from The White Queen and extended them. I would say about 50 percent of the music in The White Princess is taken directly from and inspired by the The White Queen. The rest of the music I had to start completely new because of new characters, different locations.
How did you begin the process of composing The White Princess? Did you have an image or a scene you kept referring to as inspiration?
This time around the editors used a lot of my music from The White Queen as a temp score just to give everyone an idea of what the music might sound like. So, by the time it came around to me, actually composing it again I could see from the way they had used the cues from The White Queen what they were after. So I melded them and tried to create a slightly different sound world using the same themes. For instance, there were several Tudor and York themes, and of course one of the main things about The White Princess is the two warring factions being brought together by the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. I didn’t actually think of it during The White Queen, but in The White Princess I found ways of melding the two themes together.
From your work on The White Queen to Downton Abbey, you’re best known for your work on various British period pieces. Do you feel an obligation to stay true to the period when writing music?
No, you can’t really do that. It’s not really my job to conjure up the feeling of the period. My job has much more to do with the storytelling of what’s going on in the character’s head. I can’t ignore the period but at no point throughout The White Princess did I attempt to sound like the late 15th period. A lot of the music from that period is sacred and beautiful or bawdy and secular. I needed something much subtler and to be able to tell a story which is a much more modern concept. I included quite a lot of electronic stuff as well. There are some weird moments in The White Princess that needed a much more modern feel. That’s the same with Downton Abbey. I didn’t ignore the period but you could say it sounds like the early 20th century.
Were there any unique challenges throughout your experience working on The White Princess?
Actually, it was interesting because it was the first time I had done something where I knew it wasn’t going to be for a British audience first. This was the first time I was primarily thinking of an American audience, and actually the way that the producers and directors went about it had a slightly more American feel. Because of that The White Princess needed more music in The White Princess than there was in The White Queen. That was one of the big challenges.
The other difference was that the schedule was very tight. I think I had a month for the first episode, and then two weeks for the subsequent episodes except for the last one which was a total nightmare where I only had eight days. But that’s the American system. If it were a totally new series, I would have struggled with the time scale, but because it was a second series and because people had a lot of confidence in me because the first one had gone so well so there wasn’t so much scrutiny. People were much happier to accept what I thought was going to work. Starz was very supportive as well. Right from the beginning they wanted it to sound like it was coming from the original series, part of the same world.
With The White Princess was there a specific image, scene, or character that you used as your main focus or inspiration throughout working on the project?
In Episode 6 of The White Queen, there was a long sequence that seemed to encapsulate humanity that started with a birth, the death of the baby, the death of the mother, the death of the grandmother, and then a wedding. I just seemed to create a tune there that summed up the whole story. The tune itself seemed to encapsulate the entire story, and throughout the The White Princess whenever anyone made a right or wrong decision, this tune kept insinuating itself into the drama.
You’ve mentioned not wanting to be typecast. Is there any genre you’d like to try?
I’ve never done sci-fi. I’d really like to do a sci-fi film. I’ve done scary films, romantic comedies, film noir, and lots of period but never sci-fi. If anybody is looking for someone for sci-fi I’m up for it. I’m really into this electronic genre, and the genre would give me a chance to use all of this equipment I’ve collected. I had a chance to go electronic when I worked on The Last Kingdom but the genre would give me a chance to play more. I do love doing those things [period dramas] and I do have a gift for it but if I was left to my own devices my music would sound a lot more like The Last Kingdom quite raw and elemental and percussive and quite modern and contemporary.
I read somewhere that during Downton Abbey you spent a lot of one on one time with Shirley MacLaine. What was that like?
She was terrific. They wanted her to sing a song so they got me involved to rehearse with her. There was so much going on, so they put me up in a nice hotel with Shirley for a couple of nights. After filming, she would come back, and over a couple of dry martinis, we would rehearse all night. She’s a really good singer, but over the course of the night her singing improved with all those martinis. I can’t say the same about my piano playing.
Downton was a special experience because I was on set quite often with the different bands. At one point I was even filmed playing piano and with Shirley I had to put a wig on but I hit the cutting room floor. For most projects though I’m too busy to work on set. It’s not usually a good use of my time either.
After The White Princess where can we hear your work next?
I’m about to take a break because I’ve been so busy but I have a new season of Grantchester that starts shortly here and will be on PBS in America. I’ve done another series for Netflix called Jamestown about early English settlers in Virginia in the early 17th century. That’s quite a big series. It hasn’t even come out yet, but Netflix has already commissioned a second series. In September, I’ll be doing another series of Shetland, a bit like a Scandinavian noir that’s also on Netflix. There’s lots of talk about a Downton Abbey movie but nothing is set in stone.
The White Princess premieres on Starz Sunday, April 16th, at 8pm ET.