When Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme imploded, it sent ripples—all the way across the pond to brothers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, the music composers on HBO’s The Wizard of Lies.
“It’s very difficult to find someone in the world who didn’t hear about it,” says Evgueni in a Skype call with his brother, Sacha, from Paris. “We are Russian born, and in Russia, we had a similar guy who had a huge Ponzi scheme in the ‘90s, and he cheated millions of people.”
Evgueni is referring to the MMM Pyramid established by Sergei Mavrodi, who was convicted of defrauding 10,000 investors in 2007. “The difference was that this guy was taking little money from little people and not from billionaires.”
How could one man like Madoff, let alone two, deceive so many people? What’s going through his head? The Galperine brothers explore this idea through the score.
“When we watched the movie, everything is happening around the principle character,” says Evgueni. “In Barry Levinson’s vision, Madoff is an introvert, so the idea with the music was to try to translate what is maybe happening in his mind. Of course we cannot be sure, but the idea we had was kind of a strange, weird, mathematical brain. His emotions are not easy to read.”
“He may be confused himself,” adds Sacha.
Confusion is actually key to the score. What exactly are you listening to? If that question comes up while viewing the TV movie, then the Galperine brothers have done their job.
“[Levinson] wanted something sounding weird but organic, so we changed a bit of the color,” says Evgueni. “The idea was to make the prepared piano sound like you can’t be sure it’s piano. The idea wasn’t to hide it, but to make it sound strange.”
Throughout the film, an insistent plucking sound persists, festering throughout the score to remind listeners that something is wrong.
“There’s also something about the fatality of it, the doom,” says Sacha.
The muffled plucking was a result of Evgueni playing this in real time, one hand on the keyboard and the other muting the strings for an eerie effect that can’t be pinpointed, just like the film’s muse. “You never know what’s in front of you, like Bernie,” says Evgueni. “He can be so charming and funny and entertaining and then a day later, cold and without any emotion.”
While Alessandro Nivola, who plays Mark Madoff in the TV movie, worked with Robert DeNiro before, strangely enough, so have the Galperine brothers, on 2013’s The Family, which also stars Michelle Pfeiffer.
“It was very exciting the first time because they are really magnetic actors,” says Sacha. “We were amazed by them, since we were children.”
“When you live in France, you’re not usually expecting to work with DeNiro,” says Evgueni. “We were happy. Sometimes we would just stop working, look at each other, and smile. The second time, it was, of course different. The fact that DeNiro was playing this very important figure and the way he was playing it, because I really think he’s amazing in it. He’s really minimal and intense.”
For these two composers, you never get over working with such an iconic actor—twice.
“Wow, I’m working with DeNiro,” Sacha laughs.
The Wizard of Lies airs Saturday night on HBO at 8pm ET.