Awards Daily TV talks to Patriot composer Alex Wurman about composing Amazon’s streaming series from pilot to full series order.
Steven Conrad’s Patriot started life as an Amazon Pilot project. If you’re not familiar with the phenomenon, Amazon makes a handful of pilots available for free. General audiences watch the pilots and rate them. Amazon orders the pilot to series based on user ratings and a variety of other factors. Transparent graduated from this process. Conrad’s Patriot emerges as one of the more recent success stories. To help tell the story of undercover intelligence officer John Tavner (Michael Dorman), Conrad enlisted composer friend Alex Wurman to provide the series composition.
Conrad and Wurman stem from similar backgrounds. They initially met on Conrad’s directorial debut, The Promotion, where Wurman immediately responded to Conrad’s style. Conrad’s respect for the creative process and his ability to incorporate individual tastes into his overall vision for the material gave Wurman one of his most rewarding collaborations.
As a result, that friendship ultimately led to Alex Wurman’s playful and memorable score for Patriot. I spoke with Wurman about his experience working through the Amazon pilot process with Conrad.
Alex Wurman, your resume contains two of my favorite comic films: Anchorman and Talladega Nights. Amazon’s Patriot plays with styles and moods quite a bit. Did you incorporate comedy scoring tropes into the Patriot score?
Yes, but comedy is a word I want to be very careful with. I’m certainly lightening the mood as much as I can. Sometimes, if I’m supporting action or tension, I’m doing it in a very light and stylized way for the purpose of not pushing the show too far in one direction or another.
Given the Amazon pilot process, were you originally hired to just provide the pilot score?
Yeah, I’ve been doing everything of Steve Conrad’s for a while. He and I are very close, and we communicate very well. He said, “Let’s do a pilot, and hopefully it will get picked up.” That was about a year before I scored the series itself.
With Patriot, how did they engage you in the material? Did you receive the script or dailies or even a finished product?
This was really fun. I went to Montreal where they were shooting. I spent some time on set. The editor sent me some key clips that I would be involved in. I sat in my hotel room and got room service for about a week and tried different things. It was really fun.
When looking at those clips, what themes or instruments came to mind that you wanted to employ with the score?
Steve Conrad gave me a few pieces of music to listen to of Luis Bacalov and Ennio Morricone. We honed in on that Italian romantic sound from the 70’s. It was the more indie, European-feeling music we were shooting for. We immediately thought of a small orchestra. I wanted to use woodwinds. I think they’re very underused in film scoring, so I used a smattering of woodwinds. We thought about the clarinet, but we ended up using the English horn. The English horn has an interesting crossover quality because, throughout the series, we’re interacting with people from Iran. The English horn crosses over into older, Eastern European religious implications. That became an interesting sound for the show.
So, after Amazon picked up Patriot to full series following the pilot process, did you find that Conrad’s vision for the series changed at all?
I think Steven Conrad is somewhat of a genius. I think he’s had the first two seasons in his mind the entire time. One of the things that came as a surprise to me was, during the season, we’d go into some wild tangents. That happened immediately in Episode 2. We brought in some different sounds including everything from Philip Glass to the Grateful Dead and all the influences we had in the pilot. What I like to do in my film scoring is stay attached to specific motives. So, I had some melodic motives, and I created a couple of new ones. Using them together in these different styles is what I ended up doing through the entire season.
Do you conceive of themes for characters first in Patriot or is your scoring more in support of the overall dramatic narrative?
Typically, it’s both. That can vary based on the character. The most identifiable melody I have is “Agathe’s Theme,” the detective in the series. So, when our main character is most unnerved by a circumstance that is ultimately created by her, you’ll hear her melody. It’s very obscure. Certainly, when we see her doing her thing, we’ll hear her melody. Sometimes, it’s just three or four notes of it on the piano. The accompaniment of the piano is tied to the overall story of the entire season.
So is “Agathe’s Theme” your favorite from the series?
That’s a tough question to answer, but yes, I think it is in fact my favorite theme. She really wants to do the right thing. She looks as if she’s sometimes motivated by unseating the stigma of a female detective, but in fact at her core, she’s out for justice. That fits right into the name of the show: Patriot. Everybody is patriotic toward accomplishing what they think is the best thing with hurting as few people as possible in the process.
What’s your favorite genre to score?
The genre itself matters less than the heart of the piece. I love to work on things that celebrate kindness and caring for people. Anchorman is in fact quite a sensitive piece because Ron Burgundy is a goof, but he’s a nice goof. Throughout that piece, Christina Appelgate’s character fights for women. Talladega Nights‘ main character is extremely self-absorbed, but in the end, the most important things are being surrounded by people that care about you and you care about equally.
I did a nature doc called Last Lions which shows even lions have to prioritize their kin. [That film] showed the priority of family within the animal kingdom. It’s a wonderful motivation that trumps all the pitfalls of superficial drama.
Patriot streams now on Amazon. Here is a sampling of Alex Wurman’s score for Patriot, courtesy of Wurman.