Dominic Lewis, composer of The Man in the High Castle, spoke with Awards Daily TV on the alternative American soundscape he created for the hit Amazon series.
Composer Dominic Lewis learned from the very best. Early on his career he joined Remote Control Productions. There, he immediately began working with legendary composers like Hans Zimmer and John Powell. Soon after, he began working on his own writing the scores for Hollywood hits like Free Birds, The Duff, and Money Monster. This summer audiences can catch his work in the upcoming raunchy comedy Rough Night.
Apart from his work composing films for the past two years, Lewis composed the score for Amazon’s hit The Man in the High Castle. Tasked with the immense challenge of creating a soundscape for a United States where WWII was won by the Axis powers Dominic Lewis is able to challenge himself creatively to create a new music culture for 1960’s America.
Dominic Lewis spoke with Awards Daily TV and went through what his journey has been like working on The Man in the High Castle heading into the third season. He discusses the creative liberties they took, most notably reinterpreting classic musical songs like Edelweiss and Tomorrow Belongs to Me.
What initially drew you to working on The Man in the High Castle?
Oh wow, what didn’t? I’m a huge fan of Phillip K. Dick. That doubled with the fact that it was getting made by [executive producer] Ridley Scott and Amazon and getting to work with my long-time friend and colleague Henry on a series. A series that is something really meaty and dramatic and something I could dig my teeth into was something I hadn’t been able to do before. Every single element pointed towards yes. There wasn’t a single tick in the “no” box. That’s why I ended up doing it.
In your own words, how would you describe your score for The Man in the High Castle?
Overall my work on the show is familiarly unfamiliar. What I try to do is take familiarly sounding soundscapes and palettes, traditional western orchestral palettes, and then offset them with different types of sound design and process organic elements to make them strange and eerie with the goal to unsettle the audience. In each piece, there is a hefty layer that is familiar, but that offset of unsettling unfamiliarity in the sound design using more synth-y elements created from organic materials. For example, I would take very normal sounding things like chimes or bell like instruments and stretch and process them to achieve all of that.
The series is in theory a period piece but with a completely new America completely controlled by the Axis powers. Because of this twisting of history how did you approach the score? Did you approach it as a traditional period piece or use the chance to take a lot of creative liberties?
The history element was very much the source of the musical world especially as we moved into Season 2. We had a lot of lengthy conversations about what music would exist in this alternative reality especially because we had to create an entire radio station within the series.
As for the score, I was just coming up with sounds that fit the picture as opposed to thinking about historically what that would have sounded like. Obviously, the orchestra would still exist, so that was a tool that I used a lot. In terms of making things feel slightly different, I reached for the other sound design elements in my palette using elements in a more unconventional way.
Taking a classical instrument like the cello, which I play, and mixing it up to make it rougher around the edges. It also helps that I’m not particularly great at the cello so that really helped rough it up! It was an emotional performance as opposed to being technically brilliant helping to create the world of the show.
I was taking a skewered classical approach, so my score never moved into the realm of jazz or other genres. There were folk elements, but I never pushed the score into those genres that wouldn’t exist in this alternative America. I don’t even know if it was conscious, but more because they wouldn’t fit the picture. My job as a composer is to write something memorable that serves the picture.
Were there any significant changes in your score between the first and second season?
Literally big. The music went from being small in Season 1 to Season 2 becoming giant because the scale of the story was getting bigger and bigger with the end of the world at stake. I leaned more on the biggest sounding instruments in my palette to give it that broad cinematic sound. The story was now spanning across many countries so I had to go bigger because it was no longer about the internal struggles of each character. I had to reflect the bigger picture.
Were there any unique challenges to scoring the second season?
Our version of Tomorrow Belongs to Me [originally from Cabaret] was a unique challenge. Similar to what we did at the beginning of the series with Edelweiss, we took an iconic song that everyone knows and messed with it and made it all weird and creepy, making everyone feel uncomfortable. The slight difference with Tomorrow Belongs to Me is that it already has those elements.
When you actually listen to the words you suddenly realize the message is horrible. I had to make those feelings more overt and blend in our themes while stripping it from feeling like it came from the West End. It was tricky but it made me realize that I can mold my themes into different genres. That was a really cool challenge.
At the beginning of the series how did you come up with the idea to play with Edelweiss and create that eerily memorable opening sequence?
I’d like to say I came up with the idea but unfortunately I’m not going to take credit for it. David Semel, the director of the pilot, had this vision of what it should be. It was strange because on the first listen it didn’t automatically feel like the right thing to do but after going through the process it became perfect.
The process itself was awesome. We wanted to come up with a strange version of Edelweiss. Originally, we had a different version with a great vocal and a minimal instrumental background and then that moved on to adding unfamiliar, unsettling tones underneath it. They were very subtle but enough to make you feel a little sick. It was all a great jumping off point for me to go into making the music for the show. Making the familiar the unfamiliar and making the audience feel unsettled stuck with me.
I call it the Edelweiss method, taking a happy sweet melody and adding layers to make the audience feel uncomfortable. For example, with the character themes for Juliana and Tagomi, they are quite beautiful but then I offset them to create this horrible feeling.
Is there any moment or scene from Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle that sticks out as particularly memorable in terms of your work?
Episode 10, the finale, was just an amazing emotional journey. It was such a great canvas for me to show what I am made of as a composer. If someone were to ask me to create a “Best Of” album of The Man in The High Castle a lot of that music would be from that finale. I am very proud of it.
You also wrote the music for the upcoming summer movie Rough Night. What was it like switching from a dark heavy show like The Man in The High Castle to a raunchy comedy?
It’s great. I love mixing up genres because it keeps me sane. If you stay too long in one genre, you either get bored or you go mad. Rough Night was a great opportunity to mix things up. There’s hip-hop in there, Miami influences, Cuban influences. I’m almost kind of mocking the action-thriller genre with a bit of a wink. The movie is hilarious with an awesome cast, and it’s been a great opportunity.
You’re a member of Remote Control Productions which has given you the opportunity to work on a lot of big films with legendary composers like Hans Zimmer and John Powell. What has that experience been like?
I actually went to school with Rupert Gregson-Williams’ step-daughter. Being obsessed with music at such a young age, I would go hang out with Rupert in his studio, and he would teach me the tricks of the trade. I went to study music at the Royal Academy and kept in contact with Rupert, and eventually when it was time to get a job and grow up, he put in a good word for me with his pals at Remote Control. I flew out and met everyone first working with John Powell on How to Train Your Dragon and have been there ever since. It’s a really amazing group of extremely talented guys, and we all feed off each other. It’s the hub of film music and a really awesome environment to learn from the best.
Where can we hear your work next?
I’m working on the new DuckTales series on Disney. I’m working on a movie called Hunter Killer, a submarine film directed by Donovan Marsh and starring Gerard Butler and Common. Season 3 of The Man in High Castle should be coming out at the end of this year as well.
The first two seasons of The Man in the High Castle are available to stream on Amazon.