David Phillips Talks To David Norland About My Dinner with Herve
David Norland is a veteran composer who has specialized in documentaries such as Anvil, while also steadily scoring for live programming on ABC. Recently, he branched out by composing the music for HBO’s My Dinner With Hervé Our discussion centered mostly around Hervé while branching out into the other areas of his work as well.
How did you come to My Dinner With Herve?
Sacha Gervasi, the writer and director of My Dinner With Hervé, is a very old friend of mine and I’ve worked on all of his films. I knew him long before he met Hervé Villechaize. The film is based on his meeting with Hervé back in 1992. So, I was aware of the film from its inception. He first of all wrote it as a short, and then for a period of time he wrote it as a theater piece, all the while figuring out what form it should take. And then (finally) as a long form feature. I’ve seen it develop over a period of twenty years. It looked like it was going to get made at one point and he asked me to write music for it. That must have been in 2011, it didn’t come to pass, but I had already started to write music for it. One of the great things about working with someone who you know well is that you can start early on the project and bat ideas back and forth about how music will serve the story. When he got the green light from HBO, I already had this body of music that I’d worked on. The funny thing about doing that is though none of the initial stuff that I wrote made it into the film, it had set up a dialogue where knew what a lot of the scenes would be, and we knew what the musical pallet would be to some degree. I would always much rather start working early – knowing that a lot of that material is not going to make it into the film – because it starts the conversation with the storyteller. Making music is part of the gig, but it’s how you put the music in the service of the storyteller. That’s really the key component. To have the dialogue going early is just gold dust.
Did the tone of the project change through all the machinations it went through before being greenlighted, and if so, did that impact your score?
Certainly, the structure and emphasis did change to some degree. One of the reasons why I’m so fond of the movie is because one of the central themes is how much courage it takes to be honest. That’s currently a very relevant topic to me – in the world in general. It’s something that could use some extended meditation across the board. I think there were some changes in the movie’s structure which homed in on that theme. That definitely happened when I began composing music for the movie in 2011 and when HBO greenlit it (in 2018). Relating back to starting early, the one big wildcard is you have no idea how any of it works once you actually have pictures. There’s a military saying that the best plan of battle doesn’t survive contact with the enemy. There’s an element of truth to that within scoring. Because you can think that you have the tone nailed, and you can think that you have everything down, and once you start putting it to picture, the picture will tell actually you – definitely. At the same time, because you started the process early, what it tells me about what’s not working at that point is every bit as valuable. So, what happens is by the time they’ve got “locked cut” – which is when most composers start working – a lot of the movie has my music working through it already. That really helps me because instead of going through these few intense weeks of starting from scratch, I can work on enhancing what the existing music is already doing for the film.
In talking to other composers, the point I most hear echoed is that you have to set your ego aside for the project. No matter how much you might like a particular piece you’ve composed. Is that ever challenging for you?
From my experience, certainly. I’ll get attached to something – in the sense that I love this as a piece of music, and I think it’s great for the film. But I’m not the final arbiter of that. In most cases, on a feature film, that will be the director. He is the storyteller, and ultimately, he will be the one to say that works or that doesn’t. Generally, with Sacha, in the editing room there will be him and the editor – on Hervé, that was the brilliant and accomplished Carol Littleton. Sometimes the music supervisor will also be there, or Len Amato – the head of HBO films, and people would have thoughts, but ultimately someone has to decide, and that’s usually the director.
I assume having worked with Sacha on Anvil was a real benefit in working on Hervé.
Yes. When I worked with Sacha on Anvil, the final cue on that film is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I can’t even count how many revisions I did of it – maybe 30? All the time I was thinking “it’s great, how can it be better than this?” But I went back to the drawing board and reinvented and reinvented it. I learnt early on, it’s entirely collaborative, and if I go on that collaborative journey, I’m very likely to get a result that’s far better than me deciding on my own. I had another experience on Hervé – there was a cut that had to go out as they were editing it for HBO and the producers to see, and Sacha felt there was a particular area of the film which didn’t have music and needed it. The cut was going to go out in 30 minutes – I had 25 minutes to jam something together – just a few chords. I quickly whipped something up and a week later, it was being used throughout the film. It became one of the principle themes of the film. What that taught me is I don’t always know where the best idea is going to come from, and what part of my process it will come from. My job is just to remain in the process and on this creative journey. If I can stay focused on being engaged in this creative exploration, and make that the focus, that’s where the best things come from.
One of the things that I thought connected Anvil to Hervé, is in Hervé, there’s a lot of 80s era hard rock songs in the background. And just like in Anvil, your score has to segue from and to these heavier more popular music-based songs. Do you find managing those transitions challenging?
Not so much challenging, but it does need to be thought out. For example, in Anvil, it works really well to juxtapose the heavy metal in it with this very ambient score. For Anvil, they hired this really brilliant guitarist-texturalist named David Torn, who had worked with Brian Eno and countless others. He only had a certain window of time and the film was not done. He had set out this beautiful ambient tone, but he had run out of time to finish. That tone was already developed as something that was working successfully for the film by the time, I came on board to do the bulk of the score. The contrast between the two things (the songs and the score) serves the film beautifully. In Hervé there’s a lot of source music and a lot of songs that do something different for the film than what the score is doing. The only question becomes how to seamlessly integrate them. In terms of what the songs are actually doing, in Hervé, the songs largely speak of the part of his life where he’s really getting out of control in Hollywood. He’s had a lot of success and it’s gone to his head and he’s lost the plot. And that’s really well served by rock and roll music. What the score does is it talks about his internal emotional journey. In order to feel for him as he finally gets honest with himself about what he’s done with his life – up until this point he’s done these fairly questionable things – and we don’t have much sympathy for him. The music’s job is to connect us back to where we see him earlier in the movie as a kid growing up with the disability he’s born with. The musical themes recur from that point. That’s the key role the score played in his journey.
Perhaps oddly, the character of Hervé reminded me of the character in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark who was made a vampire as a child and even though he was many years into adulthood because he didn’t physically grow, he’s still seen as a child and a novelty. Which is tragic in the sense that no one takes you seriously. I assume the nature of Hervé’s condition and the inherent challenges that come with it informed your score.
Very much so. One of the great things about watching a script develop, is there was a line in an earlier version of the script that didn’t make it into the final version of the film – which went something along the lines of Hervé saying, “I look on the outside like other people feel on the inside.” That was really powerful to me, and even though it didn’t make it into the final film, that was at the heart of the emotion I was trying to capture. Part of the point of the score – and the film – is to make us embrace someone who might be an outsider, and to see things from his perspective, and recognize the commonality.
One of the things I noticed about the score is how spare and subtle it was. I mean that in the best way. Was it intentional to be so judicious with the use of music in the film?
The spotting of the music – where we decided to put it – is decided in a session during some point in the edit. The director, editor, composer, music editor and music supervisor, all sit-down and talk about where exactly the music is going to go in the film. That’s part of Sacha’s filmmaking style to use music in moments where we feel we’ve earned it. We live in a time where the most popular visual entertainments are wall to wall music. To some degree, music becomes almost an ongoing background noise at that point. That’s not to say that that’s wrong. The key question to ask is, “what is music bringing to this?” The music needs to be part of the story which is not being told by what’s happening onscreen currently. You can also use music to reinforce things. When Hervé is a kid undergoing the diagnosis and his mother rejects him once she understands his condition – that’s a point when we can crank it up emotionally. You’ve got to really feel that, so that later in the film, we can connect you back to that moment. It’s a very fine balance with this kind of film where there are big emotions involved – if you’re scoring everything all the time, you run the risk that the music loses its potency overall as a tool to help the story.
There was a notable point in the movie where Hervé starts to experience success with the Bond film, The Man With The Golden Gun, and the music turns more rhythmic and playful, and there’s an organ used to accentuate that. Which I took to represent his career on the ascent.
That’s exactly what it was. Strangely enough, that was the final cue that I was working on during the very last day of mixing. It underwent a number of revisions. It had to serve a number of functions. Firstly, there’s this comedic moment where he’s reciting a piece of Shakespeare in front of a potential agent whose office he’s just barged into. It’s this weird moment where we have him hamming it up and then from there into – here he is, and it’s all working out. He’s on the rise. There’s this subtle percussion that had to come in during the scene with the agent and then had to take us over to the feeling that he’s made it. It’s interesting that you noted the organ. That became part of my musical pallet for the film. It created this almost religious tone that I think worked very well for the film.
One of the things I found interesting about your resume is that you’ve done a lot of scoring for live TV and news broadcasts. How did that come about?
The simple answer is that after I’d done the Anvil score, I got a call from somebody in ABC’s music department saying they loved that score, and would you do some work for us? I was just at the beginning of my composition career and was extremely grateful for the call. They wanted music for the news documentaries. What I discovered was I could find a way to bring all the emotion and drama that I’d been using scoring Anvil and scoring films into that process. And the more I did that, the more they wanted from me.
Do you see yourself doing more film work going forward, or do you plan to keep this mixture between news and movies?
I’d love to do more film work. I’m very intent on doing that. I’d like to do more work on TV drama as well. I love a lot of what’s coming out of the BBC at the moment. Also, after working for other people over the course over the last 15 years, over the last year, I’ve put together a record of personal work. I’m in deep discussions with a label to release it. It’s neo-classical and experimental. It should be out in October. I’m really excited about that as well, because I started out in bands making my own music. What I found was, that muscle that says, “Okay, this is finished. It’s done” had atrophied in me. When I’m scoring, someone else tells me when it’s done. Making a record, I get to experiment on my own time. When you’re working on a film, you’re so focused on the dramatic arc, that you’re not really experimenting in a technical fashion. You’re using the tools you have in front of you and the process is more of a dramatic one. My studio becomes like a science lab. “What happens if I plug this up to this?” But I want to do all of the above. I find one thing informs another.
Any final thoughts on scoring Hervé?
I’m super happy to have done this particular film. It’s really a powerful story, and I think Peter Dinklage’s performance is mind-blowing. He’s one of the great actors of his generation, I think. What an extraordinary privilege to get to work on something with him in it. It’s brilliant.