Awards Daily TV poses five questions to Ed Shearmur, composer for Showtime’s Emmy front runner Escape At Dannemora.
Composer Ed Shearmur’s involvement in Showtime’s brilliant limited series Escape At Dannemora benefitted from his near 20-year friendship with director Ben Stiller. Based on the infamous prison breakout in Dannemora, New York, Dannemora received rave reviews late last year for its authenticity and extreme attention to the smallest details. Along with its award-winning performances, the craft of Dannemora received praise for ingeniously supplementing Stiller and team’s vision.
Enter Ed Shearmur, who started considering compositions and orchestral themes for the project mere months before its premiere on Showtime. It didn’t shake Shearmur, though. He had a vast supportive system in director Stiller.
“We’ve known each other a long, long time as our daughters are best friends,” Shearmur shared. “I’m aware of Ben’s great attention to detail, his meticulous approach to everything he does. In that respect, I was well prepared to work with him, but it’s more a case that I think we were fairly well aligned in terms of aesthetic and approach very early on.”
Here, Awards Daily TV poses five questions to Ed Shearmur about creating the orchestral sound for Escape At Dannemora.
The overall design of Escape At Dannemora reflects the great crime films of the 1970s such as Dog Day Afternoon. Did your score follow that similar inspiration?
Those films and that aesthetic were certainly a touchstone for all of us. I came on relatively late in the project compared to everyone else who was involved. The tone and the pace of the project was pretty much set before I got involved, and in our very early discussions when Ben sent the first few episodes to me to get my read on things, it was very apparent that music was not going to play the traditional role that it usually plays these days. There was no need for music to help with narrative beats or to help with pacing. It was much more to become wedding to the overall soundscape he’d created. It was more about texture and about establishing the prison and the whole ecosystem that surrounds the prison as an environment that imposes itself not only on the people confined in the prison but also all of the characters that earn there living and are involved with the prison.
We talked about different musical approaches and certainly the films of the 70s. There was one film in particular that Ben pointed me to and that was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It doesn’t have a huge amount of music, but what music is there is placed in a very deliberate fashion. The soundscape of that film is as much a part of the experience as what’s happening visually.
How closely did the finished product of Escape At Dannemora mesh with your personal style as a composer?
This is closer to my personal voice for sure. Your relationships and anyone you’re lucky enough to work with may take you down unexpected paths in your career. This, certainly, in terms of content and the style of filmmaking is much closer to what I tend to enjoy myself.
Looking at the overall series, what are some of the more prevalent orchestral themes?
My working method here for this show is one that I’ve adopted over the years. I wrote a plethora of material early on, some of which doesn’t have a specific home. There were pieces from that early bit of inspiration that did wind up in the show. There was one that found itself being used for Benicio’s [del Toro] character Richard Matt a lot. It had a brooding, fairly abstract quality. There was another that related to a dream sequence that references an experience that he had with an escape on a horse. The horse theme was one that found itself coming back again and again, especially at the end.
By and large, we were more interested in establishing a thread of tones. There’s no “Tilly’s Theme” for example. There are pieces of music that are repurposed again and again throughout the show, but there aren’t really specific character themes.
Did you have the chance to visit Dannemora itself to understand the feeling of the area?
I did not. They were literally in the last days of pickup shots when Ben and I first started talking. All of my time was spent either here in LA or in the writer’s room in New York working with them as we were rushing to finish.
What was the most challenging scene to score?
Right off the bat, when we had our very initial conversations, Ben kept talking about episode five and a sequence that everyone was calling “Sweat’s Run.” It’s a nine-and-a-half minute sequence where Paul Dano’s character does a dry run from his cell right to the manhole cover in the middle of the street. It was a looming shadow as we were moving through the first four episodes – we have to get to “Sweat’s Run.” It was huge fun to do, though. It was this stand-alone sequence that had to have its own tone and by necessity followed this balletic, hyper-choreographed sequence of camera moves. It had to draw you in and had to be fun because the rest of the episode had this much darker quality. It had to have a slight sense of irony about it. When you’re scoring action, there’s very little humor or lightness to it. We really thought it had to have that, and it was an anomaly to the tone of the rest of the series. That’s probably the ten minutes we spent the most time on.
Escape At Dannemora is available for streaming on Showtime.