Robert Duncan is a very soft spoken guy, but his words thoughtful and full of intent. Talking with someone about scoring music felt a bit difficult for me at first, but Duncan’s casual tone made me realize that it’s like speaking about any other type of medium.
Duncan’s fourth career nomination comes in the Main Title Theme category for ABC’s deceased drama, The Whispers. His theme is the only nominee from a show on a major network. While the other themes are flashier, Duncan’s score is unnerving and creepy, but there’s a tinge of otherworldly hope in it, too. It definitely leaves you wanting more. Duncan uses a lot of unconventional sounds in his music, and he told me about the difference between scoring television and film. We even delved into Castle, the show Duncan worked on the most.
Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.
Thank you very much.
This is your fourth time being nominated. Can you tell me about your Emmy experiences?
My first Emmy nomination was for the pilot of Castle. That was eight years ago, and that was very exciting. That was for best Underscore of a Series category. Next was a show called Missing.
Oh, the Ashley Judd show?
Yeah, and that somehow landed in the miniseries category. I guess it was a short lived enough series that it was thought of a miniseries. Next up was Last Resort which was nice. It was a show about a rogue nuclear submarine. We had orchestra for that score which always help with scores getting noticed. There’s a higher production value. That’s why I was hopeful The Whispers would fall on the Emmy radar because we were able to use an orchestra on the score.
This category, Main Title Theme, is especially exciting to me since I’ve always been a fan of TV show main titles. One of the first things I tried to do as a kid on the piano was play my favorite TV themes. Trying to figure them out. I’m a big fan of Mike Post (Emmy-winning composer of Murder One and NYPD Blue) and those, sort of, TV theme gods. I was excited to get something more than five seconds on network television.
For some reason, the people who are keeping the torch lit for main title theme are the HBOs and Netflix, and maybe they’re not as concerned about the primetime networks. The trend lately has been five second main titles. The Whispers was a very wonderful treat, and I’m absolutely thrilled.
We actually did a podcast all about Main Title Theme and Main Title Design. There’s so much artistry involved with the music and designs. Can you give us some insight as to how you start on a project? Do you see the main title design first and then try and score it, or do you work together with the design?
It evolves together and very quickly. I wasn’t the first influence on the main titles–I’m sure there was a concept meeting with the visual effects and the main title artist about what they wanted to achieve. A series of sketches were made—a concept of some images. For instance, a birthday cake, some scribbling, a kid next to a bike. Those were put together in a short video, and that’s the first thing I saw. It was basically a sort of animated storyboard. The element in each frame was normal, but there was something about the angle, or something about the stillness that was off-putting. That was my launching point.
I usually find descriptive words as my crosshairs to aim for, and my words were innocence and malevolence. How do I marry those two elements? Of course, I wanted it to be memorable and likable. I started off trying to think of a memorable, likable, haunting melody, and it was one of the producers that suggested I try to do something on a music box. I remember going back and forth from a minor version and a major version over which one was more appropriate. We ended with the major. To mess it up with something dark, we basically pulled out all my distortions and thinning stuff through. Seeing how nasty I could go underneath and mess it up.
I imagine an entire theme done in a minor key would be very unsettling and creepy.
It’s a little bit more sad. There was less to contradict.
You mention the music box. You use a lot of unconventional sounds in your music. Is there anything that you included that is very off-the-wall or so subtle that you might not hear it upon first listen?
I put electric cello and grinding–stuff that would make maximum noise. There’s a third element to the theme and that’s the orchestra. As soon as I had those two elements that were opposing each other, I layered the orchestra underneath. There was an effect, it’s a bit subtle, that sounds like a whisper effect. There’s a chaotic churning and that’s from the orchestra. If you give it a close listen you can hear that from the orchestra. Halfway through the strings build up and sort of swell and take over.
I like your score compared to the others in your category. Your theme made me really want to watch it. Unfortunately, the show is no longer on, but it made me want to search it out and find it.
Thank you. That’s the best compliment.
You have a mixture of really great shows on your resume. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my all-time favorites, and you’ve worked on both feature films and television. Can you tell me if there’s a different process between the two?
I think lately the creative aspirations of television and movies are coming closer. I think there’s a lot of great production in television. The main difference is the speed. Television moves to quickly and for a TV show, if I’m lucky, I’ll get maybe a little more than a week? I might only have four or five days to turn around a half hour of music. If you factor in the logistics of orchestrating, recording, and mixing and then delivering a score it becomes a real puzzle. And then I start working with what is called unlocked cuts which means I might tailor music to a scene, but they could still be editing it.
It may change and we have to get creative in the recording session. How to nip and tuck and fit it back in the way it’s meant to be. With movies, there’s hopefully a little more time where you might have a month to or more. I just did an animated feature called Spark, and I had many, many months to work on that score. It feels like a different pace. Film is a series of 100 meter dashes versus a long marathon.
I had no idea that your turnaround would have to be so quick for that. That’s nuts.
It’s the reality of TV. The longer they make the process, the more expensive it’ll be for them. The studios want to get as many shows as they can done so they strategically limit the amount of time.
You mentioned earlier that you were nominated for Castle. You worked on that for such a long time. Since it recently got cancelled, how does it feel to be done with a major project?
It definitely feels like the end or an era. It felt like a big turning point even though every season we weren’t sure if we were coming back. Castle was constantly on the bubble, but were still optimistic. Things got a little shaky when we learned Stana Katic wasn’t coming back as Captain Beckett. The fans weren’t too happy about that idea. I think that derailed the whole thing. The residual feeling was, what an amazing ride that was, and how amazing that it lasted eight seasons—not that it didn’t deserve to. In television you don’t take anything for granted.
You have Timeless coming up. The writers of the site are very much looking forward to that. Can you tell us about anything about that project?
Certainly it’s always been a goal of mine to work on a period piece, and I guess I get that wish fulfilled in a different way every week. The first episode revolves around the Hindenburg, and I think the three main characters have great chemistry. It’s sort of an action film ride. It’s a blast to score. We had a lot or orchestra as well, and it’s a lot of fun so far. They are about to send me the next episode, but I don’t know where it’s going to take place. The producers have said they want to go all over the map—they aren’t just going to go five years back. They’re really going to push it.
This could potentially lead to a variety of genres and styles for you.
Yeah, it should be fun.