Amazon’s Emmy-winning series The Man in the High Castle is an intense drama set in a world where the Axis powers won World War II. Exploring a possible reality ruled by fascism, with Nazis now trying to take over other universes like ours, it can get very dark. The show’s about fighting these ideas, this mentality that we are still seeing exhibited in our own society today, and forming a resistance. With that story comes plenty of deaths, betrayals, and sacrifices.
Watching The Man in the High Castle can be sad and a little difficult at times, because it succeeds in provoking strong emotions and connecting you to the characters. But an essential part of this is the score. Whether a scene is accompanied by a sprawling orchestra of string instruments, or completely silent, those choices are made by the composer. For The Man in the High Castle, that person is Dominic Lewis.
The British-born composer has been scoring the show since it started in 2015. His evocative work has earned him two BMI Streaming Media Awards. Among his other projects are the live-action/computer-animated film Peter Rabbit, released earlier this year, the Disney XD reboot of DuckTales, and the new movie Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, which premiered this weekend. We got to talk to Dominic about his work, and the process of composing The Man in the High Castle’s outstanding new season.
This interview contains spoilers for The Man in the High Castle season 3.
PURE FANDOM: How did you decide you wanted to be a composer, and specifically in TV and film?
Dominic Lewis: I started cello when I was three. Both of my parents are musicians, so I sort of didn’t have a choice. [Laughs] No, that’s not what I mean. My parents were great, they were very supportive. I just fell in love with music early on. And after being in bands and all that kind of stuff, my dad started doing film sessions in London, and I fell in love with it and really wanted to write music, and so film and TV felt like a natural progression.
How did you get your first opportunity in the industry?
I mean, I obviously had contacts through dad, but I actually went to school with Rupert Gregson-Williams [Emmy-nominated composer of The Crown and Wonder Woman]. I was already kind of in love with the genre at that point so Rupert was great. He sort of took me under his wing and I was able to go down to his studio and just sort of sit in the back and learn, and he’d teach me how to program and then he’d leave and have a cigarette or something and I would just figure out the rig and programming and [how to] write to picture and stuff. So I started pretty early, at about 16 years old I was going down to the studio and doing stuff. I went to college at the Royal Academy of Music [in London] to study composition and then the goal after that was to work for Rupert, but he didn’t really have anything for me. So he put me in touch with Hans [Zimmer] and I came out to LA, and the rest is history really. Now I’m doing it for myself.
Is there a difference between composing for a TV show versus a movie?
The main difference is time. TV shows are so quick now. The longest I ever get to do a TV show is two weeks, whereas I’ve been on movies for eight months…It sort of changes the way you think. You don’t second guess everything that you do when you’re writing [for television]. I just have to kind of go with my gut and go with my instincts and hope that it’s not terrible, and rely on my experience to get the job done. Whereas with a movie you kind of really go over every single move you make and, you know, is my theme good enough? I spent just two weeks alone on trying to get the main theme together on a piano before I even moved to a sequencer and writing to picture.
With The Man in the High Castle, do you score as they film it or at the end when it’s already edited and put together?
They film it, then it goes into post production and into the editing room, and then we do one by one. So by the time I start writing episode one of the season, they’re probably filming three or four. I get involved as soon as I can, as soon as there’s a cut. But I would say yes, it’s fairly ‘as it’s going,’ it’s never like they film everything and then all in one go. It’s gradual.
Do you work with different people to make sure that the tone is what they want?
Yeah, I mean obviously the director is different nine times out of ten, and Dan Percival, who’s also an executive producer, directs normally two or three episodes in a season. But I normally deal with the executive producer, David Zucker. On the episodes that he does [direct], Dan Percival gets involved, and whoever’s editing that particular episode. And a number of other producers as well.
While crafting your music for any scene, how do you decide what moments are silent and what needs music?
Um, that’s a really good question. I think to answer it more generally, I think it’s really important that a TV show like The Man in the High Castle doesn’t have wall-to-wall music. One, because the production value is so high, and also the acting is so phenomenal that sometimes when you add music to a serious scene, it actually loses its effect. Often it’s better to play it silent and let the actors do the heavy lifting. But to avoid all of that, before every episode I sit down with the producers and we spot the episode and we go through where it needs music, where it doesn’t, and it’s sort of like just watching it after the editor has put in temp music to say where he or she thinks it should go. We then discuss it and say, well, maybe we need to come out earlier because we’re stepping on the scene, or maybe we need to come in earlier because that needs a little bit of help, and giving the audience what they need to feel, so on and so forth. So it’s a process we spend about, I want to say, like an hour and a half to two hours every episode going through exactly where it needs music, and where it doesn’t, and what the tone should be in those particular moments.
I was watching Joe Blake’s death scene [in Episode 5] compared to Frank Frink’s death at the end of the season. When Juliana has to kill Joe, there’s a lot of silent moments and it has a really great effect on the scene.
Moments like that, it’s really silent in order to let people kind of digest what’s just happened with Joe. And with Frank, it’s more about, you know, he’s accepted his fate. He’s at peace with what he needs to do, and how he needs to sacrifice himself for the good of the resistance. So therefore it sort of does need music to portray that feeling. While the Joe moment is so much more visceral that it, you really needed a moment to kind of process that.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. I like how with Frank’s scene, it sounds religious, which makes sense given his journey.
Was there a favorite part of the season for you to compose?
I did really enjoy that Frank sequence with Kido. I don’t often, I think there’s some vocals in season 1 that I did when [Frank] first kind of rekindled his feelings towards Judaism. So I really love to be able to sing on stuff, because often when you use vocals it takes you out of the movie or TV show, whatever you’re doing. But with moments like that, with prayer in season 1, and then the death in season 3, it really adds something to it. It gives that spiritual vibe. So that was definitely one of my favorite things to do. Yeah. And also the sort of more dreamlike, meditation, eerie, time travel stuff with Trudy towards the beginning of the season was really fun to do as well.
Watching the series, not in terms of composing, was there a favorite character or story arc of yours?
I really love Wyatt [played by Jason O’Mara], the new character in this season, and I hope they run with him in season 4. I think he’s a really nice, refreshing vibe to the sort of melancholy and despair that’s been in seasons 1 and 2, and I think he brings a new element of hope. Which I think is important in a series like this, because it’s so full of, as I said, despair and horror and just, not nice stuff, and to be constantly bombarded with that as an audience member, it gets a bit too much. So Wyatt’s introduction is really great and gives the series a bit of hope.
Ed McCarthy really’s good at bringing humor too, and he still has hope.
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, Ed and [Robert] Childan are amazing at humor. It’s great.
And then next you have the movie Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Because it’s a sequel, did you study the first film to get a feel for what you wanted to compose?
Yeah, I mean I watched it. I didn’t want to get too into it just so I wasn’t copying Danny Elfman here. I wanted to bring my own voice to the film, but at the same stay true to the possible franchise, I guess. So it was important to sort of get a gist of what Danny was doing and the vibe of what his own personal score was doing, and sort of take that inspiration and move that on into more of what I was trying to do with it, which was to bring this kind of homage to the 80s adventure movies. Which I think there’s definitely an element of that in Danny’s score as well. A lot of this stuff is shot in a very Amblin [as in Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment], sort of [George] Lucas way, reminiscent of 80s adventure movies. So I really wanted to bring that to the score.
Also, the genre for this movie’s definitely happier than The Man in the High Castle. Do you prefer a certain genre over others, or do you like switching it up?
I like to mix it up. I mean, I definitely have genres that I would want to be spending most of my time doing. I love doing animated movies and kid friendly films, partly because I’m a new dad. So it’s nice for my kids to be able to watch something that I do, because obviously they can’t watch The Man in the High Castle for another 18 years. [Laughs] But yeah, I really do like doing the kid stuff. But at the same time it’s important to do thrillers and drama and, you know, R-rated comedies, or whatever it might be as well, just to keep me sane, because I think if you do one thing too much, of anything, it gets a bit stale. So it’s really important to mix it up.
You’ve worked with a lot of different composers, like Hans Zimmer and John Powell. Do you like collaborating a lot, or do you prefer being by yourself?
I mean it’s nice to be doing it by myself. When I was doing additional music, collaborating was great, and I love the collaboration. It’s sort of like my collaboration relationships have changed. Now my collaboration’s with the director, and really getting his vision to come to the screen with my music. So it’s different. My collaboration has changed from sort of composition collaboration to more of, with the director, with the musicians in the studio when it’s being recorded. So I love collaborating with people. I prefer being the boss when it comes to decisions, compositionally, because when you collaborate as an additional composer, you sort of, it is a collaboration, but you definitely don’t have the last say. So it’s nice to have that sort of boss mentality when you’re doing it by yourself.
Is there one person, either composer or director, that you really want to work with?
I mean it sounds super obvious, but I’d love to work with Spielberg. Just because his movies are the reason I’m doing what I do. And that was kind of why Goosebumps 2 was an homage to that Amblin world, because of that sense of action/adventure, and a film that’s for all the family, but not a kid’s film, he created it. And I wish there were more movies like that now.
What’s your favorite movie?
Wow. Favorite movie of all time…not a Spielberg movie. Same genre though. My favorite movie, I’d have to say, is Back to the Future.
And what was your favorite project to work on so far in your career?
They’re all so different. I think The Man in the High Castle is my favorite, just because it’s a chance for me to sort of try and raise my intellect a bit, and meet people at a higher level, on that front. But at the same time, I had an absolute blast doing Peter Rabbit [the 2018 film starring James Corden]. Every single project is so different that it’s really difficult to choose one.
You also compose all the music for the recent DuckTales reboot. How did you get involved with that?
So the guys at Disney TV, Jay and Mark, I had a meeting with them, I don’t know, seven years ago now, just this sort of introductory meeting, and they were definitely trying to get me on stuff for a while. I’ve just been so busy with movies and stuff, that I’ve never had the slot of time that would allow me to do a show for them. And then my agent called me and said, “I’ve had Jay on the phone again, they’re doing a reboot of DuckTales.” And DuckTales was such a huge part of my childhood. I was still super busy, but there’s no way I could turn that down. So I went in for meeting, and we came to an agreement, and I’m so happy I said yes because the show is so fantastic.
There’s The Man in the High Castle season 4 coming up, but are there any other projects you’re looking at?
I’ve just got DuckTales that’s running, that’s been green lit. We’re doing season 2 right now, and then season 3’s been green lit, so that’ll run for awhile. Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle’s out already, and then 4 will probably start in November. I’m trying to sort out stuff for Peter Rabbit 2, but that’s not for a long time, so I’m hoping that’s going to happen at some point.
The Man in the High Castle season 3 is streaming now on Amazon, and you can catch Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween in theaters now!
(Featured image: Dan Pinder)