Read our exclusive interview with television and film composer Robert Duncan, who is currently working on the new season of the hit ABC police series ‘Castle,’ for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award for the show’s first season in 2009. Duncan also worked on the music for the new film ‘The Entitled,’ which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. The composer, who produces all of his music at Hollywood’s legendary Devonshire Studios, discusses with us, among other things, what the process of working on both ‘Castle’ and ‘The Entitled’ is like, and the similarities and differences of working on television and films.
ShockYa (SY): You composed the music for the new thriller ‘The Entitled,’ which follows a man, Paul Dynan, played by Kevin Zegers, who becomes so desperate for money to save his family that he kidnaps three young socialites and holds them for ransom. Given that the movie focuses on such a dark, morbid subject, what was the process of creating the music like?
Robert Duncan (RD): When writer/executive producer Bill Morrissey first sent me the script for ‘The Entitled,’ I was very excited, as the musical opportunities were immediately apparent and it was the type of artistic canvas I had been hoping to find for a while. I knew that director Aaron Woodley and producer Dave Valleau would let me dig into deeper darker musical territory than some of my other projects allow. The whole movie is bound together with underlying threads of tension, violence and contempt between all characters. With this atmosphere as a launching pad, I called upon a motley assortment of unusual instruments and sound sources to create textures that would draw us deeper into this uncomfortable world. From the Dewanatron Swarmatron, which gives you command of a bee-like swarm of analog synthesis via two ribbon controllers, to the Ned Steinberger Omnibass, an electric bass/cello hybrid, to the recording and sonic manipulation of a shotgun loading, I built a palette that hopefully elicits curiosity from the listener’s ear.
The tone of the film changes when Paul’s partners become trigger happy, and his victims reveal surprises of their own. When his perfect plan goes horribly wrong, Paul must fight to stay ahead in his own twisted game.
SY: Did such drastic, unexpected turn of events influence the way you composed the music for ‘The Entitled?’
RD: The music does get darker and darker as the characters unravel, but one interesting factor in this movie is how unified it is thematically. From the beginning, it states very clearly that you are watching a thriller and foreshadows the dark territory ahead. It leaves you guessing as to the specifics, but you know what type of world you are venturing into emotionally. I really enjoy working on projects that pose a confident cinematic identity in this way.
SY: How closely did you work with Aaron? Did he discuss with you what kind of music he wanted to feature in the film, or did he give you the freedom to create music you felt would best fit the story?
RD: Aaron was great to work with, and seemed to immediately pick up on the things I was most proud of, and excited about, in my score drafts. I was very much left to my own devices and given a great deal of respect as a creative contributor, another factor that made this movie such a pleasure to work on.
SY: ‘The Entitled’ was released by Foundation Features. Did the fact that it’s an independent production company place any limitations on the music you could create for the film?
RD: I think everyone involved really believed in the film and worked on it as a labor of love. We didn’t have an unlimited budget to work with, but we moved mountains to give it the score it deserved and I am happy with the result. We managed to find enough money to have a session with a fair sized string orchestra and get it properly mixed, so I don’t feel the budgetary limitations are perceived sonically.
SY: You’re also known for working on such television shows as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘The Unit’ and ‘The Gates.’ How is the process of composing music for television compare and contrast to working on films?
RD: Quite often television wants to have the scope and dramatic impact of feature film, but in reality the movie-audience is a captive audience and are much less likely to abandon it half-way through. Because of this, TV shows are produced with more economical ‘moments’ for the music to take charge. Probably the single biggest draw to scoring films for me, is the importance placed on quality over speed. A film score is more likely to get mixed by a scoring engineer and have more live players on it simply because you’ll have more time to get the job done (or at least one hopes!) The TV world is fast and furious, and although some shows manage to pull off weekly scoring sessions, it is the exception, not the rule, unfortunately.
SY: Do you have a preference on working on movies or television?
RD: I enjoy both, for different reasons. It’s nice to know you have a steady job with a successful series, and honestly, if it wasn’t for my series work, I would not have been able to invest as much as I did into ‘The Entitled.’ The majority of my career thus far has been television, so when the opportunity comes to dive into a feature, it’s very refreshing!
SY: You’re presently working on the music for the current season of ‘Castle.’ What attracted you to return to the series, after working on the first season in 2009?
RD: ‘Castle’ is a great show to score; although at it’s heart it is a romantic comedy, the producers take it into very dark and cinematic territory at times. Producer Rob Bowman, who directed the ‘X-Files’ movie, ‘Elektra’ and ‘Reign of Fire,’ and show creator Andrew Marlowe, who wrote ‘Air Force One,’ both have some very cinematic sensibilities and set the bar high for the music.
SY: Has the evolution of the events in ‘Castle’ since the first season influenced the way you currently compose the music?
RD: The music has evolved with the characters. During the pilot, the main characters, Castle and detective Beckett, were just meeting each other, and there was an almost primal, slightly animalistic element to their flirting. Now their relationship is a lot deeper, and the music has become more introspective.
SY: You received an ASCAP “Top Television Series” award last year for ‘Castle’ and ‘The Unit,’ and were nominated for an Emmy for your work on the first season of ‘Castle.’ What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated for the awards, and won the ASCAP award?
RD: I was very surprised and pleased about the Emmy nomination! ASCAP is run by an amazing group of people who foster a great sense of family in the industry. When I first made the move to Los Angeles, my first stop was to participate in their amazing film-scoring workshop. When they gave me the award, they gave a special shout out to me as an alumnus of their program.
SY: You produce all of your music at the legendary Devonshire Studios in North Hollywood, where such singers as Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson once recorded. What is it like working there?
RD: I’ve been here five years and counting and it’s still a real treat. It used to seem so big, but I’ve somehow managed to fill it all up with instruments. I have had a few visitors to the studio from the Devonshire glory days that have shared some great stories. It was on the map as a major studio in the eighties and nineties and has the razor blade scratches on the bathroom counter tops to prove it! Kurt signed the wall behind my desk when they finished Nevermind here-“NIRVANA 5/91.” Mostly what I love about it is that every brick in this building was laid with musical intentions. Working in an environment like that always helps the creativity flow.
Written by: Karen Benardello