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Composer Dominic Lewis Talks Navigating the Industry

From Peter Rabbit to The Man in the High Castle, Dominic Lewis brings the needed versatility and collaborative spirit to the table

Posted in News on August 11, 2021 by

Once British-born composer Dominic Lewis decided to pursue a career as a film and television composer—aided by the strong mentorship of Rupert Gregson-Williams—he knew he’d have to move from London to Los Angeles in order to build relationships and develop his career. Since that transatlantic move, Lewis has made a name for himself as a creative and collaborative composer, tackling a variety of film and television projects ranging from dramas to comedies to animated features.

Classically trained in cello and music composition at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Lewis has worked with some of Hollywood’s most beloved composers. BMI caught up with Lewis to chat about his recent work, how his education at the Academy shaped him as a composer, how his mentors guided his career development early on, and why he enjoys working on challenging projects.

One of your most recent projects, the animated series Monsters at Work, recently premiered on Disney+. How did you get involved with this series, and how did you work on the project through the COVID-19 pandemic?

I remember when I was offered it, I immediately said yes, and no questions asked. I jumped at anything that I had a connection with as a child, or that my kids would love, so it was a no-brainer to say yes. I do remember Jay Stutler, the head of music at Disney TV, asking me whether I knew my way around jazz and whether I wrote jazz. I remember saying that I sort of had a Randy Newman level of jazz, and I guess that was the green light to ask me to take the reins for Monsters at Work.

Working on it during a pandemic was sort of a normal process. Apart from, you know, Zooms instead of in-person meetings, the thing that was really tricky was recording during the pandemic. You know, I couldn’t be in a room with people. I couldn’t produce sessions and change things on the fly. We just had to send the music out, and then we’d get back a bunch of audio files of all these amazing musicians playing the music by themselves in their houses.

Normally in the studio, I’d be saying, “Oh, it’s not quite right; can we change that; that’s great; let’s get another one with more energy,” and things like that. But with Monsters, I couldn’t do that. I just received the audio and we had to make sure that everyone was in time with each other. It was a really difficult but rewarding process. Now the soundtrack is out, and it’s great to have succeeded in the challenges of pandemic recording.

You and Matthew Margeson recently co-composed the score for The King’s Man (20th Century Fox). How do you foster a strong, collaborative working relationship with another composer when working on a project together?

With Matt, it’s really easy. We’ve known each other for over a decade, we’ve worked on multiple projects for other composers in the wings, and we always said that we wanted to work on something together.

I think we’re both composers that can do a lot of different genres and styles. Weirdly enough, on this movie we kind of switched roles—Matt tends to be the action guy and I’m sort of the sappy romance guy or the emotional one. We put different hats on number of times during this process and we tackled things that we wouldn’t normally do. I think we complement each other really well, and we push each other—we don’t just settle. We encourage friendly criticism and pushing the other one to come up with something great.

You’ve also had a good working relationship with producer/director/writer Will Gluck, scoring Peter Rabbit in 2018 and the recently released Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway. Can you share a little about how the creative process works when you’re trying to create music that aligns with the director’s vision for the film?

We all face multiple challenges in our career and getting the call for Peter Rabbit was kind of awesome because it took me out of my comfort zone. You know, one would assume that, doing an animation film with rabbits, it would be kind of self-explanatory with the rolling hills of the English countryside and rabbits frolicking, but it really wasn’t that.

We tried to mix it up and do something different. I managed to get the right blend, which was essentially the band and the song element with the epic nature on top of it, but equally balanced. And then with the orchestra, you’ve got the storytelling, and the grandness of the movie.

It was a really awesome experience, and when we got to the second movie, there was so much trust there, having gone through the process of the first one. In the first movie, there was a lot of songs and not as much score, and that ratio kind of flipped in the second one. I hope we get a chance to work on multiple things together because I love working with Will.

You write music for a wide variety of projects, from dramas (The Man in the High Castle), animated features (Free Birds, Peter Rabbit), and thrillers (Money Monster). What’s the most challenging project you’ve worked on so far?

All projects bring their own challenges. If I had to single out one movie that was the most challenging, I’d probably have to say, The King’s Men. Mainly because Matt and I worked on that film for almost two years—with the pandemic hitting—and with character arcs changing, we scored around four or five times. The goalposts were constantly moving, and we really had to adapt and get down in the trenches together and figure it out. I don’t think we could have achieved what we achieved by ourselves; we needed the other person to lean on in times of when we couldn’t crack the code.

That was challenging, but also because we had to move to London for a bit, so we were away from our families. So many different factors made that movie really tough to get to the finish line. But, as with most things, when it’s really difficult and you come out the other end, it tends to be really great. So, I hope people would agree when they see the movie and hear the score, that it was really worth it.

I read that Rupert Gregson-Williams was one of your mentors. How did his mentorship impact your career development as a young composer?

I met him when I was 15. I went to school with his stepdaughter, and I was starting to become aware of film music and thinking that this would be a good move for me.

For him to give me, a 15-year-old, the time of day—maybe he just saw some talent, I don’t know—but he was so nurturing and so awesome. He was one of my favorite people and I would not be where I am today without his guidance and support. He’s just one of those amazing people that really allowed me to believe that I could do this. Being a kid in his studio, he’d go take a break and allow me to use his rig for a bit and figure out stuff. It was awesome for someone to give a kid that kind of time, and to be to be a mentor to me. It means so much. And, you know, I owe him—I still owe him. I owe him my career.

You made the move from London to Los Angeles in 2009 to work with Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions. How did you find your footing as a composer in a new city while trying to navigate the entertainment industry?

It was really daunting, but I always wanted to do it. I knew that eventually I would have to move to L.A., and that was sort of the romantic goal I was working towards. There were times during my tenure at The Royal Academy that I just wanted to drop it all and move out to L.A. and not finish my degree, but I’m glad I did.

It was tough at first. I sold my cello, and I got my plane ticket and I moved out to L.A. There wasn’t really much going on for me in the first month or so. I spent a lot of time just writing music and honing my skills and getting used to the ways of life of in America. When you move to the States as an Englishman you’d think, “Oh it’s fine, they speak English, I’ve seen movies, it’s all gonna be great,” but it’s actually a massive culture shock. You just don’t feel right for a long time. It took me like six months to get used to life out here—everything’s big, everything’s done slightly differently, people question the way I say tomato or water—and it’s all the little things. It took me a while to get used to it at all.

What advice would you give to a composer who is just starting their career?

I would say there’s no one way of doing this; it’s whatever works for you. I know the way that I did it is super lucky. Not everyone gets to be as lucky as me, where you have a wonderful mentor like Rupert, who makes sure that you’re going to be OK. And there were many guardian angels out there for me protecting me, so as a young kid I didn’t get thrown out with the bathwater if something went wrong. I was protected by Rupert, and by Steve Jablonsky at Remote, and by John Powell, making sure that I was given the best chance to walk through the door.

My way of doing it—which is meeting someone at 15 and then just guns blazing, not going to stop until I do it, and then being very lucky, going straight into a writing role as an additional composer … I don’t know if anyone else has been able to do that. The normal way of doing it is to become an assistant or intern and work your way up, and many successful composers have done that.

But there are there are other ways—there’s meeting directors on short films and smaller projects, and then they get a big break, and they bring you with them. Those are all the sort of traditional ways of doing it but at the end of the day, I’d say, just really hone your tech skills listen to a ton of music. Absorb as much as you possibly can and keep trying to get better. It should never be enough; you should always be challenging yourself and striving for that next level of achievement and always be adapting your goals.

And in a cliche way, don’t give up. I think if you really believe that you can do it and you really set your sights on that goal of becoming a film composer, I don’t see why you can’t do it. I would say 99% of the time those people that just do not give up and will not take no for an answer, succeed in some shape or fashion.

You studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. How did your classical training in cello and music composition prepare you to work as a composer?

Hugely—when I first started the Academy, I had the raw bones of someone that knew how to write a tune, and a very rough and ready approach to harmony in kind of like a poppy rock way. I had a knowledge of classical music and the way it worked in my brain—being exposed to it as a child; both my parents been musicians—but I really needed to polish that whole package, because I was rough around the edges. I’m thankful that the Academy saw whatever light that was inside me and allowed me to hone my skills.

I think there were a lot of classes that didn’t apply to me. I used it to get what I needed, which was to learn about orchestration properly, to really learn about instruments, and make contacts with people. Some of my closest friends who I’m working with now were friends back in the Academy days.

The cello side of things helps because I can bumble my way through a part to make my demo sound a bit better, but I would say mainly my orchestration classes and being around musicians equipped me the best for being a composer. Also, weirdly, film music at the Academy when I was there was not really a popular choice in the composition department; it was thought of as being a sort of lower form of composition. And now I really have to thank Chris Austin, my orchestration teacher, for not being one of those people, and nurturing what I wanted to achieve, and also sharing the love of John Williams and sharing the love of film music.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a series of Baymax shorts—Baymax, the character from “Big Hero 6.” And I’m also working on the movie “Bullet Train,” starring Brad Pitt, directed by David Leitch, which is awesome. It’s bringing new challenges, different ways of thinking about film music, and approaches to storytelling, so I’m very excited for people to see that and to hear that next year.