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‘Peter Rabbit’ Composer Dominic Lewis Talks About Writing for Children…and Adults

“Something like Peter Rabbit and The Man in the High Castle being on opposite ends of the spectrum, I think I’m definitely starting to find what’s me.”

Posted in News on February 23, 2018 by
Pictured on the right is BMI composer Dominic Lewis with actor James Corden, who is the voice of Peter Rabbit in the long-awaited film.
Pictured on the right is BMI composer Dominic Lewis with actor James Corden, who is the voice of Peter Rabbit in the long-awaited film.

Dominic Lewis has delighted millions of children with scores for Kung Fu Panda 2, Disney XD’s DuckTales and, most recently, Peter Rabbit, but for the British-born, 33-year-old graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, his work is anything but child’s play. Lewis takes composing very seriously – a passion inexorably linked to being the child of working musicians, and early memories of falling in love with his father’s lush orchestral film music. Lewis went on to study underneath greats including Rupert Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer, racking up credits for film (How to Train Your Dragon, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and television. And while Lewis’ catalogue contains copious compositions for cartoon and CGI creatures, he’s also adept in crafting music for more somber material, as proven by his 2017 BMI Streaming Media Award for work on The Man in the High Castle. Currently perfecting the score for the series’ third season, Lewis took some time to talk with BMI about banging on pots for Peter Rabbit, what to expect for The Man in the High Castle and his next big project: a new baby.

You’ve said you love scoring for animation most. Why is that? How do you ready yourself to approach creating scores for playful fare like Peter Rabbit and Duck Tales?

Well, coming from a very classically-trained background, both my parents being classical musicians and studying composition at the Royal Academy of Music – living with the orchestra for so much of my life – it’s become the closest to my heart really. And being able to explore different techniques, and write in a way that I can sort of get closer to my classical idols – the Strausses and the [Joseph Maurice] Ravels and the [Claude] Debussys of the world – it’s something that really is my favorite thing to do. I feel animation is an avenue in which you’re allowed to explore those techniques more so than the world of live action now. When you are scoring live action you’re constantly being forced to push the envelope and try things that are new and not necessarily rely on those traditional orchestral techniques. Whereas in animation, because more often than not it’s geared towards children, you are allowed to do those more traditional methods with the orchestra. That’s what really gets me going as a composer – to be more traditional with the orchestra and find a way of not being cheesy, but creating this wonderful orchestral palette. Not everyone can do it and I’m very lucky that I can do it. It’s what I love the most.

I think it helps being a big child myself. I’m not known for being too serious. Which sometimes causes friction with the wife when she wants to have serious conversations and I’m always joking. But it helps being a big kid. I have gravitated towards cartoons and animation and more childlike… actually that’s unfair to say because a lot of this animation deals with some very important lessons in life, if they’re doing the right thing. You know the Lion Kings and the Zootopias and even in Peter Rabbit there’s a lovely message in that too. So in terms of getting in the headspace to write that kind of music, I think it’s more important you treat it as not an animation but as an ordinary film dealing with day-to-day issues and emotions and bumps in the road and obstacles and how we get round that. It’s important to treat it not like kids’ animation and come at it from a light and fluffy angle. If you need more darker emotions and more serious things in the music you should. It’s more about not changing your headspace and reacting to what the picture is giving you and what the director wants to tell the audience at a specific moment. It’s easier to go to those places when it needs to be more silly or slapstick for me, as I am silly and slapstick. It’s part of my personality, which I think helps to go to those places. I score The Man in the High Castle, so I have to get pretty dark at times. But it’s nice to mix it up. It’s nice to do animation where a lot of it is aimed at making children laugh. It’s a really lovely thing. It’s nice to have that juxtaposed against scoring Nazis. It keeps me sane.

What did you set out to do with Peter Rabbit? What were the preliminary discussions about the film like and did they change as the process unfolded?

My first conversation with Will [Gluck, director] was, he wanted it to be big and British. And I sort of gestured to myself because I’m 6 foot 2, 240 pounds and British. So, I said to him, ‘That should be pretty easy, because that’s me.’ The goal was to keep the traditional element of Beatrix Potter, and by that, I mean when we think of Beatrix Potter we think of green pastures and fluffy bunnies and pastoral music and more classic orientated music. So, to keep that, but also give it a little bit of a fresh outlook and a modern twist, because Will uses a lot of songs in his movies and it couldn’t be so different from what the songs are trying to do. So, for example if you’re having like, Fitz and The Tantrums and Vampire Weekend stuff, you have to be able to bridge those genres – you can’t just have Fitz and The Tantrums followed by a lovely piece of classical music, because people are going to be like, ‘What’s going on?’

The soundtrack, and by that, I mean the score and the songs, needed to feel like one thing. With me trying to keep that traditional element of Peter Rabbit, we had to infuse it with some modern elements. I didn’t want to go down a cool synth-y route, really going down the pop world of today, but just giving it that little feeling of bridging the gap. I actually started with that – the band element, knowing that there would be orchestral and classical elements put on top of it. I started with the drums and the bass and the guitar. And I actually got a bunch of gardening instruments – so I had shears and plant pots and wheelbarrows and rakes. We did a big stomping session at my studio and basically replaced things like hi-hats and momentum things and big bangs. We didn’t want big drums because everyone puts a big drum in their score. We wanted something that made it sound like this world…banging on a wheelbarrow for a kick drum, or smashing on a water drum for a snare drum. Those kinds of things. That automatically put us in the world. There’s a big inspiration from iconic British bands like The Beatles and The Who and The Smiths and The [Rolling] Stones – everything you think of when you think of British rock & roll music – that’s what I wanted to conjure up as the basis for this. From 1960 all the way ‘til now. But It was important to keep those instruments, for want of a better word, organic, so we didn’t alienate this lush, green pasture of Beatrix Potter’s world. If I had put synths and all kinds of modern instruments there it just would have been wrong. So, starting with a band and then basically smacking a big massive orchestra on top of it, to give it that big, epic movie feel. What we came up with was something really cool – you’ve got this blend of soaring strings and underneath you’ve got harpsichords and honky-tonk pianos, Rickenbacker guitars…it’s just a big melting pot hodgepodge of cool and traditional British things. I’m very proud of it. It took a long time to get to that space. To get that right blend, it took a couple months, but we got there.

What are some of the unique challenges of scoring for animated characters vs. people and how do you solve them?

I don’t think I view them any differently. That’s where Will put me on the right track. I think to start with, being very close to the source material of Peter Rabbit and Beatrix Potter, I was kind of treating Peter as this kind of cheeky little guy. He’s obviously a rabbit and so you automatically think of motifs and things that are rabbitt-like and I think I was being too light with it because I was viewing him as this animated character. So, I think when I first started I wasn’t really treating him as the character that Will wanted to portray. He sat down and he said, ‘No – this isn’t cheeky Peter Rabbit who can do nothing wrong. This is like Batman. This is our James Bond. He’s a hero, he’s a badass. He is cheeky but there’s some real substance to him.’ So that really put me in the right headspace about getting to that point where it needs to be rabbit-like and mischievous, but at the same time it needs to be able to switch on a dime and move to a more heroic feeling. In comparison with Mr. McGregor’s theme, when we first hear it, it’s perceived to be quite threatening and dramatic. But also, as we move through the movie and we start to empathize with Thomas McGregor, and feel for him, the chord progression that I wrote for underneath that kind of threatening triplet motif actually becomes lovely and quite emotional. So that’s how I had to treat these characters because they go on such an emotional rollercoaster. So it’s not really that I treated animated characters differently to real people, it was just more about ‘How do I come out with themes that allow me to push them into different emotional states easily and live in the same world?’

What’s the key to appealing to adults, as well as kids?

I think credit needs to be given to Will for that. I’m simply reacting to what he’s put it on the screen and the conversations that we had about what he wants to convey to the audience. One of the main things was not doing ‘Mickey Mousing’ stuff. A lot of that is childlike slapstick humor and Will didn’t want to ‘Mickey Mouse’ stuff, and by that I mean I hit every single thing that’s happening. As old animations did, I think that’s why we call it ‘Mickey Mousing.’ Because then it becomes too cartoon-like and adults switch off. If you treat it more like a regular movie and not a kids’ movie then you are automatically gearing it more towards the adults. I think by creating music that is emotionally grown-up for the more adult themes in the film, automatically you bridge that gap so kids and adults can enjoy it. There’s some pretty emotional stuff in there. Peter and McGregor make some very bad decisions and the film comes to a pretty hectic ending because they have to apologize and make up for things. So, there are some good lessons in there for kids and adults, and if you’re aware of that when you write the music, it makes it easier to appeal to both.

As you approach another season of Man in the High Castle, how will this season’s score be different as existing mysteries deepen and new dynamics get explored? What’s the same? How do you keep the score fresh every season?

Season 3 is always a tricky one. Because with Season 1, it was very character-based and intended to stay quite small. And in Season 2 the end of the world is at stake. I just threw everything at it, so it got very big and orchestral and dramatic and traditional. And then Season 3 is kind of that odd state where new character journeys are happening, so I had to find new ways of exploring everybody’s theme. And more characters are being pushed into other characters’ worlds, which hasn’t happened before. Without giving away too much, I wanted to harvest some of the more intricate emotional journeys of the first season. Some of those relationships return in some shape or form. I’m being cryptic because I don’t want to give away any spoilers! We want to gain a sense of where we’ve been musically in the first season, but push it forward and evolve in a way where it wasn’t just revisiting. And specifically, with Juliana – her relationships and how she interacts with the characters close to her and around her. It was important to conjure up memories of where she’s been, but also push her forward because she’s gone from being this kind of fragile flower to this badass who is killing people left, right and center. She’s on a mission, she has a purpose. And it was very important for the music to portray that. She kind of started to make that journey in Season 2 so I came up with the new motif for her which is like, ‘Juliana on a Mission.’

Season 3 she’s so deep in that mission that’s all she cares about, and she has to succeed. That’s where that motif changes - it’s more twisted. It’s actually pretty dark, looking at it now. It’s positive and it’s great and the story needs it, but there’s something Hitchcock-ian about how I approached the third season. It’s very noir in the way that it’s shot. Previously, musically it’s been very subtle in what I’ve called ‘The Edelweiss Method’ – taking something very familiar and kind of off-setting it with something creepy and weird. Whereas in the third season I’m being more overt about how messed-up this situation is. I think it’s a nice mix of one and two. I think it can get big but I’m exploring the intricate qualities of the characters a bit more than I did in Season 2 because Season 2 is a kind of general overview of the world of High Castle, whereas Season 3 goes back to investigate what these characters are really about and what is their goal in life.

How does the process and the instrumentation itself change in scoring animated fare, versus what you’d do for something as intense as High Castle?

I’m not sure the process changes in terms of evaluating what needs to happen in a scene and going through and making sure that it works. I think obviously, it’s different in terms of mood, in terms of coming up with the right stuff and reacting to what we’ve talked about in spotting sessions about what we want, and want the audience to feel. It’s the same process, it’s just a very different execution. Because I have to go a different place to be able to come up with this kind of music. I can’t go to the same place that I go to when two bunnies are running around a garden being chased by a grown man with a rake. And I think that’s why I say that mixing stuff up keeps me sane because if… My style of composing is so drawn on my experiences in life, and what certain music makes me feel and conjures up memories of where I’ve been in my life. I definitely have to go to that place in High Castle in certain scenes and if you go there too often you might not come back. (Laughs.)  After scoring a scene in High Castle of hundreds of thousands of people screaming ‘Sieg Heil’ and having to do that over and over again, it does feel weird. It’s not like I can just shake it off – sometimes it does take a minute, especially with the current climate and what we’re going through now in America. It’s good to get back to DuckTales and rabbits and nice fluffy things to help me not get too depressed. (Laughs.)

Time is of the essence in scoring for TV vs film. How does that impact the creative process, or the logistics? What are the pros and cons of having less time to create a score? Which do you prefer and why?

It’s a question I get asked a lot. It’s a very different process in terms of like, “How am I going to get this done in this amount of time?’ With the movie, something like Peter Rabbit, we had a lot of time. I had almost six months to make 34 minutes of music which is a lot of time – the most I’ve ever had. I actually like that because I’m able to go through my whole thought process – I’m able to explore every avenue of where this material could go. Something Hans [Zimmer] taught me when I first started: It should never be the first thing you think of. And if it is, you should go do everything else and come back to the fact that the first thing was the best thing you did. But as a composer you need to explore all those avenues so you know which is the right one. When you have two or three months to do a movie, it’s close, but with six months for 34 minutes of music, it was nice to explore every avenue.

With TV, it’s like, no time to think. You have to rely on experience and reaction and not be insecure about your ability to write music for picture and just go for it. If you get it wrong, the director will tell you and you will have half a day for fixes. It’s a very different process in that you just kind of react straight away. There’s no time to think about it. You just have to go. I like the fact that with TV there’s an out point: you get two weeks to explore this episode and come up with cool things, and then you’re on the next one. And sometimes you’ll be drawing from the previous episode and you can iron out things that you would have done differently and it’s a constant process. So, if you look at it that way it’s like 10 episodes of TV is way more than a movie. I think I prefer the movie side of things, because I can look at the canvas in one go – figure out what my journey is before I start it. Often with TV when you shoot Episode 1, Episode 10 hasn’t even been shot yet. It’s very difficult to know what your journey will be musically. So, that’s why I think I prefer movies because if I’m coming up with a theme I need to be able to get my head around, It needs to be going to this place. If I’m coming with a soundscape it needs to have evolved to this place by this point.

How did relocating to the U.S. impact your style of music, of producing?

I’m not sure, but the goal for me was always to move to the U.S. as soon as I fell in love with film music. I realized that perhaps London was not the best place to do that. So, I think it was more the pull of Hollywood that affected my way of producing music, as opposed to arriving here and therefore changing. I was constantly thinking I was coming here and wanted to be here so much, that influenced the way I wrote music and the style of demos and things I was doing back in England.

I was very lucky to be mentored by Rupert Gregson-Williams through my college days and I had a wonderful orchestration teacher called Christopher Austin who had worked with Joby Talbot so I was being groomed, if you will, for the Hollywood way, whatever that means, because there are so many different genres. But that’s part of it: I realized I had to be able to do everything. I can’t just write orchestral music; that’s not going to fly. I need to know how to program. I need to know how to demo. I need to know how to make things sound good. So, my time at the Academy was nailing my orchestration chops but also being in the studio every day demoing up ideas. I’d give myself tasks like, ‘Today is superhero theme day’ and ‘Tomorrow is CSI: Cold Case-type thing.’ I was already here in my head so therefore that instructed the way I needed to produce and write music before I even got here, which I think helped me get to where I am now. I was already in that frame of mind.

When I got that shot with John Powell on How to Train Your Dragon, which was my first big gig, I already knew to a certain extent – obviously, I still have things to learn – but I knew what needed to happen. Rupert had been teaching me years before this in terms of working with a composer, emulating their style, all the little inner workings. I had a head start before I got here. That’s why I was able to move straight into a writing role: my life experience, my dad being involved in sessions, my wanting to do this since a really early age. I was able to equip myself with a necessary knowledge. I was very lucky but I was determined not to let that opportunity go. It’s all very well [having] a door open for you and having contacts and getting an easy road to start. But I haven’t looked back – I ran through that door and grabbed the opportunity with both sets of hands and I never took it lightly. This is the most serious thing and always has been since I decided I wanted to do it, obviously, family excluded. Although I didn’t have the traditional route I’m very, very grateful and I never take it for granted one second.

You’ve been able to work alongside some of the best ever, including Rupert Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer. What have you learned about creating your own style? Do you think about your own legacy, and if so what would that be?

I do, and that’s a really good question. My goal when coming out here, after the initial shock of being in a room with guys that you idolize…I really wanted to basically become a sponge and absorb everything. Not just musically, but the way the way they dealt with directors, the way that they dealt with colleagues – just basically be a sponge and absorb how they’d become so successful. It’s not just the fact that they’re geniuses in writing music, it’s the whole package. I’ve learned over the years that writing music – I don’t even think it’s 50% of this job. The rest of it is dealing with confrontation, and dealing with differences of opinion, and phone calls and emails and politics and all this kind of stuff. The writing music side – if you don’t have that down, you’re screwed. It takes so much energy and effort to get to a place where you feel comfortable with colleagues: making sure everyone’s happy. That’s something I took from Hans. He’s such a pro at commanding the room and letting everyone know it’s going to be okay. There’s no sense of panic. He never makes everyone on the executive, director side of things feel like there’s a problem. Everything is always solvable. And that was big for me coming up, learning like that. The way that John Powell is able to react on the fly and react to notes – I don’t know if I could ever do it that quickly as he does and so wonderfully. When he has meetings, he sits in a room at a keyboard and if they have notes he will just delete sections at the keyboard in front of them. That struck very early: if I can teach myself to do that, this is huge. Hans has recreated himself how many times now? But he keeps pushing the envelope and making things new and cool, finding different ways to score movies.

I’m still in my first phase but it has taught me this if you can get recognized in this phase – it’s not going to last in this space. You’re going to have to change it up, to keep thinking of different ways to do things. Working with John, he taught me that balance of trying to balance family life and bringing the studio home. He said to me, ‘Listen if you want to stay married you’ve got to get your studio home somehow.’ We’re just about to have another child – we have a two-and-a-half-year-old – and I did not want to miss the beginning of their life. And I knew that if I was at Remote Control, I could be there til 2 or 3 in the morning and back at 9 a.m.; I didn’t want to miss that. That’s got nothing to do with music but I think it’s important for one’s headspace. If you’ve got a constant calling back from the studio, ‘Why aren’t you here, you’re missing your child’s life,’ that’s going to affect your music.

In crafting my own style, I think John and Hans have had an influence on my style. I think it’s hard not to when you write for someone. You’re trying to essentially be that person as an additional composer. It does influence your take on melody and harmony but having had so many great mentors, and then the classical greats and bands – it’s a huge melting pot and makes it harder to define what is you. But I think that is starting to come through now. With Free Birds I was very much relying on what I learned through these great guys. There was a voice of me in there somewhere, but it was a very traditional orchestral score. Something like Peter Rabbit and The Man in the High Castle being on opposite ends of the spectrum, I think I’m definitely starting to find what’s me. I think it depends on what becomes successful and what doesn’t.

I’ve got gigs from High Castle and Money Monster so that kind of instructs what your language is going to be for that project. I think the success of a project does have an influence on what your style is. I’m always constantly learning and listening to stuff to find inspiration of where to go next. Whether that’s drum & bass or Strauss. I try and keep an open mind as possible to find different noises and different sounds and melody in life. Which sounds super wanky but it’s true. I’ve always been that kid – tapping on tables, humming all the time, pissing people off left, right and center. But I’m always looking for noises – I always like fans in rooms or when the Hoover is on and it’s a tone. I will sing in that tone, that key center. I’m so annoying like that, but that’s just the way I’m programmed.

What was it like winning your BMI Streaming Media Award? How did that win impact your work or the way you think about your work?

I love my statue. It’s got quite a place in my studio and I’m very, very proud of it. I’ve been with BMI since I was at the Academy. I’ve always been very proud to receive any recognition; I’m proud to be a BMI member. I don’t know if it affects the way I write, but it definitely affects the way in which I view success in a project. It tells me that it’s not really about how much money it makes, if I’m going to the BMI Awards dinner and getting a statue, that to me means I’m doing something right. So, I think that’s the importance of the BMI Awards. It’s actually a really big deal. I really value the support BMI has given me for years and years now. It’s a big part of me as a film composer.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing The Man in the High Castle Season 3 then DuckTales is rolling into Season 2. I’m open for hire! I’m having a baby. My wife is about to have a baby. It’s a couple days away, and that’s my next immediate project. It’s another boy and we’re going to call him Quincy, after the great Quincy Jones.