English composer Daniel Pemberton is as wildly diverse and entertaining as Harley Quinn herself. He is a multi Golden Globe, Emmy and Bafta Award-nominated composer who has worked with some of the most renowned names in the industry such as Darren Aronofsky (One Strange Rock), Ridley Scott (All The Money in The World, The Counsellor), Guy Ritchie (The Man From UNCLE, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and Danny Boyle (Yesterday, Steve Jobs). Pemberton received critical acclaim for his score on Oscar-winning film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and is now back in the comic world with his latest score for Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey.
We spoke with Pemberton about his latest score and what it was like to collaborate with director Cathy Yan.
You mentioned that you wanted to show that comic films can have a different sound. Like the lead character Harley Quinn, you’re someone who defies genres. Can you elaborate on that more in terms of how you used different styles of music to reflect Harley’s multifaceted character?
There’s so many aspects to her, I wanted her to have that punky kind of edge with a mix of manic energy like that of an acid house track as well as an elegant opera. She also has a quirky part of her reminiscent of ‘60s doo-wop. I felt like she has all these personality traits and she was like a schizoid multiple personality, so I felt that the music had to have a similar approach and aesthetic to it. So, it’s really about mixing all these genres together that normally wouldn’t work, but it does. It’s kind of like her style, too.
The operatic “The Fantabulous Emancipation” and the whistling components in “Bad Ass Broad” reminded me of Ennio Morricone. Were there particular composers or bands that you drew inspiration from for this score?
Anyone who knows me, knows I love Ennio Morricone. He’s one of my all-time favorite composers and influences. A documentary by a really great British artist named Jeremy Deller called Everybody in the Place was also a big influence. I watched that while I was coming up with ideas. It was about acid house and rave culture in Britain in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and how it was a very exciting cultural movement. The documentary was basically him giving a lecture to a bunch of teenage kids who didn’t really understand what it is and they’d never heard of it. It’s a great film and he’s a great artist, but it reminded me how much I love the sound of the TB-303 which is the essential kind of sound of acid house. That world was so mad and colorful and sort of dark, but also fun and crazy. It felt really similar to Harley’s world, and it’s such a good instrument. I thought no one has really used this in films and I wanted to get it into this.
I have a good friend named Brian Dougans who’s in a band called The Future Sound of London, but he also made one of the most important acid house records with the 303 called “Stakker Humanoid”. He’s a complete demon on the 303, so I worked with him on some early workshop sessions just to kind of get some insane sounds towards the end of the film and in various fight sequences. I really just tried to pull from any kind of musical medium that would work within the confines of film music.
How did you go about navigating which style of music to portray the various stages of Harley’s story and emotional journey?
There are quite a lot of different parts to her story. She gets her confidence after feeling very weak because she broke up with someone and feeling that they need someone else to justify who they are then to standing on her own two feet. I call that “The Emancipation Theme” and that runs throughout the film in a number of different ways. One of which is that we reworked it into the song “Joke’s on You” and then you hear it a lot through the film as she progresses and again for the end credits. That is probably the most emotional line throughout the film. For me, that’s her journey.
There’s also a certain riff specifically for Harley. You hear it for the first time when she breaks into the police station and then it comes back in other places like the car chase scene. The idea is that when it comes back, you’re really rooting for her. I love music in scores where you can seed an idea and really bring it back later. There are so many elements to film scoring. My name is on it, but there are so many incredibly talented people who also work on it from the musicians to mixers, and editing. It truly takes a lot of people involved to make a film score go from good to something really special.
I have a fun fact for you: we used real bird noises for several weird noises on some of the tracks and throughout the film. Not a lot of people know that, but we sampled real bird sounds and I went through and chopped them up and distorted them to make them sound really cool and weird. You can hear it a lot on “Stolen Diamond”.
One of my favorite scenes was when Harley is on roller skates and trying to chase down Black Mask. I think that was “Roller vs Rollers” playing. How is scoring action sequences different for you than quiet, introspective tracks like “Lotus Flower” or “Bruce and the Beaver”?
Action sequences are very hard to do differently because you normally have to hit so many points; the music kind of becomes language in film scoring and often gets repeated over and over again in action sequences. So, I’m always trying not to backtrack and so by changing instrumentation – in this case, with more electronic and more bass – that was interesting to try and get the same effects you could with an orchestra. And it was an effect you may not get normally with just a guitarist and drummer. I wanted stuff that was reactive but not overtly so. I’m always trying to make my music very simple even though to get to that point, it’s quite complicated. It takes a lot of work and a lot of experimenting to try to get these ideas down into things that are very, very simple. With the action, I wanted it to feel versatile and the women in the film are totally badass and totally kicking ass. I wanted the music to have that kind of weight and power behind it that you felt they had as characters.
The soundtrack in the film is also great and compliments the score. Can you talk about that relationship?
Finding that symbiosis between songs and score is always really important, and it’s like looking at how you can make both things work together. In this film, I ended up co-writing songs based on score ideas, like taking the score and creating whole new songs on them like “Joke’s on You” and “Danger Danger”. That way, they feel like they’re part of the world of the film. But it’s also looking at the other songs in the film and trying to make sure they’ve got the same sort of sonic language and vice versa, so it sounds like one world working together instead of two worlds fighting each other. To get there requires a lot of work and communication between everyone on the film but when it pays off, I think it’s really great. I hope Birds of Prey encourages more people to do more of that because the scenes where there are songs based around score really stand out in certain scenes in the movie. Hopefully, that encourages more filmmakers and studios to look at those two worlds and combining them more rather than just keeping them separate.
One of the films that did this so well was James Bond, years and years ago with John Barry. He wrote the score but also co-wrote the songs. So, those two worlds became meshed and that’s why we still talk about the Bond scores and Bond films decades and decades later because he managed to create something where they really were part of the same universe. Hopefully, we can start bringing that part a bit more.
How was it working with director Cathy Yan?
The thing that is so great about Cathy is that she has the same mindset that I have which is we don’t want to do things the same way they’ve been done before. I want to do things my way and she wants to do things her way. So, we both had this kind of drive to make the movie feel different. And we managed to get this film done that actually does feel different. One of the great things about Birds of Prey is what a great response that has for people–that someone managed to go out there and do something that feels new. So much of that is attributed to Cathy’s vision from the look, the styling, the approach to the characters, how they interact and how the camera interacts with them. For me, she is a really inspiring person to work with because she wanted to change things up and anyone who wants to change things up is always good in my book.
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