Dominic Lewis is a British-born composer with sensational talents that have catapulted him to the forefront of music in television and film. Dominic is currently scoring the third season of Amazon’s Emmy-winning series “The Man in the High Castle.” Additionally, Dominic scores Disney XD’s revitalized “DuckTales,” Sony’s “Rough Night” and “First Fight,” and several other films including “Free Birds,” which got him nominated for an ANNIE award. He’s also contributed to scores on “How To Train Your Dragon,” “Wreck-it Ralph,” “Captain America: Winter Solider,” and countless others.
I was able to talk with him by phone, but unfortunately the audio isn’t great so I have transcribed our conversation below. It was a wonderful conversation. He is down-to-earth and it was a privilege to interview him.
How did you get into film composing and has it always been a goal of yours?
Music’s always been the end goal. Both my parents are musicians. They were both very supportive, but there was one moment where I wanted to be sportsman, whether it be cricket or rugby or some other sport. But, music has always been the beacon speaking to me, although it wasn’t always film music. At the very beginning I wanted to be like dad and play the cello and then I found rock music and then wanted to be a rock star.
When I was 11 or 12 I started writing songs for a band and then my dad tried doing film scores, playing in all the movies. I sort of got introduced to film music in that way. I’d always been aware of film music, but then I went to secondary school with Rupert Gregson-Williams’ stepdaughter. So having a new outlet through dad and eventually going to hang out with Rupert, around 11-15 I was figuring out that this would be an awesome career to have. From 15 till I left school I would go down to Rupert’s studio and watch him work and he would let me play around and help me program samples and that kind of stuff. When I went to the academy to study film composition he would send me his stuff and ask me to arrange it and things.
Was there a particular composer than inspired you?
Other than the classical greats like Strauss and Debussy and Stravinsky, it was John Williams and Alan Silvestri that really lit that spark for me. Specifically Back to the Future and The Mummy Returns from Silvestri. I would listen to them in the car on long journeys, I had a compilation CD of all my favorites. I also got into Alfred Newman, Jerry Goldsmith, all those older guys.
I’ve been listening to your work on Man in High Castle and I really like it. It also seems to be among your most popular works.
It is. It’s a real sort of meaty, dark thing that I’ve been able to get my teeth into. I really relate to dark period stuff. I’ve got two ends that I really relate to. On one end I’ve got really dark period stuff, I’m kind of obsessed with the history of the 2nd World War. Obviously Man in High Castle is a different history but it falls into that. But on the other side of things I’ve got the happy animation. It keeps me balanced.
I’m just finishing up two things right now where I try to mix those two things. It takes the traditional orchestral stuff and mix it with weird, creepy stuff.
Do you think that’s your favorite thing that you’ve done?
On that side of things (TV) I’m very proud of it. On the movie side I’m really proud of Money Monster, which was kind of a crazy electronic sound score. Free Birds was the first time I did a full orchestral score and I really liked it. But Peter Rabbit is probably my favorite movie score in terms of traditional orchestral stuff.
Did you get to name the tracks on Free Birds? I absolutely adore when Michael Giacchino does punny track names.
A few them yeah. I’ve done a couple of them on the Peter Rabbit score as well. There are a couple of really terrible dad jokes on that one.
After reading your bio, I was introduced to the concept that more than one composer works on a film, even when the ‘Score By’ attribution only includes one name. It kind of blew my mind because I consider myself to be a bit of a film score buff. How does that work generally?
Over the last 10 years or so the idea of a ghost writer has become less prevalent and they just change the name to ‘additional music composers.’ Slowly people have been getting more attribution as time has gone on. But some of these big hollywood movies are such massive undertakings with so many notes coming in from directors and producers there’s so much to deal with. The process has changed so much since the days of John Williams, everything has to be demoed up now to sound pretty much how it’s going to sound eventually. So we have to create the score before the score is recorded and mixed. So that’s a huge job and basically the role of an additional composer is just to assist that main composer in getting the job done. You kind of become an extension of what they do and that can range from doing doing an arrangement or taking maps of stuff that the composer has done or actually writing a chunk of the score. It just depends on what’s happening. There are some scores that are done mostly by additional guys and some scores that it’s more of just a contribution.
Interesting. Obviously John Powell’s score for How to Train Your Dragon is among the greatest animation scores ever. Did he do the motifs and then you helped implement them or what?
Oh yes. Very much. That’s John’s baby. The guys who helped out with that are just there to help. He’s written all the the themes, he’ll give us a good idea of what he wants. At that point we are just simply coloring it. John Powell is, I think, if we’re taking John Williams and those guys as one generation, then I think John [Powell] is at the forefront of the next generation. A genius. He’s a true composer. We as film composers are kind of like cowboys in hats in that we can get away with less complex than intellectual material than a ‘classical’ composer, but John is the real deal. I mean the guy writes actual phenomenal classical music and he’s a genius.
I know you’ve worked with Henry Jackman quite a bit and I simply adore his work on several of the collaborations that you’ve done with him like Wreck-it Ralph and Captain Phillips. How was that experience working with him?
Henry and I worked together for a long time. Our relationship became more of a collaboration from those kind of later movies. In the later movies like Wreck-it Ralph and Big Hero 6 I was very much a sounding board and a sort of a lieutenant on them. I wrote a lot of the music for Big Hero 6. He wrote the main stuff of it, the themes and all the important stuff. But we went through a lot together. We worked together for almost 5 years. We are very similar in our backgrounds and inspirations and our approach. And he taught me a hell of a lot of stuff. He set me up with a lot of work, like Money Monster. He helped me across the board, getting with execs and directors and what not, how to setup my template and treat my feedbacks, and even ways to do woodwinds differently. And I’ve worked with all those guys: Henry, John [Powell], Hans [Zimmer]. I mean, when you’re young, you have to get ahead of the game and become a bit of a sponge.
It seems like that a majority of film composers in Hollywood these days are British. Have you noticed that or is that just my perception?
You know what? I had that thought the other day! I don’t know what it is exactly. I used to think that it was that we were all in orchestras as kids and the few of us that chose to do this have such a solo musical education that perhaps that puts us in front of other people, I don’t know. I myself have two very talented musical parents. I then played in orchestras since I was about 5 or 6 and then I went to the academy for music and mentored by Rupert who was classically trained himself. I was fortunate enough to be raised properly by two very cool parents and I have somewhat of a personality, but I don’t know why British composers seem to be flooding Hollywood. I mean, I think it’s cool! Of course I would because I’m English. [both of us laugh] But having said that there are some wonderful American composers here that do amazing work. I think we’ve got a great mix of nationalities in the community.
What was the process of getting the gig for Peter Rabbit?
I’ve worked with Sony before a couple times before now. I did Open Season with Rupert with Sony and Money Monster and Rough Night. They know my style and temperament, and they thought I would be a good fit for Will [Gluck, the director of the film]. He had never used a composer before, he uses a lot of songs to score his movies. So I met with him and he gave me a couple of scenes to do, which is pretty normal when you’re trying to get a gig. And the one scene that I kind of gravitated towards was the 2D flashback scene in the living room. And that was the only real place where he wanted it to be truly traditional. So I went into what i think I can do best and that’s orchestral music and sort of floral nice bunny stuff. It stuck and he really liked it. Then two weeks later I got the job. It was an amazing journey figuring out what the rest of the movie was going to sound like because that was the only real moment where it could be truly traditional, everything else was sort of a hybrid. It took like a month or so to get to that place, the elements that I eventually fused together.
Did you have say in which songs were used? That’s a pretty song heavy movie.
It is a very song heavy movie. I would give my opinion, but whether that actually matters to the final selection of songs, I don’t know. Wendy Crowley, who was the music supervisor on the movie, is amazing. We were a real team. It felt like we were a really close knit group; Me, Wendy, and Sherry Whitfield, and Will. It felt like the four of us were a real team. We would bounce ideas off each other. And also having to record the sparrows and those songs. We were constantly in the room together discussing what should be. So i was kind of part of that process, which I’m not normally.
Did you grow up reading Peter Rabbit and did that inform you process in composing the score?
I grew up listening to my mum read it to me. I’m very fond of and have a loving relationship with those stories, so when I got sent the script I immediately fell in love with it. It captured the world of Beatrix Potter but also had this really cool new look to it and a new way of showing these characters. I’m not sure if it instructed how I did the score. There were parts that were informed by it, but I’m not sure that it was the story that did it or if it’s just who I am. When you grow up in England you have experiences with the countryside and you listen to a lot of classical music as a child, I think that was more instructive of where I wanted to go with it more than the works of Beatrix Potter. I think probably subconsciously, I mean it’s just part of who I am and it’s why I wanted the gig so much. I mean I definitely wanted to have an element of the traditional in writing the score because the movie pushes the boundaries of that quite a bit. It’s a new fresh look on Peter Rabbit, this dude who is always getting into trouble. Specifically working with Will, I wanted to start with the band, because obviously synth wouldn’t work with this, and then added the orchestral elements later. But I was very conscious when adding those orchestral elements that they would fit with the original world.