Antonio Gambale: The Music of Unorthodox and its Australian Composer

June 24, 2020
Growing up in Canberra is a long way from Paris, but that's where the composer of the popular Netflix mini series is now based, as he tells us about his journey there, and where things are heading.

Can you tell us whether film composition was always part of the plan for you, or was it something that you stumbled into?

For me it’s actually kind of both. Ever since I was a little kid, I was mesmerised by film music. Whenever I sat at the piano, almost every piece of music I tried to recreate by ear was something from a film or a TV show. Then later, when I got access to synths and other kinds of musical instruments and started making my own pieces, I think in retrospect almost everything I made was the kind of stuff that evokes imagery. Now that I think about it, I remember several times when I played something I made to my friends and they’d close their eyes, then tell me it made them think of something visual, or reminded them of a movie in some way.

But then in a practical sense, yes, I did stumble into it as well. By the time I was at uni, I’d already stopped taking music lessons and learning theory; studying for a degree that had nothing to do with music or film. But my brother was already working at a production house, and just by chance they sometimes needed a composer to make music for local commercials, small productions, documentaries, that kind of thing. So, instead of having a side job in a restaurant or a bar like a lot of people do while studying, these gigs became regular enough to be my side job. It was pretty low-key work and a far cry from the dream of working on big films, but you also learn a lot. And of course, everyone has to start somewhere. Also, this work helped me start buying more and more of my own gear which at the time was a lot more involved, compared to what you can do with just a laptop today.

I never thought a career in music could be a real thing, I always wanted to take it in the direction of music for film and TV. I suppose this started to feel real for me even back when I first started out. Not long after I was doing local ads and so on, a side effect is that you meet directors and producers who also aren’t just interested in the money gigs they’re doing – they are also making their own short films or other kinds of passion projects on the side. So, from making these connections, I started working on these things too, often with no budget. But it was working on these productions that really hammered home how much I liked the work, especially when the films started going to festivals where they were actually seen and enjoyed. Winning some awards here and there was a bonus. Getting involved in productions like this made it feel like one thing could lead to another, as opposed to just looking at the industry from the outside which can seem pretty impenetrable.

Shira Haas as Esther Shapiro in Unorthodox

In Unorthodox, there is a whole narrative arc involving music students. Could you relate to its depiction? Was this what your music education was like?

Yes and no. I was never a “conservatory kid” since I had private music lessons at home. I still had formal exams and studied music theory, but not in the kind of context we see in the show. I think the closest I got to an institutionalised setting was when I went to AFTRS in my late 20s to study film composition. This being said, I know a lot of people who did go through exactly that kind of training, especially the more you work with copyists and orchestrators, orchestras and individual musicians. There are some scenes in the show that depict pretty accurately what it’s like to work as an ensemble. The students are encouraged to learn to anticipate the players sitting next to them so that as a whole, the music takes on a unified shape. I personally never had any experience of this from their perspective, but since working a lot with ensemble musicians from small groups to big orchestral lineups, I really think the show did a good job portraying this. It’s one of those things that are easy to take for granted when you’re accustomed to seeing experienced orchestras playing so tightly together, so I think many people would have appreciated learning that this doesn’t just happen automatically. And of course, it’s also a nice allegory in the storyline about people using their own individual talents to contribute to a larger group effort, with all the questions about the meaning of community that arise from that.

I understand that you wrote the music previs, if I can use that term. Was that a new way to work for you, and how was the experience

This is partly true – I did write a lot of the main themes and made lots of variations and sketch pieces before the shoot was finished. Some of it was done even from script stage, and then more of it while the shoot was underway. One thing that was new for me was that nowadays there’s online video sharing with very secure log ins that allow you to see all the takes from each day of shooting. Many of us in production were added to this platform so we could log in and get a feel for what it all looked like and how it was taking shape. It’s quite different when you start seeing how the script looks once it’s shot, as opposed to only seeing it later when they share edited assemblies of scenes. But it can also be a little misleading, because when you watch unedited takes, you really don’t get a sense of what the pace of scenes is going to be like at all.

Still, during this process, occasionally I saw some scenes that looked interesting from a musical perspective, so I asked to be sent a QT video of those takes. Even if they were just raw scenes, it was useful to be able to pull them up in Logic and write music up against them. There’s only so far you can get when you write music just from reading the script. I think that kind of approach can be fruitful when the genre is very clear, and you can more accurately predict the feel of the production. For example, if you’re working on a big, lush period drama, you could probably confidently write a lot of ambitious orchestral themes safe in the knowledge that they’ll all match the style of the production after it’s translated from words to images. But on more unique productions with a more intimate or unconventional style, it’s much easier to completely misjudge the tone and find that the music you were working on was too big, or too small, or just doesn’t fit somehow. So, having this access to the dailies was pretty useful to help gauge things along the way.

The other reason why we worked this way was because from the very start our show runner and co-creator of the series Anna Winger outright banned the use of temp music. For those who don’t know, temp music is a technique used in the edit room. It means that when they start cutting scenes together, the editors might choose some music from whatever source – other films, classical music – really anything. They “temporarily” (hence the term) cut this music in, so as to help with the pacing of the edit and basically to help inspire the cutting process for scenes that are going to have music. It’s an almost standard practice today, and it does have some advantages even though most people dislike it. On the plus side, it does help the editors and the director/show runner to get a feel for what kind of music they want while also making it easier to get the edit approved by producers. But there are significant downsides. Temp music tends to create expectations that are impossible to meet when the original score comes in to replace it – people have become attached to what was there before, so a lot of energy and time can get lost chasing a fantasy of somehow making something “same but different” which creates exactly the same feeling the previous music had. It also can unfortunately lead to a piecemeal original score, because there’s often no internal logic to the choices of temp music used along the way – it’s just chosen on a scene-by-scene basis of whatever works. Then once you’re trying to create the real final original score, all of these different directions and unmatched styles of the temp music can put undue pressure on the original score to try to encompass too many different styles. So, instead of ending up with a unified and focused score with its own unique aesthetic, you can end up with something of a patchwork that doesn’t bring as much distinctiveness to the film or series as it could have.

Our approach instead was to try to create a body of work that could already start being used from day one of the edit. This gave them some material to work with in the edit room, and a starting point for me to start filling in the blanks on what was missing. And from that point, we transitioned to a more traditional approach. We spotted the scenes of each episode for where score was needed, and then either used existing themes I already made as a starting point or I went back to the drawing board to create something completely new if needed. Talking with colleagues (particularly those working on other current series for Netflix and other outlets), this approach of building up a pre-made catalogue of music as a starting point is starting to become more and more common.

When you came up with the score, what did you use as your inspiration? Any particular cues from other composers/work that you used?

Since we didn’t use any temp, it goes without saying that I had a much broader carte blanche to really develop the style as I saw fit. However, in my own research and prep, I definitely did listen to the music of several shows and films which I felt were somewhat in the ballpark for a story like ours. Not everything I listened and referred to was necessarily music from films or series, I also went back to several of the go-to contemporary composers I like. So, listening to music by people like Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Max Richter and Nils Frahm was all useful to help calibrate the kind of sound palette I wanted to go for. To me, this music is quite thought-provoking and also often emotionally moving, but without being melodramatic. Instinctively, this felt like the general direction I needed to go. But then I also rewatched shows like The Handsmaid’s Tale, because I remembered feeling a sense of tension and claustrophobia in that music which also felt instructive for some aspects of our storyline.

Of course, influences and references only get you so far. Each one of them can illuminate a piece of the puzzle, but as a whole, they also can be either too heavy-handed or too strongly rooted in a different universe to fit the story you have at hand. So, at the end of the day, influences just remain exactly that – influences. You can take directions from them here and there, but ultimately the work you do is going to be a synthesis of ideas you gathered and your own subjective creativity.

Did you watch the filmmakers’ previous work in order to understand what they like?

Yes, our director shared one of her films with me that I watched, and I also watched a recent series made by our series show runner in which the director is actually one of the lead actors. It can be instructive up to a certain point, but it also confirmed for me just how different every production can be. At the end of the day, directors, show creators and also film/TV composers don’t always fit as easily in the same category as recording artists or even authors. I guess we do develop recognisable styles and traits, but at the same time we often work in such wildly different projects that you can’t always tell what direction is going to take shape in any given production. For example, sometimes directors work on films that are of such a particular style, they might not use any score at all. But other films in a different genre might be brim full of score. I think it’s a little different to how you get to know the work of say, a songwriter you really like. Often, you can instantly recognise their work from the very second you start hearing it, but a director’s style in filmmaking isn’t always so immediately evident. Maybe it’s because there are less moving parts to songwriting. It’s a more focused medium and doesn’t always have the huge genre leaps you find in film and TV.

Did you find working on a Netflix project any different to previous work that you have taken on?

Hard to say. In every production there are always similarities and always differences, regardless of who the players are. On Unorthodox, sure, we had a specific kind of production timeline and approval process which I assume was a lot to do with how Netflix like to run things. But it wasn’t all that different to how it usually works, with an inner circle of internal creative direction and approval between the key creatives, surrounded by an outer ring of feedback and approval from the network – pretty much the same process if there was a movie studio in the place of Netflix. Regardless of whether it’s a studio or a streaming platform, they have their own goals and priorities which come from their own metrics. A more conventional film studio might have marketing and release experience from cinema, whereas Netflix might have data and algorithms which help shape the ambitions they’re aiming for in any given production. Whatever form this takes, it still tends to resolve to the same kind of broad-strokes oversight that you typically get from higher up in the production chain.

Our show was always considered quite niche and was at the lower end of the budget spectrum. So even though Netflix is a huge presence in production today, we were still quite low on their radar when it came to giving us direction. I think this let us have a little more freedom than on a production which everyone is watching eagle-eyed because there’s a lot at stake. Also, our Netflix-side producers were really genuinely into the show, so they really used this situation to its best advantage to give us a lot of room and a lot of encouragement to do things the way we felt was right.

Did you throw yourself into the Hassidic world in order to understand what the project required?

Not a great deal actually, at least not independently. We had so many discussions about the script and the background to the story that I learned a lot just by being part of these discussions. The material was already so well-researched by the show creators, and of course they also had tight direct links with the author of the book that inspired the script. So, I really got a masterclass just from working through the story with them. One thing I did do however, was go and visit the Beth Loubavitch Centre, an orthodox Jewish centre in a neighbourhood not far from where I live in Paris. Anna Winger, our show co-creator and show runner, told me about it, so I dropped by to take a look. It has many cultural and community resources and a library which I visited. But of course, not being able to read Hebrew nor Yiddish meant that it was quite impenetrable to me. Still, it was interesting to see that there was such a vibrant community with so much heritage right nearby.

How are you coping right now in the Covid world? Has work dried up for you at all? And if so, what are you doing in the meantime

Things have started to change back to something resembling normal in recent weeks here in Paris. Our lockdown was very strict compared to many other places, so it was very strange here for quite a long time. I actually was also very busy with work during the whole lockdown period, because of projects that were already in post by that stage. Working from home at that stage was a given, but the situation was so strange it made working from home surprisingly more challenging than in normal times. In terms of work drying up, well that’s something which I think in our industry is still to come. In the northern hemisphere, this time of year is usually when most film and TV production gets into high swing – Unorthodox itself went into shooting stage exactly around now, last year. I’ve spoken to friends who work on the front end of film and TV production and they’ve told me that many shoots are canceled, but that there are also plans and negotiations for others to sort out ways that they can get started soon. That’s promising, but the reality is that, of course, there’s going to be a dip in what gets made, and this could even be followed by another dip later when economic consequences start kicking in and financing becomes more difficult to find. Luckily, I’m already attached to a couple of other projects which are still going ahead this year, so work has not dried up completely. But we’ll all have to see what happens next.

Antonio Gambale

Has Unorthodox led to more high paying/high profile work for you?

It’s too soon to know about any of that, the series only just came out a couple of months ago and is still being discussed and still reaching new audiences around the world. I certainly hope so. But productions happen in long cycles, so you really have to wait until the next round of films and shows are starting to get underway. I’ve had an overwhelming amount of positive feedback and direct outreach about the score – from other composers, fans of the show, and also extremely enthusiastic offers from major labels wanting to release the soundtrack. So, I expect this interest could also extend to creators who have upcoming productions as well. I suppose a lot depends on how much of a hit the industry takes from the recent and ongoing crisis. But as the year progresses, I’m not going to sit on my hands and wait to receive scripts either. I’ve made a lot of new connections through this show, so there are plenty of projects I’ll actively start looking into from my end as well.

What music are you listening to right now?

This is always a hard question to answer for me because I jump around between so many radically different things all the time. Literally, the latest music I’ve been listening to is a lot of opera and also old recordings of great Italian singers like Caruso and Beniamino Gigli. If I had to say why, it’s possibly because I’ve been thinking about Italy a lot lately. I’ve been communicating in Italian with family and friends a lot more frequently than usual, because of the pandemic. In fact, I was supposed to be there not long from now for a family reunion summer holiday, so I think I’ve been taken by a deep wave of nostalgia which dragged me into this music the same way you get dragged into a YouTube binge.

Aside from that, I also recently had a great and very eclectic music experience which started during lockdown itself. Some friends of mine started a Facebook group called Quarantine – The Soundtrack, which started out including just friends who also work in the music industry, but snowballed from there. At its peak, people were posting YouTube links to songs of all different kinds – everything from uplifting pop hits everyone has forgotten about, to really cool modern things people have only just recently discovered. There was a loose thread of discussion of what everyone was going through while stuck at home, and sharing music was a good way to bring up what we were feeling. But also, it felt like being invited to a party where everyone took turns putting on a tune, from the cool to the ridiculous, with plenty of lively banter and a lot of hilarious commentary along the way. I discovered a lot of cool music I’d never heard of before, and also had great conversations with people from all over the world about music of all kinds. All in all, it was one of the best reminders I’ve had in a long time of what fun sharing music with people can be.

Unorthodox is streaming now on Netflix.

For more on Antonio Gambale, head over to his website.

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