Published on November 29th, 2017 | by Michael Newman0
Scoring Future Man With Composer Halli Cauthery
Recently I got to speak with Composer Halli Cauthery about his work on Future Man and his career.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you’ve done on Future Man? Were there any unique challenges?
My starting point for figuring out the show’s core musical identity was the fictional video game ‘Biotic Wars’, with which Josh is obsessed in the show. I did toy for a while with the idea that, since Future Man is full of arch references to 80s sci-fi, perhaps it would be fun if the score also tipped its hat in that direction from time to time. And there are indeed one or two knowing nods and winks if you listen carefully! But, at the same time, it felt important to give the show its own musical character and sound. So for example, when it came to writing Future Man’s main theme (this being the theme you first hear during the opening scene of the pilot episode and which recurs in its original form over each episode’s end credits), I thought the music had to sound plausibly like something that you might hear in a video game like Biotic Wars. And given that this game is portrayed as being a first-person shooter set in a dystopian, Terminator-like future world in which the normal rules of civilization have broken down, it required a theme which was both tough and rugged in character while at the same time being futuristic in terms of its soundscape. Also, to get into the spirit of that dystopia I made sure to thoroughly trash everything in my studio so that I’d be composing amongst piles of rubble in a barren, anarchic wasteland. I may be embellishing somewhat at this point.
For Future Man were there any movies or shows you referenced for inspiration when working on the score?
The show itself is a loving homage to classic 80s sci-fi movies – most obviously The Terminator and Back to the Future. So those films featured high on my list of things to watch for inspiration in the highly strenuous and not-at-all awesomely fun ‘homework’ regime that I drew up for myself… Also: I require only the flimsiest of pretexts to justify a sneaky re-watch of Predator, Alien, and Aliens.
When scoring for a series, do you have the opportunity to watch several episodes prior to working on the score?
On Future Man, I was usually in possession of one, perhaps two episodes in advance of the one I happened to be working on at any given moment (or, at least, rough cuts of advance episodes). The editing process is still ongoing when you come onboard a series, so when you’re working on episode x it usually means that episodes y and z are still works in progress. I was sometimes given plot pointers for what to expect in later episodes, and very occasionally I’d seen scripts – but usually I was just focusing on one episode at a time.
Can you explain a bit of your creative process when composing for a film or series?
I always find I need to start writing away from picture. I imagine most composers will probably tell you the same thing: you need to have a compelling musical idea, or at least seed of one, in place, before you start scoring specific scenes. Otherwise you’ll just end up scoring ‘moment to moment’ without an overarching sense of the whole. In the case of Future Man, this starting point was the main theme I mentioned earlier. Once I had that idea worked out, I began trying it out in various different guises, to ascertain how versatile a musical idea it was: to see if it could be adapted to work in two or three different types of emotional context. This is something I often feel the need to do: “ok I’ve established this idea will work in the more heroic moments, but will it also work when I score it for, say, a solo piano during a more contemplative or intimate scene?” Because you have to think globally, not locally: an idea has to be strong enough to carry through an entire project, and adaptable enough to work in a variety of emotional circumstances.
So once I’ve done this with all my themes, I start scoring scenes to picture. I usually begin, where possible, with the ones that require the most substantial amounts of music, as I tend to adopt a policy of ‘pick out the key scenes and score those first’. This then gives you the foundations for, as it were, the entire building.
You have composed for such a wide variety of genres, everything from family animated series, horror films, comedy, do you find a genre more interesting or challenging to do? Is the process different for the different genres?
I don’t do anything especially differently, in terms of methodology, if I’m working in, let’s say, comedy as opposed to drama. Obviously the end result differs but the compositional process doesn’t really change: regardless of the genre you’re working in, your first priority is always to ‘tell’ the story as clearly and meaningfully as possible.
Was composing for films something you had always wanted to do? Was there a particular film or moment in a film where you made the decision that this is what you wanted to do?
Actually it was never a specific ambition, to be honest. I was working as a musician in the UK after completing my postgraduate work: a lot of teaching, playing (I trained as a classical violinist), and writing music for the concert hall that sounds very different from anything I’ve written since moving into the film scoring world! But then I got an opportunity to come to California and try my hand at film music, and honestly, who wouldn’t jump at such a chance?
But there are two things I could point to from childhood: firstly, I was a massive Star Wars fan – a fact that differentiates me from, oh, perhaps 0.0001% of people who grew up in the 80s… – which meant that, like most people who go into the film music profession, I grew up with a love and admiration for John Williams’ work (and later, as I grew up and began to study music formally, gained an appreciation for how sheerly Wagnerian in scope his scores could be). Secondly, I was an absolute obsessive regarding the James Bond films: so I loved John Barry as well, teaching myself by ear as a kid how to play bits of all the Bond scores. I remember specifically being utterly awestruck, aged perhaps eight or so, by the music in the opening scene of You Only Live Twice – the ‘Capsule in Space’ music – which is a classic Barry-esque bit of extended Passacaglia-like writing that builds to a thundering climax that both mesmerized and terrified my young brain…
So while I can’t say that either of these examples made me think specifically ‘That’s what I want to do’, nevertheless with the benefit of hindsight I can certainly look back and see that they perhaps planted a seed somewhere.
Is there a particular piece of music that you are most proud of? Or a project that you worked on?
Well, I’m extremely pleased with how the Future Man music has turned out! It was a thoroughly enjoyable project to be involved with – particularly since a lot of the time it involved writing the kind of synth-driven music that rather forced me out of what I would think of as my compositional comfort zone.
I also very much enjoyed writing the music for the Dreamworks animated comedy series Turbo FAST, a few years ago. I love doing animation, and it’s a genre that’s a really good litmus test for your skills as a composer. One of my favorite episodes of that series came towards the end of the first season: an affectionate parody of the old Looney Tunes cartoons – specifically, the Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote series. This required a Looney Tunes-style score for that episode, in the vein of Carl Stalling. I’ve always adored the music in those old cartoons (or in the Tom & Jerry shorts, by Scott Bradley, whom if anything I rate even more highly than Stalling); the skill and craftsmanship of those guys is absolutely breathtaking. It’s incredibly difficult and labor-intensive to write music like that – you spend hours and hours on perhaps eleven seconds of screen time! – but having the chance to do so resulted in one of the most enjoyable working weeks of my professional life so far.
What sorts of composers inspire you? Are there any composers in particular you listen to when preparing for a film or series?
I’ve already mentioned the Johns Barry and Williams; I also earlier mentioned two films – Back to the Future and Predator – with scores by Alan Silvestri, whom I hold in very high regard as well (I think his score for Predator is an underrated masterpiece – its harmonic language is a near-constant source of inspiration). I’m an admirer also of Jerry Goldsmith – I wrote an article recently about a particular score of his.
Ultimately, though, my answer to this is that all of us who write music for a living are standing on the shoulders of giants. Personally speaking I am particularly heavily drawn to the great late nineteenth/early twentieth century Austro-Germanic masters: figures like Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg. If I ever need reminding that there is always much still to be learned about writing music, all I need to do is put on a recording of Mahler’s 7th Symphony. Now there was a composer.