BWW Interview: Composer Matt Novack Talks Netflix's Childrens Hospital Spinoff Medical Police
Matt Novack, who composed Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital, took the time to speak with us about his work on Netflix's spinoff, Medical Police.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you decide to become a composer?
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and I've been interested in music, especially film music, for as long as I can remember. I studied percussion as a kid and started writing a little bit in high school. I then went on to study percussion performance and music composition at Northern Illinois University. As my interest in composition grew, so did my interest in composing for film and I quickly realized that was where I wanted to take my career. By the time I graduated, I had switched my focus solely to composition. I then moved to Los Angeles to attend USC's Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program and have been working in the industry ever since I graduated in 2005.
How did you first get involved with Adult Swim's Childrens Hospital?
I was working as an assistant for composer Craig Wedren at the time and we had just finished scoring Role Models with David Wain-so this would be mid-2008. One day, I got a call from Jon Stern saying Craig had recommended me to score Childrens Hospital, which at the time was going to be a webseries for TheWB.com. I loved working with those guys on it and was thrilled, as I think we all were, when Adult Swim picked it up and moved it to cable! I worked on every episode since then and, now, am stoked to continue on with Medical Police.
Netflix's Medical Police is a spinoff of Childrens Hospital, are there any elements from the original show that you're continuing with the spinoff? Or is it a whole new sound?
There's a little bit of Childrens' sound. The first episode starts off set in Childrens Hospital, almost like another episode of it, so there are a couple variations on prior themes, but the majority of the score is a distinctive sound for the show. We wanted to give it its own character.
What was your process for scoring Medical Police?
The first thing we did was spend a lot of time working on the main title starting with the short / bumper version that plays after most of the episodes' cold opens, and then the extended version that plays at the end of the first episode. The show-runners and myself wanted to make sure we knew what the sound of the show was going to be before we really dug in to scoring each episode, so that meant refining the main title and having broad, global discussions about the score. In terms of scoring episodes, it would start with going through, beat-by-beat with the show-runners, usually with two or three episodes at a time, going over tone, story, comedy and anything else. Back in the studio, my first pass is typically a straight pass. Not overly concerned with the comedy at this point yet, my initial goal is to get to the dramatic tone of the scene and making sure it works emotionally. Then I'll go back and make sure jokes are playing well and refine the tonal balance; and I'll refine that even more by collaborating with the show-runners.
What is the collaboration process like with the editing team? How early do you start receiving footage or episodes to work with?
The editors (John Daigle, Maura Corey, Dean Pollack, and the assistants) were fantastic. They're each very talented editors who I've worked with prior to Medical Police, so we were able to really just jump right in. The first few episodes I started working a little early from rough cuts. I knew it would take me a little bit of time at the top to find the sound, write themes, and throw ideas at the producers so it helped to get that jump. Most of the collaboration came during initial creative and spotting meetings with the producers and editorial where we'd discuss what was or wasn't working with the temp, and be able to talk about and play around with different ideas in the room. They also had valuable input along with the producers during the score review / revision process.
Medical Police is a comedy but also has a lot of action-is it tough matching both moods in a single episode?
It can be, but I find that playing the action sincerely can complement the comedy really well. The trick is finding the right balance of tone, as it can be easy to crowd-out jokes, so I'll spend some time deciding how I want to play any particular joke whether it's carving space, or stopping a cue, or pulling back, or even playing straight through and not calling attention to the comedy at all, just let the jokes play and breathe on their own. Or, sometimes the comedy calls for a standalone, upbeat, quirky cue, so then it becomes a discussion about how to do that in the palate, or if it works to do a little musical detour instead.
How do you decide when to fill a scene with music and when to leave it silent?
Initially, I try to go by feel. When I can, I like to watch down an episode with any temp score turned off to get a sense of the dramatic shape of an episode and what it needs, and I usually trust my instincts of when a scene feels like it needs music. Most times are obvious: action scenes, big dramatic emotional scenes, etc. Other times, it comes down to a conversation with the producers and we'll ask questions such as: does the scene need to be made more important by adding score? Or should it breathe? Whose point-of-view is the scene from, and would adding score change that for better or worse? Is there another cue coming up soon and should we leave dramatic space for it? Most of those conversations will happen in the initial spotting and temping phase with the producers and editors.
Do you have a favorite piece that you've composed for Childrens Hospital or Medical Police?
I'm really happy with how the Medical Police main title turned out; the extended version that ends the first and tenth episodes. We spent a lot of time experimenting, tweaking and finessing it and I think it shows. Also, in the seventh episode there's a scene that might be my favorite comedy bit of the whole season, and I scored it with one of my favorite cues I've written for either show, but it's hard to explain what it is without spoiling it! I guess "Lola and Owen try to get out of a bad situation" is the best I can do. heh.
Do you have a favorite genre you like to compose for best?
I'm a huge sci-fi fan, so I love any chance I get to work in that genre. There's a little bit of that in places in Medical Police, and I've had the opportunity to do some in Childrens Hospital and short films, but I would love to score a sci-fi feature someday.
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
Good question, and it's hard to pick just one! In sci-fi, I'd love to work with Alex Garland. I'm a big fan of Ex Machina, and really looking forward to seeing what he does with Devs. I was also really impressed with Vincenzo Natali's In the Tall Grass, which was such a smart and well-done horror film. In comedy, it'd be wonderful to work with Michael Schur. He, along with the other two, always seem to come up with bold, unique, interesting ideas and that's something I want to be a part of.
When you're not composing, what do you enjoy doing?
My wife and I love to take trips when we can; our favorite regular place being Santa Barbara and Los Olivos wine country. It's so important to get out of the city and relax. At home I enjoy reading, playing video games, and obviously watching films and TV series, but that can be a little like work sometimes. Plus, we're animal lovers, so we like to work with organizations like the ASPCA as foster parents for cats.
Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing music as a career, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I highly recommend assisting or interning for another composer. There are so many facets to this industry that getting as much experience as you can, is key. Also, never stop learning, growing, and pushing yourself as a composer. My early years were spent working as an assistant to composer Steven Stern and then Craig Wedren, two composers who could not be more different in their approaches, so everything I learned from them was invaluable.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I'm currently helping out with additional music for composer Jefferson Friedman on Harley Quinn (DC Universe), which has been great. This spring / summer I'll be scoring Unplugging, a comedy feature directed by Debra Neil-Fisher and written by Matt Walsh and Brad Morris, which I'm looking forward to!
Photos Courtesy of Matt Novack