BWW Interview: Darien Shulman Talks Composing for Netflix's AMERICAN VANDAL
Darien Shulman, who scored both season 1 and 2 of Netflix's AMERICAN VANDAL took the time to speak about his work on the mockumentary series. Check out what he had to say below and when you're finished, go binge the newly released second season on Netflix.
Tell me a bit about yourself, how did you know you wanted to be a composer?
From a very young age, I've been drawn to music, and particularly music for films. As a child, I would sit at the piano and teach myself, by ear, the melodies and themes from my favorite movies. Soon, I was recreating the harmonies as well, and by my mid-teens I was composing my own short melodies using 1990s era midi technology. It was when I got to college that I first thought that creating music for picture could possibly be a career for me. I scored a few student films and I found that I immensely enjoyed the collaborative process.
You scored the Netflix series, AMERICAN VANDAL, how did you get involved with that show?
About a decade ago, a mutual family friend put me in touch with Tony Yacenda who was an undergrad at Emerson College at the time (I was working toward a graduate degree at the Juilliard School). We corresponded and Tony put me in touch with several of his friends, including Dan Perrault and Kevin and Matt McManus, all fellow Emersonians. I built my first reel from composing music for their student projects, and we continued to collaborate over many years. When Tony and Dan created AMERICAN VANDAL, they brought me on. Tony, Dan, Kevin and Matt are my favorite collaborators; it's always an amazing privilege to work with them.
How did your approach to season two differ from season one?
Season 2 of Vandal is set in an entirely new location, with new characters, and a new, more sinister crime. I had to reflect all that musically, so most of the existing musical themes have been thoroughly reimagined, new melodies added, and significant changes made to the sound palate. In season 1, there was a lot of guitar, and cello; for this new season, I leaned much more heavily on dissonant strings and unsettling electronic elements. I also created brand new music for the main title sequence.
How does the mockumentary/true-crime satire aspect of AMERICAN VANDAL affect your score? Does that element make it more difficult to capture the feeling of a particular scene or episode?
The approach I take with Vandal is to treat it as though it's a real true-crime series, and not a satire at all. That is to say, approach the composition of the music with a level of seriousness that one might not think the show deserves, because on the surface, we're talking about a comedy with a premise that is super lowbrow (in both seasons!). If you were to listen to the score by itself, you might think it's a score for a psychological thriller or a procedural drama, and I think the juxtaposition of very weighty music with what is actually being said on-screen makes the satirical nature of the show more potent.
What was the collaboration like with the editors? Did you wait until an episode was locked to begin working or was it more of a fluid process?
Definitely the latter. A lot of music was written before any episodes were even assembled, so the editors were able to use my own music as "temp" placeholders- and then when I started to get the cuts, I would edit, refine, or rewrite as needed. The editors on AMERICAN VANDAL, Paul Swain, Derek Boonstra, and Isaac Hagy, were all absolutely terrific to work with.
You've scored both films and television, is there one you enjoy more? Does your approach change when composing for a film verses a series?
I find that between film and episodic TV, there are both similarities and differences. A film is a self-contained project and an important theme or melody will likely make an appearance multiple times throughout the film, while an episode of TV is a single piece of a larger project, so it's very possible for a melody in the first episode to not appear again until the very last episode. That said, given the "binge-able" nature of AMERICAN VANDAL in particular (and I've heard of people watching an entire season in a single sitting), it often felt like I was actually composing for an extra long movie that was presented in 8 chapters.
Do you have a favorite piece you've done?
When I sit down to compose, my goal is always to create my new favorite piece. That said, of the music that I wrote for Vandal this year, I have to say I had the most fun creating the music for Kevin McClain's fictional EDM band "The Horsehead Collective". It's such delightfully ridiculous music and it make me laugh whenever I hear it.
Is there one person you'd love to collaborate with that you haven't had a chance to yet?
It's more important to me that the work I do is strong no matter who I collaborate with. There are actually lots of people who I've previously worked with that I'd love an opportunity to collaborate with again. Jim Cummings in particular- his new feature called "THUNDER ROAD" is an absolutely brilliant piece of filmmaking. I'd love to work with anyone affiliated with VANISHING ANGLE. The entire Funny Or Die team, which co-produced Vandal, is also amazing; I'd love to collaborate with them on a new project.
Do you have any advice for aspiring composers, like anything you wish you knew when you were starting out?
I feel this isn't emphasized enough, but being a nice person who tries to be easy to work with is very important. People appreciate it. There are enough overly-demanding ego-oriented types in show business; try being the person that others enjoy collaborating with instead.
Do you have other upcoming projects you could tell us about?
The one project I can tease is this: I'm currently working on an EP of original instrumental music, untitled as of yet, that should be released by the end of the year. I'm really excited about it.
AMERICAN VANDAL season 2 trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwrr6aIWeus
Darien Shulman's website: https://darienshulman.com
IMAGE Courtesy of Netflix