‘Birds of Prey’ Composer Daniel Pemberton on Fighting for Experimentation in His Work

     February 14, 2020

Daniel Pemberton is one of the most exciting film composers working today, not just because his work is great (it is), but because he is determined to never repeat himself. He first came on many peoples’ radars with 2015’s supremely underrated Steve Jobs, for which he crafted a tech-driven score in three parts to match the film’s unique structure. But then he swerved left with a roaring, genuinely ass-kicking score for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword—it sounded like a completely different composer. That notion would repeat with films like Ocean’s 8, All the Money in the World, and the brilliant Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as Pemberton made clear he has no interest in doing the same thing twice.

Which makes him the perfect fit for Cathy Yan’s vibrant and insanely fun DC film Birds of Prey. The Harley Quinn-centric spinoff finds Margot Robbie’s character emancipating herself from The Joker, and subsequently teaming up with other women looking for emancipation in their own ways. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) couldn’t be more different from one another, and yet they make a tremendous team.

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Image via Warner Bros.

It was on Yan to combine these disparate characters into a thrilling and entertaining story, and then on Pemberton to sonically reflect the film’s diversity of tone. The result is a rollicking, cheeky, and exceedingly fun film—one of the best of Warner Bros.’ DCEU so far—and Pemberton’s score is fantastic. Various influences abound as the composer crafts multiple themes for Harley Quinn, as well as individual themes for the other characters, while also ensuring they sonically compliment one another by the time the Birds of Prey assemble at the end of the movie.

Getting there was all part and parcel with Pemberton’s process, which is one marked by plenty of experimentation and trial and error. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Pemberton on the phone about his work on Birds of Prey and his process in general, and he eagerly expressed his excitement for pushing boundaries—and his displeasure at formulaic music and films. Pemberton admitted he was initially reluctant to tackle Birds of Prey, but was won over by Yan’s vision for the film and explained how he went about crafting the soundscape, which is not not reminiscent of how Quentin Tarantino uses music in his films.

Pemberton also discussed the balance between score and soundtrack, as Warner Bros. was keen on including pop songs in Birds of Prey, so he ended up co-writing two songs for the film. The composer also reflected on the tough process of working on King Arthur and the artistic ambition of the Spider-Verse filmmaking team, and teased upcoming work on the Spider-Verse sequel and Enola Holmes. And while Pemberton couldn’t comment on whether he’ll be working with Aaron Sorkin again on Trial of the Chicago 7, he had nothing but kind words to say about working with the Oscar-winning screenwriter on his directorial debut Molly’s Game.

Check out the full interview below, during which Pemberton is remarkably insightful and candid. The Birds of Prey soundtrack is now available for purchase, and the film is playing in theaters everywhere.

How did you first get involved in this particular project?

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Image via Claudette Barius/DC Comics

DANIEL PEMBERTON: I’ve done a few things with Warner Brothers before and so I’ve got quite a good relationship with them, and they wanted me to take a look at the movie. And I was a bit like, “I don’t know. Comic book movie, superhero movie, it’s all the same. They all sound the same.” And I said, “Okay, well I’ll have a look at it.” Then as soon as I saw it I loved what Cathy Yan, the director, was trying to do, which is just make this, as she described it to me, Gotham City as you’ve never seen it before which was super vibrant, colorful, very different take on Gotham City. And anyone who knows me also knows I love color. So I looked at the film and I could sort of see, actually you know what, you could do something really different here. You could do something that was not usual comic book movie music. Because Harley as a character is such a great starting point for music because you can kind of throw anything at her.

One of the things I really liked about her is I sort of felt she’s this kind of crazy party girl who I could imagine being in any place. I could imagine an acid house rave. I can imagine her at like a metal club in the mosh pit. I can imagine her at the opera. I can imagine her in a sixties bar. You could throw all these things on her and they all work really well. She’s such just an unusual, crazy personality that if you make this unusual crazy music it kind of all works. So for me it was really exciting to see if I could try and throw a bunch of ingredients into the world of comic book movies that tasted in a different.

This may sound weird because he doesn’t really use score in his films, but your score almost sounds like it has a bit of a Tarantino influence to it.

PEMBERTON: Yeah, I mean I love the way Tarantino uses music. I kind of wish he commissioned more original scores, but the thing about Tarantino is he’s brilliant at understanding the power of music and the power to drive narrative and create really memorable bits of cinema to really memorable soundtracks. And there’s always a boldness and a kind of energy, also a sort of cheekiness to a lot of his stuff, and it’s always been a big influence on me. A lot of the composers he loves dropping anywhere are my favorite composers. Another thing I really like about his movies is there’s always a surprise, you don’t know what can happen and in a Tarantino movie, you never know who’s going to live and who’s going to die.

I love that aspect of his films, because most films, you know exactly what’s going to happen by the time you get to end. And I’m always trying to do that with scores where you don’t know what you’re going to get. I want to try and surprise people. I don’t know, there are so many movies that you can see the poster and you know what it’s going to sound like before you even get there. And I want to make movies where you don’t know what it’s going to sound like and you have no idea what you’re in for.

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Image via Warner Bros.

There’s so much diversity in terms of the sonic soundscape of Tarantino’s films. And I think that’s true of your score here. I mean, you get a little bit of a spaghetti Western vibe and then this really pulsing club vibe, rock songs and then really scary stuff with Black Mask. Was that top of mind when you were talking to Cathy initially about kind of what the music would sound like?

PEMBERTON: Yeah, I sort of felt with this movie that it didn’t want to be one thing. There are so many different characters in it as well, they still have a sort of thematic integrity to sound worlds for each one. And there are pop themes that come together. Harley’s got a theme, Huntress has got a theme, Canary’s got a theme, Roman’s got a theme of noises and they’re all quite different. There’s a lot of different characters in this film and so they move in their own little world. So I wanted to bring them all together in the same way the movie does, which is this sort of like crazy fun, super vibrant colorful explosion.

Harley Quinn is such a fascinating character, but like you said you could see her fitting in anywhere. So then how do you go about writing a theme for a character like Harley Quinn?

PEMBERTON: Well, Harley’s got a bunch of themes in the film in a way. It starts off with her break up scene, her emancipation, so that gets used a lot of times on her own emotional journey. Then she has another theme, which is basically what I call the Harley theme, which is her kicking off, just being full on Harley. So she’s got a couple of themes. Then the other characters, like Huntress has a theme on the flute. Roman’s got all his spooky noises; Black Canary’s got this sort of whistle-y thing. And so it’s trying to give them all identities, and even Harley’s sort of breakup theme, that came back at the end.

There’s a lot of backwards and forwards things on this film with pop music as well, because there was a lot of pressure to put a lot of pop songs in. So some of the score lost out to the commercial imperatives of having pop music in. But you know, both Harley’s themes I turned into pop songs. There’s a track called “Joke’s On You” by Charlotte Lawrence. So I co-wrote and we got Charlotte to sing it. So we wrote a song for the film based on her singing , which is really fun. And then there’s also another track that you see in the film called “Danger Danger”, which I wrote with a rapper called Juicy Fruit. And so we did that based around the Harley Quinn theme. And then there’s a big scene where it’s basically her rapping on top of this score.

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Image via Warner Bros.

One of the things I really tried to do with these is try and bring these two worlds together. It’s always a bit of a battle because there’s a lot of crazy politics and egos involved. But I’ve always been interested in trying… because my scores are quite poppy in a way, trying to find that middle ground between actually having songs that make sense to the rest of the sound world of the film, but can still work as score. So it’s kind of cool that we got a few of those away in this film.

So was there a lot of music on the cutting room floor?

PEMBERTON: Yeah. I mean every film I do this always a lot of music on the cutting room floor because I like to go in and experiment and try things out that don’t always work or scenes change, scenes get cut. They’re always fiddling and always trying to tweak it to make it better. So whole sequences can disappear, will come back to life or change, and I like to get involved and be a big part of that filmmaking process rather than just be the guy turns up at the end and slaps some music on. Because that way you’ve got room to fail basically. But then I always try and make sure that even if that things are not ending up in the film if they’re good tracks, try to get them on the album because the albums are really important for me as well. They’re as important to me as the film score in terms of trying to show the world I playing with the film.

Was there a particular sequence that was particularly challenging for you to tackle in this one or that you went back and forth a lot on?

PEMBERTON: Yeah, the fun house. There’s a big fight in fun house at the end and on the album it’s called “Fight Together.” I’m really proud of that track because it’s got so many different elements in. It’s basically got Harley’s theme, it’s got Huntress’ theme, and it all comes together to climax into the “Birds of Prey” theme when they all finally fight together. That was a very complex sequence of trying to make everything hit and work and still kind of have the energy for the scene. Yeah, that was probably very complicated, that one. But yes, it’s turned out really good in the film. I mean, it’s a bit of pop music over the first two minutes, but what can you do?

You said initially you were a little bit reluctant to sign on because comic movies sound the same, but I’d argue your Into the Spiderverse score is absolutely brilliant and unique. I was curious if this project differed very much from scoring that one in terms of comic book characters or is that just really just kind of a base comparison?

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Image via Sony Pictures Releasing

PEMBERTON: Yeah, I mean they’re very different movies. For me, I love doing films where I can be really inventive and bring my personality into the world, because I always want to try and do things that sound different and fresh and new and I sort of try not to have a sound and try and change it every film. The film I’m doing at the moment is Enola Holmes and it’s almost a straight orchestral score.

Oh, that’s cool.

PEMBERTON: Which I haven’t done been for years. I always want to keep people guessing. So if they just think they’re going to call to get these crazy wacky scores and I’m like, no, I’m going to give you a really straight orchestral score next. I always want to do what’s best for the movie. I think the reason I got excited by this film was just the crazy world that Cathy had created. Just color, kooky, fun, exciting, and sort of silly as well. And they’re all things that I like. You can have a lot of fun with this movie.

One of my favorite scores of yours is for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I think that’s just a ton of fun. I was wondering if you could kind of talk about working on that one because I think that movie is kind of underrated.

PEMBERTON: That movie was like… man that was a tough, tough project. There’s a lot of things I probably don’t want to say on the record (laughs).

I had heard that it was a difficult one and there were a number of reshoots and stuff, but the end result, I don’t know, your score is great.

PEMBERTON: Yeah. You have no idea. The thing that’s really difficult is if you’re trying to do music that is different, you have to really fight to keep stuff different. And that is a lot of energy, having to fight to make things different, and it’s kind of good now that I’ve done enough movies that people trust me a bit more. But because of the way I work, I change how I work every film, it’s sometimes hard to adequately convey what you’re trying to achieve sometimes through demos and stuff. I work the way I write, so there’s always a lot more invention and experimentation when I’m on set so to speak in the recording studio, rather than just here is a 100% done copy of some samples on live. But yeah, King Arthur is one of my favorite things I’ve done because it is the most out there bonkers score.

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Image via Warner Bros.

I had an amazing editor called James Herbert and he’s just brilliant because he just really knows how to use music. There’s so much you can do with music or film music and I’m always amazed that so much of it all sounds the same because people… I don’t know. Studios have formulas and they’re like, “We don’t want to deviate from this formula,” and it’s like, I try not to do movies that I think are going to be too formulaic. In some ways I’d rather do a scrappy movie where I can go a bit more crazy than a super polished one where I can’t really bring any of my personality to it.

Yeah, that makes sense. And I think you’ve succeeded in that regard so far. I think your work is as diverse as it is impressive. Have you started any work on the Spiderverse sequel? I know that one’s kind of early days.

PEMBERTON: I might have been having some talks with them…

(Laughs) Yeah, I get it.

PEMBERTON: I mean I love Spiderverse, and all the guys who made it. It was such a crazy process and I think we all love that. It’s got such a special place in our hearts. It’s bigger than a movie, that whole world. I don’t know how much I can say, but basically they’re not dropping the ball when it comes to what they want to do next, and it’s very exciting.

That’s really cool. One of the things that made that movie special is I felt everyone involved wanted to push the boundaries of what you can and can’t do in the medium.

PEMBERTON: Yeah. Again, that’s what made it exciting. It’s like Uncut Gems. I love Uncut Gems because it’s different and you’re like, what the hell is this? This is crazy. I just love cinema that’s trying to do things differently and push. I see there’s two kinds of films at the moment. There’s ones that basically reheat old emotions that you’ve had before and others that try and create new ones, and I’m always wanting to create new ones rather than just give you a taste of one you’ve had before.

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Image via Warner Bros.

I really liked your score from Molly’s Game. What was it like working with Aaron Sorkin on his directorial debut?

PEMBERTON: He was brilliant. It was really weird, because I’ve met Aaron before on Steve Jobs and I sat next to him at Golden Globes, and we had a chat. So I worked on Molly’s Game and he was just really supportive. I kind of did the opposite of what he wanted. He wanted an orchestral score and I told him I thought that was wrong and I said we should do a contemporary score. And he was just like, “Okay, go for it.” And I was like, “Look, if it doesn’t work we’ll try something else.” But he was really supportive straight from the beginning and all the way through. He’d just write these lovely emails. You’d think they were made up they were so nice. Just really positive, supportive and I kept thinking, “Oh man, there’s going to be a moment where something changes.” I’ve been in situations before where you’re slightly on edge because they’re being so nice and supportive you’re like, that means they’re going to flip it the last minute and go the opposite way. But he never did. He was just always through that process just really great to work with. Really respectful of your input but also great at just directing that movie. It’s amazing to think that is his first time directing. He’s a great guy.

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