Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson has composed scores for films such as Hansel and Gretel (starring Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner), Edge of Seventeen (starring Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson), The Hitman’s Bodyguard (starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson) and Icelandic film Rams. He has also worked on TV shows such as Chicago PD, Chicago Med and Chicago Fire, FBI: Most Wanted and Law & Order. His latest project is the high-profile new Apple TV show Defending Jacob which examines what happens when the teenage son of an assistant District Attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) is accused of murdering his classmate.

Why did you want to be involved with Defending Jacob and how did you get involved?

I wanted to be involved because I got sent the first three episodes and I couldn’t stop watching them, I was just gripped by the show. So there was never any question of whether I wanted to be involved or not, I just thought it was a great show. So my music got sent out to the director and producer, I know the director from a long time ago, our kids went to school together in Los Angeles. They liked what they heard obviously and when the offer came, it was a no-brainer.

Is the title music on Defending Jacob by you as well?

No, the title music is by my friend Ólafur Arnalds, who wrote that sometime last year I believe.

What are the differences between scoring on a film and TV show?

The biggest difference between film and TV typically is time. There tends to be more time to develop a score for film than TV shows but under normal circumstances, I should have started sometime in the middle of last year, but I actually came in towards the end of December 2019. So it was a very compressed schedule and as a result, the time was quite compressed. But there’s a huge difference between an Apple TV 8-episode mini-series and say typical network television shows. I think shows like Defending Jacob quite frankly blur the line between television and film. To me, the quality of the production, the writing, the acting and the stars that are involved are more like what used to be part of a feature, but the world has changed drastically. You know, someone like Chris Evans probably wouldn’t have been on a TV show 10 years ago, so it’s all changing. I honestly approached Defending Jacob like I was scoring a very long movie.

The main emotion throughout is one of mystery and tension and the themes of trust, belief and loyalty – how did you reflect this in your score?

Well I hope I did! That’s an interesting question…what really fascinates me about the show is the question of “do you ever really know anybody 100%?” Everybody has their secrets and lies. There’s a concept from Henrik Ibsen (the Norwegian playwright) who talked about “life lies” – the little lies we all tell ourselves in our environment, to our friends and family to keep our life going, the way we’ve designed it. So the trick with the music was to make it feel a bit like quicksand, to make it feel not too committed, to make it feel ambivalent and unresolved to reflect the reality (of the Barber family).

I’m interested in what specific instruments you use for a particular emotion or theme. What specific instruments might you use to create tension, for example?

There’s a lot of piano and the piano tends to be an emotional instrument, the way I use it at least and I think that reflects the intention of the filmmakers. There certainly are times when I’m enhancing tension and suspense, but to be honest the music seems to comment more on the inner life of the characters rather than the narrative or the plot.

So one emotion that kept coming back to me was that I tried to imagine how lonely these people must feel and I thought about how to convey that. Nothing seems to convey loneliness better than sparse piano notes. And then strings have a very emotive sound in general and they’re a secret weapon, if you will, to skew people’s emotions, one way or another. There’s also quite a bit of electronics involved and with those you can create just about any sound, so they’re useful if you want to create anything a bit more creepy or scary, that’s where the electronic sounds really come into play, to create tension.

Did you come up with a theme for each of the three main characters (Andy Barber, his wife Laurie played by Michelle Dockery and their son Jacob played by Jaeden Martell)?

No I didn’t really and what’s interesting is that Laurie actually has a theme, but interestingly Jacob doesn’t really have a theme. The way it developed was that the themes were more about institutions like family or ideas like trust and deceit. It was a bit more philosophical than is typical for me when I’m writing music for film and television.

I certainly started by writing themes, for example the Grand Jury aspect of the show has a theme because there’s a time cut and the story is being told through this on-going proceeding, which is in a different time to the main timeline of the show. So that has a theme, so there certainly are themes, but they’re not necessarily related to the characters.

How did you try to show moments of levity and relief through the score? Obviously you have to vary the emotions at times, because the family are trying to keep things as normal as possible and have family meals and that kind of thing. So how did you try and reflect that in the music?

I guess through the tone of the music. There is a through-line for the lighter moments they have as a family, which are not many, but for those two or three moments in the series, I used a theme which is the only theme that starts with a major key. So it’s really about compositional tools to reflect their emotions. But everything is relative and when you’re working with very dark material for a long time, it doesn’t take very much to skew it one way or another. Just a little bit of levity seems very very light in contrast to everything else.

Did you want your score to interact with either the sound design or any of the music that occasionally comes in to the show? For example, there’s a use of Brian Ferry in episode 5? Was your score in conversation with any of that at any stage?

Not so much, really. Those songs had been picked long before I came on board. They’re their own set-pieces, that have a specific reason to be in the show and there didn’t seem to be the need to stitch them together in any organised sort of way.

I noticed that the music really starts to swell as the trial finally gets under way at the end of episode 6. There almost a sense of relief that something we’ve been working towards for the whole season is finally starting. What particular feeling were you going for at the start of the trial?

Well I’m glad you noticed the music at the end of episode 6 because that’s probably my favourite piece of music in the whole show. You’re absolutely right, that is the one part of the show where I was given permission to write something really extrovert and big. Their words literally were; “it can’t get too big.” It’s such a watershed moment in the series, where all this tension has been building up and finally it’s time to go and face the world – Jacob has to go and face his fate and the family has to go and face their fate. So it’s almost a biblical moment and the music even has a church organ in there, so there’s almost a religious aspect to it. But then the music in episode 7 is much more muted because most of that episode takes place in a courtroom and if you’ve ever been to a courtroom, you would know they’re incredibly quiet places. So the end of episode 6 is sending these people off into the trial and we really wanted to make that a huge moment.

The finale is the first episode that has a different location, so for the first time the family leaves Newton, Massachusetts (where they’ve been throughout the season) and they go on vacation to Mexico. Is there anything in the music that you used to reflect the fact that they’re in a different location?

That’s a good question because all along, when I was working on this, in my conversations with the director and the producer, we kept talking about how episode 8 was going to have its own sound and be different. It’s almost like a self-contained mini-movie but actually when it came time to do that, it just didn’t really work. All of the themes from the previous episodes converged and it became the pay-off for a lot of stuff that had happened earlier on in the show, obviously. And it wanted to go in that direction musically as well.