INTERVIEW: Emmy-Winning Composer Nathan Barr on ‘Halston’ and his TV Career
Nathan Barr is a prolific composer of scores for both film and television. His film scores include The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018) and The Turning, Uncle Frank and The Hunt (all from 2020). His work for television includes; True Blood, Hemlock Grove, The Americans, Fosse/Verdon, Carnival Row and The Great. He won an Emmy in 2020 for his main title theme music for Hollywood. We met to discuss some of his many projects, including his most recent work on the miniseries Halston (starring Ewan McGregor) on Netflix.
You composed the music for TV shows True Blood, Hemlock Grove and Carnival Row plus films House with a Clock in its Walls and The Turning, which all have a similar Gothic feel – is this a genre you enjoy playing in?
Oh yeah – I love horror films, they’re my favourite. Some friends and I have been in a little bubble throughout the pandemic and every Saturday we met and watched a horror film with dinner. We’ve done that for the past couple of years actually, we’ve gotten to some pretty obscure Grindhouse bizarre, disturbing horror films. It’s a genre I love and I love making music for it because there’s rarely a horror film that comes out that I don’t see. So yeah, making music for those is great and it’s a really amazing playground. It’s a safe way to be scared, right? I think that’s the appeal to many people.
You wrote the music for two very long running TV series – both True Blood and The Americans had over 75 episodes. How did you keep the music evolving over time, while also keeping a recognisable signature?
I think that’s a big question that all shows have to deal with on every level. How do you keep it fresh, how do you keep the story moving, how do you keep the characters moving in an interesting direction so that people keep watching? It’s the same for the music – if the show keeps reinventing itself, than it’s much easier for the music to do so as well. If a show starts to get tired or stale, it’s hard. And it’s also just hard because it’s like running a marathon, right? Everyone working on True Blood and The Americans loved and adored those shows but when you’re 40, 50, 60, 70 episodes in, the familiarity of it is something that you have to overcome in some ways, to keep it fresh. New characters require new themes, new settings require new sounds. True Blood really blew the doors off itself. Even between Season 1 and Season 2, which were pretty dramatically different. Season 2 was a little too much for a lot of people, with all of the orgies and all that, but immediately the score was able to reinvent itself with the show.
I loved True Blood!
Me too, I was such a fan of the show. I got to spend so much time in my studio, with those characters and there’s just something so special about that. And then I’d get to meet them and the actors would have such an incredible meaning for me, as a viewer and they were kinda like “who are you?” [laughs]
I also really liked The Great (Hulu), which is a more recent TV show you worked on. Did you do any research into 18th century Russian music or with the show being so anachronistic and anarchic in spirit, did you figure you’d go for something more fresh and modern?
Yeah I think those two adjectives – anachronistic and anarchic – are really good. I think Tony McNamara, the writer and creator and Marian Macgowan, his producer, they were very much….well, I got the show because they had a lot of composers write demos and everyone was writing very traditional music of the period and they kept saying “no.” I talked to the Music Supervisor and she said “we just can’t figure out what the right style is, so I would suggest you throw out the time period, get out electronics and just try something totally off-the-wall, that you would never really try.” And I did that and I got it (laughs). I’m working on Season 2 right now and I’m very much trying to bring synthesizers into it, even if it’s got an orchestral palette, it’s always fun to have something chugging along underneath that’s not of the period at all. She (Catherine the Great, played by Elle Fanning) is such an amazing character, she’s like a bull in a china shop, the way she just sort of takes over, she’s got such an amazing personality and I think there’s a lot that the score tips its hat to, in her character.
Fosse/Verdon (FX) and Hollywood (Netflix) are two other recent shows you’ve worked on. When you’re working in a world that already has such a huge musical legacy, do you allow yourself to be influenced by any of that music, or do you just try to do entirely your own thing?
I think the answer is to do my own thing. I came onto Fosse/Verdon through Joel Fields, who was the co-creator and showrunner of The Americans. I think with Bob Fosse and all of that wonderful music, you don’t even try and go near that, right? You just let the score tell the emotional story. I mean, I guess in the sense that there was a lot of jazz influence in the score…so maybe that kind of lightly came into it.
I noticed that Hollywood has a very jazzy score as well…
Absolutely, for sure. In the case of Hollywood, we very much did lean into the genre and the style. In the case of Fosse/Verdon, there was a much lighter touch with that. It was more about finding whatever musically worked for the moment. I mean, my God those performances in Fosse/Verdon, I mean Michelle Williams was just incredible – wow. It’s always just so nice when you’re working with stellar performances, because it’s more about staying out of the way and being graceful with the way you affect a performance than trying to save something and prop it up.
You’ve worked with Ryan Murphy a couple of times (on Hollywood and Halston). What is that collaboration like? I’m guessing that he has strong opinions about music?
Never met him, never talked to him, he’s never texted or emailed me – I have no idea who he is as a person. I know those shows only through his right hand, Alexis Woodall, who is really extraordinary. She takes all those projects, all that footage, she has a team of editors and turns it into a story that really works, so she is definitely his secret weapon. She knows Ryan’s tastes and her and Ryan’s tastes align, so she’s very much guiding the ship the entire time and she’s very hands-on with the music. So the editors are encouraged to do whatever they want with the music. So there’s a bit of handing it in, closing your eyes and hoping for the best and it usually is! But you can’t be precious about where the themes go and all of that.
So, moving onto Halston then, did you take any inspiration from the period of the 60s through to the 80s? Were there any films or TV shows from that period, in particular that influenced the music?
Yeah, the reference she (Alexis) gave me was Giorgio Moroder, so 70s and 80s synth and then some 60s stuff. I think the songs more helped determined the decade and the score kind of did whatever it wanted to do. It was an incredibly difficult show, everyone cared about it a lot. So there was a lot of emphasis put on getting every little moment of the music right, so it was very labour intensive. Which is unusual, given that the score was so subtle. With Hollywood, a lot of the episodes were driven by the score, but I could count on one hand the moments where you could say that the story is driven by the score on Halston. It was complicated and I’m not a synthesizer guy, so I brought in a friend or two who know that better to help me unpack the idea of using synths and get the best sounds for the show.
With your score having to be intercut with that contemporary pop music, especially the disco music in the 70s, were you aware of how your score was going to have to interact with that music?
If they’re back-to-back in a scene, so you’re cutting from a disco song to score, absolutely. And just the general sensibility of “is this going to sound totally out-of-whack with the source songs?” But I think if you’re doing what’s right for the show, which was rooted in 60s, 70s, 80s synth stuff, then you know it’s going to be OK.
So did you want to evolve the score as the episodes progressed to reflect the changing times? So a greater use of electronic music once you enter the 80s episodes?
Yes and no. Halston has two themes – he has a Daddy Theme, which is what we called it when he was looking for a father figure. So that theme is very simple, yet very complex because the idea of looking for a father is on one level, very simple, but he expressed it very complicated ways. And then he had a main theme which was equally complex, remember in the beginning when he’s combing his hair and he puts on the bronze and the dark glasses? That’s one of the first times you hear his theme. That’s a very long theme that kind of floats around and that was the most important thing – to get those themes right. I was very sensitive to making sure the themes are strong and work in many different places.
How did you want to express the more emotional moments, like Halston’s childhood memories, especially in the perfume episode?
Yeah, there was a lot of discussion about those (childhood flashbacks). They moved around too, they were in a lot of different places before they found their way to where there are now. I guess like any composer would approach it, I wanted it to sound distant, like it was far away, like a train whistle in the distance kind of thing. So it was about finding sounds that have a lot of reverb that felt like they were coming from far off, like a memory does. And his theme was peppered in throughout those sequences as well. But again, very subtle, most people would never notice. It was truly an example of score being subliminal a lot of the time.
And what are the differences between scoring for film and TV, other than length? Is there much of a difference these days, do you have any preferences?
I love both. The biggest difference is that once you work on a film, unless there’s a sequel, you’re never gonna do that music again. But the great thing is – like with True Blood – Sookie and Bill’s theme pretty quickly had to become something else because you would have just been hammered to death by it throughout the episodes where they are in love. So, yeah, I like the evolvement that comes with a TV show, you’re spending a lot of time with these characters, so musically you get to change with them. That’s why TV is popular, right? As we know now, so many of the shows these days are better than so many films – imagine capturing someone’s attention for like 80 hours! Millions of people! That is such a feat, it’s incredible. I think it’s harder to do than what we do in film, the true great films have their own special thing too, but I think they are few and far between. There’s just so much amazing television today.
Halston is available now on Netflix.