Nathan Barr Exclusive Interview on Composing True Blood

November 1, 2009 by  

Nathan BarrMark Morton at Kansas City, had an exclusive interview with True Blood composer, Nathan Barr, which he was kind enough to share with us.

Working on the score for True Blood was Nathan‘s first experience working for television, though he’d done several films in horror (Hostel, Cabin Fever, 2001 Maniacs) and comedy (Club Dread, Beerfest, Dukes of Hazzard).  It was that combination of experience which landed him the job, one that he’d never expected:

True Blood ScoreI wasn’t seeking out television at all. I haven’t deliberately stayed away from it, it’s just that it never really came into my life. And that’s partly okay with me, because I don’t watch much TV at all. So really, what brought me to TV was just [show creator] Alan Ball. It was one of those really lucky twists of fate. He shot the pilot and was cutting it together, and somehow my score for Hostel wound up in the cutting room, so they used it as temp. Even though it wasn’t exactly right, there was enough of something in it that they liked, so they called me in for an interview. So, they narrowed it down between me and another composer (who happens to be a dear friend), and Alan went away on vacation after shooting and took a stack of each of our CDs. And I guess he just felt that the match was better with me. So I got the Ball call saying he wanted me, and there was no way I was turning that down!

Luckily for True Blood fans, he accepted the job.  The score sets the tone for the action as the story unfolds, so Nathan‘s job is crucial in helping the audience feel the emotion that the actors are trying to get across and in giving hints about aspects of a character that have not yet been revealed.  Nowhere in the True Blood score is this more obvious than in Bill and Sookie‘s theme, which is tentative, romantic, tragic, and adds a depth to their scenes together, hinting at things they have not said out loud to one another and at some deep past sadness.

That hint of sadness is something that Nathan admits he does very well:

I think again, it’s the strength of the writing and the story. A lot of the time, I don’t even consciously push for it. It’s there in the story, so it naturally comes out in the music. I get tuned into the story and what’s going on. Alan is very clear and concise about what he wants the music to say in each scene. But for whatever reason, I think I do “sadness” well. I really relate to that part of True Blood. I love the sadness, the angst of the romance – that’s a place I am very comfortable enriching.

After watching Season 1 and bawling my eyes out every time I heard Gran’s theme, I can agree. Nathan definitely does sadness well.

Nathan says that his focus when he’s composing is deeply personal with each of the characters on screen:

It’s absolutely 100% about the characters. Alan doesn’t speak in musical terms. He’s always speaking to story and character, and as a composer for TV, the job is to enrich the lives and storylines of those characters. And so everything I do for the show is based around the characters – what a character is thinking, what his/her motivation is, where the character is headed in the story. And of course, there are essential themes, like Bill and Sookie’s love theme, and things like that. But it is definitely all character-driven.

For whatever reason, when those characters are vampires, you can bet there are going to be some strings used in the composition. Though he admits that strings are a prerequisite when composing for the undead, Nathan‘s not quite sure why that is.

I don’t really know why strings work so well for vampires. The basic storyline behind most vampire stories is beautiful, immortal people who are struggling with a world that is moving on without them and getting involved with people who will grow old and die. There are these big themes of romance, lost love and tragedy – those are big threads that lend themselves well to something a little more epic.

So how exactly does he do it? Nathan explains the nuts and bolts of the job by saying that he has to look at each episode scene by scene and then coordinate with Alan, the editors, the producers and music supervisor Gary Calamar.  Together they decide where the songs go and where Nathan‘s scores should be placed and then he returns back to his studio to create the scores for the various scenes.

And where did he learn the tricks of the trade?  Nathan credits the Academy and Grammy Award winning German composer Hans Zimmer (Rain Man, The Lion King, The Preacher’s Wife, As Good As It Gets, The Prince of Egypt, The Thin Red Line, Gladiator, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, The Da Vinci Code, and The Dark Knight) as one of his early teachers.

I was under his wing for only eight months, and then I flew the nest. It was such an amazing experience. It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and learning to swim. I didn’t even understand what MIDI stood for when I began working for Hans. I had no knowledge of the technology behind film scoring; I had no knowledge about the creative process behind writing music-to-picture. So he was very gracious in the sense that he would let me sit behind him while he wrote and actually watch him write-to-picture, and that’s really where I learned that. And more than anything, he taught me the importance of technology. So when I walked in there, I knew next to nothing about any of that stuff, and when I left eight months later, I had a very strong foundation to work from.

When composing, Nathan likes to use acoustic instruments first, seeking out unusual sounds to inspire him such as going out and buying several new instruments instead of just settling down on the piano.  Nathan explains that creating a piece on a piano is going to “sound” different from creating the same piece on a string instrument or on a wind instrument.  Therefore, he is able to think about the melody of the piece in different ways which in turn would affect the feelings that it will present in a scene.

Nathan also tries to make sure that he doesn’t write music that is immediately identifiable as his work but rather tries to give each score it’s own unique sound. He does not want to become known as “that horror movie guy” or “that TV show guy” and to be flexible and true to himself:

…And I think that goes back to what we were discussing with musical identity and having a unique voice. I think it can become a little bit of a curse sometimes. I haven’t experienced it too much, but a couple of really big composers come to mind who are so known for a unique sound they’ve created that they get asked over and over and over again to recreate that same score. I think that is a blessing and a curse, when your style is so distinct, to keep it fresh, and what they really want is the score you wrote for another movie. I think to some degree that I can’t help but to repeat myself; I am who I am. But I think True Blood is a good departure for me from the sound I’ve established with other horror films.

So what can we expect musically in the next season? Nathan says that he only has a vague idea as to where Alan and the writers are going to take the storyline.  However, he is excited about creating new themes and new musical ideas as the characters in True Blood continue grow and expand.  One character in particular that Nathan mentions is Eric Northman who seems to have grown from season 1 to season 2 with the introduction of the theme of loss (in reference to Godric).  For season 3, Nathan states that Eric is becoming more a complicated character then when he was first introduced to us in season 1 and therefore, he will have to “figure out how to make his theme follow that journey or else come up with another theme for him.”

As fans, Nathan hints that we might have the opportunity to see his music performed live:

I actually just spoke recently at a TV signing with Bear McCreary, who does Battlestar Galactica, and he had done just that. He decided to start doing live shows with his music. And it got me thinking about doing something similar, because the score to True Blood is very small, very organic. I perform the entire thing myself – the guitars, pianos, cellos – and it would be very easy to find just three or four other musicians, teach them the parts and do some live performances. That is certainly something I’m thinking about.

As for the awards and accolades he’s received since taking on True Blood, Nathan is truly grateful to the audience for the wonderful response he’s gotten.  He got his first hand glimpse at how big True Blood has become when he recently attended the SCREAM Awards and while he was on the red carpet two girls were screaming his name and told him how much they loved his music and listen to it all the time.  That, as Nathan put it, was “my little rock star moment.”

In addition to preparing for True Blood‘s Season 3, Nathan has several new projects that he’s working on including Peep World, Open House (which is actually directed by Anna Paquin’s brother, Andrew which Anna and Stephen Moyer both have cameos in that movie), Mother’s Day (which Deborah Ann Woll stars in) and Cotton.  It seems that even with the other projects he still has a bit of True Blood close to him.

I’ve only hit the highlights of this in-depth conversation where he discusses his work on True Blood. For more of this wonderful exclusive interview where he discusses other work throughout his career, check out more of his Q & A with Mark Morton.


(Photo credit:  Nathan Barr and HBO Inc.)