How Cornel Wilczek used ’80s nostalgia to compose The Newsreader theme


BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE

Growing up in the ’80s, Cornel Wilczek was allowed to watch as much TV as he wanted. Rather than developing a serious case of square-eyes, he sat in front of the box with a guitar on his lap and practised while he absorbed “terabytes” worth of sound and vision.

When the opportunity arose for this Australian screen composer to craft the music for The Newsreader — an ABC TV show set in the ’80s — it proved the perfect match. Cornel received a 2022 APRA AMCOS Screen Music Award nomination for his score.

Cornel — who has also scored TV favourites Clickbait, Stateless, and Offspring — chats with CutCommon about how much fun he had creating an original news theme, and using retro sounds to share this Australian character story of newsreader Helen Norville (Anna Torv) and journo Dale Jennings (Sam Reid).

Hi Cornel, congratulations on your nomination! Take us back to where it all began — how you got on board with The Newsreader.

Why thank you! Emma Freeman, the director of The Newsreader, and I started working with each other in 2015 when Tony Ayres set us up to work on Glitch. I remember him saying that he felt like we had a lot in common, and was keen to see what we did together. 

We immediately shared a very similar aesthetic and narrative language, and then we continued to work together on many different projects — from Offspring to Stateless — each quite different yet somehow, there seemed to be a common thread.

I think Emma is very good at nuanced relationships between characters, and describing that in music has always been one of my main interests. What makes two or more different people click? 

Then in 2020, I was working with Jo Werner, who was a producer on Clickbait, for Netflix. We instantly got along. I found her insight really clear and straight to the point, and it made my job easier. So, when it came to The Newsreader, I was happy to be the first person they asked. I read the script and fell in love with it right away.

Let’s get straight down to business — how much fun was it to write your own news theme?!

Oh, boy — how do I measure how much fun it was? Can I say 110 per cent? Honestly, between the news themes, the Australian Boys Choir song for [episode two story] Halley’s Comet, the diegetic music on the radio, it was the best. It certainly didn’t feel like ‘work’.

As a child who was a television sponge in the mid- to late-’80s, I have terabytes of ’80s TV data stored in my head. My parents never really had a TV limit for me. I could watch as much as I wanted. And I did, usually with a guitar on my lap. I practiced guitar while watching TV every day.

Thinking about it, nothing has really changed in some respects. So when it came to the News At Six Theme, I didn’t even pull up any references. I wanted to write it in my head before I sat down in my studio. I remember having a shower and working out the whole riff at the end. Then I went for a walk and figured out the start.

I knew I wanted to start it with a rhythmic marimba and timpani pattern, and then I knew it had to end with synth and timpani, and somewhere in the middle had to have soaring heroic strings. This just seemed like the formula I remembered.

It wasn’t until wrote it that I decided to listen to original news stings from the era, and I’m happy I did that as I feel like I wrote something legit yet still unique. I wasn’t trying to copy or reference anything.

As far as the sound goes, I wish I could have hired an orchestra for that! Although I did record strings and woodwinds for the score, the news sting was done months before, and at that stage, the thought of spending $25,000 on a 30-second news sting didn’t seem possible! So I did everything with sample instruments. I carefully chose the ones that resembled what remembered, and then recorded every layer on tape and then back again. It took ages. Then I recorded one of my synths and a bass guitar on top, mixed it and the recorded it back to tape.

I think the authenticity was a combination of production and arrangement.

Beyond the news theme itself, your music is pretty atmospheric. The show is based in the ’80s, and you’ve included some synths that sound typical of the era.

I actually tried to create three different musical worlds. The atmospheric synth cues: they were all about Dale and his headspace. Then the very melodic electronic rhythmic cues: they were all about relationships and interactions between people. And then there were the ‘Classical’ cues — the dramatic strings and woodwinds that dealt with Helen’s mental health, and eventually built towards Helen butting heads with the ‘establishment’ — the classical journalism sound that was built by ‘men’ that was very classical and geometric.

But I’m really happy that it was the atmospheric synth cues that people remember the most. I put a lot of love into those. Firstly, let me say this score was a justification for the beautiful and very expensive synths that I have bought over the years! So I wanted to do these justice! These instruments are beautiful and very special. In fact, I would go as far as saying that the way they work, and how they are designed, go hand in hand with the Newsreader story. They are tactile, not perfect, full of character, and have the ability to go in directions you wouldn’t expect.

The first cue I did was in episode one, where Dale lovingly applies a sticker to his VHS tape that he catalogues and puts on his shelf. That, right there, was me. I did that. I know that feeling of being in love with something on magnetic tape. Describing that was easy, and building that palette of specific synths became my template for the rest of the show. Once I had that, it provided a great bed, and from there I was able to add what I wanted, and slowly it evolved into something more than just an ’80s synth homage and became its own thing.

I never wanted it to be a legit ’80s score, but I wanted the bed to conjure all of those feelings.

The Newsreader is itself an educational show, especially for viewers who — like me! — were born post-1986 and didn’t live through some of those major events that are explored in each news story and episode. As you were watching, what did you find to be some of the most interesting, moving, or educational episodes — and how did this enter your music?

As a child of the ’80s, I knew all these stories. But now as an adult, I saw these in such a different light.

I think the AIDS episode was the one that affected me the most as it was the most misunderstood at the time. As a child of the ’80s, AIDS was ‘bad’ — ‘bad people’ got AIDS, or so that’s what we were led to believe. I can’t remember details, but I’m certain there was a news story when I was a kid…that demonised AIDS, and presented someone with AIDS as someone quite inhuman. Watching this episode really got me thinking about how deeply conservative our TV upbringing really was.

It was a truly strange postmodern experience, working on a TV show in 2020, thinking about my experiences of TV in the ’80s. It really messed with my mind, as I really did start pulling upon my feelings about being manipulated, and these feelings really did unfold as I was watching and working on it. Honestly, it got quite deep. It’s not often you get put in such a position that is so self-referential.

Musically, it was a complete instinctive reaction. I honestly didn’t try to rationalise it. That episode is completely first instincts, and I reacted to the story and wrote music all at the same time, and I found it easiest to experience it from Dale’s perspective. So I took Dale’s musical palette — ambient analogue synths — and just went for it. I don’t think I made any changes other than my first draft.

The structure of this show is as ‘in the moment’ as a day in the newsroom, yet bubbling underneath is the character development — the relationship between newsreader Helen Norville and journo Dale Jennings, as well as Dale’s own personal crisis of identity and navigating his sexuality largely in secret. How did you compose these in parallel?

The arc of the score was quite planned. As mentioned earlier, there were three main worlds that I wanted to collide. Dale’s world always had to become exposed, and I wanted his palette to unfold and connect with Helen’s. This process is generally quite planned at script level, and then I got the edits and sure enough, it supported everything I was thinking. We were all on the same path — directors, editors, writers, composers.

Running all these ideas in parallel is actually quite easy with a TV show. I got five hours of drama to tell a story, and the natural rhythm of the edit was enough to get these ideas working symbiotically. It’s actually much harder with film, as you’ve only got two hours or so and have to be way more careful with your time.

The idea of developing the score over the course of six episodes was driven mainly by character interactions. So it was more about worlds colliding than it was about developing themes for each character. It’s like real life. Real growth, real change happens between people.

Beyond The Newsreader, you’ve also composed scores for some huge shows — Stateless, Offspring, Clickbait to name a few. What’s something you’re learning about yourself and the way you work through each project?

The more I do, the more it freaks me out!

I have always wanted to do this work. I have never wanted to do anything else. But somehow, I keep thinking about how fragile this career is. The sliding door that led me to this point, the chance meeting; all the small things that keep me in this job, and how quickly they could disappear. With all this in mind, I now realise that being too comfortable is not good for me. It makes me too complacent, and I fall into patterns. I am so lucky to have this job, the last thing I want to do is screw it up because I’m too comfortable. So, I change my workflow for every project. Whether it be a musical thing, learning a new instrument or a logistical concept, I’ll make sure I never work the same way twice. This spices things up and creates an obstacle that is perfect. I found this out naturally. My best projects often have an obstacle out of my control. Now, as my life becomes ‘better’ because of my work, I need to actively shake things up and be on my toes.

Throughout all of this, I’m now discovering more about myself. I need contrast. I need contrast in life and music, and I’m convinced that contrast is my thing, my mantra, conceptually and aesthetically. Putting contrasting instruments together is something that excites me. Contrasting musical ideas is also what drives me — something slow against something fast, something colourful against something monochrome. I’m working this out right now. So stay tuned.

Cornel, your absolute gotta-have-it top tip for emerging screen composers?

Don’t think too seriously about your work. Enjoy your thoughts, and express them without thinking about the consequences — and especially disregard what other people think. Just keep doing your thing, and if there is an audience or collaborators that like what you do, if you do it long enough, it will come.

It took me a long time to get to this point.

Watch The Newsreader on ABC iview, and check out all 2022 APRA AMCOS Screen Music Award nominees here.

READ NEXT: How Cassie To composed her Screen Music Award-nominated short film score


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