BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
The School for Good and Evil is a tale of heroes, villains, and their training ground. For composer Theodore Shapiro, this story is best told with music — specifically, “epic pop”.
It might seem like an unusual juxtaposition with the film’s fairytale narrative and Harry Potter-esque aesthetic, but “epic pop” became Theodore’s stylistic mantra as he composed this 2022 Netflix hit.
Theodore — who recently won an Emmy for his Severance score (Apple TV+), and penned the music for films such as The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Bombshell — sits down with CutCommon to talk about this magical new production.
What drew you into The School for Good and Evil, Theodore?
First and foremost, [director] Paul Feig. This is the fifth film I have done with Paul. He is a wonderful director and collaborator, as well as a great human being. But that said, I was also extremely drawn to this opportunity to establish the musical language of a unique world.
The movie is all about the villains and heroes of fairy tales — and that means you’ve joined a huge legacy of these stories on screen. How did you conjure the magic of this fantasy world?
Before he started shooting the film, Paul created a reel of visual ideas. The costumes were couture-inspired, the look of it was young and modern, and the reel was set to an indie rock song. So from the get-go, it was clear that the film would have a youthful energy and point of view.
Musically, the film required the size and epic quality of a large orchestral score, but I always tried to keep some amount of pop sensibility alive in the music. Sometimes, that could be with programmed beats and synths, sometimes with chord progressions that felt more from a pop universe.
‘Epic pop’ became the mantra I would repeat to myself over and over as I tried to figure out what came next!
What message were you sending by choosing to include medieval sounds in particular?
There’s a timeless quality to the world of the film. The fairy tales represented in it span the ages. So I wanted the music to reflect that by referring to a variety of eras. There are medieval instruments, like recorders and frame drums. There is the baroque touch of the harpsichord. There’s a large orchestra and pipe organ that reflects something of a late-Romantic/20th-Century sound. And then electronics of today.
I was hoping to convey the idea of that timelessness by making a big musical gumbo with all of these references colliding with one another.
Being about a school that trains heroes and villains, I’d imagine you needed to approach this concept via two very distinct soundworlds. How did you create the musical identity for each side? And do they merge?
The theme for the School for Good is pretty much straight-ahead nobility and beauty. There are a few minor chromatic quirks, but for the most part it represents good as the School for Good would have you see it — uncomplicated, valorous, and lovely.
It’s said that being evil is more fun, and I confess that the School for Evil got more fun toys in its music. I underlined this theme with a Bulgarian choir singing in a Balkan style — a harsh, nasal sound. That provided a great ear candy color for this dark theme. And sometimes when the schools were together, you hear both themes playing simultaneously, in counterpoint with one another.
The score has a lot of themes, and I didn’t want too much thematic clutter. So I chose to let the themes for the Schools for Good and Evil also represent key characters in each world. The School for Good theme is used for Professor Dovey and the School for Evil theme for both Lady Lesso and Rafal.
You’ve scored some really interesting productions recently — The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Severance come to mind as some of the most absurd screen stories. How do you go about writing music that tells a quirky story?
I don’t have a single way of approaching each project, so my approach is always changing. But for instance, in Severance, when I discovered the main theme from which the entire score would generate, my realisation was that it framed the entire story as a puzzle. The four-chord progression that underlines this theme could be endlessly cycled and pulled apart, giving viewers the impression of peeling back the layers of an onion.
Even if there are elements of the show that are gloriously strange, the function of the music is never to underline strangeness but to underline the thrust of the story and the sense of unraveling a mystery.
What have your previous scores taught you about creating an original sound?
I love puzzles of all kinds — crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, Wordle, sudoku, you name it. I approach every project like a puzzle I have to decode. The solution could be a great theme, or a signature instrument, or some kind of conceptual idea.
I like to start writing early in the process, even before shooting has begun, so that I am being inspired by story and theme rather than reacting to picture. I tend to find that this leads to more unique ideas.
Furthermore, I like to do improvisational recording sessions with musicians early in the process, and have them improvise over simple beds of music I create. I then take that material, chop it up into usable sections, and then use those audio files in my writing process, stretching and manipulating the audio to serve my purposes. I find that to be a way to get to surprising results and harness the creativity of brilliant artists so that the improvisation becomes part of the compositional process.
As far as The School for Good And Evil goes, I began writing themes well before Paul had begun shooting. In this period, I wrote all the major themes for the film, so that Paul could listen to the score ideas while shooting. And when he began his editing process, he had all of that material to work with. We did improvisational sessions with a woodwind player and a percussionist [whose focus was traditional music], and they brought unique colors and performances into the score. So that would be an example of how I approach my writing process, with an eye towards finding a new sound.
Any final tips for readers who make music?
I studied composition in a conservatory, and maybe some of your readers did as well. This might be something useful for them — or not. When I came out of the conservatory, I had adopted a traditional view that the composer should be controlling every facet of a composition. Everything should be on the page, like in a Mahler symphony. And then I started pushing against that ethos.
I started inviting improvising musicians into my compositional process, and inviting more happy accidents, and allowing myself not to be always at the center of my compositional process. I found it exciting and liberating, and pleasurable. I love the collaboration with fellow musicians, and it has led me to write things I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. It is a great avenue to surprise yourself and expand upon your musical language.
So my advice is to try loosening the reins a little and see if you enjoy that.