Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a new science fiction anthology series, making its United States debut this weekend on Amazon. The series assembled versatile writers, producers and directors (including Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett), to reimagine original stories by one of the genre’s greatest authors. I was honored to join this brain trust, scoring three episodes: “Real Life,” “Impossible Planet” and “Kill All Others.”
While the series’ vision was held together by a close group of producers, each episode was treated like a stand-alone film, with unique writers, directors, and in most cases even composers. I had to reinvent my sonic and thematic palette from episode to episode, with no material carrying over from one to the next.
The first episode of the series gave me the opportunity to collaborate once again with the visionary Ronald D. Moore. Ron gave me my first job in the business, scoring Battlestar Galactica, and we have continued to collaborate since on Outlander. In addition to his brilliant script, the episode was aided by the talents of director Jeffrey Reiner, with whom I had collaborated on the pilot for Caprica. Working with them, as well as with executive producer Maril Davis, I felt immediately at home, weaving a complex tale of identities in crisis.
MODERATE SPOILERS AHEAD: In “Real Life,” Anna Paquin plays Sarah, a cop who puts on a virtual reality headset to visit an alternate life as George, a billionaire tech-developer played by Terrence Howard. However, George has a headset that allows him to live an alternate life as Sarah. The narrative twists and turns, as their two lives overlap, forcing the audience to question which life is fantasy and which is reality.
Sarah and George live in completely different realities, Sarah’s futuristic and foreign, and George’s more relatable to our contemporary world. An obvious creative direction would have been to write score that switches colors and themes as the narrative switches worlds. I feared, however, that approach would create too much distance between Sarah and George. After all, the story postulates that they are the same person. Instead, I chose to write a consistent theme for both of them, tying together their disparate realities with a moody, contemplative tone.
I always prefer to have music support the subtext of drama, rather than comment on surface observations. Beneath the surface, both Sarah and George are suffering the same emotional pains, questioning their realities with the same increasing desperation. A unified musical approach to the episode highlighted that crucial concept, and I hope, made the emotional impact of the episode’s closing moments all the more powerful.
For each episode of Electric Dreams, I strove to work within the confines of a unique sound palette, ensuring that each episode ended up with a distinct tone. For “Real Life,” I discussed possible electric guitar tones with guitarist Omer Ben-Zvi, and he mentioned something that immediately caught my attention, just from the name: a Gizmotron. Whatever the Gizmotron did, I wanted to use it!
I would later learn the Gizmotron is a mechanical device that hails from the early days of prog rock, developed in the 1970’s by members of the British rock band 10cc. After a shoddy version was commercially released in 1979, resulting in the manufacturer’s bankruptcy, the Gizmotron was largely forgotten until it was re-released over thirty years later with updated technology. The device attaches to the bridge of a guitar and has six rotating wheels that “bow” the strings, (similar in practice to how sound is produced by the rotating wheel of the hurdy gurdy).
When I heard the Gizmotron in action, I knew it could be harnessed to tell the story of “Real Life.” Unlike the more familiar tones of an ebow (a device that resonates guitar strings using electromagnetism), the physical motors of the Gizmotron produced sustained guitar colors that are uniquely scratchy and raw. Set against plaintive harmonic backgrounds, the Gizmotron guitar just felt alien and familiar at the same time. These sounds are woven throughout the score, but featured most prominently in scenes where Sarah and George are reaching their most emotionally devastated places.
For “Impossible Planet,” I worked closely with writer / director David Farr (The Night Manager, Hannah), who crafted a story about two distant future con-men who take a mysterious woman on a journey across the galaxy to find her long lost home, Earth.
The first thing that struck me about “Impossible Planet” was its gob-smacking visual beauty. The depictions of blocky space ships drifting through brightly-colored nebulae reminded me of a bygone era of visual science fiction, where the blackness of space was perforated with glowing red and oranges hues. I immediately thought of the prog-rock-infused synthesizer colors heard in films like The Black Hole, Heavy Metal and Logan’s Run.
Ironically, in “Real Life,” I started with a sound that originated in prog-rock and developed it into something more contemporary. With “Impossible Planet,” I leaned into the 1970’s vibe more overtly, introducing rapid synth arpeggiations, in the style of my favorite Pink Floyd tracks.
Despite the glorious imagery, the episode also deals with more intimate and mysterious philosophical questions. I underscored these concepts with musical colors at odds with the energetic synth textures. I wrote a theme of intimacy (a love theme, I suppose) for the old woman, by adding the delicate sounds of toy pianos and music boxes. Against the more muscular and swift synth backdrop, these fragile little tines sound as if they could break, as brittle as her elderly bones, but implying a depth of wonder and even magic.
“Kill All Others”
Written and directed masterfully by Dee Rees (Mudbound), “Kill All Others” is a political allegory about a dystopian future where North America has merged into a single “mega-nation” called MexUsCan. Philbert, an everyday blue-collar guy, seems to be the only person in his world increasingly upset by the violent concepts and imagery presented by the mysterious governmental leader, played with calculating poise by Vera Farmiga, known perpetually as “the Candidate.”
This story of media manipulation is told, appropriately, with frequent propaganda broadcasts. Executive producer Michael Dinner and I discussed composing a mega-national anthem for the fictional country of MexUsCan. Recalling the sardonic Basil Poledouris fanfares of Paul Verhoeven films such as Starship Troopers or Robocop, I leapt at the chance to write my own anthem for a dystopian future. I also spent a lot of time listening to North Korean propaganda anthems, tumbling down a sobering rabbit hole on YouTube for a few hours. With all that in mind, I wrote the MexUsCan Anthem:
Borrowing from Elmer Bernstein’s Animal House philosophy, I didn’t play the music for laughs. I strove to write a genuinely rousing and uplifting melody and harmonic progression. I assembled a large brass band to perform it, giving a sense of grandeur to the anthem, and offsetting it from the delicate synth textures of the rest of the episode’s score. The anthem opens the episode, and underscores virtually every scene featuring the Candidate. To be perfectly honest, I think the melody and arrangement is actually quite beautiful, and in another context, could be moving.
MexUsCan, however, is merely the backdrop for the real story, one that centers around Philbert, a blue-collar worker played to perfection by veteran character actor Mel Rodriguez. To contrast the heroic brass swells of the anthem, I wanted his theme to feel mundane and ordinary. We first hear it as he commutes to work, in the form of a simple repeating figure performed on an analog synthesizer:
By starting with such a plain arrangement, it left the music plenty of room to build over the episode, becoming increasingly agitated, distorted, and menacing, as Philbert questions his world, and descends into paranoia. His theme ultimately concludes the episode, bursting into the end credits with a searing arrangement set against hip hop influenced drums and distorted bass. I found a hilarious irony in taking Philbert’s theme, mundane as it was at the introduction, and making it as cool as I possibly could by the episode’s conclusion! Musically, Philbert has been ingested into the propaganda machine!
Philbert’s world is saturated in product placement, invasive holographic commercials that enter people’s homes. Beneath the surface, the idea is a terrifying commentary on how we have given up our privacy in a digital world. Beyond providing bleak humor, the commercials also served essential story needs, and I was very excited to compose ridiculous jingles for them. The “Desert Shave” cowboy required a jangly country western groove to support a melody performed on (what else?) a musical saw! (Once again, the multi-talented Omer Ben-Zvi played that one.) The smoldering Columbian lover selling coffee was supported by sexy latin guitars. And Philbert’s increasingly voluptuous cheese girl was underscored with excessively cheesy 1970’s wah-wah guitar.
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Scoring Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams allowed me to work in one of my favorite genres alongside many visionary artists and storytellers. A big shout out goes to Chris Parnell at Sony Pictures Television, who helped make this opportunity possible. Huge thanks also to my entire team at Sparks & Shadows for being in my corner, especially Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi and Sam Ewing, who contributed additional music, and mixing engineer Steve Kaplan.
The television anthology format is clearly making a resurgence these days. After having done an episode of Black Mirror Season 3, and now three episodes for Electric Dreams, I am excited to see where this format goes next. What crazy new genre anthologies await around the corner? I am grateful to live, and work, in this exciting era where streaming television has allowed so many remarkable stories to find audiences.
Speaking of exciting eras, I have new projects that will make their way out into the world in 2018 and beyond. Stay tuned for a number of fun announcements this year!