IAR EXCLUSIVE: Composer Robert Duncan talks 'Castle' and 'Missing'

Wednesday, 28 March 2012 15:03 Written by  Dana Feldman
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IAR EXCLUSIVE: Composer Robert Duncan talks 'Castle' and 'Missing'

Film and television music composer Robert Duncan spends most days engrossed in his work at his recording studio in North Hollywood. It is a warm, cozy enclave with some walls covered in wood panels, and one particularly unique wall covered in rock, which he explains creates a distinct echo. “The rock wall diffuses sound,” Duncan says as we pass by a treasure trove of various musical instruments. He proves his point by making a sound in one part of the room, then walking to another making the same sound again and pointing out the difference. “You see?” he asks with an excited look on his face. The sounds resonated are most certainly different in one area of the studio from the next.

Originally built in 1969, this studio was then called Devonshire. The 1980’s and 90’s brought into these famous walls such legends as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Nirvana and Ozzy Osbourne, among others, who all created chart-topping hits in the very space Duncan now works. The electric gate and secured doors, further insulating those on the inside from those on the outside, make sense when you fully appreciate where you are. Studio Manager James Sullivan works in one room as Duncan gives me a tour.

He has collected a vast array of musical instruments both old and new, or one could say vintage antique and modern. One deconstructed piano sits in the center of them all. “This was an incredible find, only two hundred bucks on Craigslist,” he says with the excitement of a man in love with what he does. He plays a few bars and it is amazing the beauty that comes from this old, dilapidated piano. There are no windows, which creates an illusion of being in a timeless space where one could literally not know if it were day or night, sunny or raining. “I sometimes only know the weather from various Facebook updates,” he tells me with a grin. “One friend’s status update said it was raining in L.A.,” he laughs knowing that this life of his, of composing music, can be a solitary endeavor of sorts.

We go into the room in which he is currently working on a new pilot for Sony/ABC, The Last Resort. Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield and The Unit, is at the helm of this new show. Starring Andre Braugher and Robert Patrick, with Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) directing, it’s currently being shot in Hawaii. The plot of this action thriller revolves around the crew of a U.S. nuclear submarine wherein the crew, after ignoring a questionable order to fire nuclear missiles, wind up being hunted fugitives. They escape to a NATO listening outpost where they declare themselves to be the world’s smallest independent nuclear nation. Huge photos of submarines surround us. Explaining that he finds it difficult to write music without some sort of picture, the décor makes perfect sense. “It’s like playing handball without a wall,” he says. His process is to first read the script, and then get some sort of an image to work with. “I don’t know what it is about a picture, but sometimes there are mysterious connections.” In just the preliminary stages of discussions regarding what style of music they are looking for, he adds, “Musically it’s a blank slate right now.”

This is the beauty of composing a score. It is something that one might not even be aware of on a conscious level, but the importance of music in film and television is huge. When asked what music is to him, Duncan’s reply is simply, “Music sells emotion.” The trick, he adds, is to instill in an audience a feeling, without making them feel manipulated. “The goal of music is to make you feel some emotion or other. But, you want your audience to feel as if they’ve come to the conclusion of how they feel on their own accord, not that they’ve had their emotional puppet strings pulled for them.”

Quite a delicate balancing act this music business is. He goes on further to call music an “emotional salesman.” As he puts it, “If you’re aware of the sales pitch, then it can be like a cheesy car salesman.” He gives me a little musical trivia and tells me that music in film all began as a means to mask the loud noise of the projector. The whole medium of filmed entertainment being based around the suspension of disbelief, his job is to create music that will help take us to that point. Yes, music elicits emotion, and one can argue that it’s variations come and go like fashion, but its importance to the arts is undeniable.

Duncan is currently working on ABC’s Castle, of which he was nominated for an Emmy in 2009 for “Outstanding Music Composition for a Series.” More of a light-hearted show, he has a specific way of preparing. Working on the show for the past four seasons, there’s this familiar shorthand. “I have my Castle palette established and I know which instruments to keep at an arms reach while I’m watching and composing.” Adding, “The show turns on a dime, from an intense crime-scene to humor, so there is an agility needed musically.” He likens writing for different shows akin to speaking, if not different languages, different dialects. He uses certain instruments when underscoring certain characters. “Beckett’s emotions, especially when it pertains to her back story and the death of her mother, are underscored with an Armenian duduk (a double-reeded flute). And when Castle is up to his hijinks, we often turn to an African ceramic drum called an Udu.”

Another ABC project is the new Ashley Judd thriller Missing. “The photography on Missing is beautiful,” he tells me as he pulls up a scene for us to watch. “One of the first things I look at is how the show looks.” This one is beautiful from a cinematographic point of view. “There is a relationship between music and photography,” he explains. “The camera suggests emotion and that’s also the function of music.” He tells me of the dance between the camera and the score. “For instance, when you push in on the face of a character in a scene, that is a spot for me to put in music.” The art of supporting picture with music can be a process Duncan admits to learning as he goes. “Our first instincts were to score the fast-paced CIA substation scenes with an energetic musical momentum, but later when they tested the episodes they discovered that it was too much and the audience was missing some dialogue so we went back and pared the instrumentation in those scenes down.” His personal taste being to drive action scenes with percussion only, these producers love orchestral strings and feel there is a layer missing to a score until these strings are represented. Rare for a scene to go completely dry (without score), Duncan’s preference, “I’ll usually suggest a breath at the top of a scene to give the acting and the writing a chance to ‘earn’ the music.” The most important question in scoring a film or TV show, per Duncan, “How do you want the audience to feel? Once you have that answer, which has been decided with the writer and director long before the composer steps in, you have your most important clue about what direction to go in.”

Duncan has won five ASCAP Awards and recently spoke as one of the top seven Film and Television Composers on the WonderCon third annual “Behind the Music” composer panel at the Anaheim Convention Center. So, how did he come to be a music composer? “Well, there was a point in my life where I decided that I would only do music related jobs. It was a huge leap of faith, but I had to make it a do or die situation to succeed.” His co-composer on Missing, Kim Planert, put it brilliantly when he told Duncan the following, “Leap and the net shall appear.” The Toronto born and raised musician, who earned his degree in Music Composition at York University, made the move to Los Angeles and as he leapt the net appeared. Leaving his two apprenticeships with Canadian composers John Welsman and Lou Natale was not easy. But, he soon found himself working in Hollywood on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which led to many shows for FOX. And the doors just kept opening.

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