Film

A Symphony in Three Parts: Breaking Down the 'Steve Jobs' Score with Composer Daniel Pemberton

Cory Woodroof
Pemberton (right) with director Danny Boyle (left)

The composer for the new Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin collaboration Steve Jobs offers a rundown of what it took to put his complex score together for the film.


Steve Jobs

Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Sarah Snook, Jeff Daniels
Rated: R
Studio: Universal Pictures
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-11-13 (General release)
Website
Trailer

Smack dab in the middle of Steve Jobs' second act lies a pivotal, prolific confrontation between Michael Fassbender's on-edge Steve Jobs and Jeff Daniels' on-the-defense John Scully.

At this point in the three-part dramatization of three major moments in the Apple co-founder's life, Jobs has reluctantly run across Scully, his old boss, minutes before the public unveiling of the NeXT computer. The two have bad blood after Scully played a part in Jobs' ousting from Apple in 1985. Right before Jobs takes the stage to deliver the NeXT keynote, the dirty laundry hits the floor.

Steve Jobs director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin stage the confrontation with quick cuts and rat-a-tat dialogue, the kind of craft customary for the two big screen veterans. But, the level of craftsmanship to convey the calamity crosses over into the composing as well. If you close your eyes, you still hear the conflict of the scene in composer Daniel Pemberton's symphonic score: the tying bind to a high-wire act of a scene.

On the Steve Jobs soundtrack, "Revenge" -- the theme of the film's second portion, a driving motivation in the scene and the title of the nearly 10-minute section of Pemberton's score -- plays as if it were conducted for a prestigious ballet or for grand hall performances by world-renowned conductors.

Its composer, Daniel Pemberton, is a BAFTA-nominated small screen veteran who has in recent years dipped his toes into major film compositions. In past years, Pemberton has provided music for Sir Ridley Scott's The Counselor, the Nick Frost comedy Cuban Fury and, most recently, Guy Ritchie's summer adventure The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Now, his music, written on an Apple computer, backs the words of the Oscar-winning Sorkin and the vision of the Oscar-winning Boyle.

Pemberton cited modern composers John Adams and Philip Glass as influences on this key piece of score.

"That piece was probably the biggest challenge of the entire film," Pemberton said. "It was incredibly difficult. You're basically writing a 10-minute symphony that has to have complete musicality, rather than just score, but at the same time, it has to respond to everything that's happening in the picture, which was constantly being tweaked and reedited."

Pemberton said they worked for months trying to get the music right: once the composer said the film's editor, Elliot Graham, described as an action scene with customary action replaced by words.

"That was fascinating because there's this natural rhythm -- these crescendos, diminuendos, the dynamics of the conversation -- you're kind of supporting them with the orchestra, and I think that's quite unusual in film because the action is not in the dialogue. The action is in generally something physical. You're trying to score something which is quite unusual, and it was a very long and hard process. Everyone seems to love that scene, so I'm glad it worked out because it was pretty hairy."

Pemberton's entire score in Steve Jobs is, in and of itself, a bit of a high-wire act. The music matches the three-part nature of the film's script: it starts with a synth-heavy first act, morphs into an orchestral second and plateaus with a decidedly digital third. Pemberton sat down with Boyle in the planning stages to get an idea of where the score was going to go.

"He explained the film to me in this really great way," Pemberton said. "He said, 'The first act is vision, the second act is revenge, and the third act is wisdom,' and I really liked that clarity of what the underlying principles behind each act were."

The first section of the film takes place in 1984 at the launch of the Apple Macintosh computer. The iconic "1984" advertisement has just shown, and Jobs is about to announce what he believes will be the game-changing machine for modern computing. Boyle chose to have this section of the film shot on 16MM film to give it a more-appropriate look for the time, and Pemberton's section of the score follows suit.

"So, the initial idea was the first act was going to embrace this optimism in the future of technology: this belief that computers were going to change our lives," Pemberton said. "They were very futuristic at that time, and I thought the instrument that best captured that was the synthesizer."

To Pemberton, the synthesizer is the instrument of its era, one that captures the excitement for a technological future that circulated during the time of the Macintosh launch. To join in Boyle's hope to make the film feel authentic for its timeframe, the composer gave himself a boundary.

"So, I wanted to use equipment that was just only available in 1984, so I ended up getting a lot of vintage synthesizers from that era," Pemberton said. "And, I tried to write as if I was in 1984 rather in 2015, so that meant working with a lot of the limitations of these machines, which was quite challenging.

"As a modern composer, you're so used to being able to kind of almost do anything, and when you're suddenly faced with these kind of weird limitations of equipment that was once the cutting edge -- it was the future and now it's kind of like an antique."

A challenge for Pemberton could be trying to remember a certain sound for a piece of score. The synthesizers don't hold memory, so the composer would have to take photos on his iPhone of what he did on a certain nob to help know how he made a certain noise.

He also wanted to use basic synth sounds that would represent the beginning of computing. "I wanted to capture the beginnings of the change in technology," Pemberton said.

The second act of Steve Jobs, shot on 35MM film, jumps ahead to 1989 at the NeXT launch. The event takes place at the San Francisco Opera House, and aptly, the film's tone and score fit right into the world of opera and high theater.

In fact, one of the film's other seminal confrontations, one between Jobs and his longtime friend/work associate Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), takes place in the chamber pit of an orchestra, one in which Jobs likens himself to a conductor and Woz the best musician in his row. The bombastic bout between Jobs and Scully also finds itself at this operatic midpoint of the film.

"Danny had this great phrase," Pemberton said. "It's like a Shakespearean tragedy. This is all about revenge. This whole act is about this grand plan for revenge."

Boyle and Pemberton wanted the score to capture this theatric feel, so the music shifts from synth to symphony. Tech-influenced beats become opera. Normally, the two don't necessarily compute.

"It was quite unusual. You wouldn't think a film about technology or a technology pioneer would go for this kind of operatic score," Pemberton said. "That felt like the right thing to do. I wanted to capture Steve Jobs, who was, as he says, the conductor of the orchestra, the ring master of the circus."

Pemberton cites Rossini (especially his overtures) and Verdi, as well as other classical ideas, as two composers whose operas helped influence his work on this section of the film.

So, as the film shifts to more of an opera, the technical sounds were supplanted for a more-traditional arrangement. But, to Pemberton, similarities could be found in the conduction process.

"In this one, you're working with what I call the oldest computer of all time, which is the orchestra," Pemberton said. "When you give them notation, that's pretty much the same as what you give to computer in terms of data. It's interpreted by humans, and they create something that technology's never bettered."

The second act finds the screenwriter Sorkin fitting in plenty of his patented wordplay. To Pemberton, striking the right balance of having his score compliment (but never overtake) the script was of the upmost importance.

"You've got Aaron Sorkin's script, which is kind of the libretto, and you're basically playing the underscore to that," Pemberton said. "When you've got an Aaron Sorkin script, the thing that's fascinating about it is there's so much information in there, and the dialogue is so important, and you've got to make sure there's room for that to breathe and have space."

Not to mention, the scenes feature some of the film's biggest moments for its ensemble cast.

"You have to not impose yourself too heavily," he notes, "and sometimes, actually, writing the more minimal music that's very subtle is very difficult, because it needs to have identity. It needs to have a kind of sense of emotional storytelling. It needs to have a lot of space.

"So, it's funny doing that in the first and third acts and then in the second act, you must go the opposite way. You just make the music as big as possible."

The third act finds Jobs having found public redemption after Apple buys NeXT and makes the tech genius its returned CEO. There's a renewed excitement in the air, but underneath the optimism, there are still confrontations for Jobs to have with those close to him.

The third part of the film clings to the digitalization of the time: the film is shot digitally in this portion, and Pemberton's section of the score takes a heavy digital focus.

"I call the third act the digital score," Pemberton said. "You have the first act which is analog, you have the second act which is orchestral, and you have the third act which is digital.

"The starting point to the idea for that score was, by 1998, the iMac, the computer I use today to write on, is pretty much a descendant of that iMac, and I wanted to embrace the fact that, now, you can have this box, this machine, that is equivalent of a multi-million pound recording studio that just sits on your desk, and I wanted to write as much as I could in the computer using just the computer to score it.

"Because, one of the things I think is amazing about Apple and Steve Jobs and what they achieved was they were the first people of influence to really recognize the artistic potential of technology and computers because before that, computers were quite dry. They were kind of all about accountancy, databases, all this kind of stuff. And, Steve Jobs recognized the artistic potential for computers. I love the way he described them as 'a bicycle for the mind.' And, you know, I'm a child of that era. I was six in 1984 when the Macintosh came out."

To Pemberton, that innovation helped drive home his compositions in the film.

"This score, in some way, is testament to that whole process because I don't know if like 20 years ago, I would have been able to express myself as an artist in all these different ways, but the computer allows me to basically express myself as an artist in a variety of ways, and that's what I tried to do with that part of the score," Pemberton said.

With the digital score, Pemberton used his own personal Apple device to compose. Stripped away from all the working parts of conducting in a major studio with an orchestra, the composer said he found it to be an intimate, awing experience composing in such a small, confined manner -- not unlike the work Jobs and Wozniak did in launching their futures in a small garage.

"Part of that score I did in my flat on a computer that anyone else can have," Pemberton said. "There was something quite special at one of the screenings of just watching it and thinking 'Wow, I did that in my flat, and now it's on this massive screen in Hollywood being played to thousands of people.

"Because of the technology they invented, you can do that now."

To the composer, creating a film score in such a special way gives the process new meaning. He likens it to shooting a film on an iPhone (an Apple device).

"There's such a closeness to what you're doing," Pemberton said.

Speaking of Steve and Woz's early work: there was a time early in Pemberton's career where he collaborated with Godzilla director Gareth Edwards on a project. Time was of the essence to get the work done, and Pemberton, who was working on the score, recalled being on the phone with Edwards, who was in charge of the directing and special effects, at three in the morning, working hard to get the projected completed.

"That, for me, felt like a very Steve-Woz time because we were doing a TV show, and now I'm doing big Hollywood movies, he's directing Star Wars. It's crazy: we've both had this sort of weird journey. I've had my Steve and Woz basement moments in my life."

The third act's score starts off with an optimistic flair, which Pemberton said he attributes to the later, upbeat Macintosh advertising used to promote the product. But, later, the themes flow more downstream to, as Pemberton puts it, the price for the choices Jobs made in his life.

"I think it's a lot colder and more introverted the rest of that score," Pemberton said. "There's a real kind of sort of icy emotion to it, and that kind of digital ambient sound world is very good at expressing that emotion."

The film concludes with an emotional finale for Jobs and his daughter, Lisa. It's one of the few times in the film that outside music is used to back a sequence instead of Pemberton's work. The song in question -- The Maccabees' "Grew Up at Midnight," the closing track of the band's 2012 effort Given To The Wild -- happened to be a choice from the film's director, according to Pemberton.

"That was Danny. Danny loves that song. He loves The Maccabees," Pemberton said. "Danny's got fascinating music tastes. He's got so many interesting bands he follows."

Pemberton said that Boyle tried different songs for the scene, as well as music Pemberton wrote, but The Maccabees song had Boyle falling head over heels.

"He loves that Maccabees track, and I think it works great for that sequence," Pemberton said. "That was Danny's ambition."

Throughout Pemberton's career, he's worked with directors like Boyle, Ritchie, and Sir Ridley Scott who are known for their musical flourishes, whether it be in the score or the assembling of a soundtrack full of different artists.

"It's kind of crazy," Pemberton said. "I've somehow ended up working with all these directors who treat music as one of the most important aspects of their film. If you're a composer, it's fantastic, but also incredibly daunting because you've got this legacy of these films and these unbelievable soundtracks.

"You look back on Danny's career. The soundtracks to his films are so seminal, whether it's pop songs or the score of 28 Days Later. He is a director who totally understands the power that music can bring to a film, just like Guy Ritchie is. And Ridley. Some of Ridley's films have got unbelievable soundtracks.

"It's always kind of scary but also really exciting when you work with those people because you know if you deliver something good, it's going to really make a difference."

Pemberton's score marks another film for Boyle where music plays a major role in the storytelling. Think back on A.R. Rahman's Oscar-winning score in Slumdog Millionaire or memorable pieces in John Murphy and Underworld's beloved score for Sunshine. The fact that Pemberton can join that lineage of compositions is not lost on the composer.

"I grew up on Danny's films, and to think that I've suddenly become part of his legacy -- I still haven't really gotten my head around that," Pemberton said. "It's amazing."

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