Dominic Lewis is a British-born composer with sensational talents that have catapulted him to the forefront of music in television and film. Having received an Annie Award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Music for his work on “Free Birds,” and a nomination for the World Soundtrack Award’s Discovery of the Year for his work on ‘Spooks: The Greater Good,’ Dominic is certainly an accomplished composer.
Some of his more recent projects include Sony Pictures’ family flm “Peter Rabbit,’ Amazon and Ridley Scott’s Emmy-winning series, “The Man in the High Castle,” and Sony’s upcoming comedy adventure, “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween.”
Lift-Off spoke with Dominic about his influences and getting started in the industry, the process of writing creepy music for Goosebumps 2, as well as playful but serious music for beloved family film Peter Rabbit, and his advice for any aspiring composers.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
When did you actually decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry? Has music always been an interest or passion of yours?
Yeah. I think if i could put an age on it it would be about since I was 3. Both of my parents are musicians, my dads a cellist and my mums a singer, and as a 3 year old, I wanted to be just like my dad. I played the cello as well.
I also listened to all sorts of music as a kid, you know from what my mum and dad were playing. There was a lot of classical music playing at the house. My big sister listened to all sorts of crazy electronic music, as well as rock music and stuff.
It’s all a mix of different things really. My next door neighbour was a TV composer so he would get me to do commercials and stuff like that.
I found the guitar when I was about 11, and started writing songs, playing in bands etc, but that wasn’t really enough. I wanted to create arrangements. I was also listening to a lot of Beach Boys, Beatles, you know these bands with all of these big arrangements.
Then when I was in secondary school, I went to school with composer Rupert Gregson-Williams’ step-daughter, and was then introduced to Rupert. All the while in the background my dad’s now doing film sessions for orchestras, playing for massive movies, and i’m starting to become really interested in film music. But after meeting Rupert, he sort of took me under his wing, you know, inviting me down to his studio, explaining different components etc. Ever since then I’ve just kept in contact with him.
I then went to the royal academy of music and studied composition. So that’s a very short abbreviated version of what it took to get to where I am now, but the goal has always been to do music. I did have a brief little stint where I wanted to be an actor, but that was short lived.
Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry? Or a specific score/soundtrack that inspired you to become a composer?
Yeah. It’s more sort of an age – like a timed bracket of scores, which is 80’s action and adventure music. Mainly John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Jerry Goldsmith. All the big ones basically. I remember watching those movies at the time and not really knowing that it was the music that I was falling in love with, but they lit the fire.
My favourite scores of all time would have to be Back to the Future and ET. And that’s because those movies were the ones that started it for me you know. That kind of music really makes me tick. I’ve actually been able to do that kind of music in my latest score for Goosebumps 2, so that was great.
In terms of projects, what is the process of getting involved with something? Do you look for anything specific, wether thats favouring one genre, or phephaps a genre you haven’t written for yet?
I mean, if i’m really honest, for me, it is more about what I can get. (laughs.) No i’m at a point in my career now, you know i’ve been doing this for 5 years by myself, rather than an additional composer, but I was the ‘yes man,’ and now I’m sort of the ‘yes/maybe?’ man, (laughs) in terms of being a little bit more picky with what I do.
Recently I’ve been doing more family themed projects as I have two very young children, as I really want them both to be able to be involved in the music that i’m writing, especially at an early age.
At the same time, I think the more family type movies actually allow me to be more orchestral in my writing, which I love and that is my one thing that I want to keep on doing; writing for the orchestra, keeping that music alive within the industry.
Jumping into one of those projects, you composed the score for “Peter Rabbit”. How did you get involved with this project?
So I’ve worked with Sony before a couple times before now, most recently on ‘Rough Night,’ ‘Open Season,’ and ‘Money Monster,’ and the head of music sent me the script and said they thought I would be be a good fit for Will [Gluck] the director. Now Will is a guy that previously to Peter Rabbit absolutely hated film music. He worked with one guy on his first movie, had the most awful experience, and then spent the next 10 years of his career slagging off film music, and only using songs in his moves. In the film ‘Friends with Benefits,’ he actually makes a joke about how s**t film music is. (laughs.)
So, I met Will, and he got me to do this sort of demo to see if I was right for the project. Now, usually with demo’s it’s a case of you and like two other composers each making a demo, with the best one getting the job. But this wasn’t the case with this project. It was more like Will told me he liked me as a person but just wanted to make sure my ideas were right for the film. Luckily enough, he really liked what I did, and we sort of went from there.
Overall it was a strange process. It was very different to what I was used to, but I think it really helped both of us. It enabled me to deal with someone that had no idea about the whole process of creating the score. And now he also trusts film music, which is great.
Being a family film, the score is of course really cheery and playful, but there are also times where it’s really quite emotional and moving, Where does your writing process start? Did you have any particular sources of inspiration from when composing the music, or do you try and stay away from previous work?
No, I mean I listen to everything and I think it always helps to expand your library and have different pieces that you can pull from – which is what all the greats do. Not saying I’m great by the way, (laughs) I was just saying that’s what they do.
The process with this one, and with any family orientated film, wether it’s ‘Duck Tales’ or ‘Peter Rabbit,’ is me trying to react to the picture. I don’t ever consciously think ‘Ok, I’m writing a kids film so I have to make this sound kiddy.’ I think that would be unfair, especially with an animation as well. Peter Rabbit is a bit different, it’s more of a hybrid, but it’s supposed to look real. But with something like ‘Duck Tales,’ it’s important not to go too ‘kiddy’ with it because it devalues the story, and is again unfair to all those people that spend hours and hours making sure the script is on the level that it should be.
If you treat something as a kids film it can become ‘cartoony,’ which ultimately devalues its place in the film world. With Peter Rabbit it would be very easy to go like ‘kiddy’ and cute, or that direction generally, but Will said to me from the start, ‘Yes it’s a kids film, but it’s more than that.’ We wanted people to view Peter as the hero of the movie, you know he’s the sort of Batman of the film if you will. He’s not a cute little rabbit, well he is, but he’s also all of these other things that require more treatment than ‘It’s a kids film so I’m just going to make it all light and fun.’ And that helps also when the emotional side comes into play.
When you view it as a film that is going to be watched by everybody, not just children, you get more out of it. You have to treat it as though it is like any other film that isn’t made for kids.
You also have composed the score for the upcoming film Goosebumps 2. Given the subject of the film, the music of course has many elements of horror and tension, but it is still within the genre of a family film, so I’m interested to know if you found that having worked on previous ‘family’ themed projects, such as “Big Hero 6”, “Rio” and “Puss In Boots, made composing the score any easier, or helped more so than writing for a genre you have no prior experience in?
I don’t know if this one was any easier (laughs.) But yeah I mean it all helps, especially in terms of getting more experience. Hurdles you may have faced previously become easier to tackle in a sense. But new challenges that you haven’t faced yet will always come up.
From more of a stylistic viewpoint it didn’t really help. The score for Goosebumps  is sort of my homage to those 80s’s action and adventure movies that I love and hold dearly and close to my heart, but mixed with a lot of scary stuff.
There is a temptation to go a bit light when you’re creating something for a kids film that involves horror, but I purposely tried to go a bit more scary because I think the picture really holds it. I think if we, as a team, were to go lighter with the horror, we wouldn’t be being true to RL Stine’s books – which actually are pretty scary.
They really are!
Right! So we wanted to be true to the books by making sure it did have that effect of making you a little bit uncomfortable and scared. I think if you were to pull the plug on the jump scares it wouldn’t be fair to the original work you know.
That was a big thing whilst I was scoring. I was constantly getting the note to ‘go scarier,’ because at the beginning I was like ‘It’s a kids film so it can’t be too much,’ but I was very quickly talked out of that, which ended up with it going down the scarier route. And as it happens, it works out because the first half of the movie, which I’d say is probably the scariest, actually all takes place within the day time. So that afforded me to go a little bit scarier with the music as it contrasts the fact that it is the day time, because you always assume the scary stuff is going to happen at night.
How do you go about making a score sound scary? How do you decide what instruments to use – or is a process of trial and error?
I think it’s definitely a combination of the two. I relied on the traditional orchestral horror pallet for this one, which is a lot of scary high strings, rising orchestras, big stabs, that kind of thing.
It’s more kind of creepy than it is scary for the majority of the film, you know what I mean. Like, even if you look at Slappy’s face – a talking dummy is just creepy. That’s what I wanted to really hone in on, the creepiness. To do that I actually used 3 pianos that were all tuned differently, doubled with celeste, harp, and glockenspiel to achieve that sort of dark magic type of sound. But the main aspect of it were the 3 pianos; one tuned normally, one a little higher, and the third tuned a little low. Then they were put through some delay and reverb which gives you this odd, ‘swimmy,’ creepy effect.
From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one project, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?
With [Man in the] High Castle’s third season coming out today, i’ve written so much music that, not to say i’m on autopilot, but I can just jump right into it, having spent that much time on it. I find that switching back is always quite tricky, especially if it’s a new project.
Getting into the world of Goosebumps having just finished High Castle, and whilst doing Duck Tales at the same time, took a bit of time. Normally I like to just go and sit at the piano and figure out what’s really happening before I move to my computer and start working to picture or orchestrating out my theme.
Is there anything that you think would surprise an outsider about the role of a composer?
(laughs) How long have you got? I feel like we are constantly, or for the last 3 months of a project, we’re really like having to turn on the afterburner to ensure everything get’s done. Especially when having to deal with picture cuts.
The hours would also be a good one, yeah the amount of hours that we have to work to get stuff completed and ready for people to play. There is a whole process that I think would surprise a lot of people, starting with me writing the music on a computer, which then goes off to an orchestrator who writes it on to paper, which then goes to a copyist who prints it all out to get it to the orchestra, who then plays it and sends it to a mixer, and so on.
I actually get asked the question ‘Do you write to picture?’ a lot, and i’m like ‘well yeah, obviously.’ So maybe people would also be surprised to hear that.
If someone wants to pursue a career as a composer, how would you recommend they go about it?
Be a lawyer. (laughs). I’m kidding. Everyone has their own path you know. It’s different for everybody. I would say listen to a lot of music. Classical, electronic, rock, just as much as possible. Or anything that makes you happy.
But before you embark on the journey of actually becoming a composer, you should absolutely study it. I was fortunate myself to spend four years at the Academy of Music, of which I spent the time honing in on the craft, listening to music, spending time with other musicians, and just learning how everything worked.
One big thing I would say to any aspiring film composer is to learn the technical side of it all. Learn it and know it really well. It is a guaranteed way into a studio. If you can get that side of things down, whilst still studying and learning music on the side, then it is very likely that you will be able to get yourself into a studio.
You can watch the third season on The Man in the High Castle here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/video/offers/ref=dvm_uk_sl_gen%7Cc_298644699355_m_yxQpIJJ6-dc_s_/261-0493875-6195360.
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween is set to be released in cinemas on October the 12th.