Hands down, composer Fil Eisler is one of the greatest composers of our generation. Known for an eclectic mix of television series, Eisler has also seen his share of film projects. His string of last few years has seen hits in Golden Globe-nominated Fox drama Empire, the Peabody-winning UnREAL on Lifetime, and the People’s Choice Awards-nominated How to Be Single. What lies ahead for the well-revered composer in 2017, though, is equally if not more interesting, show off a range between the funny and the heartbreaking. We chat with Eisler on his musical process and much more!
It being two years, I would love to catch up. What have you been up to since then. In the last two years, what has been the bulk of your work?
Well, I’m having another kid, for start. Not really a bulk of my work, but as far as screen and movies goes, there has been lots of stuff. I just got finished with a really great movie with Marti Noxon directing, with Lily Collins and with Keanu Reeves. That movie is calledTo the Bone, and that just got bought by Netflix when we were at Sundance with it… I’m not exactly sure when it’s coming out, but that’s a really awesome film. Lilly Collins is actually really blew me away. She just put on a really incredible performance. So, I did that. I did a number of TV shows. I been work on Girlfriend Guide to Divorce, which is Marti’s show…UnREAL is great. I’ll be doing another season of that. Empire, we’re sort of winding this season up. I’m near constant state of sleep deprivation. I’m practically going to have to look up my own IMDB page, I got to tell you. I can’t remember a damn thing. So, CHIPS, obviously. I did another movie by Warner Brothers called How to be Single, which is a year ago now. Then went onto CHIPS, working with Dax. That was an absolute blast. It was great.
It segues into my next question, actually. As a composer, you watch the movie in post when the picture is locked. Without spoiling anything, what do you love about the film adaptation? Did you see the original, and how does this one do it justice?
You know, like everybody, I saw CHIPS as a kid, and I didn’t feel the need to go and look at it, again, now to sort of wondering what I was going to do that was comparative because basically I have to be true to what I am looking at, what’s on the screen. I was very earlier on in the editing process, from the beginning. So, early cuts in the movie was sort of was much more of what Dax really wanted to do by making like a modern day Lethal Weapon. And it turned out, I’m not sure why it went in that direction, but maybe because of the amazing chemistry between Dax and Michael Pena, I think they realized it was an incredibly funny movie when it came out. And it became very much its own thing. It’s really good. I have to say it’s surprising good to some people because I think some people saw the trailer and were a bit worried about the crudeness in the humor, but I think it’s really good. When you see the film, it all has a place. It’s all very well earned because the chemistry between the two of them is just so good. It’s just genuinely funny, and feels real.
You had mentioned previous films before and it’s really cool to see CHIPSis in your resume, when you compare it to something like Empire and UnREAL. Is your approach different when it’s more light-hearted compared to other projects like Empire or UnREAL?
I mean, yes and no. I think you have to look at each thing as exactly what it is, without any preconceptions about “this should be a comedy,” or “this should be an action movie,” or “this should be a whatever.” I think you have to look at, or otherwise you’re immediately boxing yourself in to a certain genre, to a certain stocks and sound, and that’s the last thing I want to do. One of the things I’ve been incredibly lucky with in my career so far is that I haven’t been pigeonholed in any kind of genre really. I got to do a lot of dramas. I got to do a lot of comedies. I got to do horror movies, science fiction, all kinds of stuff. So, I’m not in a hurry to start getting pigeonholed now really. So, basically I saw CHIPS for the first time and I watched it develop through the editing process. We real challenge in that particular movie was making it fun without making it corny, and then having the emotions. I think this is the most difficult thing about scoring comedy. I’m not a big fan of broad comedy music… Most of the people I work with in comedies tend to feelthat way, too. And I would have to say most of the comedies I worked on I ended up writing probably more emotional music, really character music over “hi guys. It’s funny” music. Because luckily people, well, it would be awfully a broad brush, but let’s say a lot of film makers now that it’s a really outdated sort of approach, and that the audience tend to be more intelligent now. With that said, there are times in every comedy where you really do need to underpin something or set up a joke or whatever, and you have to, for the main thing, don’t screw it up because you can absolutely kill a joke with music. No doubt about that. It’s similar with horror movies and thrillers. If you have to set up something, like a scare, or a reveal or something, you would absolutely murder that with the wrong music, or music in the wrong place. In some instances, it’s similar to any movie, it’s all about timing. I try and approach everything differently. Throw the idea of genre out the window.
In CHIPS, we were sort of very specific. What me and Dax really bonded over was the fact that we’re both really allergic to, what we started calling, “studio rock.” What I would classify as studio rock is when a studio comes in and are like “Hey guys. Let’s make this fun.” You know with these air quotes around it. And you get a bunch of session players from the 80s that used to have ponytails. Sometimes still have ponytails, coming in do this really corny, crappy version of what that should be. Both Dax and I were in band when we were kids, and me all my life. And I was a recording artist a long time before I was a composer. So, the idea of that not feeling real sort of made me pretty ill. So, it was fun. I put a band together. There’s a rock band element in there. There’s actually big Latin element to it. And the feeling was so great that actually there were places that was just sort of a great vibe to keep the action stuff driving, but not too dark and not too heavy. You know, finding that tone is really tricky. We were all involved in that scene. We had an incredible percussionist who played with Santana, amongst other people. And we had the keyboard player from Death Cab for Cutie, and it just sounded great. I wrote these themes and we ended up doing drum and bass version of them, rock version of them. Again, I hate labels like rock or indie or whatever because that immediately fills somebody’s head with preconceptions is what it sounds like. I rather you go and hear it, which you can because the sound track is coming out Friday.
You talk about genres and how you’re able to crossover, and whatever falls in your lap, you’re able to tackle. I do want to talk a little about To the Bone. I know when you think about Sundance, do you automatically think of drama film? Tell us a little about that, and how you worked on it.
That was one of the happiest shows, writing and scoring experiences of my life because MartiNoxon. First off, MartiNoxon is such a bad ass. He’s such an awesome writer, an awesome producer, awesome director, and has a big taste in terms of… He would be the first to say, “No. Let’s not put music there. This thing plays great.” And that’s fairly rare with a lot of directors, especially, these days when everything gets temp to the hill, which temp by the way, in case your target audience aren’t familiar with that terms is basically temporary music that directors put in as placeholders, so if the composer ever gets there, to see the rough cut with music in it. It would often be, either music from movies, sometimes if I’m coming along, they’ll temp with my music for the movie. And, again, I always say to people, my entire goal is not do the same movie over and over again. So, temping with my music makes no fucking sense whatsoever. Temp music can be helpful if you’re in a hurry and someone wants to convey the tone of something they want, but all in all, it’s generally, a hindrance because you immediately taken one layer of potential creativity. My first reaction to seeing a film, to me, at least, is the most crucial thing in the range. How I react when I first get an emotion from it makes me hear music in my head, and if there’s music playing already, then I’m already in a different headspace. But, Marty was really great at saying, “I don’t get the temp. Throw it out,” and start again if it didn’t feel what is right. And we did that. It’s not something from the music. We were very careful to not get in the way of the acting. A lot of these movies, the really good ones, that have really good performances, it’s about getting out the way. The music has to really mean something. It really needs to be doing something specific, and not just pink brain on the walls. At least that’s what I think got me into writing music. It was a great experience. I know what you mean about meeting expectations. To the Bone is about a girl with an eating disorder, that’s cripplingly bad. I think the movie pretty much about her decision whether or not she’s going to live. It’s an unbelievable performance by Lily Collins. It’s really great. I’m really stoked that Netflix bought it because I think it’s a really good home for it.
My final question for you is what are you watching nowadays that makes you say, “I wish I scored that”?
It’s rare that I think, “I wish I scored that” because often they’ll have great scores already, and the reason it’s good is because the score works for it. I just saw Logan and that completely blew me away. I thought that was great. I thought Arrival was brilliant. Narcosis just a great show. Outside of that, to be completely honest with you, I just been doing movies nonstop, without break for so long now that I don’t get to watch an awful lot. I get to watch a lot of kids’ TV, with a five year old and a seven month old. Who knows, I may get to do an animated film. I’m doing one movie after another, and they couldn’t be more completely opposite.
Catch Fil Eisler on Twitter at @FilEisler.
by Erman Baradi