Acclaimed British composer David Norland has established himself as an essential musical collaborator in the film and news worlds. In one instance, his music can captivate an audience entangled in real world headlines, and in another his compositions drive our emotions as we involve ourselves with fictional characters we will never meet. David has accomplished these thanks to credits that include 20/20, Good Morning America, Nightline, and on the other hand November Criminals, among others.
On HBO’s My Dinner with Herve, David balances both fiction and non-fiction, as we examine the life of Herve Villechaize played by Peter Dinklage. Herve, famed for his role as Tattoo on Fantasy Island, lived a big life in a small body, a heart wrenching look at a life with promise marred by setbacks. Featuring Dinklage, opposite Jamie Dornan as journalist Danny Tate amidst his own destruction, My Dinner with Herve is a fascinating tale of both Hollywood glamour and eventual tragedy.
Congratulations on all your hard work and successes. The last month it was hard to find a street in LA without a poster for My Dinner with Herve. Of course, I watch the news like the next guy, so I grew up on 20/20.
Thank you for all that. The news is not always particularly glamorous but the stories told are really important stories. The opportunity to help tell these stories, there is a vast difference between doing a song for your own work and doing them to help tell someone’s story. That’s the part that’s really exciting to me. You see a scene without music, but when you have a music cue that impacts it, that impact is huge. It’s great to figure out what that scene is trying to accomplish and how to accomplish that.
Definitely a team effort! So, with My Dinner with Herve,.I’m in my late 20’s. I remember in my childhood turning on the TV to find reruns of Fantasy Island. It was cool to see Herve Villechaize popularize his famous line, but at the time I didn’t understand the concept of health conditions. All I saw was a small person the same size as me on television and thought it was cool.
He was a cool guy but also a sad guy. It is a heartbreaking story.
But before we jump into that film, can we go back just a little bit to talk about how you approach projects as a composer. You go from a news program such as 20/20 which is news-based to something like My Dinner with Herve which a narrative.
One of the big changes is the work timeline. News happens on a quick time line. Sometimes, you don’t even see the picture. We can be asked to send over music that fits this or that atmosphere or cues. Working on films with Sacha Gervasi, with whom I collaborated on a number of films, is much more “germinative.” I start working early on and it germinates alongside the story. for most composers, they come in at a later time. By the time we get to the normal point of where a composer comes in, Sasha and I will have alreadycompleted a lot of the music. One of the nice things about that he has always involved me in the editing process, not in the creative part of it but in having my sit in the editing room to be part of the DNA of the film. That’s helpful in informing the musical process. I tend to periodically play him new cues I’ve written and he listens to them over and over without the picture to see if it fits with the emotional language of the film. Then it finds its way to picture to see if it fits. On November Criminals, the previous film we did together, I started writing as soon as there was a script. I took some music to Rhode Island where they shot and presented music to him there to see if it fits the emotional language.
For this particular film, what drew you to working on the HBO film? Of course, you’ve worked with director Sacha Gervasi several times.
Yes, we’ve worked together in the past. We knew each other since college. I don’t recommend this to you readers but I flunked out of college. Sacha wanted to put together pieces for a production he was working on in college. We were nineteen or twenty at the time. We put together great music for this play about East London. Down the years we’ve worked together on features and docs. On this film, I’ve seen him try to get it made for several years with different versions of the script developed. He knew one day it would get made. By the time he found a home for it, I was deeply involved. When I do preliminary work I produce cues up to a finished standard.
I would love to know, just based on the trailer alone we can assume there’ll be both laughs and heartbreaks, from the aesthetic standpoint what did you do to capture a tone for the story?
The primary challenge is the ever-changing emotional tones of the film. We had to effectively navigate these shifts – not just me as a composer but the editor and Sacha had to as well. The story goes from 1940’s post-war Paris and the difficulties of Herve growing up there, the problems with his health and all the rejection he faced. Then we have 70’s and 80’s Hollywood craziness. There are some unbelievably over-the-top moments. Then we have the heartbreak at the end. There are other moments where we move quickly from one emotional tone to another, too, which will become clear when you watch it. It’s more than a biopic. The dynamic between Herve and the journalist Danny Tate is key in the storytelling. The basic goal is, at some point we have to break people’s hearts. But it doesn’t have impact or value if you go there from the beginning. It has value only if you earn it by the end of the film. At the same time, music is useful to illustrate the difficulties of Herve’s early life, and his extraordinary sense of freedom when he moves to New York in the late 50’s. Suddenly, he’s in the place where all the outsiders go. In the narrative, the tone shifts really quickly. Music helps that. Part of the job is to make sure we, the audience travel seamlessly through these shifts, and that they don’t pull you out of the story.
Personally, I love movies that make me cry. I look for those moments. They help us get in touch with our emotional side.
And that’s very much a part of Sacha’s M.O. His first breakthrough picture was a documentary about Anvil, a band that “never really made it.” We start off with them in their 50’s on a disastrous tour of Europe. We can’t believe what we’re seeing. They are so comedic in their dialogue yet it’s all unscripted. We love them and we laugh with them, but what we don’t expect is heartbreak and we see that from their perspective what this dream means for them and how hard it is to be in their 50’s and still chasing that dream. Those shifts make the emotional results unexpected.
I love the documentary actually! Before we go, speaking of works that inspire you, have you seen anything that intrigued you as a storyteller?
In the film and TV world, a lot of things that are being made by the BBC and in the UK in general I love. I love the score for Broadchurch. The editing and storytelling were done beautifully, and composer Olafur Arnalds’ music is wonderful in it. There was a 6-part miniseries River on BBC that is essentially a crime story that was well-produced. The music was stunning. There is a lot of great material in the UK. In the contemporary music, I look forward to ambient acts like A Winged Victory for the Sullen. In the contemporary classical world, I love John Luther Adams!