Today we’re speaking with film and television composer Darien Shulman, an alumnus of The Juilliard School. Darien frequently collaborates with Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault, the creative team behind Woodhead Entertainment, with whom he worked to score the Peabody Award winning and Emmy nominated Netflix original series, “American Vandal.” Past credits also include the feature “Funeral Kings,” the series “Trial by Media” and “TripTank,” and a number of high-profile television commercials. He most recently composed the score for the newly released docu-series “For Heaven’s Sake,” available to stream on Paramount+ and CBC Gem. Darien’s talent is evident and we’re so excited to share this interview with you.
Hi Darien! How have you been?
I’ve been pretty good, thanks!
What is like working with collaborators as successful as Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault? Tell us more about your working relationship and short hand with them.
I’ve been working with Tony and Dan for over a decade now; they’re both super talented and funny. When it comes to music for their projects, the guiding principle for us is summed up in one sentence— “The music isn’t in on the joke.” In other words, I try to keep the score as earnest and authentic sounding as possible. I tried to make the score for American Vandal as true to the source as possible, the source in that case being the genre of True Crime. It seems counterintuitive, but if the music takes the story seriously, that only heightens the comedy of what’s happening on screen.
You brought a unique approach to For Heaven’s Sake. Can you take us behind one or two of your favorite scenes? Tell us more about your process and how you decide the right way to approach it.
With For Heaven’s Sake I developed a somewhat understated sound palate, leaning heavily on bells, soft winds, muted strings, and deep bass-y percussion, and that worked really well given that the bulk of the series takes place in rural Ontario in the dead of winter. There are a few scenes where, working with director Tim Johnson (who’s awesome, btw), I decided that it was necessary to stray from that palate—one of my favorite examples of this is later in the series when our protagonist, Mike, finally gets to ride a snowmobile. For that one moment, I went full-on into action/adventure territory, heavy driving percussion, big blaring brass, the works. I wasn’t sure it would work at first, but it turned out to be hilarious.
Let’s talk about American Vandal‘s Peabody Award win and Emmy nomination (congrats!) – how did it feel to work on a project that got this recognition?
I had a very strong premonition, around halfway into working on season 1, that American Vandal was going to be something really special. The writing and the performances were so strong, and the story itself grabs you in a way that you just wouldn’t expect, given the low-brow subject matter. So while I’m gratified that we got such a great response, I’m not at all surprised by it. It was a great honor to be able to score that series.
Did you approach scoring characters in Trial by Media in a specific way at all?
Definitely. Best example of that is the music that plays under Geoffrey Fieger who is prominently featured in “Talk Show Murder”, the episode that I scored. Anyone who has ever watched CourtTV knows that in addition to being a well-known lawyer, Fieger is incredibly media savvy, and so I scored him with what we described behind the scenes as “power suit music”. Heavy, anthemic, overdriven guitars, fast-paced drums and percussion, etc. I really tried to play off of his over-the-top energy.
What are some of your other favorite past projects?
One in particular always comes to mind—back in 2013 I scored a digital short directed by Tony. It was Timmy Muldoon and the Search for the Shadoweyes Bandit, and it’s still available on YouTube and Vimeo. It starts with depicting a child’s amateur “movie”, produced on a home video camera, and as it progresses, the production values gradually increase until eventually it looks and feels like a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a great tribute to the power of imagination, and I always appreciated it for that.
What were some of the other challenges you encountered with For Heaven’s Sake? How did you overcome them?
Pandemic era composing is a challenge! I began work on this project during spring of 2020, at the height of the initial COVID19 outbreak in New York, where I live. We were all locked down in our apartments, and things felt pretty apocalyptic. But eventually, I was able to view working on this project as a great source of creative release. And of course, I consider myself super lucky that I was able to have a great project to work on, at a time when much of the industry had shut down.
What else is happening next in your world?
I can’t really talk about future projects right now, but you can follow me on twitter at @darienshulman, instagram at @dss_music, or check out my website (darienshulman.com) for updates!