Today we’re speaking with Denise Santos, a Los Angeles-based film and television composer at Hans Zimmer and Sony/ATV’s Bleeding Fingers Music. Born and raised in the Philippines, Denise started her professional music career in 2012 by playing keyboard for alternative-jazz band Hidden Nikki and post-rock band Bones Like Snowflakes, arranging and producing songs for singer-songwriters, and composing original music for advertisements, TV shows, and award-winning films. Her most recent projects include BBC’s Primates, Amazon’s Making the Cut, Discovery’s Apollo: The Forgotten Films, and Lifetime’s Surviving Jeffrey Epstein and Death Saved My Life. Denise is a versatile composer whose work spans multiple genres – we’re excited to share her interview with you.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What was your first job in composing and how did you decide to pursue your craft professionally?
I grew up in the Philippines (Manila), and started playing piano at the age of 4. That’s pretty common for Filipino kids, though. A lot of us get piano lessons when we’re young and then a few stick around. I’m one of those that stuck around. Since then, I just wanted to get my hands on anything that had to do with music. I learned guitar, sang in choir, played in theatre, and joined bands. It took me many many years to realize that film scoring was the best platform for me to continue making music. I always loved John Williams, but it didn’t dawn on me that scoring was a viable career until I started doing little projects here and there for fun. My first job in composing was a short film, actually, a thesis film of a friend. At that time, I was arranging songs for a songwriter whose best friend was a film student. My songwriter friend and I got together to score her best friend’s thesis film and I remember just having so much fun with it. We had no idea how it all worked yet. We just thought, “hey, we know how to record ourselves on Logic. Let’s give it a shot!” That connection has since then introduced me to more filmmakers, and projects started to snowball. I was still working a day job at a radio station, but when my freelance work started paying more than my salary, that’s when I decided to do composing full time.
Who are some of your favorite long term collaborators?
I love how this story really comes full circle. That friend that I just mentioned above, her name is Samantha Lee. Since her thesis film, she kept at it with filmmaking, whether it be a documentary, a narrative, or commercial work. We stayed in touch and kept working together. She has been one of my favorite collaborators because I feel like we both grew into the industry together and we have a good understanding of each other’s work ethic and aesthetic. Two out of my three album releases are for two of her films.
Another favorite collaborator is Russell Emanuel. He’s our CEO at Bleeding Fingers and he just gets it. He has an amazing sense of what works and what doesn’t, and he has a good way of giving constructive criticism.
What was your favorite part about working on Death Saved My Life?
I have always loved watching crime dramas, so the premise of this show alone was enough for me to get super excited to work on it. Writing the music for this film really allowed me to tap into my dark side, so to speak. It starts out painting a picture of a seemingly perfect family, but then quickly turns into something unexpectedly twisted. I had so much fun going through that transformation with them musically. There were some cues where I played to their normalcy, and then there are some where the music gets really messed up and dark. Overall, I just thought that the story was super cool, and even cooler that it’s based on true events.
What gear do you tend to use when composing, especially in the production of Primates?
I’m on a Mac Pro, using Logic Pro X, and a UAD Apollo interface. I’d say 60-70% of the time I’m using VST’s and soft synths when composing. But sometimes I also like to compose on the guitar first. I’m not a virtuoso at guitar and there’s something about the unfamiliarity with the instrument that opens my mind to more ideas and melodies. A lot of happy accidents happen. For Primates, there are a few cues that I played guitar on. Our main concept was for the score to sound intimate and there’s something about a close mic’d guitar that delivers that for me. We also wanted the score to have pop influences so we layered some beats and synths on it.
Who are some of your influences?
I’m all over the place, ha. I grew up watching and listening to musicals and Disney movies, so I think there will always be a part of me that leans towards those kinds of melodies and arrangements. And then when I started joining bands, I got more into rock and pop music. I’d say one of my biggest influences in that realm is Imogen Heap. She produces her own music and I just love the way she utilizes so many fun instruments and her arrangements are always so interesting. She released her 2014 album Sparks with a whole set of just the instrumental versions of her tracks and that in itself was a masterclass on arrangement and production. In the rock realm, it would have to be Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Their score for The Social Network changed me and opened my mind to new ways of approaching a score.
What is your dream project?
My dream project is one where I’m working with female directors and producers that I idolize. Some of them are already my friends Samantha Lee and Leslie Alejandro. Others I have yet to meet, namely Reed Morano, Issa Rae, Olivia Wilde, and Ava DuVernay. The stories they tell resonate so much with me, and they’re mostly female-led stories. I’ve had the great pleasure of getting a head start with telling female stories, so I just hope those projects keep coming!
Where can we find you on social media?