Composer Adam Lukas of Bleeding Fingers Music (www.bleedingfingersmusic.com) in Santa Monica, CA, has multiple Emmy nominations this season. In addition to his work on the PBS Nature mini series Primates, which he collaborated on with fellow Bleeding Fingers composer Denise Santos, he is also nominated for his work on National Geographic’s
Being the Queen. Here, he talks about his process and the challenges of scoring documentaries.
Adam, you have multiple nominations. What is it like being nominated for your work on Primates and Being the Queen?
“Initially, I thought of it as a whole cocktail of feelings. There's a shot of delight, one of pride, but definitely add an extra two of just being overwhelmed and baffled.
“I've been in the industry for almost 10 years now and have never had any luck with awards so far. In a response to usually quite blow-up bios of people in the industry, I ironically called myself a ‘multi-award-losing composer’. It just wouldn't happen to me. Now seeing my name not only once but twice on the list of nominees feels almost intimidating, especially when you spot eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken's name right next to yours.
“A few weeks have passed since the announcement and luckily, an overall feeling of being content prevailed. I never gave too many pennies about awards. Few of my favorite composers, like Thomas Newman, never received an Oscar.
“I'd lie, though, if I'd say it doesn't feel good being nominated. After all, you could argue that awards or nominations are an acknowledgment of a job well done and justification for the agony, the self-doubt and the hard work that went into winning them.”
What past experience led you to work on Being the Queen?
“I was lucky that Russell Emanuel trusted me with this one. Russell is Bleeding Fingers Music's CEO, creative head and soundtrack producer alongside Hans (Zimmer).
“It all started with a phone call - which I know might sound like the start of every other story ever told. The reason I mention it is because we could not physically meet at that time as we usually would, and that changed the process a lot. COVID just hit the US and times were challenging. Anyways, Russ told me about the project and I was immediately hooked. The mastermind of the film was Emmy and Peabody award winner Tom Jennings, who also produced Diana: In Her Own Words, which Bleeding Fingers Music scored. Russ told me that Being The Queen would feature a treasure trove of never-before-heard interviews with dozens of people who have known the Queen personally to tell the story of her life. There is incredible relevancy and value in these new recordings that have never been observed by the public before. I'm thankful it worked out so well.”
What gear do you typically use to compose, and specifically for Being the Queen?
“I'd usually start by writing a theme suite. This approach has been passed on by Hans to Bleeding Fingers and has proven really useful for both us, the composers as well as the client I'd say.
“The theme suite is a standalone piece of music and it's usually not written to picture, even though we'd have some footage already. It's my idea of how this show could ‘sound’, or in other words, I explore which colors to use or what sort of dress I'd give to wear. I remember it being a lot of back and forth with Russ. Before anything gets sent out, Russell and I work on it internally. The version numbers can get quite high before the client hears a first draft. Then with Hans involved, we'd like to get his blessings as well before it goes out. The initial suite and then later on the whole score I'd say, is classical in its nature, borrowing modern cinematic textures and often synthesized sounds, whenever I saw fit. The main theme makes several appearances throughout the film, wrapped in different clothes every time round. It starts out with a perfect 4th in an upward movement, an interval that bears majesty, stability and cheerfulness. But there's music that describes conflict as well - her Majesty's reign was never easy and she had to deal with all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, so that had to be reflected in the score as well.”
How did you find the right fit for the scenes?
“Now that's where the above-mentioned theme suite proves itself so useful. Luckily, Tom Jennings' initial reaction after hearing the theme for the first time was overly positive. I specifically remember Russell calling me and passing on the good news - it felt great! I'd argue that getting the theme suite approved is the biggest step in the scoring process - having it signed off by the client is a major step because now you know what they like. I can take the suite and start scoring from there. When I'm not sure if something fits sonically, I'd always go back to the suite and compare. I feel grounded having it and see it as some sort of origin that I can always come back to and recalibrate if necessary.”
You were working with many interviews. How did you adapt to that and bring the most out of each scene?
“Scoring the interview parts can definitely be tricky. I wanted the music to be interesting and engaging, but I certainly didn't want it to be distracting. Since Being The Queen featured audio material that's been unheard-of before, I felt I needed to respect and honor that. So what I ended up doing was working my way around the dialogue, finding little spots where I could let the music shine for a moment and help certain moments to have an impact. I tweaked these scenes a lot. They needed quite an amount of attention and love for detail.
“Usually, I'd send a V.1.00 to Russ, but on this project, he'd receive numerous V.1.1 from me, since often I'd proof-listen my first draft and I'd think: ‘Nah, you need to refine this a bit more.’ Some footage was really old. Listening to it sometimes gave me the shivers. I was convinced that those recordings, in particular, were the star of the film. All I could do was help out by adding the right mood.
“When I was just starting out as a composer, I remember visiting a workshop with orchestrator and composer Conrad Pope. He preached: "Do not score the obvious. Never. Ever.’ That really stuck with me. So I listened closely to what the people in the film had to say and tried to come up with music that really adds another layer, instead of copying what's already displayed in the video or heard in the dialogue. So I would often slip into different roles. One scene in particular I remember was the sequence about her Majesty's sister Margaret. In public, they'd try to portray peace and that all is well, but things were difficult. Russell and I tried a somewhat darker tone under quite cheerful pictures of the two, and it made it special, I felt.”
What is your biggest takeaway from this project and can it help you approach projects in the future?
“Many takeaways I'd say, but definitely the biggest one was how important teamwork can be when things get really difficult. COVID made this project different on so many levels. For example, I did the whole score at home, and that was challenging. Recordings took place remotely. String section, clarinet, horn, flute and harp have all been recorded at the player's homes, and were compiled when John Chapman, the score's mixing engineer, mixed the soundtrack. Also, there were no in-person meetings or listening sessions with Russ in his studio. And still, everything worked out well because we all worked together. I'd like to thank score supervisor Christopher King and my assistant Alessandro Saini for the great work as well!”
What do you have lined up next?
“There's one project that I'm really looking forward to that I'm going to be involved in. It's going to be a hell of a journey and will require hours of music to be written. We're still at an early stage, but I'm sure some announcements will be made soon! I post updates on Facebook (Adam Lukas) as well as Instagram (@adamlukasmusic). I was trying to convince myself I'm not too old yet for TikTok, but maybe I just am. Anyways for now, it's Facebook and Instagram. Thank you!”