White House Plumbers takes the audience behind-the-scenes of the Watergate scandal, as President Nixon's political saboteurs, E. Howard Hunt (Woody Harrelson) and G. Gordon Liddy (Justin Theroux) accidentally topple the presidency they were zealously trying to protect, and their families along with it. The satirical HBO series chronicles actions on the ground in 1971, when the White House hires the former CIA and FBI workers to investigate the Pentagon Papers leak. The unlikely pair then lands on the Committee to Re-Elect the President, where they plot several covert operations, including bugging the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex.
The HBO co-production with Wiip also stars Lena Headey (Dorothy Hunt), Judy Greer (Fran Liddy), Domhnall Gleeson (John Dean), Toby Huss (James McCord), Ike Barinholtz (Jeb Magruder), Kathleen Turner (Dita Beard) and Kim Coates (Frank Sturgis).
Composer Jeff Cardoni created the series’ original score. In addition to 55 feature films, Cardoni has scored several network series, including Heels, Ghosts, Silicon Valley, Training Day, Young Sheldon, CSI: Miami and The Kominsky Method. He also penned the theme songs to Heels (co-written with Ben Bridwell of Band of Horses), The League, Pimp My Ride and MadTV. In 2019, he was voted ASCAP’s TV Composer of The Year — an honor he was nominated for again in 2020. Here, Jeff shares insight into his work on White House Plumbers.
Jeff, how did you get involved in this project?
“I had been trying to get in the room on White House Plumbers for close to a year. I had a friend — Grady Cooper — who was an editor, and I wrote some demos to try and get them in the temp score. But it still was months, and then finally I think they were running out of time and I got a chance to demo an episode for showrunner David Mandel. I think I was just the last guy standing and in the right place at the right time, so got the gig.”
Composer Jeff Cardoni
What was the timeline to create the music?
“By the time I was brought on, they had basically run out the clock on the music. I believe I started the first week of November, last year, and we had the first orchestra session on December 27th, and the first episode dub on January 3rd, and the last episode dub around January 12th, so it was basically two-and-a-half movies in about six weeks, which is kind of an insane schedule. I miss the stress of being in the trenches on it, especially around the holidays, because I feel like the world shut down and was on vacation, except for me, and I was staring at 130-odd-minutes of music in various stages of approval.”
What were the musical needs of the show?
“The show was, obviously, set in the ‘70s, so there was the period piece aspect of it. I had listened to the classic political films of the time, All The President’s Men, The Conversation. I was thinking David Shire, Schifrin, but the show was also tonally complex in that they didn’t complete the break in on the first attempt, so the first half of the show was a bit more about the caper and the mistakes they kept making, so there was some dark, comedic elements. The third episode was the actual break in, and then after that, was the slow falling apart of their lives, prison, death, despair. So tonally I had to try and keep it [feeling] like the same show, but have room for the music to evolve from lighthearted and funky, to heavy and dramatic and tragic for the ending. It was a puzzle for sure, but that’s what made it so rewarding to me.”
What conversations did you have with the director regarding the sound for the project?
“David Mandel, the director, and I had discussions. The general thought was ‘a modern ‘70s score,’ whatever that meant. He wanted to approach it from a more emotional perspective and really the tragedy of it all, especially because there were no surprises in the actual Watergate break-in itself. Everyone knows it happened. So we wanted the score to deal more with the family dynamic and the brotherly love between Hunt and Liddy.”
How many cues and themes did you create, and what are their approximate lengths?
“That’s an interesting question. There were 98 cues in the series — nothing reused. Overall, about 120 minutes of music. We had a live jazz group in the early episodes, with drums, piano, guitar, upright, Wurlitzer, flute, clavinet and Hammond. Then we had 15 strings and two French horns. For the last episode, we had 50 strings and four horns to add depth and heaviness, as the story and stakes grew darker.”
Do you have a favorite theme or cue from the score?
“There were several themes, woven into almost every cue. The ‘Hunt and Liddy’ theme is heard in the main titles, and many cues. The ‘family theme’ appears in Epidose 1, when we first meet Dorothy riding a horse, and appears many times, including the last time we see her alive at the end of Episode 4. My favorite cue is probably one called ‘Maintain Radio Silence,’ that appears at the end of Episode 103, after the break-in goes off the rails. It’s got the action and political intrigue at the top, and then just goes crazy with the band, with brass, Wurly solos by the incredible Jeff Babko, and then ridiculous flute soloing by Katisse Buckingham, who famously played the flute solo for Will Ferrell in Anchorman.”
What were some of the tools you relied on to create the score? Are there any new instruments or tools you’ve never used before?
“This was a pretty acoustic score. I played piano, upright, drums, guitar, Rhodes, and Wurly. We had flute, French horns and orchestra. A couple instruments lying around my studio that I used in strange ways was an out-of-tune autoharp that I plucked and put a ton of reverb on it in some of the intense tension scenes, just to make it feel like something was off. I also have a gigantic bass drum, which I played with drumsticks and put through Soundtoys Devil Loc, which just mangled it into something cool in a way I never really did before. Total accident. I also use a bowed guitar called a Guitarviol, acoustically, so it kind of sounds like a viola or cello. I would play that tremolo with a bow and kind of mixed it with the real strings, and it just added an interesting, kind of f’ed up texture that drove my orchestrator crazy, because he couldn’t tell if it was something he had to notate.”
Thanks for the insight Jeff!
“Thanks for the questions. Really love the magazine! You can check out the White House Plumbers score album on iTunes and Spotify.”
Follow Jeff Cardoni online: Twitter: @JeffCardoni; Instagram: @jeff_cardoni; and Facebook: Jeff Cardoni Music.