Music: Scoring <i>Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children</i>
Issue: October 1, 2016

Music: Scoring Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Composers Matthew Margeson and Michael Higham recently collaborated to create the score for Tim Burton’s new film, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. Based on the novel by Ransom Riggs, the 20th Century Fox film looks at a magical place where children have special powers. 

The film opened in theaters on September 30th and came in at number one at the box office that weekend, bringing in $28.5M. Here, Margeson talks about his collaboration with score co-writer Higham, and how they met the demands of this veteran director.

You have worked on many different films. How did you get connected with this particular project?

Miss Peregine, the score for that was a ‘co-write.’ I wrote it with a colleague of mine — Michael Higham — who's British and lives over in London. He met with Tim in London. Mike and I have worked on a couple films before in a bunch of different capacities. Because of some scheduling shenanigans, there was this conversation coming up of meeting someone to help out with the music for Miss Peregrine. 

“Tim's worked with Michael Higham before as a music supervisor on a couple of different films. When it came time to start thinking about music for Miss Peregrine, Mike invited me to meet Tim and talk about the music. Mike, being a composer, had some really great contributions, and so it made sense for Mike and I to do it together as a collaboration. That's kind of how I was brought in. It was an introduction [by] Mike and it turned out to be a really nice, healthy collaboration with all of us.”

Did you and Michael Higham break it up in a certain manner, where you had certain themes, or were you working collaboratively on each of the cues?

“Yes, to do the physical work, I was doing this cue and he was doing that cue. I moved over to London for the post production of the project. We each had studios probably about a five- to seven-minute-walk from each other in London. It was really nice and every day — three to four times a day — he'd come over to my place and see what I was working on. It was an ongoing conversation about what the music was doing and different ways to approach different scenes. 

“We both did really collaborate on every cue in a theoretical sense as far as the ideas bouncing off each other, but some of the cues he took to do the actual physical work and some of them I took. And the way we broke that up was pretty random. We tackled the whole score linearly, meaning we started at the beginning of the movie and worked through it, and did a couple of passes, always going back and re-checking ourselves. Or we'd come up with a new musical idea for the film and you'd want to interject that in the beginning or something.”

Are you getting inspiration from the script, or do you have a picture to work at that point in time? 

“By the time I moved over to London they had finished shooting. It wasn't the absolute finished film that you'd see in theaters, but they had an assembly of scenes, so we did have visuals to work with.”

How many cues did this film require? Is it wall-to-wall music, or more selectively used? 

“There is a lot of score in this. Off the top of my head, I don't know a full minute count, but it was probably a good 100- to 110-minute score, so there is quite a bit of music in it. The number 65 is ringing a bell, and that would allude to the fact that there are 65 music starts in it. That number sometimes gets chopped down because sometime cues can get combined or scenes can get cut. It is probably somewhere between 50 and 60 starts.”

What is the typical length of a music cue for this film?

“When spotting the film, I am always a big fan of shying away from the very, very short cues. Unless it's a genre film, say a horror film. The longer the better, where you can take your time to tell the story musically. In Peregrine, I'd say there's everything from :30 to eight-minute-long cues. On average, most of them are between one and three minutes. But you know, there's the odd cue that's seven-and-a-half. Or the odd something to get you from one point to the other that only lasts :25.”

In a case like this are you writing for Tim Burton — trying to fit that style — or are you trying to fit music into the film based on the imagery?

“Mike put it really well when he said, ‘Tim gave is a really long leash, and kind of steered the ship when he really needed to.’ We were all very conscious that this was a tiny bit of a departure for Tim — not just music, but there was a whole lot of personnel that was new to him, and it was a bit of a page turn I think. I think we were very conscious of not trying to sound like what we think of when we think of ‘Tim Burton.’ You have the visuals that you also have to respect. There is an element of fantastical music writing in it, but we tried to do our own thing with Tim's guidance when he needed to get involved.”

Can you talk about your setup?

“I have a studio in Los Angeles and when I moved over to London, [I brought] a number of keyboards, rack-mounted gear, computer screens and speakers. We basically built a stripped-down version of [the LA studio] with the stuff that we absolutely needed, and then we shipped that and rebuilt it there.”

What are your primary tools?

“Cubase is my main sequencer, and then most of the stuff — the software synths and sample libraries — you can get online. I am running (Native Instruments’) Kontakt for my primary sampler. I do use quite a bit of (Avid) Pro Tools for editing and for recording. I don't really use Logic. I used to be a Logic user, but I haven't used that in years. Other than that, most of the stuff that's on the market we'll get and try out. Whether or not it sticks is up to the music forces.”

How tight was the deadline?

“This was one of the projects that I actually worked the longest on. I was supposed to be on it for only four months, which I would say, is probably on the average side — maybe a little above average. Because of some reshoots and some release date behavior, I was over in London for an additional four months, so it was actually a luxury, time-wise. At no point were we going eight 24-hour days in a row to get it done. We had ample amount of time and resources to get it done.”