Dominic Lewis has left his fingerprints on several blockbuster scores in the last few years, having composed additional music for action romps such as X-Men: First Class, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Kingsman: The Secret Service, not to mention fun animations like Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Wreck-It Ralph, and Big Hero 6. He is also a performer whose vocals rip through scores like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the highly anticipated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Armed with his voice, his cello, and his creativity, he has been breaking through with his own scores for films like Free Birds, MI-5 (originally titled Spooks: The Greater Good), and TV series The Man in the High Castle with frequent collaborator Henry Jackman, which has very recently been renewed for a second season to air in 2016.
You’ve had a career journey that has involved constantly being in brilliant company, beginning with your musical parents, hanging out with Rupert Gregson-Williams as a teenager, and then being part of the Remote Control family, with John Powell, Henry Jackman, Ramin Djawadi, and Hans Zimmer. The excellence of your music clearly speaks for itself and for the empowering effect this journey must have had on you. How do you reflect on how it has shaped you?
I pinch myself regularly! I’ve been extremely lucky getting to where I am today. The guys you just mentioned have been so integral in structuring my career. There should never be a point where you feel you’ve reached a peak as a composer. There’s always so much to learn and to absorb and being around talents like the above can only help shape you into a better composer.
You’ve composed additional music for many of the high profile films scored by Henry Jackman in the last few years, such as X-Men: First Class, Wreck-It Ralph, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and now you have both co-composed the score for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Have you always had a particular way of collaborating together on music, or is it more the case that your individual efforts mesh well together for each project?
No, we work well together. Right from the start, Henry has involved me in his idea process, and I like to think I’ve been a good sounding board for his movies. We come from similar musical backgrounds, so coming up with ideas and working together has always been very natural.
The Man in the High Castle, based on the eponymous novel by Phillip K. Dick, depicts an alternate history in which the Nazis win World War 2, and the world that follows. What does the score to that world sound like? What can you tell us about your process of working on it?
The songs that were chosen I feel have more of an impact on how we shaped this new world. The score took more of a character enhancement role. I used Western orchestral instruments as the tent poles for the score, and from there, tried to bend reality with more unsettling atmospheric sounds built from an organic source.
One of your earlier projects as lead composer, Free Birds, was a time-travelling film. Does working on a period piece like The Man in the High Castle (albeit an alternate period) kind of feel like time-travelling, musically? Or is the experience entirely different?
It was a very different experience. Free Birds was a wacky comic roller coaster, where The Man in the High Castle deals with some pretty disturbing issues. I think one’s head is in such a different place that you can’t help but produce vastly different sounding music. Free Birds was predominantly an orchestral score, whereas for High Castle, although Western orchestral instruments are used, the score is tilted with unsettling atmospheric textures pushing the traditional boundaries ever so slightly.
The pilot for The Man in the High Castle was aired back in January 2015, before being picked up for the whole season. How early were you brought on to the project?
We began work on the pilot back in the November before, around Thanksgiving actually, so I escaped for a quick meal with the family. Thankfully, it was very different to the one that happens in episode 6!
What’s it like to have been nominated for the Discovery of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards for Spooks: The Greater Good (re-titled MI-5), especially alongside so many strong nominees?
It’s always a shock to me to be nominated for things. It’s really lovely and makes you feel appreciated, especially against such a strong field. I love all of the scores I was up against, and at no point thought I would win, so it’s nice to be thought of.
Your credits include featuring on scores as a vocalist. In fact, I think I remember you singing My Enemy in the premiere concert for The Amazing Spider Man 2 with Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and the rest of the Magnificent Six. You’ve also grown up playing the cello, and we’ve no doubt heard you bow a few strokes on your scores. Has your “performer” side come into play in unexpected ways in your career as a composer? And vice versa?
It plays a really big role. I played a lot of cello on High Castle and also on Spooks:The Greater Good. I think for me, if I write the cello parts, I’m OK, and they end up sounding pretty good. I’m always uncomfortable playing other people’s music, as it’s been such a long time since I was involved in that side of the business. Singing, on the other hand, is different. For some reason, I always feel more confident. I’ve done a lot of stuff for Hans and Henry, and managed to warble a little on High Castle too. In terms of helping writing, it always helps to know an instrument to figure out what’s possible and what isn’t, as well as what sounds good and where. I guess my performing side of life has helped me have amazing experiences with Hans. Playing at the Amazing Spider Man 2 premiere, the Hollywood Bowl with Dave Stewart, and jamming with Hans and Johnny Marr on the Freeheld score. I’m very thankful for his support and the opportunities he continues to give me.
Let’s play “what’s in your studio”. What are your favourite tools to work with?
Well, on this score (High Castle), my cello has played a large role in creating sounds, melodic lines, and atmospheric pads, but if I had to choose a general favourite, I think it would have to be my JUNO106. It’s my go-to for anything synth based.
The life of a composer, especially a composer with a family, is not an easy one. How do you go about balancing it?
In the last 6 months, I’m not sure I did balance it really. I know that if you ask my wife, she would say definitely not! Having a newborn baby and multiple projects has been really hard, but I think this early on in one’s career, it’s about getting through it. It’s never a bad idea to plan how you can balance these things, but more often than not, something will throw that up in the air and you’ll have to improvise. So I guess the answer is that I don’t know! I have an amazing supportive wife who deals with the crazy hours, so its important to give my family all the time when I’m not busy, and that way, the rough times are ever so slightly less of a smack in the head.
Any words of wisdom to part with?
I think wisdom is giving me too much credit! If you’re referring to words about this world of composing, then you have to want it more than anything else. There’s so much rejection, long hours, and crises of confidence, not knowing what’s right. It has to be #1 on your list. The good times are the best, euphoric even, but trust me: it is definitely a job at times. It’s the best job in the world, but it’s not easy. Having said that, as John Powell said to me once, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…the trick is not to die.”
The Man in the High Castle, featuring Dominic’s score with Henry Jackman, can be streamed on Amazon.
Many thanks to Ashley Moore from Krakower Poling PR for her role in making this interview happen.