Amplifying the story without getting in the way of what is actually happening on the screen – creating underscore for movies and shows is complicated work. Mats Lundgren give us some insight in the work process.
Mats, just recently the TV show Deg (which means dough in Swedish) premiered on SVT, the Swedish national public television broadcaster. You created the underscore to the series. What’s the show about?
Deg is a story about two women, Malou and Liana, played by Helena af Sandeberg and Bianca Kronlöf. Malou is in the upper classes of society but down on her luck and bankrupt. Liana is the girlfriend of a criminal with whom she has a daughter. She is indebted and struggling and because of her boyfriend’s betrayal towards his fellow criminals – he kept a huge loot to himself and dug it down – she is hunted by gangsters who believe that she knows where the money is hidden.
By chance, when out in the forest doing yoga to still her wrecked nerves, Malou discovers the dug down bag containing the stolen fortune and instead of bringing the money to the police she keeps them for herself and opens a bakery to launder them.
Coincidentally Liana, who was just given the coordinates to the hiding place by her boyfriend, only to find an empty hole in the ground, asks for a job in Malou’s newly opened bakery, not knowing that she is right in front of the woman who actually has the money. From these premises a fantastic story of friendship, trust and distrust emerges. Oftentimes it is very comical but at times also gritty, sad and violent.
It’s been quite a challenge but also a huge honour for me to be able to work on a production like this. The story is outstanding and I love how the friendship evolves between the two female lead-characters over the eight episodes. There are also a number of memorable gangsters and other characters that make this show something extra worthwhile, the filmmakers have done a super job casting all parts of the gallery.
Among the show’s creators is Levan Akin (known for And Then We Danced that was Sweden’s contribution to the Oscars in 2019), who co-wrote the show and directed its first two episodes.
In what ways does the underscore contribute to a show or a movie?
There are so many ways that music can function within a movie or a TV-series, the more obvious ones of course for setting a mood or tempo. But I believe that a very important aspect is that the music strengthens the underlying events, and that the music provides the subconscious aspects of the characters. Another important thing that an underscore can give is a sound and sort of a personality to the film or series, something that makes it recognizable. Music is not the only thing that does that of course but when it’s good it can be a big part of that.
The underscore is generally quite subtle, only a few times does it become prominent and fill up the soundscape of the film or movie. This can be different of course depending on which film or series we are talking about but at least that is true for Deg. On the other hand the filmmakers often use synced music (i.e. to use already released music by artists that is purchased to be included within the series) when the music needs to be prominent and when a completely different aspect or mood needs to be displayed. It can be a very efficient to have music of a completely different style to suddenly appear that purposely brings more attention to the soundtrack.
When the underscore works well the viewer takes very little notice of the music, it only helps deepen the course of events and brings the viewer into the story, making it more immersive if you like. Sometimes, for a composer, it can be really difficult because the slightest misstep can bring the viewer out of the story, and all of a sudden it all feels off. It’s really important that you get the meaning of every scene, not just what’s at the surface but also the underlying themes. Otherwise there’s a risk that you start telling a different story than what the filmmakers had in mind. The music is there after all to help bring the story forward, not to tell its own story.
For the Deg soundtrack Levan was very keen on having the music being very tied to the events and the picture. So one tricky task for me was to find the right amount of music needed to perfectly fit the picture. To find the spaces where I could take more space and where I really had to stay in the background.
What’s the starting point for you in a project like this?
When I first got to hear about this TV-series I was told that they weren’t going to use any underscore at all and only use synced music. Luckily for me that stance was reversed when they started editing the first episode and realized that there was after all need for an underscore. So I was given a rough cut of a part of the first episode and some references of music that they liked, and I started working on some themes for the show as a whole and also did a first version of underscoring for the rough cut. Some of that music did actually make it to the final version but most of the episode was recut and I had to rework the music a number of times.
So the big task for me at the initial point was to find a musical language that did the work within both the first episode but also for the series as a whole, mood wise and style-wise. There was a request from the filmmakers to have an all-electronic score, so I went and bought a Moog Matriarch that I used a lot, but I also used a lot the Prophet Rev 2 and Roland System 8 that I already had, along with software synths such as Xfer Serum. I am also a heavy user of the NI Kontakt Sampler. But I’d say that the Matriarch had the biggest influence on the soundtrack, that Moog became a dear friend and workhorse during many late hours in the studio.
At the beginning of the project Levan and I had quite a few discussions about how the overall feeling should be, that it is a somewhat serious story that involves criminals and crime, but that it also has a lot of humour and shouldn’t get too serious. So that was something that I had to take into consideration. So to explore those areas I would create something that I thought would work for a scene and make a Quicktime-video of that in Pro Tools. He would respond to that and I would make changes. At the beginning this could go back and forth quite a few times before everyone was happy, but I must say that I’m really happy that he and the other directors were so specific about the end result. They would never just go for anything unless it was perfectly right for each scene. It was really a learning experience for me as well.
Any key areas where you need to put in a lot of work?
The episodes are quite different so some of them were quicker done than other ones. I spent a lot of time nailing the first episode, especially there was one scene that we’d go back to over and over again before Levan was satisfied. That was quite frustrating actually but in the end I think it was for the better of the episode that we had to dig so deep in order to get the best possible version. It also helped me a lot in later episodes because the process really helped me understand what is the musical framework for Deg.
Another aspect of the first episode is also that it is extremely intense, and there are long stretches of music that need to be covered. Lots of events pass by and the setup for the entire season is made in just those 43 minutes, of which I wrote about 20 minutes of underscore.
In later episodes there are other scenes that would take much time, simply because of the length of them. One episode I had to write for a section that lasts almost 10 minutes of non-stop music, which was really challenging but very much fun.
The finale though is a story in itself, because if I had more time for the first episodes than I had expected, the time to finish the last episode was extremely tight. Without giving up any of the story I can say that it is very intense and there is music almost throughout. By that time though I was so familiar with the series that I was able to manage that in just six days, but it was literally non-stop work during that week.
Are there different techniques you use to achieve the effect you want? Certain tricks that are common amongst composers?
There are absolutely a number of things that are undeniably useful for certain situations, for example raising the tempo or the intensity of the music when something dramatic happens and so on. And oftentimes those tricks are the best to use, but sometimes it is more efficient to find other solutions. That can be to e.g. use a disturbing drone that causes unease without being very noticeable, as opposed to something rhythmic and forward moving. You also have to be careful because if the tricks that you use are too obvious or “in your face”, the whole effect may get lost and everything falls flat to the ground. You don’t want to be explicit.
Even though there is quite a lot of music in Deg I often felt that the less music that I had to use, the better it was, so that to the greatest extent the script and the actors could carry the story themselves without unnecessary music mudding the dialogue. My main purpose was to lift and help only where needed and many times there would be long stretches with no music at all. Also the script and cast is so good so I didn’t want to get in the way of it more than necessary. It can be a difficult balancing act, but I think we really found the right formula for Deg.
As a professional, when you go to the movies or watch a show at home, do you pay extra attention to the underscore?
I don’t think I can ever see a series or a movie without paying some extra attention to the music. However, I prefer to just keep my attention on what’s going on story-wise. If the music is very interesting for whatever reason, I either go back and watch it again and listen more carefully, or I look it up on the nearest streaming service and listen to the music specifically. That happens quite often actually.
A couple of movies or shows in which you particularly appreciate the underscore?
There are so many that are good, but one that comes to mind spontaneously is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score for Watchmen that airs on HBO. Extremely cool music for a mind blowing TV-show. Those two have made some really cool cinematic music the past 10 or so years, like Gone Girl, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. They all have very good soundtracks.
I particularly like their ways of really creating music tension with some (for traditional film scores) unusual methods and they are extraordinary at incorporating electronic music in their film scores.
Another two series soundtracks I really like are the ones for Mare of Easttown (Lele Marchitelli) and Handmaids Tale (Adam Taylor). I loved Mare of Easttown and I think the soundtrack perfectly pictures the rather melancholic world and broken people of the rural Pennsylvania town where the story takes place. And Handmaids Tale for how the music gives the world of Gilead that weight and dystopian feel, it really makes you feel the desperation and urgency of the main characters.