Two television series and a film scored by Frans Bak are about to premiere in the US, and the Danish composer chatted with me about these and others of his projects.
Here’s one reason not to sleep until noon on a Sunday: an interview with Frans Bak, the award-winning composer from Denmark, who has scored three Oscar®-nominated short films and several Emmy®-nominated TV series.
Frans is lovely, and he was ever so gracious during my lame attempt at a bit of Danish (Tak, Frans!) learned from watching my fair share of shows from Denmark.
He’s also excited, as three of his scores come to life in the US when their TV shows and film make their stateside debuts this month.
Doctor Foster‘s storyline, about a GP who suspects her husband of having an affair, is riveting; the acting by series leads Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel as Gemma and Simon Foster, as well as the supporting cast, are superb; and Bak’s score expands both the narrative and the emotional impact experienced when watching the increasingly-tense drama unfold on screen. Have a listen:
So how did Frans, known for scoring Nordic noir crime thrillers, including One Step Behind (Steget efter), one of the early Wallander films starring Rolf Lassgård, and the original Danish version of Those Who Kill (Den som dræber), plus the first season of the Scandi-American crime dramedy Lilyhammer, come to work on the British Doctor Foster?
“I don’t know, actually, why they called me… I never asked.
“I think [the producers] have probably seen some of The Killing, I mean the Danish version of The Killing, we call it Forbrydelsen… I scored the Danish one and the American one. The Danish one was very popular in England, and all over Europe it’s very, very popular. So I could imagine they have seen that and thought, ‘We need some thriller elements to tell this story.'”
“They called me, and I read the script and I liked the script, and I went to talk with them… I really liked the script, to be honest… Mike Bartlett did that. It’s very, very good.
“They weren’t sure if this is a thriller or a drama… It’s like a new genre in some ways, so we could go many ways with the music. It was very interesting. So I went to London and put up my studio there, and worked in London for a couple of days. I talked with the editor and tried different things. And I went on to the set and saw some shoots.
“It was very, very early [during production], so we tried a lot of different things. And while I was trying things with the music, the show found its way, also. Where the focus was on the show changed a bit while we were working, and the focus changed in the music. It was a long, but I think very, very good process that we had… It became a bit eerie, a lot of the music… I really enjoyed working on it.
“I don’t quite remember [how long it took]. Maybe half a year or something like that, but that was because I started early and tried some things, and then I worked on other things, then I came back. You know, it’s very good to start early and give the editor something they can put in while they edit, so I actually saw the first version of the editor’s first episode, and it was all of my music. So I started that early. I like working like that… but I didn’t work full time at all.
“I was doing some themes and I gave them to the editor, and he tried them and I got some feedback, and I tried something else… We didn’t know exactly what kind of music we wanted, so we had to spend some time trying a lot of different things.
“Reading the script gives you a sense of where you want to go with the music. And, of course, you had to follow Gemma’s moods, so it had to be thriller-like. Gemma almost goes crazy, so we had to follow her and the fields she’s out in, so the music has to reflect that, of course… We had to follow Gemma’s journey all the way.”
Then Frans brought up the closing scenes in Episode 1, the details of which I won’t get into here to prevent spoilers. But you should know that what Gemma does and doesn’t do helped him determine which way to go with the music.
“That was the thing we talked a lot about… What should the music play? … Should the music play that she’s actually capable of doing that or she’s not capable of doing that, so when we worked from that, it was always ‘Where is she?’ and ‘What is she capable of doing?’ ‘Which feeling should I support?’ … We had a lot of discussions about that. So the music is very helpful in telling the viewer what might happen.”
Regarding the “we” whom Bak spoke with…
“In the beginning it was with the director, Tom Vaughan, and Tom Hemmings, who was the editor. He was the first guy I talked with in the beginning, and he had a lot of ideas of where Gemma’s thoughts were… And then came another director called Bruce Goodison, who did Episodes 4 and 5, and then the producers of [production company] Drama Republic. I talked with them all the way through… We kept on really working on that to get it totally right.”
With his home base in Denmark and the production of Doctor Foster in the UK, Bak took his composing on the road.
“I brought my studio to London, but it’s a portable studio. I have the big studio at home, of course, but I have a portable studio where I can do the same things. So I brought this studio to London and set it in another room, next to the editor, so we could talk and try different things. I’m there a couple of days and try some things, and then I go back to Denmark… So I don’t stay in London all the time at all. I’ll just be there a couple of days and then go back a couple of days later.
“I score on the computer, because, you know, you can have the picture and you can put the music in sync, so you can try different things… And when we have to record, we write the music out and then we [go to a recording studio to] record with the strings. There is a lot of strings work in this show. Live strings… with a string orchestra.”
Just so you know, Frans’ portable studio consists of a Mac computer, an iPad that he uses as an extra screen, a dongle for all of the programs he uses, and hard drives. Once in the city where he’ll be working, he purchases or rents a MIDI keyboard and speakers.
Here’s a photo of Frans in his home studio in Denmark:
Then Frans and I talked turkey about his work on Men & Chicken — the Danish dramedy starring Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Follow the Money), Søren Malling (The Killing), Nicolas Bro (The Bridge III), and David Dencik (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) — which had its North American premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival and opens on 22 April 2016 in the US.
“When I work in other countries, it’s always the thriller element, because they’ve probably seen The Killing, so I always get asked for those jobs. But in Denmark I do a lot of crazy things… I was working on an animation film for a company, the same company that did Men & Chicken, [when] they asked Jeppe Kaas, who’s also a composer, if he could do some music for [Men & Chicken]. He made some themes they actually liked, but he was busy with other things, so he couldn’t do the movie. And then they asked me if I could do it while I was actually working on the other one for them.
“They were in a terrible jam now, and they asked would I start all over or would I work with Jeppe’s themes. And then I heard his themes and I liked them, and I noticed they liked them, and so I said, ‘Why not?’ So, actually, I worked on some of Jeppe’s themes and then, of course, I made my own themes and made Jeppe’s themes to be my music. So it’s me and Jeppe Kaas who are credited as composers.
“That was very interesting for me… Every project I work on has a different way of approach. I mean, you cannot do the same thing. Every project is different and I like, actually, the challenge. Sometimes you can get challenged if we want to use these kinds of instrument. It’s always fun to do something you haven’t done before, I think. I have never, ever tried to take over for another composer and I never thought it would be good to do, but actually it was a challenge and I loved doing it. And he’s got some harmonics, some chords, that I wouldn’t use, and I thought, ‘Okay, now we have this.’ So I took over his ideas, and some of the other themes I made were also different than what I used to do, so Men & Chicken is a bit different from what I used to do, but that was a great challenge and I’m very happy with the result.
The third of Bak’s scores that will be heard in the US soon is for the French TV series, Disparue (The Disappearance), which will screen at the COLCOA French Film Festival in Los Angeles on Tuesday, 19 April 2016.
“[Disparue is] a very, very good show. I also made a soundtrack for that… It’s a French series where a girl gets killed in Lyon, and her parents and the police, everybody’s trying to figure out what’s happening. And then we get to know all these people and see how they react, and we find the killer at last… It was very popular in France… So I’m happy I have three openings in April.”
Frans might be jetting off to France again for a new project that would reunite him with director Charlotte Brändström, with whom he worked on Disparue and the French TV movie Bleu Catacombes. What is definite and near and dear to Frans’ heart is his new project: “Sound of North.”
“I started a new project I call ‘Sound of North’ … I have recorded some of my film themes and written a lot of new music, and then I played some concerts with that, and I just recorded an album. It’s going to be released on a label called Mercury Classics. That’s a big thing for me.
“I’m going to play a concert with that, with some videos and light design, in April, I think on the 29th of April. So I think in the future I will play more concerts while I still, of course, work as a composer. But I want to explore the ‘Sound of North’ doing different recordings and concerts, as well as working as a composer in films… I have a string quartet and I have a lot of soundscapes and a Swedish singer, and then me on the grand piano.
“[The concert is] in Aarhus. They have a festival called SPOT Festival, and they’re going to feature this concert, and I’m very, very excited about that.”
Best wishes to Frans Bak on his upcoming concert, and many thanks to him for taking time to chat with me.