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Emmy-Nominated Composer Nathan Barr on Scoring the Sadness, Romance, and Betrayal of A Very British Scandal, Plus His Wurlitzer

August 8, 2022 01:13 | By
A Very British Scandal

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal/Amazon Prime Video

The story of Argyll v. Argyll wasn’t just a scandal in Britain, it became one of the most brutal legal cases of the 20th century. It sensationalized the highly public divorce between the Duke and Duchess of Argyll, which dominated the news of the day thanks to their alleged extramarital affairs. Written by Sarah Phelps, Amazon Prime Video’s limited series A Very British Scandal finds Paul Bettany and Claire Foy portraying the ill-fated couple, Ian and Margaret Campbell, whose scandalous split included accusations of forgery, theft, violence, drug-taking, secret recordings, bribery, and an explicit Polaroid picture, all of which were brought to light by the unforgiving media of the 1960s.

To underscore this emotional rollercoaster of romance and betrayal, director Ann Sewitsky turned to Emmy-winning composer Nathan Barr, whose TV credits include True Blood, The Americans, Halston, Hemlock Grove, and The Great. He also scored Alan Ball‘s Amazon dramedy Uncle Frank and Eli Roth‘s family film The House With a Clock in Its Walls. Barr won an Emmy for composing the main title theme for Ryan Murphy‘s Netflix series Hollywood, and his work on A Very British Scandal has brought him yet another Emmy nomination.

Below the Line recently spoke with Barr from his studio in Los Angeles, where he was surrounded by instruments that evidenced his boundless versatility. A self-described film buff, he talked about creating poignant emotional sounds that could only come from his prized possession — a Wurlitzer pipe organ responsible for many classic films that doubles as the grand centerpiece of his studio. Barr also discussed being driven to operate his own business for the past 25 years and why he made a conscious decision to transition away from the horror genre and pivot into more melodic scoring. He has done just that with A Very British Scandal, although fans of his genre work should fear not, as he worked on next year’s feature remake of Salem’s Lot as well as FX’s upcoming psychological thriller The Patient, which stars Steve Carell and Domhnall Gleeson.

Nathan Barr

Nathan Barr image via Prime Video

Below the Line: How did you get your start as a composer?

Nathan Barr: I’ve been doing this 25 years and I look a lot younger than you probably think I am [laughs]. I had my first job with Hans Zimmer back in ’97 and worked for him very briefly for eight months. I was his assistant. I was his driver. Then I got an agent and I got outta there. As a 23-year-old kid, I was keen on doing it myself. I didn’t want the help of others. There’s something about the pride of forging my own way and so I’ve never regretted that.

BTL: What would you say was your big break?

Barr: Everyone needs that first project that gives them a stamp of approval in the eyes of the business. I think the first really big break for me was True Blood in 2008 when Alan Ball hired me for that. My phone has never stopped ringing since then, so that was a big change. Up until that point, I was working all the time, but to varying degrees, no one quite knew me yet. I did Cabin Fever for Eli Roth in ’99, a film director I work with a lot, so that was my first break on the film side of things, but it was really True Blood that blew things up for me in a good way.

BTL: Take me through your musical background.

Barr: I was a cellist. I studied cello and guitar growing up. Guitar was kind of my rebellion against cello, although I also love cello. I have a really special cello teacher who changed my life [and] the way I think about classical music. That was my path as a musician. Then I came out to L.A. in ’96, met Hans in ’97, and then launched after that.

A Very British Scandal

Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal/Amazon Prime Video

BTL: Would you say you have a large collection of unusual instruments?

Barr: I’ve always been interested in unusual instruments so I have a pretty large collection that I lean into on certain scores. I’ve done a lot of horror films and horror projects so it’s been so nice to reach out and do other stuff like A Very British Scandal and receive some acknowledgment [like his Emmy nomination] for that, which has been exciting. Just to be doing something non-horror that’s very melodic and dramatic is very exciting for me. It’s kind of always been the goal, although I love horror films.

BTL: What are some of the prized instruments that you have collected over the years?

Barr: I bought a very large pipe organ from Fox Studios that occupies six rooms and I built my entire studio around it. You can actually see it if you look me up online under Wurlitzer. Originally, it was called The Mighty Wurlitzer and then The Fox Wurlitzer, and now I put my name in front so it’s called The Barr Fox Wurlitzer. I struggle with self-promotion but I put so much money, effort, love, blood, sweat, and tears into this thing, so I deserve my name on that [laughs].

I’m in this 9,000-square-foot building that was really built around this pipe organ, which was used in The Sound Of Music, Patton, and Star Trek, and it has an incredibly rich history in Hollywood film music. It was at Fox Studios from 1928-1997. I bought it in 2014 and installed it in this building in 2018. That’s sort of the crux of my studio. I’ve used it a lot. Danny Elfman, Teddy Shapiro, and Jeff and Mychael Danna have used it, so it’s right back in film music where it’s been meant to be, which is very exciting.

BTL: Would you say that it’s priceless?

Barr: I can tell you that people would see the price tag and go, ‘oh, that’s kind of reasonable,’ but what they don’t take into account is the cost of restoring it is way beyond the price of buying it. Whatever the cost of the organ was, it was many times that in restoration Then actually building a proper space for it is an enormous undertaking from a standpoint of engineering, aesthetically and financially. Pipe organs are a very complex and very expensive thing to endeavor to install properly. For me, it was more about this very special, forgotten piece of Hollywood film music history. All the great composers back in the golden age like Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Dimitri Tiomkin, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Williams all used it throughout its time at Fox, so it’s got this incredible pedigree that I hope to continue with myself and others.

A Very British Scandal

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal/Amazon Prime Video

BTL: Do you consider yourself a film buff?

Barr: I’m a huge film buff. I tell younger composers that if you want to get into film or TV music for the music, that’s not quite wholly the reason to be doing it. You’ve got to love film and TV and storytelling because the music we write is there to serve [the] story. The direction the music takes and all the decision-making around how you compose it is absolutely subservient to [the] picture and story. There’s a lot of craft in the way that we sculpt music to picture.

BTL: How did you begin to write the music that serves the story in A Very British Scandal?

Barr: I became involved with the project through the director, Ann Sewitsky. I spoke to her and we connected creatively. My first pass on themes was pretty straightforward — traditional with classical piano, and strings. While she liked thematically what was happening, she wanted to have a slightly less traditional approach [by] introducing contemporary synth elements, which you wouldn’t think of for a period piece [that] takes place in the 1960s. I loved that piece of direction and re-approached it with these contemporary sounds in mind and she thought that was exactly the way to go.

BTL: What instruments did you use to create that sound?

Barr: One of the main instruments is the portamento violin, where you’re sliding between notes. The melody is very simple but when you’re sliding between notes the way that theme does, it somehow plugs into Margaret (Claire Foy), the Duchess and both she and Ian (Paul Bettany), the Duke seemed like they were pretty damaged people, to put it mildly. I did Uncle Frank with Paul for Alan Ball a few years ago and he’s such a wonderful actor and so is Claire Foy in this. The music was plugging into what was underneath all the snarky, conniving evil they perpetrated on each other. At the center of that was this deep sadness. She tried to kill herself by throwing herself down an elevator shaft. He probably didn’t have much of a family growing up and struggles with addiction, so the score was about plugging into what we see but don’t talk about as much. Ian’s theme is played on piano and it’s very fragile because he is, at the end of the day, very fragile, as is she. There’s an undercurrent of sadness in the score. Those emotional components were approached with cello, violin, and piano. We may have used the pipe organ for some of the base notes. It employs these pipes that are 16 feet long and they have this amazingly massive sound that just rumbles the speakers in a really cool way.

A Very British Scandal

Paul Bettany in A Very British Scandal/Amazon Prime Video

BTL: There was a lot of sadness, but also romance between them. How was that illustrated through music?

Barr: There’s a scene where they’re out on the boat together and things are going well. You really only get a little bit of romance in the first of the three episodes and then it’s just a giant downhill slide. That was a cue with a little bit of brightness that I struggled with and [it] went through multiple versions because I think the producers and the network wanted to give them something to hang their hat on as far as romance in the beginning, before it slid down. My first approach was what was to become, which was not good, so it became a little bit more romantic and happy.

BTL: You began in horror so I’m sure you are very familiar with suspenseful music cues that foreshadow that something bad is going to happen.

Barr: In the case of this show, there’s a lot of emotional suspense so it’s not the same as horror suspense. It’s watching each of them tee up the next horrible thing they’re gonna do to the other and then we wait to see how much that sinks the other person. As it turns out, it’s very dire, [as] Margaret is publicly shamed for her sexuality and she’s the devil. It’s a story very much rooted in a different time that, thankfully, is changing today.

BTL: Can you explain the decision behind adding vocals to two of the cues?

Barr: It’s a wonderful co-composer named Lisbeth Scott and we just finished scoring Salem’s Lot for Warner Brothers. She wrote some additional music for this and lent her vocals to it. Our protagonist is a female character so it made sense to have a female vocalist, [as] just sort of feathering in that wispiness here and there was another way to plug into Margaret’s character as well.

A Very British Scandal

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal/Amazon Prime Video

BTL: Do you have a go-to signature sound that you find gets you the job?

Barr: I think more and more [that a] strong melody is important to me so I think that’s one of the reasons people hire me. And then leaning into these more obscure instruments is also a reason that I get hired. And I think plugging into the emotional core of a story with the music is something I try to do, and what I [often] get hired for. I never wanted to be a composer who made a living sounding like other composers. It was always really important to me to have a unique identity. I think I have that after 20-something years. I would rather be hired less because I have a really different sound than let’s say, “hey this person can sound a lot like John Williams.”

BTL: Right. They should be looking for composers who sound like Nathan Barr.

Barr: It’s funny, I have heard some scores to some pretty major projects recently where I’m like, ‘Oh wow, that really sounds like me!’ [laughs]

BTL: And before I let you go, where does your inspiration come from these days?

Barr: I’m at a place in my career [where] when I watch something, there’s so much to be inspired by. Earlier in my career, not so much; it was the paycheck. In this case, there was so much to be inspired by, just the cinematography and the performances. This show is so exquisite and my job was to support it, and that’s where you want to arrive as a composer.

A Very British Scandal is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.