Game of Thrones Music Editor David Klotz Makes Melody of Mayhem
On the surface, it may seem like Game of Thrones, Glee and American Horror Story have little in common. The first is a mythological drama about feuding families lusting for power. The second is a musical comedy focused on the daily activities of a high school singing group, and the third is an anthological horror series.
One asset they do all have in common though is David Klotz, a two-time Emmy-winning music editor whose indelible influence has been featured on all three programs. Klotz has served as a music editor on each of these long-running shows and previously served as a music editor on the beloved shows Firefly, Prison Break and Entourage.
After graduating from Emerson College in 1994, Klotz got his first big break in Hollywood serving as a music assistant on the Oscar-winning film Dead Man Walking. Last year, he was honored at the college as one of the school’s most distinguished alums, but that’s not the only award he’s received for his work. Klotz has also won Primetime Emmy Awards for his work on Game of Thrones and American Horror Story.
In preparation for this Sunday’s fifth season premiere of Game of Thrones, I recently talked to Klotz about his work on the HBO drama, the significance of the show’s music and how one song set the stage for one of the show’s most shocking moments. Below is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
How did you set the tone for what the music's going to be like for the series?
When we [Plotz and composer Ramin Djawadi] sat down with the producers the first time, we talked about the kind of things they did like: the kind of sounds, the kind of instruments. For instance, a piano isn't something that really sounds like an instrument that felt like part of that world. Certain kinds of strings, the cello and, the violin — those seemed to lend themselves to the world of Game of Thrones more.
What’s the next step from there?
We talk a lot about the themes that are needed. In season one, we needed help differentiating the storylines and the locations and then that quickly morphed into the themes— having themes for each character or each family. There's a Stark theme, a Lannister theme, etcetera. As the show progresses, things evolve and some of the themes branch off and we’ll have a darker version of the Lannister theme, when the family takes over.
Do you prepare the music before an episode has been filmed or after?
What happens is we only become involved when they're done shooting and the shows are nearly edited together. For the first episode of this season, I think back in December, we sat down and had a spotting session. A spotting session is where we all sit down: the composer, the producers, myself and the music editor and the music supervisor. We sit down and watch the show from beginning to end and then we decide where the music's going to go. We decide where the music's going to start and stop and then also any kind of creative notes that the producers may have for those scenes, like ‘This scene needs a little help with this kind of emotion’ or creative notes for Ramin to go by when he's writing the score.
Then I'll create a set of spotting notes which everybody has access to— the composer, the producers— and that's kind of our blueprint that we all go by for the music for the show, so we all know where we stand. As Ramin goes forward, he uses that to write the score, and then if there's ever any question, we always go back to look at the spotting notes. Usually, it's a couple weeks. Maybe 2 or 3 or 4 weeks depending on how far ahead of schedule we are. And then we'll sit down and then Ramin will play back the cues that he's created and the producers will watch with the music against the picture and then they'll give us more notes if they need to see a change or if it's not doing something it needs to do, and then when it's done and it's approved, Ramin will create stems for me.
What's a stem?
It's an audio file that I tape to the mix when we mix the music. So Ramin will write a score cue, but then he'll print the stems— so the strings and the brass, low percussion, high percussion and also the solo instruments like the solo cello he records. Everything is separated, so I have a massive amount of tracks, or stems, for each cue that I take and I put into pro tools. As I mix, the other teams— the dialogue editors and the sound designers— they're all bringing in the dialogue and the sound effects and the backgrounds. That's when we all mix it together.
What's the most difficult part of the entire process?
For me, the most difficult part is after Ramin scores the queue and gives me the stems, they're still changing the picture, so when we're mixing the show, we're getting picture updates because the visual effects aren't finished, so sometimes the score will be done but the scene might change. So I have to keep conforming all of the music so that it plays in the right place in the picture, and sometimes it's difficult because they'll take out a chunk of time and that will sometimes mess up the queue in a way that it needs some finessing and work to make it still sound musical and still play in its right place on the timeline.
When you originally see an episode with the producers, how different is it from the final product that we as an audience see?
Sometimes we see a really early cut where we do see a lot of green screen, especially with the visual effects. Instead of Dany petting her dragons, she's petting a green tennis ball or something. It's jarring, but it's cool cause you see it all come together in the end.
Now that the show is going into its fifth season, you know what some of the settings and backgrounds look like, but in the beginning you were only imagining what the different worlds looked like.
Honestly, the special effects aren't as tricky because when you're writing music, the score is more about underscoring the emotional moments of the scene, and you still get that with the visual effects not being done. You still get the intent of the scene. The hard part for us, especially for Ramin, is not knowing where the show is going. He had to create music that was going to follow these characters on journeys and different arcs that we didn't know how they were going to end up.
One of the show's most famous scenes is the Red Wedding and music plays a huge part in that. Did you receive specific instructions about that scene because music is so integral in foreshadowing what's about to happen?
There's a moment when there's an on-camera band playing in that scene, and there's a moment when they start playing the Lannister theme. That melody is built into a scene that we use for the Lannisters. In a way, it was kind of a turn in the scene, as it foreshadowed the moment. They locked the doors. The band's playing the Rains of Castamere and it's like, ‘Uh, oh. What's happening?’ so that was planned from early on.
Another thing that's interesting is there was a lot of score throughout that whole sequence with the red wedding and also with Arya arriving. It was a very big score for that scene and it was such an intense emotional ending that we felt like we had to not have any music playing over the end credits. We decided right away that it would go silent. Even when we were trying things later on — like maybe we should do a solo cello kind of thing —it just really felt wrong. You kind of have to let people breath and chill without any sound after that scene.
Are there any scenes that you're particularly proud of over the course of the show?
I think the Blackwater battle from season two was awesome. A lot of work went into that. I worked with Ramin a lot trying to figure out the spotting. It was just one giant musical action piece but we had to find out where we were gonna weave in and out to help tell the story a little more with some peaks and valleys in the music, but on top of that, when Stannis's army arrives on boats, they have their drummers playing war drums from their boats. That's supposed to be happening the whole time they're attacking. With the drums and with the score and then with the incredible sound, it was a task to try to weave that all together and make it work.
There were so many different perspective shots, and we always wanted to hear the drums, but we wanted them to sound like they were coming from different distances and also have them sound like they were reflecting off the water. I worked a lot with a music mixer on the stage to make them sound pretty cool and that was a fun, great, intense scene to work on. [Editor’s Note: The Blackwater episode was the submitted Game of Thrones episode that won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Series in 2012.]
Is there a particular scene or episodes that you're really looking forward to seeing this season on Game of Thrones with the music?
Yes. That's all I can say…it's gonna be an awesome season. People who love this show are gonna love it more. It's so cool.