“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” Composer Daniel Pemberton Reveals a Few Score Secrets
Daniel Pemberton knows how to create energy. The composer, who’s frequently worked with filmmakers Aaron Sorkin, Danny Boyle, and Guy Ritchie, is a musician with an ear for the eclectic and electric. For proof, look and listen no further than his lush score for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.
Pemberton scores different universes, Spider-Men and Spider-Women—and everything Spider-Inbetween. The thematic throughline is capturing the journey of Miles Morales’ (voiced by Shameik Moore) as he swings across the multiverse. Although the sequel remains as personal as the first film, which Pemberton also scored, it is an even more eye-popping, mind-melting voyage into the wilds of the Spider-Verse.
Pemberton’s score maps Miles’s struggles with destiny as his life, and the lives of those he loves, are put at cross purposes with his fellow Spider-Men’s methods for protecting the universes. “I think what’s great about Spider-Verse is it’s a world where you can allow all your influences into the film,” he says. “There are not a lot of films that will allow that. But Spider-Verse is one of them. I think that’s why it feels like such a crazy score ‘cause it’s basically most of my life’s musical adventures.”
We spoke to Pemberton about a few of his unconventional recording methods, how overwhelming and frightening the sequel was, and why there are musical secrets he will never tell. At least not in an interview.
Since the movie plays as an epic piece of pop art, did you approach the score at all like a pop record? It has that style to it.
I approach every film differently, but deep down, I approach a lot of my film scores from a slightly more pop, rock, and modern viewpoint. Many of these scores are produced more like records than traditional film scores. With Spidey, the world they’re in is so contemporary that you have to reflect that. The sound world needs to be developed in a way that feels special and unique, which can only be achieved through a more modern production approach. If it were done as a traditional orchestral score, it wouldn’t have the same impact. There are other films where a traditional orchestral score works great, but for this one, it had to be approached differently.
You scored the first movie as well. Did you want to develop certain elements or themes in the sequel? How’d you want the score to grow with Miles?
A big thing for me is having themes that pay off in different ways and having sounds that are all connected. Going from the first film to the second film, people might notice a whole bunch of themes from the first film that have been developed, changed, or referenced. Some of them are universal or relate to a character. For example, Miles has a bunch of themes, like his “Destiny” theme, which applies to all Spider-Men. There’s the general Spider-Man theme. There are themes for family and certain characters. There are also sounds and themes representing the Spider-Verse, which were actually introduced in the first film but come back in the second film. So, there’s a lot of connectivity between the characters, the worlds, the universe, the themes, and the concepts. Some connections are obvious, like the distinctive noise whenever Prowler appears, but others are more subtle. Toward the end of the film, we combine Miles’ “Destiny” theme and his Spider-Man theme with a chord structure and baseline that represents the Cannon event.
The score is incredibly dense. When you’re scoring different universes and all these different Spider-People, where do you start?
It’s completely overwhelming and terrifying. Since the first film, I’ve been in a panic state until we finished this new one. You approach it bit by bit. For this film, I spent about two years on what I call low-level research and development, just trying things out. I was working on other films during that time, so whenever I had downtime, I would experiment with sounds and ideas. Some turned out great and made it into the movie, while others were discarded.
How did you ultimately decide on what belonged in the film?
It’s fascinating to note that the opening and ending of the film were one of the first things I wrote for it, based on my initial reaction to the script. I threw them a lot of concepts and goofy ideas during meetings with the directors in LA. The opening track was eventually pulled out and worked perfectly for both the beginning and the ending. We went through countless ideas until we realized we had something special right at the start.
How’d the idea for Gwen and the drum solo come about? It pulls you right into the movie.
As much as I would love to take full credit for that, it was actually Phil Lord, the producer/writer’s idea. Phil was like, “I wanna start it with this big drum solo, and she’s gonna drum, and you just record the drums, and you play along.” And it’s one of these crazy complicated chicken and eggs because I’ll get a scene that is unfinished, like really unfinished. I’ll write something, and then they’ll try to animate roughly, but they’re gonna change it, and everything keeps changing. It’s an unbelievably complicated process.
It was so surprising and satisfying because you assume the movie will open on Miles…
For the drums, Phil wanted to have a different intro because a lot of people wanted to start the movie on Miles, you know, initially. But that start with Gwen, I think, sets you up for the universe just getting bigger. But those drums are great. Played by a fantastic drummer called Mike Smith, who’s played on a ton of my scores. I got a mixer called Sam Okell, who’s fantastic. He just makes them sound brilliant. I just sit and go, “Well done, guys.”
In that early testing phase, were there any ideas that, on paper, you thought wouldn’t work or were ridiculous but ultimately worked?
Oh yeah, the whistle. I basically recorded a bunch of whistles in a graveyard in Peckham, London. There’s a cemetery called Nunhead Cemetery, which is a beautiful, old cemetery. I’m wandering around there, and they’ve got these big mausoleums. One of them had a metal grill so you could stick your head in and make a noise, which I like doing. I was like, “Oh my God, this reverb is insane.” All stone. I recorded a bunch of those and then resampled them and turned them into instruments. They’re all featured in “The Anomaly,” the train chase [sequence] when he talks about an anomaly. The anomaly in the film was often represented by a whistle.
Any other unconventional recording methods you used?
We brought back the record-scratching, which is a really big part of the first film. When Miles tells us what he’s been up to, I wanted to do something that’s like a scratch showcase. Because in the first film, we recorded stuff, sort of put it on vinyl, so to speak, and then we scratched it in to make it feel more unconventional and more a part of Miles’ world. We did that a lot in this film as well. There’s loads of stuff where we’ve scratched the orchestra, recorded the orchestra, mixed it, put it on vinyl, digital vinyl, and then DJ Blakey, this amazing scratch DJ, has been scratching it back in, which we then re-edit and then re-put in the film. It’s unbelievably time-consuming and exhausting, but it sounds cool.
Can you give us an example of when you deploy this method?
In the sequence where we meet Miles, I want to scratch every sound effect that we see on screen. S0, we scratch car crash noises, punches, pens, spray cans, and orchestral stabs. My favorite one is a goose. Remember a goose in the car wash? We got the sound of a goose, and then we scratched the sound of a goose, and it sounds really awesome. You can hear it in the film, but not as clearly as I’d like because there are a million other things going on. On the track “My Name is Miles Morales,” the last third of that is pretty much beats and goose-scratch solos.
The classic goose scratch!
Just like all those other film scores! Not another record-scratched goose solo. I’m so fed up. Trust me, they’re gonna be the Taiko drums and staccato strings of the next decade. Every film is gonna have a scratched goose solo in it.
[Laughs] That’s great. Are there any hidden secrets in this score?
Yeah, there are millions of those. And you know what, I’m not gonna tell people how to do them because I spent effing ages working them out. If I tell everyone else, then they can just do this score instead of me [Laughs]. There is so much crazy under-the-bonnet stuff going on in this score. And I’m not gonna tell everyone how to do it.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is in theaters now. The score is available here.
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Featured image: Spider-Man/Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animations’ SPIDER-MAN™: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE.