“Wish” Composer David Metzger on Getting the Stars to Align for His Heartfelt Score
The Walt Disney Company celebrates its 100th anniversary this year and, in honor of the milestone, released a new animated feature, Wish, just before Thanksgiving. Directed by Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn (both of Frozen) and written by Jennifer Lee and Allison More, Wish is set centuries ago in the magical Spanish Mediterranean island kingdom of Rosas. Until heroine Asha (Ariane DeBose) gets her bearings, the island’s magic is held in the hands of only one person, King Magnifico (Chris Pine), a megalomaniac who takes his subjects’ dearest wishes when they turn 18 on the premise of a promise to grant them at some undetermined date in the future. He has little to no intention of bringing most of the Rosas citizenry’s wishes to fruition, of course, but by causing them to forget what matters to them most, he maintains a docile population.
The film is peppered with references to Disney films past. Seventeen-year-old Asha’s gaggle of adolescent pals are reminiscent of the seven dwarfs. As a self-congratulatory villain, Magnifico could have taken his notes on how to rule from Jafar of Aladdin. And throughout the film, the score’s refrain is a new melody that intentionally harkens back to the signature Disney tune from it’s second animated feature, 1940’s Pinocchio, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Wish is the first feature for composer David Metzger, who has had a twenty-five-year career at Disney as an orchestrator and arranger, and among his tasks was to both connect to Disney’s rich history and simultaneously create something brand new. “I think that was important, to nod to what the film is, but it’s its own unique theme,” he says.
Metzger, whose credits include Disenchanted, Frozen, and The Lion King, in addition to composing the score on Wish, worked with songwriters Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice to arrange and orchestrate the animation’s original soundtrack. By the time he had all of six weeks to compose the score, Metzger had already spent seven to eight months working on the songs, as well as planning how to get into them from the score and back out. “I think it helped me a lot, and I hope helped the film have more of a singular voice,” he says.
As far as this marking his composer debut, “it was honestly a dream come true,” Metzger says. “Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity, and on such a happy film. I really think it’s a joyful film, and I’m hoping that it brings happiness to people.” We got to speak with the composer about his favorite songs, historical references, and the process of composing for Wish’s most unusual character.
How did you work to make the music feel fresh but still keep it within the Disney ethos?
As far as trying to make it new and fresh, a lot of the time, that depends on what part of the world we’re dealing with and also what era. In the case of Wish, we were working on an island in the Mediterranean with heavy Spanish influences. I wanted to involve North African elements, as well. Rosas is a community where people come from all over. I used North African percussion, I used darbukas, I used ouds, a string guitar-like instrument. Bringing in the Spanish side of things, I used a lot of nylon-stringed Spanish guitars and cajón, which is a percussion instrument that’s been used in flamenco music quite a bit. It was a matter of trying, in the case of Wish, to establish the identity of where it was taking place.
What about placing us in the time period of Wish?
For the era, one of the instruments I used was an oboe d’amore, which is a Renaissance oboe, so it gives more of a historical feel to it than you might get if you just used a regular oboe. I also used a bass oboe, which is rarely used. As far as trying to tie into making it still sound like a Disney film, for me it’s a lot of orchestra. In particular, being the 100th-anniversary film, I was trying to tie in elements historically, and I did that through orchestration choices and also while composing. There were more notes, historically — it was busier music back in the day. In the modern world, it’s a little more whole notes and not quite as motion-driven. So, I was trying to use that as a tool to bring a cinematic vibe to the picture.
Speaking of back in the day, were you inspired by old Disney films while working?
Asha has her friends, the teens. When I was talking about the music with the directors before we even started writing, we discussed that section where you’re first meeting them, and there was an illusion there to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as each of her friends is characteristic of them. I didn’t use any themes, but I worked on so many Disney projects that I have copies of all these original scores, so before I even started writing, I went back and looked through the Snow White score and the Pinocchio score to see what I could borrow from that era, color-wise. I think if a person is listening closely, you’ll hear orchestration tendencies from 1937 that I tried to weave into the teen characters in particular.
When it comes to the soundtrack, one standout is the teens’ song, “Knowing What I Know Now,” as they make their plans against Magnifico.
One of the cool things about working on the songs was that I got to work with Julia Michaels and Ben Rice, the songwriters. They’re incredible. One of the things I had to work with on that song was that Ben is an amazing drummer. A lot of those percussion ideas are the ideas he’d played in his demo. Then, it was a matter of just expanding on those to bring in more percussionists. You’ll see on screen the characters will be playing candlesticks. It was a fun chance to find percussion instruments that sound like what they’re banging on. Probably the most fun thing for me on that song was the orchestra. I’m not much of a novelty orchestrator, but on that one, I thought, what the heck, I really wanted this big, deep, rounded sound. I normally use basses in my orchestra, but I actually brought in sixteen for that song. I had them split on both sides of the sound stage when we were recording. I also had sixteen cellos, so there’s this huge low end that permeates the whole sound stage. I had twelve French horns, whereas I normally have six. But the coolest, most unique thing we used was a contra-bass saxophone, which is about eight feet tall. It has this giant, low-end sound. You can’t really pick it out of a mix, but if you took it out of the mix, you’d notice something was missing.
Working on a project like this, do you have a personal favorite among the songs at the end of the process?
I think they’re all great songs, but the one I enjoyed the most might be the most oddball selection, and that’s the song that’s in the end credits. It’s called “A Wish Worth Making.” Julia and Ben wrote this beautiful melody with very simple chord changes. I was given that as a very stripped-down demo and was able to do my thing on it, which was figuring out a piano part that drives throughout the whole song. I only had an hour to do the string arrangement, but I kind of feel like it might have been the best string writing I’ve ever done in my career, which sounds weird to say. I just really felt it was one of those things that flowed out, and I had the opportunity to do counter lines in the strings that just seemed to work. Then Ben took another pass and put a lot of modern elements on top. I also really liked the way “At All Costs” turned out.
The Star is such a cute but key element to the film. How was composing for a character like that?
When I was brought onto the film, it was all storyboards. I hadn’t seen any animation for Star. I wondered, how is this going to turn out? As we were working on the songs, they were adding animation, and I realized this was going to turn out really well. At the end of the day, Star ended up being this wonderful animation with a range of facial expressions. Whereas I thought I’d have to do a lot of heavy lifting musically for Star, I ended up being able to sit in the background more than I ever would have dreamed because Star is so animated and, through facial expressions, transmits so much of the story. It’s a playful character, so it was fun to be able to do happy, fun things.
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Featured image: Ariana DeBose as Asha. © 2023 Disney. All Rights Reserved.