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Tuned In Tuesday: Emmy-Nominated Composer Trevor Morris [The Borgias, Vikings and Dracula]

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We don’t know about you, but we appreciate what a great composer can do. Not only does the right score make our favorite movies and TV shows seems more epic, but the sound of the show helps underscore the drama and the nuance of the storytelling. TV Goodness had the opportunity to speak exclusively to composer Trevor Morris about his recent Emmy nomination, his experience on The Borgias, how he gets inspired, and what his dream project would be.

TV GOODNESS: Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for The Borgias.

Trevor Morris: “Thanks so much. I’m really excited about it.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s your fifth nomination, which is such an accomplishment. Is it nice to know your peers appreciate your music or is it enough that audiences appreciate it?

Trevor: “Well, its both obviously. In terms of the actual Emmy nomination, which is what I think is so cool about the Emmys, it is peer group driven. Your peers elect you unlike the Oscars, where it’s more of a group. Everybody from every category votes on everything. The Emmys really is the music guys voting you in so it’s pretty cool that way. I think it makes it even more special for me that fellow composers decided this work was exemplary and worthy of recognition. It’s pretty cool.”

TV GOODNESS: Before I ask more about your TV work, I wanted to ask about the Krakow Film Music Festival. How did you become involved in that?

Trevor: “Last year was my first entry into the live music foray. I did a concert in Cordova, Spain. I got to go down there and I got to conduct live with a huge orchestra and a large choir and I did two suits with pieces from Immortals and The Borgias and The Tudors and other things like that. And it was just this amazing thing to see film and television music performed live by me and a bunch of other composers as well. And I just got hooked on it. I was like,  ‘Man, this is an amazing thing’ and the fans loved it and it was just an amazingly positive, celebratory energy. And then I started asking my PR guys what else is out there. I knew there were a couple [festivals] out there in the world and they just started to make connections on my behalf. I said, ‘I just want to go someplace where film music is revered and celebrated and I get a chance to be part of that concert venue thing,’ and that’s where Krakow came from.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get involved in the business and how did you know this is what you wanted to do?

Trevor: “I’ve been involved with music since before I can remember. My grandmother told me before I even knew how to, I was crawling up on a piano bench. It had a gravity for me. But in my 20s – I was living in Toronto at the time – I was writing jingles, television and radio commercials. I kind of realized I wanted longer than 30 seconds to say what I had to say compositionally and [that] led to the desire for TV and film. At that time for me in that particular station in my life, I had a hard time breaking into the film and TV business in Toronto. It’s not as big an industry as it is in LA anyway, and there were certain guys who were very established. At the time there was no room for another voice, at least I couldn’t successfully navigate that. So I just decided to go where the work was. Should I go to London, England? Should I go to Vancouver? Should I go to New York City? And really at the end of the day Los Angeles is , it’s Hollywood, that’s where they make movies. So I was just about to turn 30 and I moved down to LA to just pursue my dreams. I didn’t really have a plan other than I knew I wanted to be here and give it a shot.”

TV GOODNESS: In terms of the work you’ve done for cable, pay-TV, and broadcast television do you have a favorite and why?

Trevor: “Between the network formats?”

TV GOODNESS:  Yes.

Trevor: “I would probably lean toward cable because for the most part, there’s no commercials ’cause their model is different. They don’t really base around advertising the way NBC does, although I love working on those shows too. But there’s something about an uninterrupted run of like 50 minutes of program that sort of feels more like a movie to me so I do enjoy that. With The Borgias it’s just one big straight shot. I mean you’re immersed in that world. You never get to break reality to go to a television commercial ever, so I really enjoy that format in terms of the logistics of it. Story-wise I like all the things I’ve worked on but I would probably say I prefer the cable format.”

TV GOODNESS: How do you get inspired for each of your projects? In particular I’m thinking Vikings versus The Borgias and even Dracula, which you have coming up.

Trevor: “Yeah, well you know it’s funny you ask. I’ve been really lucky in the sense that I’ve been given a lot of shows where they say to me, ‘We want something really unique, something different. We want something that kind of belongs to us.’ And not everybody asks the composer this. So for me part of the challenge and part of the joy of what I do is to sit down and go, ‘Ok. The Viking world. What does that mean to me? What do the clients want it to sound like? Do we want it to be not traditional sounding and do we want to modernize it’ and these sort of requests are so much fun for me. I go into this heavy R&D mode for a while where I experiment, find out what doesn’t work, what works, and what I have a vision of it to be. Sometimes it clicks easily, sometimes it doesn’t. Vikings was tough for everybody. It was a real process of getting it right. It was not a home-run the first time because we were trying to discover what it should be.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you ever get stuck and what helps you pull through composer’s block?

Trevor: “I don’t really have composer’s block anymore. I did when I was younger in my career. But now if I’ve gotten better at anything as my career has developed its listening to what the story has to tell me, listening to what’s on-screen and what is going on. The more I dial in to the story the less excuse you have to be stuck for something to write. Because really it’s the beauty of film and television music – from a craft standpoint it’s right in front of you and you’ve got something to draw from. In every scene there’s an actor’s performance, or there’s a feel, or a color or a style of editing. There’s always something to grab onto so I think it’s kind of a little bit of a lazy excuse to go, ‘Ah. I don’t know what to do here.’ I mean, I think that it’s a less experienced composer’s problem. I certainly had it when I was younger in my career. But now for me I don’t really get that stuck. I mean obviously inspiration is stronger some days and not as strong on other days. [Laughs]. But in terms of looking at a scene and having a scene blank I don’t really do that anymore.”

TV GOODNESS: Tell me more about your process. Do you get a script to work off of? Do you get a rough cut of the episode? How does that work?

Trevor: “It depends on the show, but for something like The Borgias I get the scripts in advance, which I ask for. I read them because I know that it’s not just show by show or minute by minute. It’s the arc of the whole season that I’m interested in. And then I usually get the lock picture and it’s finished or very close to finished. I watch it. There’s usually temporary music in there, which is fine by me and then we usually have a discussion about it. In the case of Borgias, Neil Jordan, who created the show, and his editor and my executive producer in Toronto get on the phone and we sort of talk through it. ‘What are we going for here? What are we trying to achieve with music and how it supports the story and where the characters are going’ and things like that. And then I just kind of sit down and do it. I take a week or so and I write all the music and I send it to everybody. We have discussions about it and see how it is and does it need adjustment and that kind of thing.”

TV GOODNESS: When do you start work on Dracula? Has that started yet?

Trevor: “Yes that started already. We’re gonna work on it through the summer and it should be almost finished from my standpoint right before it goes to air.”

TV GOODNESS: What’s your favorite type of project to work on and do you have dream project you’d like to do one day?

Trevor: “The dream project’s easy, which is a space movie. I love that genre. I’m a child of the Star Wars generation. I love science fiction and specifically space science fiction movies whether it be Alien or Aliens, you know those movies. I think Avatar is like that in its own way, but I really would love to do a space movie. There’s a few that have come around and they’re such big budget movies everyone wants to do them. Space is definitely my dream genre but in terms of my favorite style to work on I don’t have one. What I will say is I want to work on the best story I can. I don’t really care so much about the genre. I’m not judgmental about anything, whether it’s a period piece, which I’ve done a lot of, or it’s completely modern. As long as the story is great it’s totally engaging for me.”

TV GOODNESS: Anything else to add?

Trevor: “For The Borgias, we’re all extremely proud of that one. The episode that got nominated – live strings and brass, live choir, live orchestra – I really swung for the fence. It’s nice to see it get recognized ’cause the show has been canceled. I’d love to win not only because everybody who’s nominated wants to win but I’d love to win this one because it would be like a swan song for The Borgias. And it would be so great for Neil Jordan and us because we worked really hard. The old cliche is 100% true, which is being nominated is really the victory. I truly believe that but it would be great to win. We’ll see what happens.”

TV GOODNESS: One more thing. In terms of a full orchestra or an orchestra in a box, how does that work and what do you prefer?

Trevor: “We always prefer live musicians. Every composer does but the realities of budgets, especially television budgets is to get live orchestras each week is kind of rare if not very, very rare. With The Borgias, which is 10 episodes, we did eight of them quote unquote in the box, or if you will samples is the term for it, meaning it’s 100% technology-driven. There isn’t actually an orchestra. It’s me using my boxes to make it sound like an orchestra. And then the last two episodes, 9 and 10 we hired a live orchestra. I petitioned the producers and Neil Jordan and they’ve been great about it and Showtime as well are awesome. They found a little bit of extra money to help bring a live musician quotient into it, which to me, it just really brings the humanity and the emotion and depth to the table. So I’m so happy that they do that stuff because they don’t have to. I mean it’s really icing on the cake for me but we all prefer live musicians. With The Borgias I’m really happy to have gotten two episodes that are completely 100% live.”

The Tudors and The Borgias are available on DVD. Dracula premieres October 25, 2013 at 10/9c on NBC.

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