Tuned in Tuesday: Composer Dan Licht Talks Dexter and The Red Road [INTERVIEW]
Our Tuned in Tuesday series continues with composer Dan Licht. You probably know his name from Showtime’s Dexter, which he worked on for the entirety of the series run. We talked EXCLUSIVELY to Dan about how he got into the business, how the sound of Dexter changed throughout the seasons, what drew him to Sundance TV’s The Red Road, and what his dream project would be.
TV GOODNESS: When did you know you wanted to be a composer and how did you get into the business?
Dan Licht: “Hmm. I started writing piano compositions – and I didn’t even play piano – when I was probably about 8 or 9. But I didn’t want to get into the movie business until I was in my 20s, I guess, or even early 30s. I was kind of a late bloomer. I got inspired by Christopher Young, who was a friend of mine. I had been doing some commercials in New York with him [as] more of a way of making a living, but he really turned me on to film music and the excitement and beauty of it. I had always enjoyed films, but I was not a soundtrack aficionado.”
TV GOODNESS: How long did you work on films and when did you decide to branch out into TV and video games? You’ve done a lot of great stuff.
Dan: “Oh, thank you. I did mostly films when I started, but I’ve always done a little TV here and there – just things for PBS or little sprinklings of TV, TV Movies. I didn’t start doing series until I got a job doing a comedy series believe it or not. I was a very unlikely person to get hired for this because at the time I knew very little about comedy. But it was a producer I had worked with and he really wanted me to work on it. So he trained me on how to write comedy music and that was Oliver Beene – very silly, broad humor. That was my first series. Then I ended up getting more and more series, still doing film, but I’ve been doing more series lately and then branching out into video games has been over the past, I don’t know, four years or so.”
TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Dexter, which I loved. How did you become involved and how did you go about finding the sound for that show?
Dan: “Well, the music supervisor Gary Calamar, recommended me for it. I don’t know how he got the job, but he recommended me. I think one of the reasons they hired me is because I had done some comedy. I had done thrillers and horror and I had some Latin music, some salsa music on my reel. They were looking for that since it took place in [Miami.] They wanted some of the music to have a Spanish feel to it, so I think that sealed the deal for them. In terms of developing the sound for Dexter, I wanted to keep it internal so I didn’t want to have it have a big orchestral sound. I just tried to picture a group of more intimate sounds – pianos and harps and plucky, plinky toy pianos and stuff like that, bells but with synth pads and then supported by strings with some more emotional moments. The first thing I wanted to crack was to come up with a very simple melody because I knew there was gonna be lots of talking. TV [is] so dialogue driven you don’t want to have your melodies be too note-y, so I tried to distill my melodic ideas to the most essential items, that could go against dialogue and be supported by propelling motifs. Since Dexter was both haunted and driven by an animal passion and since it took place in Miami and they wanted to have a beat to it, I used hand drums, like propulsive hand drumming, but with a piano melody on top of it. I also wanted it to be cutting and searing, so I doubled the piano sounds with the sounds of bowing metal instruments like glockenspiels and playing glasses with your finger, a very piercing sound…I’m just sort of riffing on what my thought process was.”
TV GOODNESS: This is great.
Dan: “So you’d have this propulsive drum going and then you’d have this melody that felt like it was cutting you, if that makes any sense. Getting the sound of the comedy of Dexter was also key. That was the second hurdle I had to jump. I decided to make [the music] gothic sounding, but with comedy instruments. So the music is gothic, but it has a lot of plucking. If you took those some instruments and just played comedy music everyone would say, ‘Oh my God. That’s just BS.’ But since it wasn’t playing comedy music it was more interesting.”
TV GOODNESS: Over the course of the series, how did the music change on Dexter and where there any challenges or surprises you want to talk about?
Dan: “The change was always dictated by the arc of each season. So first season basically established the sound. Second season had kind of the psychotic presence of [Jaime Murrayâ€™s] Lila and introduced these noir elements and the love aspect with Dexter. Third season, it was [Jimmy Smitsâ€™] Miguel and I think I added a little Spanish flavor to it, a twisted Spanish sound. Then the fourth season was John Lithgow and I introduced more tech, it was more driving. I wanted to give the impression that he was a machine that couldn’t be stopped. So each season really influenced the next. The fifth season was a very romantic thingâ€¦I forget her name.”
TV GOODNESS: I do too. Lumen?
Dan: “[Julia Stilesâ€™] Lumen. That was it. There was a love thing with them and that’s where I got to introduce more strings and woodwinds. Sixth season was Gothic so I had added some voices and just heavier Gothic sounds. A lot of it took place in the church. Seventh season was a different kind of love music, [Yvonne Strahovskyâ€™s] Hannah stuff. Then the eighth season was kind of everything all combined into one big pile.”
TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about The Red Road. When did you hear about the project and what made you want to work on the series?
Dan: “I actually got hired in August maybe, and I just really liked the show itself. I thought it was really interesting for television, really challenging and different and they’re really a great group of people to work for. I just thought the subject matter was very interesting and their approach was, I found, interesting, a minimalist approach.”
TV GOODNESS: When you were trying to find the sound for that show, what inspired you? Did you see the pilot or did they talk to you about what they wanted?
Dan: “I saw the pilot, well yeah, I mean I worked on the pilot more than saw it. I just jumped right in. I came in kind of late in the process. I didn’t have a lot of time to develop the sound for that show, not nearly as much time as I did for Dexter and it developed as I went along. We had to go back and incorporate what we all discovered together into the first episode. I really had to hit the ground running as they say. I don’t even know what that means. [Laughs.] But it took us a while to get the right flavor for that show because it really needed a very unique approach.”
TV GOODNESS: How do you work through roadblocks? Is there anything you do specifically?
Dan: “Take a nap and I’m serious actually. Take a walk or take a nap. The other thing is to work on something else, especially if I’m ever stuck in one scene. I’ll go work on another scene and usually when I come back I’m like, ‘Oh. That was easy. What was I getting so caught up in this for?’ When I work I tend to try and work on two different scenes at the same time and try to go back and forth between the two of them. So if one of them is a big action thing the other might be a more emotional thing, sort of like clearing the palette. The other thing is to always look back at your first take on something. Twenty times out of ten you’ll end up going back to your first impression, your first idea after you’ve tried all the other paths.”
TV GOODNESS: What are you working on now?
Dan: “I am working on a video game and I have to give the boring and probably expected response that I can’t really say which one it is. It should be exciting though. And I’m working on the CD for the final season of Dexter. I want to try to do something special. I’m doing a couple songs with it with some artists that I know and work with. That should be out in July.”
TV GOODNESS: Out of everything you’ve worked on, do you have a favorite project? And why was it your favorite?
Dan: “Well, I would have to say Dexter is definitely my favorite just because it was so much fun and so exciting to work on and I got a chance to really get into the music so deeply. But aside from that, I don’t have favorite projects as much as I have cues that I’m proud of that I’ve written within certain projects. So I could give you a list, but I think that might be boring. [Laughs.]”
TV GOODNESS: What’s your dream project?
Dan: “It would definitely be a Space Western. Just a big operatic sci-fi movie.”
TV GOODNESS: It’s funny. I’ve talked to a few other composers who’ve said the same thing.
Dan: “Yeah. Everybody wants that. You can really show off your chops that way.”
TV GOODNESS: Your bio includes music for The Blacklist. Tell me about that.
Dan: “I did some additional music just when they were getting The Blacklist up and running, but I’m not the composer on it. I wrote some music for the first episode the weekend before it went on air.”
TV GOODNESS: Wow.
Dan: “Yeah. It was that fast of a turnover. That’s all that means.”
TV GOODNESS: How do you manage the intense pressure of coming on-board a project late or in the last stages of it?
Dan: “Well, you just have to go for it. I don’t know, I guess I used to worry that I wouldnâ€™t come up with something and it used to really worry me. It like, ‘Oh my God. Am I gonna come up with something?,â€™ but after you’ve been doing it for a while you realize you’ll find something. One thing I’ve learned – and this sort of answers your earlier question about getting past a block – I’ve always just found it takes a certain amount of hours, really, to come up with ideas. Even if your first 6 hours you don’t come up with anything good, you’re actually still working on your idea. You get your idea around the 7th or 8th [hour] and all that [came] before wasn’t a waste of time. It was leading up to your idea. It’s just like showing up to work. Itâ€™s how you get work done.”
TV GOODNESS: Anything else?
Dan: “I’ve got a new website I’m putting up: www.danlicht.com. There’s lot of links there. Lots of fun things to see and places to go.”
Edited for space and content.
All 8 seasons of Dexter are available on DVD. The Red Road is available on Amazon and iTunes.
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