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Music Composer Fil Eisler Talks Empire’s Music and Score [Exclusive] 

Music Composer Fil Eisler Talks Empire’s Music and Score [Exclusive]
Photo Credit: Scott Kirkland/FOX
Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX
Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX

WARNING: Spoiler-y photos for tonight’s episode of FOX’s Empire

Confession: Empire is one of our new favorite TV addictions. Can’t get enough of the show actually. Almost everything that the producers, writers and actors throw at us works. It just does. And it has us excited for Empire Wednesdays on FOX.

Obviously, music is one of the biggest reasons why Empire is so successful right out of the gate. We’ve heard a lot about the fantastic job that executive music producer — and multiple Grammy winner — Timbaland has been doing (and he has — can’t stop thinking about “Keep your Money“). But there’s another musical element to the show.

Photo Credit: Scott Kirkland/FOX
Photo Credit: Scott Kirkland/FOX

On a weekly basis Music Composer Fil Eisler provides the underscore to the hit series. He’s no stranger to TV Goodness. In the past, we’ve talked to him about one of his other high-profile gigs, ABC’s Revenge. And now he’s added Empire to his incredible resume. We exclusively talked to Eisler about the musical aspects of the show. And he managed to tease tonight’s episode. He’s preaching to the choir. We’re excited.

Eisler has a lot to say about the show that’s not only popular with the fans but is getting a ton of critical acclaim as well. Just like us, he also feels the music is a big part of what connects the show to its millions and millions of fans.

Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX
Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX

Fil Eisler: I think it connects on a number of levels. And I think the music — certainly the songs — is a huge part of it. And not to diminish what I do on the show or anything. What I write is the underscore. We are talking about some interesting collaborations between score and songs for next year. But right now, basically it provides the mood of the show and the themes but there are obviously big song moments and those songs are also bonafide hits. They’re great, great songs and I think that connects to a very big audience and that certainly gives it longevity beyond anything that a drama I think can have of its own accord.

It’s the presence of hip-hop music that help broadens the audience massively.

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Fil: It’s funny because I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop and that really goes to prove what a universal language hip-hop’s become. And even then — and that was a while ago — it was connecting to everything from the audiences on the street and black audiences to white audiences to everywhere in between…middle class, working class…and I think it still has that appeal. That’s why it’s one of the biggest music genres out there outside of maybe — country music?

Another reason he thinks Empire rules is that it isn’t afraid to be a soap.

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Fil: At the end of the day, I think it’s very clever that they set out to make an unabashed soap which is something that people love. At the same time, to infuse it with real drama and real story and some really good acting. This kind of has a bit of everything. And I think they haven’t spared the horses on this one. They set out to make something very lavish and big and that goes from using Timbaland and Jim Beanz to write the songs to having me write for real orchestra and record a live orchestra every week. They’ve really gone there and I think it shows. I think people are loving it which is fantastic.

From the beginning creator Lee Daniels knew what he wanted from the score. And it’s not what you think.

Empire Creator Lee Daniels Photo Credit: Frank Micelotta/FOX
Empire Creator Lee Daniels
Photo Credit: Frank Micelotta/FOX

Fil: When I was brought on — the first thing Lee Daniels said to me was I want something that juxtaposes the world of hip-hop from the score. I do not want what you would expect in a hip-hop movie — the hip-hop score. ‘I want this score to be dramatic and operatic and big and theatrical.’ And also he wanted something sort of very thematic, melodic which is very much where I come from.

It took a little bit of time for Fil to get in synch with Lee’s vision for the score.

Fil: He  wanted something that was kind of old-fashioned in some ways but modern in others. And it’s a fine line to tread to score something that’s soapy like that in a bold way without being schmaltzy and over the top. It is a tough line to tread because my first instinct was to be much more subtle with it. But Lee came in with all guns blazing and said, ‘No, no, no. That is not why I hired you. I hired you…’ In fact, I think his words were ‘I want the f–k you version of that cue.’ It was one particular cue I wrote. Funnily enough, I think it was the cue where Cookie gets out of jail. And this is a perfect example. I wrote something fairly subtle there and just sort of let the acting speak and he said, ‘No, no, no. You’re not getting the concept. It needs to be ballsy and full on…’ And so I wrote this thing that I considered over the top and, of course, he loved it.

Daniels isn’t the only one to love it.

Fil: I have to honestly say I trusted [Lee] and I knew it was going to work but I didn’t completely see what he was talking about until we went to the premiere. And so the premiere was a pretty big occasion, especially for a TV show. It had a huge launch. And there was this premiere at the Arclight in Hollywood. Packed house. And when that cue came on and Cookie comes marching out of jail, people got on their feet and started screaming. And I suddenly went, ‘Oh s–t…okay…now I get it.’ It took me a second to catch up. And now I know what he was talking about.

The sound of Empire — when it comes to the score — means going big every week.

Empire Co-Creator Danny Strong and Actor Jussie Smollett Photo Credit: Scott Kirkland/FOX
Empire Co-Creator Danny Strong and Actor Jussie Smollett
Photo Credit: Scott Kirkland/FOX

Fil: We realized early on that what they wanted — what Lee and Danny [Strong, co-creator, Empire] wanted — was an orchestral score. So it was very important that we get live musicians because you just can’t have all of this beautifully produced music from Timbaland and then all of a sudden go to this cheesy in the box ensemble score. So that was a big element of it — the live orchestra — and then really it was about finding the right themes.

That’s when it becomes about the characters.

Fil: It’s almost like an actor having to find a way into their character. I don’t want to sound pretentious or anything but…if you’re scoring film you have to be a filmmaker and not just a musician. You do. And, funnily enough, I find that’s a question a lot of composers shy away from a little bit when they get asked ‘Are you a filmmaker?’ They go, ‘No, no I’m just a composer.’ Well, my view on that is very different. I think you have to be able to be a filmmaker to be able to score a film. You’re telling a story. You have to be part of that story. You have to be part of the finished thing that ends up on the screen. And in order for that to feel real you’ve gotta find some kind of empathy with those characters — whoever it is you’re scoring whether they’re good or bad or whatever.

Finding a character’s motivation is key to the process.

Fil: Where are they really coming from? Because you wanna try and come up with something true to that rather than just — oh some strings will be nice up against this shot. It’s very difficult to describe because it has to come from an inside feeling first. Once I get that feeling that’s when I start hearing music in my head when I’m watching the images.

Something else that is essential — but can be challenging — is finding the right tone where the music and the action becomes seamless.

Fil: Finding the exact right tone where it doesn’t slip over into schmaltz or cheese yet it’s dramatic or bold. And what Lee and Danny were talking about…we have to kind of create something from scratch. So, I guess, it comes from really spending some time with it and watching it over and over and over again and trying to understand what these characters are all about and what they’re really going through in the story.

Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX
Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Fil can’t give away much but he did tease the fact that tonight’s episode is not. to. be. missed.

Fil: Without spoiling anything and getting myself killed…you seriously don’t want to miss Wednesday’s episode. That’s Danny’s episode and he just did amazing, amazing, amazing work. I think what he did with it…There’s been a number of great directors. We’ve had Mario Van Peebles — his episode’s still coming up. We’ve had John Singleton. And, obviously, Lee did amazing things with the first two episodes. Clearly, it’s Lee and Danny’s project. They’ve both done stellar work. They really know where they’re taking it. But each time they do something it amazes me. I think what Danny’s episode did was…he kept all of the fun. All that soap element in there. But he took the drama to this whole new level. I should shut up now because I’m getting excited. I might blow something. But it’s just so f–king good. So good.

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on FOX.

-additional reporting by Kara Howland

Interview edited for space and content.

PHOTOS from “The Lyon’s Roar”
Photo Credit for Images: Chuck  Hodes/FOX and Matt Dinnerstein/FOX

Synopsis for “The Lyon’s Roar”: In tonight’s episode, It’s time for the Lyon family to come together and record a legacy album with Lucious, Hakeem and Jamal. Cookie and Camilla (guest star Naomi Campbell) finally come face-to-face, Andre struggles with some inner demons and Jamal steps into the spotlight with news that surprises everyone.

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