Tuned in Tuesday: Composer David Schwartz Talks Lady Dynamite, Working with Mitch Hurwitz and More [Exclusive]
Are you watching Lady Dynamite on Netflix? It’s a series is based on what Maria Bamford has accepted to be â€œher life.â€ The occasionally surreal episodes, refracted across multiple periods inspired by the actor/comedianâ€™s life, tell the story of a woman who loses – and then finds – her sh*t.
It’s surprising, real, uncomfortable and inappropriately funny. Here’s the trailer:
I had the chance to talk to composer David Schwartz about finding the sound of the show, working with creator/EP Pam Brady, Mitch Hurwitz‘s comic genius, Arrested Development, some other projects he has coming up and more. David had a bit of a rough start to his day before our call, so our interview got off to a slightly strange (but not in a bad way) and lively start.
David Schwartz: “It’s totally like Lady Dynamite, right? I live that insane life.
TV GOODNESS: That makes me concerned for you, but ok. [Laughs.]
David: [Laughs.] “I don’t have serious bipolar, just non-serious neuroses. So, yeah.”
TV GOODNESS: How did you hear about this project and what made you want to do it?
David: “I got a call from Mitch Hurwitz. I had worked with him on Arrested and weâ€™ve become great friends and collaborators. Heâ€™s really incredible. Someday you should do some work with him ’cause heâ€™s the funniest person in any room, although Lady Dynamite is pretty funny. I think the theme of both those shows is we work incredibly hard.
On Arrested I go to all the mixes too, which is kind of unusual for a composer. They donâ€™t usually want you there when theyâ€™re messing with your music, but I always would be there with Mitch. Sometimes we were there until 3 or 4 in the morning but itâ€™s just funny. All the writers are funny and Mitch is hysterical, so I never mind because weâ€™re laughing. How tired can you be if youâ€™re laughing? You do get in the car and it all sets in and you’re realizing, â€˜How am I gonna drive home?â€™ [Laughs.]
Skipping the subject there, but I do remember that the last mix of Arrested Development Season 4, Mitch drove me home because we had one car there for some strange reason. He doesnâ€™t live that far away. But he dropped me off at my studio, which is a separate building. I thought, â€˜No. Itâ€™s 3 in the morning. Iâ€™m not going to work now.â€™ [Laughs.] And I thought he was the sharp one on that drive.
So Mitch called me and told me he was doing this thing. I had known about Maria [Bamford] for a while. Sheâ€™d been in Arrested Development. I knew Mitch was a huge fan and wanted to do a show with Maria. I donâ€™t even know if the name was there yet. I donâ€™t think so. I saw a script soon after that and it was really funny and I guess he proposed to Pam [Brady], whoâ€™s the showrunner, that I be a composer. Iâ€™m sure she looked at other people too, but I guess she was a fan of what had happened in Arrested Development and we started to get together.
Iâ€™m trying to remember the timeline because I was doing other things at the same time. It was definitely before we had shows that were ready to be worked on for music. The song ideas where coming. In some cases Pam would just have a nutty idea of a song and sometimes sheâ€™d have lyrics. On a few of them she was the lyricist or one of the other writers is and weâ€™d just start. Iâ€™d try to do a song, not like it was TV. So itâ€™s full production, like we had a week to do a record kind of thing. We did have a little more time because we were ahead of schedule on the actual show production. We hadnâ€™t spotted shows yet.
Because theyâ€™re writers of words, when they get to write a song their inner Bob Dylan comes out. Iâ€™m talking about writers in general, not just this show. So they send over 10 verses. As composers weâ€™ll go, â€˜You know youâ€™re probably not gonna play more than 45 seconds of this.â€™ â€˜Yeah, but we wrote â€˜em.â€™ [Laughs.] So, itâ€™s great and I get to do a whole song. I usually have a co-writer whoâ€™s a singer because thereâ€™s not time to write it and then get a singer. Iâ€™m not much of a singer; I can sing for the writing. So Iâ€™ve had some great co-writers this season and [they had] great senses of humor and these songs get pretty extreme lyrically and everybody was on board.
Does that even explain the question? It probably does. Anyway, I got a call.” [Laughs.]
TV GOODNESS: It does. Actually, letâ€™s talk more about writing original songs as well as music for this. What was that process like?
David: “I think itâ€™s like anything else. Itâ€™s just like, â€˜Go.â€™ If I was that self-driven songwriter and I was talking about my own emotions or experiences, it might take a lot longer. The nature of my job is not waiting for the muse, you know? [Laughs.] Itâ€™s getting it by tomorrow. Even with these songs it felt, because they were shooting and they wanted to hear the song first, whether they were shooting to it or listening to it. It was always like a day or two turnaround on that.
If thereâ€™s a co-writer thatâ€™s really fun, we can get together and we say, â€˜What do you think this song is?â€™ Like Touch the Children. One of the co-writers really had doubts about it and I even called Pam and I said, â€˜Are we going too far with this?â€™ Itâ€™s hard to have an email with the title, â€˜Touch the Children.â€™ [Laughs.] I donâ€™t want that going through my email. She said, â€˜No. Itâ€™s gonna be really funny.â€™ I think at that point, I said â€˜Well, what if it was like We Are the World?â€™ And that, I donâ€™t know, it just made it funny. It’s funny how great a song We Are the World is. We went back and listened to the original and I got chills like 10 times. Thereâ€™s Ray Charles. Thereâ€™sâ€¦oh, wait. Who did True Colors? Whatâ€™s her name?”
TV GOODNESS: Cyndi Lauper?
David: “Cyndi. Yeah. Just everybody has a great bit and they all deliver. It’s bathed in ’80s-ness. Itâ€™s an amazing record and production. We took production elements of that and wrote a different song, obviously, and there were only three of us to sing it. We did other tracks in different voices, us playing different parts and stuff like that.”
TV GOODNESS: I think the music for the show is unexpected but so incredibly appropriate. How did you decide what sound you were going for on this show?
David: “Very often I walk into a show like somehow Iâ€™m gonna have control of this, you know. I thought, â€˜Well, Iâ€™ll come up with a sound thatâ€™s unique and yet flexible and we can use themes and different stuff and itâ€™s gonna be one palette.â€™ And yet most of my shows, especially comedies from anywhere in the Mitch Hurwitz world, end up being the kitchen sink. So I do that, but I do everything else too.
There was a lot of stuff, especially in the later episodes, that was already temped with large orchestras so we had to find ways of doing that without having the budget of a large orchestra. I tried to use as many real instruments to help the stuff thatâ€™s coming from the computer sound more real. But there was a sound and itâ€™s got a little baritone sax, weird percussion. What else is in it? Something else. Usually some form of guitar thatâ€™s not a guitar like a mandolin or a baritone uke or something. I didnâ€™t want to use uke that sounded like Arrested Development. There were rules about that and that was the sound.
Then sometimes youâ€™re temping with existing stuff of mine and then they love that, maybe from Arrested or another show and then they want something thatâ€™s like that. Sometimes Iâ€™ll offer it, â€˜Well, here. Letâ€™s say weâ€™ve never heard that. Do you like this?â€™ â€œWe like that, but we like thisâ€™ and we go back and I try to do something a little different, but answers those questions.
Pam had a million musical ideas and Mitch, when he was there. He was more there on the pilot, which he directed. So that shaped a lot of it, but the idea of that one sound and a small amount of music, it became the opposite. It was many, many sounds and tons and tons and tons of music. And thatâ€™s what works for that show.”
TV GOODNESS: I think it works really well for that show.
David: “Itâ€™s definitely a village kind of thing in that the editors, what they temp with, becomes a strong influence. ‘Do we like the temp? Donâ€™t we like the temp?’ But they find stuff that’s great.
Pam likes to do movie send-ups. Thereâ€™s one scene where itâ€™s Pirates of the Caribbean and thereâ€™s this Johnny Depp guy who keeps on walking through the office. I think theyâ€™re auditioning people to look like Johnny Depp and the musical request at that point was, â€˜Do something like this and donâ€™t get sued by Hans Zimmer.â€™ [Laughs.] Most of us who have done music long enough know that we canâ€™t sue anybody. Thereâ€™s just so much that’s out there on the air and Iâ€™m sure weâ€™ve all written stuff at 2 in the morning, â€˜Does that sound like that?â€™ Then Iâ€™ll go back to the studio and the next day itâ€™ll bother me. Iâ€™ll play it for somebody else and they wonâ€™t be able to guess what mightâ€™ve been the inspiration. You hear The Beatles sang that and Beethoven and John Wayne. We all have influences. We hope to make them our own. Thatâ€™s the trick.
I think you want the show to have an identity musically. Even if itâ€™s all over the place like Arrested or Lady Dynamite. I think people hear it and they know what it is, hopefully. Thatâ€™s always the goal. Thatâ€™s the extra goal. I think you serve the story first.”
TV GOODNESS: Do you have a favorite cue or musical moment from the show?
David: “You know, theyâ€™re all my babies. Sassafras Lady was great. There was another way more sophisticated, like scat-y jazz where she was Sassy Sassafras Lady. I hope I got the two right. [Laughs]. They loved it but when they played it against picture, this is as we were finishing it, everyone felt there was too much conflict with the dialogue and the sound effects. I tried to make that one simple. I said, ‘Iâ€™m just gonna write a new song. Itâ€™s gonna be better. Letâ€™s start from scratch and it’s gonna have fewer lyrics.â€™
But we were inspired by a lot of perfume ads like Charlie and stuff like that from the â€˜70s, which are these great ads with Mel Torme singing. There were a few different ones. Actually, Mitch, thatâ€™s the kind of thing he does in his spare time, watches ads from the â€˜70s. [Laughs.] He calls me up, â€˜Isnâ€™t this great? Shouldnâ€™t we have a scene like that?â€™ That ended up being the opening of the show.
But itâ€™s particularly close to me because my Dad worked on a lot of those campaigns. He was a package designer for Charlie and Brut and all the Revlon stuff, so I remember as a little, little kid that stuff being around our house, the products and â€˜Dad canâ€™t you do something for boys?â€™ You know, that kind of thing. â€˜Canâ€™t you make a truck or a gun?â€™ But he was always working in the perfume industry. And dolls. I forget the name of the doll company, but he was the only package designer.
My Dadâ€™s office in New York was kind of like Mad Men. When I see that, it’s exactly what it was like including the drinking. Not quite as crazy, but that era was there and those commercials are of that era so that was an inspiration that was great.
Thereâ€™s a song that I donâ€™t know what they call it on the show, but we call it Loaf. Itâ€™s all about doing nothing. I think on that one, Iâ€™ll have to check these things now that Iâ€™m doing interviews. One of the writers actually did a musical demo for it. We changed the chords, we changed the melodies but he was a great inspiration. Heâ€™s on the cue sheet as one of the lyricists. But when we started singing it, it was that high-pitched rock. Somewhere between Steven Tyler and ACDC kind of sound.
Then it was done and I said, â€˜Now sing it like Perry Como.â€™ We were just laughing so hard and heâ€™s so good at just changing gears like that. We werenâ€™t confident that we would get it to stick, so I sent both to Pam and everybody voted for Perry Como. Obviously it got more laughs so they liked it.
Then favorite score? I think the main title. I started that way before and actually my agent, Richard Kraft, said, â€˜Well, donâ€™t write a short main title. Write a suite and then take it from there.â€™ So I think our main title runs 15 seconds, but I wrote a minute a half of main title and there had been, again Mitch sent me this crazy Japanese video game music. You might not even hear it on my main title. I just kept on adding things to it. Thereâ€™s a middle section with a percussion breakdown. You can only hear that version. We did a 30 second version on episode 12 â€˜cause everybody loved it and I said, â€˜Can I play it once longer,â€™ and they actually found a way to do it. We had the material to do a longer main title, you know the visual. So thatâ€™s a favorite and a lot of stuff did come from the score. It may not be obvious now, but you take little subsections out, they’re the little bands that score in different areas.
Iâ€™ll add one other thing there, too. The idea of the themes, was that it couldnâ€™t be thematic because the show takes place in three time places. So if I wrote a theme and used it in one time place when no one wanted to hear…do you know about the timelines?”
TV GOODNESS: Yes.
David: “Ok. So thereâ€™s the present, thereâ€™s a few years ago. [Laughs.] That always drives us crazy. What was different like five years ago? I donâ€™t think we ever [know] what year ‘a few years ago’ is. Itâ€™s pretty much the same thing. So we had to have different colors for those different things. Then Minnesota, which is way back. I used all Appalachian Mountain instruments on that.
But I think a couple of times we had to break vantage, ’cause I loved doing the Appalachian Mountain [music] and it just plays in the dark, depressing quiet and of her in and out of the rehab places and the hospitals and her parents house. Her parents, I think, are hysterical. What a great casting. At one point, it turns out they have a rock band in the garage â€” Maria and her sister â€” and that was a funny song too, Minnesota Rocking. Obviously, we get the treat of hearing it reinterpreted by the actors. So itâ€™s different then the demo we sent them, of course.”
TV GOODNESS: Sounds like it was a really great experience for you.
David: “It was great. It was very intense because somehow we got to the end of the schedule and then we compressed a lot of shows. We worked really hard but when youâ€™re working for lovely people and funny people, I never mind. Theyâ€™re great.”
TV GOODNESS: What else are you working on right now? Anything you can talk about?
David: “Iâ€™m working on an NBC show called The Good Place. Itâ€™s been picked up and weâ€™re doing it. Itâ€™s cool. Itâ€™s with Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.
And another NBC show, which is a strange trip into reality programming for me. They told me it wasnâ€™t a reality show when they hired me, but it is. [Laughs.] Itâ€™s really a fun one. Itâ€™s Henry Winkler, William Shatner, George Foreman and Terry Bradshaw. The Fantastic Four. The basic idea is they drop them down in Asian exotic cities and see if they can get places and function – little mini-hotels, you know those coffin beds in Tokyo and stuff like that. So, I think the guys are just having a great time, particularly the relationship between Henry Winkler and William Shatner, two very different alpha types.
I havenâ€™t met any of them, although I know Henry from the work weâ€™ve done. Heâ€™s incredible. I hope I get to meet the rest of them. Or even Maria. I havenâ€™t met her yet. They keep us in a dark cave someplace where nobody ever comes over. Thatâ€™s the difference in the business now. [Laughs.] At least the producers used to come to my studio all the time to review music, but now they have the internet. So everything goes back and forth and occasional phone calls and email and texts and all that, but I like the fact- I mean there’s some great advantages that way. But it was kinda fun. Even the PAs who used to come and go all night were fun. â€˜Hey. Whatâ€™s going on in that office? Is anyone liking anything?â€™ Now you can just be in the dark by yourself. There was more time in the schedule for musicians to come over. I still make it happen, but I used to have 2 days for a show for musicians to come in and thatâ€™s really hard now. I squeeze it into one night. Thatâ€™s it now.”
TV GOODNESS: The timeline is so much quicker now, right? They want things pretty fast?
David: “Very fast. Usually as a composer you have to do multiple shows. You donâ€™t want to hear why, but thereâ€™s a million reasons. So if you can, if youâ€™re lucky enough to have more than one thing, you have to take it. Every one of those shows has way more music. When I started, 10 minutes was a big show. Now an hour show can have all music. Sometimes you can write more minutes. Things are overlapping and they want options. Youâ€™re writing more than 40 minutes for a 41 minute show.
Thatâ€™s not quite the case in Lady Dynamite, but thereâ€™s a lot of music in it. I havenâ€™t really added it up. I wrote the great majority of parties, wedding scenes, restaurants â€” thatâ€™s really long pieces that they need that could get played very quietly in the background as part of the atmosphere. Some shows just farm that out to libraries and production houses. We didnâ€™t, but on my last show I think we did because I had to write it all in one day and the score. [Laughs.] So that was the compromise.”
TV GOODNESS: Is there any type of show you havenâ€™t had the chance to work on yet that youâ€™d like to?
David: “Well, Iâ€™ve been really, really lucky because Iâ€™ve gotten to do a lot of good shows. It’s not about the show, it’s about the music. I donâ€™t care which style it is. I donâ€™t like bad music, but that’s for everyone to define for themselves. [Laughs.] So, if youâ€™re working on good shows, itâ€™s always inspiring.
Thereâ€™s two things: I think, and I could be totally wrong and probably my agent and my peers would laugh at me, but I think music of great beauty. I donâ€™t get to do it, but Iâ€™d like to prove that and Iâ€™d like to have that experience. Maybe I just need to do it myself and make a lot of music that way. Iâ€™m sure some kind of romantic show that goes into that. I just love that kind of music that really pulls on heartstrings and itâ€™s certainly not what Iâ€™m known for. So that would be great fun.
Iâ€™ve done lots of really extreme comedies and extreme dramas, so that leaves the middle. I donâ€™t know why if someone has a CSI or a doctor show, Iâ€™m not on that list. I think to do one would be great because they tend to stay on the air for 12 years. Youâ€™re not looking for a job every year. [Laughs.] Itâ€™s definitely different. Iâ€™ve done pilots and the pilots didnâ€™t go, hopefully not because my music. So Iâ€™ve seen what the job is. Itâ€™s not easy to play the middle, either. I see the challenges there. But I admire anyone who does it and there’s some great people doing it.”
Edited for space and content.
Lady Dynamite is available on Netflix now.
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