Composer Matt Novack talks Murderville, Medical Police, Harley Quinn, and more

Netflix’s new comedy-mystery series Murderville pairs Will Arnett with a rotating roster of guest stars like Conan O’Brien, Annie Murphy, Kumail Nanjiani, and Sharon Stone in an improvisation-heavy spoof of classic TV cop dramas. The show pokes fun at the crime genre at every turn, and something that plays a huge role in helping these gags land is composer Matt Novack’s score – a note-perfect send-up of familiar police procedural themes.

I recently caught up with Matt to talk about his work on Murderville, as well as his musical contributions to other film and TV projects like Medical Police, Harley Quinn, Children’s Hospital, They Came Together, and more. During our conversation, Matt covered a range of topics, including how he approaches each new project, the differences when scoring for live action versus animation, his “composing idols” and how they influence his own scores, and what projects he’s working on next.

Murderville is both a comedy-mystery series and a parody of the procedural genre. How do you approach scoring a show like that and evoking the genre that you’re parodying?

I definitely start by playing it straight. My goal with shows like Murderville and Medical Police is to kind of create the score that would exist in the non-comedic version of the show. So, I start there and then I experiment, working with Krister Johnson, the showrunner, and the editors, just trying to find spaces for the jokes and making sure that, sonically, the dialogue is cutting through and the audience can actually hear the jokes, that we’re not crowding out the jokes, and also not making the score take over too much space, so it’s not calling attention to itself too much.

That’s the trick: to make [the score] still interesting, but not call attention too much to itself, and just making sure everything still plays – so, it’s a lot of kind of threading that needle. But yeah, I usually start with [the idea] that you should start by playing it straight. Murderville is interesting because there’s definitely a little bit of a genre blend, because there’s that mystery aspect to it, but there’s also a little bit of a reality vibe to [each episode’s] ending when everything is really revealed. So that was kind of fun, to play with that blend of the genres for that end suite of cues.

You mentioned leaving space for the humour – I’m guessing that’s important in a show with such a strong improvisational aspect, where so much of the comedy comes through in the dialogue between the characters? For instance, if Will Arnett is riffing off Conan O’Brien, you don’t want to lose that by making the score too pronounced in that moment.

Yeah, exactly, and that was actually the interesting challenge with this show. I think this is the first comedy I’ve worked on that’s so improvised. Usually, with other comedies, I leave space with, like, negative space – like pulling something out or stopping a cue briefly for a punchline or a funny line or something.

But with this show, so much of the humour is with the awkwardness of the improvisers and that kind of Will Arnett [schtick]. And especially with Will and Conan O’Brien, and them trying to make each other laugh, you really just kind of had to stand back and just let them play, and I think that was an interesting thing.

You know, we would start with scenes just playing dry, like, “Let’s just see how it plays without music”. And then we’d go, “Some scenes actually need themes and music and stuff”, but a lot of the improvisation starts playing well dry, and we’d go, “Oh, you know what this does need a little bit of energy, a little bit of something,” so we would kind of build it up from the bottom.

It feels like Murderville’s incidental scenes and less dialogue-heavy moments were your chance to heighten things and help punctuate the overall atmosphere Krister Johnson was trying to create. I know that when I was watching the very first establishing shot in the first episode of the series, as soon as I heard the music, I immediately got the classic procedural vibe you were trying to evoke – I assume setting that tone early on meant you didn’t have to do as much later when the dialogue really kicks in?

Oh yeah, definitely – well, thank you. I definitely relish little moments where I have some space in-between lines and I can just kind of kind of play a little bit and kind of go a little harder and have some fun. I think that goes back to finding the balance of the show, and it’s just, you know, finding those moments, really playing them. And as you say, it’s evoking the things that [inspired Murderville] and kind of parroting those [inspirations]. Those moments are so key, even if they’re little brief or little transitional things. It’s so important just to keep the vibe of the show going.

You mentioned Medical Police earlier, which was a Netflix series that spun out of the web series Children’s Hospital. Those shows were also genre spoofs – of spy thrillers and medical procedurals, respectively – but they have a very different format and style to Murderville. Was the way you approached those shows musically very different from how you approached Murderville?

Yes, I approached each one very differently.

Actually, I would say Medical Police and Murderville are fairly close in that at least the kernel of the approach, the starting point [stays the same] – they have an overarching vibe throughout the entire season series. Like Murderville is a police procedural from beginning to end with some other kind of genre blends, and Medical Police is an action-mystery adventure from beginning to end as well.

Children’s Hospital, especially in the later seasons – you know, we started out as a parody of hospital dramas, but it pretty quickly became a parody show where every episode we were parodying something completely different. So, it’s like in each episode, the score is basically starting from scratch. Like, I would have the core medical score, but then [a given episode] could be an intrigue/thriller or, you know, a sci-fi adventure or something. It’s like every episode is a different challenge.

So yeah, every show is a unique puzzle to solve, which is fun.

What about when you’re working on an animated series like Harley Quinn? I imagine that presents a whole new set of challenges because animation has different timing and different requirements?

Absolutely. I kind of approach scoring [Harley Quinn] similarly, but yeah, with animation I have to make sure I’m hitting cuts, I’m hitting specific frames exactly – or at least as close as possible while still maintaining it musically. So, there’s sometimes a little bit more math involved; you have to go, “Okay, I need three beats to get from this frame to this frame. How do I fill that? How do I fill that space?” That’s a fun puzzle, as well.

With Harley Quinn, I’m guessing another part of the puzzle was that while the show is hilarious and has a real anarchic, fun energy to it, it can also be quite dark and almost heart-breaking at times. It has these oddly insightful moments that catch you off guard, and Harley is very much a character with a clearly defined arc and an emotional journey. Was that an interesting challenge, helping to build cohesion between those two aspects of the show?

Oh, for sure. I mean, that show takes big swings in both directions, and I think because it takes those big swings, it kind of still feels right for the show that we could be a chaotic, heist-y action show but then just go full-on with the sentimental, heart-breaking, super emotional moments. But I think that really feels like that’s the vibe of the show and it just goes for it, whatever it’s trying to do. I think that with the score, we help bridge those moments, those changes.

It’s almost as if Harley Quinn the show is an expression of who Harley Quinn the character is, don’t you think? Everything, including the score, has this incredible energy and versatility and vulnerability, all jumbled up into this very appealing package where all the different elements somehow work.

Absolutely. I mean, it’s just a real hodgepodge of different things, and you’re absolutely right.

If we shift focus to your non-TV work, you’ve also scored films, like the Amy Poehler/Paul Rudd movie They Came Together, and you’ve done high-profile advertising spots for blockbuster video game franchises, like Assassin’s Creed. What I’m wondering is whether you approach all of these projects differently – the way you do for TV shows – or whether there’s a core process underlying it all?

I do kind of change my process up a little bit depending on the project and depending on what the needs of the score are. But I usually at least start by having a conversation with the filmmakers to talk about the tone [of the project]. If they have musical ideas already, that’s great, but I really try to get in the head of the filmmakers to try to figure out what they’re thinking – what kind of story are they telling? And that’s the starting point.

And then musically, I usually start with themes and maybe with, like, a feature film, I may write a climactic cue or a big cue first, or showcase cue, just to set the tone of the score and work with the filmmakers to make sure that they’re happy with it, that it’s working, that it’s telling the story the way that we want to tell it. Then I just kind of fill in the gaps in the rest of the film or the rest of the show.

And how much of a part do your own musical influences play in the scoring process? You’re going to have “composing idols” – how much do you draw from these sources of inspiration, and do your idols change depending on what project you’re working on at the time?

Well, first of all, my idols? It’s hard not to say John Williams. I mean–

You don’t have to be a composer to idolise John Williams.

Yeah, it’s like, “Is there a way to answer this without saying John Williams?” I grew up as a huge sci-fi fan, so it’s hard not to. We had vinyls of the Star Wars soundtracks growing up in my house and Close Encounters.

I grew up, I loved film scores – especially John Williams and James Newton Howard and Elliot Goldenthal – but also concert composers. I’m a big fan of Estonian composers, like Einojuhani Rautavaara and Erkki-Sven Tüür, and minimalist composers, like Philip Glass and John Adams. And also, in high school, I had a spell where I was really into heavy metal. I actually started out as a percussionist, learning how to play heavy metal drums – that was fun – so I draw on all those influences a lot.

I think, especially when I’m scoring a project, I try to do something a little different for each score. At least I try to, and I’ll kind of pull different influences, kind of study different styles.

So, your idols and influences are there for you to draw on as needed; they’ll bleed into your work as much as they need to?

Absolutely, absolutely – and you know, it’s always different for every score. It would be presumptuous to say I write like John Williams, but you can’t write like John Williams for every single score; you have to kind of change things up. I think that’s the key: try to change it up, try to change it differently, but still maintain my personal style, my personality within the score.

You recently wrote the theme for a podcast – what aspect of your personal style and influences did you bring to that?

Abominable Pictures who I worked I’ve worked with for years – they did Murderville, Children’s Hospital, Medical Police, a bunch of other things – they’re starting to get into producing podcasts and they have this Dungeons and Dragons-style podcast that’s D&D with stand-up comedians [who] play this outer space adventure called Spell Jammer. The producers approached me like, “Hey, we would like you to write a theme?” So, I wrote this big adventure Star Trek-y type space adventure theme that I’m pretty proud of. I’m really happy with it – I want this podcast to come out so I can show it to people.

Is the theme a love letter to the classic Star Trek theme, or is it more in line with the score for the newer films?

I think it’s probably somewhere in the middle. I kind of referenced a few different adventure scores a lot, like John Debney’s scores, but also Zathura. But the James Horner Star Trek score is fantastic, so I tried for a blend. I would say it’s more like a swashbuckling adventure theme, I think.

I look forward to hearing it when the podcast finally arrives. Aside from that, what else do you have coming up (that you can talk about)?

We just started working on Harley Quinn for the new season, so that’s going to be my life for the foreseeable future. There are a couple of other things I’m working on that I can’t really talk about, but that’s really the main thing for me right now. And yeah, I’m excited! Murderville just came out and I’ve tried not to pay attention to reviews or spend too much time on Twitter, but it seems like people like it so far, so fingers crossed because it would be great to do some more of that.

Check out Matt Novack’s Murderville score today by streaming the comedy-mystery show’s complete first season, which is now available on Netflix.

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