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When much of Hollywood began shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and self-quarantine became the new normal, composer Kris Bowers was hard at work on his latest prestige series, Mrs. America. Featuring an all-star cast led by Cate Blanchett, Dahvi Waller’s series follows conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett), as she leads a fight against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
Fortunately for Bowers, an Emmy nominee known for such works as Green Book and When They See Us, he was already deep into his work on the series when life as normal was disrupted. “September 6th is when I started my first couple of cues, so it’s been a little while,” he says. “We recorded everything through Episode 7 of 9 before the self-isolation quarantine process was put into place.”
That said, Bowers had two episodes’ worth of work to get through in the aftermath, prior to the series’ April 15 debut, which required him to adjust to a new kind of workflow, going from recording in studio with a live orchestra to working with instrumentalists, one by one, from home.
Below, the composer outlines his approach to crafting a score remotely, breaking down both the logistical and mental challenges he’s had to surmount along the way.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Mrs. America? What was it that attracted you to the series?
KRIS BOWERS: A couple of the producers and the music supervisor, Mary Ramos, knew about my work and were championing me, and telling Dahvi, the showrunner and creator, about me. They pitched me for it, and I just went along the usual process of sending a reel and having a conversation about what I might do to approach it.
I always love working on projects that I feel have some sort of social justice/current events type of narrative. I think that’s the type of work that excites me, in general, so to be a creative as part of one of those things is really amazing, but especially a story that I didn’t know very much about, with Phyllis Schlafly and that whole time period. I knew a decent amount about the feminist movement and some of the main players in that, but I had no idea about this conservative opposition to that movement, and how much that opposition really laid a lot of groundwork for some of the polarizing issues we have today.
I feel really honored to be a part of such a female-forward story, as well, so I think those are the things that made me interested in being part of it in the first place.
DEADLINE: What kind of conversation did you have with Waller and other key creatives, once you realized you wouldn’t be able to finish your score in the traditional way?
BOWERS: The first thing that we talked about was how that would affect the sounds, not being able to have a full orchestra. The universe really blessed us, as far as the style for the last two episodes. That’s a bit different than the style for the rest of the season, so it almost gave us permission to change the sound a bit. Like the eighth episode, one of the characters is having this kind of hallucinogenic trip throughout the whole episode, so it’s a very different score. And then the last episode, we kind of come back, but everything feels a bit smaller and more intimate. So, the first conversation was just that aspect of it.
Other than that, the thing I really appreciated from them is that they just trusted my judgment and my decision on how to make it work. I think for them, they were just like, “We hope we can make it work. What do you think?” I just put my head together with the rest of my team to figure out what would be the best approach, and pitched them on the idea of making it a bit smaller, and recording everybody separately, and bringing it all together. The cues that I’m sending for references in the mock-up phase [were] going to sound slightly different, as long as the showrunners were okay with that, and it’s all been working so far. We still have half of one episode to get through, but it’s all very promising.
DEADLINE: Could you expand on the nature of your remote workflow, and how that’s compared to the way in which you would normally put together a score?
BOWERS: This project, I’m pretty sure we had about 25 musicians for our scoring sessions. That was the sound that we were getting before, and on top of that, I’m in the room, as well. So, we’re at a studio. I’m able to give them notes immediately on how they need to approach something, and to make any changes that we need to on the spot.
I think that’s one of the biggest differences that we’re not able to do with this. Because it’s easy for me to say in the studio, “Hey, basses and celli, can you actually just hold this note for this whole measure, and then switch to this note at the next measure? And then violas, if you can switch to this note in this measure.” It’s easier to call an audible when everybody’s in the same room. But when you’re recording everybody separately, there’s so much more trust involved, in terms of telling these musicians, “Here’s what we want.” We give them everything that we would be giving to a studio engineer, essentially—all the stems, the clicks. They don’t get picture, but they’re getting the pre-records and sheet music.
Then, for some of them, I’m listening in. But for most of them, at this point, we’re sending it to them, and they’re sending it back to me, for me to listen and give my feedback, and make any changes necessary, and then going from there. Because of that, we’re relying on the musicians to bring a musicality and life to a score…That’s so much easier to do when you’re in a room with 20 other people, and the composer’s sitting right there, and you have a conductor that’s trying to bring something out of the performances, and all that kind of stuff. And in this case, we really have to rely on the musicians to bring that energy themselves.
If you’re in the studio by yourself, or in your home by yourself recording, it’s easy to kind of phone it in, and I think that we’re lucky, with the musicians that we have, that they’re still bringing the same level of musicality and emotions to each of these cues. And again, it’s my job just to trust that part of the process. If there’s something I need differently from them, of course, they’re all flexible and able to provide that for me. But for the most part, everything has been great from the first time that I’m receiving something, just because I think everybody’s excited to still be creating at this time.
DEADLINE: In some of your past work, you’ve employed a technique called “striping,” which entails recording instruments one by one. Did that experience prepare you, in some sense, for the challenge you’ve been faced with?
BOWERS: Yeah, we’ve had to do this type of recording, mostly for smaller ensemble stuff. A lot of the time when I’ve done more band kind of stuff, we need a source cue, so we need bass, guitar and drums on this one cue. A lot of times for that kind of stuff, we will just have people send stuff from home. Or a lot of times with the demoing process, it’s easier if I can just send a track to a guitar player and say, “Hey, here’s what I want on top of this. Can you just add some stuff to it that I can then take back and mess around with?” So, yeah. Fortunately, it’s been a workflow process that I’d already been pretty used to and doing for a while. That’s definitely something that’s made this feel even more normal, to be honest.
(Here’s an exclusive look at Bowers’ remote workflow, working with harpist Lara Somogyi.)
DEADLINE: As you explained, you’d completed most of your work on Mrs. America prior to the new normal of self-quarantine. But was there still a sense of pressure or anxiety for you, heading into recordings for the final two episodes, with the awareness that the show is set to premiere just a couple of weeks from today?
BOWERS: You know, it’s interesting. I feel like I felt a lot of pressure and concern, and being a part of a team of people that are in the same position, I know that for them, there was just no question of “If.” There was no question of if we were going to be able to finish. It was just [a question of] how. So that, for me, actually gave me a sense of confidence.
I think as soon as we heard that they were shutting things down, in my mind, I was like, there’s no way we’re going to be able to finish this, because I’m also thinking about [how] I might be able to find some way to get the score done. You know, how are we going to mix on the dub stage? How are we going to do playback? How are we going to do all these other things that I know still require people gathering together in one space?
Once I realized that everybody was going to do whatever they could to get it done, it made it easier for me to put my head down and just focus on my part. And in doing that, I think it’s easier for me to not have any concern and fear about it, because I knew that if I could figure out a plan that worked for me, my part was going to get done. I think everybody doing that made it so that it just felt like this machine is still moving. You know, things are taking a little bit longer. It’s a slower process, but it’s still moving forward.
DEADLINE: Was there anything you learned or took away from going through this experience?
BOWERS: I think again, just how valuable it is to be able to put everything into your part of the process—and also, how to balance getting work done in a difficult time, mentally. Because I think every conversation I’ve had with the people on the show, we’re all dealing with so many different personal things, on top of trying to get the show done, yet it’s not slowing anybody down.
I think for me, anytime I felt like I was dealing with too much stress…Like, my wedding got canceled during this, but there’s so many other things that are happening in my personal life. I have grandparents that are in their 90s and immunocompromised, and yet I knew that I was a part of this team that was also not slowing down, and they also probably were dealing with whatever personal things they’re dealing with, through this hard time.
You know, that’s something that happens, just in general. We never know what somebody else is going through. But in this time, we know that everybody is probably dealing with something difficult, and not only did that mean to just try to bring a sense of kindness and warmth and humility to every interaction. But I also think that for me, it made me feel like I didn’t want to be the one that lets everybody down. Like, I’m going to try to do my best to continue to work through all of this stuff, because I know that everybody else is doing that, and I want to make sure that I’m bringing my best to the table, as well.
I think for me, it’s just another experience for me to learn what I need to be able to mentally persevere and deliver the best work possible, and also how to put any of that energy into the music.
Coping With COVID-19 Crisis
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