It took ample trial and error for composers Mark Isham and Isabella Summers to get to the heart of Little Fires Everywhere.
Created by Liz Tigelaar, the Hulu miniseries centers on a Shaker Heights matriarch and her family whose lives are upended, when a mysterious mother and daughter come into town. The drama called for a score that would “capture the essence of these women,” Summers says, who had become completely entangled with one another. “We had an intellectual description in mind. We wanted to embrace big rock drums, chamber strings. Burning piano had become a sound,” Isham adds. “I literally have a sample of a piano that’s been set on fire, which seemed apocryphal and cool.”
But to translate intellectual understanding into an emotional, sonic experience, the pair first had to learn how to work as collaborators. One of the driving forces behind English indie rock band Florence and the Machine, Summers came to the project with no experience in TV scoring; Isham, on the other hand, was a veteran of the craft. Given their differing backgrounds, the duo initially had differing creative impulses, finding that they needed to strive for common ground.
Ultimately, though, the Emmy-nominated pair worked together closely, and in person, to create a product that was greater than the sum of its parts. Below, the composers explain the creative breakthrough they came to while working on the series, and the magic of true collaboration that unfolded between them.
DEADLINE: How did you get involved with Little Fires Everywhere? What drew you to the project?
ISABELLA SUMMERS: Obviously, I’m “The Machine,” and I’ve been writing songs my entire career. Long story short, I met a lady called Mary Ramos because I did a piece of music for my friend, Sam Levinson’s film, Assassination Nation. Sam is a dear friend of mine, and he was so excited about it, it became score. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but he used it throughout his film again and again, this piece of music that I made.
So, Mary Ramos was a music supervisor on that. She said, “You’re amazing. I want you to do score.” And I was like, “Hell, yes. I would love to.” Then, I was coming to the end of a very long worldwide tour with Florence, and she said, “Hey, I think I’ve got a show for you. Would you be interested in working with the incredible Mark Isham for a miniseries with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington?” I was like, “You don’t even need to finish the sentence. Yes.” [Laughs] So, it was not my intention to get into television, but television it is. And here we are. It’s the most amazing thing.
MARK ISHAM: I’ve been a longtime friend and collaborator with Dawn Soler, who runs the music department for ABC [Television]. She came to me and said, “Look, we’ve got this show that we’re producing for Hulu, and we’ve got The Machine. We think that the collaboration with you, an experienced hand at this, would be really fantastic.” So, Isa and I got on a phone call, and it was like this. We were yelling, and screaming, and laughing…
SUMMERS: I remember, actually because it was pouring with rain, and really dark. It was autumn in London, and I don’t really think I knew what I was getting myself into. I still don’t.
DEADLINE: What did Liz and the show’s key creatives describe to you about the sound they had in mind here? Did they leave things open-ended?
SUMMERS: It was vague as f**k. [Laughs] They did know that they had hired me and hired you, so there was already a consensus that there was going to be the beauty and the sensibility coming from your end, and then a bit more of the war aspect coming from me. So, I think that was the beginning thought.
ISHAM: I think what was the most crucial was that you and I came to that conclusion on our own in a big way, and we stuck to that. That was really our lifeline throughout the whole thing. I remember coming out of a meeting before you’d even come to America yet, and saying to Dawn and Liz, “Look, we’re not going to do this in the Hollywood way, where two composers get together and, ‘You do all the romance, I’ll do the action, and I’ll see you next year.’ We’re going to actually sit in a room together.” I told Dawn, “You’ve got to sort out the logistics of this. It’s like [a] band. We want that magic of a true collaboration.”
That was what had sold them to hire us in the first place, but it was also our ideal, “This is what we are going to do.” I don’t think they were prepared for what that sounded like. It was very good intellectually, and I only say this because this did take some work, to get the producers to see what we were actually offering them. It wasn’t the easiest job in the world to get off the ground.
DEADLINE: What did your process look like, when you first started working together on the score?
ISHAM: Sometimes I would turn to Isa and say, “Just give me a badass beat.” [Laughs] But we’re in the same room; it’s not like she’s sending it to me. It’s like, “Pull your chair up to the keyboard and do something.” Or “Send those samples over from your laptop and cut them together the way you would start a song.” Or “Give me those four chords that you think are the great pop hook that we’d need for this. The romance pop hook or the betrayal pop hook.” We were in there together, and somebody would touch the keyboard, and I remember Isa likes things really in the high register. [Laughs] She likes drums of war—huge, dark war drums, and then all this high [register] s**t. I would actually physically take her hands and move them down the keyboard.
SUMMERS: Then I’d be like, “Do you know what? I think it should be two octaves higher.” Then by the end of it, it was a bit of a running joke. But also, there was a lot of things that we discovered that were off-bounds, from the very beginning. I was like, “I come from a really analog perspective, where we stomp and clap. Have you got any microphones?” And Mark, straight away, was like, “Uh, nope. We’re going to do it all in MIDI to begin with.” Because we had the opportunity of recording real strings. We knew we were going to have some instruments, so right from the very beginning, we were able to write beautiful string parts. There was also all of these amazing Moogs, and Virus keyboards and synthesizers, in the back of Mark’s studio, which I went straight for, and then got shut down. That was another thing. I was like, “Oh, yes. Synths.” “Nope. Absolutely not.”
ISHAM: The irony is, though, that the one sound that opened up about a third of the score turned out to be off the Virus, a hybrid analog/digital synthesizer that just sounds wicked cool. So, it was all unpredictable, and just fun.
DEADLINE: How would you describe the sound you were pursuing? And how did you get to it?
ISHAM: I think we worked backwards, to be honest with you. The breakthrough came on Episode 4. Really, Episodes 1, 2, 3, we were struggling. The producers didn’t really like anything we were doing. They kept going back to the temp, which was pretty straight ahead. Look, I love Tom Newman, but that’s an easy choice. Put Tom Newman anywhere and it works. That’s where they were at, and it didn’t allow us to find something really unique for the show that they could embrace.
It wasn’t really until Episode 4, Isa sent me something that I said, “Well, this is just fantastic. Let me take a pass through it.” We put it at the closing scene of Episode 4, and I believe this is the one we’re nominated for. Both of us went, “S**t, this is it. This is where we need to get to. This is the dark, the underbelly, the energy, that throbbing hatred that’s buried in people’s soul. All that stuff that we’ve been looking for, it’s right there.” It’s visceral, and it’s pop. It’s very accessible, but it had all this emotion.
Really, we then worked backwards from that. The good news is it isn’t 22 episodic episodes, where Episodes 1 and 2 had already aired. We could go back and learn from that, and disassemble it. I think three chords got stripped out of that, and that became how we got into the show in the very opening of Episode 1.
DEADLINE: At what point did you figure out the show’s main title theme?
ISHAM: That was working along in a parallel line. Every three or four days, we would take half a day, and go back to the main title and tweak it up.
SUMMERS: There is a lot of drama going on throughout the score to match what was happening with Reese [Witherspoon] and Kerry [Washington], so that was definitely what we wanted to pull from with the main title, and make sure that everyone who knows how the show is going to go can get it from what happens at the beginning.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that your score features strings, piano, synthesizer and big rock drums. Did the harp also come into play?
ISHAM: Yeah. That comes from Isa, and Isa’s world. You’ve really brought the harp into popular culture in a way that very few people have.
SUMMERS: I’ve always thought that harp works so beautifully with strings and piano, so it was really fun to explore that with this.
DEADLINE: The instrument certainly adds a layer of magic to everything.
SUMMERS: It’s absolutely magical. Harp is the most magical of instruments, especially when it’s played through pedals.
ISHAM: We found this young gal who plays the harp through guitar pedals and s**t, so that was fantastic. That was the best of all worlds, right there.
SUMMERS: It just creates a dream. It creates a layer of the dream over the top of everything.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your use of strings and drums?
SUMMERS: The strings were super fun because we got to record real strings. That was freaking amazing. Capitol Records.
ISHAM: Also, Izzy, the character, plays violin. So, you could then pull a solo violin out of the strings and put that on top of things. Because she’s such a central character to driving the chaos. She’s sort of the top of the burning pyramid, so that sound of the solo violin can really help drive that.
But the interesting thing about drums…In modern production, drums are one of the first things that get sampled and used electronically because quite frankly, it’s pretty easy to do, and pretty easy to make them sound pretty great. So, my experience in drums in film and television is, if I have a limited budget, I don’t use real drums, because you can get a great drum sound electronically. And Isa and I literally would have this discussion every day for months. She would say, “You’re not going to beat real drums. It’s got to be real drums,” and at the end of the day, she was 100% right. It just brought a whole level of excitement and rock and roll, that Isa sound. It’s The Machine. It really brought that whole thing to life.
DEADLINE: Given that you come from different spheres in the musical world, your collaboration here must have been quite unique. What did you enjoy about it? What stood out about the experience?
SUMMERS: First of all, I’ve never score a television show, so that’s the biggest thing. Working with Mark was obviously just an incredible situation, beause it was so interesting to see how things would have to hit certain points, or fit in a certain box.
ISHAM: I’ve produced all my films and television for a number of years now, and I think from day one, when this was offered, I recognized, “Look, here’s somebody who’s produced a body of work over the years that I’ve never done, and I don’t have a vast experience doing that sort of thing. So, let’s just make sure, as we go through this, that that’s allowed to really come in and become a force in the whole process.”
And I think just the mutual respect we have for each other, and the fact that we both did commit on that first meeting to a true collaboration. I kept saying my final criteria, and I think it was Isa’s, too, was that anything we released to the producers is something that I would have never done quite like that, and that she would have never done quite like that. In other words, it had taken on a life of its own, and a sound of its own, and really was a piece of work that was truly collaborative.
Writing for film and television can be a very lonely business, as I’ve noticed in the last four months. You know, my personal life hasn’t changed that much. I get up, and I go sit in a room by myself for eight or nine hours, and I come out and I eat, and I go to bed. So, I think just having a soul mate come in and share that time with you, it’s a unique experience for me, and it’s just fun. It changes the dynamic, and then when you have that trust in each other, it just gets better.
DEADLINE: Was your biggest challenge on the series just getting to your breakthrough on Episode 4?
ISHAM: It took us a little longer than usual because we’d never worked together, and we had this commitment to find out the sound. But quite frankly, that was really smooth. I mean, we didn’t have any bumps in our own creative process. We churned out a ton of material, and a lot of it ended up being the final score.
I think that was the hardest hurdle that we had here, because it was a brand new, interesting sound. Nobody had imagined that this was what it was going to sound like, and we had to do some salesmanship, to be honest with you. We had to really figure out new and inventive ways of presenting the stuff so that it could really win [the producers] over. Once we’d done that, then it smoothed out. Episode 4 was really a turning point because we learned what was going to work, and therefore what we did was, we want back then and scored Episode 1, knowing what we’d learned in Episode 4, and then sat them down in a darkened room and played the entire episode, scored our way. And they got up and said, “You’re right! It is cool.”
To watch Isham perform select cues from the Little Fires Everywhere score, click on the video below.
Must Read Stories
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.