Anyone who has heard the scores of award-winning composer Dan Romer knows the emotion that flows through his music. Making a splash in 2012 with Ben Zeitlin’s socially conscious fairy tale Beasts of the Southern Wild—a little, lovingly made indie that went on to receive four Oscar nominations—Romer’s presence has been felt frequently since. Most recently recruited for David Shore’s ABC drama The Good Doctor and Drake Doremus’ futuristic romantic drama Zoe, Romer has left his mark on such acclaimed projects as Beasts of No Nation, Gleason, A Cambria and Atypical, while his potent BTSW score has been borrowed for various trailers and commercials.
If Romer is known for his signature brand of emotive, visceral music, it’s because emotion is the composer’s starting point and primary focus. “I love that my job is pretty much just dealing with making people feel things, or suggesting that people feel things, and in the process, making myself feel things,” Romer said recently, sitting down as the guest of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “As long as something feels emotionally relevant to me, then I’ll want to work on it.”
Based on a South Korean medical drama of the same name, The Good Doctor was, for Romer, as emotionally resonant a project as one could hope to find. The series follows Freddie Highmore’s Shaun Murphy, a young surgeon with autism and Savant syndrome who is recruited by a prestigious hospital, facing his own share of personal challenges while demonstrating the limitlessness of his potential, rising above the prejudices and preconceptions of those around him.
Like Dr. Gregory House—the protagonist of another acclaimed Shore medical drama—Shaun Murphy is an outsider with exceptional abilities. But for Romer, what was exciting about the character was that the similarities to House ended there — in contrast to that irreverent antihero, Murphy is a lot more earnest.
“You’re just rooting for him so hard, and you can be just unapologetically on his side with the music,” Romer explains. “Most of our characters that we deal with have more flaws, in terms of morality—[but] Shaun has this beautiful spirit that’s so rewarding to write music for.”
In crafting his unreservedly emotional and upbeat score for Good Doctor, Romer started not with specific themes but with a broader notion of sound. “The first thing that I want to figure out is what kind of a world we live in. Because I don’t really know what kind of melodies and what kind of chord progressions are going to work until I know what kind of a world we’re in,” Romer says. “If you’re in the right kind of musical world, just chords can feel like a theme. I really feel like for me, sound dictates what my melody and harmony is going to feel like.”
Picking up a range of instruments in his youth—from guitar to piano to the accordion—Romer set out with a simple idea in mind, one that has informed his work ever since. “I was kind of like, ‘OK, so if I can just get my hands on a really cheap version of an instrument, I can become mediocre at it in like a few months,’ ” the composer says. He immedialtey found it important to his creative process to have as many instruments around him at any given time as he possibly can.
A hands-on composer, Romer is involved on the projects he takes on through the final mix, recording each instrument in the ensemble diligently, one by one. “I’ve mixed every score that I’ve written. Mixing is an incredibly creative part of the process,” Romer says. “But I mix as I go, generally. I can’t tell if an instrument is what it needs to be until it’s got distortion, reverb, compression, EQ.”
Check out our conversation above.
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