How to score a TV show, according to Arrested Development’s David Schwartz

How to score a TV show, according to Arrested Development’s David Schwartz

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music-festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

While the average television viewer might say he likes a show for the acting or writing, a far greater number of people have a hand in making any given show—or even just making what shows up on the screen—than just those relatively glamorous contributors. There are editors and prop people and hairstylists, makeup artists, caterers, and animal wranglers. There are also music supervisors and composers, both of whom work to set the aural atmosphere. 

While music is obviously important, original composers don’t always get the attention that supervisors of shows such as Girls and The O.C. do. While placing a track from Robyn might make or break an episode of a show, the dozens or even hundreds of little tracks a composer places throughout the same episode make just as vital an impact.

David Schwartz is one of those undersung composers. He’s written thousands of Elvis Costello-like ditties—including the theme song—for Arrested Development and a drumming, majestic opener for Deadwood. He also penned the score and theme for Northern Exposure and composed music for Mitchell Hurwitz’s Sit Down Shut Up. The A.V. Club talked to Schwartz about his process, his time at Northern Exposure’s The Brick, and his work on all four seasons of Arrested.

The A.V. Club: How does the scoring process start? 

David Schwartz: It can happen so many different ways. Sometimes it’s a call from my agent. Sometimes it’s someone who knows someone in a word-of-mouth situation. Sometimes someone hears something on the air and finds me either through my agent or directly, and it comes that way. Then you’ll go in for an interview, and sometimes they’ll want you to come in with a big idea, which is challenging if you haven’t seen it. You may have seen the script, you may have some ideas, but they may want to hear a big idea that may not be the idea that you use when you actually do it. 

I find that I’m motivated and inspired by what I see visually in front of me. Bunches of story, what’s the color timing of a picture, what the mood is, and very often I want to write the value that I’m not seeing on the screen. Make it darker, make it come out through light, ask, “Can we make this darker, funnier?”

And then at that point there will be a spotting meeting. In television, most times, it’s with the co-creator or the showrunner and usually a writer or a head writer, and we’ll just sit and go through it and discuss, “Oh, well, this would be a good spot for music,” and if it is, what kind of music do we want here? Some people are very, very exact, and some people are like, “Do what you think is right,” and either one works for me. 

AVC: Let’s say you get called in for something like Arrested Development. How do you come up with an idea, and what do you tell them when you come in?

DS: Sometimes I’ll have a very strong idea, and sometimes I’m just not at that point yet and I hope I can convey to them that I’m going to do something that they’re going to like. With Arrested, I’d already worked with Mitch Hurwitz. He’s incredibly creative; we all hesitate to use the word “genius,” but in this case, I think it’s appropriate. He’s also the funniest person I know. I had done three or four things before that with him, so I knew to expect something fantastic. 

In television, it’s not usually the case that you get an advance script when you’re starting a new project, but in this case I did. I had seen the script for the pilot to Arrested, and I thought it was totally hysterical, and I just wondered who they would get because it hadn’t been cast yet. It was really fascinating to me. Very often on a network television pilot, there are a lot of people with opinions—people from the network, people from the production entities—[and] everyone is passionate about music because they have their favorite music. So for the pilot, there was a tremendous amount of that, and I almost had no contact with Mitch except to say, “Well, let’s just wait for all this to blow over, and we can do what we want.”

He’s always had a very strong love and affinity for things like Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt and stuff like that, so I knew somewhere in that, that would be something we’d get to. So we were talking, and he had been listening to a lot of Elvis Costello, so I started sending him things that were sort of inspired by things like that, and he’d say, “That’s really great; it’s not the theme of the show, but we’re going to use that someplace.” We didn’t even have a theme to Arrested until the third episode, but that’s more because they didn’t have a visual main title. Mitch didn’t want to deal with that, because he wanted to get the first couple of episodes done. 

Then something happened, in this case, which really helped to define the music of the show in a big way. I had just come back with my wife from Bora Bora, and I had found a Tahitian ukulele. I had always been a ukulele fan, but my first night there I went to the hotel bar and heard this sound I had never heard before. I turned around and figured out that there were three musicians, and one was playing what looked like a small electric guitar, but it turned out to be a Tahitian ukulele, which is an acoustic instrument that has the look of an electric guitar, but the sound hole is on the back, so you didn’t know what was going on. I was there for five days, and on the last day, the gentleman who played it found me one. We went on an adventure and drove around. He was very nice, and I brought it back. 

I didn’t really know what I was going to do with it, but as we were finishing the first couple of episodes of Arrested, I got a call from the network saying, “Mitch needs music for his logo; it’s one and a half seconds long.” So that’s always everyone’s favorite challenge: How do you make something memorable in one and a half seconds? So I threw some ideas out to my guitarist, who played it on that little ukulele, and Mitch just loved that sound so much that he asked if that sound could be part of the theme. So that was a big breakthrough right there. 

I just remember thinking with the theme that it was way too much. We were just throwing the kitchen sink and everything at this. I thought that when I got it done, I would go subtract stuff and make it make more sense. But when Mitch heard it he said, “I love it. Can we have more stuff on there?” [Laughs.] So we started adding whistles on top and organs on top, and the more stuff I added, I truthfully had doubts. I was like, “Is this too much?” It’s sort of like the show in that way with all these layers and you have to search for all the inner parts. 

So that’s how the theme came about, and then somehow, along the line, we started having our ukulele version of an old swing tune, and almost every episode starts with one. Especially in season four, I tried to write one that was two or three minutes long that we’d only use a few seconds of, but it’d be there all show long so it’d be a theme of that show. They’d have ukuleles, but they’d also have other instruments, so in a way it sounds like an old swing band, but in a way it sounds like Arrested Development.

AVC: How do you write? Do you sit at home with a piano?

DS: Well, there’s a keyboard in front of me. Sometimes I can be in the car and write something and sort of say, “Will this work in this scene coming up?” But usually I’m in front of a keyboard, and I’ll just put my hands down and something will appeal to me and I go, “Well, that’s the idea,” and then I try to take it to the end of the piece. So, say it’s a two-minute piece, I try to get one whole line, one idea that goes from beginning to end. Then I try to fix it and record it. 

TV, I think, is more challenging than a film where I’d have more time. It forces you to go with your first idea. You have so many pieces of music you have to write every day and record and finish in some way. At the end of that process, which is hopefully a week’s time, we’ll bring in musicians to bring it to another level, but I have to get a lot of finished pieces done every day, so there’s always that deadline there, so you go with your first thought. Sometimes that first thought is bad, but I keep pushing that first thought until it’s better.

AVC: Do you have a say in something like using the Charlie Brown song [Vince Guaraldi Trios Christmas Time Is Here]? Was that something Mitch wrote in?

DS: That song works fantastically. There’s very little outside music in Arrested Development. Most of the time, those cues have come from Mitch or the writers, and they usually have written it in. I don’t know where [Europe’s] “The Final Countdown” came from, but I know it’s been in since the beginning of Arrested, and it works fantastically. I wasn’t that familiar with that piece before that, but now it’s iconic, and sometimes I’ll do a church-organ version of it or something.

AVC: Did you approach the new season of Arrested any differently than you did the first three?

DS: I think there was a lot of trepidation on all of our parts about what worked on the original series. Because when were canceled, it became kind of a big deal. We were so successful after we got canceled, and people would come up to me every day and say, “That was so great.” So to come back after six years of not thinking about it very much, I think everyone wanted to top it in some ways, and I don’t think that’s the best way to tackle a creative endeavor. We will be better because we have that much more knowledge and it’s a different script. 

That being said, there were a lot of differences. These 15 episodes are way longer than the original series of episodes; I think they tend to run around 35 minutes. And that’s a very different proposition than a 21-minute show. There was a lot more music, a lot more opportunities to go with longer pieces of music—which I think is always good for the composer to be able to develop things—and there’s way more interactivity between every episode. So here we are back at the penthouse apartment again, and it’s the same scene as the episode before, and do we want people to be aware of that by playing the same piece of music or will we worry that they’ll think they’re seeing the same scene again? We’d take each time as a different decision, and sometimes after I’d finish writing, we’d just use a different piece or say, “That worked great there, but let’s use the one we used last time because that’ll help people.” 

In most television shows, in two days I’d try to turn around a score with demos that the producer or the director could hear. That’s not the case in Arrested. I don’t know if it’s because Mitch trusts me so much or because he doesn’t have the time, but he tends to hear it for the first time as we’re in the final mix stage. And because of that, I like to go to the final mix. This season might have had about 80 pieces of music per episode, which doesn’t even seem possible, and, if I’m lucky, I get to write half of those and then Mitch adds a bunch with what he’s feeling on the stage.

He also likes to run it by me, so I have an opportunity to chime in and ask if we can go back to what we had, and he’ll say, “Yeah. What if we did this?” There’s a great deal of freedom that I don’t think most people get. I write without a review process, which is an incredible gift that just makes it much better for me. At the same time, I recognize that some people just want to hear it, and that’s totally valid, too. 

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AVC: And you got the chance with Arrested to write original songs like “All You Need Is Smiles” and “Get Along Little Sheep.” How did those come about?

DS: I was actually the original singer of “Smiles.” It was one of my rare vocals before Jeffrey [Tambor] did it. I recently heard my vocal on it, and I didn’t cringe, which is good. But somewhere along the first season, Mitch started asking, “Do we need to use a song here? Can you write a song?” And I said that would be great. So I started writing some of those songs with Gabriel Mann, who is the wonderful singer-songwriter who used to work here with me but has gone on to be a successful composer in his own right. Sometimes we’d write two or three songs a night, and I’d wait as late as I could because I felt I had to write score all day, so he’d come in at maybe 10 p.m. and we’d go as long as we possibly could before exhaustion, and those were the songs. 

One of our great frustrations was that we always wanted to finish the song, even though we only needed a minute for what was going to be on the screen. We thought, “It’d be great if we could have another verse and a bridge for this.” So we’re in the zone, and we’re writing this great song, and you want to finish it in some way. But usually, we had another song to do, and it was 2 a.m., so we had to have practical considerations. But the songs have been great fun and unique to the show. Mitch has a lot of ideas about them. At one point he said, “Why don’t you write a song called ‘Balls In The Air’?” and then we just sort of went… Sometimes he’ll sing stuff in meetings, and sometimes he’ll come up with a lot of lyrics, and sometimes we’ll come up with a lot of lyrics, and there really are no rules. It goes back to what I was saying about the review process. If I think it’s something he’s really going to want to hear beforehand, I’ll send it to him and ask what he thinks. 

AVC: How often do you get shut down? Do you have to write several versions of each song?

DS: Occasionally it happens. Gabe and I wrote “Get Away,” which is in season four, and it’s about this Justin Bieber character who’s called Mark Cherry on the show. Mitch told us it was about the Gob character and meant to imply that he’s this bad illusionist, so I think the first round of lyrics were more on the nose. They said the word “illusionist” and stuff like that. We sent it to Mitch, and he said, “I love everything about it, but it’s just too on the nose.” So he had some lyric change suggestions. It wasn’t being shut down in that case, but I had a feeling that he wanted to hear that one beforehand, and I’m glad that he did. 

And sometimes it’s just wrong. There are so many additional pieces around. There are thousands now, so I feel freedom going in a direction that may not be right and taking a risk because there’s always a piece that can take its place. Mitch will say, “I really like what you’re doing here, but it’s kind of distracting. Can we use this piece?” And he remembers every piece by name, which is unheard of. He has an unbelievable memory for everything.

AVC: Do you get hired by a show full-time for a period of time or do you get paid by the piece? 

DS: The contract is basically that they own you, and you have to deliver, and they own everything in every known universe and format. [Laughs.] And you can’t quit, but they can fire you, and they hire you with the good intention that you’re going to make it through the season and that you’re going to be the show’s composer. Whereas directors are different people who come in during the season, composers are usually hired for the season. Some shows have two composers, and they alternate depending on how much work there is to do, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that. Well, maybe I’ve done it once or twice. But with Arrested the implication was that I was being hired on for the eternity of it unless I screwed up. Shows are like restaurants, and I’m lucky to have had a few that stayed on and a few that are really interesting. 

My first show was Northern Exposure. I came from not really knowing anything, and I wrote the theme song as an audition process. I was shocked when they used it because I knew that they had a Talking Heads song that they were in love with that was competing with my theme, and they had a lot of people in town—which I found out after the fact—that were trying to write something for it. I was even more shocked that they offered me the series because I didn’t know what that entailed. You just have to write by the seat of your pants. I believe that first episode I wrote only 10 pieces—which would be nothing these days when I’m writing 40—and I think they rejected the first nine of them. I thought it was over, and I begged them to just give me another 24 hours. Then they said that, “Well, we might as well listen to the last piece,” so I played it, and they said, “Oh, we love that. Do more of that.” [Laughs.] 

Northern Exposure in some ways was similar to Arrested in that we used all different kinds of music all the time. It would change every week. One week, Josh Brand, who created the show and is another very musical show creator with a broad knowledge of music, said, “Well, this show is like an old Western throwback, so you should get a large orchestra.” So I did what he said. It was a great way to learn. I didn’t write a lot of songs, but I did end up doing a lot of things in the jukebox at The Brick, and Chris the DJ started to play a lot of songs of mine, though I think that was more of a time and budget thing so they could actually mix it up between actual records and the stuff that I’d write. 

AVC: What was the Talking Heads song they wanted to use?

DS: I think it was called “This Little Town,” but they got my theme, and Josh liked it, and it just sort of worked its way into his head, I guess. And then, at some point, they cast the moose, which I guess was named Morty, and it went together really well. In this case, I wrote the music first, and the visual came second. That’s not often the case with a TV theme. It’s a different exercise because you just have to go from a total blank space.

AVC: Do you write to time when you’re doing a theme? Do you think, “This will be a minute long,” and write a track that’s exactly a minute long, or do you write something that you can cut down or expand?

DS: Sometimes I’ll write a minute; sometimes I’ll write 30 seconds. The trend has gotten shorter, but we’re starting to come back from that. The Deadwood theme, which I wrote, is a minute and a half, and that’s such a luxury because you can go to a different mood in the beginning, then finish out and really tell a story. The Arrested Development theme, which I believe is also a very successful theme, is only 17 seconds long. I originally wrote it at 30, and it was a fight. I think the network wanted 10 or 11 seconds. I’m paraphrasing, but I think we ended up at 17. Somewhere in there is this whole other line that I’ve never been able to find again. I’m still trying to find those missing eight bars, but they’re lost. 

AVC: What was your background before getting into the industry?

DS: I had been a bass player my whole life. I’d played in a lot of different musical situations, and I think that was my strength. I also came from a visual background; my whole family is visual artists. My father was a painter, my mother is an illustrator and designer, my sister is a glassblower, and I had been a photographer for a couple of years. So if I had any kind of head start, it’s that I understood translating emotions to visual media, and that’s where I thought I could get a break in this. 

I started to produce people, and I had my own studio. A friend of mine asked me if I knew anyone that would score a film he was making on his own budget with D.J. Webster, who’d had success with music videos in the early MTV days. I couldn’t think of anybody, and then my wife said, “It should be you,” so I proposed myself to him. He said that he already had all these people with credits applying but [that] I should write something and, if he liked it, he’d consider it. He did like it, and I did his film, which never got released. But one person who did see it was Cheryl Bloch, who ended up being a co-producer on Northern Exposure, and she said, “We’re doing this show, and we haven’t found any music that we like. You want to try something?”

AVC: The theme to Deadwood is very different than the theme to Arrested Development. How do you switch musical modes when you’re writing? Are you listening to all sorts of different music at all times?

DS: I have listened to a lot of stuff in my lifetime, but there are times where you really are working all the time and don’t want to hear anything. For Arrested, from January to a couple of weeks ago, I was working pretty much every hour I was awake. I did a little exercise and saw my family at dinner, but that was pretty much it. When you’re doing that, you don’t want to hear music even if you have a few hours off. So it sort of lies there in your head. It’s your whole life’s exposure to it. 

With Deadwood, I understood it wasn’t the kind of comedy I’d done before; I’d done dramas before, but with Deadwood there was the visual that existed, and Steve Turner, who was a producer on Deadwood, had it set to some sort of wacky music. I can’t remember who it was, but it was a wild hoedown kind of piece, but they also wanted the darker sensibilities, too. So Steve called me and said that they hadn’t found the main title yet, and I said I was standing under the Eiffel Tower. He said they needed it by tomorrow, and I said, “Well, it’s the Eiffel Tower in Vegas, so I’m coming back.” So I flew back from Vegas, and literally the next day I had the Deadwood theme. Then he came in with a couple of directors who produced the show, and they really liked it, but they wanted a middle section that was really different, and that was a great suggestion because I had felt it was just one thing. So they gave me another couple of days, and I finished it, and it became what it is now. 

AVC: The work you did on Deadwood is a lot darker than other work you’ve done.

DS: I didn’t do that many episodes of it, but it’s definitely darker and has a theme. I like when I have a dark show and light show at the same time. It’s kind of fun. There are people who just specialize in dark music, but I find it just makes me pretty dark after a while. I like there to be balance. I’m really happy if there’s time to do both.

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