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American Vandal - Interview with Composer Darien Shulman

On Netflix in particular these days there's an enormous amount of content that one could watch, and for me at least, not enough hours in the day to get through it at a reasonable pace, but the streaming giant's American Vandal is one that I might have to nudge up a few spots in my watchlist. Here's an interview with the series' composer Darien Shulman.

American Vandal is somewhat of a dark humor mockumentary but scored as a very series drama. Was this a conscious choice from the show’s creators Tony Yacenda & Dan Perrault?

Definitely. I’ve collaborated with Tony and Dan for years, and this is how we’ve always approached the music, even back when I was scoring their digital shorts for YouTube. I think of it this way, if the music isn’t in on the joke, the jokes land better. In other words, I treated scoring American Vandal no less seriously than if I were scoring any other true crime docu-series.

There is a lot of music in the show. How long did it take you to score each episode?

It’s difficult to pinpoint it, because we were working on multiple episodes at the same time. Also, the episodes vary in length. But if I were to average it down, I’d estimate that a given episode would take 4-5 days to fully score.

Can you talk about the season 1 and 2 theme scores? Can it be said that those opening scores set the tone for how each season will feel musically?

It’s actually the opposite, I think. The title themes don’t really come together until post-production is well underway and a lot of music is already written. So really, the musical palate and themes of each season set the tone for the title themes.

What has been your favorite episode to score in Season 2?

The opening scene of the first episode really stands out for me. It’s an immediate departure from what came before in season 1, introducing a new setting, a new crime, and a new, much darker tone. It was fun to be able to reflect these changes musically, and establish a sound world that is a little scarier and more dissonant.

When you first started scoring American Vandal how did you figure out with the initial sound of the show was going to be?

When I was prepping for season 1, I familiarized myself with the music from other true crime shows, like Making A Murderer, or The Jinx, as well as the podcast Serial. In that sense, the score for the first season is, to a certain extent, an homage to those projects. For season 2, I was excited to create a sound that was uniquely “American Vandal-esque” (please forgive me for that awkward phrase). We knew that the setting and the subject matter necessitated a darker tone for the music. We also wanted to highlight the digital realm of social media in this season, so I found myself using synths and other electronic elements much more heavily.

Has there been a particular character that has been difficult to score? If so, why?

What tends to stay with me when I work on projects like this are the characters that I find the most compelling. For this season of Vandal, it was definitely Kevin McClain. I definitely saw myself in him (and I’m embarrassed to say, there are a lot of 1990s-era photos of me in a newsboy cap). For Kevin, I created a piano based theme that recurs throughout the season— it’s a mournful sounding melody over chord changes that sound a bit anachronistic next to the rest of the music in the season. I think it reflects Kevin’s idiosyncrasies and his loneliness nicely.

Since the show is a mystery, do you approach it differently than other genres? Because a lot of the time the score is used to build suspense in mysteries.

I try to approach each project differently. My goal is to create a sound that is unique to the project, so that people could identify it just by hearing the music. So while season 2 sounds very different from season 1, I made sure to incorporate and reimagine some of the melodies that viewers had already become familiar with in the first season.

What do you think Dylan Maxwell is doing today?

Ha! My guess — he has a new girlfriend and a promotion at Postmates. And he still draws dicks on things.

Since you started out, what do you think are the biggest changes that the film and television industry has experienced from your point of view as a composer?

The advances in technology have really changed the landscape for composers. Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was nearly impossible to create a mock-up that didn’t sound irredeemably cheesy. Nowadays, there is much more overlap between the mock-ups and the final cues that make it to broadcast. That’s great for a score for Vandal season 2, which is synth-heavy— but it can be a challenge when creating a score that sounds best played live on acoustic instruments.

What are the most challenging, and the most rewarding parts of your job?

The blank page at the beginning of the composing process is always the biggest challenge for me. It’s very daunting. But as I build momentum developing musical ideas into complete pieces of music, the challenge transforms its own reward.

That's all from Darien. A big thank you to him for taking the time to answer these questions. The first two eight-episode seasons of American Vandal are streaming now on Netflix. Thanks for reading!

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