Robert Duncan: Having Fun Scoring the Castle

An Interview with Robert Duncan by Richard Buxton
Originally published @ Tracksounds: The Film Music Experience
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor Christopher Coleman

As the ABC dramedy CASTLE continues through its fourth season on air, versatile composer Robert Duncan explores his work on the show and his previous experiences of scoring hits such as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, THE UNIT and THE CHICAGO CODE, and offers an insight into the differences between TV and Film scoring.

How exactly did you land the role of CASTLE’s composer?
I heard about the show in the pilot stage and had a meeting with one of the executives at ABC. She then took my demo CD and gave it to CASTLE producers Andrew Marlowe and Laurie Zaks. They got a few submissions, but kept coming back to me and eventually I was chosen. I was very lucky.

Looking back over the previous three seasons of CASTLE, how would you say your music has evolved, and have such changes been a result of major storyline shifts or you establishing a greater understanding of the characters and the world they inhabit?
The music has evolved with the characters. During the pilot, the main characters, Castle and detective Beckett were just meeting each other and there was an almost primal, slightly animalistic element to their flirting. Now their relationship is a lot deeper and the music has become more introspective.

Being a comedy / drama, how has your approach to scoring CASTLE differed to say, a straight drama? Is the act of balancing the two genres a hindrance, or does it allow you greater freedom to experiment musically?
Each show I work on has its own unique personality and vibe that I try to tap into. Even the way comedy is handled in a show can widely vary. My first lesson in scoring comedy was working on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. The producers took what I think was a clever approach to the comedy: don’t play it. With just a few exceptions, music always played the ‘straight man’, and sidestepped the humor. ‘Clear for the joke’ I would hear in meetings, meaning a bar ringout and rest, or sustain before continuing. Occasionally the music had some tongue-in-cheek or winking but not much. With CASTLE, the music plays more literally. The producers want the music to contour with almost every beat. Balancing comedy with drama isn’t an awkward feat; in my mind it’s a palette and sensibility choice. One painting may be entirely made from varying shades of blue. Another may have blues, reds and greens.

Recent years have seen the likes of CASTLE, HUMAN TARGET, 24 and LOST all provide audiences with highly cinematic television experiences and the musical scores to match. Do you think a greater emphasis is being placed upon music in TV recently?
The divide between television and movies does seem to have lessened as you see more feature actors taking TV roles. There are other considerations behind the trend as well. Many TV scores rely on technology to make delivering thirty-five minutes of underscore in four days possible every week. Sample libraries are getting more and more cinematic and because TV composers are getting closer to a bigger budget sound, editors are temping shows with big feature scores and the expectations are high that what will come back will satisfy. I am very happy the genre of live orchestral television scores still exists! Shows like LOST and REVENGE seem to have not only caught the torch passed to them by the Star Treks and the Simpsons, but they also sound new. In fact, I believe the flood of cinematic samples in pro sound libraries these days will start to sway our opinions on what is fresh, and we may find ourselves leaving some of the more traditional musical sounds behind.

TS- Your music for CASTLE manages to create an engaging and cinematic feel while simultaneously retaining a unique sound when compared to the music heard in many other TV shows. How do you ensure that your music remains fresh each episode whilst maintaining and developing themes and ideas throughout each season?
When I first worked on two shows at once (VANISHED and THE UNIT) I realized I needed a bigger space to work out of. I found an old vacant rock and roll studio in North Hollywood with a large-ish (1300 sq ft.) live room. When I first moved in, it was a lot of empty space, but over the years the space has filled up with my ever-expanding collection of music oddities and instruments. If there is a unique sound to my scores, I believe it comes from the live room. For Richard Castle’s hijinks, I would pull out a mandolin and play on it with wire brushes. I would also use an Udu (ceramic drum) for some of the quirky Castle moments. I work with a team, and sometimes goes down in the live room that is worth keeping, we’ll make a sampler instrument out of it for future use. Another aspect to finding the shows musical identity involves the taste of the producers. Director / Exec Producer Rob Bowman confesses to have a ‘string allergy.’ Self-imposed limitations are one of the greatest steps toward creative thinking I believe.

Your previous credits include the likes of THE UNIT, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, TERRIERS, and THE CHICAGO CODE. With such a varied back-catalogue, how do you find your previous experiences help you in the scoring of CASTLE? Would you say the process of scoring CASTLE provides a fresh challenge?
I hadn’t worked on a show quite like CASTLE before. It does have a wide scope and a range musically. The writers keep coming up with unique ideas for stories, so the freshness flows from the top. Every show is a workout that flexes different musical muscles. CHICAGO CODE was great fun to score because it had an element of Black Keys and Smashing Pumpkins to it with an aggressive in-your-face style. Having to adapt to different styles is one of the key ingredients to keeping the job satisfying.

Other than a number of high-profile TV shows, you have also worked on feature films. How do you vary your approach when scoring TV as opposed to film, and do you have any preference?
Quite often television wants to have the scope and dramatic impact of feature film, but in reality the movie-audience is a captive audience and are much less likely to abandon it halfway through. Because of this, TV shows are produced with more economical ‘moments’ for the music to take charge. Probably the single biggest draw to scoring films for me is the importance placed on quality over speed. A film score is more likely to get mixed by a scoring engineer and have more live players on it simply because you’ll have more time to get the job done (or at least one hopes!) The TV world is fast and furious, and although some shows manage to pull off weekly scoring sessions, it is the exception not the rule, unfortunately. I enjoy scoring both, for different reasons. It’s nice to know you have a steady job with a successful series like CASTLE and honestly, if it wasn’t for my series work, I would not have been able to invest as much as I did into films like THE ENTITLED. The majority of my career thus far has been television so when the opportunity comes to dive into a feature it’s very refreshing!

With a number of TV and Film composers moving into interactive entertainment, is the scoring of video games something that would interest you? Would you have a preference for a particular style of video game if you were to score one?
My favorite video games have a surreal element to them like Silent Hill, Bioshock and Max Payne. I would love to work in those genres, but also love music that helps trigger feel-good brain chemistry, so a nice action game would be great too!

You have been working on the new show MISSING. How has your experience on that been so far? How have your compositions for the show differed to those of your past projects?
It is a fact-paced espionage thriller with an emotional-dramatic element to it as well. They shot it in very exotic locations in Europe so the footage I got to work with is beautiful. Speaking of feature film talent coming to the small screen, Ashley Judd plays the lead, a retired CIA agent who goes looking for her abducted son. She, along with some other actors from the film world makes this show very engaging. We are mixing episode 7 of 10 today, so in a few months we’ll be wrapped, long before the March premiere date. That in itself sets it apart from other projects, in which we’re often mixing only a few days before it airs.

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