Composer of Dexter – Interview with Daniel Licht

One of the most famous currently running series is Dexter, which is scored by Daniel Licht, a composer primarily known for his work in the horror genre. Even in the case of productions with a minimal budget, his name is guaranteed to bring in orchestral colors and exotic musical solutions. He's career, which now spans over 20 years, is getting a lot better known, we tried to learn more about his work apart.

Could you tell us a few words about your musical education?

I studied composition and performance in college. I had double majors: I did jazz and classical composition. I don't know if I had any role models from school. I know I have favourite composers like Ravel and Debussy, the French school. I love Stravinsky a lot.

Your first score was Children of the Night. How did you get on the project?

That was actually my second score. My first film was a very small feature I did in New York, which I don't even know if it was ever released. For Children of the Night, I was recommended by Christopher Young. Chris was a friend of mine, we actually went to school together. He had worked with Tony on "Hellraiser II" and now he was doing a lower budget film, where Chris wasn't available. Originally it was to be a very small budget score, but I managed to convince the producers to let me hire an orchestra, which was exciting. I finally got a 60-piece orchestra and a choir. 

On what else have you worked together with Christopher Young?

The first film I worked with Chris was Bright Angel. I also worked with him on The Vagrant, Copycat and Jennifer 8. I was working with Chris and on my own films at the same time.

The Inside Out was produced by Playboy and was your first break from horrors. How did you get on the project?

I was brought onto Inside Out through Tony Randall, who directed some of the episodes. The composer on the show was originally Rolfe Kent, but I believe it was too much work for Rolfe, so Tony brought me in to kind of help out and do some of the episodes.

What is the secret of composing music for an erotic series?

Inside Out was mostly really comedy. It was all erotic, but had comedic undertones. It was definitely something new for me. The first film I had done in New York City was a romantic comedy, so I had done a little comedy. I also worked on the show Monsters, which was also quite funny.

Your work on the Amityville sequels doesn't reference the music from the original movie, scored by Lalo Schifrin. Why is that?

You're right, there was absolutely no reference to Lalo Schifrin's music. It was because it took place in a new house, the first one took place in Southern California, it wasn't on the East coast of America. I took a very different approach on the Amityville sequels, much more 20th century, although I absolutely love the original score. I don't know if they even own the rights to that actually.

The sequels are quite melodic, "Andrea's Theme" in particular is a haunting piece. How can you write such beautiful pieces for movies with such disturbing subject?

Sometimes people think horror scores can't be melodic. I think they can be very romantic, since frequently about loosing someone or the fear of loosing somebody. I actually did a main title for Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice, which was still there in the European version, but it was gone in the American version. I had done a very romantic, very evocative main title for the picture, but someone said up in the Miramax chain that it wasn't scary enough. So they replaced that with a typical slasher sounding music. I thought it was a bit of a tragedy. Than years later I head Bob Weinstein who said "You know, that was kind of a waste." I think some of the most melodic and haunting scores are horror scores, but people don't always realize that.

In low budget movies it is often hard to secure an orchestra. How do you argue for the usage of an orchestra instead of a single synthesizer?

At the time, synthesizers weren't quite as good. While the synthesizers and the samples have gotten better at faking an orchestra, I still don't think it's good enough. My argument to these people is that this is the last thing you put on the film and actually the cheapest way to make your production's value go up. It's much cheaper to hire an orchestra than one day of shooting or an extra crane for an overhead shot. I mean if people are willing to pay a crane for a high shot above a scene, why wouldn't they hire an orchestra?

Your music in Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice uses Indonesian instruments and melodies. Where does this fascination with gamelan come from?

I actually studied gamelan music for years. My parents had actually moved to Jakarta when I was already in my 20s. My stepfather was an aid to the Minister of Technology who ended up becoming the President of Indonesia. So they spent seven years in Jakarta and I would visit them where I could study in Bali, because I became really fascinated with the music. It is so rich texturally, very complex classical music. It had improvisational elements as well, just like jazz. It had a kind of metered ostinato, its forms worked actually quite well in the films. Some of the chanting in Children of Corn II: The Final Sacrifice were actually in Indonesian. I wanted to use a choir, but I felt the whole Latin chanting has been overused. Once you have chanting in Latin, everybody immediately thinks of The Omen. I wanted to create a different feel by these Indonesian vocals, than I ended up singing part of it, because studio singers didn't really know how to produce these sounds. 

The Omen is very frequently used in temp scores for horror movies. What's your opinion on temp scores?

I really dislike temp scores. I've always found that I'm most satisfied with my stuff if there's no temp or a temp that's really bad and doesn't influence me at all, it misses the mark so much. The hardest thing is when somebody does a good job at temping a film, because you sort of feel the work's been done – it's a bed that's been already slept in. I much prefer not to have a temp score, because than I can think about what I could bring to it. Everybody brings his own personality to the project and another personality might put music in a different place than another person's musical creativity. Just with the effort of temping, you already make a statement by where you put the music. I think it's unfortunate that the composer is not part of that decision.

While your Amityville scores didn't reference Lalo Schifrin's themes, your score to Hellraiser IV uses a couple of melodies from Chris Young. How did you select when to use the existing themes?

I used Chris' themes a couple of times. In the big scenes where Pinhead appears, I use Chris's big fanfare theme. I also use my own theme which is similar, but also different. In fact I had numerous themes, because it took place in the 1700s, in the present day and in the future, on a space station. I had a slightly more romantic theme for the past, but I referred to his theme, but only in particular instances, not throughout.

Stephen King's Thinner uses Gypsy music through the instrument called cimbalom. What kind of research did you carry out in this field?

Well, just by listening, I didn't take any lessons or anything. I wouldn't call it authentic gypsy music apart from what the player I brought in did. I brought in a special kind of flute and the cimbalom I found in Seattle. I mostly used textures and colours, I didn't study gypsy melodies at all.

Your work on Bad Moon is the first time I don't feel there was a budget constraint as it utilizes quite a large orchestra. How did you get that for the project?

That was a big orchestra, although I should say I've always been constrained by budget. It was mainly by the amount of hours I had to record, I had to do it quick, I never had the time to go back and perfect all the takes as much as I liked. If you listen carefully, you'll notice a couple of mistakes in the score. Bad Moon was a werewolf film where I used some samples of voices and didgeridoos. Generally I'd say I always try to incorporate some world music into the orchestra, at least for the horror and the thriller stuff.

In the mid-90s, you did Zooman and Woman Undone, both of which were outside the genre limits. How did you breach out into other types of movies? 

I actually found Zooman by chance. I had an office across from the editing room for the film Sugar Hill, directed by Leon Ichaso. I befriended him and I kept calling him all the time. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn't work. In this case it worked – after I kept calling him for years, he finally gave me the chance to write a demo for Zooman. He liked what I did and I ended up doing three films together. I got Woman Undone through my agent at that time, but I always tried to move out of the horror genre. It's not that I didn't enjoy it, but one wants to have a varied career. Thrillers are obviously the next thing to do and it already worked for Christopher Young, who started doing thrillers by taking Jennifer 8.

Your work on Alex Cox's The Winner was a replacement score, disowned by the director. How do you work under such circumstances, when the director is against the change?

I was hired by the producers and they basically asked me to replace the score. It was interesting because they gave me the film and said "We need a new score, see you at the recording studio." I don't if I ever had any interaction with them. I did work with Mark Damon, who was very happy with what I did. Creatively, I just had an idea that I pitched to them, that I wanted a loungy kind of score. That was an example where there was no temp and I didn't have to relate to other music. 

After the mid-90s, you've mainly taken television movies. Was this a conscious decision?

I think it was more due to the change in the business. They simply stopped doing mid-level films. It all became either really low budget films or blockbuster movies. The situation hasn't really changed that much except for independent movies. I think it all had to do with financing, taxing reasons and legal matters.

What's your favourite movie from this period?

I guess my favourite film was King Solomon's Mine just because I always wanted to do an action-adventure movie. It took place in Africa and had a Nubian princess, so it had this Egyptian theme. It had action, it had romance, all kinds of fun stuff. I really liked all the genre variations, I don't have a particular favourite. I just like the challenge.

Your returning picture Soul Survivors uses dark electronic textures instead of broad orchestral sounds. Why did you choose this route? 

The music supervisors were using these songs, so the feel was electronica, dark electronica. I wanted the score to relate to the songs they were picking so they'd feel like one. That was really the reason I went into that direction.

You're now primarily working on television. Did you find it to be easier or more difficult to work with 30-minute episodes instead of a full movie?

It's certainly more challenging, but some times not that hard. You can always develop themes, you have this toolbox with themes you can just pull out. It's a lot easier when you get to a scene and you already have the theme, all you have to figure out is how to orchestrate it or how do I make it fit the scene. Sometimes I only have to add two bars here, add an intro or add something into the middle. However, the pace is quicker. When you work on a film, you have one or two months. But with a television show, it's much more unpredictable, weeks can be choppy or thick, depending on how fast the work is coming.

The credits of Jake in Progress and Kitchen Confidential list multiple composers for each series. Did you work together with these composers or was it a decision by the producers to employ more composers, who didn't work together?

On Jake in Progress, the other composer was David Kitay and there the producers hired two different composers on the first season. On the second season, I brought someone in Mark Kilian – we also worked together on some Hallmark movies. On Kitchen Confidential, we worked on that together. The producer liked to have two composers on board, because he was great, but also very demanding. It was lots of working with him, so it took two composers to meet the schedule.

Your most popular series is arguably Dexter. How did you get the job?

I was recommended by the music supervisor, Gary Calamar. Now Gary had some of my music and I think part of the reason I got the job was that I did comedy, I had done thrillers. I was possibly the only person who had the combination of Latin music and horror music. I had some of the Latin music from The Winner and I've done some salsa music for Off Season. Since the show took place in Miami, they were going with this old style Cuban music and they wanted a composer who could work in both worlds. For me, it was just the perfect show with my background.

The original theme was written by Rolfe Kent. Why did the producers hire him instead of having you work out an original theme for the series?

Originally they had Ry Cooder do it, but I don't know much about that since I wasn't involved at that stage. I guess they heard something that Rolfe had done and they were hoping to do the same thing they had on Six Feet Under. Thomas Newman's theme was written separately – I think they wanted to have a separate bookend in the score as well. I think Rolfe did a wonderful job. 

What's your best memory from the series?

The people on the show have been great. They were really supportive, really positive. I've never gotten so much warmth. Frequently you do a good job for someone and sometimes they forget you even participated in their movie. Here, I feel an element of gratitude which I find really satisfying.

There is a rumour that the track "Voodoo Jailtime" uses actual bones. Can you verify this?

On the second season, I had heard about a woman Elizabeth Waldo, an ethno musicologist and composer. I actually had a couple of her LPs I picked up years ago. She has very exotic orchestral compositions using Native or Central American instruments. I heard she had some instruments made from human bones, one of them was a human bone rasp. One of the elements in Dexter, I've been using Latin percussion for some of the lighter, comedic scenes. I though I could use this instrument instead of some of the Latin percussion. I thought it would be conceptually cool and creepy if people knew some of the music was made using human bones. I contacted her and the experience was quite incredible. Playing on instruments taken from museums – I played pre-Columbian Aztec rattles, which I found quite fun.

Will you come back to the series after the writer's strike ends?

I know that Showtime said they want to have a third season and I want to come back. Now it's all up to the writers and the studios to reach some agreement.

What are your latest projects?

I'm now making Kevin Wade's new series called Cashmere Mafia, which airs tonight. They only managed to shoot seven episodes before the writer's strike, but it's a fun show. I'm also writing some music for the Lifetime movie The Memory Keeper's Daughter from a best-seller novel. It stars Emily Watson and Dermot Mulroney, directed by Mick Jackson. It should be pretty good, I haven't seen anything from it yet. I've been busy writing some concert music, classical music, since one of the characters is a guitarist. Because I was originally a guitar player, it's lots of fun trying to write some virtuoso classical guitar music for a live concert. It will be interwoven into the main theme. I don't know when it will come out.

Do you have a dream project?

I don't know if I have a dream project. I just want variety and be challenged all the time.

When you're not writing music, how do you spend your free time?

I study different instruments. Right now, I'm studying to play the cello. I do yoga, I take my dogs for hike.

Photographs from: Tom Kidd, Daniel Licht
March 11th, 2008

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