Image via Netflix
David Buckley is an Emmy-nominated film and television composer who has collaborated with numerous industry heavyweights, from Paul Greengrass to Ben Affleck. On his latest project, he reunited with showrunner Allan Heinberg, author Neil Gaiman, and Renaissance virtuoso David S. Goyer to The Sandman on Netflix.
He recently took some time to talk about his involvement with We Got This Covered, getting lyrical about the challenges and cherished moments that made up his time on the project.
His involvement in The Sandman may not seem like an obvious coincidence at first glance, so how did he get involved?
You realize how vast The Sandman the landscape is, this is not pure fantasy, and I think that’s the point, we’re in so many different spaces. When Allan Heinberg and Neil Gaiman were figuring everything out before there was a composer attached, they chose music from many different genres. They looked across the spectrum of what they were doing and thought I might be a good fit. Although there were many composers in the tent, it seems that he had checked several boxes and The Sandman I needed someone like that. Neil Gaiman himself said that the first season feels like seven pilots. The fact that during my career I have not lived in a musical space, but literally inhabited in a crowd, is possibly what caught their attention.
In terms of collaboration, with Neil Gaiman and David Goyer, how did that influence your creative process?
In the world of television there are many chefs. In addition to Neil and David, there is also Netflix, DC, Warner Bros. and many other people involved. My conduit to all of them was showrunner Allan Heinberg, because you really need all of these influences to funnel through one person. For me, it was Alan and I who had the initial creative conversations that we had from start to finish. Any thought of Neil or David or anyone else would come through Alan, and he and I talked non-stop.
The initial stage was him guiding me through this universe that I didn’t know very well. I was aware of The Sandman and this genre, having worked in the Wonder Woman franchise and batman: arkham knight. However, I didn’t know mythology in depth, so my first conversation with Alan was really ‘here’s Neil’s world, now what are we going to do’.
As this story unfolds, The Sandman moves between different realms on a whim. What challenges did that present in terms of songwriting?
The challenges are great, because everyone plays temporary music to be able to show a cut in the studio. It’s a band-aid most of the time that gets them through the process. However, if I were to use some of that music, even though I created it, there would be no thematic consistency in any dramatic ideas within the show.
It’s 10 hours of drama and you have to watch every situation you find yourself in. If you’re in a hellscape, you need to paint some of it and give it an identity. If you’re looking at someone clinging to her beloved as they share one last moment together, we need to respect that as well. I also had to respect the thread that needs to live throughout the entire show, and that of course is Dream.
It’s my job to keep her presence alive, to let us know that Dream is at the center of everything, because we all dream, we all have nightmares. When I was putting the soundtrack album together, it was omnipresent, it’s always there. If you just look at it locally, a piece of music here, a piece there, it’s going to be very sectional and not very satisfying, particularly for me as a composer. It will feel like writing different shows, literally going from a horror show, to a fantasy, to a drama. I have to think of it all the time as one big piece, which was a challenge with so much material.
Each of the lead actors, from The Corinthian to Johanna Constantine, has their own agenda. How did you make that distinction through music?
One really important thing that Alan felt was integral to the music in telling this story was its ability to help these characters feel things emotionally. He wanted to help the characters connect with their situation, but also allow the audience to share in those feelings. It was a more emotional score than he expected, with moments of deep tragedy and personal trauma that Alan wanted me to emphasize. These characters aren’t just from comics, we wanted them to feel things like humans would.
Corinthian is an interesting character, who really feels things and is not just a stereotypical villain, so I never tried to make him sound bad. Instead, I tried to make it musically intriguing, seductive, and sexy. With Johanna Constantine, my focus changed again, as her story contains inherently tragic elements. Then it was about what are the emotions that these characters experience. It’s not about heroism, it’s not, here’s the theme of the hero, here’s the theme of the bad guys, it’s more about what Dream feels, what Johanna feels. Everyone has their reasons, but I wanted to try and feel what they were feeling and help the audience connect with that as well.
To what extent do you think compositing on any project is similar to world building, like a production designer?
I definitely think there are similarities, but in terms of world building on this show, a big part of it early on, at least, was discussing what we didn’t want to do. There was a lot of discussion about what the score shouldn’t be. How do we evoke the notion of the realm of dreams, what is our perception of an environment like hell, what is our perception of the vortex? There is nothing literal about any of these things, they are all an amalgamation of scenery, music, acting, lighting and we all play a part.
It was great to have time to look at things, although the visual effects often come very late in the process. The moment I actually composed it, that was the moment the visual effects really came to life. Early in the project, there was talk of the score living in an extremely ambient realm, sort of atmospheric, and possibly not much else. I think we definitely pushed it beyond that, allowing the music to really take hold. The Sandman.
Having worked with Paul Greengrass, Ben Affleck, and now Allan and Neil Gaiman, how would you say your creative approaches differ?
That’s one of the things I love about my job, is when you have these interactions with creative people who are all so different. How cool is that, especially if you get along with these people and can cross the finish line. That’s not to say that the process is easy, it’s like anything in life, you get the best when you struggle with something.
At the beginning of the process it was difficult to get where we wanted, but we persevered and fought. We met and while it could have been an exhausting and desperate process at times, when we met that line at the other end it felt satisfying. All of the people mentioned and all of the other directors present their own set of challenges. They ask me to take care of a certain part of their creation for a moment, and it is a moment, considering that they could have been working on it for years.
I was working on it Sandman for a year, which is an extraordinary amount of time for me. In an ideal world, even if creative people think differently, what you really want to find in everyone who is similar is a willingness to listen to what you have to say. There was a lot of respect for my opinion during this project, which I have found with many people over the years, but even more so when it came to The Sandman.
As a composer, what is more important in a project, the people involved or the story being told?
This project checked a number of boxes for me. I’ve done a lot, one of the great TV shows I’ve done that has received critical acclaim is The good wifewhich is sequenced in the good fight. This is such a different animal, it has taken itself out of the headlines, criticizing Trump and America’s right wing, and that required something very specific. I’m actually working on the final season of that right now.
But The Sandman it’s a real starting point for me and I don’t necessarily have the résumé or bio that says “we should get Buckley on this.” I think it involved some lateral thinking on your part which I hope has paid off. I liked the darkness, the attitude and the variety of this project that made me think more quickly. It was also a new musical world for me in terms of genre, as I really don’t think it belongs in fantasy. Nevertheless, The Sandman It allowed me to flex some rarely used creative muscles, which is great.
Describe to me your perfect Sunday afternoon.
Can you start at lunchtime? Having recently returned to England and been away for 16 years, I love the idea of a great Sunday brunch. Good red wine, maybe some port afterwards, and then fall asleep in front of a james link movie. That sounds a lot more like Christmas Day. Having worked like a dog for the aforementioned 15 years, I try to find one day a week where I try and don’t work. Sunday traditionally falls into that category for a lot of people, so I like to try to embrace it when I can and do the lovely traditional things that have worked for hundreds of years. I enjoy cooking so I try to make Yorkshire puddings too. Then of course I get blue Sunday night, it’s Monday morning, back to work!
You can catch David Buckley’s acclaimed latest work as a songwriter by tuning in to The Sandman, now streaming in its entirety on Netflix.