Most of us don’t remember the days when there were only three television channels (ABC, CBS, and NBC) producing a limited amount of programming. We grew up in the age of cable television with a new channel popping up every few months and more and more new programming available at the click of a remote control button. And just when we thought we couldn’t get any more cable channels, companies like Hulu and Netflix have thrown their hats into the original programming ring with shows like the former’s Fresh Meat and Prisoners of War and the latter’s House of Cards.
Now DirecTV is getting in on the action with their first original show, Rogue, premiering next week on DirecTV’s Audience Network. Rogue tells the story of undercover cop Grace (Thandie Newton) who goes — ahem — rogue to dive deeper into the world of organized crime in order to avenge her son.
I spoke with the show’s composer, Jeff Toyne, about his musical vision for the show, what is was like to watch that vision come to life, and the process of working outside the constraints of standard network television.
Most shows begin the process of to getting to air by creating a pilot episode that is then reviewed and tested by the networks. Rogue was a different scenario as it was given almost a full series order to start, rather than a single pilot. Toyne explained how this opportunity influenced his composing process, saying, “Because the show was a 10-episode order and not a typical pilot, we had the ability to really develop themes for characters and plan out large-scale dramatic arcs. It was really rewarding to be able to introduce a motif in an early episode, knowing it would blossom into a bigger theme later on. We could also be economical about recording sessions – for example, no one episode had enough string cues to justify a full string session, but we were able to combine cues from multiple episodes onto one session.”
Having the ability to watch and get a feel for the first ten episodes also allowed Toyne to vividly understand the characters creating the fabric of the story and to bring in specific musical influences to flesh those characters out.
“I was inspired by the look of the show [think night-time helicopter fly-over shots of San Francisco – very inspiring!] and the story turns suggested some of the material, but the filmmakers were mainly interested in a contemporary sound. In addition to the full complement of synths and samplers, I drew on the background of the characters – for example Jimmy [played by Marton Csokas] came to America from Hungary when he was a boy, so it was a great excuse to bring in Cimbalom and Duduk, two great instruments to write for that both originate in that general region.”
As the lead of the series, Newton’s Grace blurs the lines between her undercover job and her real life which sets up her motivations for constant change and makes her one of the series’ most dynamic characters. When it came to composing for Grace, Toyne explained that, “Music for Grace was a challenge, because she is such a complex character. Her theme used open intervals that I could color harmonically in different ways depending on the moment. That is often accompanied by a tonal cluster that isn’t really dissonant or consonant: it contains all the notes of a particular scale, and again can be colored in one emotional direction or the other depending on what is playing along with it, especially in the bass.”
Music plays an essential role in dramatic, action-driven series since it turns up the emotions and anxiety displayed on screen. There is always a moment when the look of a scene, the performance driving it, and the music come together to create a feeling that is nothing less than magical – one that can suddenly inspire, excite, terrify, or rock you to your core.
Toyne thought back on the series and noted which moment did that for him.
“The first time you see Grace, the opening scene of the series, she is alone on the docks waiting for a drug deal to go down. There is no dialogue for a moment, just the sound of the docks; Thandie introduces her character through her facial expression and the look in her eyes. As a composer it was a great moment to be a part of, I was excited to be able to help set the stage for the entire drama about to unfold.”
While Grace is certainly the centerpiece of the series, she is essentially a character living two different lives who is allowed only moments of truth and honesty that are constantly surrounded by misdirection. It’s a constant struggle to protect herself and the rest of her family. Toyne focused on the actor’s performances when creating the music seeing since the emotions being displayed were not always the true message of a scene, saying, “Grace doesn’t play her heart on her sleeve, and often the word of the day was ‘Restraint.’ Music that was too sentimental or melodramatic wasn’t going to work. I really tried to support the great performances that were already there.”
With the benefit of having the first ten episodes in hand when he began creating the music, Toyne was able to compose directly to picture rather than waiting for filming to be completed. But this also meant that he did not have the luxury to take his time as the show was already starting on post-production.
“By the time I was brought on, all 10 episodes had finished shooting and editing was well under way. The post-production schedule for the show was very compressed. It was a challenge to say the least to keep up, at some points I was working on 3 or 4 episodes simultaneously; between writing, recording, mixing, and addressing notes.”
It is exciting time in television to have so many new formats giving audiences new and original programming. And while these new avenues may allow for some differences when it comes to the creative process, highlighting the performances and connecting audiences to the story will always be music’s main role, no matter what channel it may air on.
Rogue premieres Wednesday, April 3rd at 9:00pm on DirecTV’s Audience Network.