This October, HBO premiered a dark yet bizarrely humorous film about the final days of the infamous Hervé Villechaize. Starring Game of Thrones favorite Peter Dinklage, My Dinner with Hervé was a passion project of sorts for the lead actor and for writer-director Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock and The Terminal). Gervasi, who worked for years on the screenplay with Dinklage, in reality interviewed the titular Hervé immediately before the actor committed suicide, making the HBO project all the more personal for both.
The real-life story and weight behind My Dinner with Hervé, considering the tragic fate of the real Hervé as well as the actor’s notorious wild side, called for a very specific sort of film score. Composer David Norland (20/20 and November Criminals), a longtime friend and colleague of Gervasi who knows exactly how much passion went into the script and production, had a big job ahead of him. The film involves some immensely complicated characters, including the movie’s journalist and recovering alcoholic Danny Tate, played by Jamie Dornan.
Norland revealed he had in actuality been working on ideas for the score for a long time, just in case, knowing Gervasi had been developing the script. “One of the things that’s helpful is that I’ve known him for a very long time,” Norland says, “we were in a band together in high school. The barriers are down.” From the beginning, Norland intended for the score to “serve as the internal journeys of the two people” and worked on finding a “musical language” which would also easily encompass all of the time periods My Dinner with Hervé jumps across.
We opted for a softly recorded piano and a soft strings section; that was the center of my ensemble.
Stating that at the beginning it was a journey of both experimentation and exploration, Norland explains that he would bring his compositions to Gervasi who, as the director, would then see which scenes or moments he emotionally connected each piece to. “My job when I’m working with him is to [bring] my aesthetic to it and also try to align it with his aesthetic because he’s the storyteller,” Norland says, also mentioning somewhat cheekily that Gervasi has great musical taste, as he used to be a heavy metal drummer back in the day.
I write scenes around the themes and around the characters, versus around the scenes themselves.
For example, Norland says, in the scene where Tate gets news of Hervé’s suicide there is an especially soft piece of music that plays which was actually meant for an entirely different part of the film. “But it was so sad, and he [Sacha] moved it to where it ended up and it worked beautifully.” Norland explains that some things spring out fully formed, while others he has to revise “umpteenth times” to get them to what they most need to be.
He says he is a big supporter of the Brian Eno school of thought, firmly believing in creating “happy accidents” and in constantly “trying to find new ways and new emotions.” The punk rock approach is the best approach for Norland, meaning he often finds success in “turning everything up to eleven.” In terms of writing music for a film like My Dinner with Hervé, Norland says quite simply that the story is all laid out for you, “you’re just reacting to it.”
Music comes from my own emotional reaction to the story.
Probing further into the heart behind the story itself, Norland describes how the titular actor came to be. “Hervé had a strong sense of humor and a strong sense of adventure, and the extreme things that took place in his life reflect it,” he says, citing the brutality the young Hervé Villechaize faced growing up. Norland wanted to make it clear that everyone working on the project wanted to get the right balance — recognizing that My Dinner with Hervé is “very tragic, but at the same time there’s a lot of crazy humor.”
The humor is there when he gets to New York, and he’s walking down the street in this super sharp suit. I did a piece of late 50s/early 60s post-pop jazz for that. It’s a really light moment.
However, despite these important lighter moments of Hervé’s story, the score for the film more so emphasized the tragic parts. Norland says that where the score has the biggest job to do comes when Hervé is rejected by his mother and then later in the film when he realizes that he has, in effect, destroyed his own life. “The journey of the journalist”, Tate, also demands a lot emotionally from Norland’s film score. It’s “quite a heartbreaking score,” he says, stating that when you are working on a film where internal journeys are so crucial, score accomplishes this much more effectively than would source music, for example. And without a doubt, this is a film where its effectiveness very much hinges on the internal journey of each character. “That’s a job for score,” he says.
In regards to working alongside HBO, Norland admits he started out with a little bit of trepidation, noting their reputation and realizing he had to bring his A-game as an artist. However, he says once he came to realize how “amazing and supportive” the people were, all of his concerns melted away. “You realize we’re all just here to tell the story.”
Reflecting on his work with My Dinner with Hervé as well as his previous films and television programs, Norland again emphasizes that “at the end of the day, the only way I can really effectively channel a story, is if I have an emotional reaction to the story in the first place.” For him, this is ultimately his job as a composer, and for years has shaped the way he tackles each project.
Every single thing you do is an act of taste — do I want this or do I want that? Is this working or should I do something different? All you can do is keep creating no matter what situation you’re in. Try not to stop it before it’s been made. And if it wasn’t what was needed, then make something else. Keep creating.