Talking with David Buckley about the Music of ‘The Sandman’

The Sandman. (L to R) Tom Sturridge as Dream, Kyo Ra as Rose Walker in episode 108 of The Sandman. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022

I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer David Buckley about his work on the recently released Netflix series The Sandman, based on Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic book series.

After studying music at Cambridge University, David Buckley moved to Los Angeles where he’s since composed music for such films as Shrek the Third (with Harry Gregson-Williams), Wonder Woman, the Fifty Shades films, Big Eyes and American Hustle. In television, Buckley has scored such series as The Good Wife and The Good Fight, and just recently he scored the Netflix series The Sandman, which I got to talk with him about.

I hope you enjoy our conversation!

How did you get connected with The Sandman?

I think like any sort of project that’s starting to look for music and get to the end of the process of guessing what the music should be, they analyzed what was currently in their edits, the temporary music that they use. And I think some of it was mine. Well, I know some of it was mine. And enough of it was a varying nature, I was ticking different boxes. Some of the temporary music of mine they put in was what one might call horror based. Some of it was drama based, some of it was atmospheric. I think there was just a sense of, yes, there’s David Buckley for us. And he’s got music that fits our wide ranging needs for the show. And I think that’s what prompted a call from them.

So I had a conversation with the showrunner Allan [Heinberg], and we got on really well. And that’s really how it happened. So I think was just the good fortune in many ways that my music was already lingering in early iterations of the episodes. That led to me getting the job really, I don’t know the definitive answer, because it’s not something I’ve ever asked. But that’s my gut that I think there was a body of work of mine, which was working in several different early versions of episodes.

Were you familiar at all with the comic book series? 

I was familiar with it in as much as I knew of its existence, but no, I hadn’t read them. I made that my first job when I started, to read the comics. Well, not all of them, but a number of them and enter Neil Gaiman’s world. It felt the right thing to do to get acquainted with the source material, and understand where the origins of this journey were coming from. So that was my first task. Before I got involved in any music, and even before I’d seen any episodes, I was reading comics. Then I moved over to actually watching the early iterations of the television episodes.

What did you think of the comic? Because it’s quite a trip if you’ve never read it before.

Yeah, I mean, yeah, it’s funny, actually, I probably was watching episodes of the show, somewhat concurrently with reading the comics. I think that’s a good word. It is quite trippy. I had to keep reminding myself that although this is the source material, I had to remember I wasn’t scoring the comics. I had to move, I had to process what the DNA of the show was. I knew it was comics. But then I had to see how that life was being breathed into with our version of the small screen. So I couldn’t get too consumed by that because I think that would be doing a disservice to the actual task at hand. I mean, it’s a bit like on other projects where that might be done where it might be based on a book or pre-existing material. I always think it’s a good thing to know what that processing material is, but you can’t get too caught up on it because it’s not the medium which I’m going to be composing for. But for sure, I was entertained by it and it gave me a real flavor of Neil’s imagination and colorful mind.

Were you given any specific directions on what they wanted for the music?

Not really, I certainly wasn’t given orders. I think there was a lot of  “See what you think, let’s have conversations” as opposed to, “We need this, we need that.” It was very much a conversation led endeavor where they put a suggestion forward, I put a suggestion forward, and we discussed the pros and cons of either. I would also say that, I think that we would have probably ended up with something a bit more robust than perhaps what they initially thought, but I think they may have thought that it all might be quite lightly scored.

Now, there’s a lot of atmospheric music in the show. But there are also moments where the music does really assert itself. That probably is a little bit of a departure than what was initially [discussed]. I do remember a very early conversation with “Oh, this should be very atmospheric.” And sure, there are definitely moments where we do want to be atmospheric, but I think we explored other avenues and just ambience. But it was very collaborative, in terms of not being given barking orders. I felt respected and heard in what I was inspired to do, which made the whole process enjoyable to have that sense of collaboration.

So that being the case of being a collaborative process, where did you start because it’s a huge world The Sandman takes place in with the Dreaming, the real world, Hell. But where did you start with the music? What did you work on first, or what came first?

We were somewhat at the mercy of visual effects as to how I would approach the music, as in which episode first or which bit of which episode. The first episode was in pretty reasonable shape, because there was a fair amount of VFX. But it wasn’t as visual effects heavy as some of the other episodes. That’s where I began my journey. But it was a good thing, because Dream’s position in Episode One is a curious one because he’s held captive. That meant that I had to establish him with even more certainty, because he isn’t talking much in the episode or isn’t even present that much in the episode. It meant that I needed to make sure that his tune was absolutely planted. And that it worked. And especially I knew that that was the case, because as I looked at subsequent episodes, the next episode I was shown was episode five, the episode is in the diner 24/7. And that’s such a world apart from where we are in Episode One. As I discovered, as I looked at subsequent episodes, it was a world apart from everything around it. They’re all so unique, and all have a distinct environment in which they set.

So the only way I could really get through that without having a breakdown and thinking my God, I’ve got to change everything all the time. Every episode is also different. I needed to know that there was at least one constant and that was making sure that I had a solid thematic base for Morpheus, for Dream. That was really the beginning of my work, to come up with his melody, his sound. And so I’ve got the presence of the main protagonist of this show. And that was a comforting feeling really. Because I think if I hadn’t established that, I think it would have become a bit incoherent, I wouldn’t quite know where to land anything.

With Dream’s theme being the most important then, are there any themes that are just as important would you say or is Dream’s like the singular most important theme, musically?

Yeah, he’s definitely the most important theme. Yes, I mean, although in an episode like  Episode Six where we’re with Death his sibling, I mean that there’s a melody for her, which takes us all the way up to the midpoint of the episode. And I would say at that moment in time that that’s a primary importance or importance and Dream is, I’d say, subsidiary to the main events there. Albeit he’s learning a lot in the process of the diverse part of Episode Six, it’s an education for him. So his musical presence never completely goes away. But in a moment like that it’s there. He takes the limelight musically.

In Episode Five, the diner episode. I mean, we’re in a very different dramatic plane here. And musically speaking as well. Dream really isn’t in that episode, he probably appears, I’d say for no more than four minutes within the entirety of the length of the episode. So yes, I do think his tune is the one that is of primary importance throughout the show, but one will read other characters. I mean, the Corinthian would probably be what I mean, it’s nowhere near as potent or as primary as Dream’s. But he is a character while there is an identity for him, which I think, you know, their journey to go wasn’t really a journey. Clearly one that is of fairly notable importance as well.

I was just thinking of something you said earlier. So the by the time you were brought in to score the sounds like production was already well underway.

Oh, yeah they [had already] shot the bulk of the episodes. I think the bonus episode was still being shot. And editing was well underway. When I signed on the dotted line, there were probably four or five episodes that they could send me to have an early look at. And they were temp tracked and such. They have to have the temp in there, which is a blessing and a curse. The blessing I suppose being a lot of it was my music from pre existing projects. But they hadn’t really fallen in love with any [of it]. That was a good thing. It’s very hard to play a show, especially one which is as surreal and otherworldly as this, it’s hard to play that dry without any temporary score in there. But they very seldom went to anything that was in there. There was never like, “Oh, what is the tempo here? Or what does it have to do that?” Just like “Yeah, we put that there. But now we’ll do our thing.”

It sounds like it wasn’t always the plan for the show to have such a huge musical palette. So did that just happen gradually?

When I had that initial conversation about [the music],it wasn’t an order, it wasn’t like “Make sure that this is minimalist and ambient,” no one said that. This may be how it’s going to play out. And they said very little action and I thought that’s great. Very happy to hear that. But when I started watching it and seeing visual effects and seeing the whole world coming together, it was very clear to me that this needed to be a dynamic school. And it had to be big, expansive, musical. I remember saying, “Are we going to use an orchestra?” [They said] “We’re not going to use an orchestra” and they said “Well as you know, there’s a budget for it if you need it.” I said “Okay, well let’s see what we need.” And when I’m big, I’ve got everyone playing. I’ve got all brass, all woodwinds, all strings, choir percussion, the lot, but when I’m small, I’m down to one instrument just being very quiet and introverted.

So I think that’s the big thing that I realized was that it didn’t need to be ambient, it didn’t need to be epic, it needed to kind of be everything. At any given moment, I needed to be able to say I need this to be the most simple fragile piano line imaginable. And then I need this to be the most sweeping, emotional, tugging at the heartstrings [moment]. So the real eye opener for me was the range of dynamics and instrumentation that this could take and I wasn’t trying to throw everything at everything all the time. It wasn’t that at all. It was that I had it all at my disposal. And I could select and curate when instruments or when different textures made sense. That was really nice to be able to do that. And to think that it’s not just filling one space. It’s filling a variety of textures and dynamics. I think that made me feel that I was really doing my job and that I was looking at the contours of the show, and figuring out when I can add something and then also when I should recede and be more ambient as they had originally discussed.

Were there any unusual instruments that you brought in for certain effects?

Well, I used viola da gamba, which is a precursor to the modern cello. So it’s got a slightly ancient sound, but I’ve used it on a couple of shows before and I really like [it]. I’d say the sound is somewhere between between ancient and timeless. It lacks the warmth and vibrato, perhaps, of a modern cello. But there’s something a little bit I know melancholy. It doesn’t, it’s always fascinating my own somehow I thought it made sense for Dream because I visit alongside him. But I also would use traditional instruments in a non- traditional way. For example, the first thing you hear in the show at the beginning of episode one is bells. So there is a traditional instrument of the Celeste, which you find in many symphony orchestras. I took the recording and then I just warped it a little bit. I made it a little bit surreal, a bit more dreamlike, not necessarily comforting, dreamy, but a little bit odd, dreamy. And that was a big part of my process throughout was taking traditional organic instruments and throwing them into a slightly unusual space. And there’s seldom a moment where, apart from perhaps a couple of straight up or casual matches, but there’s seldom a moment where there isn’t something a little bit unusual weaving itself through the orchestral, or the organic texture. There’s often something just lurking around in the background.

Now one character I really wanted to ask about was Lucifer because I know a lot of people were taken aback at how they were presented. How did you go about with Lucifer’s music?

I’m curious were people anticipating something different from her?

I think it caught a little people off guard that Lucifer was presented with a female appearance.

From what I’ve read, there’s been a few snarky comments and people complaining about this certainly.

I was just curious how in any way that played into like the music like is it you know, aside from dream I’m just fascinated with how that character is presented. So I was just curious what you did with her.

Well, one thing is I only caught wind of all this stuff about the real differences as I read the comic. I didn’t read [some of the] old comics. I read enough of them to know that there was some changes. But I didn’t become a student of this used to be a white person or a black person. I, broadly speaking was just swept up by the dramatization of the show we were making. I didn’t need to get into a whole deep conversation about “Wasn’t that a man? Isn’t Lucifer supposed to be this.” What I love about it is she is different to anything that you might expect from a character who governs the underworld. She breaks expectations. And she looks like something of a pre-Raphaelite painting, she doesn’t look like any typical depiction of anything demonic. That’s actually refreshing. That makes things in a sense easier for me, because if you had more conventional hellish tropes going alongside her, and if it was all a bit more sort of Gothic and demonic, then it may have forced my hand.

That’s not to say that the picture of Hell here was a particularly pleasant one, I wouldn’t say it was at all. I do think it seemed to encapsulate a little bit more of her being a fallen angel. There’s a sense of this decay from somewhere as opposed to her just being out and out rotten, in essence. I do think there’s, in the big fight between her and Dream, musically and visually there are moments of extreme beauty, albeit slightly broken beauty and fragile beauty. Again, I appreciated that all those things that make the salmon the salmon, as you point out her character or Death not being like a typical Death not being a grim reaper, these are all inspiring for a composer because it means we can approach it with a fresh set of eyes and ears rather than thinking, Death is a terrible thing. Therefore, we better write, you know, nasty bad music, it gave me an opportunity to look at, in some ways, one could say stock characters. I mean, the Devil and Death are stock characters in lots of literature. But Neil’s completely transformed them into something unique, which obviously, is ideal for anyone who wants to or needs to be able to respond to them.

How much time was there to score all of this?

Well, in the beginning, it seemed like there was an eternity. And by the end, it was like, “Well, I wish we had more time.” My recollection is that I started around about April of 2021. And we finished probably about a year later in 2022. So it was about a year of my life was spent on this.

That’s quite a long time for a project.

It’s a huge amount of time. And I could say at the end, it all felt like a bit of a scramble. At the beginning, I spent quite a bit of time because I knew there was quite a lot of time. I spent time not prevaricating, but taking the risk of trying to let the whole world of The Sandman enter me by osmosis or something. It felt like it’s seeping into my system, when I fall asleep, I’m dreaming about it. And when I’m waking up, I’m thinking about it. I didn’t want this to be a sudden knee jerk reaction. I wanted to be respectful to the fact that this is a comic book series. It’s been out there for decades. [I wanted to] try and let it live with me a little bit before I started making musical decisions. That’s why that longer schedule was ideal, because I would write a piece of music and it might work great.

Then the new visual effects shots come in. Now I actually really see what Hell looks like, or I really see what the Vortex looks like. And it’s like, “I need to rethink that a little bit.” Because it’s not just a different length, which is a mundane thing to have to sort out, but actually now I’m seeing something visually, it’s actually making me think slightly differently about it. So I had to be fluid until the very end. And like with the animated dream of 1000 cats, the final animation for that came in very close to me scoring. So again, I had to stay on my toes. It wasn’t just like, I can write the stuff and then we can just use it on subsequent episodes. I don’t think I was able to reuse a single cue throughout the entirety of the 11 episodes, which is unusual for a television show. Because normally you can say, Oh, we’ve got that piece, and that will work great. It’s just not the nature of The Sandman. It’s not how that show works.

Now is the show a go for season two yet? Do you know?

I wish I knew.

If it is, and if you’re back for it. Are there any themes you hope to expand upon in another season, given the opportunity?

I’m just trying to think, because quite a few people have died. So I think it’d be fun to play with Desire a little bit more. I quite liked their theme, which is a little bit weird, a little odd. So probably other than that, that’d be a really fun one to play with. And also, when I don’t want to, I don’t know if I should be giving spoilers away. But if once seen, Episode 11, the bonus episode, the second part, we get a glimpse of a different part of Dream, in many ways, a heartbreaking reveal about some backstory for him. And there was a specific tune for that. And I think if that’s part of the season two, which I honestly don’t know, but my gut, my instincts would tell me, that would be something that we’ll be talking about more if there’s any future iterations of the show. So that would be another thing I’d love to play with more.

I mean, obviously, the Corinthian is, I don’t know, maybe there could be a new Corinthian. It’s difficult because it’s dictated by the story. I would imagine that there’s going to be more weird and wonderful characters finding their way into the story. So I imagine there’d be a lot of new musical ideas, I hope there will be, I would certainly not want to think that there’s nothing about the show that makes it all great, you know, we got season one, now we can just slap out Season Two and just reuse stuff. I think I want to spend another year of my life on this. And I can do it now with with a greater confidence as well that I got under the surface of it. And I understand it in a way that I didn’t at the beginning of 2021. I’m sure there’d be a lot more to learn when new episodes materialize. I am craving for the continuous novel factor that I think this show has given us in season one, and I have no reason to believe that season two wouldn’t require the same treatment.

One last question, how did working on the Sandman compare to other projects you’ve done in the past?

Well, I think everything’s different because of personalities and work practices and studio involvement, and they’re all unique. I can only really say that I can finish up with a compliment that everyone I worked with was hugely respectful. It wasn’t like I was just given carte blanche to do what I wanted. There was lots of feedback and comments and discussion. But it was all done with a sense of we’re in this together. We’re all trying to make something. Even though I was about as isolated as it could be during the writing of this. I was living in Andorra, a little microstate between France and Spain, literally up in a mountain. And so I had no physical meetings with anyone. Everything was Zoom based. And so I could have felt it, they took a different stance, which is like yeah, this music’s going to be quite a challenge. It’s your job to figure it out. I think that may have been quite an ordeal, especially during a pandemic. But it was nothing like that, it felt like a club of people who passionately wanted to bring this to life and wanted to engage with me and make me feel comfortable and happy. And I’m not going to say that that hasn’t happened on other shows. But it was definitely the case on this one and a huge privilege to have had that belief in.

I want to thank David Buckley one last time for speaking with me about The Sandman. The series is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

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Armed with a PhD. in Musicology, Becky spends much of her time blogging about movie music on her blog Film Music Central when she isn't otherwise occupied watching movies and her favorite anime series.