June 9, 2017
The Handmaid's Tale Finale Wows Fans
Adam Taylor's music for Hulu series performed live to picture by Jon Burlingame
HOLLYWOOD—Nearly 1,000 fans of The Handmaid's Tale got a preview of the season finale Thursday night at the Montalban Theatre, as an orchestra played Adam Taylor's dramatic musical score live to picture.
Peter Rotter conducted 22 musicians from the Hollywood Studio Symphony, an all-string ensemble whose performance was seamlessly integrated with the synthesizer sounds created earlier by the composer. The music charted the highs and lows of the surprise-filled cliffhanger, to the gasps, laughs and cheers of the crowd.
"You won't be able to sleep tonight," warned showrunner Bruce Miller at the outset.
Afterwards, this writer conducted a Q&A with the composer, who talked about creating a musical soundscape for the oppressive, fundamentalist, dystopian world of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel.
The 36-year-old Long Beach-based composer is relatively new on the scene, with a score for the indie Meadowland (for director Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes of Handmaid), additional music for August: Osage County, and a handful of shorts and commercials. The MGM-Hulu series is his first television assignment.
"What I mostly wanted to do was combine natural instrumentation with very dark, analog, distorted synthetic instruments," Taylor said in an interview prior to the event. "And even taking the strings we recorded and running them through an old tape echo to dilute the sound and remove some of the higher-register timbres. The world of Gilead is a kind of distorted replica of reality. Why not have the elements in the score be distorted replicas as well?"
The numbers of musicians changed depending on the dramatic needs of the episode, Taylor said. The average was seven to nine, although in one case there were just three cellos and a bass. He used only strings: "I wanted the bowed instruments. With them, you can add a little more grit and expressiveness. Horns and woodwinds were a little too pure in tone for this score."
The composer worked not only with showrunner Miller and director Morano but, surprisingly, with star (and producer) Elisabeth Moss. They met during production last fall. "Lizzie and I started to email and collaborate," he said. "She was listening to some of the initial sketches I had sent Reed to get into the mindset, which I found very flattering." Moss continued to give him suggestions and feedback through the remainder of the series.
A key theme (titled "Chase" on the soundtrack album) was an early creation, as Morano had requested a "psychologically disturbing piece" that could recur and develop. It took four tries, Taylor said: "One was much less disturbing, the next one a little more disturbing, then it was too disturbing, and then I backed off," he added with a laugh. Dark and ominous, it represents the overwhelming evil of the nation that, in the series, replaces the United States.
Another piece that turned into Offred's theme ("Nick and Offred" on the soundtrack album) features piano and strings with a melancholy, dramatic vibe. Most of the music, however, represented moods and ideas more than characters, he said. He played piano, guitar, and occasionally sang on the score.
Taylor worked from late November through mid-May on the 10 episodes. And although he often played in churches during his 20s, he doesn't view the series as a commentary on religion. Rather, he said, "I saw it much more as a commentary about the difference of power and place in society between men and women."
After the screening, actress Mindy Kaling moderated a talk with several of the actors including Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer and O-T Fagbenle; plus producers Miller and Warren Littlefield.
The season finale of The Handmaid's Tale airs on Wednesday on Hulu.
©2017 Jon Burlingame