Star Trek: Discovery, in a parallel universe
My dance with a dream
Before I begin, I want to make something abundantly clear: this is a happy story. This is a story of daring to dream of the near-impossible and celebrating that I even came close. So lest my tone inadvertently come across as bitter, scorned or otherwise disappointed, please let this paragraph serve as a voice in your head reminding you that I consider this to be an amazing experience!
With all that said - TL;DR - here’s the end of the story: I am not the composer of CBS’ new Star Trek: Discovery. That task has fallen to Emmy-winning composer Jeff Russo, and my heartfelt congratulations to him on a truly impressive career thus far (especially for his achivements on Fargo).
Ok, done with disclaimers!
Time for a little backstory: Growing up, I was a rare breed of nerd who found himself equally enamored by both of the sci-fi staples of the era: Star Wars and Star Trek. On a foundational level, both originated as father-son bonding experiences, but whereas Star Wars was about the emotional thrill, Star Trek was all about knowledge and curiosity. We would watch episodes (particularly of The Next Generation) and have discussions / debates about the ideas, morals, etc.
My lifelong love of science and learning is owed in no small part to the impact of Star Trek during those developmental years.
And needless to say, the music of Star Trek became a huge inspiration for me following my discovery of Jerry Goldsmith when I was about 10. In contrast to the swashbuckling, adventurousness of Williams’ Star Wars, Goldsmith’s Star Trek was all about the Romance of exploration. It was deeply imaginative and captured the idea of ‘the final frontier’ with supreme class and elegance.
(Side note, the behind-the-scenes of that sequence is one of the most amazing of Goldsmith’s storied career, and well worth this glance)
So, when the news broke in early 2016 that CBS had greenlit a new series, I perked up. Not only as a fan, hungry for more Star Trek, but also with this back of my mind curiosity: could I manage a shot at scoring this show? For added context, I had recently lost my father to cancer, and couldn’t help but feel motivated to pursue the show as a kind of final tribute to him.
I decided to tell my agents (the spectacular Kraft-Engel Management) about my interest, just in case it should become viable. And to my complete astonishment, Richard Kraft came through with an idea only a few weeks later: write and record a demo - my stab at a new Star Trek theme - and he will present it to the team who, by random coincidence, he had had a recent dealing with on an unrelated project. I remember I was blindsided and asked “when?” And he said “how fast can you have it?”
At this point, I’d like to point something out: I’ve been VERY fortunate to win / be nominated for a lot of awards in my career. 7 BAFTA nominations (among them 2 wins), an apparently ‘historic’ GRAMMY nomination, etc etc blah blah blah. Why am I mentioning this? Because it amounts to absolutely NOTHING, especially when talking to television studios. The bottom line is that, going into my Star Trek adventure, I had zero prior TV track record. No amount of lucky breaks, success, etc in games mattered to them, and why should it?
Honestly I’m happy about this. It means I had to prove myself in a very pure, meritocratic sort of way. That includes proving it to myself (which was definitely NOT a given!).
I set to work immediately. Rather instantly it hit me: “Holy shit, I’m trying to write a theme to stand alongside the bonafide classics of Goldsmith, Horner, Courage, etc?” I decided to spend a couple of days trying dozens and dozens of variations, and finally landed on one that seemed to work. I hired a spectacular Hollywood orchestra, and then created a sort of love letter visual montage to the legacy of Star Trek:
By all odds, this is where the story should have ended. I knew no one involved in the production, had no prior TV credits or accolades and this is surely the most high-profile new TV gig a composer could possibly aim their sights on.
Yet …. months later, after basically hearing no reply and just assuming they were not interested (or at best, too soon to be thinking about music, since the pilot hadn’t even been shot yet), we get a call from the production office at CBS. They said they liked my demo and wanted to send me a short scene to score as part of their official demo process! (re-read that last sentence in a rather explosively enthusiastic yelling, and you can approximate my reaction to this shocking news) In other words, my demo had cracked open the door and gotten me onto the ground floor where I would be …. writing a demo!
There was a twist though; I was in New York City performing Journey LIVE. CBS was going to send over an NDA and wanted the music no later than mid-week, a mere 4-5 days later. I sent the NDA, hurried home and Monday morning sat anxiously staring at my inbox, waiting for the footage to arrive. Preemptively, I booked another orchestra recording session for the next day, knowing I could immediately mix and deliver by Wednesday morning. My gamble was that the scene would be short, as opposed to some 10 minute grand finale space battle or something.
That afternoon it came and, mercifully, it was only a 1-minute scene (a rough pre-vis of the new starship leaving port). Interestingly, it came with no creative direction from the filmmakers. There was no temp music (or sound effects of any kind, actually), no keywords or even an email describing the context of the scene. I realized that, because it was short enough, I had booked more time than I needed, so I decided to score it three different ways. Three totally different approaches, hoping that at least one of them would land where they want.
Here they are, with the finished visuals (as later released at SDCC 2016), and I’ve added a text commentary to explain the ideas behind each. Note that for the first two I decided to write a new (perhaps more modern) theme, and for the third I brought back my first one from the prior demo:
Then, as so often happens, I got a call saying “we loved it, but we’ve decided to go with someone else. Thank you for your hard work and quick turnaround!” That is a pretty typical end to a story like this, and one I was totally prepared for. So I thanked them for the opportunity and went on with my life (which at the time was finishing my final soundtrack edits and releasing Giant Squid’s incredible debut title, ABZU). Having made it this far, I was STOKED. I had had my hat in the ring on a real Star Trek show!
Astonishingly though, the story doesn’t end here. MONTHS later, my agents got a truly unexpected call: things hadn’t worked out with the composer they’d hired, and they were once again looking. They wanted to consider me again…
… with a (new) new demo!
But, even better, the legendary showrunner Bryan Fuller wanted to be personally involved in choosing the music for the show. As such, I was asked to come in for a meeting with he and the production team to discuss their creative vision for the show and its score. This was to be the first time I actually got direct creative input from the filmmakers, and I was ecstatic.
The meeting was wonderful. They walked me through the storyline, characters, concept art and costume design (bear in mind they still hadn’t finished casting or started shooting yet) and all of it really seemed to suggest this was a proper, darker take on Star Trek, well-suited to today’s TV renaissance (Random fun trivia: they later cast my friend Anthony Rapp, a tremendous screen/stage actor, who had had a pivotal role in an indie feature I scored).
Bryan also told me something immensely exciting: “for the new demo, please don’t hold back. Give us full, unreserved Wintory. We want something musically aggressive and unique.” (and, as a side note, they hinted a quasi-religious, almost ‘spiritual warrior’ concept for the Klingons in the show, which was a great musical leaping-off point)
Time for demo #3. I again booked a session, this time going for broke and gathering a 70-piece orchestra, augmented by a men’s chorus (for the Klingons of course!), strange shofar-type brass andwinds . The demo was a suite of ideas showcasing the darker tone of the show, spotlighting highly kinetic action, a kind of ‘warrior’s rite’ Klingon idea, a more dancing ‘explorational’ section, and finally a reprise (in a warmer, lush way) of my main theme. With two days to write it, here is what came out:
The next twist was truly surprising. We were mixing the music at the Warner Bros scoring, my whole team feeling so excited about what we’d just finished recording, and I happened to catch a rather surprising headline on Variety.
Bryan Fuller was stepping back. The man who’d encouraged me to really go ballistic in my approach was no longer at the forefront of creative decision-making, and so I realized that that almost certainly meant the story was over.
Astonishingly, it wasn’t quite yet. I sent in my demo anyway and the production team assured me they were excited to check out. Quickly the year drew to a close, and shortly after 2017 began I finally got word that after much deliberation over a very short list of candidates, they’d chosen a composer. They made a point of thanking me again for all the time and energy I’d put it into the process.
The entire experience spanned almost a year, yielded three fully produced orchestral recordings and was, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling and gratifying experiences of my career. At this point, it seems like a peripheral detail that I didn’t actually get the job. I was part of a narrow field of composers being seriously considered for a major show, one with massive childhood and personal significance, even despite having no pedigree in the field! And I even came rather shockingly close to getting it.
Normally it’s considered in bad form for a composer to share a story like this, both because it might sound bitter (again: nope!), but also because material written for projects that don’t pan out can theoretically be re-purposed for later ones. But in this case I became so invested that I honestly can’t imagine this music anywhere else. For me, it will always be a window into that parallel universe, where goatee-Austin scored Discovery, and I’m happy for it to live there.
So I suppose the final question is, why do I feel compelled to share this then? Part of it is that the entire experience was so damn fun and exciting that I just can’t help myself. Scoring a show like this, I realized, is a kind of personal bucket list item and I got astonishingly close. Considering the near-zero odds that it would work, that alone gave me enough to feel deeply gratified. I got to live briefly in a parallel dimension in which one of my most seminal childhood father/son experiences became a cornerstone of my adult professional life. Even just that glimpse felt incredible and I would do it all again.
But also, I’m a big believer that ‘success’ (like jobs landed, dollars earned, etc) is only one metric of a career. Rejection is one also, and sometimes an even more meaningful one. Five years ago, even being told ‘no’ would have been impossible; the fact that I came remotely close is a dramatically empowering feeling about the arc and trajectory of my career. Rejection is a way of life for an artist, particularly in Los Angeles, and this was a glorious, exciting and genuinely artistically stimulating rejection.
As such, I owe a tremendous thank you to CBS and the entire production team for inviting me into this process. To my agents, particularly Richard Kraft and Sarah Kovacs, for pushing me to recklessly pursue this. And to the amazing Bryan Fuller for nudging me to write music that was without a doubt some of the most enjoyable to put write I’ve ever experienced.