Interview: Mr. and Mrs. Smith Composer David Fleming

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ComingSoon was lucky enough to interview composer David Fleming about his score for TV’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring Maya Erskine and Donald Glover. The series, created by the two stars based on the 2005 film, is set to debut on February 2.

ComingSoon: How did you approach composing the score for Mr. & Mrs. Smith to capture the dynamic and adventurous tone of the series?

David Fleming: I love that this show’s John and Jane Smith are thrust headlong into their situation, figuring it out as they go. That was essentially my experience as well. It didn’t hurt that I was given just about the most up-my-alley mission I could have asked for. Donald and Francesca wanted their show to feel exciting and big at the right moments, but never in an obvious way, and never losing touch with the idiosyncrasies that make their John & Jane unique. Basically – go weird or go home. So that, coupled with a timeframe that allowed no second guessing or waffling, created a “what the hell, just go for it” dynamic that made it feel like play. It was honestly very, very fun, and hopefully, that comes through and makes the show more fun to watch.  

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is based on a popular film. How did you draw inspiration from the original score while bringing your own creative touch to the Amazon series?

I’ve seen Donald and Maya out there saying, “I’m not Brad Pitt, I’m not Angelina Jolie.” I can add to that, “I’m not John Powell.” But thankfully, we are telling a much different story with this series. Our John and Jane are not slick or really ever in control. Hiro, who directed the first two episodes, called them “C students in an AP class,” which I think applies not only to their prowess in espionage but also to romance. Their relationship begins just as awkward as any blind date and progresses in a way that is really relatable, which makes it feel like a completely new take. Because of that, I didn’t want to re-watch the original film and be influenced in any way by either the story or the soundtrack. Plus, I’m such an admirer of John Powell’s music. Listening to one of his scores in preparation for my own could only be an exercise in confronting total dread.

Can you share insights into the collaborative process with the creators and directors in shaping the musical identity of the show?

Donald, Francesca & Hiro didn’t give me many specific requests regarding the sound of the show, other than it should feel unique to these characters, add excitement and acknowledge the genre when appropriate, as long as it didn’t go full Hollywood. Francesca would sometimes ask, “What would be the art school version of this type of scene?” which I really took to heart. “Art-school espionage” became kind of a mantra for me – it was freeing to be encouraged to embrace the offbeat choices and ditch the obvious.

Were there specific themes or motifs that you developed for the main characters, and how did these musical elements evolve throughout the series? 

To me, the show is really about the insane adventure that is trusting another human being. It doesn’t really matter that these characters happen to be assassins. They are two people who feel alone, afraid of what it would mean not to be. So, I wanted John and Jane’s musical identity to be malleable to both their professional and romantic stories. Sometimes their theme is laid bare at a lonely moment, sometimes it’s stripped down to a motif in the middle of a chaotic mission, always tying back to their personal connection. There are a few other musical signatures; a little energetic motif for the “Hihi” mission briefings, a naive “Domestic Bliss” theme when things seem to be going almost too well for John & Jane. I have to be honest, there were many times I jettisoned the idea of thematic consistency altogether in favor of doing something cheeky or exciting. In the end, the themes always found their important moments, and otherwise, it was about giving the show a feeling of energy and spontaneity. 

Mr. & Mrs. Smith is a mix of action, comedy, and drama. How did you balance these different genres within the score to enhance the overall viewing experience? 

I’m not sure people are really interested in having those ingredients separated for them as much these days. Working on this show has made me consider the audience’s perspective more than ever, and I’m including myself in that — how I consume television and media. Some of my favorite shows and films are such a strange brew of disparate genres and tone. I can’t tell you how many times while working on Mr. & Mrs. Smith, my thought was, if I was watching this show, what would feel engaging and exciting for me? Of course, you begin with a well-laid plan and some lofty ideas, but so much of the process became about selfishly having fun, and when faced with a choice, embracing whichever option put a bigger smile on my face even if it didn’t feel “correct” in the traditional sense. 

Did you experiment with different instruments or musical styles to reflect the variety of moods and scenes in the series? 

It was sort of an on-the-run process of simultaneous experimentation and execution. I was constantly reaching around my studio for instruments I hadn’t played in a while (or ever) and just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. The filmmakers really gravitated towards sounds that were hard to place or leaned more toward the synth world. At the same time, I wanted the score to occasionally evoke something more old-fashioned and organic, almost as if you were finding samples from old vinyl soundtracks from the 70s.

What my team and I ended up doing was capturing very imperfect, often improvised live performances, then choosing small bits and treating them as if they were found recordings, recontextualizing them as “samples.” Even synths, traditionally infinitely tweakable by their nature, were performed live in ways that couldn’t be recreated. I want to mention that I couldn’t have done this alone. I come from a film scoring school based around teamwork, and it’s a dynamic I love, so I have to give a lot of credit to my music team – Forest Christensen, Aldo Arechar & Jake Boring, who each put on many hats to help me create this sonic world, including recording themselves playing many of the instruments you hear re-sampled in the score.

How does the pacing and rhythm of the score contribute to the tension and excitement in key moments of Mr. & Mrs. Smith? 

The score is completely driven by rhythm. One of my major goals was to inject momentum into the story, and not just during the mission setpieces when things are going haywire. Even the first time we meet John and Jane, they are in sort of a dating/job interview, and I felt strongly that we needed to establish an undercurrent of rhythm pulling us into their story. The scene starts with this strange loop of a kalimba doubled with a detuned synth and it carries you from when we meet each of them to the moment they finally meet each other. Then, once the missions get going, the score becomes primarily rhythmic, most of the percussion being performed live on synths. 

Can you discuss any challenges you faced in creating a score that complements the on-screen chemistry and dynamics between the lead characters? 

Donald and Maya’s performances are really nuanced and their dynamic acted as the roadmap for the score. I just tried to stick to them as closely as possible. I do remember on episode 3, which is set at a ski resort in the Italian Dolomites, I think I got so enamored by the setting that I had temporarily left John and Jane behind and started scoring the scenery, going full James Bond at times and getting way too cute. The look of it was just so gorgeous, it was hard not to be a tourist for a little while. But in general, as long as I was following John and Jane’s relationship story first and foremost, the music was usually on the right track.  

As a composer, how do you ensure the music enhances the narrative without overpowering the dialogue or other audio elements? 

It’s important to trust your instincts, but it’s just as important to trust the people around you to offer you perspective, including the other filmmakers and, in this case, a fantastic mix team. In episode 5, there is a scene where John and Jane wreak chaos in an Italian village, climaxing in gunshots and screams in multiple languages, all while the music is having a full-blown panic attack. Our mix team had done a graceful (and sensible) job of clearing out the music cue so that you could better hear the words that were being screamed, but I thought the scene had lost that feeling of anxiety. When we tried the music at its original level, the scene became absolutely incomprehensible. Once they realized what I was going for, we were able to find a compromise that hopefully won’t result in you wanting to turn the subtitles on. 

Were there specific scenes or episodes in Mr. & Mrs. Smith that you found particularly rewarding or challenging to score, and why? 

In the second episode, John Turturro’s character invites John and Jane to perform a very specific and fetishistic roleplay scenario. The scene is hilarious as it slowly unfolds into stranger and stranger territory, but Hiro and Francesca also wanted it to have this feeling of twisted ritual and a kind of dark sexiness. You know, Eyes Wide Shut but funny. When I played my piece back for the filmmakers, there was so much laughter and shrieking in the room – it was the moment when I really felt like, yeah, I get this show, embrace the weird.

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