"The Sandman gave me an opportunity to really play with dynamics": Composer David Buckley opens up about his journey in writing music
As of now, The Sandman is essentially the biggest series globally in terms of viewership. As per Parrot Analytics' data, reported by The Wrap, the Netflix series has charted internationally with around "23.8 times the demand of the average series."
Thanks to rich source material from the legendary Neil Gaiman, paired with vivid cinematography, the show has garnered massive praise from its legion of fans. However, the story is not the only highlight for fans of Netflix X DC's The Sandman.
The marvelous soundtrack by David Buckley has also been one of the talking points of the series, as was evident from the flurry of tweets about it following the show's premiere on August 5.
While this is not the first rodeo for the Primetime Emmy nominated composer, The Sandman can easily be considered one of Buckley's best scores yet.
Now based in Santa Monica, California, David Buckley has written music for vastly different projects ranging from games to TV shows to studio films. While The Sandman's popularity has made it his magnum opus, this much celebrated composer has previously also been involved with projects like The Town (2010), Batman: Arkham Knight (2015), Jason Bourne (2016), Nobody (2021), and The Lincoln Lawyer (2022), amongst a legion of remarkable others.
In an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda's Abhirup Sengupta, David Buckley opened up about his almost two-decade-long journey into the music composing world - delving into how he started, his passion for the trade and The Sandman experience. That apart, he also shared a few suggestions for up-and-coming composers and music enthusiasts.
Read on to find out what he said.
The Sandman composer David Buckley opens up on his creative process, the pressure of creating unique pieces, and more
Q: This is kind of a generic one. But, how did you get started with music composing? What inspired you to pursue this trade? Say, even before you joined the University of Cambridge or moved to LA…what instilled this passion in you?
David Buckley: I think I always enjoyed having a piano around, which I was never forced to play (in the) repertoire. And it was just as well because I'm not a very good pianist. So my parents had a piano at home, and they were very happy for me just to sort of go up there and play anything. I do think that for a big part of my early years, I was just messing around on the piano. Whether that was composition or not would be another question.
I'd say it was more experimentation, sort of the freedom to not worry whether something made sense or not worry whether there was even anything to say at the end - instead just the enjoyment of hearing sounds and plunking down notes and being a child with a toy. But it just so happened that the toy was a musical one.
I was a performer as a kid, and I used to sing, and I maintained that part of my musical profession until I moved to LA. Still, I wouldn't say I was a natural. I got older and went to university and all of my friends who were musicians - a lot of them were getting into the performance world, whether singers, instrumentalists, pianists, whatever, and I realised I didn't have the same kind of thing that they had.
I think there was a natural tendency for me to want to hide a little bit behind something…It was basically my failure as a performer that helped push me towards being a composer.
Q: What is your creative process when you go ahead with the composition of music for different kinds of projects spread across a wide range, such as a series like The Sandman to the Batman Arkham games?
David Buckley: Well, the first thing I like to do on anything is try to understand the vision. Whether it's The Sandman, Batman, Jason Bourne, whatever it is - there's a vision, an artistic vision that's been in existence prior to me coming on the project. As film music, TV music, video game music, whatever it is, we're one of the last pieces of the puzzle. One of the last people to get hired.
There's often a tendency from directors and producers to sort of say, "Can't wait to hear your music. Can we have themes by next week?" And, of course, you can understand their desire to want to hear what the person they've just hired has come up with, whether it's just because they're genuinely fascinating or because they think, "Oh, bloody hell, did we potentially make a mistake, and we need to hire someone else."
But if I can be a little bit deliberate and slow, the first thing I like to do is talk to the director. Talk to the writer. Talk to the showrunner. Whomever it is. And talk to them not only about the story, the plot, the characters, the feelings, or the emotions. But also about how they got from the beginning of the project to where they are now.
Q: How did you get started with The Sandman's composition?
David Buckley: The first, I don't know, 20-30 minutes of The Sandman's music that I wrote all ended up sort of in the trash can because it wasn't ultimately where I needed to go. But that has to be as much an important part of the process as hitting on the right thing, doing the wrong thing, and knowing why it's the wrong thing. And you're like, "AHA! Now I've got a part."
It's harder to do that, especially in television, when you're working on a far more structured schedule where you can't really stumble, or if you do stumble, you're going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to get you back on track.
If it's based on something like a comic, like The Sandman, I read the comics. I spoke to The Sandman's showrunner, Allan Heinberg. About the difference between the comics and what we're going to make and the similarities and really having a whole range of conversations which aren't at that point about music specifically, since I'm trying to kind of learn a new universe. A new language. A new set of rules. Even though I'm coming into it as the same person.
Effectively, I'm opening a new door and peering into something which I hope is, to some extent, unfamiliar, because I think if you keep opening the doors, you're looking at the same thing all the time. Then you're going to kind of probably burn out a little bit or at least not get so excited. But certainly with something like The Sandman, I've never done anything like this before. The series in itself is opening at least eight different doors because it's so rich, it's so textured.
Then the creative process itself is when I have to start writing music because there are deadlines and there are rising anxiety levels. I think because of all that work that I've done, because I know how to write music, I know how high a trumpet can play, I know how low double bass can play, so I don't have to relearn that. What I have to do is apply all that knowledge that I've got to what I've just kind of breathed in from my research into the project… It's a hard thing to explain because there isn't a magic formula.
Q: We know that The Sandman was a passion project for Neil Gaiman. Did you get to interact with him, or did he give you any notes over the score?
David Buckley: Neil and I have exchanged a couple of emails, but actually, that was pretty much since The Sandman was done, rather than during it. But that's only really because it often happens in a show.
The voices are the Three Musketeers - Allan Heinberg, David Goyer, and Neil Gaiman. The Sandman is Neil's show. That's not to say his show, but it's his world, and it's his comic. So, his voice was very present. It wasn't directly being fed into my ear, but it was all coming through with Allan's conversations, notes from Netflix executives, Warner Brothers executives and DC Comics executives.
So you have to listen to everyone, figure out really what they mean, and then it starts kind of feeding back on that. But for sure, this is a "Neil Gaiman Presents The Sandman..." project. There is no question about that.
Q: In The Sandman, your score amplified the scenes. So, when you see scenes like Lucifer vs. Dream, do you feel pride that your work is what makes the scene click?
David Buckley: For sure, but only in the context of it being a collaboration. When I put whatever I put on The Sandman soundtrack album, I condensed it a lot and remixed it quite a bit. I think the success of something like the Hell episode (Episode 4), is not just the fact that I've done something that elevates it. I think we're all working in concert and I think the drama also elevates my music as much as I hope my music elevates the drama in The Sandman.
I would say if you pulled any of the components out of The Sandman, you'd feel that something was missing. To me, it's a successful collaboration, that's a successful storytelling. It relies on a lot of people listening to each other and figuring out who needs to assert themselves at any given point.
One thing that I'm not a fan of is if your lighting guy is going crazy and your editors are chopping the scene. Then the music is going ballistic, and your actors are giving it everything, and that's a real assault on the system. There are more elegant approaches - when an actor is at their peak, let the music be at its low, at its air, and then vice-versa.
And I think in many ways, The Sandman gave me an opportunity to really play with dynamics. From big expansive vistas and dreams to fallen palaces, it gave that sense of grandeur, albeit a sort of broken grandeur.
The Sandman had very intimate moments, sad moments, people suffering, people feeling lonely, and people feeling neglected. It's such a huge emotional range that in many ways, I was given something on a silver spoon. But I felt like it was so rich that I felt very inspired by the source material and by what I was seeing. I didn't struggle to think, "Oh, God, this seems kind of a bit boring, and I don't know what to do." It was more like, "My God, this is so like this and this and that."
The Sandman is a very stimulating material.
Q: Following up on the previous question, it must be a huge pressure not only to write good music but the best one possible for such a crucial scene. How do you work with that, does that pressure help bring in your A-game?
David Buckley: We should ask my doctor that question...Yeah, I mean, it is hugely pressured. And so, I mean, I don't really know any other way. I don't know how to do this job without feeling, certainly at times, huge amounts of anxiety and pressure. I think in this day and age, everyone's worried that they want something to be a hit. No one's making something and thinking, "Oh, well, if it doesn't work out, it's fine."
And, especially with a show like The Sandman, Netflix and DC are spending a lot of money to bring this to life. So I can sense anxiety in people around me. And, of course, that has a knock-on effect for me.
And I'm an anxious person, I think, by character, so I don't know, does that help me? I don't even know the answer to that because I am not really familiar with any other way.
Q: Moving from The Sandman, your contribution in Jason Bourne vs. your score in Nobody are vastly different. How do you tackle creating unique music which deals with similar themes to what you have covered before with your work? This is considering both Bourne and Hutch Mansell were similar on paper, given that they were assassins trying to escape their past.
David Buckley: The first (Bourne) movie didn't have this high gloss, high energy. It didn't feel like a Marvel film. But I think possibly Jason Bourne went a little bit more. It became a little bit more studio driven than going the independent arthouse route. And I think John's original score had so many kinds of iconic moments in that first Bourne film, which I felt very fortunate to be able to use.
When it came to my contribution to Jason Bourne and the need and desire from Paul Greengrass, the director was very much in support of me embracing that world. He said to me, "I want a classic Bourne score here."
No one was saying to me, "Reinvent the wheel, throw out the baby with the bathwater and come back with something new." It was like, yeah, we need to move it on. We need to adjust it. We need to make it feel that it's whatever the year 2016 was.
Bourne films nodded and winked at the different locations Jason would find himself in. In Nobody, he's just in this drab, suburban part of America. His existence is very dreary. He's got this tedious job. Plus, the fact that he's got this past that's always just simmering beneath the surface.
I also think Nobody is a bit harder to define. Some people see it as an out-and-out comedy. Some people see it as an action film, while others see this real human story there. This guy, who's trying to protect his family who's got this past he's trying to struggle with. So I'm not saying that the Bourne story isn't full of complexities, but I'd say if there were a similarity between them both. There's a sort of minimalism in terms of the music. It's not overly big.
There might be some loud music, but there's even something loud and big. They're not full orchestral scores. Nobody had any orchestra. For Jason Bourne, it really wasn't symphonic yet had an orchestra, but it was not a symphonic score. The Sandman, at times, is symphonic. But ultimately, I think that it's to do with what I was saying about you staring at the picture, you watch it, you learn it, you ingest it.
Q: What suggestions would you give to young people trying to make their way into composing for big films? Where should they start, and what should they focus on or avoid?
David Buckley: Well, I think in order to get to the big, you've got to do the small first. I think it would be a brave soul who says that they're starting out and all they want to do is a big blockbuster. I think you've got to start small and learn your craft. One thing as well is, however good a musician and composer you are, that's only half the story.
You've got to know how to apply all your musical skills to drama. You got to know how to work with a director, how to work as a producer, and how to work with an editor. I think the best way to do that is what I did, which is I went around and found young student filmmakers who were making short films, and just said, "Hey, I saw your movie" and they said something, said yes, and I could learn on the job.
And even though I feel more prepared now, I will say that it's a never-ending learning process. Every job presents its own new challenges. I think for anyone who's starting out, don't be kind of seduced by other composers too much. I mean, learn what you can from them. If you see they're using, like, a cool piece of software and you think that's good for you, then maybe check it out. But don't think that you want to become the next Hans Zimmer or the next John Williams because there's only one of them.
It's very tempting, of course, to walk in the footsteps of giants, but maybe to a certain extent, one needs to keep one's heroes in focus. But I also think it's equally as important, if not vital, to make sure that you're doing something that you love and you really feel passionate about. Ask yourself continually if you still feel passionate about it, if you need to change something.
If you've been writing only for piano and you kind of think it's fun, then try writing for guitar. You may just suddenly find that you feel a whole lot of different kinds of emotional responses and releases.
Also, be thick-skinned and hang in there because it's a tricky business. I wasn't born to be in this. I didn't have rich parents who could set me up with the right people. I kind of knew that I needed to do something musical. I was fortunate to meet some of the right people. I got on well with people.
I worked hard, and I'd say maybe just now, with The Sandman, I'm starting to see that after doing this for 20 odd years - let's say 25 years - I'm starting to see the benefits of it. So it's a long game, but I think it's a good game.
Following The Sandman, Mr. David Buckley's work will next be heard in projects like New Me and Kandahar. Buckley is represented by Kyrie Hood, White Bear PR.