In some ways, Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is a collection of movies, with every two episodes representing a book in the Lemony Snicket series. As each story unfolds, the venue changes and Count Olaf assumes a new disguise, requiring correspondingly different soundtracks to support this already substantially music-centered show. The series’ composer, Jim Dooley, gladly took on the challenge of designing the music that would define each chapter of season two and talked to us about his process.
Dooley inherited the composing gig from James Newton Howard, who wrote the music for all but one chapter (which Chris Bacon scored) of the first season of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but the nature of the series allowed Dooley to put his own spin on the music in season two. “Anytime you get to follow the likes of James Newton Howard, you’re going to be doing just fine,” says Dooley. “Both he and Chris Bacon are of course incredibly talented composers. But… where I go in the story is not where they went. In season two, we hit the Wild West; we hit a carnival. So I got to really just start with where they left off and go in whole new directions as much as the story needed it or required it.”
Few television shows feature their soundtracks as prominently as A Series of Unfortunate Events, which relies heavily on the score to create the right playfully dark atmosphere. “I can give you an example,” Dooley elaborates. “We’re finishing season two and at times it comes up, ‘Well, do we really need music in this scene?’ So then you try it without the music and just see how it plays, and sometimes you find that it comes off as a bit more sinister without the music to let you know that it’s going to be okay in some scenes. It was interesting! It’s like, ‘Wow, this just went much darker than intended!’ in this one particular scene at the end of the season.”
One of Dooley’s favorite compositions appears in the fourth two-episode chapter of season two, “The Hostile Hospital,” which takes place in an institution called Heimlich Hospital. “One of the primary musical forces in that episode has to do with the volunteers,” explains Dooley. “So this group of people go around from room to room singing of the benefits of music for medicinal purposes, and obviously music has very little if not zero medicinal purposes if you have whooping cough; this song is not going to help you. But I was fortunate enough to write the songs for those volunteers.”
Dooley had a very specific vibe that he wanted the hospital volunteers to elicit. “My pitch to [director Barry Sonnenfeld] is that this needs to be something like ‘A Small World.’ Something that’s incredibly great the first time you hear it, but by time fifteen you want to strangle people,” says Dooley. “That was something where we’re going to a new place, there are new characters, they get a unique musical identity that I can provide and then weave that into the score. Heimlich Hospital is primarily a thriller, and that’s a departure from most of the episodes.”
Percussion instruments were key for Dooley to achieve the sound he wanted for the show. “The beginning of the series when I came on was like, ‘Well, how do I bring some new color to this?’ So I began with a percussion rental company here in Los Angeles and played all of the instruments that they had and picked out six or seven of my favorites. Then I sampled them in my home studio to add them to this palette.”
His choices ended up being very organic and primal, which fits well with the mood of A Series of Unfortunate Events. “I recorded a stone marimba… these ‘amphibiophones’ which are tortoise shells of all different sizes, and tuned anvils that looks like a glockenspiel but each note is actually an anvil. So these are a lot of the colors that you’re going to hear that are new in season two because they were created for season two… The music needs to be primal and make you feel uneasy that this is not going to work out for them, and any way to do that from a sonic perspective is really what I was going for.”
Although many of the songs Neil Patrick Harris sings as Count Olaf were already written by the time Dooley came on board, he admits that the lead actor’s vocal stylings are a big source of inspiration. “Having him as the driving force of the show just never gets old,” says Dooley. “He has this unique ability to change his voice based on these disguises and to still be Olaf at the same time. That’s quite a magic trick even aside from his singing ability. And that’s something I can definitely tap into with the score.”
Hear the full audio of this interview on G! News (at 23:17)
When all is said and done, Dooley enjoys the chance to have his music a bit more in the forefront after having worked for several seasons on TNT’s The Last Ship. “With The Last Ship, so many times you just take a step back, keeping a little bit of tension. There’s not so much you have to do, and staying out of the way is a really good thing,” admits Dooley. “But in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s much more an active score supporting almost like animation at times, and that allows a composer to have lots of fun with these things. You get to be incredibly creative harmonically… and I think that change was really refreshing coming off of five seasons of The Last Ship.”
Viewers can enjoy Dooley’s score and everything else about A Series of Unfortunate Events season 2 on Netflix now, as the show recently dropped its second set of ten episodes on March 30, 2018.