Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes is a documentary series on HBO that examines the bombshell reporting of journalist Ronan Farrow by adding a visual layer to the story. Along with that new layer is a richly diverse score from composer David Benjamin Steinberg.
In 2019, Ronan Farrow released the book Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, which recounts the challenges he faced in unveiling one of the biggest stories of 2017. The story was about sexual abuse allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. It was a report that helped make #MeToo a worldwide movement. Farrow followed up the book’s release with a podcast that included interviews with victims, whistleblowers, and other sources for his book.
PopAxiom talked with composer David Benjamin Steinberg about collaboration, the docuseries Small Town News, and adding a sonic layer to the incredible stories at the heart of Catch And Kill: The Podcast Tapes.
David doesn’t “remember a time when there wasn’t music in the house while I was growing up. My dad was really into musicals. West Side Story was the holy grail. My mom was a school teacher and a good piano player who played classical music and the American songbook. When I started to write musical features for Ru Paul’s Drag Race, it came pretty easily. I think it was part of my DNA from growing up listening to them.
David’s musical career started “in rock bands and as a session drummer in my teens and into my early 20s in LA. My dream was to be a session musician playing in the studios in LA, but there were so many amazing session drummers when I was coming up…that I just felt like I was never going to be able to make it at that level, so I started focusing more on writing and producing.
The switch to composing happened gradually and began with an “opportunity to write music for advertising,” he says. “I developed a good client in ad agency Chiat/Day; they were famous for creating the 1984 Apple spot. They were arguably the best ad agency in the world at that time. So I did a couple of things for them, and it led to a fairly long relationship.”
“I liked the whole dynamic of that,” he adds about working in the ad business. “I learned how to work with a creative team, how to come up with music concepts to tell a story and compose really tightly to picture. “The collaborative process is something I really enjoy.”
About Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes
David became a part of the Catch and Kill-team through a longtime working relationship. “I’ve worked with the owners of World of Wonder, Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, for close to a couple of decades. They approached me about writing the music for an HBO version of Ronan Farrow’s audio podcast series that they were directing.”
“I started by listening to the podcasts,” he says about his preparation for the project. “I went through the series and got familiar with the episodes that we were going to be working on.”
As with any project, David’s job in creating the underscore is to “Support the story,” but he adds, “I just really didn’t want to f*ck it up.”
So, how did choosing to tell the sonic story occur? “There is a lot of dialogue in a podcast of course, so it was about discovering how big the score was going to be. Initially, I sold the directors on my writing minimalist cues without many melodies, I wanted the podcast’s voices to be the lead lines. But as the edit developed, we felt like it wasn’t enough, so the music became more prominent, and I started adding more melodic layers. In fact, once I wrote the title theme, we started using that as a motif to thread throughout the stories. So we ended up making the theme a strong element of the score.”
However, finding that perfect balance is a tricky game. Collaborations involve time and toiling. “Going back to what I learned in the ad business, we had HBO and their team weighing in about cues which they felt were too aggressive and wanted something more understated. I think the directors felt this was a TV version of a podcast, and it needed more ‘oomph’, so it was about finding that common ground that makes everybody happy.”
“As the episodes go on,” he explains, “the series shifts into a real spy thriller, so I wrote cues that supported that part of the story. I used a lot of analog-y sounding synths and the score took on a bit of a Vangelis vibe in spots.”
Small Town News
Catch and Kill isn’t the first World of Wonder production for David, and it wasn’t going to be the last. The longtime collaborators brought another project to him — Small Town News. “I had done another documentary for HBO about Heidi Fleiss over ten years ago that took place outside of Vegas in a small town called Pahrump. While shooting there, the directors came upon a small, independently owned television station called KPVM. They got to know the people that worked there and wanted to do a documentary series on this entrepreneurial TV station that was a fish-out-of-water story with a diverse gaggle of employees trying to grow their business.” I must be the only composer around to have done two HBO docs taking place in Parumph, Nevada!
David worked on the music for the pitch to HBO and joined the crew after the green light. “It’s a docuseries, but it plays like a comedy.
Like any project past, present, or future, it’s “about finding the appropriate tone,” he continues, “we didn’t want it to feel like a reality show. We didn’t want it to feel like we were laughing at the people in this small town, and It had to have a rural feeling to it. It’s Pahrump; it’s not exactly a big city.”
“In the same way as Catch and Kill,” he says about the process, “you start to write, and you get closer and closer to finding the tone that captures the players and helps tell the story.”
Despite a rural setting, the music finds its roots through a composer from a faraway land. “Some of the music was inspired by a Vivaldi piece that I discovered. I ended up using organic instruments like mandolins and guitars, which had the effect of elevating the comedic moments. It had a whimsical tone to it that never poked fun at the subjects.”
“I’m proud of the theme,” he declares, “because it was inspired by the old News of the World film Newsreels. A sort of morse code motif that works its way through.”
Here’s A Story
David scored a project that’s wildly different from the other two discussed today. “It was fun,” he says about Ru Paul’s Drag Race/Brady Bunch crossover. “They recreated an iconic Brady Bunch episode, pretty much shot for shot.”
The Brady Bunch featured a famous theme song but also an underscore from legend Frank De Vol. “De Vol’s orchestrations and comedy sense are so sophisticated. It was impressive, and a little intimidating going back and listening to his work.”
“I recorded our new cast members singing the original theme,” he explains, “The underlying cues I composed inspired by the vibe of the original music. About a third of the rest of the score was licensed from the original 1960’s broadcasts, and I re-recorded the master tracks.”
David grew up on a healthy dose of a lot of music from around the world. But he says without a doubt, “My idols were the Beatles.” He adds, “I went through my heavy jazz period, too.”
“Film score-wise,” continues, starting with one above all, “Bernard Herman has been my main man since I was very young. I was obsessed with the Ray Harryhausen movies that he scored, like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I still watch those. I love Mike Abels and Thomas Newman. Trent Reznor is doing incredible stuff of course and Cliff Martinez.”
“Working with the Coen Brothers,” he says about a dream project, ” their films with Carter Burwell are favorites of mine.”
But for David, he’s living the dream. “I feel lucky that I am keeping busy with a fun mix of projects. I’m always inspired by new bands and new music…this is a golden time to be writing for TV.
Are you watching Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes on HBO?
Thanks to David Benjamin Steinberg and Impact24 PR
for making this interview possible.
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