Emmy-nominated composer Chris Willis spoke with Solzy at the Movies about scoring the first season of Schmigadoon!
Created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, Schmigadoon! features an all-star cast in an homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood Movie Musicals. The Apple TV+ series stars Cecily Strong, Keegan-Michael Key, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit, Dove Cameron, Ariana DeBose, Fred Armisen, Jaime Camil, Jane Krakowski and Ann Harada. Martin Short also guest stars.
Willis is nominated for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (Original Dramatic Score). The final round of Emmy voting will end on August 22 with the 2022 Creative Arts Emmy Awards and Gala taking place September 3-4 and the 74th Emmy Awards will air September 12 on NBC.
It’s nice to chat with you again. The last time we spoke was for The Death of Stalin just after Sundance 2018.
Chris Willis: Oh, heavens.
That was over the phone.
Chris Willis: Well remembered. How has your pandemic been?
It’s been very long. The free HBO in early 2020 allowed me to finally finish watching Veep.
Chris Willis: Oh, well, that’s a silver lining.
Yeah. Sam Richardson and I go way back, thanks to Chicago improv.
Chris Willis: Oh, that’s incredible. Alright, Sam is amazing. I think somebody was just telling me that he’s in a movie right now. Something that just came in like Minions or no, I can’t remember. But I just think he is amazing. As soon as he showed up in Veep, I hoped that they were going to write more for him and sure enough, in the end, they did.
How did you first become attached to composing the score for Schmigadoon!?
Chris Willis: Well, something funny happened with Schmigadoon!, which is that my wife, Elyse, and I were both contacted about it independently. She is a singer, a session singer, and she was contracted to work on the demos in the summer of 2020, late summer. They needed demos so that they could sell everything to Apple and so that they could edit and so they could plan. I started hearing about the show from her because she was getting all the materials, and she was finding it absolutely hilarious. We were both kind of quite mystified, like, where did this come from? It’s so funny. It’s not quite a parody; it’s much more loving than that. It’s much more well crafted than you inspect expect a parody to be. I was very intrigued, but then, several months later, while Cinco was towards the end of the actual shoot, I then heard about the show myself from my agent and had an interview with Cinco, where I had to confess that I’d already heard the songs because Elyse had been working on them. I should say that most of the demos that the original session singers did were replaced but Elyse stayed in one of the songs. She did a solo in “Cross That Bridge,” and she does this sort of quasi-operatic solo. We both ended up on the show but it had nothing to do with each other. I think it’s more just that we were two of the least cool people in LA both into 1950s and all of these yesteryear references.
Do you have a favorite musical from that era?
Chris Willis: Oh, goodness. Well, I grew up admiring lots of those musicals but when the show started, I really felt I needed to look into things again and really listen to the all of those movie musicals in a different way, in a sort of professional way. I saw The Music Man for the first time. I actually never seen The Music Man until, I guess, early 2021 when I started working on Schmigadoon! and I just adored it. I think that’s shot up to being one of my favorite movies. I think the relationship at the center of it is so interesting and ambiguous, his character is very interesting and ambiguous, and I just think the songs are so wonderful and they fit together and the whole thing just sort of hums in a very unique, singular way. I don’t know if that’s my favorite but it’s been on my mind a lot in the last few years because it was this discovery for me.
I only recently watched The Music Man for the first time just before it aired on TCM on the Fourth of July.
Chris Willis: Oh, right. What did you think?
I enjoyed it. I regret that I was late to watching it.
Chris Willis: Yes.
When I saw that it was on TCM, I’m like, it’s already on the DVR, I may as well go ahead watch it, write a review, and get that TCM bump.
Chris Willis: (Laughs) It does seem like it’s the sort of film you’re supposed to see, as a kid on the holidays, kind of like Xmas or Thanksgiving or something. Yes. That’s when you should really be introduced to it. But, yeah, better late than never, I think.
I was familiar with “Till There Was You” because I’m a big Beatles fan and I knew they recorded a cover.
Chris Willis: Yes, they did a very good cover, didn’t they? In fact, it’s educational, watching them doing a cover, and doing it authentically, with a slight twist towards their own style. It reminds you of that era they had singing other people’s music, learning the ropes.
How did the pandemic impact your typical process when it came to composing the score?
Chris Willis: It was typical of my projects around that time in that you just had to accept that you weren’t going to be seeing the people you’re working so closely with, in person. I forget now if that was the first one where that dawned on me or not. Everyone around the world has been having to deal with that. But definitely, we in Hollywood, have always assumed that the only way to make a TV show or a movie is to get together and to vibe from each other in the room. And then, we discovered that we’re just simply going to have to do the job without doing that.
In fact, I’ve still never been in the same room as Cinco Paul. I feel I know him very well now but all of our interactions have been over Zoom, which is funny. All of my presentations of my music to him have been virtual; there’s been none of that process in the room. We also had to record the score according to all of the protocols that were around at the time. Of course, the protocols are always changing, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to be able to do. It’s doable. The musicians just bring their A-game. They have to play on their own and in many cases, I was bringing them to my studio but they were in one room and I was in another. We just had to be really thoughtful about what are we trying to achieve here. If everyone were together, would this be different, would you be playing this louder or more passionately than you are. Hats off to all of the musicians that I worked with during that period who really, really took it to the next level and produced some really fun music where you would have sworn that everyone was in the room together.
Doing jazz, for instance, doing swinging together. I had many experiences where I would contract a whole jazz band to do something, not just Schmigadoon!, but on other projects. I would send them the music on a Friday and say, Okay, I’m gonna give you till Monday to get it back to me. They amongst themselves, because they cared so much about it working well, they would call each other and they would say okay, I’m going to record at 11 AM on Friday, and then I’m going to send it to you at 1pm on Friday, and then you’re going to record and then you’re going to send it to Charlie and he’s going to—and they actually all played off each other’s recordings without bothering me about how they were going to make that work, which is just a testament to how great they are and how much they care about the feel of what they do and the quality of what they do.
How did working on Schmigadoon! compare to a series like Veep?
Chris Willis: Oh, interesting. Well, the funny thing about Schmigadoon! is that in many ways, it wanted to seem like a movie. It was supposed to look like an MGM movie and it was supposed to sound like a movie in terms of the music. Anyone who’s worked in TV knows that there are basic logistical things that are different about TV and movies unless you’re working on a TV show that is going to absolutely break the bank. In fact, Schmigadoon! and Veep were similar in the sense that they’re both comedy shows. Even though both of them look very nice and very cinematic, neither of them looked like they were shot in front of the studio audience or anything.
A comedy show is a comedy show at some level in the industry. Schmigadoon! moved quite fast. We had to get everything done quickly. We had to make it look like the kind of movie that that took a long time but we did not have a long time—we had comedy time to get it done. That’s a similarity between both of them. Maybe in some ways, it suits comedy. You kind of like that feeling of having to trust your first instincts often and not get absolutely lost down rabbit holes. Maybe there’s some wisdom there in that the schedules for comedy tend to have a fairly quick tempo, at least in my experience.
How special was it to be a part of a musical at a time when Broadway theaters were shut down?
Chris Willis: That’s a very good point that you make. It was a very sad time. Of course, we were all hearing stories about the theaters closing and worrying about their long-term prospects. It was to Schmigadoon!’s benefit, if I can say that, that we were able to get these incredible people because they weren’t working day in, day out on Broadway. There was a sort of perfect storm as far as Schmigadoon! was concerned. Actually, the opposite of a perfect storm, perfect storm is a bad thing, isn’t it? I wonder how it could possibly have been achieved had we not been in those unusual circumstances of all those legends actually being unable to work on stage at the time. However, I gather that season two has wrapped shooting and the same legends or other legends have wanted to do the show. I think that’s probably a testament to how good the writing is and how well the show proved itself in its first season, because now a lot of them are back to work. I think much, much flying back and forth to and from New York had to happen in order for people to be able to work on our show.
Are you coming back for season two?
Chris Willis: I am. I am very excited. I don’t know that much although I have a new playlist of things that I want to watch and rewatch, just as I did last time. I’m told that the tone is going to be different. It’s very, very funny and very, very good. Everyone who’s been involved in it so far keeps saying to me, Oh, wow, you haven’t seen anything yet. You have a treat in store.
I’m looking forward to watching season two.
Chris Willis: Yeah, I think the one thing that I know is the one thing that’s out there, which is that we are going to be in a place called Schmicago, which tells you quite a lot in one word about how things are going to perhaps move forward and enter a different, more emotionally complex era of musical theater.
When we spoke in 2018, you mentioned that you hadn’t watched Score: A Film Music Documentary yet. Have you had a chance to watch yet?
Chris Willis: No, I still haven’t watched Score although every time I talk to almost anyone it, it comes up. I’m probably even now getting to know people who are in it. No, I haven’t seen Score. Is there now a sequel or two sequels that I should see?
There’s not a sequel that I know of. There are similar documentaries for other areas of the cinematic profession. One premiered at Tribeca 2019 about sound design.
Chris Willis: Ooh. Oh, that’s very exciting. I’m a big fan of sound design.
Chris Willis: Great. I have a soft spot for Foley, actually. I adore Foley stages and seeing Foley being done. It just seems magical to me. I think in the same way that people find going to movie orchestral sessions that magical. You can feel the feeling of a movie being created right in front of you.
I got to walk in on a Foley stage this past March. I was in LA for the Critics Choice Awards and decided to do the Sony Pictures Studio Tour that Friday since I had time before I could check into my Airbnb.
Chris Willis: My favorite stories about sound designers are when the source of the sound is so non-literal, when the final result is very epic and the actual thing that’s being done is not epic at all. It sort of makes the whole of moviemaking seem like a puppet show. It reminds you how the whole thing is sort of light and magic and smoke and mirrors. I’m told that the sound of the Enterprise going by in the original Star Trek credits is just the sound of a person going (makes a noise). I believe that’s all it is. Maybe the composer [Alexander Courage], possibly. I think that’s the how the anecdote goes. I just think that’s wonderful.
It’s always fascinating watching these behind-the-scenes documentaries of how the film is made and getting all that background information that you wouldn’t otherwise get.
Chris Willis: I’m very interested in these light stages. Light boxes, is that right? I’m seeing the Kenobi poster behind you.
Lucasfilm and Marvel, I believe, they both use the Volume.
Chris Willis: Volume. Thank you. I really want to go and see one in person but it makes so much sense and it clearly works very well. There’s a feeling one has had in a whole era of filmmaking that close-ups are easy and epic wide shots are easy. You do the former in person and you do the latter with CG. There was a difficulty with the mid-range. I feel that there’s a whole era of films when it was hard for us to get in between those two extremes. I feel that the Volume is really helping with that. To my layman’s eye, the camera feels freer in sci-fi and fantasy things at the moment than it has over the last 10-15 years.
Yeah. I mean, you’re doing having to do all these VFX shots at the beginning of production, as opposed to at the end.
Chris Willis: It’s funny, isn’t it? Yes. And building all these assets, I wonder what happens if they realize they need something that they don’t have.
They could always fix it in post.
Chris Willis: Very different mindset. I mean, as a composer, it’s striking because sometimes I have to do things very early on, mostly I do them very late on. If I’m writing a song that someone’s going to sing on screen, it’s suddenly something that I have to do months or even years earlier than I was expecting to and then I leave that project to one side and I come back to it later so I know how jarring it can be, having to do something at the beginning rather than at the end. There are a few cartoons I’ve done where the only logical way to do it was for me to write the music without any picture at all, which is wonderful. It’s wonderful being trusted that much but it’s also very nerve-racking because you spend your whole life watching picture and responding to it as a film composer. That becomes the way your muscle works and then suddenly, you have to do the exact opposite. I imagine that’s what we’ve been seeing in CG that it’s strange building all the assets when the story may only be sketched out and there are no actor performances to go off and things like that.
Yeah, and then you have to build the sets around what you already have with the Volume background.
Chris Willis: Yes, which again, is the exact opposite because you can picture the final CG being done responding to the sets, responding to the practical, to the props. It’s funny.
It was so nice getting to catch up with you.
Chris Willis: Oh, you too. It’s fun going off on tangents, talking about music, but also talking about other things. Clearly, we both love movies in general.
Oh, yeah. I used a lot of my early pandemic to read about the early studio moguls.
Chris Willis: Right. Yes, it’s an interesting time because they had to be very hard-nosed. But I mean, they had to also actually be creative and have a nose for creative things.
Well, part of the reason why I started reading those biographies to see how they responded to the flu epidemic in the late teens, but hardly any of the books mentioned that thing. I mean, Cohn had a friend of his wife’s that died. Mayer had a kid that got the flu and they ended up moving to LA to for it to be better for their health.
Chris Willis: The most remarkable thing about the Spanish flu epidemic is that you have trouble finding people talking about it. Now that we know what a pandemic is like, it seems so intriguing that that’s the case. It took over all of our lives and is that how we’re going to respond to it, by kind of mostly not talking about it? It’s crazy. It’s amazing how much clearly still happened in those years, in the teens, even though everyone was dealing with this crazy pandemic.
Yeah. With all those nickelodeon theaters shutting down, it allowed Paramount to grow its vast amount of theaters and become the studio it is today.
Chris Willis: I see. Were people actually going to the theaters or were they stopping and not going. How did that go?
Well, I think they were not going and so that caused a lot of theaters to close and then Paramount bought the properties.
Chris Willis: I see. They would like they were like sort of family-owned. They were individual sort of places but then Paramount was able to kind of really expand. Right, right, right. That makes sense.
It was a different era when you had the studio’s owning the theaters and not all these vast multiplexes.
Chris Willis: Yeah, that’s funny, isn’t it? Cool. Well, I hope you got what you need.
Yeah, I did. Thank you so much.
Chris Willis: It’s great talking to you.
Chris Willis: Talk to you again soon, I hope.
Have a good weekend.
Chris Willis: Thank you, you too.
All episodes of Schmigadoon! are streaming exclusively on Apple TV+. The soundtrack is available for purchase.
Please subscribe to Solzy at the Movies on Substack.