Interview: David E. Russo on composing for two Batman TV shows

We spoke to David E. Russo, the composer behind the memorable music of Batman spin-offs, Gotham and Pennyworth.

From epic battles to emotional moments between characters, the score for your favorite film or television show is often the secret to a successful scene.

Batman spin-off shows Gotham and Pennyworth would feel very different without the musical hand of composer David E. Russo. Be it the main title themes, or the tunes accompanying each episode, Russo’s music guides the viewer as much as the dialogue and acting.

We recently had a chance to speak to the man behind the wonderful sounds of both shows about how each one came together.

We discuss the power of music in Gotham and Pennyworth with Russo.

Pennyworth

Pennyworth. Image courtesy EPIX

What interested you in music and how did you become involved in television and film music?

David E. Russo: I’ve always seen myself as extraordinarily insignificant in the grand scheme. I think creating music for TV and film is my attempt at being part of something larger than myself. Also, being immersed in the creative process allows me to forget myself entirely and step out of time. It’s enormously cleansing and therapeutic.

The theme for Gotham has already become iconic. Can you tell us your approach to scoring for the show? What were the elements that influenced your final product?

David: At the very beginning, the brilliant writer.director.producer.show-runner, Danny Cannon, who is a talented composer in his own right, instructed me: ‘no loops’. That said everything. Every note had to be performed. Otherwise, Danny didn’t impose any limitations or restrictions of any kind. The show itself is so over-the-top operatic that the goal was to rise to the level of mad intensity on-screen. The characters are so large and iconic that they could support big themes and huge orchestrations. I haven’t counted but there must be 50 themes ascribed to the various villains, freaks and madmen who wandered through the 5 seasons, not to mention Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon and the other main characters.

You’ve also scored another Batman property, Pennyworth. How easy or hard is it to give two shows in the same universe their own personality? What did you have to do differently for Pennyworth?

David: For Pennyworth I had to step waaaay back. Both Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon wanted a much lighter touch. Where Gotham was all bombast, Pennyworth was about subtlety. It was a fundamental adjustment. It was no longer the origin story of a super-hero. It’s about a young man with a troubled past becoming embroiled in a political thriller. The approach became much more intimate, more rooted in jazz. Suddenly we had quiet bass flutes playing slinky melodies. Great fun.

Batman spin-off show, Gotham

Batman spin-off show, Gotham

Though Gotham and Pennyworth are very different shows, there are understandable overlaps (with the DC lore and such). Was it important to ensure that Pennyworth sounded different from Gotham?

David: I think it was crucial that they be completely different. Pennyworth exists in a strange, alternate-universe swinging London of the early 1960’s and has a very English sensibility. There are, certainly, overlaps in that we see the first meeting of Alfred Pennyworth and Thomas Wayne in the pilot episode. We also later meet Martha Kane, who will ultimately be the mother of Bruce Wayne. But when we meet them in Pennyworth, we are far away from that dark alley in Gotham where these two will be murdered while Bruce Wayne watches. They are still young and fresh-faced and optimistic.

Do you have any favourite pieces from Gotham and Pennyworth?

David: It’s funny, Gotham was such a vibrant show but most of my favourite moments were the quietly heroic ones. The conversation between Alfred and Bruce where Bruce vows never to kill is one I really like. I also really liked the theme for Jerome and the Maniaxx. My favourite piece for Pennyworth has to be the Main Title. The visuals, designed by Danny Cannon, were fantastic and I was able to create something I’m proud of.

David Russo composing

Photo provided by David Russo

Having scored for both films and television shows, what are the challenges when working on each? Do you have a preferred format?

David: Yeah, they’re very different animals. I like the opportunity on films to more deeply explore a concentrated vision that totally occupies your mind for 2 or 3 months. But I also have really come to love working on a series over a long period. There’s something about watching a really long story arc unfold and having the music evolve along with it that’s massively satisfying.

Can you name one superhero/comic book property you would love to work on? Could you tell us why and what unique spin would you give on the music for it?

David: One comic book I find really interesting is Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. I worked on Sin City back in 2005 and Johnny has some of the same strange madness and humor. I think it would be fun to score it with a really limited palette; a guitar with 2 strings (one of them broken), two spoons, 3 trash cans (varying sizes), a hamster wheel, a deck of cards.

What projects are you working on currently?

David: A couple things. The author Robert Mailer Anderson wrote a play called The Death Of Teddy Ballgame which I’m helping turn into a radio play. Also, I scored a film a few years back entitled The Elephant In The Living Room which explored exotic animals being kept as household pets and how it always turns tragic for the animals. That film maker, Michael Webber, is doing a follow-up entitled The Conservation Game which is going to be fascinating.

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What’s your favorite piece from the Gotham and Pennyworth scores? Let us know in the comments below!