Catching Up With Halt And Catch Fire Composer Paul Haslinger

TV Features Halt And Catch Fire
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Tonight “the battle for CTRL” begins with the premiere of AMC’s highly-anticipated new series Halt And Catch Fire. The period drama promises to take us back to the best of times and the worst of times—the ‘80s. The hair was bad, the music was good (some of it, at least), and the personal computer revolution was underway. Grammy and Emmy-nominated composer Paul Haslinger has teamed up with creators Chris Cantwell and Chris Rogers (along with the man behind the soundtrack Thomas Golubi?) to bring us an incredibly sexy, high-octane drama about all of the genius and ego behind the tech boom that changed the world. Paste caught up with Haslinger (formerly of Tangerine Dream and composer for films like Blow, Blue Crush, and the Underworld trilogy) to talk about this exciting new project with AMC.

Paste Magazine: Your work on Halt And Catch Fire is supposed to sort of represent your big return to ‘80s music. Is that what initially drew you to the project?
Paul Haslinger: That’s one aspect of it, and a quite enjoyable aspect. I lived through the period and I was reasonably sure we could have some fun with it. There’s also this feeling of taking a second swing around. But it’s made for a current audience. It’s not supposed to just be a throwback to the ‘80s. The idea is to bring some of those elements from the ‘80s that have stood the test of time—and that are dear to us at this point—but at the same time this is a show for the 2014 audience, not for an audience in the ‘80s. It finds that balance.

From working with the creators, I also believe this isn’t just a show about computers. It’s a character study, much like Mad Men is and Breaking Bad was, and that’s really the core of the show. The rest of it—technology and the time period—those are devices that are at our disposal. Yes, you can have a lot of fun with them, but as you saw in the pilot it’s very character-driven. The people are conflicted and they will have to find their way through many obstacles. That’s always enjoyable to watch.

Paste: Scoot McNairy’s character Gordon Clark is the one that I was most drawn to. It’s probably because he’s this parent but he’s got all of this passion. And there’s this message sort of that parenting or responsibility and passion don’t mix. What was it like working on his scenes?
Haslinger: Scoot is sensational in this. He’s kind of the bolt of light in this little unit. He’s the one who, by far, gets in the most trouble throughout the first season. And he’s a fantastic character to play off of musically. When it’s that good you’re basically just setting a bit of a frame with the music.

Paste: When you’re working on a series like this, how do you balance composing for the characters and composing for the plot?
Haslinger: Every composer handles it a little bit differently but I’m usually trying to hit the mood of the scene; the subtext of the scene, the underlying tension or context of the scene more than each individual character. Character-based themes in music work really well in animation and a lot of other fields, but in this instance—because everything’s so up front—you run the rise of making things a bit hokey. Like, “here comes the Gordon theme, here comes the Donna theme.” It just wouldn’t work.

But what does work is that the characters face different situations and different problems and challenges. And the story is very fast-paced. They’re running against time frequently. In all of these things the music is there to support them in a way that is not obvious. If you’re noticing that the music is manipulating you then it’s not written well, but if it’s doing something and you don’t even notice why you’re feeling the emotion of the characters then, well, that’s the goal of music for any picture. To do this without being cliché. Unfortunately most forms of TV are always in danger of that, just because we [the audience] have heard so many soundtracks and watched so many movies. The predictability is something you always want to fight against.

Paste: I had to pause the episode at a certain point and look up a song. Complicated Game by XTC was such a great fit.

Haslinger: As a composer I’m not involved with the song choices, that is the music supervisor’s job. Thomas Golubi? is the music supervisor, and he also worked on Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and before that, Six Feet Under. He’s a good friend of mine and he was the one who originally brought me to the show’s attention. This is the first show we worked on together, but we had been talking for a while about finding a show or a vehicle that would allow us to use some of these you know, Best of the ‘80s things and bring them the the song and score side, and try to create the perfect package. You never get one hundred percent of everything you want, but we got pretty close with this one. This show is almost the ideal opportunity for him to play some really cool songs, and for me to provide the glue and some of the atmosphere that makes it feel authentic, and allows you to feel the story a little bit more.

Paste: Full disclosure—the year that you joined Tangerine Dream is the year that I was born—1985.
Haslinger: (laughs) Okay.
Paste: For my generation, what do you think we might have missed, or what misconceptions might we have about ‘80s music?
Haslinger: You have the advantage in that you don’t have to listen to all of the bad stuff that we had to listen to, and there was a lot. I don’t generally remember the ‘80s favorably (laughs). So doing this show I got to bring in just the parts that were good. Fortunately all that other stuff has passed away into history.

It’s tough, because I have sort of a double perspective. I lived through it, and now I’m looking back to it. I think for you it must be like when I watch movies from the ‘50s or ‘60s. I sort of enjoy the style, and I enjoy certain aspects of it. You can have a lot of fun with it. And that’s what it’s there for.

But it’s not enough, on its own. Current entertainment has really changed. The way the stories are put together has significantly changed since the ‘80s. You didn’t have to do that much in the ‘80s to entertain an audience. Today, you have to try a little harder. So the ‘80s music is a good element, but it’s not enough to sustain a story.

Paste: I can’t end this conversation without asking you about your work on Blow. It’s one of my favorite movies especially in terms of music, score and composition. Do you have many fond memories from your work on the movie?
Haslinger: Yes, of course. Ted Demme was an amazing director to work with and it became one of those little gems that exists in film history. Not that many people know about it, but those who do know about it love and adore it. I just remember I was working as a programmer at the time and there were quite a few creative meetings. Amanda Scheer, Demme’s wife, was the music supervisor and she came in one day. Most of the discussions about music concerned the final scene of the movie —the prison meeting. And she said, “Ted just wants to cry. He wants to cry! So write something that makes him cry.” (laughs)
Paste: (laughs) That’s great.
Haslinger: So we tried very hard to write something to make Ted cry, and I think the final version did achieve that. It was another one of those projects that was shot so well and performed so well by the actors that the music was relatively easy. Really, you’re just augmenting the story a little because everything else is all there.

Paste: Halt And Catch Fire premieres on Sunday. I know you probably can’t say much, but were there any little things about the series that surprised you?
Haslinger: (laughs) I will say that the season has a very good arc. The things that seem a little bit odd or messed up in the first episode will become more so over the course of the season. If characters get themselves in trouble, they will get themselves in more trouble in episodes to come. There are quite a few twists and turns that you don’t expect. It will definitely keep the audience engaged, it’s a really fun ride.

I also appreciate that the show doesn’t button up too much. There’s not too much of a Hollywood ending where everything’s fine. It really goes around corners and discovers other things. In terms of writing, this is as good as I’ve seen.

Paste: Thanks so much, I’m excited!
Haslinger: Thank you.

You can follow Paul Haslinger’s work on his website.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.