I recently sat down with Leo Birenberg, composer for Fox's hybrid-animation sitcom Son of Zorn and acclaimed documentary Red Army. A former mentee of the incredibly decorated Christophe Beck, Leo has already taken on scoring one of the biggest shows on television as well as numerous big name films. After chatting with him about Red Army, his former mentor, and his thoughts on scoring, it became clear it won't be long until his name is as ubiquitous in Hollywood as his scores.
What is it like scoring documentaries? Did you enjoy it?
Loved it. Documentaries are great because you can really work in broad strokes. Gives a lot of room to make interesting music and explore questions of tone and color. In contrast to other formats (live-action narrative, animation), you don't have to worry nearly as much about "hitting" things on screen, so it's very liberating creatively.
What was your process like? Did the theme of the film impact any music decisions?
Absolutely. We started on Red Army pretty early on, when the film was 4 hours long! The approach was to just come up with some themes and material, with Gabe (the director) giving very broad thematic direction. "Russian soul" was a favorite phrase we discussed early on. While the movie is about hockey, we didn't want a specific sports music aesthetic-- hockey was the lens through which the movie helps the audience experience a glimpse into the Soviet experience and mindset of the period. So we composed material away from picture based on those discussions and then, as the film was trimmed down to it’s final form, I started making more individualized pieces of music from those themes that scored each scene appropriately.
How has Christophe Beck impacted your composing career?
Chris has been an unbelievable friend and mentor to me. He really taught me most everything I know about scoring films. Writing music is only one part of the puzzle, there's so much in terms of workflow, logistics, technology, etc. and the only way to really master it is to see first-hand how to get it all done as efficiently as possible. Chis was a great model in that respect as we worked on projects of all shapes and sizes and he gave me a lot of opportunities that I don't think many other younger composers have had to be hands on in all aspects of the job: budgeting and scheduling, producing recording sessions, writing and arranging music. By the time I started to get my own work, I felt totally fluent not just in writing music, but in the nuts and bolts of what it takes to write and deliver a major movie score.
Do you have any plans to score upcoming documentaries or films? Where else can we see your work now?
There’s another collaboration with Gabe Polsky, Red Army’s director creeping up on the horizon. Right now you can watch Son of Zorn, the hybrid-animation comedy on Fox. Super creative concept and an absolute joy to write some very fun music for. Check it out on Sunday nights!
What would you say to people who want to pursue a similar career path to you?
Love the taste of coffee, ha. Like most careers, having a well of experience to draw from is everything. So find filmmakers to collaborate with early on, find a mentor to teach you the ropes, spend time writing music and mastering the technology. You’ll begin to see patterns emerge on how to solve tough filmmaking and musical problems the more experience you have. I think enthusiasm is everything. It’s infectious— the people you work and collaborate with will feed off of it and everyone will do their best work.