Leftovers Composer Max Richter Talks Spooky Music


The Berlin-based composer discusses his working process, the show's recurring sonic images, and identifies a small moment with big impact.

HBO: How did you come aboard The Leftovers? Were the show creators familiar with your work or you with theirs?

Max Richter: We got an inquiry about this project, I knew nothing about it at all. I hadn't read the book. But I read the script and I thought it was amazing – very powerful, very dynamic and punchy writing. A real page turner. Then I had a conversation with Damon [Lindelof, series co-creator]. He had been listening to my records and had in mind the idea of my doing this. And also, [director and executive producer] Pete Berg had been at John Tiffany's Macbeth, which had used a lot of my music. They sent me the pilot with lots of my music on it and I thought, let's do this.  

HBO: What's your process? Are you responding to moments in the script or to what's on screen?

Max Richter: It's a hybrid, really. The first thing, I read the script as it comes along. And then we'll see the cut in various stages. There will be score in there, temped in, mostly my things from either previous episodes or records. And then we start talking about what's working about the cues, where they should go, how the architecture should develop. And then I'm just writing on the picture. We also have recurring themes: the Garvey family material, the Departure material, a kind of holy music. It's a variety of music, all interacting organically. They act like the engine for the stories as a whole.

HBO: What notes do you get from the show?

Max Richter: Damon is an ideal collaborator in that he lets me do my thing. Any notes he gives are just so right in the zone. They totally make sense. With some directors, you'll send them a string quartet and they'll say, "We love the trombones, Can you give us more trombones?" And you think, I don't even know how to answer that.

Max Richter © Yulia Mahr

Max Richter © Yulia Mahr

HBO: Is there a big difference scoring a series versus scoring a film?

Max Richter: In a film, you only get that moment once and you have to complete it. In a project like this, you don't have to give 100 percent of the information because there's more time. We're going to get another chance to look at that character or situation later from another perceptive. It's like walking around a sculpture, you get to view different aspects of it. And actually, the story is structured that way; it's a process of slow reveals. So the music doesn't have to be so editorializing. It can stand back a little bit and allow space for us to walk into and explore for ourselves.

HBO: Besides your score, the show features specific soundtrack choices. How influenced are you by those?

Max Richter: Those choices are made in another universe but they're interesting to know. That sort of stuff tells us all kinds of things about the character, their attitudes, their musical culture, their emotional world. They're there for a reason. They're very carefully considered and there are some amazing choices – the Captain and Tennille – that tells me things too.  

HBO: You mentioned the recurring themes. Can you discuss those?

Max Richter: The Departure theme is a rippling piano tune. It happens in a lot of different places; it comes back in Episode 3 when Rev Jamison is looking after his wife, in a string quartet moment. That happens a lot –the notes are there and then they morph into other versions of themselves, much like the story does. It's an evolutionary process.

There's the Garvey universe, on piano. And that plays in most of the eps one way or another. In Episode 1, it's the montage when Tom dives into the pool. That kind of sums up the world of the show. All these troubled folks searching for some kind of resolution and peace. And that happens in various guises in places further downstream together.

The holy music, the ritual music, is one of the big sonic images in the show. It evokes some sort of mysterious, or possibly sacred space. That music is mostly about more questions than answers. Because it's very unclear who those people are, it's unresolved.


HBO: What details can you give us about scoring Episode 3 with its focus on Reverend Jamison?

Max Richter: Overwhelmingly the material in that episode is built around atmospheric, unresolved spooky music. It's this feeling of the unknown. It has a ritual quality. I've used choral voices in it, which is unusual for me, but so much of it is in the ecclesiastical space – the church and the casino, which is an ecclesiastical space for some. 

The baptism is one of the few cues so far that feels happy. There's something shocking about it in a sense. It's a very small moment that glimmers through the prevailing tone.