Max Richter Reflects on Composing for The Leftovers

The Leftovers composer on what the series means to him, his favorite score and why he chooses to work with the instruments he does.

HBO: What has composing for The Leftovers meant to you? 

Max Richter: It’s been an opportunity to engage with an incredible piece of storytelling, spend time with a fascinating collection of characters and work with some of the brightest minds around: Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta and Mimi Leder.

HBO: At what point in the process do you sit down with series co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta to pair your compositions with visuals?

Max Richter: In the beginning, I wrote a lot of the material based on the images to develop the themes. Then, as we got into our workflow, the process became really organic. Damon and Tom try pieces of my music in the episode cut as it evolves. Then, we converse about various scenes and how the music should play along. It’s a very conversational process and an enjoyable puzzle-solving exercise. With this team, you’re getting surprises all the time. 

HBO: What was your reaction when you found out the show was moving to Australia? 

Max Richter: In a way, I wasn’t surprised. With Damon’s writing, you feel like it can go in any direction at any time. When they said they were going to Australia, I said, “Okay, great! Sounds good.”

HBO: What about the new location inspired you?

Max Richter: The score mostly operates on an emotional level and that emotional landscape hasn’t really changed. To some extent, the fact the show moved across the planet made absolutely no difference at all. On the other hand, we did include bits of local music as a pastiche of the show moving to Australia.

HBO: Is there a scene from this season that was particularly emotional to write for? 

Max Richter: The ending of Season 3, Episode 1, with the discovery of Sarah as Nora, is an amazing moment. I’m very happy with the way the storytelling, images and music worked in that scene. 

HBO: Were there challenges in evolving the music with the characters?

Max Richter: It’s challenging to try and navigate things when you don’t really know where the story is going because I don’t read ahead. I like to be surprised by the material when it hits my desk. The story is very wide-ranging and full of questions itself. It’s really just keeping up with this incredibly fertile, imaginative storytelling that the writers are coming up with — and making it feel like The Leftovers at all times.

HBO: Are there any specific instruments you feel represent specific characters?

Max Richter: There aren’t really character themes aside from Holy Wayne’s choral music. The key thing in the music for The Leftovers is that I’ve tried to use instruments which do not, by nature, have a sustaining quality. A piano note, for example doesn’t sustain — it disappears. We hear it and then it fades into nothing. I like that because it sums up the whole story of The Departure. A lot of the sounds in The Leftovers have that quality.

HBO: The Leftovers mixes in folk songs and pop ballads alongside your composed instrumentals. How do you and music supervisor Liza Richardson achieve this balance?

Max Richter: It’s a mixture of strategy, planning, thinking and wild experimentation. Liza is a phenomenal talent and has a great feeling for the things that are going to blow up in a scene. From my side, it’s about understanding how to set up one of those needledrops with a score that comes before it — or understanding how to back into it. It’s an architectural problem to solve. I think the music choices are just so smart; I’ve never had any trouble living alongside them in terms of the score.

HBO: Is there a musical moment you didn’t write music to that stands out?

Max Richter: I do like the trampoline sequence from Season 3, Episode 2. I think everybody likes that sequence. It’s pretty out there. 

HBO: When you think of all the pieces you’ve composed for the series, is there one that means the most to you?

Max Richter: It’s funny, it’s like choosing between your kids. I’m really fond of The Leftovers material, how the music evolves and how it lives in the show. I feel close to it. One of the pieces we’ve used throughout the series is called “Dona Nobis Pacem.” It’s a bell tune that features a cello. We hear it grow in this montage towards the end of the pilot. It comes back in a few different places and I think that’s one I really like. The other is “The Departure” music itself — a piano tune that’s become the spine for the whole show from a musical standpoint.

HBO: “Dona Nobis Pacem” is translated to “Give Us Peace.” Any reason you chose this title?

Max Richter: I feel like that’s what all the characters in this show are really looking for. That’s the quest because they are all traumatized in some way and that’s what they want. Peace. That’s what we all want, right?

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Watch new episodes of The Leftovers Sunday nights at 9 pm on HBO.