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Arrested Development Composer David Schwartz on ‘Getaway,’ Fantastic 4, and Mitch Hurwitz’s Impossible Plan

Composer David Schwartz has Arrested Development war stories. They're fond and fuzzy memories, but when he talks about them, he sounds like a soldier recounting his time in the trenches. Long hours toiling over creator Mitch Hurwitz's intricately woven series, finding a unique sound for every moment, layering in stuff to complement the jokes while never overblowing them — it was more like composing a Bluth family opera than a sitcom series.

Returning for the Netflix-revived season four was an even more daunting task, thanks to a reworked format and tight shoot. Season four has its soundbite callbacks — "Mr. F," "You’re a Crook Captain Hook," and Franklin's "It Ain't Easy Being White" all make cameo appearances — but Schwartz also whipped up hundreds of fresh cues to fit an arc that took the Bluths everywhere from Mexico, India, and rehab. Thus, the true song of the summer: "Getaway." We talked to Schwartz about his Emmy-nominated earworms, the Fantastic 4 musical, and what happens when Mitch and the actors start singing songs on set.

A Sprawling Web of Interstitial Music

What changed on your end when you reapproached season four?
All fifteen episodes were interconnected. Often I was working with cuts that were missing scenes. And many episodes share scenes, and there was a decision there — do we want to play the same music to be thematic or are they actually seeing the same thing twice? Do we change it every time we're in the penthouse or on the dock? It was a combination of those.

How much music would you write for a given episode? Many shows simply resample music created in the past, but that doesn't sound like a luxury on a show this intricate.
Very often, I might write 50 pieces for an episode. This season, because of the nature of delivering them all in the same day, the nature of writers wanting to write longer, directors want to shoot longer, editors want to edit longer, I'm the last person in the chain. In the first episodes, we had a comfortable ten days or so. By the last five, we did an episode every two or three days. So we had to use more old music. It became freeing — we had a lot of great stuff, so I could go really wild, take the things we have nothing for and go out of the box.

The show lampoons so many topics, though season four felt particularly targeted at Hollywood. Does your music jab at scoring conventions?
I think we're all lampooners. During the first season, Mitch said, "Can you write something really emotional and serious? But don't give it away." So sometimes there's a chord at the end, a really fast ukulele, or "Prince plays funk" ending …  I think there might have been questions from the network at that point. "Are people going to get this?" Mitch does take opinions into account, but he wants to make his show.

Variations of the "Main Title Theme"

How much of an influence does Mitch have on your music?
He has an incredible musical memory. Embarrassingly, mostly about my music. The Ink Spots and Duke Ellington are big favorites of his. He comes to my studio and likes to play with all the instruments. He wants to know about everything. If he sees something new in my studio, he wants to talk about it and five minutes later he'll be referencing it in a joke. He remembers everything. All of us who work with him until 4 a.m. feel like we have to stay sharp.

The main title is an ever-evolving cue, especially between season three and four. How did you find that sound?
When we started, I had done several projects with Mitch. When we started with Arrested, I asked him about the main title. He was too busy. He said, "I'll get to that on the third episode," which is certainly unconventional. He was into Elvis Costello so he said, "How about something like [that]?" So I sent him something that hopefully didn't sound too much like Elvis Costello. He said, "That's not our main title." Then, I was finishing off the first session of Arrested Development and a week before that I had been in Tahiti and brought back a Tahitian ukelele. For no particular reason, it looks like an electric guitar. It's tiny, it had eight strings made out of green fishing line, and it's loud as hell. I saw it in a bar in Bora Bora and I talked to the guy afterward, and every night I'd come back to see if he could get me one. "Well, the guy who makes it is fishing." On the last day, he insisted on driving me to the Tahitian uke luthiers, and I picked one up.

So my session was ending and we got a call from the network. "Mitch needs a sound for his logo at the end of the show." I came up with an idea, one and a half seconds, always a challenge, and I handed the ukelele to my guitarist and he played the tag. Mitch heard it and called me up immediately. He wanted it in the main title. That was a great gift. It could be an original sound. And there's still a tiny bit of Costello in the theme — a little box organ he used in his early days, the kind of bass line.

How did you come to build a fresh soundscape for every season four opening credits sequence?
There was a feeling that there would be a concern when people started to see this that it wasn't going to be all the characters at once. As the shows grew towards the fifteenth, most of the characters were in there. So we wanted to make a musical nod to that. So Mitch said, "What if we added something to each one?"

Do you see the characters of Arrested functioning as your own mini Peter and the Wolf, each one having a distinct instrument?
I never relate to the theory where everything has a character. Everything I do is so layered. Gob walks into a room and George Michael is there. I have two themes running. I tend to think of each theme and my first thought is, How do I add elements that aren't there? I try not to write funny music, but I do try and write fun music. I think you find that in the films of Woody Allen. The pace supports the comedy.

Fantastic 4: An Action Musical

You've written a ton of original songs for Arrested Development. For season four, you wrote a musical. Was there any prep time involved with whipping up Fantastic 4?
I did that before it was filmed. There was stuff in the script, some of the lyric lines, and often I co-write songs with Gabriel Mann, who is a versatile singer who can sing in any style. And my daughter Lucy Schwartz has been the female vocalist of Arrested Development. We had to write four or five of the songs in one day. The joke is Mark Cherry is a Justin Bieber–like figure and, I think this came directly from Mitch: "What if all the songs sounded exactly the same?" So it's the same track, same melody, and it drove us crazy. "Do they all suck or will they come together?" We would send demos to set and it would change. Actors don't have a lot of time and they have to improvise in some places. So we'd have to go over it another time and make sure it was working together.

Then when we were finishing that episode, Mitch started talking about it being a medley of all the songs. That's something that would be better if you knew in the beginning. [Laughs.] It kept changing orders until we had a medley that worked. As a television composer you're often asked to write music for characters, and in comedies, often it's bad and that's the joke. I think musicians generally struggle with that. We find bad music generally painful.

How did the songs change when the cast started interpreting them?
Mitch was calling me from the set adding a line and subtracting lines. Numbers in a musical are usually three to five minutes. These were 5 seconds to 40 seconds. Then they have to be filmed, and actors have to fit the comic timing. The actors added character. Tobias sings like Tobias. Lucille sings like Lucille. They often take liberties with melodies. Everybody in that group is somewhat musical, so it's great fun. Jessica Walter's dad is David Walter, he was in the Philharmonic and one of the great upright bass players.

So how long did you clock on Fantastic 4?
One day to write it, one day to record it, and then they added two other songs … maybe three days and a day and a half to fix it.

"Getaway"

You mentioned Bieber as a reference point for Mark Cherry. How many times did you listen to "Baby" before you got to "Getaway"?
I've certainly heard Justin Bieber and I've done a lot of pop music. But I haven't written much in that style. You just have to get the flavor of it without ripping it off. So I listened to a couple Bieber records and dove in. Gabe and I wrote and performed that in a couple of hours and sent it out. We made a long version for the soundtrack release, which is hopefully going to be soon, so it was 50 seconds and now there's a three-minute version. It was a real challenge to open it up. We had never mixed it, we never added guitar. It became a mini-phenomenon. I hope we're competing with Justin Bieber.

How many iterations of "Getaway" did you wind up writing?
I think Gabe and I did the first pass of lyrics. I'm sure Mitch gave us some ideas; he usually does. But Mitch said there was a big problem: It was too obvious. I think we used the word illusionist. He never wants anything to be obvious. That's not a concern in most network television. So we did a second pass. Liza sings it at some point, before being attacked by an ostrich. Gob sings along to the track when he's Mark Cherry's chauffeur.

The Wood Block

George Michael's Juilliard audition must have been a musical Pandora's box for you.
When we were around George Michael, we started adding more wood block. It's like "more cowbell." It's sort of a hard thing to gauge. I would add separate stems of wood block so on the stage they could control the mix of the wood block.

With so many fake block imitators out there, how does one find the best wood block?
I was too busy to leave the studio and my wood block was missing. So my wife went to the percussion shop and called me, a bit disturbed. "This is the best percussion shop in L.A. and they say the best wood blocks are plastic." When Peter Erskine came in to play the drums, he played the wood block. That's like Stravinsky playing the wood block. He brought a real wood block, but I think we used both. Publish that: Plastic are the best wood blocks.

"Sound of Silence"

The Simon & Garfunkel song evolves into a recurring gag in season four. How does a piece of pop music influence what you do?
"Sound of Silence" was in the script. Which is unusual — you can probably count on two hands the number of songs that were outside songs in Arrested. Early on, we came up with the idea that Mitch wanted us, me and the co-writer, to do the mariachi [version], which was quite a challenge. We wanted it to sound as much like the original record, which when you start to analyze it, is very quirky. Tempo fluctuations, it's slightly off in some way, but it had to be timed so that when the mariachi band, the horns, comes in, we see them. And you can't give it away. It's only a few bars. It's always fun to try and figure out how someone made a record.

"Hey, I Met a Girl Today … "

Characters on Arrested Development have songs in their hearts. They're often caught belting out a tune. Are we seeing your work in those moments?
Mitch sings a lot of stuff. "Hey, I met a girl today … " goes up a couple of times. But then I had to make that into a swing song. I added that melody into an existing swing song so when Jason Bateman walks across the street, he sings it and the clarinet repeats it. That's a pure Mitch idea. "Is anyone going to get this?" I don't know if anybody ever does, but we think it's funny.

That happens several times with Tobias's "Oh, is that a gal I see? / No, It's just a fallacy!"
He sings that a couple of times. Sometimes I'll write them and send them a demo. Sometimes these ideas come up on set, especially this season when Mitch is directing. I don't get to set — I wish I did. Although I am in Arrested Development.

Where?
About a minute and a half into episode one, in a band of angry, white mariachis. I am the guitarist leading. They wanted me in the front for the close-up, but Troy Miller was directing and he kept running me down with the segue and I was carrying the guitarrón in this uncomfortable mariachi outfit, and I kept feeling I had to jump out of the way. Very exciting scene. We were on the dock until 4:30 a.m.

Real Asian Prison Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System

The show has always featured an ethnically diverse cast, mostly so the Bluths can reveal themselves to be bizarrely intolerant. When you're writing world music, how do you blend the sensibility of the characters and the sounds of styles you're imitating? That must be a tough joke to pull off.
There's a scene in the Asian women's prison … it was one of those shows where we had a day turnaround. Mitch called and said, "If you can do one thing for this week, can you do a swing tune that sounds Chinese?" My impulse is to say "yes," then freak out. So I wrote it with that same jango kind of melody that might work with ukelele, but we used shamisen, pipa, and koto just to get the melody done. George Doering, my musical hero and guitarist, super well-known to everyone who does this, he came in and did it and it sounded too good, like guitar. He had to let it have pitch discrepancies. It's borderline because of the ethnic thing, but [Mitch] makes fun of everybody. That's always been the rule.

"Boomerang"

The final beats of season four smash cut to a song performed by your daughter, singer-songwriter Lucy Schwartz. How involved were you in creating that tune?
Lucy writes with me more than I write with her. She's very much an artist. She wrote that one with Matt Hales, the artist Aqualung. I think they were writing it for something else, but it came out so well they decided to put it on her record [Timekeeper]. I co-produced the record, but the writing is all hers.

How did it wind up concluding the season?
I gave an advance copy of the record to Mitch. I never expected him to listen to it and it took a couple of months, but he said he was driving back from the dub stage, he came across the song and said it was the perfect way to end the last episode. So we're happy to have it on there. She is the voice of Mr. F, so it's not her first time on the show.

Photo: Netflix