The score for NBC’s Hannibal might be the closest someone’s come on TV to soundtracking the experience of losing one’s marbles. That someone is Brian Reitzell, who’s composed and supervised soundtracks for Sofia Coppola, Rian Johnson, and Peter Berg. Reitzell released a solo album, Auto Music, earlier this summer and now has the original score for Hannibal’s first two seasons. Reitzell got on the phone with Vulture to discuss creating a “constant heightened state of reality,” preparing a Hannibal concert, and how bad commercials suck. [This conversation is spoiler-free.]
Congratulations on the soundtrack album. Is that somewhat rare for TV scores?
I’ve done two TV shows [Ed. note: Starz’s Boss is the other] and they both had CD and vinyl releases. I know there’s probably lots of compilations like Grey’s Anatomy pop songs or things of that nature, but I think Hannibal is a very different — sonically, it’s quite different. It’s the most dynamic thing I’ve been able to put out.
Where do you picture someone who buys the album listening to it? Just because you’re not watching the show doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly intense.
Oh, man, on the couch. I think it’s really good to just kinda turn the lights down — I mean, in the dark it’s the best, because it’ll really come at you. You shouldn’t listen to it while driving, though I had to, to assemble all of it. The way the soundtrack was made is mini suites, so I went through about 25 hours of score to condense it into four CDs. Or in the case of the vinyl, I think it’s five double records or something, it’s ridiculous. The physical copies are just beautiful. It’s very classy, I’m really proud of it.
Whenever I read horror, I tend to go back to the There Will Be Blood soundtrack. I’m excited to have something else to put on.
Oh, yeah, things will happen right at the perfect moment.
What exactly have I been listening to here, though? Stitched-together versions of moments from the show?
They’re cues from the show, but because the way the show works — it’s a constant heightened state of reality, especially now. Season two is super, super thick with sound. Some of the episodes, there’s more music than visuals because the music starts before the picture fades in. Forty-three minutes of music an episode, over 26 episodes. It’s a lot of stuff.
Can you ballpark how many instruments you’ve put on tape for Hannibal? It sounds like a ton.
Hundreds. The second season really started to dip into the world of Japanese music, and using instruments from China and Indonesia, gamelan, and all kinds of chimes and bells that I’ve picked up from my travels. I’ll set up a room full of instruments and just watch the picture and play. Then I’ll move to another station and do the same thing on top of it. It’s hundreds. I record in Pro Tools, and I have 256 tracks, maximum, that I can use. I run out of all 256 tracks all the time. But I plan on having my orchestra grow with Hannibal, so it’s never gonna let up for me. It’s a big-ass orchestra. And we’re trying to figure out how to do some concerts next year, and to pull off playing this stuff is just a monumental feat. We’re gonna start in January and try to do the concert in the winter, so it’s gonna take most of the year just to figure out how to do it.
How did you get yourself into this place where you’re delivering music to go with like 90-95 percent of every episode?
I dug my own hole. It’s nonstop; once I stop it, you kind of come out of the nightmare. It’s almost like I’m doing set design and not scoring. I’m arranging the furniture in the room that you’re in. And I like that, I think it works for the show, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Most of my favorite films have very little music in them, where you just never notice it at all.
Is season three going to be 13 episodes again?
Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s always 13.
What if the network wanted 22? Could you do it?
I could pull it off, but I would lose my mind. By the time I get to the last one, I’m — I mean, the work is really good, the finale always manages to be, musically, probably the crown jewel of the whole season. But that has a lot to do with the fact that they’re giving me stuff like that. The hard thing for me is I often have to pull these out, from start to finish, in seven days. So, yeah, I could do 22. I would probably choose not to, ‘cause I would lose my mind. Season two was almost six months of continuous work. This is why I just got back from a three-week vacation.
I read you work 12- and 14-hour days six days a week when the show’s going. Still true?
Yes. I do two shifts — I come in in the morning and I work until about 6 or 6:30, then I go home to take my dog home and spend some time with my daughter and my wife and eat dinner, and then I come back. My studio is only a six-mile drive from my house. So, yeah, it’s brutal, dude. It’s intense work, but I love my work. And it has to be good. I’m also playing it all live and bringing in my group of musicians and having them play on it. It’s not me sitting in front of a computer and then hanging out by the pool after work. It’s very old-school. I try every day to do something that I’ve never done before, or make some sound that I’ve never made before. Every scene I’m trying to do it a new way, to keep myself interested and to satisfy my own sense of adventure with music. That’s probably the biggest challenge I have, to come up with new ideas on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis.
How do you make it through? It seems like you use the pressure to your advantage.
For years, I did an apprenticeship and became a chef, and the years of working in kitchens, it’s very similar to that experience. I always liked the stress, the real high-stakes, get-the-orders-out line-cook job, as well as the ordering of the produce and everything — it’s really similar to making music for a show like Hannibal. It’s like cooking, it’s just like owning a restaurant. And my restaurant is only open six months out of the year. But I do other things, I don’t sit around and wait for Hannibal to come back. I’m working with a band on Sub Pop next week and recording with them, playing on their record. Then I’m doing a remix for a band, and another show, and a film. So there’s a lot going on besides Hannibal. I had eight records coming out this year.
Have you spent more time on Hannibal than anything else at this point?
No. Lost in Translation was a year of my life, if not more, and then Marie Antoinette was about three years of my life.
Your work almost always feels unique. Do you ever watch back and think, Man, I just made a typical horror-soundtrack moment?
Yeah. If I get through an episode and I don’t cringe once, I’m happy. And I’m very careful to catch anything that’s going to make me cringe because it’s too cliché or it’s too heavy-handed. That doesn’t really happen much in Hannibal. It happens a little bit in the beginning of the first season, but that was intentional. That arc, I think, is healthy — to pull people in with something that’s maybe a teeny bit more traditional, in the beginning, before you realize what’s really going on here, and then you can turn it upside down a bit. I think that’s powerful.
Do you ever watch the show on TV? I’m wondering because—
I try to because I actually like the show and it’s fun to do that. I stay with the audience, so I don’t try to read scripts or be ahead. The commercials are so horrible, though, oh my God —
Exactly. The commercials. I’ve never watched this show live, and I can’t imagine how jarring that must be, to be yanked out of this atmosphere you guys have created and thrown into a Tide commercial.
Oh, it’s terrible. It’s unbelievable. And the commercials are so loud. And the thing about the music in Hannibal, it is very trance-y, in a way. When it’s working, you’re in that reality, you’re not even in your living room anymore. And then when the commercial comes on, it just jars you right back. It’s a bummer, I hate it. That’s the only bummer about network TV, though. NBC has not once given me a music note. I get the freedom to do what I want, and that’s kind of amazing.
What about dealing with the possibility that your show might be over before the story’s finished? A renewal has never felt like a sure bet with Hannibal.
I kinda like the fact that it’s not sure for anybody. I think it’s probably pretty sure for [showrunner] Bryan Fuller — he’s always had an arc and a plan for this show. But for me, like when we did the last episode, I knew we were gonna come back, both seasons. I just knew. But it wasn’t for sure, so I did end them both so that if it ended and it was over that I would be fine with it.