Back in March, Netflix released a four-episode series called Unorthodox starring Shira Haas (Foxtrot) as a Jewish woman in an ultra-Orthodox community whose journey crosses oceans and cultural boundaries. Antonio Gambale is a composer with a diverse cultural background that brought the score to life.
Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Haas) is a 19-year-old woman who’s silently miserable in a pre-arranged marriage. There’s a woman yearning to see more of the world. Esty has a musician’s heart, and one day runs away from her life in New York to Berlin. It’s in Germany where she’s exposed to everything the secular world has to offer, for better or worse. The uncommon story Unorthodox is getting great reviews across the spectrum.
PopAxiom hopped on a Zoom call with Antonio to talk about his life across the globe, making music with punk rock pioneers, and the mesmerizing underscore of Unorthodox.
Australia, Italy, And France
Australian-born Antonio Gambale spent time living in Italy, where his parents were from. Now, Antonio lives in Paris, where he creates scores for films (Joe Cinque’s Consolation) and television. How’d he end up in the city of love? “Malcolm McLaren, legendary ex-manager of the Sex Pistols was producing an album here in France. Mutual friends were looking for people to work with him on that.”
Antonio was no stranger to collaboration, which is an essential skill. “At the time, I worked with a lot of DJs on electronic stuff and I also spoke English natively. Before Malcolm passed away, he lived in Paris but wasn’t a strong French speaker.”
That summer in Paris proved one person’s hot weather is another’s just right. “I decided to take a bit of a sabbatical. It was the early 2000s, and there was a horrible heatwave. For me, having lived in Sydney, I thought, ‘this is kinda nice.’”
Antonio’s sabbatical lead to meeting another composer, which made the decision to stay in Paris a no-brainer. “Soon after, I met Nathaniel Mechaly (Taken Trilogy). He invited me into the studio, and I showed him some of my stuff. He was starting to get more significant film offers and needed an assistant and a programmer.
Antonio’s skills as a traditional composer and electronic music-maker was a plus, given the trend taking over action films. “There was a real fusion of electronic sounds and orchestrated work. At that time, that sound was becoming a thing.”
Nothing teaches quite like experience and working with Mechaly propelled Antonio to even more work, including Unorthodox. “It happened thanks to an old friend. We were on a summer holiday in the Greek Islands. At the time, she was waiting to hear back from this job working for a film and television producer in Berlin. She got the job, and about six months later, she called me asking if she could suggest me for a project. They sent out three scenes to like 10 or 12 composers with some general notes about what they wanted and didn’t want.”
The composers submitted demos, and Antonio got the call. “One of the first themes I wrote was almost exactly what we kept for the show.” Unorthodox is a show that subverts expectations and takes viewers through a roller coaster of emotions.”
The demos included creating music for a diverse range of scenes. “I had to write for some early scenes that were quite varied. One was more of an intense scene, and another more of what might be a character’s theme. A week or so later I got a call from [director] Maria Schrader, telling me ‘I cannot imagine my show without that theme.’”
Creating themes is a powerful tool for composers. “For Unorthodox, I wanted to make themes that were fragile but also powerful. I used a lot of raw, single notes sampled from violin, cello and viola. They’re imperfect, slightly out of tune, but they hit you in the chest. When you use them softly, it gives the theme this gentle honesty, but when you go bigger, it gives off this big voice.”
Unorthodox is a story told within a sacred and private community with scenes representing authentic aspects of the Hasidic tradition, specifically the Satmar community. But the story is transcendent, and the score represents the global nature of the narrative. “There was no need for the score to try to imitate Jewish music. The focus instead was to make the score about the characters.”
In most productions, placeholder music gets attached along the way. Between conversations with the director and the temporary soundtrack or “temp track,” the score is born from the mind of the composer. However, for Unorthodox, Antonio and the production did something, well, unorthodox. “We had no temp.”
Temp tracks are a double-edged sword. On paper, working on a film or series with no temp “… sounds super cool,” Antonio says. “But it brings its own challenges.”
Antonio accomplished working through the challenges of having no temp by focusing on the foundation of the story. “Because we had this real desire to work with themes, it gave us several clues and an internal logic to defer to when deciding what kind of score needed to go where.”
The process for Unorthodox was somewhat unusual for a series production. “I did a lot of theme writing while they were shooting. I spent that time making a lot of material.” As the process went on, Antonio provided, “… temp music for the editors to use.”
However there are two problematic caveats to this sort of process. First, the tracks are experimental but, Antonio explains, “it’s hard to get any feedback during that time. Everyone is busy shooting.” Second, “People also get married to those temp tracks just the same as when external temp music is used, and it becomes a new kind of challenge.”
What composers inspire Antonio’s creative DNA? “There are a few different eras, but I’m a kid of the 80s and 90s, so I grew up dreaming in John Williams. I’m even more of a fan of Williams’ later stuff like Minority Report and War of the Worlds.”
Antonio adds, “In the same era you have Jerry Goldsmith and the Newmans. I have a particular soft spot for David Newman. I think Galaxy Quest is a perfect film in every way, especially the score.”
Antonio puts a couple of names on the list who share the same electronic music background. “Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Their work is a great example of the bridge transitioning between electronic and more traditional film scoring.”
In the age of remakes, what film would Antonio love to compose? “I know what shouldn’t be remade, and that’s Galaxy Quest.” Antonio ponders the question for a bit. We discuss Tron: Legacy, The Last Starfighter, Ladyhawke, and The Last Dragon. Antonio answers, “I’d love to do They Live. And remember Starman? I’d love to score that.”
So, what’s next for Antonio? “A lot of people want to see the second season of Unorthodox. I’m also working on arrangements and programming with a duo of composers for a new French sci-fi series, it’s a comedy based in geek culture, similar to the film Paul with Simon Pegg.”
Unorthodox is available now on Netflix.
Thanks to Antonio Gambale and Impact24 PR
for making this interview possible.
Want to read more interviews like this? CLICK HERE.