Earlier this month, I had the chance to speak to composer Robert Duncan, the man behind the phenomenal music we all hear each week when tuning into ABC’s “Castle”. In addition to his work on our favorite crime drama, Robert has worked on such shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Lie to Me”, “Vanished” and much more.
Born in Toronto, Canada, Robert graduated from York University and was an apprentice for five years with two Canadian composers before he made the move to California. His talents span across multiple genres, musical instruments and other “instruments”, which can include scrap metal oddities or random everyday objects that give off an excellent “crime scene” sound or something executive producer Rob Bowman once described as a “Wooly Mammoth” noise. Unsurprisingly, Robert is a three-time Emmy Award nominee.
Read along to learn more about Robert’s creative process on “Castle”, and the music that continues to amuse, thrill, and sometimes render its audience to tears in any given episode.
Castle Examiner: Where do you get your inspiration from when you’re composing scores for scenes on “Castle”?
Robert Duncan: Well, it’s basically a two part [process]. First and foremost, it comes from Andrew Marlowe and the team. My job writing music for picture is always to follow the emotional roadmap given to me by the writing, the acting, and the directing. Once I’ve followed that guide, and I understand what it is I want to make the audience feel, then I have a chance to turn inside a little bit and—if I need to—tap into personal experiences, or imagining what it would be like if I were to put the scene in my own terms. I have a daughter, so it’s very easy for me to think about Castle and Alexis, and it helps that [Nathan Fillion and Molly Quinn] are both great actors. Those scenes are always very poignant even before the music comes into it. But if I need to—and I always do need to trigger the right emotional reaction in myself in order to know that what I’m doing is effective—so if I want to make other people cry, I’ve got to make myself cry and try to really milk whatever emotion that we’ve determined is the emotion we want people to feel about a certain scene.
For specific scenes in an episode, how many times do you watch a particular sequence before you have it down in mind what you want to do for that scene?
[laughs] It’s funny. I guess it all depends on the type of scene and just how quickly I feel the right idea comes along. If it’s an action scene, there’s more notes, and more things to play. It’s busier music. But, on the other hand, I don’t usually get very many notes on action scenes.
In regards to action scenes, or even comedic scenes and the more intimate family scenes at home, what would you say is your favorite instrument to utilize in your scores for those types of situations on the show? Do you have one?
Part of that is the taste of the producers.
So it’s sort of a collaborative effort between you guys?
Well, everybody has a different opinion on what sort of music they like to hear, or what they find emotional and effective. The palette that I work from is something that’s usually established in [“Flowers For Your Grave”]. Most of it is defined in the pilot, and then as the shift progresses, the show evolves and the story evolves as well. You know, Rob Bowman is a drummer and he loves drums. So drums have always been a part of the score, and we actually collaborate with the drummer from the band Collective Soul on some of the more drum-intensive parts.
There’s other instruments that I associate with characters and, after awhile, they start to attach themselves to a certain character. The producers will sometimes say, “You know, we feel that the piano is Beckett’s instrument.“ Or the mandolin is Castle’s instrument. Something I established in the pilot was the African ceramic drum called an Udu that’s more or less attached to Castle’s hijinks. But as time has progressed, I haven’t been pulling out the Udu quite as much as I did in seasons one and two. Beckett’s mother had an instrument that ties in with Beckett a little bit, which is an Armenian woodwind instrument called the Duduk. And then this year we’ve been moving a little bit more into an electronic realm, which the producers have responded to very positively. So it evolves episode by episode and really, it’s a collaborative path of development between myself and the producers.
Do you have any favorite characters, or certain moments on the show, that you find you enjoy more when it comes to composing the music for it?
Absolutely. I think my favorite moments are scoring Castle’s fantastical writer’s theories. Especially when they blossom into a big part of an episode. There are a few episodes that I’m working on right now where—you know, sometimes Castle will have a wild theory and then it’ll turn out to have some credibility to it. And it’s those sort of Castle-James Bond, or Castle-Indiana Jones moments that I find very fun to work on.
Castle’s shenanigans seem like they would be really fun to compose for.
Yeah. His wild theories. My first series that I worked on was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and one of the fun things about Buffy was that it was very difficult to hit the ceiling on how epic to go because it was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It didn’t have to be restrained, and I think there’s a similar type of license when Castle is weaving his writer’s theories about a case. I can kind of indulge in genres and make fun of genres a bit. It’s a lot of fun to work on those scenes. Those are my favorites. Those are my favorite episodes, I think, where Castle’s imagination is a main component of the story.
Is there any particular piece that you’ve composed thus far that you’ve found rather challenging in an episode?
Huh, the most challenging piece that I’ve written...well, I would say the most challenging piece that I wrote for “Castle” would be the theme, just because I did about twelve versions of it [laughs] and the opening theme’s only three bars long! There was just so many people involved, and the network was involved. So it was a lot of scrutiny over a small amount of music.
There was a challenging piece the other day. I guess the amazing thing about music is there’s always multiple ways to achieve a concept. Like, I was just exploring different ways to imply that a character is crazy. One is to play kind of kooky sounds, and then another is to indulge in that character’s craziness and whatever nutty story he’s telling. Just dig into it and make that a bit of an absurd reality to it, if that makes any sense.
Other than that, we move at such a quick pace that I can’t afford to let anything get too much of a challenge. If I try something, if I go out on a limb for a creative concept and it’s not working, we have to very quickly backtrack and get to a territory that we agree is working and effective, because there’s a lot of music written on a weekly basis. There isn’t a lot of time for trial and error.
About how far in advance do you score an episode before it airs?
Sometimes it’s a couple of weeks. It’s usually the same schedule. We have a meeting called a spotting session where we all sit down—showrunner Andrew [Marlowe] and executive producer Rob Bowman, the editor, the music supervisor, and myself—and we’ll go through the show and we’ll take notes of the exact timecodes which every piece of music should start and finish, and we map it out. Usually, from that meeting—the spotting session—it’s mixing usually exactly one week from that day or less. So, usually I get five or six days that I’m able to work. But I also have to hand it in early so they can check it out and give any final notes. So, ultimately, it’s about four or five days for each episode.
Now, I have a couple of fan questions that I fielded from Twitter that I’d like to ask you.
One very popular one is, in the season four finale episode “Always”, you composed a track that you dubbed “I Just Want You”. Fans have been noticing that we’re hearing bits and pieces of the piano melody kind of weaving their way into additional scores as the seasons have progressed since then. Is that your intention?
It’s absolutely my intention and I love it when people pick it out of the score. It’s kind of a fun code when they hear it and recognize it. And absolutely, I’m thinking about that. I mean, I don’t want to overuse it but it’s definitely their love theme. So, no, it’s not an accident.
Another question is that we just had the PaleyFest panel with the cast [on September 30th] and Stana Katic mentioned that she’d like to hear “Is This Love” by Bob Marley played at Castle and Beckett’s future wedding. A few people were wondering if you had any ideas for a wedding theme yet, be it suggesting an actual song by an artist, or if you’ve been plugging around with a few ideas for what you would do if they did show a wedding on-screen.
Well, I haven’t written a note of wedding music yet. If it’s a song involved, it’s Tricia Halloran’s department. She’s the music supervisor. When they’re discussing songs, she usually gets involved even before I’m involved, and she’s in charge of placing songs, so the Bob Marley idea would be her department. But in terms of the wedding march, all I can say is that I can’t imagine that it would be unrelated to “I Just Want You” in some way. Now that people's ears are listening for it, it’ll be a lot of fun for me to try and reinvent it and see what I can do with it.
One final question in closing, a lot of fans have been wanting a “Castle” soundtrack. I know it’s probably been asked many, many times before, but do you think there will ever be the potential for a soundtrack released in the future?
I think the potential is there. I imagine it will come up this season at some point. We just get so into scoring the episodes that it’s just something that hasn’t happened yet. But I wouldn’t rule it out. Currently there’s no official plans for anything commercial.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but some people tend to rip the songs from the episode itself and make their own soundtracks with your music.
Seriously, it’s a very common thing. They’re really dying for that soundtrack.
I’m grateful for the interest and it’s definitely noted.
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