Spotlight on David Russo, Composer for Gotham and Pennyworth! (Part 2)

Welcome back to my two-part interview with David Russo! (If you missed Part 1, you can check it out right here.) Today we’ll be getting into questions more catered to Batman fans: specifically, Russo’s feelings on both of the Bat-shows he worked on, what behind-the-scenes knowledge he gained, and what the production process is like behind a show as big as Gotham. Note: spoilers for both Gotham and Pennyworth will follow.

What caught my attention in particular during Part 1 was the working relationship Russo had with Graeme Revell on Gotham’s first season– seeing as the two had established so much of the signature Gotham themes together. When I followed that thread, David gave me a lot of great info about composing. “I always kind of held the orchestra up like it’s this big deal. Graeme? He didn’t care. He could say, ‘Oh, let’s put in a 150-piece orchestra… or I can bang on a can with a piece of metal.’ And those were the same to him. He didn’t elevate anything. He taught me a lot about just finding sound. Whatever is best to express this, in that moment, that’s all that matters. You don’t need to be precious about it, you know?”

Gotham seemed to be, in many ways, a passion project for Russo. “Gotham is such a rich backdrop, you can throw so much at it, you know, because it’s insane. The show is so broad and epic and crazy and wild. So anything I came up with, I could find a home for it. There are so many characters that could have their own theme, and with completely different sound palettes and soundscapes. You’re only limited by your energy and your creativity. So it was the best show to work on.” The best character to work on, according to Russo, was Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin– which isn’t a shock whatsoever to anyone who’s seen the show. “He gets so intense, and crazy and angry! You could go far, just to accompany what he’s doing, because he goes all the way, you know? He’s always losing his mind.” Shortly after saying that, he was reminded of one of his favourite pieces that he wrote for the show in its second season, “Maniaxx,” heavily associated with Cameron Monaghan’s Jerome, one of several “Joker” characters.

“I think it was pretty evident that Warner Brothers did not want to use the Joker on a TV show,” Russo elaborated, beginning to dive into the first of several interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits. “They wanted to save that for the movies. I think that was a standing order: you can do whatever, you just can’t say ‘Joker.’ So [Monaghan] always wants the Joker, you know, and they wrote him that way. I think the way they laid out that story is brilliant and crazy. Also? they could never use the word ‘Batman.’ They never used it. Never. The only thing: in the very last episode, Penguin says ‘I don’t want to be chased by a man dressed as a bat.’ That’s the closest they ever got to saying ‘Batman.’”

I didn’t want to question the inner workings of why the hell Warner Bros. wanted to make a Batman show without saying “Batman,” so I decided to move away from stupid managerial decisions and into how the sausage gets made. The process of how one makes a soundtrack to such an extensive series is, needless to say, complicated.

“Generally, I’d have a meeting with Danny at the beginning of the season; because I would start writing well before they filmed. I would ask, ‘What do you think might happen?’ And he would just talk about characters and where they might go, and then I just wrote a bunch of music. Gotham, it’s an hour show. So it was 42 minutes after commercials. And we usually had about 38 minutes of music in every episode… And then you have seven to twelve days to do that. And this show… It has a full orchestra, everything but the kitchen sink. So I would start writing a couple months before I even got to the first episode. I would write at least an hour and a half of music: themes for the characters and that stuff, and then we would have one orchestral session where I record a live orchestra, especially for the emotional stuff. Then, that toolkit would be useful. I would give that to the music editors, who would then try to use that music, and even if it didn’t work, it would let me know that this is where they want to go. It’s a little more expeditious to do it that way. And then I would be able to use the raw materials of those cues over the course of the season. I would make a point of recording a melody for a character by itself, so I could use it later in different ways. So you get through it, and it’s just a blur. And then the season’s over.”

David explained that as he works on the music, he sees the end product in three different cuts: a director’s cut, a studio cut and then a final locked cut which, even then, is still subject to constant changes. What caught my attention, though, was that each cut would generally be absent of visual effects: so the next logical question had to be how much weird stuff he’s seen before the animators got a hold of the episode. “Oh, I love that moment at the end of season five, when we pan up the building to see Batman on the top of the building. And that was fantastic, because the entire thing was a CGI shot. So you see nothing, nothing, and then suddenly David Mazouz is standing in front of a green screen. It was so funny, because it was so ‘nothing.’ But what they eventually built was beautiful.”

On that fond note, we changed gears towards Russo’s second foray into the Batman universe: Pennyworth. There was no way I couldn’t start with the obvious question: “How many times, when you were making Pennyworth, did you stop and think ‘I’m making a TV show about Batman’s Butler’?“

His response was immediate., “Oh, every day,” he told me. “All day, every day. I think Jack Bannon, Alfred’s actor, is great. And a lot of credit to Bruno Heller for making a show kind of weird enough that it’s in the DC Universe, a twisted London where there’s capital punishment… And for writing characters that I grew to love in the first season. Alfred and his friends, Lord Harwood, all these interesting people.”

When asked about the show’s relation to Gotham, Russo was confident in it being a prequel to that show. “It’s the same crew that moved from Gotham, right over to Pennyworth. It’s certainly Alfred’s origin story, and he meets Thomas Wayne in the pilot episode. It’s a prequel to Gotham, and that’s where it’s headed.” He reconsidered some of his opinion as he was talking, however. “I guess you could say it’s a prequel to the whole Bat mythology, not to Gotham, per se. It’s an untold story. Jack Bannon combined elements of Michael Caine and Sean Pertwee, because in Sean Pertwee… there had never been so macho an Alfred before. And he kicks ass all throughout Gotham. We learn he’s SAS, and he’s got all these skills… we’ve never seen that in Alfred before. Bannon combined all those things with Michael Caine’s voice, that working class voice, really well. So you know, it was never explicitly stated, but in my mind, there’s a direct line from this show to Gotham.”

The concept of Gotham and Pennyworth  being connected piqued my curiosity, and made me curious as to if that connection carried over to his musical work too. However, Russo had something entirely different in mind for his work on Alfred’s television show. “It was a completely new world, and the inspiration was very clear. They looked at these Michael Caine movies from the early 60s, when he’s playing a private eye kind of guy. He’s a little bit like Jack Bannon’s character, you know? He doesn’t like authority, and he’s got that kind of snotty humor. So those films were really instructive.” As for his main source of inspiration? “John Barry. He did the scores for those films at that time, and we looked at just the instruments he used: a very limited palette, much smaller and more intimate than Gotham. We started from that place and then tried to come up with melodic stuff that suits this show, without going beyond that really limited number of sounds.” 

It’s one thing to name your inspiration, though, and another to explain why they inspired you, so I asked Russo to elaborate on the specifics of how he adapted Barry’s work.

“If I listened to the intention of what John Barry was doing at that time,” he pondered, “and the instruments he had to work with: those guitars, those bass flutes, the smaller string section, the smaller percussion… Once I had that in my head, and thought, ‘that’s the world I’m in,’ then I forgot about it. Then I would try to look at what was on screen, and to think about the characters. Again, I wrote a bunch of stuff before we even started: themes for Alfred, Harwood, John Ripper. So it’s the same process, but just a different palette, a different sensibility.”

After that, we began to get a little off topic; discussing our thoughts on the show (Spoiler Warning!), and what it was like to watch it develop behind the scenes. In particular, I asked about the death of Esme, whose life was cut short in episode 4. While I was under the impression that it was rather sudden, Russo liked the change: “In my mind, the idea of some extended love story was like… ehhhhh. Okay, I guess that’s what you want to do. So the fact that she died was great! Because it energized the show.”

“And then he makes love to the Queen,” I replied – and what followed was my favourite moment from the entire interview. David took a moment to chuckle to himself before he could respond; and then began the following story, occasionally talking over my laughter.

“Ahoh, here’s this tidbit. Danny told me… I asked him about that. Because I said, ‘Has there ever been a film where the Queen has sex before?’ And Danny directed that episode— he goes, ‘It’s funny. I want to direct it a lot more raw.’ He goes, ‘I wanted to have her holding onto the bedpost, and make it… you know.’ and he said that the people on the set (the English crew) were like, ‘No, no!’ it was not– they were not behind that at all. So they had to have a tender touch with how they did it.”

When I got over myself, I managed to reply, “Yeah, I have to imagine it could have caused serious drama, if they showed a sex scene with the Queen.” 

Russo’s disappointed “Yeah, I guess,” might have been more funny than the story itself. “I would like to have seen it!”

Obviously, I agreed with him… but we did have to get back on track. Shortly after we managed to correct our derailing train of thought, I inquired as to the freedom he had while making Pennyworth— did he have more or less freedom on this smaller show?

“Yeah, there were restrictions for Pennyworth,” he stated. “I think… Bruno, specifically, wanted the music to take a big step back. So, while Gotham is very American, and bombastic, he wanted Pennyworth to be much more restrained. So that was a long dialogue: how forward should the music be? When John Ripper’s nephew  is chasing Alfred through the streets, should it be pulse pounding, or… What are we doing here? So, there were a lot of conversations about how much to do, and I ended up doing a lot less. So the music’s much more subtle. Smaller, more intimate, doesn’t do as much.”

He managed to recall a specific example of where the music clashed with the tone that Heller wanted for the show. “When we first meet Harwood… I don’t think he ever liked the piece of music I did for that. And I think at certain point they just moved on, but I don’t think he ever liked that one. I think I just did too much. But those were early days. There was a lack of someone saying ‘No, this is a piece of shit. You have to do something completely different.’ No one ever said that. So I kind of moved forward, you know? There was quite a bit of that.”

Such is the production process, I suppose– but now that the season is done, I was keen to hear how his music might progress in season two.

“Oh, I wish I could tell you! But I’m not working on the second season.”

You can imagine my surprise. 

“No,” he continued. “So the first season, they filmed it in London. But we did all of our post production here in the States. And for the second season, they moved the entire project back there. I think part of their tax thing is that they had to do a local hire for the composer. So unfortunately, I’m not working on the show. And I really wish I were.”

I had to admit, that was disappointing to hear– but at the very least, his theme music would still be at the start of every episode. “I love the main title visuals,” he said. “So there was a movie, I think in the 80s or 90s, called Kiss Kiss Bang, with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer.” (2005, but close enough.) “So Danny Cannon loved the visuals of that main title! So he found that artist somewhere, and got them to design the main title for Pennyworth. And I love the visual style of that.”

It was sad to hear that David was no longer working on the show, after about 6 years of writing music for the world of Batman. On the bright side, it gives him more time to work on other projects. Currently, Russo is working with Robert Mailer Anderson on a radio adaptation of one of his plays. He is also working with documentarian Michael Webber, who he previously worked on The Elephant in the Living Room, on a follow-up called The Conservation Game.  “[Both movies] discuss exotic animal ownership in the United States. You know, we have more tigers in the United States than there are in all of India. It’s crazy, and it always ends badly for the animals. These guys go on morning talk shows, they’ve got a beautiful baby tiger cub… and he’s tracking where these animals are. And it turns out that these conservation people… these animals are just abused, forgotten. There are a lot of lies surrounding that whole thing: the conservationists are actually just people trying to get famous off the backs of exotic animals. So it’s… it’s a mess. It’s a mess.” It’s a dark subject, but it’s good to see it being tackled with the respect that it deserves.

To wrap everything up, I asked David a few concluding questions: the first of which being if he had anything to say about Pennyworth.

“I would say… the second season is going to be starting soon, and I hope people support it. Because it’s a great, great show. I think it’s an interesting, political mystery thriller, and I love it. And I’d like to see it continue, even if I’m not on the second season! I love the show. So I just want people to know that it’s out there, and to support it.”

Finally, I asked if David had anything to say to Batman fans specifically, after having made content for them over the course of so many years.

“You know, I would just thank them for their support of Gotham, because Gotham was an amazing experience for me. You know? I feel so lucky that I was able to be a part of it. And because of the fans, we were able to go for as long as we did. At the very beginning, the producers said that the show is going to end with Batman putting on the cowl, and becoming the protector of Gotham. And that’s what they did! They were able to actually see it through. It would have sucked if they got two seasons in, and he was like, 14 years old… but they were able to bring it full circle. So I’m really grateful to the fans for keeping it alive, and for their support. That’s it.” 

David Russo is a man with a wealth of experience: both in the industries he’s worked in, and in the life that he’s led, which he was gracious to tell me about, both in and outside of this interview. I’d like to personally thank him for being a wonderful interviewee, and for taking the time out of his day to talk to me. If you’ve made it this far, I’d also like to thank you for reading! If you have any questions, if you want to know more about something Russo and I talked about– or even if you liked this new style of interview– please leave a comment below. Pennyworth season one is currently available in stores and on the Epix streaming service, and season two will soon be on the way.

David’s official website can be found here.


Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch