‘His Dark Materials’: how composer Lorne Balfe created the show’s stunning score

NME talks to the Grammy Award-winner about scoring Phillip Pullman's fantasy epic

His Dark Materials is the epic fantasy series that everyone should see. Adapted from Philip Pullman’s majestic three-book series, the BBC One and HBO show has been on the lips of critics and fans alike ever since it debuted its first episode in November last year. But it’s not just the magnificent storytelling and quality acting that brings the magic of Pullman’s words to life, the show’s music is a huge part of what makes it such an incredible watch.

Penned by Grammy Award-winning composer Lorne Balfe (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, The Crown, The Dark Knight), a protegé of Hans Zimmer, the show’s elegant score is awash with spellbinding themes and beautifully twisted backdrops comparable to some of Howard Shore’s work on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Without it, one of the most exciting show’s in recent years would be very different.

We sat down with Balfe on a Zoom call to talk about putting the score together, what the biggest challenges were, where his inspiration comes from and what part Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith played in expanding the sound of His Dark Materials.

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How it all started

Before writing even one note for His Dark Materials, Balfe was already a fan of Phillip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy. “I had a passion for the books and knew the characters really well,” he explains. “So when I heard that they were making the show I really wanted to be involved. However, so did every other person.” But this didn’t deter Balfe, who took a trip to Wales to meet two of the show’s producers, Dan McCulloch and Jane Tranter, after which he took it upon himself to create some music for the show.

“After I met everybody I thought, I’m just gonna write some music and send it to them because I don’t think there’s anything I can say, apart from maybe hire me,” says Balfe, who knew straight away what he wanted to do with the music. “It’s like with Mission: Impossible,” he says. “When something has been a part of your life that long you’re always thinking about it. Before I worked on Mission: Impossible – Fallout I had been rewriting the theme in my head for about 15 years, ever since first seeing it in cinemas. His Dark Materials was like that.”

Graphic art was an inspiration

While inspiration comes in many different forms, graphic art played a big part in the creation of the show’s music.“What I tend to do is print out art to do with the project and put it next to my keyboard,” Balfe reveals. “I print out storyboards and pictures so I can see what colours I’m working with. It helps a lot.

“When writing the character themes I kept making sure I knew visually what they would look like. Because when you’re working on them you don’t necessarily see what they look like as the visual effects are often getting done at the same time as you’re writing. So you have to see something that’s flat, for example, a drawing, and then just try and imagine what it’s going to look like once it’s finished.”

The coronavirus pandemic was another source of inspiration. “Whilst writing the music for season two we were all under lockdown so we were all living in a dark hell of sorts, so inspiration was coming quite easily,” says Balfe.

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His Dark Materials season 2 episode 4
Ruth Wilson as the sinister matriarch Mrs. Coulter. CREDIT: BBC

The biggest challenges

Whether you’re a regular fan of the show or someone working on it, there’s no escaping having a favourite character. For Balfe, he admits he has a soft spot for villainess Mrs. Coulter, played by The Affair’s Ruth Wilson – even if she did cause him the most trouble. “Her theme was the hardest to write,” he admits. “It was the theme I rewrote the most. It was the theme that got rejected the most. It was definitely the most challenging one to write.”

Mrs Coulter’s theme wasn’t the only challenge for Balfe. When it came time to approach season two, he found himself having to develop themes for characters who were given more screen time than in the previous season. One of those characters was Will Parry (Amir Wilson).

“Developing the theme for Will was a challenge,” says Balfe. “He’s much more prominent this time around, and so is his relationship with Lyra. So developing their themes as a whole was a challenge. Lyra in season one has less weight on her shoulders. There’s an innocence to her, thematically. Musically, it doesn’t go that dark, but then later it does, especially in season two. She’s getting older and wiser, and that’s the difficult thing with themes, seeing how far they can develop.”

Know your enemy

How do you write villain themes without them becoming pantomime-like? This was one of the questions Balfe asked himself before starting to create the music for His Dark Materials. “It can be very difficult not to make them sound like a pastiche,” he says, before breaking down the characteristics of a villain he looks to for inspiration. “There is a sinister side to them. Villains are normally very articulate, educated, and a lot of the time they have a clear plan.”

Highlighting ‘A New Cardinal Rises’, the theme for Father MacPhail, played The Crown’s Will Keen, Balfe says he kept it choral-based so that he could deliver an “honest and pure” musical representation of him, albeit ironic, before it turned into a villain theme. “I wanted to go back to the writings of 15th century choral music,” he says. “Once you go back to the origin it weirdly starts to become sinister.”

He adds: “I always knew I wanted to relate part of the melody to the number three because of the holy trinity. So his melody is repeated three times at the end of each phrase. I was kinda looking at it as a religious piece, much like The Omen. When you watch The Omen it’s very choral-led and it’s very religious-based, and my goodness is it sinister.”

Prepared for the pandemic

It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works for many film and TV productions. However, because a few of the musicians who worked on the first season of His Dark Materials were spread out across the world, Balfe was ready for the challenges the pandemic brought to season two.

“Bulgaria, Budapest, Vienna, Cardiff, Inverness, London. It was very Europe-based this time around,” he says, listing the locations of some of the show’s musicians. “In comparison to the first season anyway. For that one, we were recording in Cuba, mainly because Sarah Willis – she’s a French horn player with the Berlin Philharmonic – she was out there at that time. Chad [Smith] was in Los Angeles. Richard Harvey was in Phuket. So yeah, we were kinda used to the challenge of recording musicians all over the world.”

Chad Smith
Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. CREDIT: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

The Chili Pepper effect

One of the more famous musicians who worked on the score was Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, who Balfe had previously worked with on Michael Bay’s Netflix action thriller Underground 6. As a keen stickman himself, Balfe says he was enamoured with watching Smith put riffs together for His Dark Materials.

“It was amazing,” says Balfe, excitedly recounting his time in the studio with Smith. “As a drummer you’d do anything to sit in a room and watch somebody like that drum. I would just sit there five feet away from his bass drum and watch him play.”

Smith’s role was bigger than just personal entertainment, though. If it wasn’t for the Chili Peppers drummer the score could have ended up sounding a lot more reserved, which is what Balfe says he envisioned at first. He explains: “I had originally planned a far more subdued performance, but as a true rockstar he took it to a different level.

“Chad definitely pushed it to a far more ruckus sound, and that then changed the way I wrote the orchestra. After hearing him playing it and then seeing it in the picture, it was like, oh, actually we can go this big. I think the great thing about working with great musicians is you have an idea and you give it to them and then they do their own interpretation of it.”

Season two of ‘His Dark Materials’ is currently airing on BBC One and HBO Max

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