When HBO’s hit series Rome ended (or fell, if you will), composer Jeff Beal was eager to return to another politically charged show. Six years and an exhaustive resume later, Beal joined David Fincher and Kevin Spacey in mining the underbelly of Beltway politics with House of Cards, a remake of the 1990 BBC miniseries, itself an adaptation from the novel by Michael Dobbs.
“And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd old ends stolen out of holy writ,” Shakespeare’s Richard III orated, “And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Therein lies Francis Underwood (Spacey), the dastardly manipulative and conniving Majority Whip for the House of Representatives, who, like the malevolent king, wears a public face of magnanimity but is truly a devil in disguise. When the President-elect passes over Frank as his choice for Secretary of State, the spurned Congressman joins his wife Claire (Robin Wright) in an elaborate scheme to turn the Washington D.C. chessboard in their favor to rise to the country’s highest office.
A highly intellectual beast and predator in a tailored suit, Underwood methodically picks off Washington’s top players one at a time. To arrive there he meticulously provides planned exposure and coverage to sprightly, doe-eyed young journalist Zoe (Kate Mara) in exchange for control of breaking media coverage. Another pawn on Underwood’s board is struggling substance abuser Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), a fellow Congressman from Pennsylvania.
For Beal, shows like House of Cards and Rome are attractive because, compositionally, they play like a long movie. “When you tell a story that’s very linear, with these little battles and skirmishes, the music, as a device, wants to follow all those beats,” Beal said, from his home in Los Angeles.
Beal is a composer’s composer, a musician who defies categorization, a notion that allows him to effortlessly move from one medium to another. He has composed classical commissions for many renowned orchestras, such as his Clarinet Concerto for the Chicago Symphony’s Larry Combs and Interchange for String Quartet and Orchestra, performed and recorded by the Turtle Island String Quartet. Also an accomplished jazz musician, Beal has composed a number of jazz recordings, some of them solo efforts with the maestro on trumpet.
But it was his score to the Ed Harris docu-drama Pollock that placed him as one to watch among the rising crop of Hollywood composers. His film work also includes another Harris film, the western Appaloosa, the William H. Macy drama Door to Door and the still-unreleased film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, starring Al Pacino and Jessica Chastain. Beal also has an impressive roster of television work, from HBO’s Carnivale, Rome and the short-lived Luck to ABC’s Ugly Betty and USA’s Monk. He has also scored almost two dozen documentaries, including the recent Sundance hit Blackfish, about the consequences of keeping killer whales in captivity. Magnolia Pictures will roll that out in theaters this summer.
Nearly half a decade ago, an ad agency brought Beal aboard a television commercial that would air during a coveted Super Bowl time slot. The director for the spot: David Fincher. Fincher, already aware of Beal’s music for Rome, struck up a friendship with the composer, so when a few years later Beal heard his old commercial director was looking for a composer for a new political series starring Kevin Spacey, he immediately threw his name into the ring. He sent Fincher a reel with some musical ideas and waited. Things came to a head when Fincher hired John Melfi, a producer Beal previously worked with on Rome. “John also pitched me,” Beal quips, “So [Fincher] was hearing it from all sides.”
Darkening the House: Director David Fincher.
Though a conventionally made dramatic series, House of Cards’ release was anything but. Netlfix purchased the distribution rights for the Media Rights Capital-produced series, and in an unprecedented move, released all 13 episodes at once. This game-changing approach affected Beal because traditionally a television composer is still scoring the latter half of a season while the first half has already been aired and seen by the public. That wasn’t so with House of Cards, which Beal says, “was weird not having it out there after working on it for so long.”
However, like a traditional series, Beal was still scoring while future episodes were being shot. “David directed the first two and I don’t think I really started writing until he had finished shooting those,” Beal said. “By the time he was finished with those episodes there were a few more ready to go. As soon I finished one episode, I would say to the guys, okay, start sending me the next one.”
MRC financed House of Cards before partnering with Netflix and by maintaining in-house control, they saw to it that the show was made with the utmost respect to creativity. Beal says one of the initial deals between MRC, Fincher and Spacey was that they would be allowed to make the best show possible without any interference. This, too, extended to the music. “We felt like we had free reign. Like it was a really big-budget independent movie, where there’s not a lot of layers of corporate producers overseeing you. You’re just making the best thing you can and hope it’s going to resonate with people.”
Beal started composing the series proper in June of 2012 and worked steadily until the close of the year, although he began sending Fincher some sketches as early as March, some of which evolved into the series’ primary themes.
Though classically trained and used to having a picture in front of him when starting a project, Beal was inspired this time around by Fincher’s previous collaborators, Oscar-winning duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. For The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Reznor and Ross scored away from picture and Fincher inserted their compositions into the edit, sculpting the film and music together.
Intrigued by that alternative, Beal began writing cues before Fincher shot the first episode. The first idea to capture was the main title sequence, which would feature ominous shots of Washington D.C. at twilight. During their discussions, Fincher played Beal the second half of Supertramp’s song “Crime of the Century” (jump to around 4:45 to hear the material in question). They were inspired by a vamp section which has strings and solo sax soaring on top of the rhythm section. “One of the things we got out of that was this combination of elements and genres meshing together, a more traditional sound and then a grittier, harder side to it,” Beal said. “That, to us, felt very much like the story. House of Cards is not like The West Wing. It’s not the idolized or aspirational version of what we wish our politicians were. It’s the complete ‘seeing the sausage made’ in Washington. All the stuff you don’t want to know about that goes on. Of course it’s an exaggeration of reality—I don’t know, maybe it isn’t.”