From “Empire” To “Kitchen Sink”: Composer Fil Eisler
By: Marjorie Galas
Fil Eisler didn’t understand why an “Empire” music supervisor was reaching out to him. The award winning composer known for his rich, moody forties-centric orchestral scores enhancing ABC hit “Revenge” felt his style was quite outside the hip-hop industry based storyline.
“’Trust us, this is right up your alley’ they told me,” said Eisler.
Eisler keeps himself busy. He generally spends twelve to eighteen hours daily in his studio working on a full slate of projects. Enjoying a rare day off with his family, he was reluctant to answer the call that confirmed he had the job.
“I take family time seriously but the phone was ringing off the hook,” said Eisler. “Lee wanted me for the project and a date was set to meet him in the editing room as he was cutting the pilot.”
Working alongside co-creator Danny Strong (Game Change, Recount), Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) wanted a juxtaposition of the score against the hip hop songs supplied by Executive Music Producer Timbaland.
“Lee wanted to hear the unexpected; he wanted the score to be bold and operatic and blow the stereotype right out of the water,” said Eisler.
With a story line often mirroring Daniel’s personal experiences with homophobia, child abuse, family dysfunction and tough life choices, Eisler approaches the score by first watching the episodes and entrusting his musical intuition. While Eisler finds sequences such as a flashback of young Jamal (Jussie Smollett) being violently thrown into a trashcan by Lucious (Terrence Howard) after he witnessed his son in women’s heels emotionally challenging to witness, he pushes personal feelings aside. For this particular scene in the pilot, Eisler incorporated a cello solo that employed the proper emotional weight without making the scene feel heavy handed or “schmaltzy.”
“The orchestra is the largest palette out there; there is such a range to consider,” said Eisler.
“Empire” has provided an interesting contrast to Eisler’s approach to his work on “Revenge.” He associated the storylines with the mystery and intrigue one finds in Noir films as well as the sensibility of Hitchcock. The score has moody layers laced with musical themes frequently used in film scores of the period. As the series evolved, the music has become more experimental to emphasize the characters’ evolutions and growth.
Eisler begins every project with the conceptualization of sounds that arise during his initial viewing of the material. While series such as “Empire” and “Revenge” utilize a full orchestra (an uncommon practice for TV series) Eisler must often seek out the source of the sound he “hears.” For the upcoming comedic horror film “Kitchen Sink” Eisler and a member of his studio team visited a scrap yard where they found old pianos in various stages of decay. They further mutilated the pianos by banging on them, sawing them in half and burning them. They then recorded the transformed piano’s sounds. Additional sound design further modified their sound that was incorporated into the film’s score. For the upcoming television series “UnReal”, a dark comedy following the horrible depths reality dating show producers are willing to sink to in order to boost ratings, Eisler’s score is completely electronic, fashioned by modulated synth sounds he’s recorded in his studio.
Embracing the uniqueness of every project he signs on to, Eisler is fueled by his passion for finding the perfect sound to match the story. While jumping consistently between film and television for the past ten years, he feels he’s still paying his dues. As a child he dreamed of being a rock star and grew into a musician who toured extensively with Robbie Williams and wrote or recorded with other notable artist including Ryan Adams, Dave Steward and Kylie Minogue. His career took a downward turn when he left touring to build a career in New York.
“The music industry was eating itself alive and there were less and less opportunities for creating interesting music on records,” said Eisler. “You could do well writing for pop stars but that just wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
Looking for new opportunities, Eisler moved to Los Angeles. While he’d had some interest in writing scores, he didn’t know how to break into the scene. Happenstance lined him up with a friend who needed a score for a documentary called “Into the Air: A Kiteboarding Experience.” After scoring several shorts and Indies, Eisler attended a Sundance Composers workshop that solidified his choice of a new career.
“The scope of creating sounds is so interesting. It can be simple or the most experimental sounds imaginable, as long as it works with the story, an audience will embrace it,” said Eisler. “It made me fall in love with music again.”
As the family drama continues to intensify in “Empire,” Eisler will explore infusing hip hop rhythms to the classical score. While the score balances the songs appearing throughout each episode and the intensely emotional writing, Eisler’s main goal is to blend the sounds seamlessly with the story.
“If you didn’t notice the score, then I’ve done my job, haven’t I?” states Eisler.
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