Bringing Zorn to life musically with composer Leo Birenberg (interview)

Son of Zorn composer Leo Birenberg

By Dan Moore

Premiering last fall on FOX, Son of Zorn made a splash from the initial first trailer that was released, as no other current shows have blended both animation and live action together. Son of Zorn followed Zorn as he tried to fit in while being a huge animated warrior. His biggest obstacle was trying to reconnect with his family but mostly his son, Alan. The show was a comedy but also showcased action, heart, and drama at times. At the heart of these emotions were the musical compositions by Leo Birenberg, whose other credits include Take My Wife and Big Time In Hollywood, FL to name a few. We decided to speak with Birenberg about creating the show’s memorable score. Read here…

Were there any specific challenges with composing Son of Zorn? If so, what were they?

Well, the entire concept was so crazy and fresh, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. Having a protagonist that’s animated in an otherwise live-action world raises some tonal questions: are we writing music to support the animated or live-action story. So that took some experimenting. Ultimately, we treated the emotional drama of the season as very human, just with some specific outbursts that felt more like Zorn’s animated homeland of Zephyria from time to time.

Were you given the freedom to choose the sound for the project or were you under specific parameters to work within?

We came up with the palette when we were working on the pilot. I holed myself up for a few days to write a main theme, which you hear throughout the show. It mixes some traditional indie rock instruments with a few more exotic ideas: barbarian shouts, giant skin drums, stone and wood mallet instruments, electric sitar. The idea being to give the music a straightforward, accessible base, but to have most of the building blocks be a unique sound reflective of Zorn and his homeland. From there, we took that palette and expanded it to an entire set of themes which frequently pair with the various settings and emotional states of our hero.

The music is pretty specific to the scenes, such as the training piece in episode 11. It was very ’80s. How did you come up with that? Did you get any inspiration from Rocky?

I just can’t imagine a training montage that doesn’t sound like the ’80s. I’m pretty sure people didn’t train before they had the proper montage music to go with it. But yes, one of the best parts of the show for me was that we had these moments where we could do something really specific with the music. That was one of them, another was our holiday episode where we hired a full choir (including kids) to sing some original carols about Zorn’s holiday of Grafelnik. So much fun!

If the show were to get picked up somewhere like Netflix for Season 2, what would you do differently, musically, in Season 2?

I’m not sure there is anything I would do differently, but I would definitely double-down on the world building aspects of the score. For me, writing music is most rewarding if you are really helping to develop the universe throughout the show. There was a lot of opportunity for that with Son of Zorn: Zephyrian radio hits, Grafelnik carols, traditional Zephyrian folk music, etc. If I got to revisit this world, I would dive into all opportunities to keep expanding that. I think it makes it so much more fun for the viewer if there is a deeper mythology to the universe supported by the music.

When looking for projects to work on, what is something that stands out to you that becomes the determining factor?

The people involved. If you are surrounded by good people with whom you creatively vibe, there is nothing you can’t accomplish. Any project can turn out amazing with those ingredients, regardless of what it actually is.

You scored the “Happy Birthday” segment in Movie 43. How did you get involved with this project?

I was working for Chris Beck at the time and he was asked to work on Brett Ratner’s segment of Movie 43 (we had just finished working on Tower Heist a little before this). Chris knew I have a bit of a Celtic music fetish (I’m an avid pennywhistle player), so when he saw that this short involved a deranged leprechaun, he asked if I wanted to take a stab at it. It’s short, but was a ton of fun!

Is there a current show out right now that the soundtrack stands out to you?

There’s this great show called ‘Son of Zorn’, but it just got canceled… There is so much television being made right now that it’s hard to pick favorites. These are more of a music supervision jobs, but I absolutely love the music choices in HBO’s Girls and Netflix’s Master of None.

Which film did you like better, Suicide Squad or Wonder Woman and why?

Wonder Woman, no contest. It’s about time we had an absolutely badass heroine to look up to.

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