Wish Dragon Interview with Composer Philip Klein

Netflix and Sony Pictures Animation have joined forces for Wish Dragon, an animated film that’s inspired by One Thousand and One Nights. It follows Din Song, a young man in China who stumbles upon a dragon who can grant wishes, and the only thing he wants is to see his long-lost friend again. We had the chance to chat with composer Philip Klein on how he created the sounds of Wish Dragon and more.

Nerd Reactor: Philip, with your journey, you have all the projects that you’ve been working on since forever?

Philip Klein: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate. I started out in a small town and I was a trumpet player mostly and a composer second. And that kind of shifted as I went through college, and I had always had a love for film music and film. So I think it was a natural evolution to start scoring films. For me, it’s part of the reason why I took up music in the first place. I heard Jurassic Park and I heard those glorious trumpets blasting as they flew the helicopter and I was like, “Wow, that’s what we need to be doing.” So I think it was always in my blood to be doing film music. I’ve had the great fortune of finding some traction since I’ve been out here and working with a lot of really amazing composers as an orchestrator, doing a lot of additional writing for some composers, and then now kind of graduating into my own work. So it’s been a heck of a ride for sure. But I’m grateful to be sitting where I am right now for sure.

Nerd Reactor: You get to be a film composer for a feature film, and for those looking from the outside, it might look like you’re a newcomer to the scene, but you’ve been grinding for years.

Philip Klein: It’s true. Everybody kind of thinks when you do a film that’s maybe a bit bigger and you don’t have a ton of solo credits behind you, it’s, “Oh, they’re an overnight success.” Well, you haven’t seen the 15 years leading up to this. I don’t think there’s a lot of overnight successes in Hollywood. Maybe not in the film music department. But yeah, it’s a relief, and it’s a joy. When you kind of put in all that work, and then you finally get an opportunity and you just try to take advantage of it and do the best work you can in that position.

Nerd Reactor: With Wish Dragon, how did this project come about?

Philip Klein: I am dear friends with Aaron Warner, the lead producer on the film, who’s kind of an animation whisperer. He did all the Shrek films and has produced some really, truly amazing animation in his life. And he had a thought that Chris Appelhans and I would get along well together. We both have very similar quiet personalities, and it worked. Chris and I, from the get-go, just meshed really well. I’m very grateful to Sony and Kristine Belson and all that team too. Because I didn’t go into it with a lot of solo composing credits, there was a bit of chance on their part to give a film like this to someone like me. It was so much fun, and I’m just so grateful to have been pulled into it.

Nerd Reactor: With Wish Dragon, what was the thing that hooked you? What made you say, “Yes, I want to be a part of this project.

Philip Klein: Yeah, it’s the story. On the surface, it’s that. It’s three wishes and a wish dragon. But underneath the surface, it’s more of a story of friendship between Din and Li Na and redemption with Long. I think Chris was always much more concerned with the emotional impact than the spectacle of it all. I think as a composer that draws you right in because we love to push those buttons and make people feel things and I certainly love writing music that’s maybe more emotionally driven than it is fantasy or whatever. I mean, it’s very fun to write fantasy music, but I think I find myself always trying to find the emotional center of a film, rather than just kind of writing big flashy pieces of music, which are great fun to do. What spoke to me most about the movie was the relationships, specifically Din and his mother and then Long and Din, which interestingly are not the two relationships that you necessarily think of. You think of Din and Li Na when you watch the movie, but I think there was such an organic relationship with the other two that were just very kind of meaningful and very impactful. So yeah, the emotionality is what always speaks to me the most in the film.

Nerd Reactor: There are plenty of quiet moments with the family, the relationship and friendship. But then there are also just big moments with action set pieces and just larger-than-life characters. Was it challenging to write those moments?

Philip Klein: Oh, yeah. You look at an emotional queue, and it’s maybe this much black on a piece of paper. You look at an action cue, and it looks like a Rorschach painting. There are just tons of notes and tons of music to be played. It’s so gratifying to play that music and to nail action music with an orchestra because they can just play their hearts out and really just go for it. There’s no better feeling than being in a room with a group when they’re really pushing air and pushing you back on the conductor’s podium, and you’re really feeling it come to life. And it is challenging, from a layering standpoint, to find all those layers and to put them together. I think one of the hardest cues to conceptualize was the end sequence when Din is fighting for the teapot. Without giving away too much, I guess, there are so many different thematic ideas layered on top of each other for that moment. With the need for the pace and energy of action and when you’re all done recording, you feel you need a nap afterward. It’s just so much music. That stuff is so much fun. The emotional stuff is what makes your parents cry when they hear it. But the big action music is what gets people’s toes tapping. There’s something really gratifying about doing that, for sure.

Nerd Reactor: With instruments, how picky were you with using certain types of instruments? Or did you have a lot of freedom with just creating what you want without any restrictions?

Philip Klein: Yeah, there was total freedom, I think Chris encouraged freedom and wanted me to explore the weirdest sounds I could find. I mean that in a good way. I think the first few months, we were just emailing a ridiculous amount of YouTube videos back and forth to each other, going, “Man, listen to this. What do you think about this texture or this instrument?” We never wanted to create a score that was Chinese. I think we both wanted something that was universal. The story was never meant to be a Chinese exclusive story. It was always meant to feel universal, and so we wanted that overarching feeling of Western music meeting Eastern music, but without the Eastern music just being like a little afterthought. It started very broadly where I had more instruments than I knew what to do with. I was talking to players and what’s possible with this, what’s possible with that, and then I said, “Okay, to make this work, we got to focus our energy here.” So we got down to probably six to ten Chinese instruments, all beautifully played by everyone. And then I just beat that up. And I took the audio and just started manipulating it.

All these people that spent years learning this beautiful instrument, and I’d ruined all of it, but that was never the point. We never set out to say, “Okay, I’m going to write an orchestral piece and then put an erhu solo on top of it. We were just never going to do that; it’s not the sound we wanted. So I said, “Well, that’s fine. What happens if we take the erhu playing a melody, and then I cut it all up into pieces and make a rhythm out of it?” I think, on this score, more than any score I’d ever written, it just became so complex, layered-wise. On every cue, we got energy from these plucked Chinese instruments. There’s one called a sheng, which looks like this crazy medieval torture device. It’s like a mouth organ that you blow into and it’s beautiful, and they can create all these fluttering textures. So we use that for more of the pads and stuff. They became such a huge part of the score without ever really bringing too much attention to themselves, which is what we wanted.

We didn’t want a purely Western, big kind of traditional animation score, but we also didn’t want an Eastern score that kind of panders too much to one culture. We tried really hard to find that balance between both of them. I’m pretty proud of how we did that because it was a lot of layering. I would write a queue and send it to Chris. He’s like, “It’s great. Now, let’s mute half of it.” We would start to find what’s the best way to put it all together so that it sounds the freshest or cool and most unique. I think that was a really fun way to work because we had time to do it. We don’t always have that time on a film.

Nerd Reactor: Outside of work, do you listen to film music? What other genres do you listen to?

Philip Klein: I used to digest a ton of film music before I started really doing my own writing. I loved it. I grew up on Horner and Goldsmith and Williams and Newman. All the big guys and girls. I think what I found is once I started writing, I would subconsciously start ripping people off without really paying attention. So I tend to listen to music that’s completely unrelated, or classical music because I feel like classical music has such a wide breadth. If somebody says, “Oh, man, have you heard this new score? It’s really great.” I can appreciate pretty much every score. Having experience with what it takes to make a score, even if a score sounds like a couple of synth pads and a melody, I know that the decisions that went into that were probably painstaking. So I can appreciate something about every score.

I just sometimes can’t listen to them. Often, like early on in the film process, I think, “Oh, I’m gonna work on an animated film about a dragon. Okay, I’m gonna go listen to a bunch of Pixar and watch a bunch of Pixar films.” But inevitably, I end up coming back to my piano and be like, “Oh, Finding Nemo was beautiful. Let me just figure that out, you know?” And then I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s not my score, so put that away.” I think it’s probably different for everyone, but I do find that it can cloud my judgment. I’ll hear something and go, “That’s a good idea. That could work for this scene.” And then I go down a path where it’s just not my movie. It’s another movie. And it’s of course, it’s perfect for that movie, but for my movie, it doesn’t put my head in the greatest spot. So I try to just stick with my piano and my brain for a little while at least.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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