The Sound of The Killing: Talking to The Composer Frans Bak

Whenever discussion turns to the British success of the cult Danish series The Killing, there is often a mention of the atmospheric, utterly compelling music which underscores (and points up) the suspense of so many sequences – notably Sarah Lund’s repeated (and usually ill-advised) explorations of dark places brandishing a torch. The music which makes the scenes work so well is that of the talented composer Frans Bak, and a conversation with him is particularly instructive – not least in pointing up who the important people in the making of the show are. ‘I have a close working relationship with the Danish director Birger Larsen, who was the conceptual director of the show,’ he told me, ‘but obviously there is a process whereby the producer Piv Bernth and the writer Søren Sveistrup listen to what I’ve come up with for their approval.’ But isn’t that highly unusual, I suggest, checking what the writer thinks of your material as a composer? The producer, certainly, but surely the writer is rarely involved in such processes? ‘Not in the case of The Killing,’ Bak replies. ‘Søren Sveistrup is very much a part of the process, and I know I have to get things right for him as much as anyone else. He’s very hands-on, and he will approve, but will also suggest “Could this not perhaps be scored in this particular way?” It was with him as much as with the other creative personnel that I helped define the sound world of The Killing.’ I point out that the composer Jerry Goldsmith often said that silence was quite as important when it’s scoring suspense movies as where to place the music. ‘Absolutely’, Bak agrees. ‘And it is a great mistake to score absolutely everything – for instance, to point up every emotion that the actors are feeling, rather than let such things register on their own terms. You have to trust your actors as much you trust the director. And on The Killing, with actors of the calibre of Sofie Gråbøl, that’s very easy to do.’ I ask Bak about the orchestral forces he used on the show — it’s clear that he didn’t go for large orchestral resources. ‘Well’, he replies, ‘although I have worked with large orchestras, I felt that was less appropriate here — and there are fewer instruments employed. In fact, on The Killing, I’m actually something of a one-man band; I physically created a lot of the music myself, using multi-tracking and so forth. But I also used the fantastic Swedish singer Josefine Cronnholm in several themes – especially for the ending of each episode. To some degree, that’s why it’s such a personal score for me. As with composers for television in 1950s such as Bernard Herrmann, I composed a library of music for the show, some of which was reused in later episodes.’ Intriguingly, Bak’s name is also evident as composer on the American remake of The Killing. How did that come about? ‘Well, the American show – at least the pilot – was initially scored using some of my music, and the producers were looking around for someone who could score like me. For the American version I was auditioned along with with four American composers – but the producers felt that I got closest to the feel of the series. When they talked to me, I said, well, I can probably write a Franz Bak score as well as anyone else! And that’s how I got the job. But it’s a different kind of show with different demands.’ The controversy about the American show, I suggest, was that the actors wore their emotions far more on their sleeves than in the original Danish show — which would make, surely, for different scoring challenges. ‘Yes, that’s the case,’ he replies. ‘I had to adjust my music to the very different actors and directors who were used in the American show. But I really got a jolt when Sofie Gråbøl appeared in the American series — there I found myself scoring for the same sate in two series of the same property!’ I ask Bak if he subscribes to the school of thought that film and TV scoring should be invisible and unnoticed by an audience. ‘Well, to some degree, that’s true — you don’t really want the audience saying “I like the composer’s use of piano and percussion at that point!” You want to help tell the story, and if people are focused too much on the music, you can’t be said to have done your work. ‘But on the other hand,’ he added, ‘that appreciation doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the whole experience, and I’m quite pleased to hear that people have noticed what I’m doing – as long as they think I’m doing a good job!’  The Killing/Universal/DR