Bullet Train composer Dominic Lewis wanted the score to have a ‘concept album mentality’ [Interview]

I imagine one of the joys of being a composer was to tag all these colorful characters, set them all with music, and compose their themes. Was it just an embarrassment of riches as a composer?

Nothing was on the table. Any genre, any culture, anything was up for grabs. I wanted to go beyond each character’s storyline and understand where they came from. What is their background? What would they listen to? I used that as a barometer of where I would eventually end up with each character. For example, with Lemon (Bryan Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), I’m the same age as both of them. I come from England. The first characters I dove into were those guys, because it was close to me. Eventually, I touched on a scene that was late in the movie.

There’s the emotional sequence between Lemon and Tangerine near the end of the movie. I didn’t want to approach it in a way that, as a film composer, you normally would. You access the emotion, you pull the strings and you pull the heartstrings of the public. How can I approach this in a different way? Earlier while getting dailies, I noticed Tangerine had a West Ham United sticker on the back of their phone. I was like, “Ooh, the West Ham United song.” All fans will always sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” at games and in pubs – it’s their song. Well, what if I did a version of this, a very emotional version of this, who would tie these two characters together? I did it, I sent it to David and he loved it, but he said, “Wow, but it has to pay off, how do I fit that into the story? How do I lay pipes so that it pays at that time?”

It’s amazing, the fact that I brought this song to the table which was a West Ham United song, and then he liked it so much that he then made it part of the story and made it the theme of Lemon and Tangerine. We have the version at the beginning of the film with the 17 victims when they count for the camera, how many people they kill, and then you have the punk version of it by the Cockney Rejects. It became a whole from that little idea seeing the phone and the West Ham United sticker. It’s an example of how far I went beyond the character.

For Prince (Joey King), she is Russian but she studied in England. I drew on more English influences, but I also tried to keep a little Russian. She is very charming, but also completely crazy and sadistic. Thus, his theme took on two sides. You’ve got the fun look with lots of drums, lots of band oriented stuff – gritty, almost, because the 90s are coming back now. It really sounds like Prince, who I think would be Gen-Z. So there’s this kind of 90s drums and bass and some vocal stuff. On the other hand, it gets very serious. Almost the darker side with 90s trip hop, just trippy, sadistic and diabolical. These two things normally exist separately. But then, moments into the movie, they get together, so it’s Prince.

I could walk through each character, but I was trying to go beyond everyone and really dive into who they are and what they are beyond the script. I think that helped because everyone does such an amazing job anyway, in terms of acting, it just sprinkled in that extra layer.

I want to cover themes for other characters, but aAs a songwriter who’s worked on a number of comedies, like “Rough Night” and “Fist Fight,” how did your previous acting experience help shape the humor of “Bullet Train?”

It has been invaluable. Often the best thing to do is to leave him alone and not mark him. I think the way I was able to help with that is that it’s a tonal thing. It’s an extremely violent film, it doesn’t seem like it because of the comedy and the tone that we have put in place. In fact, initially, a lot of things for White Death (Michael Shannon) and Prince didn’t have that lighter, fun side. After the first preview, there was quite a conversation about we need to lighten up the bad guys a bit and rock the popcorn. The music had to move. I think the more serious version of White Death bogged it down a bit, not advancing the story.

This change was a nice challenge that also helps Prince’s comedy and interactions with White Death. It was by alternating between the orchestra and the perfect needle drop, which was basically my speech to Dave at the start of this whole thing, that I wanted to come up with a score that sounds like the perfect needle drop. You found a song that worked around everything you need to work with – comedy, drama, whatever we’re trying to say with the characters.

I think it was actually more my experience with songwriting and the recording industry that helped me work around comedy on that, because I was approaching it a lot more from the perspective needle drop. If I cut those stems out of those songs, then there’s going to be a layer that can be underneath the comedy and we’re not all over the place and we let it breathe. Obviously, there are burlesque moments, the silent car, etc. It’s very obviously being Mickey Mouse about it and marking everything for all that nod to this era. But most of the time, with the witty back and forth stuff, it was more about staying away. The timing, the report, it’s so great that I didn’t have to do much. It set the tone around it and connected it to more serious or action-based stuff.

When I pitched this, what if I dug through my vinyl record collection and found this old album from the 70s? What if I used that as samples and based the score around that? Of course, I came back with the original sample from the album, but that was the goal. Rather than doing a traditional hybrid orchestra that sounds like film music, I think it helped with the tone of the film, especially the comedy. Even though it was a score, it still sounds like a song. It’s that concept album mentality.

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