Composer Jeff Beal is a 17-time Emmy nominee, winning the honor five times, including twice for Best Original Dramatic Score on House of Cards (in 2015 and 2017). He has thus far earned four Emmy noms for House of Cards, the first two coming in 2013 and ‘14. Now once again, Beal is in the Emmy conversation--this time for his work on the Netflix show’s sixth and final season.
Beal made a proactive pitch for the House of Cards gig. Upon hearing about plans to create a U.S. version of the U.K. series, Beal sent executive producer David Fincher some music. While it didn’t get an immediate response, the music eventually yielded a call from Fincher, putting the wheels in motion for what has become a lengthy fruitful tenure for Beal on House of Cards.
Fincher set the tone for the series by directing its first two episodes. Fincher and Beal had worked once before, on a Motorola phone commercial years earlier. Beal had also collaborated with one of Fincher’s go-to editors, Angus Wall, on Rome, a show for which the composer garnered three Emmy nods--for Original Main Title Theme Music and Original Dramatic Score in 2006, and again for his scoring an episode in 2007. Additionally John Melfi, an executive producer on Rome, served in the same capacity in the early going for House of Cards. The connection with Wall and the work on Rome may have also helped put Beal on Fincher’s radar for House of Cards.
However, as his 17 career Emmy nods reflects, Beal has fashioned a career that has gone well beyond House of Cards. His first Emmy win came back in 2003 for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music for Monk. He then won an Original Dramatic Score Emmy in the miniseries, movie or special category for the “Battleground” episode of Nightmares & Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King. The next year Beal again topped the same category, taking the Emmy for The Company.
Beal’s most recent Emmy nomination came last year for Original Main Title theme Music for The Putin Interviews.
SHOOT caught up with Beal to discuss House of Cards. He reflected on the challenges of its final season and his overall experience on the groundbreaking show.
SHOOT: As you look back on your lengthy tenure on House of Cards from its inception, what stands out for you?
Beal: I think of Beau Willimon’s writing. In those early scripts, we get a real sense of who these characters are, the very strange relationship between Frank and Claire (Underwood), a strange, sexy, twisted kind of marriage.
As a pioneering show, House of Cards unleashed something else--immersive longform storytelling. I did Monk, which I loved. But those were all self-contained hours. You could miss five episodes, but the murder would get solved each time while there was a little storyline floating through the episodes. Streaming, though, with House of Cards changed how the audience viewed the show. It immersed you in the characters, affecting the way these worlds got created which in turn affected the music.
SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) posed by House of Cards’ final season?
Beal: We had a dramatic problem. One of our main protagonists died (Frank Underwood who was written out of the series after harassment allegations surfaced against actor Kevin Spacey). But while he wasn’t on the screen, the ghost of Frank Underwood was an important element to bring to the music. That was something I had to reference. Frank was somewhere lurking. His dark ugly karma left behind something that still reverberated.
At the same time, it gave us an opportunity to delve more deeply into Claire. We knew who Frank was. He told us. We weren’t as sure of Claire and the layers of her universe. We got to drill down into that.
There was also Robin’s evolution (Robin Wright who portrays Claire, President of the U.S.). I’m really glad that Robin stepped up as a director over the course of six seasons. Some of my favorite episodes and scenes were directed by Robin.
There are so many rich characters on the show. Ever since season one, I’ve loved the character of Doug Stamper played by Michael Kelly. He always seems so tragic and broken. He represented for me the collateral damage of all these political bulldogs. I loved the arc of his character this last season.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience on House of Cards?
Beal: When I teach composing, which I do a little bit more now, I think of the spirit of the Netflix model which has been to unleash creative and stay out of the way. It’s wildly different than the traditional network model where executives are greenlighting, overseeing every choice. As an artist, feeling free to take risks is emboldening. Musically I could go to places I might have otherwise felt there’s no way this is going to fly, that this is too crazy. Operatic singing, sophisticated harmony are not things you normally hear in a TV show. I felt free to explore.
Another big takeaway is the power of the medium, which is at the heart of pop culture. Long-form TV seems to be one of the most culturally relevant mediums right now that we’re sharing. There’s a basic human need for immersive grand storytelling. They say young people have short attention spans. But they’re watching 13 hours of a show over the course of a weekend. There’s a deep level of storytelling that can be achieved in 75 episodes, drilling down to a completely different level with the writing and acting. And that repetition creates a well-oiled machine, a repertory company.
SHOOT: What’s next for you in terms of projects?
Beal: The Biggest Little Farm (which recently debuted), a documentary that’s tonally as far as you can be from House of Cards. It’s like “Charlotte’s Web” meets Planet Earth meets Terrence Malick. It’s spiritual, deep and profound, passionate about the way we interact with nature.
Also there’s Grand Hotel (ABC), a show executive produced by Eva Longoria and based on a Spanish-language series. It’s written (created) by Brian Tanen, whom I worked with when he was a jr. writer years ago on Ugly Betty.