Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Kris Bowers Reflects On Composing Music For "Bridgerton"
Kris Bowers
Directing and producing the short documentary "A Concerto Is a Conversation" informed his approach to scoring the acclaimed show for Shondaland, Netflix
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It’s been an eventful awards season already for Kris Bowers. And that doesn’t count the Emmy buzz currently being generated for Bridgerton (Netflix), which includes his contributions to the acclaimed series as a composer.

However, it’s more than musical acumen that put Bowers in the alluded to recent awards spotlight. That recognition came for his exploits as a director and producer on A Concerto Is a Conversation. Back in March that 13-minute film earned him along with co-director and producing colleague Ben Proudfoot a Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar nomination. The film centers on Bowers’ conversations with his grandfather about personal and family history. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay served as an executive producer on the short.

A Concerto Is a Conversation marked Bowers’ formal debut as a director and producer. Production and post on the short took place around the same time that the accomplished composer was working on Bridgerton. Bowers observed that the experience as a director-producer on A Concerto Is a Conversation informed his approach to crafting the score for Bridgerton. He observed that the directorial and producing perspective gained on the short “influenced my composition by looking at character development.” Helping him to shape the music was “a theme for a character and focus on that character’s arc through an entire episode.”

Produced by Shondaland, the company founded by show creator/producer/writer Shonda Rhimes, Bridgerton takes us back to 1813 in Regency-era England when ladies and gentlemen of means and royal blood try to find true love--or at least a tolerable spouse. On the lookout for a soul mate in this matrimonial market is Daphne Bridgerton, a debutante (portrayed by Phoebe Dynevor) who’s a daughter of a widowed viscountess. While true to the period--as captured in the series of romance novels penned by Julia Quinn which inspired the show, with liberties taken by its creator and showrunner, Shondaland vet Chris Van Dusen--Bridgerton marks a dramatic departure for the era in terms of race as Black actors star as land-owning aristocracy including Simon Basset, aka the Duke of Hastings (played by Regé-Jean Page), who is Daphne’s love interest, and the Queen herself (Golda Rosheuvel). The notion of royalty being of diverse racial descent has historical roots as some in academia believe that the reigning Queen Charlotte at that time was of Portuguese and African ancestry.

Shondaland executive producer Scott Collins reached out to Bowers for Bridgerton. They had worked previously on Shondaland’s series For The People a while back. Bowers related that Shondaland has such a “familial attitude” so they kept him in mind for projects down the road. Collins told Bowers that Shondaland would be on the lookout for something else for the composer to work on, which eventually led to Bridgerton, Rhimes’ first show for Netflix. Bowers recalled being immediately drawn to the script, the story and characters as well as the opportunity to enter “a sonic world I hadn’t explored before." Though he hadn’t previously worked on a musical project of this nature--with its deep orchestral and traditional classical music at times--Shondaland still gravitated to Bowers. 

“I was thankful for them thinking of me to do this project,” noted Bowers, explaining, “Shondaland has this mentality that if you’re family, they’d love for you to be a part of something. They believe you can do anything essentially.”

Bowers went through some trial and error, grappling to find the right approach. The first pass had Bowers writing what felt like traditional classical music pieces, then chopping them up to produce pop and hip-hop tracks. When that didn’t feel right in terms of tonality, Bowers then took a 180-degree turn, opting to pen straight classical music but that too fell short, feeling a bit stuffy. Ultimately he found his way when focusing in on Simon and Daphne’s theme, deploying a Ravel piano piece and that set off the proverbial light bulb for him--to go classical but with a slightly modern approach while capturing and maintaining a romantic feel.

Ravel sparked inspiration in that it was early 20th century music that he at first would have never thought of applying to the early 19th century Bridgerton story. But that slightly modern variation, said Bowers, “opened a door in my mind” in that it “emotionally felt so right, very romantic, dreamlike at times.”  The modern touch also fit in that Bridgerton centered on the younger generation of the time period, those who were representative of the future. A contemporary sensibility dovetailed nicely with that youthful spirit.

Bowers’ musical acumen in turn was complemented in the score by other inspired elements in which he had a guiding hand such as string quartet performances of songs by the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. Bowers gave much credit on that front to music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas. Again, this lent a modern tinge to a period piece.

Remote possibilities
Modern times, though, had their pitfalls as current real-world realities, led by the COVID-19 pandemic, impacted Bridgerton, resulting in the need to score the series remotely. Fortunately, Bowers had recent experience on that front, having had to work that way on the last two-and-a-half episodes of the Mrs. America miniseries during the lockdown. This gave him a handle in advance as to how to best work remotely as the machines and his mixing engineer had a system and protocols in place which made remote prospects on Bridgerton less daunting.

As for his biggest takeaway or lessons learned from his experience on Bridgerton, Bowers cited “the amazing power of story and how much that can really lift every aspect of the filmmaking--whether it’s costumes, hair and makeup, the way it’s shot, the music."

Furthermore, story can be uplifting for others in varied ways. Bowers recalled,  "A week after Bridgerton came out, one of my good friends I used to tour with pointed out that I had millions of plays on Spotify for classical music.” Indeed, Bridgerton helped create a new found appetite for classical fare, a dynamic that was also reflected when a session violinist, someone Bowers has known since high school, thanked him and Bridgerton for giving her a handful of new violin students to tutor. Young people reached out to her after seeing Bridgerton, which sparked their love for the violin and desire to learn the instrument.

Bowers shared that it has been amazingly gratifying to see Bridgerton’s story and music connect with younger people--fueling their appreciation for classical music to the point where they want to learn how to play the violin.

In that respect, Bowers’ separate endeavors as a composer and director/producer have a common bond--inspiring audiences. The aforementioned Oscar-nominated A Concerto Is a Conversation centers on Bower’s granddad, Horace, a 93-year-old Black man from the Jim Crow South. Born in Bascom, Florida, Horace experienced racism as a youngster and knew that at some point he’d have to leave home for a better life. By happenstance, he found his way to Los Angeles where he saved up to buy a dry-cleaning business, becoming a successful entrepreneur. Recently the South Los Angeles area where he founded his dry-cleaning store was named the Bowers Retail Square. 

Horace's inspiring story now includes him seeing his grandson Kris not only receive an Academy Award nomination as a filmmaker but also become a sought after composer. Bridgerton adds to a list of music credits for Kris Bowers which also includes DuVernay’s lauded When They See Us, the Best Picture Oscar winner Green Book, the feature The United States vs. Billie Holiday and the aforementioned Mrs. America. The latter in 2020 earned Bowers an Emmy nomination for best original dramatic score in a limited series. That made it two straight years that Bowers was nominated in that Emmy category, the first coming for an episode of When They See Us.

Editor’s note: This kicks off SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.

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