On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer about his distinctive score for HBO’s The White Lotus. They discussed his transition from classical music to pop to composing music for film and TV, his goal of getting away from computer-generated sounds, and the collaborative process between a show’s composer and its director. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: Many of our listeners are becoming newly familiar with your work, thanks to The White Lotus, which recently aired its season finale on HBO. I’d love to talk through the process of how you developed that music. At what point did you sign on to the project? Were the scripts written? Was there anything in the can yet? How early on were you involved in it?
Cristobal Tapia de Veer: I got a script in January, and they were looking for a composer. It was pretty late into production. They were a month from the mix. I read the script, and it was the best script I’ve read in a long time. I think it’s one of my favorite things. Right away I wanted to meet Mike White, and then we met and we talked just a little bit. It was really easy.
What did he say he wanted when you were talking to him? What was that early conversation about?
He wanted an energy that is bubbling all the time under the surface. He wanted things to feel like there’s going to be a sacrifice at some point. We came to a point where I mentioned to do some “Hawaiian Hitchcock,” and he really liked that idea. After the meeting, I just went to a studio and started recording for three weeks, and it’s all these jams, all these percussions and flutes.
One month from mix is an incredibly tight deadline.
Is that tighter than your usual schedules?
Yeah, it is the tightest schedule that I ever had. You could fall into using all the clichés and doing whatever works because you don’t have the time to be gambling and experimenting and stuff. I think I went a bit kamikaze with this, where I just tried whatever the weirdest tribal, primal stuff that works for the characters, for the story, and everything. Then I started sending them music, and right away it worked. Mike was super happy with the edge that the music was giving to the show. It was exponential. We started trying things, and every week it became more and more positive, and everybody was tripping.
That was all just based on the scripts? You hadn’t seen any footage of the show at that point, you’re just really going off that one brief conversation with Mike White and looking at the teleplays, that’s it?
Yeah, that’s only by the conversation and the script. Then afterward, I was working to the image with the same kind of music, just making different versions, and I was really surprised when I got the images because it was so beautifully shot and the art direction and the editing—everything. It was beyond what I expected, really.
One thing I really love about the score for this show is how present it is, and how idiosyncratic it is. I think we’re so used to in TV particularly, oh, we have some gentle, sad string pads in a sad moment so we feel sad. But here, it’s really doing its own thing. Someone might be getting French toast from a buffet, but what we hear sounds like madness. Did you always know that it was going to be used that way? Were you both very clear that this is going to do something and have a clear point of view and be very distinct in a way that is not typical?
I think so. I didn’t know that they were going to mix the music super loud. I haven’t seen the actual show finished, but I’m told the music is super loud in the mix. It was always bringing some perspective to what’s happening and even making jokes. Sometimes it feels like the music is laughing at the characters.