[WATCH] Composer Alex Heffes on creating musical motifs for ‘Roots’ and ‘11.22.63’

During our recent webcam chat (watch above), composer Alex Heffes admitted that working on the remake of “Roots” was especially intimidating because “it comes with all this baggage.” Based on Alex Haley’s book of the same title, this epic chronicle of slavery in America was originally adapted into a hugely successful, Emmy award-winning 1977 miniseries that remains one of the most widely viewed TV events of all time. Heffes, a Golden Globe nominee for “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013), says the best way to approach this History Channel version was, “to just deal with what I was seeing and treat it as fresh, new material, rather than try and think of it as following on from some big legacy.”

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Composing music for a story that spans more than a century was a massive undertaking. “The first thing I wanted to do was write a theme,” Heffes explains, “that could come in all the episodes and be transformed and form the backbone of the thing musically.” This theme “is actually very uplifting, and it’s supposed to give a sense of hope.” As , “there’s so much despair and so much darkness in the story of slavery and the history of African Americans, that hope and uplift, and moving forward and trying to look forward to the future, not just looking back in despair, was really important.”

Heffes also spoke of his work on “11.22.63,” which reunited him with director Kevin Macdonald, for whom he’s scored several films including the Oscar-winning “The Last King of Scotland” (2006). Based on Stephen King’s bestselling novel, this Hulu miniseries stars James Franco as Jake Epping, a high school teacher who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “It is also very epic,” says Heffes. “It’s a time travel show, and it’s going backwards and forwards covering this incredible slice of American history.”

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In the show, the past serves as an invisible character. “Every time Jake goes back and tries to change the past,” Heffes explains, “this force is trying to stop him.” To convey this, the composer wanted to create a musical motif that was, “sort of sinister, and goes round and round and tells you that it’s the past pushing back on Jake. We sort of had fun as well with some characters: you don’t know if they’re an agent of the past, or whether they’re just being plain mean to him. It was fun to give little clues and lay a trail.”

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