David Schwartz Interview: ‘The Good Place’ composer
The musical score of “The Good Place” has been essential to the show’s success as a show that gives the audience feelings of warmth and great tension. David Schwartz has been the NBC sitcom’s composer from the start, writing its celestial main theme and the rest of the show’s score. Schwartz, a veteran composer who has racked up three nominations at the Emmys and another at the Grammys, is heavily involved week to week in crafting “The Good Place” score. “I come in every week with the music editor, Jason Newman, the two editors, whoever’s episode it is, [Michael] Schur and a couple of the producers and we talk about first where music should go and second what it should be,” Schwartz explains. “It’s a pretty detailed conversation.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
As Schwartz details, “The Good Place” film editors insert what is called “temp” music while editing episodes, which is a temporary track that helps provide a general sense of how they want a given scene to feel. “If they put a great piece in by Jerry Goldsmith or Thomas Newman then I go, ‘I’m not gonna copy that but here’s a way to go that’s interesting. How can I make this “The Good Place” music?'” After three seasons, the editors often place Schwartz’s own tracks in for temp music, which he admits makes his job a bit harder. “People always make the assumption, ‘Oh, that’s much easier because you can just copy your music.’ But I sometimes find that the more challenging of the two. Whereas if they put my music in it’s a little harder ‘cause I’ve done it there.”
Schwartz has certain themes for the show, including a love theme and one more specific for Eleanor. Sometimes themes emerge for certain characters by accident. “I don’t usually say ‘This is Chidi’s theme’ but it does end up happening that way,” Schwartz says. “Sometimes in Season 2 or 3, somebody will cheat. The editors will put it there and I’ll go, ‘Yeah, but that we only played with Chidi before,’ and they’ll go, ‘Yeah but we really like it here.'” Schwartz is also involving in the final dub stage. “I don’t know if a lot of composers do but I find it’s a really important step,” he says. “It’s the final step. It’s how they’re hearing your music when it goes into the show. If they’re not liking a piece you can see why and you can correct it for the next show.”
When it came to crafting “The Good Place” theme song, Schwartz set out to make something that was instantly memorable. “I felt it needed a sound that was of the Good Place and when you heard it from another room you felt like, oh, ‘Good Place’ is on.” The nine-second opening, with its oboe and strings, is a pleasant waltz you might expect to hear in what one imagines to be the Good Place. The theme is in keeping with the rest of the show’s music, at least the non-action sequences.
One of the show’s action scenes from Season 3 happens to be Schwartz’s favorite new composition. In Episode 9, “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By,” there is a scene at a bar where Janet (D’Arcy Carden) is fighting off demons in an intense, action-based scene. “It’s a three-minute super-active fight scene like an old Western bar fight so it’s not as much like the rest of the show,” Schwartz explains, “but it starts out like ‘Good Place’ music and we had a 40-piece orchestra for it so that’s always exciting and fun. I don’t get to do it that often in television.”
Schwartz has done a lot of TV comedy work over the past few years. In addition to “The Good Place,” he has composed scores for acclaimed shows like “Veep,” “Arrested Development” and “Lady Dynamite.” Such shows are more appealing to Schwartz because, as he notes, “comedies are a lot more fun because you’re laughing all the time.” That kind of an enjoyable environment doesn’t necessarily happen when working on a darker drama, but Schwartz likes variety. “I like to work on good material so if it’s a good dark drama with lots of tension, that’s great,” Schwartz says. “‘The Good Place’ has both. We really write a lot of tension music in that. For me, comedies come on the natural side. I just like it and you tend to be working with really funny people.”
Schwartz has had an interesting awards run, earning a Grammy nomination for writing the theme to “Northern Exposure” and Emmy nominations for writing the score to “Arrested Development” and the opening themes of “Deadwood” and “Wolf Lake.” He has never won, pointing out that he often loses to people named Newman, be they Randy Newman or Thomas Newman. One fun award show memory Schwartz shares is when he was nominated for “Deadwood” in 2004, someone on the board at the Emmys tipped him off that he had won. “And now I got really nervous, ‘cause I didn’t think I had a chance,” he shares. While he knew people loved the “Deadwood” theme and that “it meant a lot to people,” he didn’t ultimately think he had a shot. “But now someone told me I won and perspiration starts and dry mouth and all that stuff. And I didn’t. I’ve never won. I’ve been nominated and I’ve been happy for all those nominations.” All the same, Schwartz would really love to take home a trophy. “Sure, it would be great to have one win, or many wins.”