Exclusive: ‘Revenge’ Composer Fil Eisler

Fil Eilsner, Revenge ComposerJennKL Photography

Revenge is back in fine form this season, and composer Fil Eisler is having fun playing musician to the dark antics of the Hamptons elite. Hollywood.com was lucky enough to speak to Eisler by phone during a break in scoring the show about how the sound of Revenge has changed and the fun yet to come:

How did you go about creating the sound for Revenge? And what inspired it?
What inspired it was equal parts film noir movies from the ’40s and ’50s and more modern influences in terms of manipulating sounds on the computer. So I did things like going to a junkyard, buying a truckload of junk and turning that into the percussion palette of the show. I wanted there to be a real mix of old and new.

But the real Revenge sensibility is that it’s an orchestral show, so it’s a live orchestra every week and that really sets the tone of it. And it’s also all in the melodic themes. A lot of those stem from a fairly old-school scoring sensibility.

Most shows on the air don’t have a full orchestra. What’s it like working with that for Revenge?
It’s fantastic! I cannot even begin to quantify the value of that. It elevates the score to such a high extent.

It’s hard to explain because people are like, “Aren’t samples really good now? Can’t you do all this stuff on the computer? Isn’t it prohibitively expensive?” All those questions have very simple answers. The answer to the first two is no. You can do lots of cool things with samples and you can do lots of cool things with computers, but nothing is ever going to replicate a human performance with feeling. Nevermind multiplying it by 30 or 50, with that amount of players.

For the price, a good way to put it into perspective is that most shows will happily blow $40,000 on a song if it’s a hit song. For maybe half of that you could put an orchestra together for an hour-long show. Circumstances vary, but mostly people assume it’s too difficult and it can’t be done, and they don’t realize how much it elevates the quality of the show.

It seems like you do a lot of interesting things with the score for Revenge. I read somewhere that you scored one episode using the Morse code for SOS. What was that like?
Back in season two, Jack and Amanda are being stalked by a killer on the boat and they’re being held hostage. The entire thing plays on the boat, so why not set the whole thing to SOS? It’s such an off-kilter rhythm.. So you can mold it in all sorts of ways. It really leant itself to the idea of a very disturbing situation.

So you hear it all the way through that score. The entire episode score is based around the SOS, so even the bits when they’re not on the boat you hear it in the rhythm. Then the big climax in the episode, the big action scene, was all based on that. It was really fun to do, and I love it when you can have a theme like that to hang the whole thing on.

How has the sound of the show changed over the seasons?
It’s funny, you can only ever go where the story takes you. In season two it got much bigger because there were all these grand storylines, there were all these big themes at play. So we were using a bigger orchestra much of the time. There was a lot of action stuff, so you just needed more bodies in the orchestra to pull it off.

I would say this season Revenge has gone back to the idiom of season one. It’s much more of a delicious soap opera, but at the same time it still has sort of a noir thriller feel. So there are a lot of dark plots going on, and I think the music reflects that. It’s much more twisty plotting music instead of balls-out action.

Although I do think there are going to be a few instances where we get to bang the drum a little bit. So far it’s just been really fun scoring all this dark plotting. They’re not nice people, you know.

What’s been your favorite moment in season three to score?
I can’t tell you about it! There’s a scene I’m scoring right now that’s really exciting. Emotional scenes in Revenge are really fun to do because, now that we’ve established this orchestra world the show lives in, when we’re doing an emotional scene we can afford to really go there.

Obviously you don’t want to overdo it, but you don’t want to be so careful about holding back. People can be over-careful about things like that. It doesn’t have to be schmaltzy, the orchestra can be incredibly understated but have an incredibly powerful effect.

Do you have a favorite character on Revenge or someone whose scenes are particularly fun to score?
I can’t say that, I’d get killed! It’s interesting, because in the first season the super dark characters used to be really fun, like Tyler and the white haired man. Then in season two pretty much everyone was dark, everyone was going to kill someone.

This year I think the emotions are much more complex because of the residual effects of everything that happened in season two. People died, people lost family and friends. So scoring the repercussions of that is heavy stuff.

It still always stays dark, because Revenge is a dark show in that way. There’s way more complexity in the emotions, and it’s like scoring a more complicated drama than a straight-up thriller.

What can audiences expect as the third season continues?
What I can tell you is that the writing is really excellent this year, it’s really top-notch. They have gone to that season one place.

I loved season two, I know it had its critics, but for me it was an incredibly fun thrill ride. But this season’s just different. It’s fun, it’s really catty, really bitchy. You get to enjoy characters like Victoria, who gets to be a really classic TV character now.

There are plenty of what we on the crew like to call “Oh sh*t!” moments coming up. But obviously I can’t tell you any of those without getting killed. But I can definitely stake my name on it being very good.