‘Defending Jacob’ is a Scandinavian noir thriller in Hollywood, says composer Atli Örvarsson

The Icelandic composer also explains why the filmmaking, acting and scoring for the Apple TV+ Chris Evans-starrer ‘Defending Jacob’ required a lot of restraint

April 21, 2020 05:32 pm | Updated December 05, 2021 08:54 am IST

Chris Evans, Jaeden Martell and Michelle Dockery in season 1 epsidoe 3 of ‘Defending Jacob’ premiering April 24 on Apple TV+.

Chris Evans, Jaeden Martell and Michelle Dockery in season 1 epsidoe 3 of ‘Defending Jacob’ premiering April 24 on Apple TV+.

If you have watched the trailer for Defending Jacob , the despondent colour palette teamed with the thrumming score make for a suspenseful watch. Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is accused of murdering his classmate and his father Andy (Chris Evans), a prominent lawyer, grapples with the courtroom case and with parenting. While it sounds utterly terrifying, composer Atli Örvarsson says the journey of scoring for the Apple TV+ series, releasing on April 24, was exciting.


“I’m Icelandic and director Morten Tyldum is Norwegian, so we both grew up with these dark winters and really bright summers,” says Atli over Skype, “So when I saw the first three episodes before scoring, I saw Morten was approaching this almost like a Nordic noir thriller with the ambience and the colouring. With the way things were framed, I realised we were basically making a Scandinavian noir thriller in Hollywood — which is why the work relationship worked so well too; it was in our being and in our DNA, the understanding of this kind of light, claustrophobia and isolation.”

Atli, who has worked on movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), The Edge of Seventeen (2016) and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013), feels working on Defending Jacob was just meant to be. His kids and Morten’s kids went to school together in Los Angeles and therefore the two had often hung out socially. “When the show came about and I saw Morten was directing, I was really excited because he’s not just friendly but also a director I’ve always admired, and I liked his use of music in films and shows [including Academy Award-winning The Imitation Game (2014)]. He turned out to be exactly the kind of director I like to work with because he’s a collaborator most composers like to work with... Plus, Morten is really good at talking about music which is an art, a difficult one, too. Somebody once said, ‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’ and there is a lot of truth to that because certain words in music can mean a lot of different things to different people. Both Morten and writer Mark Bomback were really involved from the beginning.”

Into the process

‘Defending Jacob’ composer Atli Örvarsson

‘Defending Jacob’ composer Atli Örvarsson

Atli joined Defending Jacob towards the end; he was sent the first three episodes for scoring and he was instantly hooked. “First thing I did was creating ambient and evolving soundscapes, using guitar pedals with some old synthesisers and things that are around, but using them to find a voice and create the sonic world for Defending Jacob . Emotions drove a lot of this... The musical palette is quite similar; there’s a lot of piano, small and big string ensembles and electronic soundscapes.” These evoke a feeling of mourning, doubt and isolation, finds Atli, who adds, “These characters are going through some of the biggest fears that a parent can have, so I have to apply that musical language.”

Is there any scene which vividly lingers in Atli’s mind, one where all the elements add up? “At the beginning of episode three, there are six minutes of non-stop music which goes through an emotional rollercoaster,” he describes, “Andy and Laurie (Michelle Dockery) are going to the courthouse for the first time and Jacob has spent the night in jail. This is the beginning of their new life. It was a massive challenge to combine different scenes that make up these six minutes, but I feel I was able to create a throwline that elevates the story and makes it a continuous ride rather than separate scenes. The emotional impact of those six minutes echoes through the whole episode. The end of episode six also sees Jacob going to trial and the music takes over that scene and carries us and creates a cliffhanger.”

Atli, summing up the experience of working on Defending Jacob , chooses a rather unexpected descriptor, “The credo of the whole filmmaking process was restraint; the acting is restrained, the lighting is restrained. ‘Restraint’ became a keyword for me. Sometimes I would be taken aback by how much impact just one or two notes would have.”

Defending Jacob releases on Apple TV+ on April 24

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