Scoring the Spider-Verse

Daniel Pemberton talks his score for Across The Spider-Verse, and why bringing it to a live audience is going to feel more like a rock show

After 17 years, 33 films and $30 billion at the box office, it took a tiny cartoon spider to really shake up the MCU. Marvel revolutionised pop-culture in 2007 by building a superhero franchise that ended up simultaneously killing and saving cinema – but as tastes started to change in 2018 it was an animated spin-off at a rival studio that ended up feeling like the fresh new direction the genre needed. 

Produced and written by some of the same minds behind The Lego MovieInto The Spider-Verse did for superheroes what that film had just done for plastic bricks. Mixing avant-garde animation styles against a script bursting with heart and humour, the film moved, looked and felt different to everything else at the multiplex. More importantly, it also sounded different. 

Scored by British composer Daniel Pemberton, Into The Spider-Verse fused a soundtrack of Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Post Malone with a new kind of film score – one with classical roots but experimental branches; as innovative and bold as the movie itself. 

Pemberton returned to the Spider-Verse again in 2023 for the sequel, Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse, and this time found himself confronted with an even more ambitious film to score; bringing in elements of opera, punk, grunge, indie, electronic loops, record scratches and traditional Indian instruments. But if composing it was challenging enough, imagine playing the whole thing live for an audience… 

Following the success of the live concert-tour for Into that played venues around the world, the award-winning composer is now returning – with every musician and instrument he can find – to turn Across into a live music show. We sat down with Pemberton to find out more. 


Are you looking forward to having your work showcased in front of a live audience? 

It’s still quite daunting for me because I kind of have to perform… I’m not a natural performer. So I think the audience will probably have a much better experience than I will! I’m always stressing out, thinking I might mess something up, but it’s such a great film, and such an incredible concept to experience live. The energy of the movie just works so well for this kind of experience, because it sort of has a shape where it builds and builds. You know, with amazing scores, like, let’s say, Lawrence Of Arabia, all the music is essentially at the beginning, so it sort of doesn’t have the shape and the energy that you want in a concert. But Spider-verse has that. It’s a film where the crowd can go crazy. They don’t have to be reverential or polite, they can shout and cheer. I’m all for quiet cinemas, generally, but in this experience you’re seeing a film that most people already know, and you’re there to celebrate it. It really is something very special.

You have so many different elements and instruments in this score, how are you physically going to be pulling this all together in the same room? 

Yeah, I had the same reaction! I thought it was going to be impossible, because it has got so many different elements that can’t be performed live. But we ended up doing something more interesting. There’s a bunch of stuff that’s being scratched in by the DJ, there’s a bunch of stuff on track, which is more electronics, and then you have the live performance on top of that. You essentially get a show that doesn’t have the same purity of a symphonic live show, but it does have the energy and the excitement of a great rock show. Seeing performers play, and hearing them play the music, and it feeling it, it has that energy. It’s also got a slight instability to it – it’s not going to be the same every night, and it’s not going to be a note for note perfect rendition of the score. There’s an extra level of excitement to it.

Take us back to the start of Across The Spider-Verse. Coming off the back of such a groundbreaking score on Into The Spider-Verse, and now faced with a much more ambitious sequel, where did you even begin? 

It was completely overwhelming. Where do I start? But I think what I did on Across was to just start trying out ideas and noises. I really focused in early on The Spot, and I did all this work that we never ended up using. I was trying all these different kinds of multiple electronic sounds that would open and close up – and I spent ages doing it. But it all just sounded like silly noises. It was sound effects. It didn’t have the emotion that the character needs. Then I moved to Punk. I started doing like a punky version of the theme – then we just chucked that in the bin too and we carried on doing other things. And then, crazily, towards the very end of the film, when we’d gone through a million other ideas, we pulled it out of the bin and we tried it over the opening. 

That was the building drum beat, with the bass line, used behind Gwen’s intro? 

Yeah, that riff. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is completely brilliant’. Suddenly, it all came together. It’s very weird how your first instinct on a movie often can be the most important one.

It sounds like a lot of evolution – of finding out what you didn’t like before you got when you needed to be? 

It’s interesting because all your early ideas are formed when you don’t have anything visual to play against. These movies are such big beasts to create. The first really meaningful meeting was in LA, and we just went through all the concepts and all the different art techniques for each world. It’s exciting. But your head fills up with ideas. I remember I really wanted to write all the India stuff in a way where it could be processed  in a way that was similar to the art style – quite cheaply printed, offset, not 100% on top of each other. I tried to approach that with music as well; to try and do stuff that felt credibly saturated and slightly “off”. But it just didn’t work. It sounds clever, but it didn’t feel that way. So you do all these things that don’t always work, but they’re important to getting you to the point that does.

You mentioned the Indian themes, but you also have punk, opera, techno, grunge and all these very different styles of music. Was there a process of throwing yourself into these different styles before writing for them?

One of the things I’ve been quite lucky with is that I kind of did 20 years in British television. So I’ve done everytype of score. I sort of used that as a learning ground to teach myself as much as I could about every type of music. It really did give the early fundamentals in learning all these different techniques. But yeah, Spider-Verse is definitely the film where all those different things come together into one score. But, you know, you’re still always learning, so a lot of this was just absorbing information, listening to records. With punk, for example, you think about really raw energy but when you actually listen to, say, a Sex Pistols album, you hear that the production is weirdly quite tight and tidy. I think if I handed that in everyone would tell me it wasn’t punky enough.

As ambitious as the score is, there’s a real classical nature to it too – especially in the way you use themes. That’s very much not the way a lot of Hollywood films are scored anymore – why that an important thing for you to try and bring back?

For me, it’s one of the most fundamental parts of film scoring. Being able to tell a story through music. One of the things I hope with this score is that you could shut your eyes and hear it and reimagine the film. Music can represent concepts and it can represent characters and it can represent places. For me, one of the keys to a great film score is that you have thematic material that adapts and changes. It’s not just a bunch of random bits of music stuck on a picture. And I think, with this film, because I was in charge of the whole universe of the sound, I could be more of an author and have that long term view. 

And that’s not always the case with other big studio films? 

I think for a lot of superhero films the difficulty has been having different composers on every project. All the directors want different things. And yeah, you’ve also got an approach that seems not to want big thematic material. I think if you look at the great film trilogies – which, you know, which maybe Spider-Verse could be if we don’t mess up the last one –  like Star Wars or Lord Of The Rings, they’ve got incredibly strong thematic material that plays through the whole journey, and it adapts. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Spider-Verse in a much more modern idiom. And also, you know, I’m writing everything. A lot of music now is slightly shipped off to interns. Someone might write a main theme and then some other people write something else, so it never has the authorship of a complete score. You don’t have the journey of the composition.

Let’s talk about the canon event meme. When were you first aware that your music was taking on a life of its own outside the film?

A couple of people started coming up to me, telling me I was big on TikTok. I didn’t quite say “what’s TikTok?” like some kind of old man, but I also just sort of went, “Okay, well, that’s cool”. But I started noticing it more and more. And then I went on TikTok and I just couldn’t get my head around it. It was crazy. I’m mean, it’s great, but it’s also weird. The way I had to write the music for Spider-Verse was that I had to create themes and melodies that were recognisable within one or two seconds. The film moves at such a fast pace, so you need to be able to make those connections incredibly quickly. And I think that works well with the world of social media, which is also very fast. 

Spider-Man 2099 (Miguel O'Hara) | Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (Original Score)

How do you feel about it now? 

It’s sort of like having a kind of weird hit. Like, you know, in 1981 you had Ennio Morricone and Vangelis in the charts! The idea of film music being in the charts now is totally weird, but this feels like a weird modern equivalent. You know, if this was the 80s maybe I’d be on Top Of The Pops performing ‘Spider-Man 2099’!

Can you tell us a bit about the creation of that of that musical cue? It’s incredibly striking, but also oddly unsettling.

After the first film ‘Prowler’ became such a key sound. It sort of blew up. I’d watch trailers for other movies, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, they’ve used the Prowler idea and ripped it off…’. So I was trying to come up with themes or characters and I was just going through millions of sounds. I’ve got a great assistant called Alex and I would task him with going off and making these noises, I would take them and do some jams and chop them up and try and make sense out of them. But you basically go through millions of sounds trying to find the few that are really special. We had a synth thing that we put through some distortion plugins, and suddenly it just sounded like… ‘wow, what’s that?’. But it was still only alright. What made it really special was when I affected the glide. I can play it for you now on the keyboard with a stupid noise on [he pauses to play the distinctive five notes]. You still kind of get it, because it’s melodic, but it’s a very different thing. I felt like 2099’s world was very electronic. It was aggressive. It’s a powerful sound, and I wanted something to hit you as fast as he would.

Slight tangent, but you started off doing the music for Peep Show, right? 

I did, and it’s sadly probably still my claim to fame for most people in Britain. I’ve done lots of important film music work with some of the greatest directors of all time, and everyone still only recognises the Peep Shownoise I did 20 years ago that goes [mimicks the transition theme with his cheeks].

I feel like I’ve touched a nerve here… My point, though, is that was also a very brief music cue that’s had a life of its own – it feels like there’s been a huge evolution between then and now.

Absolutely. I grew up in British TV, and I still work in British TV. I did a zillion shows, loads of documentaries. Then I started doing reality shows. One of the things that has always been very important for me is creating a sound world. I did a show called Bad Lad’s Army that had a very distinctive sound, and that was completely different to Hell’s Kitchen. I did a show called The Great British Menu and it’s still on TV. I did the first season of Love Island, which was a flop. Then they got rid of my music, killed the show, brought the format back six years later and it’s a big hit. Nothing to do with me! 

But yeah, when you do those things you learn how to come up with an idea that can establish itself incredibly quickly. And that’s quite hard. Over time, you learn what sounds have that kind of quality, and which ones are the most effective. Film music is a lot about taste and decision making, but I think a lot of that was learned in TV. 

I heard you talk before about the process of working with Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs, and how he encouraged you to be more open to experimentation – to trying out different formats. 

For sure. It was about not being elitist with my sound. We have a viewpoint – I think generally, as societies – that looks at certain things as very important and proper. We look at an orchestra and it’s all very fancy; everyone there has trained their whole lives to be there. They’re the best of the best. But then we might look at someone scratching a record or playing a drum machine and we go ‘ha, that’s silly, it’s too easy, it’s just somebody pressing some buttons’. But those people have trained for years too – they just have a different skill set. Whoever makes the best sound is always going to be more interesting to me. 

An orchestra is an amazing thing; it’s completely nimble and it can create all these different textures. But it’s sort of the same stuff you’ve heard before. If you use the orchestra in a different way, and if you combine it with other, unusual things, you create something new. I think one of the things Danny Boyle was great at was also being very non-elitist about what was important, which was invaluable. 

How had you worked before that?

When I first got into doing Hollywood films, I was a bit scared of doing stuff that wasn’t at the highest end. I wanted everything recorded at Abbey Road, you know? The first big Hollywood film I did was The Counsellor, with Ridley Scott. Looking back, the best bits of that score were the things I did in my flat, just making a bad sound on a cheap guitar. It really made me realise that it doesn’t matter. Danny was very good at doubling down on that idea, of just being like, “if it works, it works”. And I think that’s where film music is starting to get more interesting. Some of my all-time favourite film scores are made up of big beautiful symphonic orchestral music, but music can be anything. 

Let’s say you hear a beautiful theme played on lots of violins over a love scene. Your brain has taught you, having heard this many times before, that this is the love scene. So you watch it and you go [shrugs]. Now do something different. Do something slightly wrong. Something that doesn’t feel totally incongruous or out of place, but still unexpected. Your brain will go ‘What’s going on?… hang on a tick, they’re falling in love’. And you’ll think about the scene more. Great art makes you feel something, it doesn’t always have to be a pretty picture of a landscape.

I have to ask the obligatory question about Beyond The Spider-Verse

We’re all sworn to secrecy, but the only big scoop I can give you is that I’ve just recorded some ADR for Punk. I was in LA, and they needed someone with an English accent. 

Has anyone told Daniel Kaluuya yet? 

I doubt I will be officially replacing one of our greatest actors in the upcoming Spider-verse film… But who knows, times are tough in film studios these days, so they might have slashed their budgets. And my ADR rate is refreshingly low.

Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse – Live In Concert opens at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 30 June, before touring the UK in September. Find tickets here