If you haven’t been watching FOX’s mega-hit Empire, you might be the only one missing out. Debuting to huge ratings, the show has become a bigger success than anyone could have predicted, growing viewers and buzz week-by-week. While you’re watching the “OMG” drama, you might be missing a key utility player keeping Empire‘s off-the-rails drama grounded: the musical score.

In a show all about the music, producers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong stepped outside the world of hip-hop to create a more textured sound for the show. Enter veteran composer Fil Eisler, who knows a thing or two about scoring soapy drama to absolute perfection. Eisler has led a live orchestra for four seasons of ABC’s Hamptons-set sudser Revenge, and he brings an experienced eye to the ups and downs of the larger-than-life personalities of the Lyons clan. 

We tried to pry some spoilers about the two-hour finale from Eisler, but he was tight-lipped about plot details. He did, however, stress that it should be appointment television. “It’s bloody genius,” Eisler said. “Absolutely do not miss it. Some of the best television I’ve ever had the pleasure of scoring.”

BuddyTV spoke through email with Eisler about how he came to musically chronicle the crazy world of Empire, the benefits of scoring with a live orchestra, how he blends the score with Empire‘s chart-busting soundtrack, and what other projects he’ll be lending his talents: 

How did you get involved with scoring Empire?

I’d heard that Lee [Daniels]  picked my reel from a few different composers, and we met when he was cutting the pilot. He had such a strong sense of what he wanted, and what I was watching him cut was so good that I couldn’t say no.

What influences your sound for the show?

Again that was really a discussion with Lee – he wanted a bold orchestral score that created a unique language of its own for the show. We didn’t specifically say, “It should sound like this movie or that.” I would have found that kind of a turn off really. Lee heard some scores I had done before and was excited about that sound, so it was more a case of finding my voice all over again in a new way for this show.

What’s been your favorite scene to score so far on Empire?

Well again, it’s one I can’t really talk about, but let’s just say there are a couple of really juicy scenes coming up!

You’ve been conducting a live orchestra for Revenge and now for Empire. What are the benefits of using a live orchestra? What are the challenges? Why did you decide to use this method for scoring Empire?

Well, once it had been decided after some experimenting that it was an orchestral score that was needed, and at that, a pretty bare orchestral sound (in other words with not that many programmed or synth elements), there was no question in my mind that it should be live. 

I’m just fortunate that Fox was very supportive of that idea because not all TV people really get that concept. There’s nothing worse than a fake version of something real – there are times samples can work great but when it’s as exposed and minimal as the Empire score, it would make it sound hideous. 

Also you have to remember that we’re going up against beautifully produced songs that are front and center every week, so how awful would it be if we kept switching from that into canned sample strings? 

There are challenges sure, but that’s something my team and I are very used to handling now, between movies and a lot of live scoring for TV.

What’s your favorite part of working on Empire?

The scoring sessions. Watching the demos come to life with real live musicians, and being able to shape that sound with them from the podium is a beautiful experience every time, even when it’s a tough week.

Empire is a very music-heavy show. How do you translate that into the score for the show and make it blend?

Dynamics more than anything else. The score is very thematic and melody driven, but also very minimal for the most part. Then by contrast there are times that it has to step up and be really bold and almost operatic, otherwise it takes the fun out of the soapy element of the show. 

It should never get kitschy, but every now and then it kind of needs to stick a middle finger up and say “Hi I’m here!” I realized that especially when we watched the pilot with a live audience at the premiere, and they were literally on their feet and cheering at certain scenes, like when Cookie gets out of jail. Those scenes have to have a bit of oomph from the score to really work.

You’re also working on Lifetime’s new scripted drama UnReal. Can you tell me about that? What can audiences expect from that show?

That’s another really fantastic show in a very different way than Empire, or for that matter anything else I’ve done and that’s what drew me to it. It’s a super, super dark comedy about the goings on behind the scenes of a reality dating TV show. Just full of despicable, beautiful, twisted, haunted and crazy people. 

Great writing and acting, and just gripping and addictive. By contrast to Empire, it’s a total synth score, mostly done in my studio with 70’s synths, modular gear, a bit of guitar. Really a completely different design. I had great fun on it.

What other projects do you have coming up?

A couple of things I can tell you about and a few I can’t! I guess it’s been talked about that I did this sort of action comedy horror flick at Sony called Kitchen Sink, though it doesn’t have a release date yet, as far as I know. 

That was a huge orchestra and choir score, mixed with pianos chainsawed in half, animal noises fed through synths, industrial noise, all kinds of craziness. For me, it was a way to try and reinvent a lot of things in that genre. But then you have the comedy element too, so you go from very straight-laced action set pieces that are really long with a lot of moving parts, to really simple subtle horror stuff, to completely over the top choral requiems. It was absolutely great fun to do. 

I also have a lovely little indie film called Growing Up and Other Lies coming out shortly, which was half a very classical chamber orchestra score and half kind of punk funk jam stuff that’s somewhat in that early Beastie Boys world. I’m also about to start a pilot over at ABC called Kingmakers, which looks really fun.

Don’t miss the season finale of Empire tonight on FOX at 8 EST! 

(Image courtesy of CW3PR)

Morgan Glennon

Contributing Writer, BuddyTV