This week on Kotaku Splitscreen, I talked with composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate) about what it was like auditioning to be the composer for Star Trek: Discovery, and why he’s glad he did it even though he didn’t get the gig.
For the first part of the show I was joined by my colleagues Heather Alexandra and Stephen Totilo to talk about the news of the week, Stephen’s 100+ hour playthrough of Assassin’s Creed Origins, and why Heather and I prefer Far Cry 2 to Far Cry 5 in many—though not all—respects.
Then I got on the line with Austin to talk about auditioning for Star Trek, which he chronicled in an illuminating Medium post back in February. We also discussed his recently-crowdfunded multimedia stage production A Light in the Void, which will combine scientific presentations with narrative vignettes, all accompanied by original music performed by an 80-piece live orchestra.
Listen to the full episode here:
You can download an MP3 here. Below is a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, during which Austin explains how he got his foot in the door with CBS in the first place, and some of why he considers the process a net positive even though he didn’t get the job.
Austin Wintory: It was a little scary [publishing that Medium post] because it’s sort of a faux pas amongst composers to show how the sausage is made? But I decided to go for it because I thought part of the concern would be if I came across very bitter about how it all turned out, and since I didn’t feel that way…
Kirk Hamilton: It felt like you were very careful to not do that. Did you get any blowback?
Wintory: Fortunately not, in fact I got heaps of private messages and emails and texts from composers saying, thank you so much for sharing a little bit of what it’s like for us, for all of us, at all different levels of the industry. Everybody goes through various versions of things like this. You invest a lot in a gamble, and it doesn’t work out. Now, sometimes that really is heartbreaking. And I suppose on a certain level it was heartbreaking. But at the same time, I’ve been doing this for more than 10, 12 years, something like that. I’ve “not gotten” quite a lot of jobs. I’ve also been lucky to get jobs.
Kirk: That was an interesting part of the story. That this happens all the time, this was not unusual to go through. You went through I think three separate recordings?
Wintory: Three audition rounds, basically.
Kirk: Yeah, three audition rounds. And it kind of kept not ending, they would keep coming back to you. And then in the end, yeah, you can do all that and not get it. One thing I wanted to ask you about is, there’s a point kind of early on where you get the call, okay, we want you to make a demo recording of this. And you compose your dream Star Trek theme. And then you just say, kind of casually in the post, “and so then I just booked an orchestra recording session, and then went and did it.” That, to me at least, was striking. I think that’s a very different thing between an LA musician and a non-LA musician. That that’s even possible. How do you do that, how do you just book an orchestra? Is that really expensive, is that something you can just throw together that quickly?
Wintory: It can add up, for sure. Obviously, everything is a calculated risk. First off, I knew, generally, who I was competing with for this job. And in some cases, I was competing with composers who have a body of work in science fiction specifically, that if I’m going to go head-to-head without that body of work, I have to be able to show something that requires zero leap of the imagination. So of course I could use [orchestral samples as opposed to live musicians]. But then, my samples are going against the demo reel of somebody that has hundreds of hours of live recorded, fully-produced finished product.
And even though I have also huge amounts of finished product, it’s all in video games that they [the people at CBS] don’t care about at all. So it was a realization that it’s not just a calculated risk because it might be impressive to them. It’s actually the only way to reach the starting gate, in my estimation.
Kirk: And you’ve got that recording now too, right? You’ve got that orchestral recording of science fiction music you can use for the next time a gig like this comes up.
Wintory: Exactly. This process started two years ago. They hadn’t cast the show yet, they hadn’t even hired a director for the pilot or anything. The way it all started was that it had been announced that CBS was greenlighting a new Star Trek show. And Bryan Fuller was going to be the showrunner, that was all that was said.
Kirk: Which is exciting enough! I mean, people who don’t know Bryan Fuller, he was the showrunner on American Gods, he did Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, he’s brilliant.
Wintory: Not to mention that among Star Trek fans, which I count myself a member of, he was a prominent writer on Star Trek Voyager. So he has Star Trek pedigree. Star Trek fans, especially the hardcore Star Trek TV show fans, would be more excited by that, generally, than if it was like, hey, they were a writer on JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness or something.
Kirk: [laughing] I can’t imagine why they would find that more exciting than a JJ Abrams writer.
Wintory: I’m not trying to knock those movies, it’s just that they’re a completely different approach to Star Trek than the five prior TV shows. And so Bryan Fuller has a lot of love in the Star Trek [community].
So I told my agent [I was interested]. I said look, I know I have no pedigree in television whatsoever. But what’s the deal here? What have you heard? And my agent said, by total chance, it turns out Nicholas Meyer is gonna be writing the pilot. He wrote and directed the two best Star Trek films, Wrath of Kahn and Undiscovered Country. And my agent, 30 years ago, had closed the deal for Cliff Eidelman to score Undiscovered Country. It was one of his first gigs as an agent, because this was 30 years ago and it near the start of his agent career. And a huge break for Cliff Eidelman who was in his mid-20s at the time.
So he said, by total coincidence, I’m working on a project right now with someone else who is affiliated with Nicholas Meyer. So here’s what we’re gonna do. Just write a piece, and I’m just gonna show up with it out of nowhere. They are not asking for music yet. It’s too early. They haven’t even hired a director, they haven’t shot anything, the script isn’t finished, it’s way too early. But let’s see what happens if we just show them music, because there’s a convenient connection there.
And I said, okay, give me like, 10 days. And I hired about a 50-piece orchestra and went and wrote a bunch of music, and made a video. And that’s in the article, that first video.
It was totally unsolicited on their part. That was the gamble, because often you’re told, “We’re not interested in even talking about music right now, go away.” But they really liked it, and so they said, when it comes time to talk about music, we’ll include you in that conversation.
For the rest of the story, check out the full episode, or read Austin’s post on Medium. A Light in the Void will premiere with the Colorado Symphony on October 5, and you can find out more about that over on the page for their now-concluded Kickstarter.
As usual, you can find Splitscreen on Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions. Jason will be back next week, and we’ll have a special bonus episode for the Westworld season 2 premiere early next week as well.