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Interviews

Interview: Atli Örvarsson Talks “Defending Jacob”, “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard”, and the Importance of Staying Present

By: Jessica Nakamoto –

Atli Örvarsson. (Photo: Alex Soutré)

Based on the 2012 New York Times Bestselling novel of the same name, Mark Bomback’s thrilling rendition of Defending Jacob, is bound to become your next crime-drama obsession.

Having made its global premiere on April 24 via the Apple TV+ streaming platform, the eight-episode miniseries flaunts an impressive cast with popular actors, Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martel, portraying the lives of a small-town Massachusetts family coping with the massive fallout of a mysterious and shocking crime.

Packed with courtroom showdowns, emotional trials, and the struggle of an assistant district attorney (Evans) in the ultimate battle between justice and protecting his own son, viewers can’t help but feel drawn into the harrowing set as they clamor to find out the truth.

Luckily for them, helping to immerse the audience in the exhilarating and suspenseful sonic world of Defending Jacob, is none other than renowned Icelandic composer, Atli Örvarsson.

Known for his work in beloved TV series such as Chicago Fire and FBI: Most Wanted, as well as Hollywood hit movies ranging from Angels & Demons and The Hitman’s Bodyguard, it’s clear that Örvarsson knows exactly what it takes to craft the dramatic soundscape necessary to match the intrigue of a tantalizing murder-mystery.

However, before you admire his work in the upcoming show, make sure to check out our interview with Örvarsson as he gives us an insider’s look on playing off the Nordic noir style of Defending Jacob, the inspiration behind his first solo record, the sequel to The Hitman’s Bodyguard, and more!

First off, congratulations on your new thriller series Defending Jacob. That must be exciting!

It really is! It’s kind of a countdown now and I’m excited to see the fruits of our labor. Hopefully, people will enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it!

How did you first get involved with the project? I heard that your upcoming album played a large part in that inspiration and process.

Well, the producers and director were looking for a composer and they had heard some tracks from my upcoming album through my agency. It seemed to be a match to what they were looking for, and somehow, it all came together perfectly! I think there’s a bit of a Nordic Noir, Scandinavian flair to the way the show was shot and it seems to lend itself to the kind of music that I’ve been working on lately.

Were there any instruments or themes from the album that you knew you wanted to incorporate into the score?

I didn’t want to impose anything from the album necessarily to the show. It was actually kind of the opposite! What they were looking for seemed to fit what I had been doing both in terms of instrumentation and style and maybe even a restrained emotion. In a way, it made it a seamless transition from writing these tracks for my album to developing a score for the show which kind of bridged the two sounds.

I enjoyed watching the beautiful black and white video clip of you working with the orchestra in LA and previewing the score for the show. You have a unique situation where you get to bounce back and forth between Iceland and the Hollywood scene. Do your travels inspire your work?

It’s funny you ask because they really do! Obviously, COVID-19 is putting a damper on this, but I love travelling. It’s something that really inspires me. Not necessarily the “commute” between Iceland and LA, but in general. When I have some time off, I love to travel and I feel like when I come back to the studio, it’s usually having had new experiences and having seen new things. This is a really important part of my process.

As you mentioned, I go back and forth. I actually wrote most of the themes for Defending Jacob here in Iceland! I feel like there is a certain inspiration that comes from being in a very quiet place with a beautiful landscape. I take a lot of walks in nature and I think my inspiration really comes from having the luxury of being able to do that.

I’ve never been to Iceland, but I can just imagine the duality between the two different poles! The crazy LA kind of vibe mixed with the very scenic Icelandic paradise, if you will.

Yes! It was sort of the unintended consequence of deciding to go back and forth, but I feel that it’s a perfect juxtaposition, like you said, between the pace, the noise and the crowds, at least on the freeways of LA, compared to the real stillness of Iceland.

I live in the north of Iceland. I don’t even live in Reykjavik! (laughs) Where I’m from, it’s extremely calm. For me, it’s the perfect combination being able to have the peace and quiet here and then jump into the madness of a big city like LA and go back and forth. I think they each play off of each other and give me the right balance somehow.

Atli Örvarsson. (Photo: Alex Soutré)

The best of both worlds!

Exactly!

Now that travel is obviously limited due to the current situation, how are you keeping busy and staying creative?

Well, the weird thing is that for me, life hasn’t changed that much. I joke that now the world kind of knows what it’s like to live the life of a composer! (laughs) I’m obviously exaggerating in a sense, because we do go out to dinners, visit people, and all that. But really, I’m just so used to being in the studio, that it’s not as big of a stretch personally.

My studio in Iceland is at home, so it’s a bit of a Groundhog Day for me every day. I realized a while ago that if you have good internet service, it doesn’t really matter where you are. If you have the equipment and the tools to make music and a good connection, you can work almost anywhere.

I’m actually keeping just as busy now as I was a few months ago! I have projects that I’m working on and finishing up. They’re things that were shopped before the pandemic hit, so I’ve been keeping pretty busy through this crazy time.

I can definitely understand that! I’ve spoken to a few composers recently and it seems even a 30 second title scene for example, can take much more work and time than many would think.

It’s true! As you said, people generally don’t understand how much time it takes. It’s a bit of an obsession that comes with being a composer. Most of us, I believe, are perfectionists and without getting too dramatic about it, being a composer is a calling. It’s not a job, it’s something I have to do. The more I do it, the more I feel I have to do this as well as I possibly can. It really is the kind of thing that we’re willing to spend a lot of time perfecting a piece of music. Basically, it usually has to be taken away from us! (laughs) It’s never done, you just have to stop working on it.

I know a lot of people, myself included, are leaning on music to pass time and keep spirits up during the quarantine. I read that Bach and Pink Floyd are some of your greatest influences. That’s quite a range!

It really is! (laughs) 

Which artists or musicians are you listening to right now?

I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately! I’ve gone through some early twentieth century music and some of the beginning of Modernism and American Minimalism as well. Recently, I’ve been listening to Philip Glass and Steve Reich and kind of going back to those composers quite a bit.

I’ve actually been so busy writing that I haven’t had the chance to listen to a lot of stuff! (laughs) Mostly, I’ve been going back to the roots, if you will, and really trying to immerse myself in different ways of composing for strings and the orchestral instruments.

We’d spoke earlier about the contrast between the LA scene and the Icelandic peacefulness. Do you find yourself listening to different music based on where you are at a particular time?

To be honest, I’ll follow a lot of popular publications. With those, it doesn’t really matter where you are. You listen to what’s being said via media and via playlists and what tastemakers are pointing you towards.

I will say this though, I listen to music more when I’m in Iceland than I do in LA because I think I have more time here somehow. I find that in LA, there’s this auxiliary part of life. There are all sorts of phone calls and traffic. Life there is usually noisy and busy whereas life here is much calmer. I find that I have more time to listen to music in general when I’m in Iceland.

I think it’s interesting that in the U.S. you’re typically known for your prowess as a composer and the Hollywood scores you’ve done, but many people aren’t aware that you were a platinum-selling rock musician in Iceland before going into scoring! Do you think your experience playing in bands has influenced your perspective when it comes to composition, especially with action-thriller series like Defending Jacob?

It’s definitely influenced my approach to music in general! I think we’re all some sort of amalgam of our experiences. My musical background when I was a kid was everything from playing in orchestras and theatre productions to playing rock and roll!

I would say specifically for something like Defending Jacob, even though it’s classified as a thriller, the music for that series speaks more to the inner-life of the characters and their emotions and feelings. I think in that particular case, a background in rock and roll probably didn’t make that much of a difference one way or another. I think the key was more to find some sort of truth and honesty and depth in the characters and what they were going through. So, from a musical standpoint, probably not so much. But again, I think all these things in one’s background come to the front in one way or another.

Having played rock and roll and pop in bands influences what kind of music I write in general. Obviously, when I’m writing an orchestral score for a movie, I’m drawing on a different set of experiences, but I think there is that sort of song form in my writing. That definitely comes from being in a band!

Defending Jacob is jam packed with drama and strong characters, yet it only consists of eight different episodes. Were there any challenges or exciting aspects of composing music for a mini-series like this compared to a longer feature film?

In a weird way, if you would line up all eight episodes and watch them as if it were an eight-hour long film, the structure of the whole thing would be very much like a movie! (laughs) I believe the way it’s broken into acts and the way it functions is kind of like a long form film. That’s something I had to be cognizant of while I was doing these episodes. I was thinking of the whole arc. Thematically, the process behind it was very similar to doing a film as opposed to a normal episodic television series which is more specific to each episode.

When I was first approached to do the show, I watched the first three episodes. It’s kind of funny, every time you see a trailer or some sort of tag line for a series it always says, “new gripping series from such and such”. It’s kind of like a recurring cliché. But this particular show truly is that gripping and I just could not stop watching it!

In my opinion, it’s not so much about the plot or the storyline per say, although that is obviously very interesting and it takes all kinds of twists and turns. What was more interesting to me was the depth of the characters and trying to understand how people feel going through this kind of rollercoaster. It’s a combination of the plot and character development. What I think makes the show special is the emphasis that’s placed on people’s inner-lives.

Atli Örvarsson. (Photo: Alex Soutré)

I watched the trailer, and Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and the other actors were amazing! The emotional connection you get from the characters is intense!

Yes! That’s how I feel about it too! Sometimes you get so close to these things that you stop seeing the forest through the trees, but I feel very strongly about this show. I hope it resonates with the audience the way it has with me!

Well, we all have some time now to go and binge watch the episodes, so I’m sure people will get totally hooked!

Absolutely! It’s probably a good time for Apple and the other streaming services to premiere new shows. Hopefully people will tune in and check it out.

In addition to TV series like Defending Jacob, you’ve also scored a variety of hit movies including The Hitman’s Bodyguard. I know everyone is excited for the sequel, The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, out this August. Where are you at with the production and scoring for the new movie?

(Laughs) I’m literally looking at my computer screen and the sequence for the sequel’s main theme! I’m right in the thick of developing the sounds from the first one, so I’m just about ready to jump into the deep end of the pool and score the whole film. The movie is coming out late summer, early fall, and I’m in the middle of the laboratory if you will, trying to come up with the material that’s going to become the whole score.

It’s great because it’s sort of a development. A lot of the old themes will come back, but at the same time, there’s obviously a new twist, a new plot, new characters and new angles that I’m working on. It’s really fun! The process feels just like meeting an old friend. Let’s see where else can we take our friendship, our relationship, and try some new variations on themes.

In the original film, you had helped Samuel L. Jackson come up with his very first song! Do you think we’ll see another hilarious gospel-esque follow-up track in the sequel?

You know what? I don’t think I can comment on that at this stage! (Laughs) I’m going to error on the side of caution and not give too much away. Certainly, there are some hilarious things and some interesting, unexpected plot lines that are coming people’s way.

It’ll be comedy gold either way!

Yup! (laughs) Ryan Reynolds and Sam Jackson had such a great rapport in the first movie, and Salma Hayek has an even bigger role in this one. The first was almost a two man show, but this one is more like a triangle between the three of them. She comes in and makes it even better! I’m really looking forward to the movie and getting it in front of people’s eyeballs!

In the meantime, I’m just finishing up a Will Ferrell movie called Eurovision which is also hilarious. He’s playing a character who’s competing in the Eurovision Song Contest. So, that’s another great movie I think will be really worth checking out!

It was the perfect fit after really digging deep into heavy emotion and drama with Defending Jacob and then going into something hilarious. It was very fun and a massive juxtaposition!

One of the last releases I’d like to chat about is your new single “Húm Pt.I”. Húm, I understand, translates into “dusk” and the song is the first release from your new album. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind the track?

Absolutely! I wrote this tune about a year and a half ago. The light here in Iceland is somewhat exaggerated and pretty dramatic. Around winter solstice we have about four or five hours of daylight, and during summer solstice, we have about four or five hours of dusk. So, no night to speak of, just one long day. I wrote this song as the days were getting shorter and dusk and darkness were taking over.

A couple of the things I really love about living here is how drastically nature changes, how much it affects you, and how rich it is when everything starts changing. You sort of go along with it and really feel in touch with nature. Those little things like dusk are something that you never really think about. It’s sort of this transitional space.

I was getting ready to do a concert here with a local choir and came up with this chord progression. It was right in that sort of space where you feel your mood starting to change and you want to hibernate. It’s a piece about looking inward. Again, there’s something about living in a place where there’s drastic seasonal changes. You really feel those kinds of things when fall and winter hit. You really do look inward.

Right now, I can see spring is almost here and summer’s coming. At this point, you feel like you’re being and your soul want to reach out. It’s sort of the opposite space of where I was when I wrote “Húm”. Overall, it’s just a reflection about being present with what’s happening around you. The name of the album is, You Are Here and the entire record is a reflection of being fully in the moment, wherever you’re at.

That’s a great message, especially now. Appreciating what’s around us is so important! 

It is! And for me, it’s also about being grateful for all of it. Honestly, I’m a little tired of all this snow! (laughs) It’s the middle of April and we have a lot of it, but you have to be grateful for it the miracle it really is. I digress slightly, but maybe this pandemic we’re living through now is a moment for all of us to look inward and take some time to be present with ourselves and to be grateful for what we have.

I’d love to wrap things up with a few fun fill-in-the-blank questions. Would you like to give it a go?

Sure, let’s do it!

One TV show I can’t wait to binge watch is…

Defending Jacob! (jokes) I just binged watched Tiger King and god forbid I watch it again!

If I could collaborate with anyone past or present, I’d pick…

Thom Yorke

Something you may not know about me is…

I love fly fishing! It’s very zen and meditative.

Last one! If I could travel anywhere, I would love to visit…

New Zealand!

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