Louis Febre is one of the truly unsung heroes of Smallville, ironically one of my favorite shows about heroes. Whether you know his name or not, chances are that you’re familiar with Louis’s work if you’re reading this column. Since the beginning of Season 6, Febre has been the sole score composer on Smallville, infusing the show with his own unique melodic flavor. Bringing a unique understanding and orchestral interpretation to the onscreen characters that goes back, surprisingly, to the very inception of the series, Febre continues to make the series something we find dramatic, awe-inspiring, and even funny on a weekly basis. I recently spoke with Louis in an exclusive interview about his involvement with the series.
Hey, Louis. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Happy to do it. It’s a pleasure.
Going back to the beginning of the beginning if you will, how did you first find out that you would be doing score work on Smallville?
I received a phone call from Mark Snow, inviting me to work with him on the pilot for a new show called “Smallville.” Soon thereafter I got an opportunity to actually see a cut, and thought “this really is an exciting show.” It really clicked with me. To say that I was delighted to accept the invitation is a huge understatement.
Now, were you actually a Superman fan before getting into this project, or is the “Smallville-verse” your only real experience with the Superman mythology?
Only in the sense that I read a bunch of the comic books as a kid. And then there was the movie. I still remember listening to that landmark Williams score and marveling at how perfectly it complemented the character. That was before I actually became interested in writing music for picture, if you will, but even so, the score had a great impact on my view of film music in general, as did “Star Wars” and “E.T.” and on and on! But the movie itself got me excited again about Superman.
What was your relationship with Mark Snow when Smallville began? Did you two collaborate or were you two independent musical voices?
Mark and I had been friends for a while by the time Smallville came around, so our working relationship was a bit more tightly integrated than it might otherwise have been. And yet we each brought different things to the table. In general, I would concentrate on the larger, more “action” oriented cues. Having said that, our music worked together very well, which probably speaks more of our similar compositional styles than of an effort on our part to sound alike. And nothing beats working with a friend. The two of us worked together through the end of season 6, at which time I took over the show. I did a considerable amount of writing during that last season together, so by the time Season 7 arrived, I was quite comfortable taking over.
What would you say has been the biggest change for you in how you write the score for Smallville now in Season 9 compared to how you wrote it when you first started the project?
There has not been a large shift in style or substance, musically speaking. But as one might expect, there’s been growth paralleling the show’s own. As the show and characters became more rich and unique, so did the score. I think that as we progressed into the series, and I mean over the years, we found a certain need to focus on thematic development a bit more than we did early on. As Clark grew emotionally and intellectually more complex, I found a need to comment musically on his growth, and as he drew closer to his Superman persona, it became obvious that a “Superman” theme would be required.
I sometimes feel in watching the show that the score is coaxing a specific response from me as a viewer. For example, one aspect of last season that many fans didn’t enjoy was the Lana story arc. But I got the impression – from the music – that you really wanted (or at least wanted me to want) those two characters together. You made it almost gorgeously tragic. Do you ever overtly indicate your own feelings toward certain characters with the score?
Ah! That is a very interesting question. My job really is to enhance, to amplify. I react, like anyone else might, to the drama in front of me. But the curious implication that I may have specific feelings about a character, and somehow interject my own view into the mix is both fascinating and terrifying! I would not purposely do such a thing, but in the particular instance you ask about, Clark and Lana’s final struggle, I’m not sure. I openly admit it; I found their relationship beautiful and simultaneously, deeply tragic. It touched me in a very direct way. I suppose it is possible for me to have painted my emotions musically, somehow adding, instead of enhancing.
One thing I’ve been surprised to discover is just how little time there is from when you first see an episode and when the finished show hits the airwaves, and the score is really the final piece of the puzzle. Can you tell us about a typical week for Louis Febre working on the score, trying to beat the clock and how stressful that can be?
A typical week finds me at the Smallville production offices on a Monday morning, surrounded by the finest production team imaginable. It really is a privilege for me to be sitting next to my friend and long time music editor, Chris McGeary, the insanely talented Tim Scanlan, Emmy winning sound designer Michael Lawshe, the great Tom Flores, and the list goes on. We spend some time going over the week’s show, and discussing the music. I then race home to finish last week’s show! Tuesday through Sunday I spend writing, performing and recording. In general, there will be between 35 and 40 minutes of score each week, and it’s a good thing I’m used to it, because the task always seems a bit daunting towards the start of the week. By Wednesday I’m humming right along. As much work as it is, I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world. Writing the music for Smallville is really an incredible pleasure for me.
Is there ever a time that you submit a finished episode and you’re asked to change things you’ve written?
It speaks volumes of the tight integration and trust that we, as a team, have developed over the years, that there are rarely any changes to be made. When they are, they’re always well thought out requests, which is one of the advantages of working with such capable people. The changes always make sense. I’m only human, and having to turn around so much music each week means that on occasion, I’ll miss something that is important to someone on the production team. When that happens, I happily comply.
What would you say have been a few of the most personally satisfying musical moments for you on the series?
This is always a difficult question for me to answer, but in general, I loved the Lexmas episode. I can’t put my finger on it, not exactly anyway, but I enjoyed writing that score a great deal. Sometimes the more delicate moments bring me great pleasure as well. For example, Lionel’s funeral at the end of “Descent” was particularly satisfying to compose, although, truth be told, it was done at something like three in the morning! I suppose those middle of the night sessions have yielded some of my personal favorites. I also enjoyed a moment in “Siren” during which we’re introduced to Dina, a.k.a. Black Canary. I wrote a theme for her that I thought worked pretty well.
On the flipside, are there any moments that, looking back, you’re particularly unhappy with or feel you could have done better somehow?
No, not really. Scoring for television is, will be, and has always been a very demanding job, due to the time restraints. I suppose there have been times when the schedule has become quite a challenge, but in the end, all the music gets written in time. Every time. All in all, the time crunch is a reality that all television composers live with.
We all know how important of an element music can be to a production. I know you’re modest to a fault, but have you ever been given an episode that you just thought was average and managed to change your own opinion by composing a particularly effective score?
Well, no. But I have enjoyed watching the transformation of an episode with a score slightly different from what I might have normally written. I suppose that long ago I learned this simple lesson; if a show, or movie, or whatever isn’t up to a certain standard of quality, no amount of fancy composing will save it. It’s like putting a ton of perfume on Bigfoot and sending him out on a date dressed as a woman. No one is going to be swayed be the lovely scent. Fortunately, Smallville is a consistently excellent show, and my job is always a joy because of it. It needs no perfume.
Up until recently, you hadn’t been terribly well-known in the Smallville fan community. That changed during Season 8. What prompted the sudden interest in twitter and reaching out to your fans? And has the overwhelmingly positive response to your work surprised you?
My discovery, yes better late than never, of Twitter is what prompted that interest. Sometimes it feels like I live in a cave, but one day I just said to myself “let’s look into this Twitter thing and see what’s what.” Lo and behold, a new universe revealed itself to me! And the positive response fills me with delight. I’m not kidding, it truly does.
For someone so integral to the artistic success of the show, though, your influence hasn’t garnered as much attention over the last several years as, say, the producers and directors. Has that allowed you a certain creative freedom – being able to compose to please yourself as opposed to doing it solely to please the fans?
Score, in general, doesn’t draw much attention to itself, unless of course, the viewer is particularly sensitive to music, or happens to be a musician. But yes, I have always felt the freedom to explore when I need or want to. The only real obstacle is my own ability! I do strive to do the very best job I’m capable of for every single episode. I sleep well at night.
I know this is something many fans have been curious about…any chance that we’ll see a CD of these themes in fully-realized, suite form? Or possibly even a compilation of score highlights from the series?
Unfortunately, I’m not yet in a position to say, with any degree of certainty, whether or not a score CD is forthcoming. Nothing would please me more than to see such a CD become available, naturally. I will say this; please rest assured that I will do all that is within my reach to make that happen.
Moving forward, what themes or motifs do you hope to be able to expand upon in the coming season? Obviously, much depends on where the writers take the characters, but are there things you personally want to see (i.e., that you want to score)?
I have a feeling that Season 9 will bring the expansion of the “Superman” theme. I’ve taken some time to develop it, and it really is exciting for me to know that I’ll have a chance to continue to expand and refine it. And the relationship between Lois and Clark may allow me the luxury of refining their theme as well. Who knows what the creative minds behind the Smallville story lines have in store for all of us for Season 9! I’m looking forward to the challenges, and to the possibility of writing a few interesting themes.
Three scenes that really stick out for me musically from last season are the scene in “Hex” when Clark forgets his superpowers on the roof of the Daily Planet, the end of that same episode when Chloe announced that “Watchtower” was online (which many people didn’t even know was your work), and that heart-wrenching ending to “Requiem”. Do you prefer scoring comedy, action, or drama, and are they very different processes?
My natural tendency is to write dramatic music, but the job of a composer is to write whatever a show requires. The range is indeed quite broad, as you know, and in truth, each and every style has a unique set of challenges and rewards. It is not unusual for me to go from a very dark and dramatic scene to a lighthearted one. And my one comment would be that the difficulty lies in shifting gears! But shift we must, and we composers do it every day.
Speaking of “Requiem”, that final piece seemed like it was almost composed as an extension of The Killers song “Goodnight, Travel Well”. Do you ever take the commercial songs (which are already mixed in when you receive an episode) into account when scoring a scene, or was that just a coincidence?
Always. I make every effort to transition into or out of any songs in a seamless manner, always matching the key and tempo, and whenever possible, the texture and feel of the song as well. If I’m coming out of a big, action cue, then the transition may not be as imperceptible as I’d like, but whenever the opportunity arises, I do my best to match all possible elements.
I know you’re not just the series composer, but also a fan of Smallville in your own right. Do you think being a fan makes scoring the show easier or harder for you?
Easier. No question about it. I do feel an extraordinary level of commitment to doing my job well, but loving Smallville makes my work so much more pleasurable. I get up in the morning actually excited about scoring one scene or another! And, like everyone else, I can hardly wait to see the following episode! Like I said before, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.
So do you watch the show when it airs?
Of course. In HD! It looks so great!
There’s been talk of a possible tenth season should Smallville survive its new Friday timeslot this year. Would you want to see that happen?
I would be ecstatic.
Someone like John Williams is a tough act to follow in the Superman music canon, but you’ve managed to give Smallville its own unique flavor and identity. I know I speak for everyone when I say that your work on our favorite show has been just phenomenal. Thank you so much for letting us in on a bit of your artistic process, it’s been really fascinating.
Thank you again for extending me the privilege of this interview. The questions are wonderful, and I’ve had a terrific time answering them. And as I sit here now, the realization that in a few days I will be spotting “Savior” is beginning to finally hit. I can hardly wait to roll up my sleeves and once again begin to work on our beloved Smallville.