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How it feels to (almost) get the job scoring a Star Trek TV series

The near-misses that make up a blessed career in music

Star Trek: Discovery - Sonequa Martin-Green as First Officer Michael Burnham
First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) in Star Trek: Discovery.
James Dimmock/CBS Interactive

Before I begin, I want to make something abundantly clear: This is a happy story. This is a story of daring to dream of the near-impossible, and celebrating that I even came close. So lest my tone inadvertently come across as bitter, scorned or otherwise disappointed, please let this paragraph serve as a voice in your head reminding you that I consider this to be an amazing experience!

With all that said — TL;DR — here’s the end of the story: I am not the composer of CBS’ new series Star Trek: Discovery. That task has fallen to Emmy-winning composer Jeff Russo, and I’m sending my heartfelt congratulations to him on a truly impressive career thus far (especially for his achievements on Fargo).

Austin Wintory childhood photo
The author as a young man.
Austin Wintory

OK, done with disclaimers!

Time for a little backstory. Growing up, I was a rare breed of nerd who found himself equally enamored by both of the sci-fi staples of the era: Star Wars and Star Trek. On a foundational level, both originated as father-son bonding experiences, but whereas Star Wars was about the emotional thrill, Star Trek was all about knowledge and curiosity. We would watch episodes (particularly of The Next Generation) and have discussions and debates about the ideas, morals, etc.

I owe my lifelong love of science and learning in no small part to the impact of Star Trek during those developmental years.

Needless to say, the music of Star Trek became a huge inspiration for me following my discovery of Jerry Goldsmith when I was about 10. In contrast to the swashbuckling adventurousness of John Williams’ Star Wars score, Goldsmith’s work on Star Trek was all about the romance of exploration. It was deeply imaginative, and captured the idea of “the final frontier” with supreme class and elegance.

(Side note: The behind-the-scenes work on that sequence is one of the most amazing of Goldsmith’s storied career, and well worth a bit of your time.)

So when the news broke in early 2016 that CBS had greenlit a new Star Trek series, I perked up. Not only as a fan who was hungry for more Star Trek, but also with this back-of-my-mind curiosity: Could I manage a shot at scoring this show? As it happened, I had recently lost my father to cancer, and couldn’t help but feel motivated to pursue the show as a kind of final tribute to him.

I decided to tell my agents (the spectacular Kraft-Engel Management) about my interest, just in case it should become viable. And to my complete astonishment, Richard Kraft came through with an idea only a few weeks later: Write and record a demo — my stab at a new Star Trek theme — and he would present it to the team (with whom, by random coincidence, he had recently worked on an unrelated project).

I remember being blindsided and asking, “When?”

“How fast can you have it?” he said.

At this stage, I’d like to point something out: I’ve been very fortunate to be nominated for, and win, a lot of awards in my career. Seven BAFTA nominations (among them two wins), an apparently ‘historic’ Grammy nomination, etc., etc., blah blah blah. Why am I mentioning this? Because it amounts to absolutely nothing, especially when talking to television studios. The bottom line is that, going into my Star Trek adventure, I had zero track record in TV. No amount of lucky breaks or success in games mattered to TV executives, and why should they?

Honestly, I’m happy about this. It means I had to prove myself in a very pure, meritocratic sort of way. That includes proving it to myself, which was definitely not a given!

I set to work immediately. Rather instantly, it hit me: “Holy shit, I’m trying to write a theme to stand alongside the bona fide classics of Goldsmith, Horner, Courage, etc.?” I decided to spend a couple of days trying dozens and dozens of variations, and finally landed on one that seemed to work. I hired a spectacular Hollywood orchestra, and then created a sort of love letter visual montage to the legacy of Star Trek:

In all likelihood, this is where the story should have ended. I knew no one involved in the production and had no prior TV credits or accolades; this was surely the most high-profile new TV gig that a composer could possibly aim their sights on.

Yet … months later, after basically hearing no reply and just assuming that CBS wasn’t interested — or at best, that it was too soon for the showrunners to be thinking about music, since they hadn’t even shot the pilot yet — we got a call from the production office at CBS.

They said they liked my demo, and wanted to send me a short scene to score as part of their official demo process!

Reread that last sentence in a rather explosively enthusiastic yell, and you can approximate my reaction to this shocking news. In other words, my demo had cracked open the door and gotten me onto the ground floor, where I would be …. writing a demo!

There was a twist, though: I was in New York City performing “Journey Live.” CBS was going to send over a nondisclosure agreement and wanted the music no later than midweek, a mere four to five days later. I sent the NDA, hurried home and on Monday morning I sat anxiously staring at my inbox, waiting for the footage to arrive. I had preemptively booked another orchestra recording session for the next day, knowing I could immediately mix and deliver by Wednesday morning. My gamble was that the scene would be short, as opposed to some 10-minute grand finale space battle or something.

It came that afternoon, and mercifully, it was only a one-minute scene: a rough pre-visualization of the new starship leaving port. It also came without any creative direction from the filmmakers, which was an interesting twist.

There was no temp music — or sound effects of any kind, actually — and no keywords or even an email describing the context of the scene. I realized that because it was short enough, I had booked more time than I needed, so I decided to score it three different ways. I wrote three totally different approaches, hoping that at least one of them would land where CBS wanted.

Here they are, with the finished visuals (as later released at Comic-Con 2016); I’ve added a text commentary to explain the ideas behind each. Note that for the first two, I decided to write a new (perhaps more modern) theme, and for the third I brought back my first one from the prior demo:

Then, as so often happens, I got a call saying, “We loved it, but we’ve decided to go with someone else. Thank you for your hard work and quick turnaround!”

That is a pretty typical end to a story like this, and one I was prepared for. So I thanked CBS for the opportunity and went on with my life (which, at the time, was finishing my final soundtrack edits and releasing Giant Squid’s incredible debut title, Abzu). Having made it this far, I was stoked. I had had my hat in the ring on a real Star Trek show!

Astonishingly, though, the story doesn’t end there.

Months later, my agents got a truly unexpected call: Things hadn’t worked out with the composer CBS had hired, and the showrunners were once again looking for a composer. They wanted to consider me again ...

... with a (new) new demo!

But, even better, legendary showrunner Bryan Fuller wanted to be personally involved in choosing the music for the show. As such, I was asked to come in for a meeting with Fuller and the production team to discuss their creative vision for the show and its score. This was to be the first time I actually got direct creative input from the filmmakers, and I was ecstatic.

The meeting was wonderful. They walked me through the storyline, characters, concept art and costume design (bear in mind, they still hadn’t finished casting or started shooting yet). All of it really seemed to suggest this was a proper, darker take on Star Trek, well-suited to today’s TV renaissance.

(Some fun trivia: They later cast my friend Anthony Rapp, a tremendous screen and stage actor, who had had a pivotal role in an indie feature I scored.)

Star Trek: Discovery - Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets
Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Paul Stamets in Star Trek: Discovery.
Michael Gibson/CBS

Fuller also told me something immensely exciting: “For the new demo, please don’t hold back. Give us full, unreserved Wintory. We want something musically aggressive and unique.”

As a side note, the producers hinted at a quasi-religious, almost “spiritual warrior” concept for the Klingons in the show, which was a great musical leaping-off point.

Time for the third demo. I again booked a session, this time going for broke and gathering a 70-piece orchestra, augmented by a men’s chorus (for the Klingons, of course!), strange shofar-type brass and winds. The demo was a suite of ideas showcasing the darker tone of the show, spotlighting highly kinetic action, a kind of “warrior’s rite” Klingon idea, a more dancing “explorational” section and finally a reprise (in a warmer, lush way) of my main theme. With two days to write it, here is what came out:

The next twist was truly surprising. We were mixing the music at the Warner Bros. scoring, my whole team feeling so excited about what we’d just finished recording, when I happened to catch a rather surprising headline on Variety.

Bryan Fuller was stepping back from Star Trek: Discovery. The man who had encouraged me to really go ballistic in my approach was no longer at the forefront of creative decision-making, and so I realized that almost certainly meant the story was truly over.

Astonishingly, it wasn’t quite over yet. I sent in my demo anyway, and the producers assured me that they were excited to check it out. The year quickly drew to a close, and shortly after 2017 began, I finally got word that after much deliberation over a very short list of candidates, they’d chosen a composer. They made a point of thanking me again for all the time and energy I’d put it into the process.

The entire experience spanned almost a year, yielded three fully produced orchestral recordings and was, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling and gratifying experiences of my career.

At this point, it seems like a peripheral detail that I didn’t actually get the job. I was part of a narrow field of composers being seriously considered for a major show — one with massive childhood and personal significance — despite having no pedigree in the field! And I even came rather shockingly close to getting it!

Normally it’s considered poor form for a composer to share a story like this, both because it might sound bitter (again: nope!) and because material written for projects that don’t pan out can theoretically be repurposed for later ones. But in this case, I became so invested that I honestly can’t imagine this music anywhere else. For me, it will always be a window into that parallel universe where goateed-Austin scored Star Trek: Discovery, and I’m happy for it to live there.

So I suppose the final question is, why do I feel compelled to share this, then? Part of it is that the entire experience was so damn fun and exciting that I just can’t help myself. Scoring a show like this, I realized, is a kind of personal bucket list item, and I got astonishingly close.

Considering the near-zero odds that it would work, that alone gave me enough to feel deeply gratified. I got to live briefly in a parallel dimension in which one of my most seminal childhood father/son experiences became a cornerstone of my professional life as an adult. Even just that glimpse felt incredible, and I would do it all again in a second.

But also, I’m a big believer that “success” (like jobs landed, dollars earned and the rest) is only one metric of a career. Rejection is one too, and sometimes an even more meaningful one. Five years ago, even being told “no” would have been impossible; the fact that I came remotely close is a dramatically empowering feeling about the arc and trajectory of my career. Rejection is a way of life for an artist, particularly in Los Angeles, and this was a glorious, exciting and genuinely artistically stimulating rejection.

As such, I owe a tremendous thank you to CBS and the entire production team for inviting me into this process. To my agents, particularly Richard Kraft and Sarah Kovacs, for pushing me to recklessly pursue this. And to the amazing Bryan Fuller for nudging me to write music that was without a doubt some of the most enjoyable to write I’ve ever experienced.

Austin Wintory is the BAFTA-winning, Grammy-nominated composer of games such as Journey, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Abzu and the Banner Saga franchise.

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