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Is It Really Over Already?: Discussing ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ with Composer Paul Haslinger

Paul Haslinger was a fairly young man in the mid-’80s when Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese asked the Austrian musician to join his internationally renowned band responsible for iconic, synth-driven albums and film scores.

The group already had classic albums like Phaedra and Stratosfear and scores for Thief and Risky Business on their list of accomplishments. They were also a renowned live act. Haslinger would go on to record the soundtracks for Shy People, Miracle MileCanyon Dreams, and more with the band.

It was during a show at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, in 1988 that serves as the setting for one suspenseful anecdote.

“It is a famous place, and was at the time notorious for not having any air conditioning,” Haslinger told Vehlinggo recently in an email. “Our instruments were all 220V and ran off a transformer. Sure enough, as we neared the end of our set, that transformer decided it was just too bloody hot and had a meltdown.”

“The stage goes dark,” he continued.

“People are cheering,” he said. “Edgar makes an announcement that nobody understands — including his fellow band members. The evening was saved when somebody on our crew drove the tour bus into the backstage area and ran power from its own 220V transformer to our stage rig. Instruments came back on and after a little reset we played four encores.”

Four encores!

Promotional photo of Paul Haslinger.
Promotional photo of Paul Haslinger.

After he left Tangerine Dream in 1990, Haslinger went on to release solo albums, collaborate with others, and dove into scoring films on his own, providing the music for films like Underworld, CrankThe Girl Next Door, Turistas, and even a Resident Evil entry. He also earned an Emmy nomination for his work on Showtime’s Sleeper Cell. He’d even make music for video games such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine

However, it is this synth writer’s perspective that Haslinger’s most compelling work is his score for AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire, probably his first fully-electronic release since his Tangerine Dream days. This is among the reasons why I’m pleased to have interviewed him recently about Halt and other fine things.

Co-creators Christopher Cantwell’s and Christopher C. Rogers’ Halt and Catch Fire, which concluded prematurely in October after four seasons, is one of the most compelling dramas on television since AMC’s own Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Haslinger’s nuanced and captivating synth score was a crucial part of the show’s deeply personal and moving storytelling.

Photo Credit: AMC.

The series follows Joe (Lee Pace), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis of San Junipero and Blade Runner 2049), Gordon (Scoot McNairy), Donna (Kerry Bishé), and Bosworth (Toby Huss), among others, as they play a key role in fostering technological achievements of the 1980s and 1990s: the early years of the PC and laptop, burgeoning online services, and the dawn of the Internet. Halt is somehow both sui generis and part of the noteworthy family tree of legendary storytelling on AMC — brought to us by gifted creators and showrunners and presented to us by supremely talented actors.

Viewers felt an immense connection to the show’s characters, whom the creators featured in engaging stories that never patronized us. In addition, the show never overwhelmed us with endless nostalgia for the ‘80s and ‘90s for there mere sake of nostalgia. (Although, thankfully, they recreated those decades tastefully to bring back memories, whether in set pieces, pop music, or other things.) True, it was a period piece, but it was ultimately about how this handful of people navigated those periods and each other.

Enter Haslinger. The LA-based composer is an ideal choice to score a series largely set in the ‘80s. Over the past few years, if a score isn’t influenced by Vangelis or John Carpenter, it owes much to Tangerine Dream. So why not have the talented composer — who actually made synth scores and albums in the ‘80s — craft the music?

With utmost brilliance, Haslinger scored all four seasons of Halt, some tracks for which Fire Records released on vinyl last year (in a partnership with Lakeshore Records, which released it digitally). Here, we discuss these cues, along with the resurgence of synth scores, and late Tangerine Dream founder Edgar Froese, among other things.

Haslinger Halt and Catch Fire Vinyl
The deluxe edition of Paul Haslinger’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ score, released on vinyl by Fire Records. ‘Mutiny’ refers to the popular video game and online chat company founded by Donna and Cameron on the show.

Vehlinggo: Halt and Catch Fire
has had critical acclaim for basically its entire run. It also has a devoted fan base, and I could see it being revisited or discovered anew for years to come. I’m sad to see it over already.

I think your phenomenal music plays a big part in making what’s a rather unique story for a TV show even more compelling: the successes and failures of various milestones in tech, featuring at its core some of the best characters ever written for the medium. How did scoring for Halt differ from your work on other shows and films (like Fear the Walking Dead or Resident Evil; or video games)? How was it similar? And what is your process for scoring, in general?

Paul Haslinger: There is never just one way of approaching a project and part of the fun is playing with various options. Every story has a setting, a time period, and a cast of characters inspiring these options.

In the case of Halt, naturally, it offered a chance to revisit the early days of personal computing. Since that also happens to be the time when I first started making music, it seemed like a special type of opportunity.

Did you have to rethink your approach with each new season? After all, this show time-jumped a fair amount over the course of four seasons.

Think of it as different albums from the same artist/group. There needs to be some consistency, but overall enough difference to justify a new release. In the best cases, these changes will also help focus the content towards the most original parts. In the case of Halt, I think this peeling process did take place over seasons 2, 3, and 4.

“Nobody working on this show was happy that it ended.”

How does it feel for the show to be over? I feel that its end came too soon, although I will say they tied things up nicely (all things considered). What did you enjoy about working on this show? Were there any episodes or characters for which scoring was particularly moving?

Nobody working on this show was happy that it ended. There was a wonderful creative climate and I credit the producers of the show, Christopher Cantwell, Christopher Rogers, and Melissa Bernstein, for maintaining and supporting this fostering environment for a total of four seasons.

The people you work with in the context of such a project become family, you share experiences, [and] go through good times and bad times together. One also definitely connects with the characters, their trials and tribulations — if Gordon messes up or Cameron feels misunderstood, their hardships feel relatable.

Lee Pace - Halt and Catch Fire.
In ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ Lee Pace plays Joe MacMillan, a complicated Steve Jobs-like figure. Here, he speaks during a Fireside Chat at Internet Week HQ on Day 1 of Internet Week 2015 in New York on May 18, 2015. Photo Credit: Insider Images/Andrew Kelly. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you think there’s still a story to tell?

That’s up to Cantwell and Rogers. To me, the way season 4 finished felt final. The ending was a big 360 to our opening in season 1, and the way it allowed audiences to imagine their own versions of what might happen to Joe, Cameron, Donna, and the rest of them in the future, played to the core of our story: while people’s circumstances might change, their inner drive to discover, explore, and go against the odds will always stay the same.

While people’s circumstances might change, their inner drive to discover, explore, and go against the odds will always stay the same.”

I’ve heard that there could be a second volume of the Halt and Catch Fire soundtrack. Any details on that?

That is in the works and should, fingers crossed, become a reality in the not-too-distant future. It will predominantly feature material from season 4, which was its own musical adventure. I am very happy with what Lakeshore Records and Fire Records did for the first release, so look for it coming out on those same labels.

Cover art for the Lakeshore/Fire release of Paul Haslinger's 'Halt and Catch Fire' score.
Cover art for the Lakeshore/Fire release of Paul Haslinger’s ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ score.

We should talk about synth scores in general. There is a whole generation of composers now (for real and imagined films) who are influenced by your former band, Tangerine Dream, as well as Vangelis, Goblin, and John Carpenter, among others. In essence, you’ve contributed to what is again a vibrant synthesis-driven time.

What is this like for you to be composing in this context? And why do you think synth scores have become more popular in the past seven years or so?

It is now becoming what it has always been for me: a legitimate creative choice in the context of film scoring. When electronic music first appeared in film — early Tangerine Dream, Mike Oldfield, Vangelis — there were legions of imitators who quickly gave it a bad name. Electronic was cheap, unmusical, etc. When I first came to LA in the ‘90s, mentioning Tangerine Dream was considered a disadvantage. Funny how things can change. 😉

When I first came to LA in the ‘90s, mentioning Tangerine Dream was considered a disadvantage.”

While I do see the irony in all of this, I also appreciate the younger artists and fans who have driven this new legitimacy, taking what they liked best about these early scores, and coming up with their own versions of it. All music-making has always been inspired by what came before. This is a great way to select the good bits out of the first wave of electronic music, and use it as a launching platform for new ideas.

Personally, I am enjoying all of it — hearing good scores pop up, like It Follows and Stranger Things, as well as doing my own quoting and reimagining.

As we’ve touched on a bit, Tangerine Dream, of which you were a member from 1985-1990, has had a profound and enduring legacy. What are some fond memories of your time with the band?

I was 23 years old when Edgar Froese asked me to join them for a UK tour in early 1986. The tour was successful and I was asked to stay on to become a full-time member of the band. For the next five years, I toured, recorded, and scored my first films with the band. A crash course, for sure, but an extremely enjoyable one.

To me, those years on the road and in the studio with TD were my real education: Not something you can learn in school, but an experience of the world, reality vs. theory.

Photo Credit: Screen Gems.

You’ve worked on a few films with Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson. How did this fruitful partnership come about?

Paul first asked me to work with him on Death Race in 2008. We both really enjoyed the process and have since worked on more films and commercials together. Paul is one of the best action directors I know. His attention to detail is extraordinary, and his sensibilities are sharpened by the many commercials he does every year. But above all, he is restless, creatively driven, and we simply have a great time working together.

Before we sign off, I’ve just gotta ask one more thing about one of my favorite shows: Final thoughts on Halt and Catch Fire?

I hope there will be more shows like Halt, and that I may get a chance to work on some of them. It is in the nature of collaborations that compromises are sometimes necessary, but on Halt there was very little of that. People did not have to compromise, they were encouraged to run, explore, and dig deep — the farther, the better. That is what makes a good show.

(Editor’s Note: This Q&A was edited for clarity and house style, but only slightly.)

Haslinger is currently doing the score for Fear the Walking Dead, which is among the most-watched cable shows of all time.

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