Interview: Composer David Metzger on Disney’s “Wish” and “Once Upon a Studio”

Disney’s Wish is now playing in theaters, and music fans can also listen to the Deluxe Edition Soundtrack, which features the full score by David Metzger. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with David about his music career, its intersection with Disney, and his work on both Wish and the centennial short film Once Upon a Studio. In both projects, David Metzger got to play with 100 years of Disney music history.

(Disney/David Metzger)

(Disney/David Metzger)

Alex: You've done a lot of Disney work, particularly as an arranger and orchestrator, but Wish is your first time composing the score for a Disney animated feature. What was the road to this point like for you?

David Metzger: In my 20s, I was actually a bass player at Disneyland. But really, my first exposure as a writer with Disney would've been Tarzan, where I was the orchestrator of the entire film. I worked with Phil Collins on the songs, but also with Mark Mancina on the score. I'd been hired by Mark Mancina to orchestrate the Broadway version of The Lion King about six months before we started working on Tarzan. We got along so well that when it was time to do the score for Tarzan, he asked if I'd be interested in working on it. And, of course, I said yes. That evolved into Brother Bear, which was the next film I did with Mark and Phil. And then, I worked as an orchestrator on a couple of films for John Powell (composer of Bolt). The next big step forward for me was Frozen. I was thought of by Tom MacDougall to work with Bobby and Kristen Lopez on the songs for Frozen, which started a wonderful relationship with them. They're dear friends and wonderful people. I think that elevated me a little bit because I was an arranger and orchestrator as opposed to just an orchestrator at that point. That was a lift to my career to some degree. Next was Moana, working on both the score, orchestrating and arranging, and also all the songs. I was working again with Mark Mancina on the score and then Lin-Manuel Miranda on the songs. And then there was Frozen 2. That led to Wish just falling out of the sky unexpectedly for me to be the composer of the score.

Alex: Many of the Disney movies you just mentioned have distinct sounds. You can hear a few notes of music from Frozen or Tarzan and instantly know what they’re from because it’s so distinct. What’s your research process like in general, particularly when there’s a cultural component? And how did that help with your work on Wish?

David Metzger: I study a ton on every film I work on that has a cultural reference. I try to take it very seriously and respectfully. Going back to the days of Tarzan and Lion King, I learned quite a bit about African music. In the case of Wish, flamenco music was my new exposure because I didn’t know too much about it. But as soon as I got the job, I put on a lot of flamenco music. It's incredibly complicated, much more than I had ever thought and realized. And so it was a matter of trying to learn the different Cantos. They're 12-beat phrases for the most part. But beat one isn't what we always hear as the downbeat. And so it was learning that and trying to train my ears to hear in a new way. That's honestly one of the most fun things about working on these films for me is the chance to broaden my horizons and learn more about music.

Alex: What specific types of instruments did you include in the score to give the film its own distinct sound?

David Metzger: I used a lot of nylon Spanish guitars. But I also used oud and cajon, which are fairly commonly used in flamenco music. I also used Darbukas and riqs and Northern African percussion as well. I was trying to build not just a Spanish Iberian flavor but more of a Mediterranean, North African influence as well. Rosas is a kingdom where people come from all over. So it wasn't just Spanish, it wasn't just North African, it was this amalgam of all these different cultures. And so I had a chance to do that musically. I used an oboe d'amore on the main theme under the storybook opening. I was trying to establish what the feel of the kingdom Rosas is. Those are the less common instruments that you would find in a normal film score, I suppose. But the one that I think was the most fun of all is on “Knowing What I Know Now,” the song, where I was arranging and orchestrating it. I knew I wanted this really heavyweight feeling. And so there were a couple of things I did to achieve that. One was I normally use 8 double basses, but I used 12 in that song that were split on both sides of the orchestra. So they were sitting mirror image, and I used 16 cellists. Again, they were split 8 and 8 on each side. I used 12 French horns because I really wanted this powerful warlike quality. But the oddest of oddball things that I used was a contrabass saxophone. There's like five of them in the world or something like that. It's almost never used. The day of the recording session, we had this guy playing it, and everybody in the orchestra was just like, "Whoa, what is this?" And of course, the directors, Chris [Buck] and Fawn [Veerasuthorn] were there too, and [producers] Peter [Del Vecho] and Juan Pablo [Reyes Lancaster Jones], and [songwriters] Julia and Ben. We all are gathered around this thing. It's about eight feet tall, this instrument. There's this one picture I love where we're all gathered around this contrabass saxophone in awe of how giant it was. It's a part of that very bottom. You can't really pick it out in the mix, but it is there. And if it weren't there, you would miss it. It's the lowest, loudest thing you can imagine.

Alex: I’ll have to listen for it. Songwriters for Disney animated films are often involved early in the story process, whereas composers don’t often come on board until closer to the end. But since you’re also orchestrating and arranging, when does your role start? Were you there at the demo phase of every song for Wish?

David Metzger: On Wish, it was a bit different than many Disney films as I was also hired to be the arranger, orchestrator, and co-producer on the songs. From the day I was hired. I was starting to work on the songs. The only song that had been written before I was brought in was “This Wish.” For every other song, I was in on the ground level. I'd be in some of the story meetings making sure I was up to speed on what was trying to be accomplished with the songs. And that's not normally the case. It's not common for the score composer to also be involved in the songs as integrally as I was. Part of it was to bring a little bit more of a cinematic aspect to the songs, since I've been down the path several times. But also, I was trying to get the transitions from score into song and back out again to make those as seamless as possible. By being involved in both worlds, I was able to do that. When I was working on the songs, in the back of my mind, I was trying to think, "Okay, how am I going to get into this, and how am I going to get out of it back into score?" I'm very thankful to have been a part of that because it made my job on both sides of the scale a little bit easier.

Alex: Songs in Disney animated films are often very Broadway-like in style, but the songs for Wish have a lot of contemporary pop elements. Was that a big change for you?

David Metzger: It was a whole new learning curve for me. One of the advantages I've had is even though I started out writing jazz and classical music when I was a young kid, I was also into pop music of that era, and I played in rock bands in my 20s. I've always had not only a classical side and a cinematic side, but I've had this connection to pop music, whatever era that is. Clearly, Julia and Ben are a different generation than I am, but it actually was wonderful. Just like I was talking about with the cultural research, the stylistic musical learning curve is a blast for me. It took me a little bit of time to make sure our lexicon was the same, that we were speaking the same language between Julia, Ben, and I. But it was a great experience getting to know them. And we really got along. We had some really great hang sessions where we'd spend a day playing instruments and bouncing ideas around and talking about colors that we wanted to try to use. It was one of the best parts of the project for me, getting to know them and getting to learn a new world and trying to bring that cinematic approach, but not do it in necessarily the Broadway tradition, to put a new spin on it. That was one of the biggest challenges, and I think one of the most fun things about it, too.

Alex: I’ve been listening to the songs that were released so far over and over, and I can’t wait to experience the isolated score on the Deluxe Edition Soundtrack. Something cool that Walt Disney Records started doing with Frozen is release instrumental versions of the songs. As an arranger and orchestrator, is that exciting for you?

David Metzger: Well, yeah, I mean, it's a chance for people to hear. I’m very much aware that the lyrics are the most important thing, right? The story is by far the most important part of these songs. I understand that, but of course, there's always a little bit of personal ownership, wanting people to hear what I'm doing in a more exposed way. The instrumental-only versions, I'm glad they're out there because you're able to hear more of the subtleties in the orchestration and the counter-line writing, the things that I tend to bring to the party.

Alex: Since Wish is so entwined in Disney Animation history, did you pull a lot of pastiches from past Disney projects?

David Metzger: All along, the conversation had been that we want to harken back to the past hundred years. Once Upon a Studio was the perfect way to get me totally dialed into the score. The timeline was I started working on the songs for Wish 14 months ago or so, but I didn't start the score until June. In the middle of the song work was Once Upon a Studio. There was a good solid month of time where I was just focusing on that. Part of that was going back and studying scores from Pinocchio, Snow White, all of the classic Disney films. Fortunately, that's been a big part of my whole life. And I'm very fortunate, too, I have copies of the original scores for many of those films. In my free time, I still study scores. I love it. So, I'll listen to the recordings of those old classics and absorb them as part of my toolbox. Going back to Wish, I was already in that mindset of looking for ways to make an homage to or allude to the classic Disney sound of different eras. And I've been fortunate to have been a part of a chunk of it as well. And so it could be as subtle as, for the teens, how can I maybe allude to, in a modern way, something from Snow White? You can't go back fully colorwise, But in my orchestration of some of those cues, the teen cues, if you really listen in there, you can hear that I was trying to allude to some of the classic orchestrations that they did in 1937. It really was just looking for where I could do things that would be applicable and harken to historical Disney nods to try and do that, without not still having it be an original work.

Alex: Were there any Disney composers of the past that you always admired? For example, George Bruns, who did scores for One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and Robin Hood?

David Metzger:

George Bruns was like, I mean, I was a kid when he was in his prime. At that point, I didn't really know who I was listening to or what it was. But very much the way he would voice chords, you'll find that in Once Upon a Studio, but also in Wish, that I voice things with that sixth scale step… It's just the way that it's voiced that you hear things in that way. But also, really going all the way back, Disney has always had these incredible composers, and it's a huge legacy to be able to draw on. I just really love it all. Alan Menken, with Danny Troob as his orchestrator, was a huge influence on me as well. And I've been fortunate to work with Alan on a couple of projects as an adult here. But my kids were of the age of the Renaissance. And so we had Beauty and the Beast on pretty much nonstop play. And, of course, I absorbed a lot of things from that as well.

Alex: For Once Upon a Studio, I’ve talked with the filmmakers about the legal logistics of clearing the rights to everything. You wrote original music for the short, but also sample music from the past. For example, the flute melody from Peter Pan when those characters fly through the halls. How difficult was that? Was it a paperwork nightmare?

David Metzger: It was. I'm really fortunate that Disney has this incredible music department. Editor Earl Ghaffari has been there forever. I've known Earl since Tarzan days. So, a lot of the paperwork was taken care of for me. The biggest thing was discussing with [directors] Trent [Correy] and Dan [Abraham], what are we going to keep as the original pieces and what am I going to be alluding to? And then, finally, what is going to be completely new and original material without any kind of a reference? Honestly, it was one of the most challenging things I think I've ever done because in that short short, the tempo map alone is insane. It's two bars of one tempo and one style, and then it jumps to four bars of something completely different. Once we decided what the plan was, then it was sitting down and actually writing it and putting it together. And it just goes so many places. It took me a week to plot out my roadmap, which is crazy for something that's not that long of a piece. But it was a blast, I’ve got to say. That was right up my alley, and I was very, very thankful to have that opportunity.

Alex: I'm a huge fan of that short, and I hope they release the music from it.

David Metzger: Yeah, I hope so, too. It's one of those things we'll just have to see. Like you said, there are so many things that are pulled from that it's a legal nightmare to deal with all that.

Alex: Yeah. I'm sure the fractions of fractions of cents in streaming royalty checks would cause someone in accounting to quit their job. Wish is about to come out, and families will be experiencing it together over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. They’ll hear the musica and undoubtedly want to listen to the soundtrack after. You mentioned your fondness for Beauty and the Beast since it was in heavy rotation for your kids. What do you hope families take away when they experience the music from the film?

David Metzger: That's a great honorance. I've thought about this, and for me, it starts with that it's the hundred-year anniversary of Disney Animation. I think back to my mom. She was a little girl when Snow White and Pinocchio, and Dumbo came out. She saw those films in the theater as a little girl. She took me then when I was a little kid to see them. The Jungle Book was something that really blew me away as a kid. And then I took my kids. I have two boys. When they were little, we went and saw Aladdin and so many of those Renaissance pictures in the theater. I don't have grandkids yet, but I'm hoping that if I ever do, my kids will take their children. And then it goes on into the future. Hopefully, it'll be another hundred years of these films. Disney films are a touchpoint for so many people and so many generations. It just goes from generation to generation. Throughout that hundred years, Disney animation has brought a tremendous amount of joy and goodness to the world and positive things, trying to make the world a better place. That's what I really hope that Wish does, is that it continues on that legacy of bringing happiness and joy to the world and just makes it better. We need that a lot right now. I really hope it brings joy to people.

Alex: I think it will. It did for me. And I agree with you, I think it's the right kind of message for the world right now.

Disney’s Wish is now playing exclusively in theaters. You can hear David Metzger’s score, arrangements, and orchestrations on the Wish (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Deluxe Edition), now available to stream on Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, and more.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).