Goliath composer Jon Ehrlich on season 4 and his impressive career

Goliath season 4 isn’t just the end of the road for Billy McBride—it’s the culmination of what composers Jon Ehrlich and Jason Derlatka have been working on. The veteran TV duo are responsible for the score that’s been part of Billy’s incredible, tumultuous and poignant journey, and season 4 represents some of their best work on the Amazon Prime Video series. Luckily, you can own it forever; Goliath: Amazon Original Series Soundtrack, containing music from the entire program, is now available here.

Jon joined me for my latest interview to discuss the creative decisions that went into the Goliath season 4 score, his overall experience working on the series, and how much he and his co-composer have accomplished in TV. Plus, we take a few moments to celebrate the best show the Emmy nominees worked on that completely slipped under audiences’ radar.

Brittany Frederick: Did you approach Goliath season 4 any differently knowing that it was also the show’s final season?

Jon Ehrlich: Not because it was a last season; because each season was distinct and had its own visual and musical vocabulary. We approached each season as its own eight-episode film, I would say.

BF: How would you compare the music and character themes of season 4 to what you started with in the first season? How much has the sound evolved over the course of the show?

JE: There’s really kind of two lanes. The lane that is threaded through all four seasons, which was more primary in the first season, is the sound—the more electronic, I’d say Trent Reznor-y, slightly twisted sound—of the dark, powerful, shadowy Goliath force. That’s always looming out there, that’s hovering over Billy and you feel it casting this ominous shadow on him that he can’t possibly get out from under. Which is in a sense what the show is. The show is this guy who’s damaged and barely hanging on by a thread in his personal life and career and then he’s the reluctant hero who’s called upon to resurrect himself and go up against this Goliath—to slay the dragon.

That voice was there throughout. In the first season, it was more dominant and more primary, because we were establishing this conceit. But then as we got into the second, third and fourth seasons, each one had its own sort of environment visually, rhythmically, dictated by locations and each season’s antagonist, the Goliath.

The second scoring voice was more particular to what we were seeing and feeling—to the world Billy found himself having to navigate. The hird season, for instance, takes place in the Central Valley and it deals with water rights. Visually, it’s sort of gorgeous, but the rhythm of it is much slower, and there’s this sense of the earth as parched and thirsty. There was this sense of the landscape drying up, like the water’s being sucked out from under the inhabitants of this area. So the sound that we sort of developed and paintbrushes we were using, as it were, were made up of sounds that were very specific to that landscape and that rhythm of storytelling.

Whereas the fourth season is in a completely different world, in a completely different environment. It takes place in San Francisco, in Chinatown, but from a visual standpoint, from a storytelling standpoint, it’s kind of like this throwback to classic film noir. Larry Trilling, who was the director and showrunner, created these visuals that are just dripping with noir. He even visually quotes shot for shot certain films like Rear Window, Vertigo, High Noon, To Catch a Thief. And this is all because what we’re seeing is through the prism of Billy’s struggle with his inner demons.

He’s working through his troubled childhood that centers around the relationship he had with his emotionally abusive father. The memories with his dad are fused together with the old noir movies they watched, because it was the one thing that they did together. So we’re seeing these kind of fragmented memories through the prism of these classic noir films—Billy’s hallucinations where he’s the noir hero of his own classic film that tells the story of what he’s struggling with in this season—his physical and emotional pain.

That connects to the larger story, which is this season’s Goliath: Big Pharma. We’re dealing with the opioid crisis that has killed and destroyed so many lives and ravaged communities, and it’s something that Billy is experiencing himself firsthand.

BF: Did those movie callbacks mean that maybe you musically played with the scores of some of those classic movies? Will we hear any cinematic references as well?

JE: Not exactly so you will hear it as a classic noir score. That’s what was so fun about this. [It] was such a rare opportunity to inhabit that orchestral, melodic, harmonic space. When you’re working in a vernacular that is more or less “classic,” where you’re called upon to write in a period, I’m sure it’s similar for people who are doing costumes for a period piece. Either you’re going to approach it from the standpoint of being self-conscious about the fact that you’re quoting that era, or you do it from a place of love and reverence and you embody that era, and that’s what I hope we did.

That’s what we tried to do. It should feel like it’s transporting you back to that time, and you’re experiencing this story in the way that Billy is, in essence, experiencing it. What we’re seeing is a film of Billy’s own making where he is the film noir hero. We don’t want to comment on it from outside because we’re inside his head. So the one caveat to answering that question is that one of the really interesting little threads in there, there’s something that Billy Bob [Thornton] in the early going brought up and asked if we could kind of incorporate. He directed the first episode. And so I had a couple of conversations with him and he, along with Larry Trilling, informed quite a bit of how we approached the scoring. They had a lot of really interesting ideas and their input was integral to the approach we took with this season.

One of the things that Billy Bob brought up was that Billy’s living in an apartment in Chinatown and his apartment looks out over this alleyway with all the other windows across the way. It sort of hauntingly feels like he’s Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, and one of the lives that he’s voyeuristically made aware of from this apartment window is this woman who is perpetually practicing trombone. She’s just playing, over and over again, working on this Tchaikovsky melody.

I approached it from the standpoint of, he’s not all that conscious of the melody. I’m thinking he’s aware that there’s this woman who’s practicing trombone day and night. It seeps into his unconscious, this melody. And there is a thread as we get into later episodes where that melody goes from being this sort of source piece that we’re hearing in “reality,” which is a bit fuzzy anyway because we’re never sure exactly where we are with Billy—that line between what’s real and what he’s experiencing in his unconscious [is] very blurry. But there are places where a development of that Tchaikovsky theme manifests in the score.

BF: You and Jason have worked together for years on a wide variety of projects, including The Agency on CBS, which was an incredibly underrated series. 20 years later, what do you remember about that show?

JE: The most vivid memory I have is 9/11. I remember working on the main title theme over the summer leading up to 9/11, and there was a lot of back and forth on “What is the essence of this show?” And I think we were all really clear on the fact that the show was about the lone hero, who’s invisible, who’s standing on that wall or cloaked in secrecy. And thinking about the stars on the wall, thinking about the fact that not only do they sacrifice their lives very often, but they’re sacrificing their identity, they’re sacrificing credit.

We definitely had it in our heads that we were going to approach the score or at least that lone hero’s voice with a solo trumpet. That voice was present in every episode at some point. The theme that I ended up coming up with for the main title is also at some point in the score of every episode—there was always a moment bringing back that sense of the tragic hero who is nameless. So I was working on that theme, and it was an orchestral theme with a solo trumpet, and everyone was all excited about the it. And then a week before 9/11, at the last second, somebody got wind of what they were doing on Alias, because that was also a new show.

Alias seemed to be getting more press, and some of the executives were like, we hear they’re doing this techno score. That was a very popular score at the time and they were like, can we do an Alias-type main theme? I was very reluctant because I felt like that’s just not really what our show is, but okay, I understand this is a promotional tool. So we did a couple versions, sort of techno main titles. And I seem to recall that they picked one that they liked better, and I was going into the studio literally on 9/11. That day I was scheduled to go in and record it, and mix it, and finish it.

That morning my wife woke me up at 6 AM and we had an infant who was sitting in her high chair and we were watching the towers come down and it was horrifying and devastating. And all of a sudden, I was thinking I have to go into work now. And this thing I’m about to do, this techno score that’s going to depict the CIA out in the world tracking down terrorists, having fun and being cool is just not going to play in our new reality. I just remember it was so obvious that it was going to be gross to do that. I went in that day, I remember working on it and thinking There’s just no way that this is going to be usable after what just happened.

They ended up postponing the premiere a couple of weeks, because they realized there were things in the show that were too close to home. And then I remember they said, well, can we do a hybrid? So I did this half-techno, half more orchestral heroic thing. I always felt like it was neither here nor there, it just felt like it didn’t know what it was. But I really enjoyed working on the show.

BF: Was there a particular memorable episode of The Agency for you musically? Because it truly was a timely series.

JE: We were recognized for one of our scores for that show—that was the Afghanistan episode [season 2’s “The Great Game”], probably by no coincidence—and got an Emmy nomination for that. That was a pretty cool episode. I remember bringing in a woman, her name was Azam Ali and she was a Persian, Middle Eastern vocalist. We did a bunch of authentic vocals from that part of the world.

It was fun, because episodes took place in a whole variety of locations from week to week. We got to spread our wings a little bit and experiment with different locations, different vernaculars. And so, yeah, good memories except for the 9/11 part.

BF: How much are you and Jason able to carry over from one project to another? Do you ever learn things on an early show like The Agency that then is useful on a more current series like Goliath? Or if you’re doing shows in the same genre, like House and The Resident?

JE: House is a different show than The Resident, but it’s a medical show, so there are similarities. But similarities more from the standpoint of you have these scenes where you’re scoring a differential, where they’re trying to diagnose a patient. What does this person have? The grammar is the same, but the vocabulary is different. Sounds that we’re using in The Resident are affected by the change in technology. Ten, fifteen years later, the sounds you’re using are different.

The Resident is looking more at the dark side of the healthcare industry, and also the lead character is more of a rebel, so the sounds we tend to use are grittier, glitchier, sounds that just weren’t in the vernacular at that time. The House sound all came from the fact that the lead character was a guy who is solving puzzles, and he was a genius, and he didn’t really care so much about the patient. He was a character who had no bedside manner. Even though ultimately he did have his own unique brand of humanity, we were to led believe that if we were inside his head, he was all about solving the puzzle. Which was a primary point of view for the score.

A lot of what the score revolved around was manifesting his process of figuring stuff out, so hopefully it did help the audience feel like we were inside that idiosyncratic, scientific mind. His mind was racing and darting between unconventional thoughts, as opposed to feeling a sense of loss or concern or whatever. Which is much more a part of The Resident, where we’re dealing with characters who, if anything, they’re extra emotional about the stories and that’s what often causes the conflict. Because they’re in a system that makes it hard for them to actually care for the patients.

Goliath season 4 is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. You can purchase the Goliath season 4 soundtrack here.

Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.

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