Crafting the Perfect Holiday Score
Interview with Composer Chad Rehmann
After looking at composer Chad Rehmann’s resume, it’s very apparent that one of the genres he thrives in is holiday-themed movies. Rehmann has scored almost 15 to be exact. This season his new titles are Lifetime’s Christmas on the Menu and A Very Charming Christmas Town and Paramount Network’s Dashing in December starring Andie MacDowell. You may have read about Dashing in December because it’s one of the few LGBTQ+ themed holiday films premiering next month. When discussing his current slate Rehmann says, “The director and I approached Dashing in December a little differently than the others we’ve worked on together. Mainly, instead of scoring the project as a “Christmas Film,” it was scored more as a Romantic/Western Drama. A Very Charming Christmas Town and Christmas on the Menu, I scored in a more traditional sense, but each has its own unique quality.”
With the holidays in full swing, we wanted to learn more about what goes in to crafting the perfect Christmas score, so we spoke exclusively to Rehmann. Below he talks about everything from what instrument he reserves solely for Christmas scores to how he keeps a fresh approach to all these films. Read the full interview here:
Can you talk about your background. How did you decide to become a composer?
Like many kids, I started playing the piano when I was around five years old and took to it quickly. As my instruction progressed, I remember wanting to change the songs that I was supposed to be practicing and experiment with other ways that they could be played. As you can imagine, my piano teachers did not appreciate this! In high school I had an orchestra teacher who was also a composer, and he encouraged me to explore writing, even having the high school orchestra play a piece that I wrote while still in school. That was a pivotal moment for me. Still not convinced that I could actually “be a composer” though, I went to college at Michigan State University with the intent of getting a music education degree and becoming a high school band director, but quickly found that I was not cut out for that kind of work. I still enjoyed dabbling in writing music, but being from a small, rural farming community I had never actually met anyone who made a living writing music. I took a leap of faith, however, and during my sophomore year changed my major to composition. Three months after graduating college, I left for Los Angeles.
You have three holiday films out this season. Paramount Network’s Dashing in December, Lifetime’s Christmas on the Menu and Lifetime’s A Very Charming Christmas Town. Were these done throughout the year? If not, how were you able to juggle three releases almost a month apart?
These films were spread out throughout the year. A Very Charming Christmas Town was finishing up right as the COVID-19 pandemic was in its infancy, and it was one of the last recording sessions that I completed before everything got shut down. I began writing the score for Christmas on the Menu in late summer after filming started back up in California, and the orchestra sessions for Dashing in December just took place a couple of weeks ago. Multiple projects do coincide once in a while, but most of the time they are at different stages of post-production and easy to juggle. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t point out that this only gets accomplished because of the incredible team that surrounds me!
How are the scores for each of these three films different?
The outlier of the three films, score-wise, is Dashing in December. The director and I approached this film a little differently than the others we’ve worked on together. Mainly, instead of scoring the film as a “Christmas Film,” it was scored more as a Romantic/Western Drama. The other two films I scored in a more traditional sense, but each has its own unique quality. Christmas on the Menu is a more rhythmic, dance like score underlying the push and pull of the two main characters as their relationship evolves, while A Very Charming Christmas Town is more centered on the location of Solvang and the peppering of classic Christmas motifs throughout the score.
The synopsis for Dashing in December revolves around a family ranch in a small, rural town. Did you incorporate western themes into the score? If so, how did you find the balance of country and Christmas?
After seeing an early cut of the film, I knew that sleigh bells, flutes, and other instruments that one would expect to hear in a Christmas film was not the way to go. The director (Jake Helgren) and I decided early on to score this film more as a romantic drama that happens to take place during Christmas. To be clear, there are still a lot of Christmas songs present, but that’s accomplished through some fantastic source music used throughout the film. The score
for this production has a more intimate character than others I’ve written – only using a string orchestra, acoustic guitar, a tiny bit of piano and the occasional solo violin; however, in some ways having a “simpler sounding score” was more difficult. It’s easy for a composer to hide behind a large orchestra, but purposefully limiting ones resources and using the resources sparingly can bring about its own challenges. In terms of melodic themes, I did rely heavily on scales and chords that are more indicative of a western/folk musical language.
A similar question for A Very Charming Christmas Town. The film talks place in the Danish village of Solvang. How did you incorporate the setting into this score?
For this film, it was all about Solvang and how Christmassy the location is. In addition to seeing how decked out the town is for Christmas, I wanted to also musically immerse the audience there as well. To do that, I wrote a lot of new instrumental arrangements of popular Christmas tunes to use throughout the score. If you listen closely, you can hear fragments of recognizable songs such as “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night” peppered everywhere. It was fun to figure out how to incorporate tiny, familiar motifs into the larger score. Everywhere the characters went in this town, classic Christmas melodies would follow!
What would you say is the key to scoring a good Christmas story?
For me it starts with the story, and only after do I think about Christmas. Who are the characters? Where is it located? What is the struggle? From there I develop my melodies and themes. The Christmas-feel to the score comes more from my instrument choice and orchestration. Audiences have an expectation as to what a Christmas score should sound like, and I try to give them that!
You have scored close to 15 holiday movies. Why do you think that is?
I have been fortunate in my career to work on so many different types of projects, but have found myself scoring a fair amount of Christmas films over the last couple of years. That being said, a majority of my work is still in the thriller/horror genre, but it’s nice to take a break from that and score films that bring seasonal joy to people. I think demand for Christmas content has increased in general. Even just looking at Hallmark and Lifetime, between the two networks they have close to 100 new Christmas films coming out this year. Not to mention all the new streaming services that are beginning to explore delivering this content to their audience. There is a lot of demand for this genre; so, many composers are getting a few more calls for Christmas scores than they have in the past.
Are there certain instruments that you tend to use on holiday scores that you don’t for your other films?
Woodwinds, celesta, sleigh bells, etc are common “go to” choices for Christmas scores, and I try to give the audience what they expect and want from these films! That being said, sleigh bells are probably the only instrument that I’ve reserved just for Christmas scores.
Having scored so many holiday films, how do you keep a fresh approach?
It is true that many holiday films have similar tropes, but there is always something different that I try to accentuate. Aside from locations, which can be obvious places to start in differentiating the score, character’s back stories can also be an interesting place to start when examining what musical language to use. If a character is from a small town, maybe they deserve a melody that is simpler and more folksy. If a character works in business or technology, maybe there is a digital component to the orchestration. If a character is free spirited she/he may have a melody that enhances that aspect of her/his personality. There is always something unique about every project that I feel I can latch onto and use as I develop the film’s musical world.
Anything else you would like to mention about your holiday scores?
This year networks seemed to begin airing holiday content earlier than in years past. At first I thought there would be a lot of backlash to it, but it seems that many people welcomed the change. Especially in the times that we are living in now, I feel that everyone needs all of the sparks of joy that we can get. I’m happy to be a small part of that!
You can learn more about Chad Rehmann at https://chadrehmann.com/.
Dashing in December is premiering on the Paramount Network December 13, while Christmas on the Menu will be premiering on Lifetime December 18. A Very Charming Christmas Town aired November 8 on Lifetime.