×

How ‘Late Night’ Composer Lesley Barber Channeled Paul Shaffer for Talk-Show Theme

When director Nisha Ganatra started planning “Late Night,” the new Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling film about a failing late-night network talk show, she knew she’d need a house band and a theme for the program. Her first call was to composer Lesley Barber (“Manchester by the Sea”), with whom she had worked a few years ago on a Hallmark TV movie.

“There was a lot of research involved,” says Barber, “going through all the different styles of bands we’ve seen on late-night talk shows.” Ganatra confesses she asked for a blend of “all the great ones” (specifically citing those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman) — “but wholly unique” for her film, which was scooped up at the Sundance Film Festival by Amazon Studios and released in theaters June 7.

Barber’s solution: “Pretend I was Paul Shaffer,” Letterman’s longtime bandleader on both his NBC and CBS shows. “As soon as I did that, I was able to come up with the theme very quickly — the chords, the harmonic language, everything.” The band numbered “a contemporary classic seven,” she remembers: keyboard, bass, guitar, drums, trombone, trumpet and saxophone.

Barber describes the theme as “the sound of a timeless late-night band … something you’ve heard all your life but you’re not sure where you’ve heard it.” With a swing-band drum intro and a brassy upbeat tune lasting less than 45 seconds, it’s more memorable than most of the late-night talk-show themes now on the air. A band played it live during shooting, and Thompson danced along with the musicians.

What’s unexpected about the “Late Night” score is that the talk-show theme subtly morphs into the underscore for Thompson’s character — embattled talk-show host Katherine Newbury. When she walks into the writers’ room early in the film, the music is “clearly based on her talk-show theme, but it’s a bit acerbic. It’s tough; it’s in control; she’s impatient,” Barber says. “She’s annoyed with everyone around her.”

“Late Night” is about the relationship between Newbury and newly recruited writer Molly Patel (Kaling, who also wrote the script). Molly is the first woman on the show’s writing staff, and her real-world savvy enables Newbury to find fresh ways to survive in the cutthroat 21st-century talk-show environment.

Molly needed her own music, Barber says. “More of a naive sound, a lot of intention and excitement. When we first meet her, it’s really poppy, with indie guitar and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ strings.

“The world of Katherine is more polished — acoustic bass and drums,” the composer explains. “As they start to mix together, the music evolves, and the two themes start to connect in different ways. By the end of the film, we have this music that shares the story and emotions and draws their separate worlds together.”

Lending additional musical power to “Late Night” is an end-title song, “Forward Motion,” written by 10-time Oscar nominee Diane Warren and sung by Interscope Records artist Daya.

Barber’s music, notes Ganatra, gave the film “intelligence, heart and emotional layers. She’s such a special talent. She quietly kicks ass.” 

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

  • The Handmaid's Tale -- "Household" -

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Crew on Why the Lincoln Memorial Shoot Was Worth the Effort

    Shooting on location at a national monument may seem glamorous, but it often involves extensive prep to comply with strict regulations, restrictions and crowds — all for a short on-screen moment. For the cast and crew of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the seven months of planning and negotiations required for a one-day shoot at the [...]

  • Producer and crew on set. Twelve

    'Driven' Kept Shoot in Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria to Help Locals

    Behind-the-scenes featurettes have long enumerated the many obstacles any movie or TV show has had to overcome to reach the theater or TV screen. But few films faced hardships as severe as those overcome by “Driven,” the real-life hero-to-zero story of automaker John DeLorean (played by Lee Pace) and his misadventures with ex-con pilot-turned-FBI informant [...]

  • The Righteous Gemstones Adam Devine, Danny

    How Televangelists, Elvis Inspired Costumes for HBO's 'The Righteous Gemstones'

    HBO’s new comedy series “The Righteous Gemstones,” about a famous family of televangelists whose dysfunction runs far deeper than its Christianity, seems to exist in its own time and place. Set in present-day Texas, the inspiration for the Gemstone family — played by John Goodman, series creator Danny McBride, Edi Patterson and Adam Devine — [...]

  • A Wrikle in Time

    New Zealand Offers Breathtaking Locations, Trained Crews, 20% Cash Grant

    With its heart-quickening vistas and magnificent views, New Zealand is a prime location for savvy investors seeking to maximize the incentive on their next project. Consider the production value of filming amid the daunting heights of the Southern Alps, or along the stunning shores of Lake Gunn. There’s also Auckland, with its magnificent Sky Tower [...]

  • DESCENDANTS 3 - DESCENDANTS 3 -

    'Descendants 3' Choreographer Mixed Dancing, Acting and Sword Fighting

    For a generation of dancers, Jamal Sims is one of a handful of choreographers who’ve pushed the boundaries of dance in film, TV and onstage. With a career that’s included stints working alongside Madonna and Miley Cyrus, he brings his edgy pop style to the dance numbers in “Descendants 3,” which premiered Aug. 2 and [...]

  • Avatar

    Manhattan Beach Studios, Home to 'Avatar' Sequels, Sold for $650 Million

    Hackman Capital Partners has acquired the Manhattan Beach Studios, home to James Cameron’s “Avatar” sequels, as part of a $650 million deal. Hackman announced Wednesday that it had bought the MBS Group from global investment firm the Carlyle Group. The MBS Group operates the MBS Media Campus — a 22-acre, 587,000 square foot production facility [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content