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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.” 

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