Composer Amie Doherty is quickly on the rise in Hollywood. Just since 2019, she has gone from composing the scores to the short films Marooned (DreamWorks) and Battle at Big Rock (Part of the Jurassic World franchise), to the Amazon TV series Undone, to the features The High Note and Happiest Season in 2020. Amie discusses her latest score to the new DreamWorks animated feature Spirit Untamed in-depth, including her original song, “Fearless.”

When you first got on Spirit Untamed, what did the directors and producers tell you about what they were looking for from the music?

I came on the project very early. I read the script and made some notes about the score as I was reading like what I thought might be cool and how it would contribute to the film. I just liked the idea of that big symphonic Old West sound but modernized somehow. One idea I had was to use some male vocals for Spirit’s theme. I’m a big fan of Fleet Foxes, I just love their sound, so I was thinking something in that realm. When I talked to Elaine Bogan, the director, she mentioned before I even got to it that she had temped some of the movie with Fleet Foxes and she loved their kind of modern indie-folk sound. It was just this very strange coincidence and I said, “I am not making this up: I have Fleet Foxes written down in my notebook!” We were on the same page right from the beginning.

Photo credit: Amie Doherty

You mentioned Spirit’s theme, can you list and talk about all the themes you wrote for Spirit Untamed?

Milagro’s theme opens the movie and it’s the melody of a lullaby I wrote that was recorded by Eiza González who plays Milagro, and then Lucky (Isabela Merced) sings it in the middle of the movie, and finally, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) sings it at the end. That’s why I came on the project so early because that lullaby needed to be written so that it could be animated too. So, that was my first task, I wrote the “Fearless” melody and sent it over and they loved it, and I just loved the idea of using it throughout the film to hint that Lucky’s mom is always with her. There are lots of moments when Lucky is alone or scared, and she needs that strength from her mother and summons it by singing the song. So, that was the main theme I would say. Then there’s the Spirit theme, which you hear when we first meet Spirit on the train heading to Miradero. Pretty much every time you hear the Spirit theme it’s Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes singing. Talking about Fleet Foxes, I just loved that kind of tight three- and four-part harmony that they do. Spirit’s theme incorporates that and mixes it with orchestral elements, and there was also some guitar in there. So, those were the two main themes, and then there was a theme for the town of Miradero, also themes for Snips and Abigail, and the villain, Hendricks.

What to listen for: Amie Doherty’s theme for Spirit featuring Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes

Because Lucky Prescott is half-Mexican, and the town of Miradero seems to have a mix of Hispanic and American cultures, can you talk about how you reflected that mix in your score through instrumentation?

For the most part with Milagro, when we do hear her theme it’s either featured on a nylon guitar or there’s a nylon guitar accompaniment played by my friend, Andrew Napier. There are even flamenco elements in the score, and there’s a tango in there as well. I liked the idea of using two different guitar sounds: nylon for Mexican heritage, and acoustic for that Americana sound. There are also some source cues that happen during the festivals, and for those, I just wanted to give the idea that we’re in this melting pot of cultures, not entirely Mexican or entirely American. So, there are some mariachi trumpets in there, some nylon guitars, and also bluegrass fiddles. I just like the idea of coming up with what this world would sound like, basically this melting pot of those different cultures.

I love that idea of the melting pot. So, when you’re using mariachi trumpets, is that recorded totally separately?

We did record it separately, just because when we do have those mariachi trumpet cues, it’s a much different vibe and sound, so we wanted it more close-mic’d. They were recorded at Abbey Road, and we just had a separate brass session where the soloists stayed around. I had given a heads up to the contractors a month or two before and asked if we could get some trumpet players who knew mariachi music and had experience with that kind of Mexican sound, the wide vibrato, and stuff like that. There are also improv elements where we just wanted them to fall off notes because they were supposed to sound like an amateur band at a festival, it’s not supposed to sound like Abbey Road’s top musicians! So, we definitely had a ton of fun recording it because they would play it through, sight-read it perfectly, and then I would be like, “okay, we need to dirty this up, you need to not play it so well!” The same goes for the bluegrass fiddle, we kept some of the soloists back for a separate session and had them record much more close-mic’d.

What to listen for: Amie Doherty’s use of instrumentation to create a cultural melting pot.

There is a really fun cue called “I Am the Train.” I believe that’s the dream sequence, and that cue was very reminiscent of Ennio Morricone. Can you talk about that cue?

We actually went back and forth a lot on that one. The filmmakers had a song in there when I first came on the film that everybody adored so it was a big ask to score this scene. We tried out several different variations. They just wanted it to be totally different from the rest of the score because it is a dream sequence. I thought it’d be a cool idea to really lean into the Spaghetti Western sound.

What to listen for: Amie Doherty’s take on the Spaghetti Western

Now I’m going to get very musically specific. Can you talk about how you use the octatonic scale and why you think that it works well particularly for action scenes, or parts of the film that are a little scary or intense?

Well, it depends on which one you use because I would call them whole-step/half-step or half-step/whole-step scales. But the cool thing about them is the whole-step/half-step scale is kind of minor in the lower half and major in the upper half, and vice versa for the half-tone/whole-tone scale. I kind of love for that very reason that depending on the notes you use within the scale, you can jump easily from a minor to major sound, but it’s also kind of nebulous, so it just gives you that option of not having to commit to a tonality. In animation, we’re switching genres and emotions on a dime. There’s a kid crying and then three seconds later there’s a gag, and you have to hit the joke and then quickly get back into the serious moments. The octatonic scale is a really handy tool for that. Also, with this score in particular there were a lot of runs that are very energetic and fast-paced, and for that kind of adventurous sound I find that those scales are so handy for getting into different keys and modulating, it just opens up the whole keyboard. And when I was writing with it, I never knew where the cue was going tonality-wise or what key I’d end up in, I was just kind of through-composing it in that way.

Well, that’s film music, right?

Yeah, exactly.

What to listen for: Amie Doherty’s use of the octatonic scale

Going back to Spirit’s theme especially, there are lots of really good suspensions that add so much color and are so emotionally charged. When you use suspensions, what emotional impact do you think that adds to your score?

Yes! This is my kind of chat! I just love the sound of them, and I think they’re so good at prolonging an emotion. Suspensions can really give you that gut-wrenching feeling when it finally resolves or doesn’t resolve. I just love the psychology of suspensions. I’ve always been fascinated by literally just an interval of two notes and how that plays differently on everyone’s emotions. I think they’re a go-to for composers to use when we know we’re going to hit home with the emotion that we want. I’m a huge James Horner fan, and if you want to talk about suspensions, talk about James Horner all day. I’ve always loved them, and I think of them almost like a puzzle where I’m finding how to set them all up. They just have a really beautiful sound. I’m obsessed with them a little too much maybe!

Photo credit: Mike Knobloch

There’s also a little bit of Lydian mode in Spirit Untamed, especially in the cue “Getting Familiar.” Do you think about using that mode or does that kind of happen by accident?

No, I definitely think about using it. I love using that mode because I think it has an innocence to it. Honestly part of it comes from Elmer Bernstein…

To Kill a Mockingbird?

Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird. I think that opening music is embedded in all of our brains as childhood innocence. I don’t know whether Elmer set that up for all of us, or if it was there before, but Lydian is very handy for that sound of innocence. So, in that cue when Lucky and Spirit are getting to know each other they have this innocent kind of flirtation where they’re getting to know each other, it’s not too serious and we didn’t want to hint that Spirit was going to do anything to harm Lucky in any way.

What to listen for: Amie Doherty’s use of Lydian mode

Finally, since you’ve now scored both animated and live-action features, what are some of the things you would say are the difference between approaching the two of them?

I think animation is a lot more work, but I love it. It’s a crazy challenge compared to live-action. Well, I guess it depends on the movie, but it’s just that the gear shifts are so quick and it’s one big puzzle that you have to figure out one tiny, tiny piece at a time. I just loved working with the team at DreamWorks because basically, I think anyone who works in animation is just a big kid at heart. They were just really fun to work with, and everyone was very excited the whole way through.