Pinar Toprak was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, where she began her classical music education at the age of five. After studying composition and multiple instruments at the Conservatory, she moved to Chicago to study Jazz, before continuing on to Boston for a degree in Film Scoring from Berklee College of Music. She then moved to Los Angeles, earned a Master’s Degree at CSUN in Composition at twenty-two, and has quickly become an active, inspired and inspiring composer in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, her body of work is diverse and extends across film, television, and video games. She has composed for major superhero sagas like Marvel Studios’ “Captain Marvel,” DC’s “Stargirl” on The CW, and the “Superman” prequel series “Krypton” on SY-FY. She has also scored the animated short film, “Purl,” Pixar’s first short released as part of the “SparkShorts” program, HBO’s six-part docuseries “McMillion$,” which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, as well as Epic Game’s greatly popular online video game “Fortnite.” Away from the big screen, Toprak has composed the new main theme for Walt Disney World’s iconic EPCOT theme park and has written music for Christina Aguilera’s 2019 Xperience show in Las Vegas. She was the recipient of the 2019 ASCAP Shirley Walker Award and also won the 2019 IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association) Award for Best Original Score for a Documentary Film for her score to “The Tides of Fate.” Toprak had previously won two other IFMCA Awards for her work on “The Wind Gods” and “The Lightkeepers,” which was on the Academy Award for Best Original Score shortlist in 2011. She is now nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Documentary Series or Special for her work on “McMillion$.”
Tara Karajica talks to Pinar Toprak about her music, her career and some of its highlights, film composing today and her helping pave the way for new generations of (female) film composers among other topics.
What was your journey from the Conservatory to film scoring and from Istanbul to the US like? Why did you choose film?
Pinar Toprak: I’ve been in love with films ever since I can remember myself. Basically, I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t in love with films. My father was a huge film fan, especially the American films. I grew up watching them and he would educate me on different actors. This fascination and my music education began really early because of him. I started the Conservatory when I was five years old. For a while, I didn’t even know that film scoring was a profession. Now, with technology, people are a lot more aware of it, but in the ‘80s in Istanbul, as a Turkish woman, it wasn’t like: “This is what I want to be when I grow up,” so I just loved it from afar and then as I got older, the love grew so much more.
I was always studying music, and instead of going into a different avenue of music, I wanted to be in films. But that wasn’t something I could do in Turkey at the time and the kind of films that I wanted to be involved in were big Hollywood films. Everybody used to tell me that it is not going to happen, that there aren’t many examples of that and that it’s just too risky. So, when I moved to the US, which was in 1997, I actually lived with my brother. He was living in Chicago at the time and I learnt English there. I didn’t know English when I moved here and I really didn’t have any money to even go to college, but my dad said: “You finish the Conservatory here a year early and you go live with your brother a year and learn English and see if you can figure out a way to go to college in America.” I was like: “OK, that’s a good deal.” And so, I stayed with him that year and learnt English and applied to Berklee. When I got into Berklee, I was still seventeen at the time, and a Piano Performance major because everyone was telling me that that was the wiser decision because I have higher chances of employment as a teacher, playing in sessions and that’s what I did for about a month, month and a half, but I was really unhappy. I was fine performing, but it’s not my forte and I didn’t want to be a performer. I wanted to be the one that writes the music.
That’s when the wonderful story of The Prince of Egypt soundtrack comes in, right?
P.T.: Yes! So, one day, getting out of the piano practice rooms, I went to Tower Records, and in the listening booths, I listened to that soundtrack that had just come out. This was fall of ’98. There was something about the soundtrack that I absolutely fell in love with. I was so broke. I had to work three jobs on campus and I had this five-hundred-dollar car that I was driving around Boston and teaching guitar, piano and music theory to kids. It was a crazy time, but I bought this CD with my last money, went into my room and listened to it all night and then the next morning, I went and changed my major to Film Scoring because it just ignited this thing in me. I was like: “I know that if I don’t follow this, I’ll never be happy, because I’d rather fail doing something I love than succeed doing something I don’t love.” So that was that turning point, essentially.
You then moved to Los Angeles and got a few important internships. What was your life like in L.A. then? What were these internships?
P.T.: After that happened, because I didn’t have the financial means, which made me work a bit harder, I finished the four-year Berklee program in two. I was nineteen years old when I got my degree in Film Scoring and then moved to Los Angeles. When I moved here, I didn’t know anybody and I was really depressed because I didn’t even have any friends to have coffee with at the time. Also, I had to keep studying for visa purposes. So, I enrolled in a Masters’ program in Composition and while I was there, I got the opportunity to intern at the Paramount Pictures’ Musical Department, which was truly one of the most valuable experiences of my life. There I was, just a twenty-year-old kid who got to be on an actual movie lot every single day and could go to all the scoring sessions. I got to meet different contractors, musicians and I was with the orchestra everyday, so it was a beautiful experience. And I did that for about a year.
But I knew that the goal was to get to Hans Zimmer’s place [Media Ventures, now Remote Control Productions]. This was before Facebook and it wasn’t that easy to find out who’s assisting whom and you had to do your research manually, but I did it. I called a whole bunch of people and finally got a meeting there, not working for Hans, but for Klaus [Badelt], and that didn’t work out either, but that day I met somebody in the hallway and I happened to give him my card. He called me and he was like: “Do you have any experience in sample programming and portals?” I knew portals, but I hadn’t done much of sample programming, and I lied and said I did. That was a Friday and he said: “You start on Monday,” so that whole weekend I read the entire manual of the software I was supposed to work in and deconstructed my own samples and put them back together and come Monday, I knew that program. So, that began my internship there. After about six months there doing that, Hans offered me a job working for him.
What did you learn from Hans?
P.T.: How he produces music, how his curious mind works and how he deals with people. They’re just gold. I admired that so much and just how his brain works and his excitement about things. That was really infectious to be around. And musically, of course, there’s always influence and you learn so much more by listening. Orchestration is more technical and you can teach it, but I think composition is something that is almost unspoken. Your ear picks up things and you learn things along the way.
Do you still have the CD of The Prince of Egypt that you bought in Boston? Do you keep it as a reminder of your roots and beginnings?
P.T.: Yes, I’ve never written a single note of music without it since ’98. It’s still next to my keyboard. It’s been twenty-two years now and it’s come with me everywhere I’ve been.
How do you tap into what music makes you feel in order to find the perfect sound to accompany the images and the special moments that transport us to another place, another world and another time when we watch a film?
P.T.: How do you do it…? That’s such a good question… It’s kind of a mystical thing, isn’t it? Because you never know! Even when I’m going to write a brand-new scene, I don’t know until I do it. It’s an interesting thing. That’s the honest answer! I could find a whole bunch of logical and practical answers… Of course, there are techniques that we use to get us going. Usually, I just play around. I have the film and I improvise to it and I record everything that I do and, at some point, something feels genuine and right. For me, at first, I try to understand the heart of the film – not necessarily what that scene is, but the entire arc of what the story is – because I really feel that once you know what the heart is, what the core is, you have the audience’s attention and that connection. So, that’s the thing I try to find. As far as the specifics go, it depends on the film. Sometimes, it’s this big epic thing, sometimes it’s the most tender of moments.
In that sense, do you have a specific creative process? How do you get in the zone? How does the creative process differ from project to project and from format to format because you have worked on feature films, animated shorts, TV series and video games?
P.T.: It is all different. With TV shows, the pilot is almost like scoring a film because that’s when you’re trying to find the tone and the themes, although the TV show themes evolve. You have new characters that are coming along the way, which is actually something that I quite like because you have many hours to tell a story. For video games, some of the approach is very cinematic as well. They have some things that are almost rendered in a linear way like in film, but then, for the in-game play, you have to think in more layers and loopable things, so the technicalities of the writing are different. In terms of the story you want to tell and what you want to achieve – any medium you write for – the process for composition itself is the same.
As far as how I get into it, it really depends. Sometimes, I don’t really have the luxury of time to think too much. A lot of times, that’s actually a great thing because as composers we doubt ourselves so much, we overthink and we never feel true to ourselves. We might’ve written a pretty OK thing, but we keep doubting it and what not. So, when we have too much time, that’s not a great thing. Sometimes, it’s literally: “OK, I have to write this,” and you sit down and you start. Starting is the hardest thing. A lot of times, we procrastinate just writing the first note. That’s like a blank canvas and the first brush stroke on a blank canvas is intimidating because it’s the start of something and I feel that with each thing that I write. And that doesn’t necessarily go away because it’s such an abstract and subjective art. So, the process changes. Sometimes, it’s that. Sometimes, if I have time, I go sailing – that actually really helps me – and I walk. Walks are very important for me to clear my mind. Nothing is like sitting and actually doing the work because it just unlocks. And then, not being afraid of bad ideas because a lot of times we think we are perfectionists and that the first thing we write has to be the homerun, and many times it’s not. Nobody else has to hear it. But, as a creative person, you have to just unlock it and keep writing and keep on molding it.
How did you get the Captain Marvel gig and what was the process like for that? Can you walk me through that experience?
P.T.: I was really obsessed with Captain Marvel as soon as I found out they were making it. So, when I had the opportunity to demo, I went and hired a seventy-piece orchestra and conducted the orchestra myself and did the whole video footage of it so that I could show everyone at Marvel how badly I wanted it and to give them a sense of my passion for the project. I am incredibly grateful that it worked out. It was such an incredible process to be involved in and the recordings are magical. I had been to Abbey Road Recordings before, but never with a ninety-piece orchestra, so that was a really beautiful thing. A lot of the times, the current practice for most scores is that we record things separately, so you have more control over the mix, but then you also lose the spirit of the orchestra. For Captain Marvel, we actually recorded everybody in the same room at the same time, so it was like a concert experience. It was just amazing!
Apart from obviously speaking with the directors about the direction they wanted to go in for Captain Marvel in terms of music, did you also talk to Brie Larson about that aspect of her character?
P.T.: Not with her. I met her after and she’s lovely, but not while we were scoring. I’ve worked on films before where I actually spoke with the actors and got into their heads, which is helpful. But, this one, I worked with Marvel and the directors.
You’ve scored materials with superheroes. How do you make us hear the humanity that is instilled in the heroes?
P.T.: Well, I score them like humans. That’s really what it is. It’s all about the emotion and there’s a reason why a hero is a hero and a villain a villain. There’s a driving emotional force; why a hero wants to do what they think they should do and whether they’re superheroes or they’re heroes in life, it’s all about that drive. With superheroes, obviously, they have some additional powers at their disposal, but the drive is very human. It’s a very simple human emotion. So, for me, that’s really the key. There’s a moment, for example, in Captain Marvel, it’s probably one of my most favorite moments in the film – there are a few, but this one is up there – in the Skrulls family reunion scene so to speak, that father and child moment is so tender; the way they look at each other is more human than anything else. It’s such a tender, simple moment. Those things really, really touch me. Action is action and it’s very fun to write, but there’s more of a formula to that. The key is really getting into those core feelings.
How was it to switch musically to Purl – which is absolutely lovely! – afterwards and that jazzier sound?
P.T.: Purl was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had, to be honest, because I love Jazz. I listen to it all the time and I’ve also been studying it since I was in high school. We don’t really get a chance to write a full-on big band score a lot these days, so when I got that project, I was really excited! For one thing, the short itself is really beautifully written and it’s funny, fun and clever. We got this big band sound and got amazing musicians to play it. It was really genuinely a gift, one of those projects that made me so happy. To this date, every time I come across anything about it, it just warms my heart.
Then, you did something completely different: you scored the introduction to Christina Aguilera’s Xperience show in Las Vegas. Can you talk about that completely different musical experience?
P.T.: She wanted something very cinematic for the music part, so it was in line with my writing. It was a lovely surprise to find out she liked my work on Captain Marvel. She’s a wonderful singer and a beautiful human being, and it was such an honor and pleasure to write it. Then, I went to Vegas and watched the show and saw everything come to life. It’s a really, really cool show and she’s spectacular.
When you were studying and growing up, there weren’t many female composers. As inspirations, you cite Rachel Portman and Shirley Walker. Now, you are the first woman to score a major live action superhero movie. Do you see yourself as a trailblazer for the next generation of female film composers? What’s your take on it?
P.T.: I think that any time there are more examples of anything that can inspire people for the better, it’s a great thing. I don’t see myself as a trailblazer of anything. Although I’m honored to be thought of that way – it’s a beautiful thing – for me, the goal is more about doing the best that I can personally and hope that it inspires somebody who is in a different part of the world and doesn’t necessarily have everything presented to them. I had to carve my way into this country and it took me almost seventeen years to become a citizen. I take my position here very seriously and I’m honored to be in this country and grateful for all the opportunities it has given me and I just hope that it can be an inspiration more than anything else.
When I was growing up, there weren’t examples of it. So, when I wanted to do it, luckily, I had parents that believed in me. But, there are so many kids growing up whose parents are just going to look at it and say: “This hasn’t been done before. The odds are very slim.” So, they might not support them. They might themselves also think that this is not something that they can achieve, so the more examples of this we have, the better. Hildur [Guđnadóttir]’s work is phenomenal and there are so many amazing composers out there who just happen to be female. I don’t like the term “female composer” because nobody says “male composer,” so I try to stay away from that. But, of course, I’m not naïve about the topic, I do understand it.
In that sense, what was the best advice you were given when you were starting out and what advice would you give a young girl who wants to be a film composer?
P.T.: Probably, the useful advice that I was given was networking, which is a really basic thing. When I first got into this town, almost twenty years ago, I was thinking a lot more about that and paying a lot more attention to it. I’ve had to create my own advice along the way because I had a very different path. I became a mother at a very young age and I was dealing with a lot of things. I couldn’t even talk about the fact that I was a mother. I gave birth and had a scoring session thirty hours later. My younger son was thirty hours old for his first scoring session. There were a lot of things I had to deal with that were unique, so I’ve had to create my own path. But, the best advice, I think, I can give – and there are several, and they all have to happen, to be honest; it’s not just one or the other: first, you have to be good at what you do. It’s not just going to work otherwise. So, that is putting in time for your musicianship, and everything that entails – your orchestration, your technical chops, everything… Your craft itself. You have to work daily on it. And then, perseverance. You need to be very patient. This is not a sprint. This is a marathon. A very long marathon and it’s also a marathon with a lot of ups and downs and you need to love it so much that you can get through the downs. And, like I said, networking, because you could be great and wonderful in every way, but if nobody knows who you are, then it’s not going to work. So, make sure that people know about you while you continue to evolve your craft and stay patient.
What would you say your sound is? What would you want audiences to feel when they hear your scores?
P.T.: This is an interesting thing. I get asked this and I can’t tell, but all the people that know me closely all know when I write something: “That sounds just like you.” But I don’t know what that is. It’s weird, because it’s like not knowing how we sound, just our voice. For me, it varies because if you listen to Purl, Captain Marvel and Fortnite, they’re very different sounds, but there’s usually some harmonic things that I go to that just happen to work for me. There are always some choices that I make that happen to be like me. And it’s hard to even say what they are. They are just intuitive choices that I make when I write.
What is the best score in the last few years and the best score ever, according to you?
P.T.: There’s no best score ever. I think it all depends. In different parts of my life, I’ve considered different scores as best scores and if you ask me this next week, there’s going to be a different answer. Composers whose work always touches me in a very special way are John Williams and Ennio Morricone. There’s always something special about the way John Williams writes. There are so many scores. If you’ve asked me as a kid, there were scores like Superman that have been very impactful scores in my life. Cinema Paradiso is one of my most favorite scores of all time. It varies… As far as the last few years go, there has been spectacular work in so many different genres, and I can’t really pick one. But it’s a really exciting time for film scoring with so many different types of mediums and genres and how the industry is evolving and there are so many more composers than twenty years ago. You could count the number of composers that were scoring the top movies with one hand. Now, it’s really eclectic and that’s really, really wonderful.
Something that really struck a chord with me is that you studied early music – Renaissance and Baroque music when you were doing your Master’s. Can you talk about that?
P.T.: This is a whole long topic! When I was doing my Master’s, I really dove into it. A lot of the classes I took were about early music and to this date, when I listen to music just for my own pleasure, I listen to early music quite a bit. I think Renaissance is just beautiful. It’s like transcendental music. I can’t describe it. That time of History fascinates me: what happened to music at that time and how it expanded and it’s almost like emotions were created through music for the first time. That’s just an incredible thing. It’s the same thing with Baroque, which almost reminds me of Jazz. To my knowledge, at the time, musicians used to improvise; it was chord charts and they would improvise on top of them, so there’s something about it that almost sounds like Jazz to me in a beautiful, classical kind of way. I genuinely love the Renaissance and Baroque periods in History and what they represented in arts in general, but particularly in music.
What are your next projects?
P.T.: There are a couple of films I am working on. The other one that will hopefully evolve more is the Walt Disney World EPCOT. I wrote the theme for EPCOT and then there are going to be more things that we’re going to do with that, but right now, the world is on pause a bit with that, so I’ll resume it when we get some normalcy soon – hopefully.
Photo credits: Myra Vides.