With She-Ra and the Princesses of Power having wowed many since landing on Netflix, we were lucky enough to catch up with composer Sunna Wehrmeijer to discuss her time working on this fan favourite project, her work on some truly huge Hollywood blockbusters, and a whole host more.
STARBURST: How did you career in music start?
Sunna Wehrmeijer: I studied composition and music production in the Netherlands, where I’m from. I always played music, I always composed pieces. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with it, but I wanted to do something with music. By the end of my studies, I decided I’d go to L.A. for a few weeks, see what that’s like and then I’d study something proper and get a normal job. Those few weeks in L.A., I fell in love with the place. Finally, it all made sense. I started working for other composers from there and really found my calling. It’s something I really love doing.
Moving from the Netherlands to Los Angeles is quite the big deal. How was it make the jump at such a young age?
It sounds weird, but it wasn’t really a big deal at the time. I’d just finished my studies, I didn’t have any responsibilities yet, it was just me. I found it very exciting. The initial plan was to go for eleven weeks. It never even entered my mind that I would move there. It wasn’t until someone in my class said, “Well, why don’t you move here and do the whole program?” That just made so much sense. I basically went home for Christmas and told everybody that I wouldn’t be coming back. It wasn’t such a huge thing like, “Oh, I’m packing up all my stuff.” I basically left and had my family do that for me [laughs]. It was such an exciting thing that I didn’t have to think much about it. I just felt that in L.A. the world was at my feet at that time.
Was there a certain moment or certain job that cemented to you that this would be your career?
It was so funny. You have to have these visas, which make things annoying. You get a visa for two years when you’re a student. During the first year, I started doing some unpaid internships. It was only three days a week that you actually had to go to UCLA. The second year, I’d already found a job as an assistant to Mark Streitenfeld. I told him during the interview, “I am very available to do this job, I want to do it, but could you help me with a visa?” That was extremely awkward. I was one of a lot of people wanting that job, so making requests was very uncomfortable. But he did end up sponsoring me, which was great. It’s one of those things. Leaving never entered my mind; I was just, “I will find a way to do this.” I wasn’t thinking about how this might not work or how I might have to go back home. I never thought about that because it was never an option. I never even considered it and thank god it worked out well.
You have quite the eclectic array off credits to your name, from Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, to Prometheus, to Robin Hood, to Drag Me to Hell, to Nightcrawler. Is there a certain genre that you prefer to work in or are you always open to exploring the right project?
I definitely love doing different sort of things. The fact that the two shows I’m doing now [She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz] are animation is just a coincidence. Like you say, I’m not just an animation composer. I love a dramatic score, I love to write dramatic music for action, adventure, emotional drama. That’s just really what I enjoy doing. I enjoy writing the themes and thematic music. Obviously, sometimes you have to create tension, which I also enjoy doing. It’s not like I don’t like to do that. I don’t want to say I don’t like doing this, I do. I would say my first love is a dramatic score in which I can write and develop a nice theme. Which at the moment, I’m very lucky that I have a show in which I can actually do that.
There are always going to be certain similarities in your scoring work from project to project, but how conscious are you of not having projects sounding too similar to each other?
Obviously, there’s always the danger of that, especially because I sound like me. We all have a certain style and little things that we do. For instance, an action scene I’d write for She-Ra is very different to an action scene I’d do for Holmes & Watson. One is live-action, one is animation. They could be doing the same thing on screen, but in animation you’d score it differently. I’m always very inspired by the visuals, and because the visuals are always different to each other I will always come up with something just slightly different. Sure, I rip myself off by accident sometimes [laughs].
Do you have a preference between live-action and animation projects at all?
I love both. The good thing with animation is that you can often write lots of themes. The other side of that is that it takes a huge amount of work – especially with She-Ra. Every 22-minute episode is like a mini-movie. I’m emotionally drained by the end of it because it’s very intense. With some forms of live-action, you take a little bit of a step back as a composer because you don’t want to do anything that’s too much on the nose. It’s just a different way of scoring, but I have to say that I really enjoy both.
With She-Ra, did you get to see the animation before you put the music together or were you going in blind?
Yes, there was the demo phase. Getting the job, it was between me and a few others, and you get very early sketches to see what was going on. When I got the job and began working on it, I got a full episode to score. It wasn’t completely locked.
How did your involvement in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power come about?
All these DreamWorks animated series, they usually try and find a new composer. I demoed for it, they listened to it blind so that they don’t know who it’s from, and that was the first round. After that, the demoing phase that I mentioned, I had three scenes with very rough pictures. I just did what I thought was right, and I guess that they liked that; they seemed to agree with that. So yeah, that’s how that happened.
Were you a fan of She-Ra as a child?
It’s so funny. I’m 34, and everyone I mention the show to, they’re all, “Oh my god, I used to love She-Ra!” Either it never made it to the Netherlands or I completely missed it, but I had no idea who She-Ra was. I can say it now, although obviously I didn’t mention it before [laughs]. But no, I didn’t watch it. I don’t know if it played there, but I guess it wasn’t a big thing in Holland. Even my husband when I mention it, he’s all, “Oh my god, I used to have the Greyskull castle!” I’m just, “Okay…”
So your first experience of She-Ra was when you got involved with Princesses of Power?
Yes it was, that’s right. I went back and had a look at it [1985’s She-Ra: Princess of Power series], and obviously it’s really cool. This is such a new approach and such a new thing, though. It’s much more cinematic, it’s much more emotional, the characters are much more developed. To me, I know their names are the same, but it’s such a new take on the whole thing that I don’t think the two need to be connected musically at all. The music worked very differently in the ‘80s. It suited it really well, but this take on it needed a more adventurous score. They were quite clear about what they wanted for the score. [Executive producer] Noelle Stevenson had worked on this for years before I came on. She’d gave it a lot of thought and wanted a classical orchestral adventure combined with contemporary ‘80s synth – which is exactly what it has become. There was a very good vision for it, and hopefully I’ve been doing what they asked for. It just fits the show really well. I don’t want to say anything bad about the ‘80s one, because it did what it did for that show and worked really well. I think that TV shows have become so much more cinematic, like mini films. That has a lot to do with the music also becoming more cinematic and helping to play the episodes like a movie. That’s probably where the biggest difference is.
Did you happen to see any of the weird backlash on the internet when She-Ra and the Princesses of Power was first announced, with middle-aged men saying that this character needs to be more sexualised?
It’s ridiculous. From what I’ve heard, young people are loving it, both boys and girls. The 40-year-old creeps in their basement, they don’t think she’s hot enough. I think we’re good [laughs]. It’s like, “I’m sorry this 16-year-old isn’t giving you an erection.”
And are we correct in thinking the second season has already been announced?
I’m allowed to say that there will be a second season.
And you will be back?
I hope so [laughs]. But yes, I will.
Would you say that there’s now more respect and appreciation towards music than there maybe was for shows in the ‘80s and in to the ‘90s?
Maybe. To be honest, I can’t quite answer that as I wasn’t around in the ‘80s. Generally, whoever I’ve met in the film industry, they always find music important. We always come on later in the game, obviously, usually in post-production, and it’s only one part of the production. You’re not the main thing, you’re one of many elements. From my experience, there’s lots of appreciation for the music. Most filmmakers aren’t musicians, so they’ll find different ways of explaining what they want. I find that they respond with great enthusiasm about music that fits their film or their project.
You mention there how musicians are part of a larger production. Do you feel that when people first get into the industry, they maybe lose sight of that a little and try to overpower the overall project with their music?
It’s hard when you watch a project and you don’t know what the process was. If the music is too much, whose fault is it – the composer or the director? I think you have to be very aware that you’re not the most important person on this film. I only mean that in the sense that the filmmaker has many tools to make his film, and you’re just one of those tools. That’s just how it is. If you’re a concert composer, it’s so different. The filmmakers have been on these projects for years. I can come on later on, my job is to help them finish their movie in the best possible way. If that means rewriting something ten times, then that’s what that means. In fact, if I have to rewrite something ten times then they likely should’ve hired someone else [laughs]. But there’s going to be some rewrites involved or some rearranging. I put a lot in there, then I watch the final product and it gets taken down or it’s overpowered by sound effects. That’s just how it is. No, it’s not always fun, but it’s just how it is.
What is the process of working on something like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power like?
There’s a schedule, which is basically two weeks per episode. Then there’s another two weeks of adjustments and fixes before it gets made. So, one episode will usually take a month. There’s usually three things going on at once; you’re finishing one, doing fixes on another, and starting another one. Now, I’m much ahead of the ones that have just launched on Netflix. By now, it’s so much easier than it was on Episode 1, because you’re finding the sound, you’re coming up with themes, I’m making sure I’m doing what they’re looking for.
How much easier is it once you’ve established a signature theme for a character or location that you know you have in the bank and that you can go back to?
Absolutely, that is a relief. The thing with animation, because you’re hitting so much, it rarely happens that I can take a whole cue and take it somewhere else. That’s never going to work, but I can take bits. I think it’s always good to have that recurring feel, so people will notice, “Oh, this is about She-Ra or Glimmer or whomever it’s about.” I think that’s good in many ways.
In your career, there have been small independent projects, giant Hollywood movies, animated efforts, and so much more. Is it possible for you to pick a particular career highlight so far?
A couple of things. First of all, getting She-Ra. DreamWorks just makes really nice things, so I was very excited to become part of that team in the DreamWorks world. On the big screen, I do still think it’s pretty cool that my vocals ended up in three out of four Hunger Games films. That was a nice moment, especially because it was so unexpected. That was so not ever my intention, so it was such a lovely surprise. I felt very appreciative.
How did it happen that your vocals made it in to the Hunger Games movies, then?
It’s a bit of a fun story. I was working for James Newton Howard at the time at his studio. He was writing Hunger Games and there was this one scene he did for Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence’s character. It was a very quiet cue, very beautiful, very lovely melody, a solo vocal. Vocals are very hard to sample, so the melody sounded great but the vocals sounded like shit. The next day, I just went in at 6am or 7am and re-recorded that vocal line myself and I said, “I put a little placeholder there so that you don’t have to listen to that horrible sample. You can re-record it with a vocalist later.” He really liked it, and so the actual recording I did myself is in Catching Fire, then Mockingjay – Part 1 and Mockingjay – Part 2. That was so weird but so nice. Then the vocal thing just kept kind of coming back. Maleficent I sang on, and now on She-Ra. A lot of scores don’t suit vocals at all, but She-Ra just makes so much sense.
What else are your currently working on or have in the pipeline at the moment?
There’s Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, the Warner Brothers animated series that we’re starting Season 3 of. That’s playing around the world on Boomerang. The age group is a little younger than She-Ra, but it’s a really lovely show. It’s classic Warner Brothers cartoon music, it’s very exciting, the characters are really lovely. It’s just a really lovely show.
Having worked on dramatic films such as Prometheus, Robin Hood, Nightcrawler, and The Hunger Games, it must be nice to do something a little more light-hearted?
Yeah, it was. I have two kids, so it’s nice that they can walk in while I’m working. If they walked in on a scene I was doing from Prometheus, that wouldn’t be good. So yes, it is nice to do something a little lighter, for sure. They both love Dorothy, although they’re both slightly young for She-Ra. My son thinks that I get paid to watch cartoons all day for a living, which is kind of funny and not completely untrue either.