Breaking a Sound Barrier with Captain Marvel

Pinar Toprak becomes the first woman to score a superhero film.
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Inked on Pinar Toprak’s wrist is a small nautical design encircling a number 1. The tattoo is a reminder to her that at any time she’s just one decision away from changing the course of her life. Like the decision she made at 17 to move to Chicago to learn English, or the one a year later to change her major to film scoring, or the one last year, to demo for Captain Marvel.

In getting that gig, Toprak B.M. ’00 became the first woman to score a superhero movie, as well as the first to score a film that has grossed more than $1 billion. The achievement is a high point in a remarkable career. Toprak has scored more than 40 films, two video games, and a television series. And with Captain Marvel, Toprak joins Berklee alumni Ramin Djawadi B.M. ’98 (Iron Man) and Alan Silvestri ’70 (several Avengers movies, including the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, featuring the character Captain Marvel) as a composer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The comic-book genre is one that’s been particularly tough for women to access, and it’s a powerhouse in an industry that itself is populated with few women. Of the top 250 grossing films of 2018, only 6 percent had female composers, according to a 2019 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film.

“This is a huge moment not only for Pinar but for female film composers in general. The ‘celluloid ceiling’ is very real,” says Alison Plante, chair of Berklee’s Film Scoring Department, which has seen the share of female students rise from a quarter to a third over the past decade.

“I'm cautiously optimistic that Pinar's stunning score and accompanying record-breaking box office will finally cause studio decision makers to realize what those of us who have been paying attention have known all along: that women are fully capable of writing thrilling and powerful action music,” she says.

Perhaps the low numbers of women getting scoring jobs isn’t surprising given that the film industry makes movies that are twice as likely to depict male characters as having work-related goals compared with female characters. As a result, girls don’t see as many women on screen pursuing their ambition to be scientists, pilots, heroes, or film composers.

As a girl from Turkey, Toprak didn’t have role models for her dream of becoming a film scorer, and she assumed it wasn’t a possibility for her, a conservatory-trained pianist and guitarist.

Her first endeavor at songwriting came when she was about 12 or 13 years old. Her father would leave poems on her nightstand while she was asleep; she’d take his verses and set the little stories to music.

She had been enamored with film music at the time and would use her Walkman to tape movies airing on TV, wishing she could cut out the dialogue that clouded the soundtrack behind it.

One film in particular that enthralled her was Superman (1978), the first big-budget superhero movie. The heart and soul—the hope—of John Williams’s iconic score was spellbinding, conjuring in her a deep wish to score big American films. She watched it countless times, memorizing all the lines. (Years later, as the composer for the television series Krypton, she would be tasked with devising the sonic world for Superman’s home planet. She’s currently working on season two.)

Hollywood might as well have been Krypton given how far out of her universe it seemed. By the time she graduated from high school at 16, she didn’t speak English and had little means to travel. But she did have a brother in Chicago, and she had a goal: to figure out a way to go to America for a year.

In late February, Toprak sat down with Berklee Today in her Los Angeles home to talk about her journey to Berklee, the moment she decided to pursue film scoring, and what got her to Captain Marvel. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

How did you make the transition from Istanbul to the United States?

My father gave me a $100 bill, which I had never seen before in my life, and said, “I want this to be the first money you spend when you go to America. I don’t know how you’re going to send yourself to college but go learn English, live with your brother for a year, and see if you can figure out a way to go to college.” So that’s what I did. I was barely 17.

What was your goal?

I really wanted Berklee. I had a poster of one of the Berklee programs in my room for a very long time. And Berklee in Turkey is everywhere. It’s held in really high regard. So I said, “OK, that’s where I’m going to go. That’s the goal.” How, I had no clue.

You applied to Berklee the following year. What was your major?

I applied to Berklee as a piano performance major at first because everybody was telling me “at least you can gig, you can teach, there’s more opportunities there as a performer than [with] film scoring. What are you going to do with film scoring? It’s going to be a waste of a degree.” But once I arrived to Berklee, I was a miserable performer. I didn’t like being in front of people. And I really felt like, “OK, I don’t want this to be it.”

How did you decide to change your major to film scoring?

One day I got out of the piano practice rooms and went to Tower Records. I was very poor, I had about $20 that I had to survive on for several days. (I was working jobs on campus at Berklee; I worked in the Media Center, in the library, and the ensemble room. I also had to finish school in two years. I only had loans and things figured out—I got student loans to cover expenses—for two years. Luckily, I tested out of a lot of classes.)

But I went to Tower Records. The Prince of Egypt had just come out. And that was the only way back then of listening to what was new, to go to the listening booths. I started listening to the soundtrack and it just mesmerized me so much. I was already a huge Hans Zimmer fan. But there was something about the soundtrack and the production of it...that completely took over my entire being that night. I got that soundtrack with my last money, and in the morning I went and changed my major to film scoring.

What was it about that Prince of Egypt soundtrack that so spoke to you?

It reached where it needed to reach in my heart to unlock something that needed to be unlocked. At that moment, when I listened to that soundtrack, I didn’t hear anyone else’s voices. I didn’t hear anyone else telling me I can’t do something. It was just very pure “This is the only thing that lights me up,” and I don’t know whether I’m going to succeed or not, but I have to try. It was a gamble, a gamble that I’m so grateful for. I have never written a single note without this CD being next to me. Wherever I moved, whatever studio, it was always right next to me.

Once I changed my major, it was sort of like my soul coming out. I never regretted it for one second. Once I made that change, I never had a plan B. I’m a firm believer in not having a plan B with things that really matter.

You moved to Los Angeles right after graduating. Tell me about those first few years.

Well, the first few months were depressing because I was 19 years old in Los Angeles and all my friends were still at Berklee, and I felt very lonely.

I wanted to get my master’s degree and I wanted to do that in classical composition. So I got my master’s at Cal State Northridge. While I was [at California State University, Northridge] the department chair got a call from Paramount Pictures’s music department. They said, “Can you send us one of your grad composition students for an internship?” And the chair recommended me. I had just turned 20 and it was an incredible experience because now I was given this opportunity to be on a lot. I could be at the [scoring] stage every single day and listen to these incredible sessions. It was an experience that I would’ve paid for.

I was there for about a year. But my master’s was coming to an end and I knew that the goal was to work for Hans [Zimmer] somehow. I didn’t really know how I was going to make that happen. So I kept calling. I just cold-called. I was super annoying. And I don’t want anybody to do that to me [laughs]. But it got the job done. I finally got a meeting with someone and I knew they weren’t going to hire me. But I met somebody else in the hallway that day [and] just happened to give him my card. He called me up and asked me if I had any experience in sample programming and whatnot, and I said, “Of course [laughs]!”

Did you?

I mean, I used samples as a composer, but I didn’t really know how to build these instruments from scratch. Luckily, he called me on a Friday and I had to go to work on Monday. So I spent the entire weekend deconstructing and learning how to program instruments. I had to figure out to do it from start to finish, from cutting the samples, to the attacks and releases, the looping, tuning, programming, different layers, all the things that went into programming the samples.

Come Monday morning, I was working. I was doing this sample library, but I always made sure that Hans saw me getting there early and leaving late.

And one day he offered a job. He said, “Do you want a full-time job working for me?” and I said yes. The way he asked was like, “Would you like some fries?” or something, like it was nothing, but with that one question he really changed a lot of things in my life.

I was at Media Ventures [Zimmer’s company, now called Remote Control Productions] for a little over a year. I worked on the first Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Last Samurai. I was just a programmer, but just to even be a part, in any way, of that world, just to breathe the same air that he was breathing, was remarkable.

Why did you leave after a year?

I got a call from a friend of mine who told me that [orchestrator and arranger William Ross] was looking for an assistant, and the hours were going to be a little more humane. At Hans’s, I was learning so much that I was really grateful for, but I wasn’t really writing my own things, and I wanted to be my own person. [At Ross’s] I was writing more of my things.

While I was working for him, my then-husband gave my CD to this producer who was doing video games. And it was so random; this is the luck part, because, you know, you hand out CDs and a lot of things don’t happen. But he happened to give this CD to the right person. And he hired me on this video game called Ninety-Nine Nights. This was when Xbox 360 was coming out; it was one of their big games. I didn’t know anything about video game music. I did the video game and [a while later] I got a call to demo for Behind Enemy Lines II. The director had heard my music for the video game and he wanted me to demo.

Around that time, I stopped working for Bill. I just wanted to do my own things. I turned my living room into an assembly line of CDs and cover letters, and I just sent a lot of unsolicited mail. I figured, “Well, hey, if I get one, that’s one, right?” So that’s what happened: I got one [for the film Sinner] out of, like, 500.

It was another crossroads moment: I could go find another assistant job, which would be the safe thing to do; the other one was a scary route, which was “OK, now I’m just going to really push this and put everything that I have onto this.” So that’s what I did. It was really, really scary, because I didn’t have a net. And I always say when you don’t have a net you jump like your life depends on it.

Since then you’ve scored about 40 movies, the blockbuster video game Fortnite, and the TV show Krypton. What are the differences between scoring for film, video games, and TV?

With TV, you have a longer time to develop ideas. And yet a shorter time each week to write them. The schedule can be quite intense. But as far as the actual medium itself, what I do is always try to figure out, when I look at a scene, “What is the heart of it, what are we trying to say, what is the unsaid emotion that I’m supposed to make people feel?”

The key to any storytelling is figuring out “What is the heart?” There’s always this one thing—there could be other subplots and so many things going on—but what is the heart? Once you figure that out, the rest kind of unravels, hopefully.

What inspires you when you’re writing?

Life itself inspires me. I try to live when I’m not writing so that I have something to write when I sit down.

What do you mean by that?

When I write, my process is a lot more emotional rather than cerebraI. I feel like in order to output that, you have to input the emotions into your life. You have to feel things, you have to experience things. I love getting to know people and their stories. I love sailing. As much as I love people, I also love getting away from people. And I think that one of the most valuable sounds in the world is silence. So I try to get away from it all, and just kind of experience life, nature, and friends, and love, and laughter, and pain, and loss, and everything in between. That’s my toolbox.

What is your process when you sit down to write?

It usually starts with a mild panic attack and thinking I’ll never write again [laughs].

But then I find that detachment helps. Because even, for example, with Captain Marvel, I sat down to write [and] I’m just playing with ideas. I knew the message that I wanted, but I knew the feeling more than the message. I try not to overthink.

After two days in the studio, I was so frustrated I couldn’t come up with anything that I was happy with. I put on my shoes and went for a walk. Usually during my walks, I call my friends or I call my mom or I listen to some podcasts. I try to detach, I try to stop thinking. Because nothing really good happens by overthinking, especially when you’re trying to convey emotions through music. I feel like I can always tell music that has been put together by thought versus by heart.

So I just started humming. I knew how I wanted the theme to start. I wanted to start with a different kind of interval than the fourths and the fifths that are pretty common in the superhero themes [Captain Marvel’s theme is based on a seventh]. So I just started humming. People must have thought I am a crazy person because I am literally just humming to myself. And I found the beginning of the theme. I was like, “Oh, I don’t dislike that.” My friends always make fun of me because the best form of flattery that I’ll ever say to myself [is] “So I don’t hate that [laughs]!”

I called my friend, who is also one of my programmers in this film. He’s been my friend for 20 years and we met the first month of Berklee. I said, “How about this?” and I hummed the theme to him. He was like, “Pinar, hang up the phone now, record it on your voice memo.” That’s what I did. As soon as I came home then I made little tweaks to the ending of the theme, but pretty much, that’s the theme.

What is the concept behind the Captain Marvel score?

There are moments that we really embraced the ’90s. So that was really fun. Because the form of writing for ’90s films, and the action and everything, it is different from how it is today. It’s a lot of notes [laughs]. But it’s so much fun to write, and it changes and it’s very dynamic.

Then we also have the cosmic scenes, which were incredibly fun to write for because I could go all synth and create new sounds and really have fun with that kind of endless palette. So we have that, we’ve got our ’90s, and we have the big superhero. You know, it’s Marvel, we definitely embraced the hero moments for sure.

How are ’90s film scores different from scores today?

They weren’t really afraid of emotions. I think now, with certain filmmakers and certain genres, we have become more afraid of being expressive of our emotions.

How would you describe the style or the trend today?

I think now it’s sonically very open, which is very exciting. Now there are so many scores that sound very different, and very unique.

When you sit down and you are given the canvas to do something really different, that’s also a really rewarding thing for a composer, to go, “OK, I can create this entire sonic world.” Like with Krypton, for example, we had a chance to do that. Krypton is a planet that we’ve heard of, but there isn’t a set sound for Krypton. So I was writing source cues for Kryptonian bars, what they would listen [to], or street musicians in Krypton, like—what is that?—that hasn’t been established.

But I feel like today a lot of times originality can be looked at in a higher regard than just a well-said story through music. I’m a big fan of composition, I’m just not the biggest fan of scores that only drive into originality, and composition is just kind of like the background.

The score is the how-they-made-you-feel part. You may not remember the dialogue, you may not remember the exact plot, but you’ll remember how you felt watching a film. And that’s our job as the composer; that’s that connection to the heart.

What’s your favorite kind of score to write, or project to work on?

My next one [laughs].

How did the chance demo for Captain Marvel come about?

I was given the opportunity to demo through my agents. They knew that I was very interested in this film. So I was just like, “OK, how can I make this the best I can make it?” and I decided to hire a 70-piece orchestra. I didn’t want to just send a music file. Not that that would be inadequate, but I really wanted to get this film.

I had a video crew that shot the whole thing, because I wanted [the filmmakers] to see me conduct. I wanted them to know that I could handle the orchestra as well. I also did another video at my studio where I played the piano-only version, and a friend of mine came and played the violin, because I wanted them to see the process: This was how I came up with it and now here is with the orchestra. And I did a little introduction video as well about what I thought about the character. I just wanted to give them a sense of me and how much I really wanted to get this film. And it worked. I was shocked.

What was your reaction to getting the film?

I couldn’t believe that it actually happened. It took me some time to actually, like, breathe and get back to reality. And then I couldn’t tell anyone for so long. That was the really tough part.

There’s been a lot of talk about how you’re the first woman to score a superhero movie. What do you think this says about opportunities for women in film scoring?

Well, I hope it says that pretty soon we’re not going to talk about the first. And that’s really the most exciting part. I think about myself when I was a kid and how it would’ve made certain things possibly easier if I had an example to [follow]. It’s been done, it can be done. I think, you know, once it becomes a reality it’s more attainable, and I want it to be more attainable.

This goes for not just women or men: We’re talking about any race, any religion, any background, transgender, gay, anything that you can think about. Because especially when we talk about art, emotions have no gender. You don’t feel male sad versus female sad. Sad is sad. Happy is happy. All these emotions, anything that you feel, they’re universal. So I think it is actually very limiting to think that only one gender can have the monopoly of any art form.

It starts very young. As parents, we have to make our kids really believe that they can. Not just in words—“Oh, you can be anything you want”—but do you make them really believe they can be anything they want? My father did, and that’s the difference. He actually made me believe that could do it. And because of him, I’m here.

So it starts very young and it starts from education. We need to see more women who apply to [film scoring] schools knowing that they could actually have a career. Because even me, I went to Berklee but I didn’t think, when I started out, that I could be a film scoring major. But hopefully this will give inspiration to others who maybe don’t think that they can do something because of wherever they were born.

Do you think about that when you take these jobs? That maybe some little girl will see your face on a magazine and know that you scored this movie?

Absolutely. I think about that more than anything else. Anything that you worked for for your entire life, and then it becomes recognized, it’s a great feeling. But that’s a very small percentage of the gratitude I feel. The bigger thing is legacy, and actually making an impact on other people’s lives.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I hope that people find me in themselves a little bit. I’m a professional lemonade-maker. And I’m more about making that lemonade taste better and better. Figuring out ways to overcome discouragement and to keep getting up. My legacy? I hope that years down the road the music is still relatable and that it can still be a part of people’s lives, and I hope that it’s changed some people’s lives for the better.

I really hope that after this time period we’re going to stop talking about the first woman, and I hope maybe I can provide some help in getting rid of that conversation, that the slate is clean and equal for everyone else that comes along.