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Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood On Scoring Films

Greenwood is nominated for an Oscar for writing the music for The Power of the Dog. He also recently scored Spencer and Licorice Pizza. Originally broadcast Feb. 7, 2022.


Other segments from the episode on March 4, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Interview with Jonny Greenwood; Interview with Benedict Cumberbatch; Review of "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty"



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, in for Terry Gross. Today we feature interviews with two people nominated for Oscars for their work on the Jane Campion film "The Power of the Dog," composer Jonny Greenwood and actor Benedict Cumberbatch. The film is nominated for 12 Oscars in total.

First, we'll listen to Terry's interview from last month with Jonny Greenwood. He was known as the lead guitarist and keyboard player for the rock band Radiohead when screenwriter and director Paul Thomas Anderson asked him to write the score for his film "There Will Be Blood." That score was described in Rolling Stone as a sonic explosion that reinvented what film music could be. Greenwood wrote the scores for Anderson's subsequent films, including "Phantom Thread" and "The Master," which opened like this...


BIANCULLI: Greenwood also writes a lot of film music that is more avant garde, but some of the avant garde music is influenced by his love of baroque. He studied classical music when he was young, played in a youth orchestra and has been a composer in residence at the BBC Concert Orchestra. You can hear his music in three very different recent movies, Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film, "Licorice Pizza," which is set in the '70s, "Spencer" starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, and "The Power Of The Dog," which is set in Montana in 1925. In the beginning of "The Power Of The Dog," two brothers who own a large cattle ranch are herding the cattle to market. This is the music we hear.


TERRY GROSS: Jonny Greenwood, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your music. It's a pleasure to have you on our show. So that music that we just heard from "The Power Of The Dog," it starts like it's going to be very Western-ish, but not quite. And then there's other potentially menacing music intruding on it. It's a buzzy, ominous-sounding melody interfering with this Western-ish kind of sound. So - and it lets you know that this isn't going to be a conventional Western, even though they're herding cattle. And it also lets you know that bad things are going to be interfering. What's happening musically? What are you doing musically?

JONNY GREENWOOD: I think Westerns have a traditional sound, which is big, sweeping strings and sort of Copeland-style harmonies, which are not only beyond me but wouldn't have really suited the darkness of the film, I think. So the approach to this was originally to try and write music for banjo and string quartet because I'm a big believer that the banjo can be a great, dark, sinister instrument. I mean, I grew up listening to things like the Violent Femmes, and they managed to do that sort of country death song style, you know, banjo, as you know, the opposite of the Steve Martin, you know, routine about how banjos just make you smile, which is true. And, you know, and all that stuff is wonderful music. But there's also a dark side, I think, to that kind of music.

Anyway, I persuaded her to let me try and write something for banjo and string quartet. And it was awful, as you might imagine, and just sounded wrong in every way. So on the rebound from that, I just started trying to play my cello like it was a banjo, so doing the rolling fingerpicking thing on a cello instead.

GROSS: So with the strings that kind of interfere with that plucked cello sound, making this sound even more unconventional, what did you do to get that kind of menacing sound from violins or violins and violas?

GREENWOOD: So I had them play with no vibrato. And, you know, that's a really beautiful effect in a way. I think the danger with writing music not on paper and relying on computers and demos is that you start to get used to how some string sounds and then just look to replicate that. Whereas the variety of color that, you know, one player can make with a string instrument is - it's already - it's quite mind blowing. And just a combination of a whole ensemble and all the directions it can go, it's really exciting and daunting. And it's like - it's easily my favorite day of the year is when the string players turn up for an afternoon.

GROSS: Do you want the strings to be perfectly tuned or do you want them to be just slightly off?

GREENWOOD: Yes. I wrote one cue for the Lynne Ramsay film "You Were Never Really Here" where - asking them to have - half the players tuned a quarter tone flat. So just a little bit out of tune, but all as out of tune as one another, if you see what I mean. But because they're playing with their ears, it's very hard to do. So they're still making their fingers go to where their ear wants to hear the right note. So even though it was difficult to do and they were sort of - weren't doing it properly, it was one of those things where you just end up being even more impressed by what they can do and how they're playing and thinking and making these sounds.

GROSS: One of your influences who you've also worked with is Krzysztof Penderecki, an avant garde composer who once said that we have to use instruments which were built 300 years ago or 200. And the newest instrument in the orchestra is the saxophone. But that's at least a hundred years old. And he said in the century of landing on the Moon - he said this during the 20th century - we still have to write for very old instruments, museum instruments. I think this is the problem. It became the problem in the second half of the 20th century that there's not much progress because of the lack of instruments, of new instruments.

And I thought of you when I read that. And this is quoted on an album that you collaborated with him in on. I thought of you because it seems to me you want to make old instruments sound new by mixing them up a little bit, by doing unusual things with them or having them do unusual things with each other, whether it's their tunings or their dissonance is the number of instruments you use. So do you relate to that quote about using old instruments for new music?

GREENWOOD: I do, because I've always found acoustic instruments, certainly orchestral instruments to be capable of much more variety and strangeness and complexity than, you know, nearly all of the software I've used in the past. And I think that's maybe why, to me, music by people like Penderecki and Ligeti and - it just still sounds very strange and contemporary. And they still sound like the music of the future to me. Whereas lots of the electronic stuff that was done in the '60s and '70s, you hear it now, and it's just - it's sort of its time.

GROSS: Oh, that's so true (laughter). That is really true.

GREENWOOD: And I think that all instruments are just technology, however old and new they are. And the ideal situation is where you can just regard them as being all on the same level of importance and interest and - whether it's a, you know, a piano or a laptop or an electric guitar or tuba. They're all hugely exciting things, you know. And, you know, I remembered - as a 10-year-old, whatever, whenever my mom was driving us around, if we went past a music shop, my daydream, as we drove past, was never imagining being able to go in and buy a guitar or whatever. It would be imagining being able to go and buy a flute or a trumpet. I was just fascinated with all these different colors and ways of making music and making sounds. And in a really tragic, middle-aged man kind of way, that's sort of what I've turned my life into...

GROSS: (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: ...As I'm sitting, talking to you, surrounded by lots of, you know, those kind of instruments.

GROSS: But I'm wondering - getting back to that Penderecki quote, I'm wondering if you try to make old instruments sound just a little bit unrecognizable and use them, like, in a way that sounds new even though the instrument is old, you know, that sounds like a new sound that you're getting from it.

GREENWOOD: So I was very lucky when I was in elementary school, age 9, 10, that we were sitting with our teacher, and he had everyone bring in their instruments, whether it was recorders or violins. And he said, OK, everyone, try and make a new sound with your instrument; try and get a different noise out of it. And that really stuck with me, and that was just something that fascinated me then and is probably, you know, still in my - it's still in my - how I work today. So yeah, just very grateful to have, you know, a great music teacher at an early stage in my life.

GROSS: Do you remember what you did to get a different sound?

GREENWOOD: I think I put the bow under the strings and played the bottom string and top string at the same time, (laughter) as I remember. But just realizing that there were really no rules, and if it makes a sound, then it's musical. And you can just look at an instrument and think about it in any way you want to.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonny Greenwood. You may know him from two different musical areas of his life - one is in Radiohead, and the other as a film score composer. And he wrote scores for three current films - for "Spencer," "The Power Of The Dog" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Licorice Pizza." He's also done the scores for Anderson's "Phantom Thread," "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jonny Greenwood, who you probably know from his work with the band Radiohead but also for his film scores. And he has three films he wrote scores for, three new ones - "Spencer," "Licorice Pizza" and "The Power Of The Dog." And "Licorice Pizza" isn't by far the first film he's done with Paul Thomas Anderson. He scored Anderson's films "Phantom Thread," "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood."

I want to talk with you about the music for "Phantom Thread." There's three versions of what's basically, like, the theme of the movie. And I want to play two of those versions, and we're going to start with version 2. And I should say, at this point - the movie is about this very kind of classical fashion designer who is both obsessive and very set in his ways and very temperamental. And he deals - you know, he does, like, gowns and other evening dresses for, you know, high-society, wealthy women. And so - and when we hear this music, his muse-dash-girlfriend is about to start poisoning him with mushrooms because when he isn't feeling well, when he's vulnerable, he becomes more accessible and more affectionate and needy, and that puts her in a better position, she thinks. So this is a duet with you at the piano and Daniel Pioro on violin.


GROSS: I think that is really just a beautiful theme. And just - everything is, like, just a little bit off. I'm wondering if the piano that you're playing there is prepared in any way 'cause the notes sound imperfectly tuned and a little bit muffled maybe. So what have you done with the piano? (Laughter).

GREENWOOD: There's a roll of felt laid between the hammers and the strings, which is why it sounds like that. And it's a little bit out of tune just because I'm a bit lazy with my booking the piano tuner, I'm afraid. But (laughter) that's the - yeah, that one...

GROSS: It's not because you like the sound? It's because you're lazy?

GREENWOOD: It's (laughter) - well - it's because I like the sound, yes. And I'm lazy.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you have felt under the lid, like, on the strings, as opposed to, like, on the keys. They're on the - felt is on the strings.


GROSS: And the violin - it's almost like you asked him, I want to hear the friction of the bow on the strings.

GREENWOOD: Well, that's - Daniel is a very physical player indeed and is interested in every possible color and texture. And I also love a recording where you can hear the physicality of what's happening, whether it's the breathing of the player or the - just, you know, the effort involved in making the music, you know? And I know it drives some people crazy, but things like Glenn Gould singing along and all of that reminder that there's all this muscle and physical effort behind the making of the music. I just - makes it, you know, more exciting to me. I think that stuff is quite often clinically stripped out in most people's consumption of music, and especially classical music.

GROSS: So let's hear another version of the theme that we heard from "Phantom Thread." And this happens as the fashion designer is really feeling the effects of the poison. And so he's been talking to his sister. And he's been complaining about his muse. And he doesn't realize he's being poisoned by her. But he says, there's an air of quiet death in this house, and I do not like the way it smells. So here we go. This is a more orchestral version and a more dirge-like version of the theme that we heard. This is from the "Phantom Thread" - music composed by my guest, Jonny Greenwood.


GROSS: I just love that (laughter). And I'm not sure exactly what to ask you, but can you talk a little bit about shaping it into that version of the theme?

GREENWOOD: Sure. I mean, I'm a big fan of these historically very inaccurate recordings of baroque music that were done in the '70s - '60s, '70s, '80s even - before the, you know, the authenticity police stepped in and made everyone play with the right size of orchestra and the right kind of violins and - because it's sort of glorious hearing this baroque music done with big, romantic orchestras for all that it, you know, would never have sounded like that. So that was a reference I sent to Paul. And he was also talking about that Kubrick film, "Barry Lyndon," that has some big, baroque, orchestral things in it. And it was just, you know - I mean, on one level, another excuse to get in a room with an orchestra and just revel in that beautiful, big sound they make.

BIANCULLI: Jonny Greenwood spoke with Terry Gross last month. He's nominated for an Academy Award for his film score for the Jane Campion film "The Power Of The Dog." After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we'll hear from another of this year's Oscar nominees from "The Power Of The Dog," actor Benedict Cumberbatch. And I'll review "Winning Time," the new HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers basketball dynasty of the 1980s. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last month with Jonny Greenwood, best known for his work with the band Radiohead and more recently for his movie scores. He's nominated for an Oscar this year for his score for the Jane Campion film "The Power Of The Dog." He also scored Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie "Licorice Pizza," as well as Anderson's "Phantom Thread," "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood."


GROSS: So before you were with Radiohead, my understanding is you were in a band with Thom Yorke's younger brother. Thom Yorke is the lead singer-songwriter from Radiohead. So your older brother was in a band with Thom Yorke. You were in a band with Thom Yorke's younger brother. Do I have that right?

GREENWOOD: You do. That's right.

GROSS: So how did you end up playing with Thom Yorke and forming Radiohead?

GREENWOOD: Well, they had a keyboard player who - it's Thom's band - had a keyboard player, which I think they didn't get on with because he played his keyboard so loud. And so when I got the chance to play with him, the first thing I did was make sure my keyboard was turned off when I was playing. And I must have done months of rehearsals with them with this keyboard that was just - they didn't know that I'd already turned it off and was just - they made quite a racket, quite a noise. It was all guitars and distortion.

And so I would pretend to play for weeks on end, and Thom would say, I can't quite hear what you're doing, but I think you're adding a really interesting texture that - 'cause I can tell when you're not playing. And I'm thinking, no, you can't because I'm really not playing. And I'd go home in the evening and work out how to actually play chords. And cautiously over the next few months, I would start turning this keyboard up. And that's how I started - you know, started in with Radiohead.

GROSS: Wait a minute. I want to make sure I understand this correctly. So the first period that you were playing with Radiohead, you turned off the keyboard?


GROSS: And so you were...


GROSS: ...Fingering the keys, but no sound was being emitted because this is an electric keyboard, so...

GREENWOOD: Exactly, yeah.

GROSS: Nothing was coming out, and nobody noticed.

GREENWOOD: Yeah. I mean, you know, we were kind of noisy garage band, I suppose, in a small rehearsal room. And I remember the first few songs when I did start playing melodies. And Tom liked it, and it was very exciting.

GROSS: So since you've had a foot in classical music and in rock for so long and have been important in both worlds, I think the division has melted away for a lot of classical performers but not so much for other people 'cause so many people don't listen to classical music at all anymore. It's just not - I think it's become more and more of a niche, with the exception of film scores. That's one of the great things about film scores is that it brings a different kind of music often into - you know, into people who otherwise wouldn't hear it.

GREENWOOD: I think streaming has been quite bad for classical music because if you are keen to find out more about classical music - you might have heard that the Beethoven "Violin Concerto" is a great piece of music, so you go on to Spotify or whatever. And when you search for it, you're presented with 500 recordings. And it's just - I think it's just a bit of a sort of daunting and off-putting thing. There's very little curation. I do sort of mourn the days when you used to listen to a record hundreds of times and get everything you could out of it.

And I'm the same. I'll - you know, I'll listen to a Miles Davis record on Spotify, and then rather than play it again, I'll move on to the next one. And there's just none of that sort of obsession. And I think classical music especially suffers with that because if you can, you know, live with the same piece of classical music for a few weeks, you know, it'll reveal itself to you. But it's about having the patience to do that.

GROSS: I know you like performing in churches and listening to music in churches because often the period of music that's being played is from the period that the church was built in. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but can you talk a little bit about that, about the experience of being, like, in an old church or cathedral and playing or hearing music there?

GREENWOOD: Yeah, so I've - spending a lot of time in Italy at the moment, and the churches there have just some glorious and strange organs that I've been really lucky enough to play and write a few things for. That's opened up a whole side of classical music I didn't know about, like all these early organs that have two sets of black keys so that you can play the notes in between the notes a bit like Penderecki, I suppose. And they have keys that reproduce the sound of birds singing. And if you look inside the organ, it's these little boxes with water in them that blow air through them.

And these instruments are, you know, 400 or 500 years old. And it just occurred to me that when you're sitting, hearing one being played, you are hearing an actual, authentic performance from - that would be identical to someone sitting in the same chair 500 years earlier because the walls are the same and the pipes are the same and the organ is the same. And this is what it sounded like, and that's - there's a sort of exciting time traveler-y (ph) sort of enjoyment to be had with that kind of music, I think.

GROSS: Jonny Greenwood, thank you so much. It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you for your music. And I'm expecting one or more of your scores to be nominated for Oscars. So, you know, I don't know if you care very much about awards, but I wish you good luck in awards season.

GREENWOOD: Thank you. Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Jonny Greenwood speaking to Terry Gross last month. He's nominated for an Academy Award this year for his score for the film "The Power Of The Dog." After a break, we'll hear from another Oscar nominee from that same movie, lead actor nominee Benedict Cumberbatch. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Benedict Cumberbatch is nominated for a best actor Oscar for his role in the Jane Campion film "The Power Of The Dog." The film has received 12 Academy Award nominations, including best film, best director and best supporting performances for his fellow actors Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Terry spoke with Benedict Cumberbatch in January. "The Power Of The Dog" was adapted from the novel of the same name and is set in 1925 in Montana. Cumberbatch plays Phil, who along with his brother, played by Jesse Plemons, owns a cattle ranch. Phil is hypermasculine and a bully.

When they're taking the herd to market, they stop at an inn where they have dinner. They're served by a young man, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son of the woman who owns the inn. He has a clean white linen towel over one arm, the way you might see in a fancy restaurant. To Phil, his manner and the linen make him seem effeminate. While the young man is serving the table where Phil, his brother and the cow hands are seated, Phil picks up a paper flower from the handmade bouquet serving as the table's centerpiece and starts examining it.


BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, yeah. Well, I wonder what little lady made these.

KODI SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) Actually, I did, sir. My mother was a florist, so I made them to look like the ones in our garden.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, well, do pardon me.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) They're just as real as possible.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) All right. Now, gentlemen, look. See; that's what you do with the cloth.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Right. Oh, that's what you do.

SMIT-MCPHEE: (As Peter Gordon) It's really just for wine drips.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Oh, you got that, boys? - only for the drips.


CUMBERBATCH: (As Phil Burbank) Now get us some food.


TERRY GROSS: Benedict Cumberbatch, congratulations on your performance and on the film. So "The Power Of The Dog" is a Western of sorts. I mean, it's set on a cattle ranch, and your character is - he's a cowboy. So did - growing up in England as you did, did American Westerns mean much to you? And did you study, like, the history of the American West or anything?

CUMBERBATCH: I mean, not really - no. It's about as far from my lived experience as you can imagine, which I guess is part of the enticement of wanting to take this character on and this milieu on. But, no, I certainly didn't have a history of it. I had a little understanding of it from university, from studying cinema at that stage of my life. I guess the first inkling I had of a traditional Western - it was the more sort of John Ford, tough man, the John Wayne. But also, for me, I think where I really clicked into it was probably "High Noon." I thought, ah, here's deliverance from an unassuming hero in a way. And then the revisionist era of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" began as well, which for me was at a very formative time in my cinema-going experience. But it certainly wasn't a playground role-play thing for me. And it wasn't something I grew up fantasizing about or knowing anything about.

GROSS: Yeah. You said that Westerns, cowboys didn't mean anything to you growing up. And you joked that to do this film, you had to go to dude school (laughter)...


GROSS: ...To prepare for the character, to learn both the Western things, but I think also to learn that style of, like, cowboy. So what are some of the things you had to learn, and which was the most interesting for you?

CUMBERBATCH: I knew I'd get snapshots or feelings of who Phil was from my encounter, but with people who actually live that life in Montana and who were graceful enough to let me into their world and educate me and give me an access to that extraordinary experience of working with animals - extraordinary in the sense it's often a coordination between four species. There was one moment when we were driving cattle. And there were horses. There were men. There was silence at times, but whistled or talked communication between dogs. And those four species working together was just something profoundly affecting. And realizing that and the connection to landscape was really as informative as any of the specifics of braiding, say, or whittling or whistling loudly, say, or the horse-riding skills or any of the other kind of attributes this character has at his disposal. But to marry the brutality of being able to master the hard work in that hard landscape and those hard times with this amazing delicacy and sensitivity - I thought that was at the core of his character.

GROSS: In the novel and in the book, Phil rarely bathes. In the novel, it's specified he bathes once a month in the creek. And when the creek freezes over in the winter, well, then he just won't bathe (laughter). So in trying to really get with the character, you stopped bathing for extended intervals while making the movie. I assume that was while making the movie. But, like, that must have been a really icky experience for you. I mean, once you start to smell yourself and then you realize other people are definitely smelling you and not acclimated to the smell like you are - I mean, that must've, like, been very uncomfortable and maybe even a little embarrassing.

CUMBERBATCH: In rehearsals, I did it for about a week before my family turned up in New Zealand, where we were rehearsing and shooting the film. And I did it because I didn't want that to be something they had to endure. And I thought, you know, this is fine. This is about me getting used to it and Jane and, you know, maybe a couple of other people during the rehearsal period in that time. But then she'd say things like, oh, let's go and get some sushi. And I'd be like, oh, come on. Now I've got to walk out into the real world, not in character, possibly being recognized and...

GROSS: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: ...Carrying this kind of biohazard-level heft of stink around with me. That's not fair.

GROSS: I could see the tweets - like, Benedict Cumberbatch really smells (laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, you know, yes, it's enough to be self-conscious of it in any normal circumstance - the heightened one I find myself in as someone recognized. But I think where it's essential might really help was on filming days. I - you know, I washed a lot more than Phil did, put it that way. But I would not have my clothes laundered, so I did carry his body odor with me. The minute I put those clothes on, I was him. I could smell him. And the minute they were off, I was me again. And I cleaned myself up when I got home.

GROSS: You don't bring the character home with you, but you do keep the character when you're on set. You stay in character even when you're not filming.

CUMBERBATCH: I did for this one.

GROSS: What does that - you don't always do it, but you did with this? What does that do for you? What's the advantage of that?

CUMBERBATCH: Well, I think what it does is if you're far away from who you are, it just gives you the ability to have a focus and a hook that's complete. You're just - you're narrowing the chance for distraction so that your concentration can be more complete. It's more - it's also more a sublimation of the self and - then it is method. Method is really putting on your own psycho trauma and drama to facilitate the same in a character. And this is so far from my lived experience on every single level that, you know, a lot of this had to be manifested for me.

Normally, I think my brain, either as a producer, which I'm doing now as well, or just as a curious filmmaker, kind of creeps into other people's business a bit, not open in a intrusive or negative way. But I just - because I'm curious. So I'll lean into watching an actor's process or I'll get interested in choices. Well, I wonder what the camera's doing or I'm that bit's going to be edited. I couldn't do that with this. I needed my concentration to be absolute.

GROSS: Jane Campion likes to explore different meanings of masculinity, and she certainly does that in in this film. As we've talked about, your character seems to be a real bully and prides himself on, you know, this real macho. And the things that he does are very, like, you know, masculine things like cattle herding, castrating cattle, you know, wearing spurs and stomping around. And what are some of your insights into - to the extent that you can share them with an audience that includes many people who have not seen the film - what are some of your insights about what made him that way? Because when we talk about a certain type of like, quote, "toxic masculinity," it's always interesting to think about what's behind that.

CUMBERBATCH: What's really fascinating about bringing a character like Phil Burbank to life, you're really looking under the hood of it. You're examining the causality behind that toxic masculinity within that bracket, though, of behavior labeled toxic masculinity. I think there are genuine, non-performative elements that he has just grown into being. I do believe that he is that ranch man. I do believe that he is that capable. You know, he's a master of his craft, whether it's the banjo or whether it's whittling. He really is profoundly gifted.

I think where it becomes toxic is where he has a need to protect things in the world and hate on the world potentially through that defensive protectiveness before it hates on him. And, I mean, to talk about the landscape a bit for me, that was just an absolute gift. You know, our production designer, Grant Major, built a really masterful set. I mean, it was an extraordinary piece of reality where there was absolutely nothing. And that was integral to filming in New Zealand. There are 360 degrees of nothing, which in Montana, near where the film is actually located, sadly isn't the case, but logistically very difficult to film there.

But for an actor to be supplanted in that landscape with grants set, I mean, everywhere I looked, I had Phil. I had him in the weather. I had him in the sound of the wind and the grass. I had him in the movement and the breath of the cattle, the hair playing on the horse's back, which is actually detailed in the film that Jane picks up on with Ari's cinematography. And I just felt utterly nourished by the placement of where we were shooting at. My big fear was once we got to a studio in Auckland, I'd be having to clink across a car park in spurs and furry chaps and just feeling ludicrous like I'm at some kind of Comic-Con convention of "Power Of The Dog" rather than anything as real as the lived experience on that set on location wise. And then the pandemic happened, and we stopped. And our dreams became supercharged as the collective consciousness that this massive shockwave sent across it. And we came back to the work not only with a renewed vigor and focus, but just amplification of gratitude to be able to work.

BIANCULLI: Benedict Cumberbatch speaking to Terry Gross in January. He's nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the film "The Power Of The Dog." The Academy Awards will be televised March 27. Coming up, I'll review Adam McKay's highly stylized take on the LA Lakers basketball dynasty of the 1980s. It's a series called "Winning Time," premiering Sunday on HBO. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday, HBO presents the premiere of a new 10-part series from executive producer Adam McKay, whose high-energy attention-getting credits include "The Big Short," Netflix's "Don't Look Up" and HBO's "Succession." His subject this time is a sports dynasty, The Los Angeles Lakers, who dominated basketball in the 1980s. But it's a scripted series, not a documentary, and has as much comedy and flashy touches as straight drama.

The series is called "Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty." It chronicles the fiery team up of Lakers veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and charismatic rookie Earvin Magic Johnson, and how their coaches established a new fast break style of play that propelled the team to victory after victory. That style of play and that Lakers team came to be known as Showtime, which was the name of the Jeff Pearlman nonfiction book on which this series is based. For HBO, it's called "Winning Time" instead.

And I do think this show is a winner, even though it showboats with its tone and approach and goes out of its way to be out of the ordinary. Think of the extraordinary appeal and success of ESPN's "The Last Dance" back in 2020. That series told of the rise of a later basketball dynasty, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who ruled the sport in the '90s. And it found as much drama off the court as on, diving into the backstories of the individual players, arguments among the coaches and owners - and lots of side stories about racism, about sex and sexist attitudes, and about the growing commercialization of sports endorsements. "The Last Dance" covered all that dynamically, but as a documentary.

"Winning Time" takes the based-on-fact dramatic approach, hiring actors to play the familiar roles and taking dramatic license with certain events. In fact, "Winning Time" takes a lot of license in a lot of ways. Eight of the 10 episodes were provided for preview. And like a hot dog athlete, they're consistently asking for, almost begging for, attention. Period music propels many scenes and almost every montage. Sex scenes tend to be more graphic than expected. Split screens and other busy visual tricks are plentiful. And many of the characters break the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly, then slipping back into the scene. It could all be too showy and distracting. But the performances pull you in and keep everything afloat. That's especially true of the show's central star, John C. Reilly. He plays Jerry Buss, the ambitious new owner of the Lakers. And when we meet him, he's watching a basketball game on TV while in bed with a coed.


JOHN C REILLY: (As Jerry) Basketball, I mean, look at it. It's like great sex. It's always moving. It's rhythmic. It's up close and personal. There's no pads or helmets for protection. It's just you and these other guys out there, trying to get the ball into the hoop. It's a beautiful thing. And every single one of those guys plays that game with their own unique pizzazz and style. It's sexy. Come on. I mean, if there's two things in this world that make me believe in God, it's sex and basketball, you know? Hon? Honey?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'm sleeping.

BIANCULLI: The coaching staff is portrayed by actors who, like Reilly, can play for comedy and for drama with equal effectiveness. Jason Clarke is explosively funny as the temperamental Jerry West. Adrien Brody is a different kind of funny, quiet and sad, as Pat Riley. And the actors portraying the well-known Lakers stars - especially Quincy Isaiah as Magic and Solomon Hughes as Kareem - pull off their impersonations with exceptional flair off the court as well as on. One of the nicer surprises regarding "Winning Time" is how, as the episodes roll out, other strong actors join in on the fun - like Michael Chiklis from "The Shield," who cuts a fierce figure as Boston Celtics owner Red Auerbach.

And another nice surprise is how much attention "Winning Time" devotes to its women. From company employees to players' mothers, wives and girlfriends, they're all given their own chances to shine and have their say. That's especially true of Sally Field, who shows up in Episode 2 virtually unrecognizable, sporting a blonde wig and a long cigarette holder as Jerry Buss' accountant and mother. When she shows up, both she and John C. Reilly, as her son, start the scene by talking to the audience, then shift into dialogue to engage in some caustic mother-son by-play.


SALLY FIELD: (As Jessie) I know where the bodies are buried.

REILLY: (As Jerry) Because she's the one who buried them.

FIELD: (As Jessie) A lot of thanks I get. Make my Bourbon and soda.

REILLY: (As Jerry) You've had enough.

FIELD: (As Jessie) Since when?

REILLY: (As Jerry) 1962?


FIELD: (As Jessie) You want me old before my time (vocalizing).

REILLY: (As Jerry) I did it. I poured you one. You don't have soda.

FIELD: (As Jessie) You're just lazy. Gerald. Gerald. And why the Lakers? There's no lakes around here.

REILLY: (As Jerry) I can't believe you're not excited. This puts our family in a very elite club, OK, tycoons - you know, the people who actually run the country, captains of industry.

FIELD: (As Jessie) What industry, sweat socks?

REILLY: (As Jerry) No, show business. Forget Louis B. Mayer. We're going to be the next moguls in this town. You, me, Jeanie, the boys, when they come back, we're going to be a dynasty.

FIELD: (As Jessie) And then you'll be satisfied?

REILLY: (As Jerry) I'm going to be thrilled.

FIELD: (As Jessie) Hooey - then you'll just start chasing something else.

BIANCULLI: I suspect, because of the cast, the subject and McKay's approach to the story, that "Winning Time: The Rise Of The Lakers Dynasty" will draw a large and enthusiastic crowd, just as the Lakers did after drafting Magic Johnson in 1979. And just like those Lakers, HBO seems to be hungry for more and already is talking about the possibility of extending "Winning Time" for additional seasons. The Lakers won by approaching the game differently. And this new HBO series seems to be drawing from the same unconventional playbook.

On Monday's show, we talk with David Sipress, who has been a New Yorker cartoonist since 1998. It's his dream job. But it took 25 years of New Yorker rejections before getting in the magazine. He's written a new memoir. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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