Now that I've seen Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings 3 times (First an early #GoldOpen screening, then bought a ticket opening weekend, and a 3rd time on Labor Day when a friend rented a private theater for 20 people and wrote about the experience), and have now had time to really analyze the story and the characters, I've had time to ponder how I might have pitched my approach to the score had I had the opportunity to do so. First I was just geeking out and realized what a good exercise it was for me to try and formulate how I would pitch my concept in a meeting.
I was sharing my concept with a filmmaker friend who mentioned she hadn't realized just how deep a composer can get into storytelling thru music beyond just setting the mood of a scene. So she encouraged me to write this down and share it, so hopefully this is informative for filmmakers, composers, or just anyone curious how music can help tell a story. Warning, mild SPOILERS ahead.
To preface, in 2019 I put together a pitch video, detailing my story of falling in love with Marvel, my background as a Chinese-American composer, cowriting a song with Stan Lee, and presenting a demo of a heroic theme inspired by the character of Shang-Chi, long before I knew anything about what the story or tone of the movie would end up being.
I wanted to demonstrate a theme that would showcase my range in understanding how to write a heroic rousing orchestral theme that would stand up amongst some of the great Marvel themes, most notably Alan Silvestri's Avengers theme. I also wanted to showcase my ability to write for and perform Chinese instruments, and I would have used more Chinese instruments if I had the money to hire some musicians. Thirdly, I wanted to demonstrate my ability to add a modernized sound to it, so I invited Brandon Lau to help program drums for me, and Jason Chu who created a wonderful rap to go over it.
This was all done 2 years before, so now based on seeing what the movie was actually about, I came up with this concept for how I would approach the score and what the primary themes I would focus on composing. Here are 3 main thematic ideas that I would base Shang-Chi's score around.
Shang-Chi's Main Theme
It has to be a bold, instantly recognizable heroic orchestral theme, with touches of Chinese drums and other Chinese instrumentation that hints at his heritage from a 1000 year old Chinese warlord and the gatekeeper of the mythical city of Ta Lo, and of course his destiny as a master of martial arts. The rejected music pitch video is just a taste of how I might have approached writing a theme like this.
A full statement of his theme wouldn't happen till towards the end of the movie when Shang-Chi embraces his destiny and becomes the hero he needs to be, but I would certainly have sprinkled in subtle hints of the theme throughout the film, with a slowed down solo flute, dizi (Chinese flute), or even bawu (Chinese reed instrument) for more emotional moments.
Wenwu/Ten Rings Theme
This may be a bit on the nose, but I would totally have written a 10 note theme for Tony Leung's character Wenwu, that would also stand in for the 10 Rings theme. It would be something dark, plodding, and methodical, representing the 1000 years that he spent amassing power in the shadows as head of the Ten Rings organization. It would be a circular theme, that repeats over and over when his character is on screen, circling down and back up, circling back to the first note. It could also be fragmented into 5 note motifs that can be used in more subtle moments early on in the story where we are meant to feel his presence without seeing him, or to hint at his influence behind the scenes of the plot.
Ta Lo Theme
Ta Lo is the mythical city that Shang-Chi's mother is from. The style of martial arts that they practice there is very circular and flowing, much like Tai Chi, and they're basically air benders. That inspires me to think of writing a Ta Lo theme that is soaring and accompanied by magical, swirling textures in wind instruments and Yangqin (Chinese Dulcimer).
I hope this has demonstrated how I think about creating themes in my film scores, and why I really love the big canvas that epic sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero genres offer for developing strongly thematic scores where the themes can really develop and evolve through the storytelling and collaboration with the filmmakers.