‘All of the stars aligned’ for Leo Birenberg
The Thornton alum earned an Emmy nomination for the eclectic score of “Weird.”
The Thornton alum earned an Emmy nomination for the eclectic score of “Weird.”
Leo Birenberg is a lot of things: a saxophonist, a USC alum and a Charli XCX fanboy. Now, he can add an Emmy-nominated composer to that list.
The morning of the Emmy announcements, Birenberg woke up at 5 a.m.
“I got up to work in the dark with headphones on … so I was totally tunnel vision, not paying attention,” Birenberg said. “Then my phone started buzzing at like 8:01, and it was my publicist. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, Emmy nominations come out today. He’s either calling me to tell me it happened or didn’t happen.’ Because he would never be up at 8 a.m. otherwise. I picked up the phone, and he just screamed, ‘We did it.’”
When choosing what project he wants to score, Birenberg usually looks for something that allows him to explore different styles and influences. After director Eric Appel approached both him and frequent collaborator Zach Robinson to score “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (2022) — a movie based on the life of parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic — Birenberg knew this film would be a perfect opportunity for a new adventure.
“We approached the movie kind of like it is one of these early 1990s, great American hero stories that you would find with ‘Forrest Gump’ or ‘[The] Shawshank Redemption,’” Birenberg said. “There’s something kind of saccharine about film and sappy and sweeping in scope. It’s a kind of film score that you can’t really write anymore because people think it’s dated and cheesy, but it really hits home for a lot of people.”
Birenberg doesn’t mind getting absurd with his work. His two favorite products from “Weird” are “a really lush romantic piece that’s basically a piano concerto when Al and Madonna are first introduced to each other and then have extremely passionate sex all over Al’s house” and an accordion-dominated action score “where Al fights a bunch of bad guys in a diner, he goes like full John Wick.”
Birenberg and Robinson had around four weeks and an 80-piece orchestra — as well as Yankovic’s accordion skills — to put together the Emmy-nominated product. Although in Birenberg’s experience, most films give composers three to four months to create the score, the movie’s quick time frame was not an issue because he, Appel, Yankovic and Robinson were “all on the same page.”
“Weird” isn’t Birenberg’s first time working with Appel; the director reached out to Birenberg through “an email that doesn’t even exist anymore” to work on the Fox series “Son of Zorn” back when Birenberg only had one show credit to his name. Birenberg’s first lead composer credit — “Big Time in Hollywood, FL” — was canceled after one season.
“One of the only people that watched [‘Big Time’] was [Appel],” Birenberg said. “He called me in the middle of 2015 and said … ‘I’ve loved the music you wrote in ‘Big Time,’ do you want to do the job?’ That never happens. It’s normally so hard to get a job; somehow, that was the easiest job I’ve ever gotten.”
Birenberg and Appel have remained friends since their first collaboration. Birenberg said he understands the importance of friendship and enthusiasm in the film industry.
Although Birenberg graduated from USC more than a decade ago, adjunct assistant professor of screen scoring Jon Burlingame — who Birenberg describes as a “legend” — remembers him.
“There’s 20 people who go through that class every year, and I’ve been teaching for 25 years … Sometimes it’s hard to remember everybody. But [Birenberg] was interesting and memorable because he always had a smile on his face,” Burlingame said. “Success in the film music business isn’t just a matter of talent. You have to have a really good attitude; you have to be confident in what you’re doing.”
After finishing his undergraduate studies at NYU, Birenberg immediately moved to Los Angeles to be a part of the Thornton School of Music’s scoring for motion pictures and television program, graduating in 2011.
At Thornton, Birenberg also learned from former USC professor Frederik Wiedmann about music technology, thus stopping him from writing his “assignments with pencil on music paper, like it was the fucking 1800s.”
Wiedmann said Birenberg was always able to “add his own cool spin” to the assignment’s often “rigid parameters.” Wiedmann shared an email from Birenberg regarding an assignment to re-score Zack Snyder’s “300” (2006), in which Birenberg added “a crazy combo of super authentic Wagnerian opera, mixed with death metal and synth percussion beats.”
“Every class I had, I could always very quickly see, ‘Yeah, these people are going to be doing this for real,’” Wiedmann said. “[Birenberg] was one of those people that instantly I knew, ‘This kid is gonna make something out of this,’ because he seemed always extremely motivated and interested. He had this natural thirst for knowledge.”
Birenberg’s wide variety of influences and abilities has led to his diverse portfolio, having worked on the TV shows “PEN15” and “Cobra Kai” and the recently released film “Bottoms” — which he created in collaboration with Charli XCX.
Burlingame said although “Cobra Kai” should have gotten an Emmy nomination, it is hard to tell what the Academy is looking for. He said this is the year “all of the stars aligned” for Birenberg with the composer snagging his first nomination for Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited or Anthology Series, Movie or Special.
Birenberg said none of his success would have been possible without a good attitude and a true love for the craft.
“Be ridiculously enthusiastic about everything you do,” Birenberg said. “It goes a long way toward people wanting to work with you. You can never go wrong by being high enthusiasm and giving everything 100% effort.”
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