Natalie Holt Talks Star Wars


Have you ever wondered what it might be like to work on Star Wars? To sit in a room and create something that’ll be a part of a galaxy far, far away? To collaborate with legends like composer John Williams? That’s what Natalie Holt has been doing over the past few months. Last last year, she was hired to write the music for Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, and recently, she spoke to io9 about the process from beginning to end.

About how Kenobi showrunner Deborah Chow loved Holt’s work on Loki, which got her the gig. About how Chow showed her an early cut of the series and began talking about the characters. About the day she found out John Williams wanted to contribute not just new music but give permission to use the old stuff. And even about the odd feeling when the first trailer for the show came out, and it contained music you didn’t write, and wouldn’t be in the show.

We spoke to Holt about all of that, and more. She discussed seeding the arc of the Third Sister, Reva, through the show via music, writing new themes for Princess Leia and Darth Vader, and the fact that everyone who works on Star Wars is a little intimidated at the start. Read the conversation, edited for clarity, below.

Holt sitting in the studio

Composer Natalie Holt.
Image: White Bear PR

Germain Lussier, io9: So how did you get the job working on Obi-Wan Kenobi? Was it a traditional kind of process? Tell me a little bit about it.

Natalie Holt: It wasn’t. I usually had to do a showreel and a pitch and stuff, but I think that basically because Deborah [Chow] had watched Loki, so that kind of fast-tracked me to the job, I think.

io9: So she contacted you for it, or did you kind of know about it?

Holt: Yeah, I got contacted for it. I heard about it in the summer [2021] and then it went away and then it came back again at Christmas.

io9: Obviously doing a Marvel show is a big deal. A lot of pressure, a lot of eyeballs and ears. But Star Wars and music are so intertwined it somehow feels even bigger. So what were your initial feelings about it?

Holt: Well, I felt a bit nervous because, I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” It just feels like a heavyweight responsibility to walk in the footsteps of John Williams and be working on such a beloved part of the [franchise] for people, which is the music because everyone’s got the Star Wars theme in their head. So yeah, it feels like a lot. And obviously, Ludwig [Göransson] did such an amazing job on The Mandalorian as well, setting out a new sound. So it felt very intense to be on that in in the same breath as those people.

io9: I’m guessing you welcomed the challenge but did you ever think about not doing it because of that?

Holt: I welcomed the challenge, but it took me a while to kind of get my head into it. But Deborah [said] it happens in every department. That everyone gets on a Star Wars job, and then they’re a bit overwhelmed and it takes them a while to get used to it and then start working properly. She said everyone kind of tries too hard at the beginning and goes a little bit nuts, and then they find their level. It’s just a thing that happens to people working on Star Wars, which was so true actually. And yeah, and it was great. I got to talk to [Solo: A Star Wars Story composer] John Powell and he mentioned a similar thing. There’s getting the job and then going, “Oh my gosh, this is so big” because you’ve grown up as a kid watching Star Wars.

io9: Trust me, I understand. So how did the whole process begin? Did they sit you down in a room and tell you the story? Tell me a little bit about the beginning of getting your head around the actual work.

Holt: So Deborah flew over to London for two days and we watched through [the episodes] at ILM, the Industrial Light and Magic building in London. We just watched them through and spent two days talking about the characters and listening. I’d written a few ideas at that point that we listened t,o and the Inquisitors theme I played her stuck. That was an early thing that just stayed put but all the other themes I’d come up with really changed a lot and developed.

Inquisitors leaving a ship.

The Inquisitor theme was in place from the beginning.
Image: Lucasfilm

io9: Oh wow, so she had already finished shooting everything and you got to watch the whole show together before effects?

Holt: Pretty much, yeah. Because December, I came on board and then I delivered in… it was all done by April, end of March. So it was quite a short process.

io9: And you said the Inquisitor theme stuck first. Where did your idea come from that?

Holt: They were from a different universe and Deborah was like, “I want them to feel really modern and rhythmic. They don’t have to be part of the kind of traditional Star Wars canon, so we want to kind of set them apart.” So I did some kind of effects things with a cello. Pitch shifting it down and playing around with some percussive elements and some synths. And yeah, she just really liked that for the Inquisitors and it just stuck.

io9: Stepping back from that, what is your process for writing music in general? Because you had some music already before you’d seen the show. Do you have a way into a specific headspace, do you listen to a lot of different things for inspiration, and how do you get that first couple of notes out?

Holt: I think it’s just getting into the story. I’m giving myself time to just experiment. So even when I came on board, like, December, I was coming up with the themes. I feel like it’s really important to not just sit down and start writing without having a plan and having a kind of roadmap of what the themes are going to be. So coming up with those themes for the characters is really important for me.

It was really tricky coming up the Leia theme. And I did come up with the theme for Obi, as well because we didn’t know if John was going to come on board at that point. And Deborah sort of said, “We need to just write this as if we don’t have permission to use the Star Wars material. We need to do it so it stands up on its own because we don’t know yet.” So she wanted to do our own thing. But then John came on board after a month. He came on board in January and said he wants to write the Obi theme to Kathleen [Kennedy], because it was the one heritage character that he hadn’t done a theme for. He said, “I just want to write Benny a theme.” But he was really sweet and said, “I want to be respectful of Natalie.” And he did a piano sketch and I got sent the music. And so that was amazing to receive the Obi theme and the piano sketch before anybody had heard it.

Young Leia on Obi-Wan

Leia’s theme was difficult to crack.
Image: Lucasfilm

io9: Oh, my God. That is incredible. I want to get back to that but you mentioned Leia, and I was curious about her. Obviously, that was a big surprise for fans and she has several very recognizable themes. So take me through a little bit of your approach to Leia and her music.

Holt: In fact, my theme for Obi became the Obi and Leia friendship theme when they hold hands. That theme is actually what I’d come up with for Obi, but it works for them as the friendship developed. So we kind of kept that theme in. But Leia’s theme, I wanted to feel like it was leading to her grown-up theme. So I was thinking like a flute, maybe a recorder or something that was a more simple flute that had more of an earthy element to it. So her first sketch was on a flute. But they said, “Oh, we don’t want anything to be too Disney princess about this. She needs to have some guts and it needs to be quite modern and driving.” So then it kind of grew and it just turned into this.

The scene I scored to get her theme was where she runs out of the woods and climbs up the tree. So then it’s like that explosion of her coming through the foliage and then into a little theme and yeah. That had to go past Kathleen and Deborah. Everyone wanted to be super careful that it wasn’t too cute. 

io9: Yeah, it’s got hit that kind of perfect center. I understand. Now, I’m glad we’re talking once the show is over and not a few episodes in because we’d have a very different conversation about Reva. First she’s part of the Inquisitors and only later do we find out she’s more of a double agent. Did that character arc play a role in your ideas behind Reva’s music? Are there hints of what’s going to happen earlier?

Holt:  Yeah. So I came up with the Inquisitor theme and I knew that I wanted her to be part of their theme to start off with and then have her own voice that came out of it. But I came up with her theme in episode six. I was playing around with where she decides not to kill Luke, and that was how I came up with her theme. It was like a kind of corral, because she’s got the weight of the duality of what she wants to do. And then and it was kind of like [hums a few notes] a corral kind of thing for her. Then [there’s] this thing over the top, which was like a sliding string figure, which felt like the torment that she was going through. Then I seeded those elements in a little bi—and then the Reva/Vader fight, her theme comes in there in [another] version. So yeah, I started back at the end with her theme, and then it just grew out of the Inquisitors and went off into Reva on her own.

Reva standing in shadow.

Reva’s theme was done back to front.
Image: Lucasfilm

io9: That’s so cool. Now, you mentioned that you found out John Williams was going to do a new theme, which is incredibly exciting, and that it wasn’t a given you’d be able to use his original music. So talk about the conversations of when and how to use John Williams’ music.

Holt: The whole thing with John’s permission [is] literally they were like, “If John doesn’t give us permission for us to use his music, we cannot use it.” So that was the thing. John watched it through in January and…he pinpointed where we were allowed to use it. And then [composer] Bill Ross adapted things and worked with John on adapting his theme for those areas that they identified. Then the other bit was kind of left down to me to score.

So it wasn’t me making the decision about where John’s music was going to come in. But then once I knew where it was going to go, I could sort of lead into it. And so with the Vader theme, I was using the “Imperial March” rhythmic element underneath on the drums. [hums some deep notes] Like that’s underneath but over the top, there’s something dark and more kind of atonal. I used a hunting horn and pitch-shifted double basses and just like the low end of the orchestra to create this dread. I know you can’t please everybody, but yeah, we tried our best to make it a balance between the old and the new and make it feel like it was leading to earning those moments in episode six.

io9: Speaking of Williams’ music, the teaser trailer for Obi-Wan Kenobi had both “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes” in it. Obviously, that’s a marketing decision you have nothing to do with, but when you heard that, were you worried it would set up unrealistic expectations since those songs aren’t in the show?

Holt: It’s really tricky. I don’t know. It’s just not my decision. I don’t have anything to do with it. I didn’t have anything to do with where John placed his music or allowed those moments to come through. It’s all run through higher powers and different departments. But yeah, it does feel a little misleading, I suppose, because those pieces are iconic and they’re so exciting. I don’t know… I’d like to look back and see if that music was connected to The Mandalorian trailers. But, yeah perhaps it feels like it could have been something in the Obi world that would have made it more tied together with what we were trying to do, sure.

Image for article titled Obi-Wan Kenobi Composer Natalie Holt on Star Wars Pressure, John Williams, Loki Season 2, and More

Image: White Bear PR

io9: You mentioned how working on Loki helped you get this job, and that music is obviously incredible, too. But I’m wondering about the experiences of working with Marvel versus Lucasfilm. It’s all Disney, obviously. It’s all very secretive. But are there any major differences or similarities between the two?

Holt: Well, they’re just both very creative companies. I think they place the artist at the center and they want to do all they can to support the heads of departments. But I think the main difference for me was I had a year on Loki and I had development time, like three months of development time with the director [Kate Herron]. She went in to shoot and I had already written the themes so it was there much earlier in the process. So where I got brought in in the job was just different.

But it’s just so variable. All jobs. I score lots of other things, some composers get two weeks to urn something around. Things just happen at different times so that just affects how you feel, the amount of stress that you’re under and how much time you have to listen back. And obviously, Covid happened in the middle of Loki, so that’s why we had that extra time. So I think it’s more unusual. But just both incredible experiences and such a brilliant team. The cinematography and Deborah and the performances. Yeah, I just loved [it] and getting to meet John Williams was a career highlight.

io9: Oh I can’t imagine getting that piece of music and hearing it for the first time. Last thing, fans are still wondering if we’re going to see more Obi-Wan Kenobi but we know there is more Loki. Are you going to be back to score Loki season 2, or can you say?

Holt: Yeah, I am. I’ve signed up for it. I’m reading the scripts right now and I’m going to be working on it in the autumn.

io9: Okay that’s great. Can you tell me what happens in the scripts?

Holt: [Laughs]

Thank you to Natalie Holt for her time. You can hear her music in Loki, Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as the new Hulu movie, The Princess.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.

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