Interview: Sexy Beast Composer Matthew Barber

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Written By Sedoso Feb

ComingSoon recently sat down with composer Matthew Barber to discuss his score for the Paramount+ TV series Sexy Beast. The series, which stars Sarah Greene, James McArdle, and Stephen Moyer, debuted on January 25.

ComingSoon: How did the concept for the Paramount+ series Sexy Beast come about, and what drew you to the project as both a producer and an editor?

Barber: Sexy Beast is a passion project of Nicole Clemens, who spent many years trying to get the right team together to make it a reality. It saw many interations before finally getting green-lit. A few days before Christmas of 2022, when the series was over halfway through filming, Nicole rang me up and asked if I had seen the film Sexy Beast… I hadn’t. She said, “Go home right now, watch it, and then call me back.”

That first viewing, I was intrigued at how this movie could possibly be made into a TV series. Nicole sent me the assemblies of a couple of episodes, and I saw so much potential in the footage. The cast was incredible and made it easy to say yes! I came on as a producer and was asked to oversee the editorial process to ensure a cohesive vision for the whole series. I was able to shape the first episode as an editor and then guide the rest of the team with my vision.

I’m also a huge music fan and love finding songs that help highlight the internal world of a character. Sexy Beast (the series) is so much about the subtext, what is not being said, what is being lied about, what is being avoided… It’s romance, and heists, and betrayals… it’s almost Shakespearean. Music is a key element in bringing those complexities to life and that is one of the things I do best. It’s also so much fun to work on a series that isn’t just a straight-up drama. I was given the freedom to play… intercut… smash cut… flashback… I could use all the tools to help make this world come to life.

2. As a producer, what challenges did you face in bringing Sexy Beast to life, and how did your role as an editor contribute to overcoming those challenges?

The biggest challenge for me was being based in the States while the rest of the team was in London. My goal as a producer was to make sure everyone felt seen and heard while also having clarity on what my vision was. The UK vs US system is a bit different, so I often had to rely on my producing partner, James Levison, to translate the organizational structure to help me manage more effectively.

Trying to navigate the time zone was also tricky at times, as there was only a narrow window in which we could interact live and get answers to each others’ questions. Another challenge was one we all had to navigate during the pandemic: communicating via Zoom. So much magic can happen when you are in the same physical location, and I would often have to work a bit harder to explain what it is I pictured in my head. But, because I was an editor as well I could often just hop on the keyboard and try a few things to show to the other editors. Doing is often better than explaining!

I was able to be in the UK for the essential times during the project and was able to work in person with the team. It was so much fun being an international producer for the first time in my career!

Can you share any insights into the collaborative process between producers and editors in shaping the narrative and visual elements of the series?

Any show can live or die in the editing room. Sexy Beast, in particular, has so much going on that editing is a character in itself. There is an underlying tension that drives the whole series… everyone is hanging on by a thread, and it feels like the whole world could implode at any moment. The edit needed to carry that intensity as well. It can’t let the audience off the hook.

So whenever a scene or an episode was lagging narratively or visually, we always thought outside the box and asked the editors to play around. Throw paint on the wall, so to speak, and see what sticks. Many of the ideas never made it in the series, but we discovered entirely new structures that floored us, intercuts that made us crack up laughing, flash pops that made us tear up, and songs that made us jump out of our chairs.

Sexy Beast is known for its unique blend of genres. How did you navigate the creative decisions to maintain a balance between different tones and themes throughout the series?

I spent many years in the trenches of Genre Blending television, so I’m no stranger to going from romance to horror to comedy all within one scene. It’s a delicate balance that can easily tip into the absurd if not done carefully. This is where Nicole Clemens and Alec Stern really helped us. Along with the entire team at Paramount and Viacom, they were our first audience. They let us know when we went too far… or when we didn’t go far enough.

What specific aspects of editing do you find most crucial in creating a compelling and engaging storyline for a series like Sexy Beast?

Structure, structure, structure. We never fully knew what would work in the script until we saw the assembly edits. Once these first cuts were delivered, we immediately asked, “How can we make this better? Which scene should start the episode? Where do we need to intercut?” We would go down so many paths to find the right balance for each episode. I’m a big fan of “less is more” and would often cut the scenes down to their bare minimum… much to the chagrin of Alastair Galbraith. We balanced each other out nicely and many of the deep cuts I made for pace and intensity were then balanced out by his notes. In the end, we found an excellent blend between pace and character development.

Were there any scenes or moments in the series that posed particular editing challenges, and how did you approach resolving them?

Episode 4 posed a unique challenge for us editorially. Gal and Don travel to Spain to meet Roger Riley and Teddy Bass. Towards the end of the episode, Roger sells the heist to the boys and sets up the MacGuffin that drives the remainder of the series. The majority of the episode was shot in Spain before I arrived, and the template was established in post. Some parts of the story had changed, and we needed shots to really set up the importance of this heist, but we didn’t have the budget to go back and re-shoot.

Paul and I re-cut the sequence with a number of stock footage shots, placeholder cards, and really bad voiceovers… We turned that over to Alastair, and he re-wrote what we did, striking the right balance of information, believability, tension, and fun. Production then used that script to pick up a handful of shots on sets that we already were at. We then cut the sequence together, re-voiced the terrible temp VO with Ralph’s brilliant voice and turned it over to Nathan Micay who delivered the icing on the cake with a music track to tie the whole sequence together.

How does your dual role as both a producer and an editor influence your perspective on storytelling and the overall production process?

Television is a massive collaborative, commerce driven art form. It’s Storytelling AND Business. Ultimately, if the story doesn’t capture the audience’s attention and doesn’t say something that resonates with their soul (or at least take their mind off of their troubles for a brief moment), then no ads will be sold and no subscriptions will be renewed. So we filmmakers live in the tension of expression and restriction. How can we express the most given whatever limitations is placed upon us by the people financing us. As a producer, I have to consider the schedule, the budget, and the impact that can take on the crew at times. As an editor, I want all the tools in the toolbox to play with: endless music budget, reshoots to get the shot right, and more time to play. I think there is a magic in boundaries. What can we do given X amount of time and Y amount of music? That is where I excel. I love having to think outside the box… even if it’s a shoe box.

In terms of post-production, what techniques or editing styles did you employ to enhance the visual and narrative impact of Sexy Beast?

All of us grew up bathing in so many great gangster films: Goodfellas, Snatch, The Godfather… Too many to name. These films were always in the background as we were cutting. We borrowed where it felt useful: freeze frames to set up characters, choice flash pops to remind the audience of the stakes, intercutting disparate scenes to tie characters together, smash cutting to add energy and tension, and more. Our aim was not to be derivative but to help settle the audience in the world, to use visual language to avoid extra exposition, and get to the meat of the story.

As a producer, how do you ensure the creative vision is maintained while collaborating with other key members of the production team, including directors and writers?

Most of the time I was reacting to what I was given. Coming on board halfway through production, most of the writing was complete, and half the episodes had been shot, but one of the first things I did after I was hired was send Nicole a short style guide that she then forwarded to the rest of the creatives. This guide included editing ideas, song and music directions, as well as suggestions for the Director/DP. Ultimately, the directors could decide what they felt was best for their particular episode, but I worked intimately with Alex Eslam and Stephen Moyer to make sure the integrity of the series was held throughout the back half of the series. 

Can you share any memorable experiences or anecdotes from the production of Sexy Beast that highlight the collaborative and creative dynamics behind the scenes?

I will refer back to the previous sequence in episode 104, where we had a limited pallet in which to rework the sequence in Spain. It truly was a beautiful synergy between the writers, directors, actors, post, and the executive producers. The production team gave us the parameters of what they could shoot (actors, location, props, etc.), and then Paul and I crafted a new sequence, which we then turned over to Alastair Galbraith, who wrote the words to make it pop, before finishing it off with Nathan Micay’s driving score. 

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