An Interview with music composer Kevin Kiner of Star Wars: The Clone Wars
For almost the last fourteen years Kevin Kiner has spent a critical portion of his career creating the music of a divided galaxy far far away. From the Annie nominated and Emmy winning Star Wars: The Clone Wars to the upcoming Disney+ series Star Wars: The Bad Batch, Kiner has orchestrally lead George Lucas’ iconic franchise from a musical standpoint on the small screen since Lucasfilm began developing three-dimensional animated media in 2007. Prior to the upcoming 2021 Annie Awards that will premiere on April 16th where Kiner could score a possible victory for his final work on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I had the opportunity to sit down with the composer and discuss some of the creative choices put into the final season of the show, his journey with Ashoka Tano through the years, creating music for a potential live-action series on Disney+, and more.
Goomba Stomp: So Kevin, the final episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars focus on The Siege of Mandalore and the fall of the Jedi Council. At the beginning of these episodes, your main The Clone Wars theme was not used but rather the John Williams orchestration from the opening crawl of the films. For years you have pulled various rifts and notes from Williams, but for the first time, his work has actually overtaken yours in the series. While I am sure you felt honored to be following up his orchestration with the opening monologue’s music [“A Galaxy Divided”], did you have any say in this decision? We’re you pleased with the result and did you agree with the usage of William’s theme instead of yours?
Kiner: So that decision was more of a producer’s decision — specifically Dave Filoni decided to do that. I was way okay with it. You know it’s one thing to be using it all the time. But the strategy with Clone Wars and George Lucas was there was not a moratorium on John Williams’s themes throughout the show but he wanted the show to have its own sound and its own themes. The way we approached it always was we would say bring in the force theme during special moments, only strategic moments. For the John Williams opening to be used at the beginning of Clone Wars — I mean it probably hit you right? You were probably like “am I watching the right thing?” It was a really effective bit of filmmaking work. You know, the audience is really used to a certain theme and this signals something is up here.
GS: On the topic of John Williams, the entire Siege of Mandalore story arc clearly pulls from a lot of his work more so than any other episode of The Clone Wars — maybe outside of the Season 6 finale with the usage of Yoda and the force theme. For years you have stated that you do not want to be seen as John Williams, be compared to him, or even constantly pull from his work. Why did you choose to use a lot more of his work for the finale — or at least more of his work than usual?
Kiner: Again that was another Dave Filoni decision. It goes hand in hand with why the opening was that way. The last arc was a special arc. Order 66 had never really been addressed that in-depth as it was in our final arc. It was only a bit in the films. There was a lot that was special about it and I think it was appropriate where we used John William’s score. It honestly escapes my mind when it was used as I have done so many of them. I do remember that being part of the spotting session though when we talked about music. Dave Filoni is a super hands-on director.
GS: The Siege of Mandalore overall takes on such a different musical approach to the other episodes of The Clone Wars despite the fact that we have seen all of its characters and locations before. Can you talk about why exactly you departed from orchestral scores and went with synths and such for these episodes?
Kiner: You know we are always trying to move our sound forward. I have written over a hundred hours of music for Star Wars. There is a real danger of going stale when you have done that much work. I fortunately have had a team — both my sons co-write with me along with David Russell. That’s one way of not going stale, but the other way is changing our palette. We changed our palette when we reset for Rebels and we changed our palette again when we went into Season 7 of The Clone Wars. We just keep moving it forward.
I think it was a strategic placement, especially at the end of the last episode where we used all synths. That was a bit of a stretch because those kinds of synths had never been used in Star Wars before. Not in any of the films. The prequels, the newer films, Rogue One, or anything like that. Again Dave Filoni Had a lot to do with these decisions. The one thing I did do was keep the scope of the music in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars music is usually immense in scope. The subject matter is immense. It’s life and death. It is a huge galactic war. It’s good and evil. You have Ashoka making a decision not to kill any clones even though she will probably die — although she doesn’t (laughs). It’s just always epic. Always epic. Even though it’s synths it is not little Casio synths. It’s all fat thick analog synthesizers and the scope of the music is still grand and epic.
GS: The ending of The Clone Wars was always intended to bridge the gap between Attack of The Clones and Revenge of The Sith, however, with George Lucas’s departure from his company and Star Wars: Rebels coming to fruition after the Disney buyout everything changed. The Clone Wars was never finished but you got to go back and see it through to the end. Did the way in which you viewed orchestrating the final arc of The Clone Wars change after these events?
Kiner: Yeah it was huge. I mean I never envisioned it. When I started out in 2007 I never would have envisioned the type of sound we wound up with. Never. Even at the end of Season 6 of The Clone Wars, I would not have done that. It was just cool. The world has changed, the zeitgeist has changed, we progress. Music is evolving constantly and our show does the same. So no I would have never envisioned it that way for the finale but I’m very glad we got to explore it that way.
GS: Darth Maul has arguably been one of the franchise’s most popular characters. It would be impossible to not mention the “Duel of The Fates” score John Williams created that the character has just become completely associated with. When Ashoka and Maul finally dual we get a very raging battle score. This theme though is nothing like what we have heard before from even the character’s other Clone Wars appearances. What was your thought process behind creating a new battle theme for Darth Maul and why did you choose to not utilize excerpts and notes from something like “Duel of the Fates” per se?
Kiner: There are actually multiple Darth Maul themes from both The Clone Wars and Rebels that are integrated into the fight. “Duel of the Fates” though is a duel. When we first see Darth Maul there are these whisperings in John’s score that are very brief. He didn’t really have a theme for Darth Maul. You have to be appropriate to the scenes you are scoring. I have gotten to know the actor Sam [Witwer] pretty well and he is a huge music fan. It’s nice how he takes it so seriously. He really gets into the character and that helped me get an accurate feeling for the character and an in-depth view into his psyche. I think it was appropriate to whatever the scene was. When we are carrying him off to the star destroyer in episode eleven of the final season that’s a really interesting moment done through all synth. It’s one of my favorite ques.
GS: Ashoka Tano was a character created for this show and with that start, it meant you got to create her theme. Your journey with this character has been nothing short of fascinating as after The Clone Wars was initially canceled, you inevitably got to continue with her on Star Wars: Rebels. She recently went on to appear in The Mandalorian, however, this was the first film and television property that you were not involved with when it comes to the creation of the score being used with the character. How do you feel that you are no longer steering the way for how this character has always orchestrally interacted with audiences?
Kiner: Well I mean in a way I’m in the same position that John Williams is in where we are carrying his themes forward. The composer of The Mandalorian Ludwig [Göransson] did a fabulous job with Ashoka’s theme. It really paid it justice and I was super happy with the way he used it when she showed up in Mandalorian. He’s fantastic. He has good instincts and he did the right thing. I was just really happy with it. All of Ashoka’s themes so far are indeed my themes and it’s a great honor that other composers get to use my themes.
GS: The score you created for the finale of The Clone Wars, specifically the episode “Victory and Death”, has received a nomination for an Annie Award. This is your third Annie nomination for The Clone Wars over the course of its run. How are you feeling going back into the award show for the final season of the series after all these years?
Kiner: Honestly it’s great to be nominated for anything. The last time I was nominated for anything was Rebels. It was a Primetime Emmy nomination and I was up against Westworld and Game of thrones — which won the award. Any time Game of Thrones beats you it’s like “well okay that’s fine (laughs). That composer is really good too. That’s a decent show.” I’ve learned to just really embrace being nominated you know? This time with the Annies, a guy I co-wrote with and was a mentor to me David Arnold — we worked together on James Bond in the past — is nominated as well. I emailed him and said, “if anyone is going to beat me I hope it’s you.” He is a fantastic composer. It’s just really cool to be nominated and it’s too bad there has to be a winner because it’s not true to life. There is no winner.
I will say one thing though. Because of COVID, we had to record our acceptance speech — which I have never made. I did it and it felt very bizarre and uncomfortable. If I win you will see how uncomfortable I am accepting an award I am not very sure if I’m getting or not (laughs). One of the things I have always wanted to do if I did win though for the Annies especially is tell every composer who was ever nominated for an Annie — composing animation especially — you are a great composer. If you are nominated for an Annie Award you are a kickass composer. Working in animation has been the hardest gig of my life. It’s super super hard writing for animation and you really better know what you are doing or you are going to get in trouble.
GS: With Disney+ we are seeing the first lineup ever of live-action Star Wars shows. One of them is of course Rosario Dawson’s Ashoka Tano series. Even though you are continuing to do animation with The Bad Batch do you have any interest in taking on some of these live-action shows if given the opportunity?
Kiner: Listen, I love doing what I’m doing right now. The Ashoka show is coming up and I would love to compose for that, but right now I am focusing on Bad Batch which is a fantastic show. I have scored Narcos: Mexico, Titans, Doom Patrol, City on a Hill with Kevin Bacon. I have a good career right now and a good life. I really enjoy what I do.
Star Wars: The Bad Batch premieres this upcoming Star Wars Day, May the 4th exclusively on Disney+. For more of Kevin Kiner’s work, you can check out his official website where you can listen to years of his career for free. Before his possible victory at the 2021 Annie Awards this April, be sure to check out his “For Your Consideration” video featuring multiple iconic moments from the series finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars “Victory and Death” only accompanied by his score and no other sound.
Special thank you to Kevin Kiner for taking his time to speak with us.