As a composer, Philip Klein has been fortunate enough to create music for a large number of fantasy series, including multiple seasons of the popular “Wish Dragon” series. He loved making music for Wish Dragon, because it was a project that drew from his lifelong love of fantasy stories and animation.
Philip Klein is a composer who has worked with film and television shows including the upcoming Wish Dragon (2023), as well as the upcoming Wonder, the new Disney live action movie with Emma Watson.
Philip Klein is the composer of Wish Dragon, a movie that I’m currently promoting on social media. Philip has been composing since he was a child and as a teenager he started to veer off into fantasy. “Wish Dragon” is a story that combines elements of fantasy with music and Philip is an incredible composer who has a unique sound.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with composer Philip Klein about his work on the upcoming Netflix film Dragon of Wishes (out in theaters June 11). Klein’s music can be heard in film and television projects for Sony, Disney, Pixar, Lionsgate, ABC and CBS. As a writer, Philip has worked with some of the finest composers in film and television, including Harry Gregson-Williams, Carter Burwell, Alex Heffes and Phil Eisler. He has had the privilege of orchestrating for James Newton Howard, Alexander Desplat, Ludwig Göransson, Richard Harvey, Steve Jablonski, David Buckley, Stuart Copeland, Peter Golub, John Frisell and many other outstanding artists.
After joining a drum corps as a child and listening to much classical music, Philip’s formal music training led him to Chicago, where he studied trumpet and composition at Northwestern University. This classical foundation, combined with a thorough understanding of modern notation techniques, allows him to seamlessly complement any project he is working on. Philip was selected as one of six 2011 Sundance Institute Film Composition Lab Fellows at Utah State and has always had a great love for the interaction between music and film. He owes much of his success to his Hollywood mentors – Harry Gregson-Williams, Alan Silvestri, Penka Koneva and Peter Golub.
Dragon of Wishes is the story of Dean, a 19-year-old student in a working-class neighborhood of modern Shanghai, who has big dreams but few resources. Dean’s life changes overnight when he finds an old teapot containing a wishing dragon named Long – a magical dragon that can grant wishes – and is lucky enough to be reunited with his best childhood friend, Lee-Na.
Enjoy my conversation with Philip Klein about the wishing dragon!
How did you get started as a composer?
I played trumpet for most of my young musical life, but over time I realized that I am more attracted to orchestration and composition. From a young age, I was fascinated with film music and spent hours collecting scores of my favorite themes. So it was only natural to delve into this world when I left for college and beyond. After making a few student films, I was sold and moving to Los Angeles was the next logical step. I have been fortunate to work with some of the most talented artists in film and music.
How did you come to work with Wish Dragon? Was there anything in particular that attracted you to this story?
Producer Aaron Warner is a good friend of mine and we’ve always wanted to work on a project together. One of Aron’s superpowers is assembling a team of creatives who complement each other. He thought director Chris Appelhans and I would get along well, so he contacted me and I saw a very early cut that consisted mostly of character drawings and early animation. Even in its most basic form, the story was beautifully crafted, and it was clear from talking to Chris and Aron that the film was going to be something special. I did my best to convince them that I was the right composer for the film, and thankfully they agreed. Chris’ passion for stories, characters and culture is what drew me in from the start; it wasn’t long before I was happily throwing myself into this world every day.
I saw that you also worked on the film Raya and the Last Dragon as an orchestrator. Since both films are about dragons, would you say there are musical similarities between the two, or have you tried to avoid explicit musical comparisons to Raya?
James Newton Howard wrote a wonderful score for Raya. I got a little lucky: I finished recording the score for Dragon of Wishes several months before we began working on Raya’s orchestration, so my window of influence (and intimidation) on James’ work had already closed. James’ score was inspired by the musical colors of different regions in Mongolia and Southeast Asia, while Chris and I wanted to stay very close to Chinese culture to color the score. Paradise has more fantasy and Dragon of Wishes has more comedy. So, in that sense, the scores should always sound different.
What was the starting point for the music of Wish Dragon? Was there an intensive collaboration with the director during this process?
I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a project where the director was as collaborative as Chris was with this film. For the first three or four months of the process, we only shared music, videos and thoughts. We sent each other all the Chinese instruments, folk songs, hymns, opera percussion; basically any sounds we could find. Eventually we began to establish a general palette and approach that we thought would work, and then I began to experiment with those boundaries on the ground. Chris was closely involved with the music, from concept to recording and mixing. Chris had such a strong vision of what he wanted and needed for the score, and I loved every minute of working with him on the film.
Were you inspired by the previous films to compose the music, as this is a new version of the ghost’s story? Or were you trying to put an original spin on it in terms of music?
At first glance, this film may seem like a story of a genie in a bottle, but it is much more a story of friendship and redemption. The spectacle and theatrics of Long’s character are a bit dwarfed by the real connections we see throughout the film. While it’s important to give Long’s supernatural character a voice, we never went too far to make him seem more important than he really is. I think earlier versions of a similar story focused more on the genius character and his accomplishments. So musically, you have to match that kind of energy. With Dragon of Wishes, we always wanted to focus more on the relationships and storylines of the characters, so of course I couldn’t draw inspiration from other films or scores. I will always be proud of the way Chris and I have combined these wonderful tools of Chinese culture with a more western orchestral palette. We didn’t want one to overshadow the other.
Did you assign themes to the main characters? Or if it’s not all the characters, did you give the theme music for Dragon Long?
I firmly believe that writing themes is one of the most effective ways to create memorable emotional moments in a film. Long has a theme that you can hear from the first line of the film. It is large and expansive and is almost always played with orchestra to give its character grandeur and drama. Dean’s theme is probably the most repeated, but it is played much more simply and with less fanfare than Long’s theme. Many of Dean’s scenes make full use of the energy of the Chinese instruments we used. Dean is full of optimism for most of the film, so his theme is orchestrated with charming, slightly pinched textures. There are two subplots, the first for our villains and the second for the relationship between Dean and Lee Na. For the drummers in the film, I used a lot of dark, overhanging sounds of Chinese instruments and mixed them with a more modern, synthesizer-based orchestration. For Din and Li Na, it’s a very simple, floating synthesizer with a three-note pattern that repeats their mantra day after day.
How did you decide which traditional Chinese instruments to include in the score? And was it difficult to combine these instruments with a traditional western orchestra?
It can be overwhelming when I start a score like this, because my brain and ears want to discover every new color. Unfortunately, I would still be working on the score today if I hadn’t imposed a small restriction regarding the instruments we should focus on. Honestly, for a few months in the beginning, we just listened and I made video calls to players all over the world. I would ask them to show me the basics of their tool, what it can do and what it should not do. I ended up reducing my main palette to about 8-10 Chinese instruments to represent this part of the score. The orchestra was always there, because it’s hard to replace the power of that vehicle, but the Chinese instruments became our color and energy throughout the film. We never wanted the score to sound like an orchestra with Chinese soloists playing over it. Instead, we wanted them to be more homogeneous, for the Chinese world to dissolve into the orchestral world. Mixing them together has been one of the best experiences, as it has allowed me to discover new textures and colors. It introduced me to a new world of music that I had never heard of before. This is always the most exciting part of working on a film.
How long did you have to score Wish Dragon?
I had the opportunity to work on this score for almost a year. This gave us plenty of time to bring all our crazy ideas, themes and orchestrations to life.
Do you have a favorite piece or moment in the score?
I will always love that scene and the phrase All That Matters. It’s such a beautiful and honest moment between Dean and his mother and their relationship in the film. It was also one of those moments where Dean’s theme fit perfectly without me being involved. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice to be surprised when the notes fit the film without too many words.
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Philip Klein about his work on The Desire Dragon. You can see the film when it comes out on the 11th. June 2023 to appear on Netflix.
Have a nice day!
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