Jeff Cardoni on scoring HBO’s White House Plumbers: “it felt like a Murderers’ Row of Emmy-winning actors!”

Does getting the opportunity to work with a cast as insanely talented as Justin Theroux, Lena Headey, Woody Harrelson and Domhnall Gleeson make a composer’s life easier, or more daunting? This is one of the questions put to a highly experienced composer in the world of film and TV, Jeff Cardoni, who has written the music for HBO’s Watergate Scandal drama The White House Plumbers.

Without overly generalising, there are mostly two distinct breeds of film composers. There is the film composer who has crossed over from the world of rock and pop, perhaps because a director or producer was a fan of their previous music releases and felt they’d be a great fit for the project. And then there is the composer who has done the full classical education and has pursued film scoring from the beginning of their music career, often working as an assistant to an established composer as their way into the industry. Cardoni is a better fit for the latter type of composer, and unique in how traditional his approach is versus the many Hans Zimmer clones out there.

He grew up studying classical piano while playing percussion in orchestras. Having said all that, he did dabble in the world of rock, briefly the guitarist for Warner Bros band Alien Crime Syndicate, which brought him to Los Angeles. He left the band to pursue scoring full-time, assisting John Murphy (28 Days Later, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) while studying orchestration and conducting at UCLA.

I was trying to get that show for close to a year!

“I kind of made it harder for myself by not choosing either of those paths specifically,” Cardoni says, regarding the fact he played in a band before then finding work as a composing assistant. “I could not get a gig at Remote Control (Hans Zimmer’s huge studio complex where many composers start out). But working for my friend John Murphy was a brilliant mentorship, he was just hitting his stride in his career while I worked for him.”

In fact, Cardoni was trying to get his first work in a pre-internet time. It was a case of “combing through the Hollywood Reporter, which would list every film and show in production, and sending out CDs out to people. I had a pretty tough time with that, but then I had a friend who was a music supervisor on CSI Miami. Music supervisors are very influential when it comes to who scores a project, and he helped me get the opportunity to score a short film.”

Cardoni has been diligently honing his craft with film and shows for well over two decades now, his hard work paying off with credits on the likes of Young Sheldon and Step Up: All In. But being brought in for an HBO series feels like the strongly-deserved coup his career has been building up to. 

And not just any HBO project; its outrageous array of talent sees the cast headed up by Woody Harrelson, Lena Headey, Justin Theroux and Domhnall Gleeson. It tells one part of the Watergate Scandal story that follows Nixon's political saboteurs, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, as they attempt to save the Nixon presidency but unwittingly topple it.

it felt a little like a Murderers’ Row of Emmy-winning actors!

It took a lot of persistence on Cardoni’s part, however. “I was trying to get that show for close to a year,” he says. “I have a friend who was an editor on the show, and I kept sending demo music written for it to him, but I just couldn’t get a meeting. I think every person in town ended up sending a demo for it. But I got lucky in the end; they used some of my demo music as the temp score for the first episode, and I then got to write a demo for the full episode. It got to a point where they couldn’t delay bringing a composer in any longer, and they gave me a shot.”

It’s happened all too often that if a film’s central characters have a slightly bumbling aspect to them, the musical score leans far too heavily on that and the music inadvertently removes some nuance from the film. HBO was wise to lean instead on the experience and expertise of Cardoni — his music for the limited series drives the story forward while tastefully saluting the ‘70s period it took place in, with wonderful funk elements. And no hint of slapstick in the music, either.

“On the score I played upright bass, drums, piano and Rhodes piano,” he says. “I had this insanely talented musician come in called Jeff Babko, who’s in Jimmy Kimmel’s band. He added Hammond and Clavinet keys. And then an insanely good jazz flute player called Curtis Buckingham. I wrote for him knowing some of his parts would be in the main titles and end credits.”

Regarding working with such an incredible lineup of actors, he says, “It was a little daunting, it felt a little like a Murderers’ Row of Emmy-winning actors!” he laughs. “So I didn’t want to screw it up in that way but also hoped to ride on their coattails a little. Even the bit-part actors are phenomenal too; for example F. Murray Abraham appears as a judge for just one scene, so even the small parts were going to ridiculously well-known actors!”

Make sure to go and see the finely-made, finely-acted and very finely-scored White House Plumbers if you haven’t already. And then, as you can imagine, there is lots more to look forward to from this very talented composer.

“I’m working on a sci-fi drama called Fallen at the moment, and an Amazon film called Sitting In Bars With Cake, which is a real tearjerker! I have a Netflix film called Players that’s in the can, and I’m just starting work on a TV series remake of Cruel Intentions.

White House Plumbers via Sky.