1984’s Gremlins features a timeless score from iconic composer Jerry Goldsmith, so the composer for Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai – the hit animated prequel series streaming now on Max – was always going to have big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Mogwai composer Sherri Chung is one of the most acclaimed musicians and composers working in the film music industry today. 

Chung currently serves as the Governor of the Music Branch of the Television Academy, and was previously nominated for an SCL Award for her work on The Lost Husband (2021). A trained pianist, Chung is also an accomplished singer, performer, and songwriter. Her musical talents have led her to record vocals for a variety of hit series and commercials, including ABC’s Resurrection, CW’s Arrow, and NBC’s Blindspot. She most recently scored the hilarious Peacock series Based on a True Story, starring Chris Messina and Kaley Cuoco.

Chung sat down with Awards Focus to discuss her work on the Secrets of the Mogwai, and share several inspiring anecdotes across her professional journey.

Awards Focus: The series explores the origin of the Mogwai and Gremlins, delving into their mythology. How did you use music to enhance the storytelling and build anticipation for key revelations?

Sherri Chung: This story already has a lot of built-in scopes, depth, and heightened peril. The goal of the score, in terms of what I was tasked to do by the creators and also what I felt compelled to do, was to leave room for comedy, while also leaning into the other types of emotion pretty heavily. If it was a heartfelt moment, I would really lean into that with the music and have the music support that. 

It is always a great time to use themes during an emotional sequence. I think that’s something that can pull an audience in. It can even make the audience feel a little participatory too because they’re thinking, “Oh, I recognize that. I feel that.” 

But there are other types of emotion, too, like being scared of things. With the main characters, Sam and Gizmo, I feel like it was important to also lean into those scares. Not just the jump scares, but also lean into the emotion of the fear. The quest for justice – how do we know what the right thing is? How do we do the right thing when the right thing seems like the hardest thing to do? These were the kinds of themes that were running through the story. And again, having the music really lean into any of those moments – whether it’s dark, light, heartfelt, or funny – pushes that emotion and really allows the story to come through.

AF: Animation often allows for more fantastical and imaginative storytelling. Were there any specific sequences or creatures in the series that challenged you to create unique and inventive musical compositions?

Chung: This is one of those stories where each episode kind of had its own story arc within the greater story arc. Every single episode had a wonderful opportunity to write something that was unique. One of my favorite characters was in episode four, and her name was Meng Po. She ran this tea house where she was giving everybody hallucinogens in their tea. We’re dealing with a total kid’s show, but suddenly everyone was hallucinating. She was just a fun character; this very stout woman who was just a busybody and nosy. As she was running this tea house, I came across this little flute lick where I was just improvising. There was just something that was sort of unsettling about this little flute. It was a riff and it was just something that I felt reminded me of her. You couldn’t really tell whether she was good, or bad or how evil she would turn out to be, so this flute became a good fit for her sound. Through the episode, I could develop it and expand on it. The musical choice was totally nebulous and a bit unsettling, but also a little bit sweet and a little bit mysterious as well.

AF: Collaborating with filmmakers and creators is crucial in crafting a cohesive soundtrack. Can you describe your collaboration with the production team and how it influenced your musical choices for the series?

Chung: The production team for Gremlins was so skilled. In my experience, when showrunners are also writers, I feel like they’re able to convey their ideas even more effectively. For this show, we were really easily able to talk about storylines and story points. 

The production team was very influential on the final score. During the spotting sessions, we would establish the type of episode it would be musically, what we wanted to lean into, shout-outs, or Easter eggs for other Amblin movies. It was always important to get their take on what they wanted to push, what they really wanted to feel, what they didn’t want to shy away from, or what they wanted to pull back on. I would then take my notes and go away and write the music. Then, we would have a review session where they would listen to everything and watch what I had done, and then we would have our notes. After that, they’d come to recording sessions and see it all put together. The showrunners’ input was pivotal because they were also writers, so they were also putting together the stories. They’ve been with this project since day one, years already before I even saw it.

AF: Could you share some insights into your creative process when composing for Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai? Do you have any particular musical motifs or instruments associated with specific characters or moments?

Chung: One that stands out is The Valley of Jade. In the very first episode, we take this aerial shot down into the Valley of Jade, and it’s this beautiful and lush green utopian society with these adorable furry characters. I wanted the music here to have an Asian influence. Also, even though it’s a mystical place that doesn’t really exist, I wanted to give that a really distinctive theme. 

In the first episode, we see that Gizmo actually gets swept up by a bird, whisked away, and ripped away from his family and his friends. He spends the rest of the season trying to get back to the Valley of Jade. I think that one of the things I really tried to do with that place, in particular, was that when we see that place again and have gotten back there, we hear that theme. In that moment, it’s not just a reunion of Gizmo, his friends, his family, and his kin, but for us as the audience, it’s also reuniting with that safe space. That utopian, lush green and beautiful land that we’ve never been to, but we feel like we have and now we feel like they’ve come back to. A lot of that was tied in with and carried by the theme.

AF: The original Gremlins film had an iconic score by Jerry Goldsmith. Did you draw inspiration from his work, or did you aim to create an entirely fresh musical identity for the series?

Chung: The answer is yes to both! I tried to draw upon inspiration from Jerry Goldsmith’s original scores, while also trying to incorporate new themes and slightly new approaches. Hopefully, the result is a score that weaves in and out, becoming almost a fluid handoff, between what Jerry had done and what I brought to the score. That was also part of the invitation from the creators. They wanted a thematic orchestral score that was going to push the emotion and elevate the story much like Jerry Goldsmith’s original scores to the original movies. They also wanted a bit of a newer stamp on it, and to create their own thing with new stories, new adventures, and a new dynamic. 

AF: Were there any memorable or challenging scenes in the series that stand out to you as a composer? How did you approach these moments musically to enhance their impact?

Chung: Yes, there were several challenging scenes. One of them was in episode three, where there’s a character named Odd-Odd, who is a shapeshifter, but also an opera singer. One of the things that the showrunners told me was that when you see his makeup and his clothing, it was all very much taken from the old, original operas in Chinese culture. I don’t know that music or genre, so I had to do a lot of research to better immerse myself in it. And when you do this sort of research, if any of your readers do look up Chinese opera, it is very challenging to listen to, I think. Nevertheless, they wanted to incorporate something of the mythology of Chinese opera, so I had to figure it out! They wanted to bring it into the character and they wanted it somehow weaved into the music. In order to do so, I felt that I had to adapt it by switching out some of the instruments and make it feel more cinematic overall, with a little bit more sweeping solo violin and a little bit more dripping in dramatic flair. It was tricky, and it took me a couple of times to get there, through the back and forth and collaboration. But in the end, we were all very happy with the way it turned out.

AF: Can you share any anecdotes or behind-the-scenes stories from your experience working on Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai that reflect the creative journey of composing for this iconic franchise?

Chung: My particular journey with Gremlins is something that was very unexpected. I think those are the journeys, professionally and personally, that all of us as human beings really enjoy. I did not go into this project feeling like I knew exactly what to do, which is where a lot of my fear came from. But it was the kind of fear, the kind of challenge that offered a great opportunity for growth. And I openly and freely say that I grew. 

I have never grown so much as a composer as much as I did on this project. There was a lot of orchestral work that I hadn’t had the opportunity to fully do at this level and scope, because most of the time, frankly, composers don’t get the budget to be able to work with such a large group of musicians on a regular basis. For this, I was able to do that. That opportunity was such a great growing process, recording remotely with musicians and recording here in town in Los Angeles with musicians in the second season. Personally, it was such a joy, and professionally, it was such a joy, because of the growth that I saw in my own writing. Each time with each episode I wrote, I got better feedback from the creators and it allowed me to try something new for the next episode. The more that their stories got in-depth and the characters themselves began to develop, the more I could develop the themes and develop the music, and really expand the original ideas that I had and just go further. 

The project itself really lent a great opportunity to me to really push my own boundaries of what I had written before. I think a lot of that is because the stories themselves were pushing boundaries. I have never really scored before in an animation type of setting, so it just provided a lot of opportunity and a lot of accountability to push myself and to grow past the ideas that I originally had.