“I am extremely moved and humbled by this nomination, and send so much gratitude to the music branch and the TV Academy for this absolute honor,” says Ariel Marx. “Writing the score for ‘A Small Light’ was deeply personal, and I couldn’t be more grateful to Tony Phalen, Joan Rater, Susanna Fogel and the entire Nat Geo / Disney team for bringing me on to this incredible limited series.”

“Outstanding Music Composition For A Limited Or Anthology Series, Movie Or Special” is one of the most competitive and diverse categories that the music branch of the TV Academy votes on each year. Marx’s score was an undeniable favorite and “A Small Light” will be solely represented by Marx at this September’s ceremony.

Based on the harrowing true story of Miep Gies’ heroic undertaking, Nat Geo’s “A Small Light” provides an entirely new perspective on the story of Anne Frank and her family’s struggle to evade Nazi capture during World War II. Miep Gies was young woman, both carefree and opinionated at a time when opinions could lead to imprisonment or even execution.

After working with Otto Frank for a short time, Miep realizes that her friend and employer is in desperate need of help hiding his family. From the pilot’s moments of serene life to the dark days of Nazi occupation, composer Ariel Marx delivers a emotional, versatile score that demands Emmy consideration.

Marx spoke with Awards Focus’ Byron Burton via zoom as well as in person at Ingle Dodd’s “Spotlight on Storytellers” FYC event at the Hollywood American Legion. Along with Marx, the cast were present as well as production designer Marc Homes.

AF: How much awareness did you have of the project when Susanna Fogel reached out?

Marx: Of course I knew about Anne Frank and her family, but I didn’t know Miep Gies. The name was vaguely familiar, but I had not retained that she was one of the helpers. It was a real reeducation for me to learn about her and all of the Dutch Resistance fighters at the time who did so much to save people’s lives.

AF: What was the writing process for this job?

Marx: So I had the privilege of being brought in pretty early, so they were in the middle of shooting when I was officially on-boarded. I wrote music without any picture in mind, just thinking about characters, certain points, and moments of tension. That was how I began, and then I started getting locked cuts or soft-locked cuts, very close to final cuts.

Then, it was basically writing to the episode. The music changes from the prewar Amsterdam playfulness and vivacity to have a lot more tension. The themes are definitely different, starting around episode six. Things really start getting to a boiling point, which is what the episode is called, but the music is simmering up to that point.

AF: I think what makes the show really spectacular is in the pilot but then you spend so much time and it feels like you’re getting a real slice of life in the town, and it doesn’t feel just like a few precursory scenes. When it gets invaded, it really hits the audience harder because of the world established. How did you feel when you saw the pilot? What was your initial reaction to the narrative and the performances?

Marx: I feel like we’ve never seen people of this era shown that way, for all of their humanness. They were laughing, crying, peeing, eating and making mistakes.

They were getting fired and yelling in front of their children, and all of these real life things that we somehow distance ourselves from so much via the time and the sepia tone aesthetic. Tony, Joan and Susanna did an amazing job making it feel really immediate. We can see Anne Frank’s laughter and smile. We can see their whole family and their dysfunctional but incredibly normal and beautiful dynamic.

It was really breathtaking to see the first episode and to realize, “Wow, this is truly as amazing as I’d imagined it when I read the script.” The music was trying to give you a glimpse of what life would have been like before the war in a very dialed-in way. It’s a small band, and it has a lot of playfulness, improvisation and texture. It draws from jazz, classical, klezmer and European folk. There are a lot of different influences that can anchor you and help you identify with these people rather than looking at them through so many decades. The pilot does a great job of that.

AF: In terms of the time period and cultural elements, was there anything you wanted, for the soldiers in terms of the sound palette versus the Franks?

Marx: For Miep, all of her prewar themes are very blocky, playful and embellished. Lots of energy. But we don’t spend a lot of time with the Nazis. They’re presented, but they weren’t presented enough that there was a specific theme for them. It was more about people’s response to them. When they were marching through the city, the tension in this score is where I got the most anachronistic. I used a lot of electronics and experimental techniques on the strings, percussion, and other instrumentation. I really wanted to feel the immediate anxiety and panic of it and not the immediate mournfulness of it, because these characters didn’t know what was working for them. In episodes six through eight, you’ll hear the palette that I’m talking about.

AF: What kind of feedback were you getting while working on this?

Marx: Some of the earliest feedback, and the ethos for the music, was to really show how beautiful and bumbling and full of life Amsterdam was before occupation. This show tries to give you joy and happiness in every place that’s appropriate.

It does such a great tonal job and the music was part of that. Yes, this is a story you already know, but how do we tell it in a different way? Also, how do we tell it so that there is a glimmer of hope and legacy? It was about making sure that the music was never ahead of the action. The music didn’t know their fate, just like the characters didn’t.

The performances were so strong that they could withstand a really emotionally earnest score, because it matched them and it complimented them. But at other times, I felt like the best thing was to pull back and be super minimalist. It really depended on the scene.

AF: How was it when you got together with the cast for the premiere?

Marx: At the New York premiere, I met Billie who plays Anne, and Laurie who plays Casmir, and I met Bel. I wasn’t able to meet Liev. It was really meaningful. I’m so much more connected to them than they are to me. I’ve been staring at their faces and appreciating their performances for four and a half months.

I’ve become so attached to their performances and how they depicted these characters. So, it’s always a very warm and gratifying experience to finally meet them and tell them how much their work inspired my work. Every single person who’s worked on this project appreciates how meaningful it is.

The excitement around the project is very palpable and the performances were so strong. It was so gratifying, and they were all very lovely. I’m so grateful I got to meet them.

AF: It doesn’t feel like there’s a definitive Anne Frank adaptation, but this feels to me like this will be the hallmark. But was there anything you had seen that you felt like was a very good depiction of the story?

Marx: It’s a lens through which we haven’t seen. This isn’t’ Anne Frank’s story — this is Miep’s story. This is the story of allyship and of being a protector. We see Anne Frank through Miep’s eyes, but it’s incomparable, because it’s never been done before. There was one other depiction of Miep Gies, but not enough for enough people to know about her, and certainly not in this very accessible, relatable, contemporary way. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I purposely didn’t immerse myself in previous Anne Frank depictions and Holocaust depictions, because that’s not what we were trying to do. We didn’t want to make the same choices. Of course, I did my own research factually, but I didn’t watch previous depictions because I didn’t want to be influenced.

AF: What was it like working through pandemic protocols?

Marx: All the recording took place between November 2022 through March 2023, so a lot of the restrictions had been lifted. What the pandemic did for recording, however, is that nearly all musicians equipped themselves with a home recording studio.

So, you can record with people from anywhere on the best mics and get the best quality. Because the palette is virtuosic and individualized,I had people record from their home studios. I worked with Jordan Martone on cello and violin. I worked with my favorite clarinetist in New York, Josh Plattner. I have a trumpet player in LA and I play violin, cello, percussion, guitar and everything else myself.

We didn’t want the score to be more polished than Miep was. We wanted the score to have a charming imperfection. We weren’t looking to Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List scores. We were looking towards influences of a Tom Waits band, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, Andrew Bird, Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt. Rough around the edges, yet extraordinary musicians. How does the ordinary become extraordinary? That was the real guiding force behind the score and why the instrumentation is what it is.

AF: That’s so great that you play on your own scores. You can just put that from your heart through your fingertips, I think that comes across in the work.

Marx: Whenever I can, I always try to do that. It’s just a real way to speak the language. But then I also absolutely adore collaborating with musicians. It’s the best of both worlds to be able to do both.

“A Small Light” Is Available to Stream on Disney+ / Nat Geo.

About The Author

Founder, Awards Editor

Byron Burton is the Awards Editor and Chief Critic at Awards Focus and a National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award winning journalist for his work at The Hollywood Reporter.

Byron is a voting member of the Television Academy, Critics Choice Association, and the Society of Composers & Lyricists (the SCL) for his work on Marvel's X-Men Apocalypse (2016). Working as a journalist and moderator, Byron hosts Emmy and Oscar panels for the major studios, featuring their Below The Line and Above The Line nominees (in partnership with their respective guilds).

Moderating highlights include Ingle Dodd's "Behind the Slate" Screening Series and their "Spotlight Live" event at the American Legion in Hollywood. Byron covered the six person panel for Universal's "NOPE" as well as panels for Hulu's "Pam & Tommy Lee" and "Welcome to Chippendales" and HBO Max's "Barry" and "Euphoria."

For songwriters and composers, Byron is a frequent moderator for panels with the Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) as well as The ArcLight's Hitting the High Note Oscar series.

Byron's panels range from FX's Fargo to Netflix's The Crown, The Queen's Gambit, The Witcher & Bridgerton; HBO Max's The Flight Attendant, Hacks, Succession, Insecure, & Lovecraft Country; Amazon Studios' The Legend of Vox Machina, Wild Cat, & Annette; and Apple TV+s Ted Lasso, Bad Sisters, and 5 Days at Memorial.

In February of 2020, Byron organized and hosted the Aiding Australia Initiative; launched to assist in the restoration and rehabilitation of Australia's wildlife (an estimated 3 billion animals killed or maimed and a landmass the size of Syria decimated).

Participating talent for Aiding Australia includes Robert Downey Jr., Michael Keaton, Jeremy Renner, Harrison Ford, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, Bryan Cranston, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, JK Simmons, Tobey Maguire, Alfred Molina, James Franco, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Tim Allen, Colin Hay, Drew Struzan, and Michael Rosenbaum.

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