The Billion-Dollar Composer

For blockbuster films and video games, Pinar Toprak makes music that stirs emotions.

Pinar Toprak is the first woman to score a movie that grossed $1 billion.
Pinar Toprak is the first woman to score a movie that grossed $1 billion.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

Pinar Toprak’s second child arrived a week early. Her first had taken “his sweet time,” so the composer hadn’t worried about scheduling an expensive 60-piece orchestra session—to record her score for the animated film Light of Olympia—a week before her due date in the spring of 2008, even under the gun of a four-day cancellation policy. She finished writing the last cue on a Friday evening, sent it to her orchestrator, and bought a tub of Nutella to celebrate.

Then, her water broke. She gave birth, lied to hospital staff about why she needed to be discharged early, left at 1 a.m.—and was conducting the orchestra shortly thereafter with a 30-hour-old infant, nursing him during 10-minute breaks. “It’s crazy,” she admits, laughing. “But at the time, I did what I thought I had to do.”

The composer for film, TV, and video game projects as wide-ranging as the feminist superhero blockbuster Captain Marvel, HBO’s wry docuseries McMillions, and the highest-earning game of 2018, Fortnite, Toprak is described by friends and colleagues as “tenacious”—a problem solver fueled by perseverance. And by all accounts, she has had to be.

In a field that has always been dominated by men (and white men, at that), Toprak is the first woman to score a movie that grossed $1 billion, and she remains one of the few female composers working on comparably high-profile productions. Her breakthrough came only a few years ago, and earlier in her career, she had felt compelled to hide both of her pregnancies from clients. “You were trying to remove any possible reasons why somebody might not hire you, whether that might be a valid reason or not,” she says. “I knew very well that I was perfectly capable of delivering what I needed to deliver.”

Many directors freely admit that composers provide a film’s heart and soul—scores are like liquid emotion, communicating what dialogue and images cannot. And as Toprak likes to note, “emotions are genderless.” She was drawn to the flood of feeling in the film scores of her youth, soaking up old-school orchestral compositions by the great John Williams (Star Wars), the madcap action-film music of Michael Kamen (Lethal Weapon), and the grooving anthems of Hans Zimmer (The Lion King). She’s filtered those disparate influences, with the added ingredient of her classical guitar background, into a modern approach to scoring today’s movies, while also never forgetting the power of a catchy melody.

Captain Marvel directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck praise Toprak’s positivity and her desire “to find that perfect sound for every moment in the movie that requires it,” as Fleck puts it. “And hand in hand with that,” adds Boden, “not needing any sleep. Because I don’t think she could have possibly slept.”

Toprak at her L.A. home studio.
Toprak at her L.A. home studio.
CHRISTINA GANDOLFO

LONG WAY FROM HOME

Every superhero has an origin story. Toprak’s begins at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she was a piano performance major. It was late one night in 1998. She was miserable. She’d wanted to pursue a degree in film scoring, but her advisers told her, “Be smart—you can teach; you can play sessions.” For a time, she says, “I believed them.”

To tune out the bad vibes, she left campus for Tower Records, where she discovered Zimmer’s new score for The Prince of Egypt. With $20 in her pocket—which she needed for her Cup Noodles meal plan—she bought the CD. She barely slept that night, listening to the soundtrack on a loop. You can almost hear a hero’s theme swelling as she describes her revelation: “I woke up in the morning, and I changed my major,” she says. She’d rather fail by her own choices, she thought, than succeed by those of others. She keeps that CD, now with a cracked case, on her desk.

The 40-year-old Toprak has built a life from hopeful defiance of the odds. She grew up in the “not-fancy part” of Istanbul, Turkey. Her father was an accountant but a lover of the arts. He played violin and starred in stage productions as a young man; when peers from his theater company became popular actors on local TV, he did their books.

He nudged Toprak’s interest in music and her love of movies. Pretending not to have his glasses handy, he would ask her to read the synopsis and cast for films listed in the newspaper’s TV schedule. He also introduced her to American westerns and, crucially, Superman. She memorized the dialogue from the 1978 film starring Christopher Reeve, dubbed into Turkish—and she loved John Williams’s score so much that she recorded the soaring, songlike music from the TV to her Walkman so she could listen to it anytime.

Encouraged by her father, Toprak enrolled in the local music conservatory when she was five. She began as a violinist but hated the instrument and switched to guitar. (Soon after moving to the United States, she realized a career as a jazz guitarist wasn’t in the cards and briefly switched to piano.) “If it wasn’t for his pushing,” says Jesse Toprak, her older brother, “who knows what would have happened?”

But their father was also a “well-functioning alcoholic,” according to Jesse, who says the quality he loves most about his sister is her humor. “In order to have a sense of humor—I’m talking deep, sometimes dark sense of humor—you have to be an amazing observer,” he says. “That’s a skill we had to develop together. There was a lot of yelling and screaming in the house. When you’re dealing with that in a small apartment, you’d better create this world that is a little bit goofy.”

Toprak shared a tiny room with her brother, and her girlhood in Turkey was crowded by men in most ways. (Her mother, whom the composer characterizes as a quiet homemaker, was so inspired by her headstrong musical daughter that in her 40s she took up the Turkish stringed oud, which she regularly plays in concerts today.) Toprak found refuge in her piano. Music became “the way I was able to express all the things that I was feeling,” she says. “I tell my kids that music was my best friend my whole life.”

The composer’s work reaches beyond film and television; Toprak scored the theme music to the award-winning (and highly popular) Fortnite, developed by Epic Games.
The composer’s work reaches beyond film and television; Toprak scored the theme music to the award-winning (and highly popular) Fortnite, developed by Epic Games.
GETTY IMAGES

She finished high school at 16, and after her 17th birthday she took the leap—nearly as far as Planet Earth is from Krypton—to the United States. She lived with her brother in Wisconsin and taught herself English mostly through conversation, then completed a short ESL program before enrolling at Berklee.

Toprak graduated from Berklee at 19, thanks to testing out of several classes and taking general courses at a local college. She’s always found faster, more efficient paths to her goals—which her brother attributes to her analytical mind. “The weakness of a lot of musicians is that they don’t understand the business,” Jesse says, which requires a “problem-solving type of thinking, like a CEO. That’s hard to pull off. And she did this without any formal business education.”

She became an American citizen in 2015. One of her early hurdles was maintaining a student visa, and to do that, she enrolled at Cal State Northridge—after moving to Los Angeles in 2000—to get a master’s degree in composition. She landed an internship at Paramount Pictures, attending scoring sessions nearly every day. Then she took a job as a musical assistant at the film music factory Remote Control Productions, run by her hero, Zimmer, the Oscar-winning composer for Gladiator and The Dark Knight and one of the most influential film scorers of this century.

The awe-provoking grandeur of Zimmer’s personal studio, a gadget lover’s haven in the fashion of an elegant European library, inspired Toprak—it’s an environment she’s tried to create in her own home studio. Reached by Facebook Messenger, Zimmer told me that the most impressive thing about his former employee was her “total work ethic and never doubting that she could do it!”

Her next boss was William Ross, the veteran composer for My Dog Skip (and a frequent orchestrator for Williams), who needed a tech-savvy assistant. When interviewing candidates, Ross would mention an issue he was having with the audio software Logic. “They’d go, ‘OK, well, I guess, you know, if I get the job…,’ ” he recalls. “When Pinar came in, I mentioned it and she said, ‘Problem? What problem? Let me see!’ ” Ross laughs. “She literally kicked me out of my seat.”

At 22, Toprak married Thanos Kazakos, a music synthesis and sound design major she’d met at Berklee. (She notes the irony, obvious to anyone familiar with the Marvel universe’s top villain: “Nobody could make up ‘Captain Marvel composer married to Thanos.’ ”) In 2006, she got her first big break, composing music for a video game called Ninety-Nine Nights, while pregnant with her first child. Three weeks after giving birth, she quit her job with Ross to take a swing at scoring films full-time. “It was really scary,” she says, “because I was doing this with a newborn baby. I said, ‘I’m going to turn my living room into an assembly line and send a whole lot of music to people.’ ” She sent a thousand demo CDs to directors and producers on spec.

Toprak became the first woman to score a film that grossed $1 billion with the breakout success of Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson.
“I feel like I made a career out of making people feel things that are not said,” says Toprak, who scored the breakout success Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson.
MARVEL STUDIOS

TIME TO SOAR

Toprak’s style sits somewhere between Williams’s lush lyricism and the chugging, synthesizer-
heavy scores of Zimmer. She’s a tech-head with a songwriter’s heart, a student of film music schools both old and new. She may be best known for her comic book movie scores, full of ascendant, bighearted melodies while capes flutter in the breeze, but she’s also written serene and inspirational music for sailing documentaries, melancholy and brooding strains for a murder thriller, and bouncing big-band themes for the Pixar short Purl.

After hearing Purl and Captain Marvel back-to-back, McMillions codirector James Lee Hernandez knew Toprak could nail the tricky tone of his show, which examines a Monopoly-game scam at McDonald’s. “McMillions isn’t like a regular true-crime documentary series,” he says. “It’s more like a Coen brothers movie. We need, from a musical perspective, to help those funny moments land—but then also to stop on a dime and be serious. Her range is just unbelievable.”

For more than a decade before Captain Marvel, however, Toprak labored in the trenches of low-budget film and TV. In 2009, she scored The Lightkeepers, a period melodrama starring Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner, but success remained elusive. Then Dean Devlin, writer and producer of Independence Day—a film and score that had made a major impact on Toprak as a teenager (“It was like all the things I was feeling inside, they’re making them into movies!”)—hired her to score a sci-fi disaster film, Geostorm, starring Gerard Butler.

Toprak threw herself into what promised to be her big moment and spent months writing and rewriting an epic score for orchestra and choir. But Geostorm was a disaster in every way, and after a protracted production, Warner Bros. and Skydance Media brought in a new director for extensive reshoots, dropping Toprak in the shuffle. “There is usually a testing moment in your career, where you could either go this way or that way,” she says, reflecting on the experience. “It taught me how much I loved what I did, and how, no matter what, I was going to do it. It reignited something—even though it was a really difficult time.”

The challenges extended to home. At 33, she divorced. On top of the extra obstacles confronting her, Toprak has juggled the demands of film scoring and running a business as a single mother. “A lot of parents tell their kids, ‘You can be whatever you want to be!’ ” she says. “But I wanted them to see me do that, so that they could see that it is possible.” Toprak insists that “being their mother made me work harder, and working made me a better mother.”

By 2017, she was more than $100,000 in debt with no work lined up. Maybe for the first time in her life, she felt hopeless. “I remember a time when my younger one asked for a toy on Amazon that was $8,” she says, “and I had to look at which credit card had $8 available.”

Still, if you’re only halfway down a swimming pool, “you might not have the power to go up,” she tells her kids, “but if you go all the way, you can put your feet down and propel yourself up. That’s what happened with [Geostorm]. I’m grateful for it.”

Toprak’s luck turned when her agent, Richard Kraft, texted her about a gig scoring Fortnite. Then came Danny Elfman, the former new wave rocker and composer for Tim Burton’s Batman, who enlisted her to write additional music for the DC juggernaut Justice League. This was before she heard about Captain Marvel—the origin story of a superwoman who keeps getting told by mansplainers that in order to be a warrior, she has to ignore her emotions.

Once Toprak landed an audition, she composed an original theme for the character, hiring a full orchestra out of her own pocket. The all-in gambit worked, and Toprak made history in 2019 by scoring the billion-dollar blockbuster. Recalling her love for Williams’s Superman theme, which opens with a musical fifth interval, she wrote a melody that opens with a minor seventh—befitting a flying hero whose mantra is “Higher, further, faster.”

Her latest work includes the CW superhero series Stargirl. Before the pandemic hit, she was busy writing new music for Epcot, the Disney theme park in Orlando, Florida.

When she was a little girl in Istanbul, Toprak discovered that composing purely instrumental music empowered her to express a complexity of emotions. “I feel like I made a career out of making people feel things that are not said,” she says. Film is such a compelling medium, she believes, and film music is “a shortcut to someone’s heart and brain. And it’s very powerful, when it’s done right.”

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