Like most reasonable humans who watched it, I loved the pilot of Bryan Fuller’s American Gods. It’s got all the visual stylisation of Hannibal, brought to a story simultaneously epic and quaint, with a dynamite cast and some absolutely insane setpieces. I haven’t yet read the book, but the show seems guaranteed to ensure that I’ll remedy that in short order.
It’s important you understand how enthusiastic I am about the show, because I’m about to accuse it of a surprisingly common form of plagiarism.
First, let’s have a look at the opening titles to American Gods, 2017:
And now those of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, 2011.
Both sequences come from great studios. In addition to American Gods, Elastic has produced dope-as-fuck titles for Game of Thrones, True Detective, The Young Pope, The Night Manager, Westworld, Carnivale, and more. Blur Studio, meanwhile, is less well-known for opening titles than as an effects and animation house: it produced nearly every CGI game trailer you’ve ever seen, and curiously also the space sequences in Avatar. These are both studios with strong reputations and stellar portfolios, and I don’t want to cast aspersions on either of them.
But I mean, come on. The similarities here are pretty egregious. If the creative process on American Gods didn’t involve someone from the show or Starz presenting Elastic with Dragon Tattoo and saying, “make it like this,” I’d be genuinely shocked.
Musically speaking, it’s easy to hear parallels between Brian Reitzell’s main theme and Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song”. The drumbeat, the driving bass, the vocal drops, even some of the chord placements and tonal shifts are straight outta Dragon Tattoo. Visually, too, the sequences share an off-kilter pace in their picture editing and camera movement, as well as a similarly harsh lighting aesthetic (though American Gods’ is significantly more colourful).
Even the content isn’t miles apart. Though Dragon Tattoo obviously focuses more on representations of its stars, and Gods is a gradual reveal of a totem pole, thematically they’re somewhat of a piece. Dragon Tattoo’s orgy of USB cables and keyboards clashing with fire and dragons and naked folks isn’t that dissimilar from American Gods’ war between ancient myth and modern technology. If it weren’t for the recognisable faces, you could substitute Dragon Tattoo’s titles into American Gods and almost get away with it.
It’s hard to call this out-and-out plagiarism, though. Rather, it’s symptomatic of a somewhat problematic technique prevalent in the post-production world: that of using temp music in rough cuts. Temp music is, as you’d imagine, music from other films that’s used as temporary guide tracks while editing. The practice helps rough cuts feel fuller, and gives the edit an extra sense of pace; some might say it forces a tempo upon the edit, rather than letting the footage dictate its own. But it also means that films and TV shows get locked into a certain sound, resulting in composers being told to simply imitate an existing piece of music. After enough cycles, the musical landscape inevitably spirals into scores that are samey and unmemorable.
Everybody does this. Marvel is particularly guilty of it, as illustrated in this Every Frame A Painting video, but it happens freaking everywhere. Action scores have reached a point where they all largely sound alike, due to literally being based upon each other. Stranger Things’ much-lauded opening theme takes heavily after “Wanna Fight” from Only God Forgives. A frequently-used cue in American Horror Story: Freakshow is more or less a rearrangement of one of Mica Levi’s from Under the Skin. 300 was so heavily based on temp music that Warner Brothers had to issue an apology for lifting Elliot Goldenthal’s score from Titus. Entire production companies exist to make soundalike music for trailers and commercial projects. Hell, Danny Elfman refused to work on Spider-Man 3 due to the level of temp-tracking on Spider-Man 2, according to a rather amazing Suicide Girls interview in which he stated:
They wanted this one cue that was basically from Hellraiser and I was like “I can’t get any closer and I’m not going to imitate [Hellraiser composer] Christopher Young. Go fucking hire Christopher Young.” So they hired Christopher Young to do a cue like Hellraiser and he couldn’t get close enough to Hellraiser so they ended up licensing the cue from Hellraiser.
Look, there are decent enough reasons why scores end up based on temp music. Most often, it’s down to efficiency, with post-production schedules getting more and more compressed. Sometimes it’s due to a director getting attached - naturally - to the music they kept hearing while editing. I’ve been guilty of it on my own projects, even when composing my own scores, so I can attest: it’s a seductive process. It’s difficult (though not impossible) to break away from a particular sound and rhythm once you’ve mentally associated it with your images. And when you’re on a tight, unforgiving schedule like those faced on big-budget pictures, you’re not going to take the difficult option, even if it means your work suffers as a result.
So chalk the American Gods / Dragon Tattoo similarities up to a fairly standard industry practice that, unfortunately, stifles originality. I seriously doubt that the comparison was coincidental or even unconscious. Maybe at one point the production tried to license the Reznor/Ross/O version of “Immigrant Song,” but for whatever reason failed to secure the rights. The song is loaded with Norse imagery, so it’d be an appropriate opener for a show featuring Odin as a major character. On the other hand, maybe it was just temp music. Either way, it's unlikely to produce a lawsuit or any other serious controversy, as again, this happens all the time.
Won’t stop me cringing at it for the next eight weeks, though.