Behind Netflix’s “A Madea Homecoming” & The Loud House Movie with Acclaimed Composer Phillip White

Acclaimed composer Phillip White has a long list of notable works including The Loud House Movie which earned a 2021 HMMA nomination for Best Original Score for an Animated Film, Jexi, A Madea Family Funeral, Nobody’s Fool, Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, and Alex & Me.

His latest project Tyler Perry’s A Madea Homecoming which premiered on February 25th, follows the story of Madea as she tried to stop family drama from ruining her great grandson’s college graduation day. 

A Madea Homecoming represents Philip’s fourth collaboration with Tyler Perry Studios. He is especially excited to have worked on this film because A Madea Family Funeral was supposed to be the last film of the series. For the comedic moments, he relied heavily on the sound of the band. We spoke with Phillip about his career as a composer, working at Tyler Perry Studios, his inspirations, or his experiences working for television, film, interactive media, and the concert stage.

PH: Can you share your background and an overview of your notable works?

Phillip White: I was born and raised in Madrid, Spain. I started classical guitar at 13 and became interested in composing around the end of high school. I went to college in the US, graduating with dual degrees in Drama and Music Composition from Tufts and the New England Conservatory.

I moved to LA shortly after and joined a theater company, where I acted for several years. I missed music and felt I could contribute more as a composer than as an actor. I enrolled in USC’s film scoring program, and after graduating was recommended to Chris Lennertz, a wonderful composer who would become a great mentor and friend. We’ve collaborated on numerous projects throughout the years, including Supernatural, the James Bond: Quantum of Solace and Starhawk video games, HOP, Identity Thief, Lost in Space, Revolution, Agent Carter, The Smurfs: Lost Village, and Jexi, to name a few. I’m grateful that A Madea Homecoming is my fourth collaboration with Tyler Perry Studios.

PH: What factors do you consider before signing onto a new project? What elements does a project have to include? 

Phillip White: I don’t have a strict list of “must-haves”. There’s always something of value I can find in any project. It could be a potential relationship, a genre that pushes me out of my comfort zone, a new media format, etc. Once I get deep enough into any project, I enjoy learning something new.

PH: Can you talk about the experience working on the latest film, A Madea Homecoming?

Phillip White: I worked closely with music supervisors Joel High and Sami Posner, who are fantastic. Joel has been Tyler Perry’s musical right hand for years and has a keen sense of Tyler’s preferences. Johnny Caruso, our music editor, has also worked on many TPS films and was instrumental in assembling the temp score and making last-minute adjustments on the dub stage.

PH: These are comedies. How does sound really play into the storytelling of comedic film? For this project, how did you utilize sound to relay that?

Phillip White: Although the comedy was obviously a huge component of the score, it also had to support the emotion of the family storyline. For the comedic moments (mostly supplied by Madea and her entourage), I relied on a band comprised of drums, acoustic and electric bass, hand percussion, Hammond B3 and Rhodes, and electric guitar. For the more emotional scenes, I used piano, winds, and a 22-piece string orchestra.

There is one hilarious flashback scene for which I did not use the band. This was a choice idea from Johnny, our music editor, who thought we could try scoring it as a nod to 50s noir, à la North by Northwest or Vertigo. In this case, the music inhabits the scene and plays the realities of the characters, rather than being removed from them. (Elmer Bernstein was a genius at this—if you only heard the score to Airplane! you’d think it was a drama.) The musical language and instrumentation changed accordingly. I used harmonically dense string passages as well as groupings of low winds, such as alto flutes and bass clarinets.

PH: What has been your experience collaborating with Tyler Perry Studios? 

Phillip White: This is my fourth collaboration with TPS, and it is always a joy working with Joel and the whole crew. I’ve also scored Boo 2! A Madea Halloween, Nobody’s Fool, and A Madea Family Funeral. The team’s direction is always clear and allows for experimentation. Tyler Perry has been nothing but incredibly kind and supportive. I feel very lucky to have been brought into the TPS family.

PH: Having more experience in the industry, what have you noticed has changed the most (industry-wise)? How has your role evolved? 

Phillip White: The technological advances over the last two decades can’t be overstated. Anybody with a computer, a sequencer (such as Logic, Cubase, Digital Performer, etc), a few sample libraries, and a decent microphone can score a film. All of these are also available at a fraction of what they used to cost. This, combined with the ever-growing number of platforms which need music, makes for an extremely fertile era of music for media. Of course, creating good music still requires an alchemy of all the traditionally hard-wrought qualities: ears, experience, experimentation, and effort.

There is also much more that can be expressed with production techniques than ever before. Our instrumentation palette has grown to include way more than the traditional orchestra or 4-piece band. Any digital sound can be manipulated by many factors beyond its original state. With enough finesse, you can use an ordinary lightbulb as the source material for a percussion ensemble.

PH: In your role, what are some of the biggest challenges you encounter—and how do you resolve those?

Phillip White: One of the biggest challenges in any project is finding your way in. I go through countless attempts at first, rejecting idea after idea. I remind myself that this is not only normal but necessary—the creative equivalent of flushing out the sewer lines. Eventually, if I keep improvising, trying different sounds, different ideas, or sometimes just going on a walk, I’ll find something. It may or may not end up in the final score, but it’s enough to keep me focused.

Once you’ve zeroed in on an idea, the second challenge is to make it sound as polished and as true to what you want within budgetary and time constraints. That’s always a bit of a Tetris game, but it can be fun if you’re excited about the raw material.

PH: You’ve worked in television, film, media, and even concert stages. How are they all different? How do some of the elements translate across all mediums?

Phillip White: I think good music can work across any media. This is why we’re seeing so many film, television, and especially game scores being performed as standalone concerts. I especially love seeing how this can work in the other direction—using concert music as part of the underscore. A few of my favorites: Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celeste was used chillingly in The Shining; Hollom’s death in Master and Commander was underscored heartbreakingly by Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Charles Ives’ sustained strings in The Unanswered Question perfectly captured Mani’s ultra-slow motion demise in Run Lola Run.

With film and television, you’re adhering to a strict narrative timeline. With games, you’re usually scoring a broader emotional experience rather than specific beats. With concert music, the parameters are self-imposed. But a good tune will work anywhere.

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works? 

Phillip White: While I can’t mention anything specific, I am excited about two very different projects coming up later in the year. I’m just so thrilled about the release of Homecoming. I think we can all use a good belly laugh right now.

PH: What’s one quality or characteristic every successful composer should embody?

Phillip White: I think the answer begins with one’s definition of success. For me, nothing can get around hard work. If you apply yourself wholeheartedly to something—anything—the rewards will follow. Perhaps not in the way you imagine, but I have to believe they will carry you forward.

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