The Making of the “Sweet and Sour” ‘White Lotus’ Opening Titles

One year ago, the opening credits for HBO’s The White Lotus pulsated on screens all over the world: simple, wallpaper-like graphics subtly undulating and accompanied by haunting music. The tropical images of monkeys, birds and fruit go perfectly with the sonic elements, teasing the character trajectories in the episodes to come, yet composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer and directors Katrina Crawford and Mark Bashore of Seattle studio Plains of Yonder tell THR that the three of them never worked together on it — it just became cohesive naturally.

“Cristobal was in Montreal, and we’re in Seattle,” says Bashore, “and we both took conversations from THR Magazine Mike White, and we didn’t talk and somehow we ended up with a nice combination.”

Adds Crawford, “Normally, our edits are very sound-driven, and we actually cut with some other music just to have something, but we knew that Cristobal was making the music and we’ve been longtime fans, so we felt really confident.”

Tapia de Veer says he tried different ideas for the opening sequence. “Mike wanted me to do music that feels like something is about to explode or somebody’s about to die,” he says. “Because of the slow pace, it feels like there’s something happening behind those images, or like you’re watching a shadows show. [There aren’t any] extreme images or violence, it’s just beautiful stuff happening, and I thought that was really interesting and very close to how I felt Mike wanted the show to be.”

Bashore and Crawford also had many different ideas for their opening sequence, but were eventually inspired by timeless credits of old Westerns. “They have this child’s storybook-like quality to them that’s like a portal into the world,” says Bashore. They worked on it for eight weeks, faster than their usual projects.

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“The wallpaper [idea] was a weird one because it doesn’t actually move,” says Bashore. “[We thought] this could be the most boring main title in the history [of TV]. We didn’t want flashy computer-generated pieces that look like 50 people on computers made them — it’s just not the way we make titles. We like simple but emotionally powerful work, and after you watch it, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s so simple. But it’s so beautiful too.’ “

Crawford says that the psychological aspect of White’s script really helped the duo home in on what they wanted to do for the sequence. “There’s a lot of really keen observation of humans, and there’s so much material to work with. One term [Mike] used was ‘sweet-sour,’ and we really latched on to that. Then you’re reading the scripts, and you’re hearing that these different characters are staying in these different suites. And that’s where we launched from because we thought we can tell a tangential story.”

Tapia de Veer used voices from a Colombian mother and her daughter as well as his own labored breathing from playing the flute on the track. “The breathing somehow became a thing for people; I heard lots of people saying they [felt] anxiety. But it wasn’t all calculated. I was actually lacking oxygen, so maybe you can hear that. The rest is really only drums, tribal stuff, [like] tribal flutes. It started to make sense to have the screaming voices for certain things about the show: for the abuse, colonialism, and so there’s an aspect of the show that I feel is in the music represented. It was never about doing Hawaiian music or mimicking or representing Hawaiian culture with my sounds or anything like that. It’s more about the drama going on in [the show].”

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This story first appeared in the Aug. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.