Inside the inspiring journey of ‘Captain Marvel’ composer Pinar Toprak, from moving to America at 17 to becoming the first female composer of a Marvel movie

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“Captain Marvel” composer Pinar Toprak.
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Jesse Grant/Getty

  • Pinar Toprak became the first female composer of a Marvel movie with the release of “Captain Marvel.”
  • Her journey to that achievement is an inspiring one.
  • Toprak talked to Business Insider about coming to America knowing little English at 17, becoming a music composer, and her stops working with David Ellison, Danny Elfman, and “Fortnite” along the way.

Pinar Toprak realized very early on what she wanted to do with her life, and it was making music for movies.

She was so obsessed with movie scores as a kid back in Istanbul, Turkey in the 1980s that she would look in the local paper to find when a favorite movie of hers was playing on TV, then take her Walkman and place it next to the TV so she could record the movie’s score.

It wasn’t until later in life she learned you could buy movie soundtracks.

But it’s a perfect example of Toprak going the extra mile to get what she wanted. And getting the composer job on “Captain Marvel,” making her to first woman to have that credit on a Marvel movie, was no different. In fact, Toprak’s journey to the coveted job has a little Carol Danvers in it, as most of her career, she’s been fighting to do things she’s been told aren’t right for her.

Taking her own path

At age 17, knowing very little English, Toprak moved to the US to get into college and continue to study music. For the first year she lived with her brother in Chicago, and soon after was accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston – but not to study film scoring.

Though she wanted to become a film composer, her family and friends pushed her away from doing it.

“Everyone was telling me that film scoring wasn’t the wisest route for a degree because being a Turkish woman there just aren’t any people like me doing it,” Toprak told Business Insider. “I really doubted myself, so when I first got to Berklee I was a piano performance major.”

But quickly Toprak realized she wasn’t happy. And the more she would go to movies and hear the music in them, she couldn’t hold back her dream of doing the same thing. She changed her major to film scoring.

Read more: “Captain Marvel” directors on why they have nothing but love for the internet trolls, and how being falsely linked to another Marvel movie might have gotten them the job

“They fooled me for a second,” Toprak said with a laugh. “But I wanted to just go on my own path.”

In 2000, Toprak moved out to Los Angeles and began studying at Cal State Northridge in a master’s program for classical composition. She got her first taste of the business when she was selected to intern at Paramount’s music department. There she would sit in on the classical arrangements for shows done on the lot, like “Star Trek: Enterprise” and “JAG.” She was also making demos back home and sending them out to anyone in the business who would take them. This led to her getting on the radar of David Ellison, son of Oracle CTO Larry Ellison and now founder and CEO of Skydance Media.

At the time, Ellison was like Toprak: just someone trying to get into movies. He hired Toprak to score his 2005 short film, “When All Else Fails,” marking Toprak’s first big film job.

“It took a while to realize who he actually is,” Toprak said of working with Ellison. “We started a friendship and I have worked with him on a few things since. I actually scored the music for his Skydance logo.”

As the years passed, Toprak continued to hustle. She got a programming position at composer Hans Zimmer’s studio, did the score for a video game that led to her landing an agent, and did the scores for indie movies. She also continued to send out her work.

“There was a time I turned my living room into an assembly line,” she said. “This was before YouTube and SoundCloud, so I would print CDs, resumes, and cover letters to individual filmmakers. I’m sure some of them were just tossed in the trash, but I did get some films out of it and the word of mouth would lead me to another job.”

And it was also good to have the same agent as legendary composer Danny Elfman. That connection got her the opportunity to come in and demo for him, leading to her working alongside him on 2017’s “Justice League” providing additional music for the movie.

Around the same time, she got the job to compose the score for a little game you may have heard of: “Fortnite: Save the World.”

Toprak was gaining momentum, but her next goal came to her when she saw news break in the trades that Marvel Studios would make a “Captain Marvel” movie.

Owning the moment

“I made my intentions very clear to my agent that I should get a shot at this,” Toprak said of being considered to score “Captain Marvel.”

Though she wanted the job, she also wanted to at least get in the room and show the Marvel Studio executives her talent with the hope of being considered in the future.

She finally got her shot in April last year and didn’t waste the moment.

Unlike the old days when she would mail a CD and resume, Toprak went big for Marvel. She wrote multiple pieces of music for the demo and hired a 70-piece orchestra to perform it. Toprak then did a video shoot of her conducting the orchestra. Toprak said the musicians had no idea it was a demo for “Captain Marvel.”

“The music was titled ‘demo one’ and ‘demo two,’ so nobody knew,” she said.

Toprak also recorded another video of her inside her studio speaking to the camera about why doing the movie would be important to her. And she played some arrangements on her piano.

Toprak said she went to these lengths to prove to Marvel that the moment wouldn’t be too big for her.

“I have no idea to this day how many people were considered, but I wanted to make sure that they had a sense of who I am and how important this is to me,” she said.

A month later, Toprak got word that she would be the composer for “Captain Marvel” and spent five months working on the music, recording close to 100 minutes of score.

Read more: “Captain Marvel” editor describes what makes Marvel Studios a unique place to work, and the funny way she got the job

Toprak said the mix of orchestra and electronic pieces throughout the movie came through the discussions with the movie’s directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

“We felt the hybrid approach was really appropriate given that Carol Danvers herself is a hybrid,” Toprak said. “So when we have the cosmic scenes and wanted to create a certain vibe we have one style, and we wanted to create a certain vibe when you’re on Earth.”

A big part of the Earth scenes is the use of songs from the 1990s, the period in which the movie is set. Toprak said she was aware of the choice, since she sat in the meetings and knew which scenes had song placements and which needed an original score. Toprak was not disappointed that the movie would have a lot of needle drops.

“I never put my ego in the way, it’s about making the best film,” she said. “Sometimes a really cool song goes a long way in telling the story.”

That said, seeing the DNA of arrangements she created for the demo, like “Breaking Free,” last through her months of work and end up in the final movie was also really cool, she said.

Since “Captain Marvel” had one of the biggest opening weekends ever for a superhero movie, Toprak said it’s like she’s been living in a parallel universe. She’s not just the first female composer on a Marvel movie, but now the highest-grossing female film composer ever.

“Any time you work towards something your whole life and people can recognize it, that’s a great thing regardless of your gender or anything else,” she said. “But from the days where I begged people to listen to my music to now, it’s been an incredible journey.”

“Captain Marvel” is currently playing in theaters.