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Interview with Mateo Messina

Mateo Messina
Mateo Messina

Mateo MessinaJuno and Butter

FSC: What inspired you to compose film music?

MM: I’d just written my first symphony at about 23, and an old friend of mine was in film school and he asked if I would write music for his short film. He was down in San Francisco, I was up in Seattle, and I tried it and I kind of fell in love with the medium. I thought it was such an interesting way to tell a story. I learned really quickly that the job is about cueing emotion, and so that was really a lot of fun. So basically what inspired me was just somebody asking me to try it.

FSC: Pretty glad you did, aren’t you?

MM: Absolutely, it is a wonderful, wonderful career.

FSC: Your music can be performed by either a full orchestra or sometimes even a small group. Is that something that you try to achieve or is that just the way that you write?

MM: When they call for an orchestra – It’s basically what the film calls for. So, if the story calls for something big and emotional, I’ll use and orchestra, and if not, it just depends on the style you want to go for.

FSC: What do you try to achieve in your music to set you apart from other composers?

MM: That’s a very good question! One thing is, since I began, even when I was just starting out, I did not have a budget for musicians, and I decided was not going to go the route of samples. And that doesn’t mean I don’t use them at all. But I would make sure that there are human beings always on my score and also I try not to change things up too much to the point where I can’t feel “human”. I love the sound of mistakes. I really believe in humanity I guess (laughs). That sounds kind of weird, but my scores sound very much like there are human beings playing them and the idea is I think imperfection goes very far in affecting emotion. Our sole jobs as composers of film is to cue emotion, so I don’t find that nearly as much emotion is in something that is all synth. So, I love the feeling of the rooms, I love the feeling of having 50 strings players, and thinking about how on that very day, as I’m having them play this scene, that one of them might have just fallen in love recently and one of them might have just found out their kid’s on drugs, or they’re going through a harsh divorce, or maybe just lost a parent. And there’s just this massive range of emotions that are sweeping through this body of musicians, and that gives the music so much emotion. And that then also allows the viewer – you never want to hold anyone’s hand and say “feel this” or “feel that”, but it just gives them a place to just really feel emotion. A key of scoring film is giving a place to feel. And, really, you’re going to find that through the humanity in scores.

FSC: You have a lot of credits with your name with films like, you helped out with Up in the Air, which was nominated for 6 Oscars, you did Butter, which has an incredible cast, and you won a Grammy for Juno. How did it feel to have that Grammy title to help recognize all of the hard work you’ve done?

MM: (Laughs). I don’t want to belittle it at all because it’s an honor, but it didn’t change anything for me to be perfectly honest. I think my being recognized feels good, for anyone, but I did not write any differently before or after the award. More what I learned is every film is a new experience. Every film is a place where I get challenged and I have to reach for something inside me that I may not have known. I just had a project recently where I was starting on the first cue, the first scene of a 10-part series, this big, big show for NBC, and it was an action, thriller, drama. And I turned to my assistant and I go, “Huh, just realized I don’t think I’ve written an action scene before.” And I was half-way through writing 300 minutes of orchestral, action drama for this series! I’m very confident in my ability, and so what happens is with each new project, I end up learning something new. So the awards, honestly, haven’t changed anything. Different films I’ve worked on have been up for Oscars and Golden Globes and all those things, and it’s great and it’s fun, but to me, I love it because I’ve been very fortunate to work with a very high-caliber group of producers and directors and performers. So if anything, it’s helped raise the bar.

FSC: I know another movie that you did recently with a great cast was The Angriest Man in Brooklyn, which has everybody from Peter Dinklage, Mila Kunis, James Earl Jones, and of course, it had the late, great Robin Williams.

MM: Yeah, I think it was his last film.

FSC: With cast member like this, do you ever take the personalities of the actors who are in the films into consideration or do you more try to have the music help shape their characters’ personalities?

MM: Well I’m never shaping from my side. I’m not looking at an actor, to be honest. It’s interesting, Angriest Man in Brooklyn, before Robin Williams, I think they had talked to everyone from Robert Downey Jr. to – there were so many people who were cast in that role, eventually it ended up being Robin Williams. But that character’s still the same. And I know sometimes that screenwriters write with certain actors in mind, and that’s great, but really, seeing how he played it. I grew up with the Robin Williams that was very funny and super hyper and always entertaining. In this film, he had some really dark and poignant moments, there were some beautiful moments and some poignant moments, and there were some really funny moments. But I’m playing the character, not Robin. And it was wonderful, when I was on set, when I was meeting with a director, a phenomenal director, Phil Alden Robinson. I was meeting with him and our producers, they introduced Robin and I and we had a nice conversation and it was really fun. I remember thinking at the end of our conversation, I sat down, I was like, “Wow, Robin Williams just told me a really funny story about what they were shooting the day before.” And he told it as only Robin Williams could, he was doing all the different voices because he was shooting with a kid and he was like, “Oh, and the kid was like ‘(expletive in the kid’s voice)’ and I was like ‘Oh!’ and…” (laughs) and he was just doing all that stuff, and it was really fun. It’s exciting to work on films where you see actors of this caliber where they’re just nailing it. That’s the big difference, I’m working with actors that are really good at taking on these new characters. But really I’m just supporting those characters in this story. I’m supporting the director’s vision on how to tell that story and how the emotions are portrayed.

FSC: I think you kind of touched on this before, but what was it like working on NBC shows Growing Up Fisher and Crossbones?

MM: Well those couldn’t be any more different shows. I had met with Fox like the day before about possibly going to work on a show at Fox. And I was at NBC on the last day for the last episode of Growing Up Fisher, it was a really nice day, and I was talking with the nice people that had hired me for Growing Up Fisher, and they said, “Hey, we have a project we think you’d be great for,” and they’re like, “and, we know you’re free right now because you just finished the last part of the show.” They didn’t even know if I had a film or not, I could have said no. But they said, “Would you be interested in taking this on? It’s a huge job and it’s got a huge time constraint.” You’re usually given something like 3 months to work on something like this and I was given 33 days. Imagine that, 33 days to write over 300 minutes of orchestral music. It was writing over 10 minutes a day. Usually you can get 5, and this was every day, not a single weekend, this day off, nothing. There was nothing off. Wake up at 6am, exercise ‘till 7, write from 7 until about 10:30pm with a break for dinner. What was great about it was I came off this comedy, this family show that was so sweet and such an endearing story, which was based off of a true story. And here I was, working with the person who the life story was about, and just writing really fun stuff, helping punch jokes and giving people a fun atmosphere. And then it switched to this spy/thriller/drama. I went from playing all sorts of percussion and bass, funky, fun little guitars and organs to writing for the orchestra and playing huge action scenes. They couldn’t have been two more different shows. One of them was just my assistant and I, the other one I had a team of guys. I had orchestrators, and two music editors, and an engineer, and score coordinator – it was big.

FSC: Quite an accomplishment though!

MM: Yeah, you know what, it was funny, I’m going into writing my 17th symphony right now, and part of me was like, “Gee, I’d better get cracking on this thing, it has a premiere in about two months,” and then I was like, “Oh wait a second, if I’m writing an hour for symphony, I can do that in 6 days!” (laughs). I won’t put that kind of time constraint on myself though.


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FSC: Barely Lethal, which is your latest film, has been completed. What can we expect to hear from you in that?

MM: You know what, that was a very new thing for me as well, because that ended up being my first teen film. On top of that, it was a total action-comedy. So here I was, doing action again. While I was in the middle of Crossbones, my agent said, “Hey, we need you to meet with this director to discuss his film.” Here it was, I was working on this big action project then here was another one. It was really fun because the film pays a little bit of homage back to the really great 80s teen films by John Hughes. So I ended up using 80s synth and then combining them with a string orchestra. It was actually a ton of percussion and it was fun, I got to stretch my legs quite a bit. Here I’ve delved into a whole new genre, I’ve been known as the “happy-go-lucky, jingly guitar, anti-big orchestral score guy”. Although in the past couple years, especially with a movie called And While We Were Here, that was a big, beautiful orchestral drama. But what to expect out of this one, it’s an absolutely awesome little film and it’s a true teen movie and the score’s going to be very high energy. And there are parts in it where you’ll go, “Oh, that sounds like a Messina score,” and there are other parts of it where it’s kind of a brand new style for me. Especially using the 80s synth, that’s something I just started delving into recently.

FSC: I know that you’re pretty well known in Seattle for your help with the Seattle Children’s Hospital, is there anything you want to say about what you do there and why you do it?

MM: Basically, I’ve been writing songs with kids and volunteering at the hospital for the last, about 16 years, and I write songs with kids and we write songs about bees and dogs and farts, and we forget about cancer for an hour or two. I’d been working with kids at the hospital for a while and then I started on my concert and I thought, “Well gee, here’s something that I already know.” And I thought, “Ok, I’m going to start raising money for the families that are at the hospital.” It started off as something that was just a small part of my life, and it’s turned into something pretty significant now, it’s a very big part of my life. In fact, I’m on the board at Seattle Children’s Hospital this year, and we’ve already raised over $1,000,000, my team and I. My team is probably between 40 and 50 people. It’s become an incredibly fulfilling part of my life, more than I ever could have guessed.

FSC: I noticed you’ve done a lot of commercial work with really big names out there, ranging from Nike to Ford. How much of a challenge is to create such a short but impactful piece of music for a commercial?
MM: I actually enjoy doing them! I enjoy the challenge. I think it’s really fun. Writing for commercials is so different. You’re creating a mood, and it’s emotional, so that’s similar. But now (with commercials) you have a very finite amount of time which actually makes it more difficult. But I’ve always been able to find a way through to connect with people when writing for this. What’s more challenging though with commercials is – well with film you’re dealing with a director, some producers, sometimes exec. producers, studio executives, and there’s a lot of people weighing in on it. But, it’s strange, because with commercials it feels like twice as many people weighing in on the decision, so that makes it kind of challenging. But from a purely artistic standpoint, I love it because you’re now helping create a mood, an emotion, tied in with a brand. Working on, like Victoria’s Secret for one project honing in on that and then all of the sudden switching over to, like, X-Box, it couldn’t be more different but I love it. I’ve had challenges, everything from 30 second spots to 3 second audio brand logos. They’re fun exercises. They’re challenging, but I enjoy them. I don’t do them nearly as much as film and television. I did them earlier on in my career, but if I am asked to do them I usually will if I can, if I have time, because I think they are really, really interesting work.

FSC: What advice would you give to someone who’s having a hard time finding their own musical style?

MM: Well, I could pass along some advice from an old mentor of mine. I used to meet up with Elmer Bernstein, the great film composer, in his kitchen in Santa Monica. We’d go down to the kitchen and he’d drink coffee and we would talk. Actually, the last time we were supposed to meet, he passed away, and we ended up not meeting. In was early on in my career I would ask him, “How do you play love, how do you play fear, how do you play joy?” and he would say, “Look, I love that you’re asking me these questions and I’m going to tell you how I do this. Just know this: no one will respect you if you try to sound like someone else, but everyone will respect you when you try to sound like yourself.” Me, being late twenty-something, I’m like, “Hey, I can do that!” But that was really great; to hear one of the greatest film composers I had a huge amount – I still have a huge amount of respect for – tell me that. Just be yourself. My career hasn’t been based on the fact that I sound like typical filmscore soundtracks. I very much brought different sounds and flavors into the film world, and to me, as long as I’m hitting the emotion, then I’m doing my job. So anybody looking to create their own sound and are having a hard time finding it, listen to what you love, but – It’s a great way to learn, by emulating, and I’ve done that before. Funny enough, not with film music, but when I was first starting, I loved this piano player named George Winston so I would memorize his songs by ear and then that was sort of how my style was born early on in my recording career. It’s good to learn from others. But be yourself, be a pioneer, try something new, don’t just try to sound like everyone else because I have a whole career based off of that, of just bringing something new to the world. It’s good to be unique and to be yourself, don’t try to be anything you aren’t. Life’s a lot easier that way, when you can say, “Hey, take me or leave me, this is who I am. Take my music or leave it.” And that doesn’t mean I don’t make re-writes for my directors. On that big action score about pirates, I think they had heard people sending them stuff that sounded like Hans Zimmer’s camp’s Pirates of the Caribbean stuff when I had sent them something completely different, even though it’s still orchestral, and they really liked it. I didn’t try to sound like pirates, I tried to sound like a spy/thriller, and that’s what resonated with them.

FSC: To help the readers get to know you better, I have to ask two tough back-to-back questions here. They’re ‘which do you prefer’ questions. The first one is: Star Wars or Star Trek?

MM: Star Wars.

FSC: Ok, that was fast.

MM: (laughs) Yeah, that was easy.

FSC: The second one, which might be a little harder, is would you prefer to sit down and listen to a James Horner soundtrack or a Marco Beltrami soundtrack?

MM: That’s an interesting question, because I actually really love what both of them do. I think I’m going to say Beltrami. Yeah, I think I’m going to say Marco Beltrami more than Horner, although I love the romantic nature of Horner’s scores, I feel Beltrami is being inventive, and intense. I mean he’s a pretty badass composer. They both are, but there’s something about Beltrami. He’s got a lot of edge to what he does. He’s done such diverse projects. I know he’s known probably for, like, Terminator or some older movies, but he’s still incredibly active and working on lots of great stuff, so, yeah, I’d say Beltrami. Although, if you gave me a third choice, I’d say Mychael Danna.

FSC: Ah, okay!

MM: And pre- Life of Pi, I was talking to my agent and he said, “Hey, if you could have any career what would it be?” and I said, “Mychael Danna.” He’s a guy who does things that are bigger, like Moneyball or Life of Pi, just these really cool scores over the years, and does stuff that is just beautiful and really, really cool and diverse. That’s one of the joys of being a film composer; no one’s giving you the same things over and over. Every character is different, every director is different, and for me, I like to style every score uniquely. What a joy it is to be in a career where you get inspired by each new project. That doesn’t mean they’re all good (laughs), but you’re never going to get bored with the challenge of it.

FSC: Other than Barely Lethal, anything exciting coming up for you?

MM: Um, you know what, I am going to start a film but I can’t talk about it yet which sucks (laughs). But yes there is something exciting in 2015, which is lame to say.

FSC: No, it’s enticing!

MM: I just got word on it last week, and I know of another project I’m doing in the spring, but I don’t want to mention that one either because that’s a really big one too. But the only reason is I don’t know when they’re going to come out because things change so often. So I’m giving the lame answer.

For more, visit Mateo’s website at

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