Blake Neely – The Mentalist and The Pacific
FSC: What inspired you to compose film music?
BN: Well I started out at a very young age writing music, playing piano, and I grew up in a small town and didn’t really know what to do with that. When I was 8 years old, I, like many composers that I know, was sitting in the movie Star Wars and thought, “Wow, I’ve never heard this music before and it’s really cool! It must be some person that writes music for movies. I want that job.” That launched me into trying to figure out how I was going to go about doing this.
FSC: How did your work with composers like Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard and so many more help you to become the composer you are?
BN: My real break came through meeting Michael Kamen, the composer of Robin Hood and Mr. Holland’s Opus among tons of other movies. He was doing a special project, it was a concert tour, and I was going to put together a lot of his scores for him to go out and do this tour with orchestras, and he called me after I had been working on this for quite some time, and said, “You’ve been putting these scores together, I’m thinking you must be an orchestrator.” And I wasn’t, but I of course said, “Yes,” and he brought me on as an orchestrator of his and we did many films together, with me orchestrating along with the rest of his team. That lead to more credits, where I was noticed, and was able to come on and work with Hans Zimmer, was next, and that lead to working with James Newton Howard. So that’s how I got into it. But working with composers like that is the ultimate apprenticeship because you see how it’s done. I think that a lot of people before they get into the business don’t really know how the process is done. Some people might think that you just write a bunch of music and it gets thrown into the movie. But I learned through working with them that it’s whole other craft, this whole other art form, where you’re actually writing music to the movie, to the scenes, and crafting it specifically to fit. You’re more of a dramatist than just a music writer. So I learned from them how to do the process as well as how to just get by in the industry with learning how to have cues rejected, and watching them write all night and have cues rejected by a director for whatever reason, learning how they work with a director and how they come up with an idea that’s specific to that movie and the whole theme. Working under them was hugely educational for me. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without going through that process.
FSC: You’ve done a lot of various work on television music, ranging from composing for shows to, you even worked on the Olympics. Is it a challenge to reinvent yourself for each new project you do?
BN: It is a challenge, and it’s actually the most daunting part of starting a new project, thinking, “How am I going to do this differently?” To some extent everything’s going to sound a little bit like you and sound like the last thing you did because you develop a style that you write in. But you don’t want the next project to sound like the one you’re doing now, so it’s always formidable to sit there and think, “I’ve got to reinvent the wheel.” But what I think happens is each project is so different that it turns you creatively each time. You don’t necessarily do the same things as you would because the story’s different and the characters are different. That’s sort of how I get around it. Watching the movie or the TV show over and over and learning it and being inspired by the story and heading in a different direction. And it’s also helpful if you surround yourself with people who will tell you, “Oh no, you’ve done that before,” or, “You’ve done that theme before, that sounds like the last theme.”
FSC: When people think about Blake Neely’s music, what do you want them to think about?
BN: Oh my god, that’s a really good question. I’ve actually never thought of that answer. I guess, even when I write music that’s not for film or TV, that doesn’t have a story attached, I’ve always written with a story in mind. Definitely an emotional component, and I hope that people will, when they listen to my music, go on a journey, and experience it as a story that might be told. If it’s from a TV show or a film that I’ve done, I hope that they’re also taking the story of that film with them as they listen to it and not just a piece of music because I think that’s what makes film music timeless. It can imprint itself on the film and the film can imprint itself on the music so you have this ultimate souvenir of the story any time you listen to it. So I guess that’s what I’d like, that they experience it as bigger than a piece of music, it’s actually a story that’s being told.
FSC: Even though the TV series The Mentalist is finishing soon, Arrow and The Flash are, really, just getting started. What does it feel like to start on a new show?
BN: Well, Arrow is in it’s 3rd season now, so it feels like it’s not that new, although every season they’re upping the bar and creating new stories so I’m continuing to try to make it new. A show like The Flash is just getting started, it’s pretty exciting to think these ideas, these themes, these sounds I’m developing now, I really have, hopefully, another 2, 3, or even 5 seasons to develop them. That’s what’s exciting about starting something new, as opposed to film where you do the one project and it’s over, maybe you get a sequel. But with TV, in a year you have 22 episodes and sometimes you might have, like in the case with The Mentalist, 150 episodes to develop your ideas, stay with the characters, stay with the story. That’s always exciting when I start a new project.
FSC: If you have to pick one favorite composer, who would it be?
BN: One favorite composer?
BN: Well my favorite, favorite composer is not a film composer, it’s Arvo Pärt, a living Estonian classical composer. My favorite film composer I think lots of people would chime in and agree with me, it would have to be John Williams because he inspired me from such an early age. He’s always done such amazing scores. I think he’d have to be my favorite.
FSC: It’s a common thing where something about the way his cinematic music really hits you at those right moments is really inspirational.
BN: Yeah, and the other thing is he’s written so many classic themes that are played in concert halls and just have this life outside the film. Everyone knows them. Every score he’s ever done is just beautifully crafted. And he’s really brought the classical approach to film, even in times where film scores have turned to more modern electronic edge, he’s still able to do the classical thing and keep it contemporary and it doesn’t get old. He’s a true master.
What advice would you give to a young composer who is trying to find their own style?
BN: I sometimes teach students and I tell them the same thing, which is, “Don’t try to mimic.” A lot of people trying to get into film composing think the best way in is to write music that sounds like Hans Zimmer, or that sounds like John Williams, or sounds like Thomas Newman. While that might get you a job, writing as a ghost writer for someone, it’s not you and it’s not really going to get you noticed. What gets you noticed is staying true to your originality. Even if you have never heard it in a film, that’s how we break new ground – new voices, new creative sounds, new originality. So I try to tell them to stay true to what you’re doing. You can always go mimic someone else but to get noticed, you need to develop your own sound. That involves exploring, it involves collecting new sounds, working with different musicians, and figuring out what moves you compositionally.
For more, go to Blake’s website at www.blakeneely.com