Interview with Brian Tyler

Conducting 2015 Brian Tyler

Brian Tyler Avengers: Age of Ultron, Now You See Me, Furious 7

FSC: What inspired you to go into film scoring?

BT: The thing that inspired me to go into film scoring, I think, was really the combination of the two things that I really loved growing up, which were movies and music. I really go turned on by the big, fun movies of the era – all the Spielberg films and the Lucas films with Star Wars and E.T. There are really fantastic scores in that era, and John Williams, the Back to the Future movies and the Zemeckis stuff with Alan Silvestri was fantastic. I was also a big Hitchcock fan, so all the Bernard Herrmann scores, I got really into Maurice Jarre and electronic scores, like Vangelis, and then there’s James Horner, and on and on, you name it. I think it developed out of my love for watching film and, as I went deeper into the movie catalog and the movie music I was interested in, I would buy soundtracks. At the same time, at a very young age, I got interested in musical instruments and I tried to figure out how to play different instruments, like piano, drums, and guitar. That led to many other instruments, and the one thing I found that was really interesting was the way drama connected to music in an emotional way. I often would do this — I didn’t have films, necessarily, on tap like we do now with Netflix or iTunes, where you can easily watch something later, so I would listen to soundtracks to re-experience films. I remember memorizing how dialogue and scenes lined up, be it Rocky or Star Wars or Vertigo. I could imagine and play the movie in my head, and I often would reorder the soundtracks if they weren’t in chronological order (laughs). In the early days, I started to learn to play instruments and then I started composing my own music unwittingly. For fun, I would read a book and write these scores to them. Strangely enough, one of them I actually ended up scoring the movie version of later in life, which was kind of interesting. I was a big fan of the Dune books, and of course there was the Dune score by Toto that was floating around with the David Lynch version of the movie, which was kind of weird (laughs) and fascinating in it’s own way. I thought that was great, but I’d already been reading the books and Children of Dune and Dune Messiah were in those books, so it’s just odd that I ended up scoring that once they made it and Greg Yaitanes directed it. Anyway, so all of this led to a fascination with music and how it related to film, and I could see, writing music, how much film music and film composition could really tell a story on its own, being as that I was used to listening to scores away from the films. Then, as time passed, the more I wrote, the more it started sounding filmic, and that influence made it so that my music sounded the way that I enjoyed listening to music. It led to it naturally.

FSC: You’ve had a huge impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe through your scores, in addition to working on projects like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Have you ever been afraid of getting the composer version of typecast as the superhero composer?

BT: You know, I’ve heard that. In a sense, I’ve never really thought about it from any perspective, only because I love doing them so much. Again, this comes from feeling lucky that I’m writing music for things that fascinated me growing up and through adulthood. I loved comics and graphic novels growing up, and a big part of that were, of course, the Marvel comics that go way back and continue to expand the universe. I think there is a really deep well there. Sometimes you hear people say that there are a lot of movies about superheroes, but the amount of stories and the back catalog is so much deeper than, I think, people realize. So, I don’t really think about that because it is a type of music that I really do love to compose. “That” music isn’t really one kind of music. There is, I suppose, a general feel or vibe to a main theme, perhaps. It needs to be rousing, adventure, and fantasy, combined into a sound that you need for a superhero. But, at the same time, there is so much that goes into these stories that you can really do all sorts of things with. You can explore world music, you can do corral music, you can do interesting smaller pieces like, for instance, “Loki’s Theme” is like a harp solo with avant-garde strings playing in the background and a choir kind of detuned. These things wouldn’t naturally be the first things you think of when people think of the main theme, right away, when they think of those scores that you mentioned that I’ve done. But then there’s all these other things that are not as in your face in terms of the first thing you think of when you think of these scores, but are certainly part of the tapestry. I love those nooks and crannies of writing music for these epic canvases. In a way, it’s like with me being that I started thinking about film music with Star Wars, the trilogy, and also with Close Encounters, which was one of my favorite scores. I relate it to that early influence for me, so I don’t think I could ever really get tired of it. If people think that I’m the superhero guy, then they don’t listen to my other scores (laughs). That’s on them. I’ll continue to write in different genres if the directors will have me because I do love writing in all different genres, and certainly, superhero movies are one of them.

FSC: Absolutely. For what it’s worth, I do agree, I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Look at the whole picture with things like Now You See Me, which of course I loved, and Truth, which we’ll get to in a minute, and Into the Storm, and all these other movies, it’s such a broad range. So, I don’t think that’s the case, but I do hear people saying that.

BT: Oh yeah, for sure. So do I.

FSC: Speaking of Truth, it isn’t quite like Furious 7 or Avengers: Age of Ultron, so is your approach to each film generally the same or do you change it to suit your expectations of what that film will be like?

BT: I didn’t really have an idea of what the music should sound like for Truth when I started discussing the film with James Vanderbilt, the director. I had a general sense that it was going to be a tighter, more intimate sound, but knowing that there’s a thriller aspect to it, being that it’s a true story where things kind of go haywire. I was thinking about the investigative aspect to the story when I read Mary Mape’s book and then James’ screenplay. I got into that mode where I was very interested in some of the movies that I really enjoyed that had conspiratorial flavors to the scores, like JFK, John Williams’ score to that, for instance. The story read very much like a page-turner, like All the President’s Men and stories like that. The thing that was unexpected was when I watched the film. James and his editor showed me the film — actually, played the film and left the room. They wanted me to see it on my own, so I was in a room by myself screening the film. They put zero temp music in it.

FSC: Oh wow.

BT: It was completely dry in terms of the music and just the performances of the actors. This was really interesting to me, because the thing that I noticed was that the way he directed the film and Cate Blanchett’s performance, Redford’s performance, Topher’s, and Elizabeth Moss’, and all of them, there’s this really emotional side to the story that I, for some reason, didn’t see when I was reading it. And so I knew that the music really needed to reflect this. It needed to have a strong emotional component to it. I found that the music ended up having three different goals, really, when I was starting. Three different musical responsibilities. One being the investigative, journalistic, news-like music, and then there was the political/militaristic vibe that represented the branches of government that they were investigating. Then there’s this father/daughter kind of family, not literal father and daughter, but the relationship between Mary Mapes and Dan Rather and this team, and how their lives start getting ripped apart, it becomes very much along the lines of needing some very poignant music. So it was a bit of a surprise. The movie took me to a different place than I thought I would go for sure.

FSC: Truth is (no pun intended) truly a fantastic score, it really is. One of the things that I loved was how parts of it really sounded like, well, the news.

BT: Right.

FSC: How did you go about capturing that feel?

BT: You’re right, you’re hitting upon what I was referring to just now, which was the three categories, or goals, or styles in the movie, being the journalistic side of things. There’s probably about, maybe a third of the music, maybe a little less in the movie, that has that tone. It’s often when they’re investigating things, when they’re trying to track things down, information. You’ll notice there’s these ostinatos in the harp and the piano — consciously, or maybe subconsciously, I’m not sure which came first, it’s a bit of a chicken egg, but basically the idea behind that being journalistic was a literal one. There’s something to that “dun din din din” sound that sounds very metric, like typing. The thing I noticed is what seemed to work the best at representing the journalistic trade of typing when you don’t literally see them doing it is doing things that simulate typing, like piano, pressing of the keys and fingers in a rapid motion, doing piano ostinatos seemed to fit the bill. Not just in an intellectual way, but somehow evoke something to that effect. I think that’s why it sounds kind of “newsy,” when you have the harp — and then, I had the strings support the ostinatos and the piano, and it became the orchestra simulating a typewriter typing. I think that goes a long way to sound like the news. And then, certainly, the one piece at the end, which is the main title, was all the other themes — actually the theme of Dan Rather and Mary Mapes and all these other themes that were actually not in that style in the movie. I did a rendition of those themes, which were very different, in the news style that almost sounded like a news theme to go along with Truth, if it were a news program. The other two-thirds of the score being the emotional component and the political component, those got enveloped into the news style of music. But yeah, I’m glad you noticed!

FSC: What was your experience working with James Vanderbilt like?

BT: James is an old compadre of mine. We know each other well within film and outside film, which is great. I’ve been working with him for twelve years, on and off, on movies where he was writing the film and I was composing the score. We had not worked in this capacity before as director and composer because he hasn’t directed a film until now. The thing that I found interesting was that there was a common language there more than I would’ve guessed. I think, basically, because the screenwriter and the composer are connected as bookends in a movie. One writes the first word before anything’s filmed, and the other writes the last note. It’s kind of the last thing that’s put into the movie. We have a connection of opposites, or a balancing of the pendulum on two sides of the swing. James is such a cool guy, just a good guy to hang out with. And, he’s really brilliant. His knowledge of things is just amazing, and he’s a fellow film and film music nerd. We often just go on tangents. It’s funny, we’ve worked together for a long, long time, and it was great to do it in a different capacity with someone who really knows his stuff. He’s a great collaborator.

FSC: What was your favorite achievement in the Truth score?

BT: Oh, you know, that’s a good question. I think the music tells the story and in two ways. That was the goal, at least. I guess the greatest achievement of it was, two things need to be done with the music that James left room for me to do. This was not a matter of fixing the movie, this was a matter of design. James left the responsibility in my hands, which was kind of scary (laughs). He had a lot of confidence, which was great. More confidence than I did in me. He laid it out so you needed to have a great deal of clarification, subconsciously, with the music and the storylines, being that there are a lot of names and a lot of characters because this is a true story. You had to be able to tell the difference between what General, and what Commander, what Lieutenant, and this and that. A lot of clarity needed to be given. The music had to do this. Now, it’s a subconscious thing that happens, but it certainly is effective with thematic scoring and having certain sounds used with certain characters and what not, in the same way, through repetition of things, our brains associate, which lots of studies have shown, with visuals. Like, where you would play a sound and you would see a color, they’d flash a color in front of the eyes of a child and you would do it many, many, many times. Over time, they would naturally associate, not even realizing it. You’d play the tone notes and they would say green or blue or what not. Like an idiomatic response that you see when you don’t even realize that you have memory that you don’t know you have. A good example would be typing, ironically, with the journalistic thing. Your fingers just rip away with finding the letters on a keyboard when typing something out. If you then were asked to just write the broad grid of where all the letters are on a keyboard, pretty sure 99% of the people would not be able to do it. Yet, your fingers know where they all are! So, I think what happens with a score like Truth, where you have that much information, I was trying very hard to clarify things (laughs) so the viewer uses a little less effort to glide through the story, which made it more emotionally impactful later when you really feel like you’ve gone through this journey. One of the things that this does, thematic writing, it instills a sense of history that you don’t get when you’re in the theater, unlike a TV series where you might have twenty episodes to get to know the characters. You’re watching something and you really get into it, you become, in a way, friendly with the characters on the screen and you feel like you really know them. A movie like this, which was about two hours, is an incredibly short amount of time to get emotionally attached to someone. Very rarely in real life would this happen. If you’re lucky, you may have two or three times in your life where you sit down at a dinner and afterwards you think, “Wow, I feel like I’ve known them all my life.” But most of the time, it’s not that way. It takes time. Music is this steroidal accelerant that you inject (laughs) into a movie with themes that make you really feel like you know these characters longer than you actually have in terms of you sitting in the theater for only a few hours. So that was a big goal, hopefully we achieved that because by the end of the movie, if you count the credits, I think the last twelve minutes, or so, of the movie, there’s no dialogue, no sound effects. It’s just music. The whole coda of the film is done with visuals and music, then it goes into the end credits. But there’s quite a lot told with just visuals and music. James, by design, had left room for me to do this, he left room for the score to do this, and at the end of the day, I needed to pull that off. Otherwise, the movie wouldn’t really make any sense, in terms of that, by design. Or, it might not have an emotionally satisfying ending. Hopefully it did, and if people watch it and feel that way, then great. That would make me really happy (laughs).

FSC: It’s great to hear that the opportunity really was there for the music to take the foreground.

BT: Yeah.

FSC: And at such an important moment, it’s great.

BT: Yeah, it really was.

Brian Tyler Composer of the Year City of Hope

FSC: I know before you talked about how Star Wars was one of the things, along with Close Encounters and others, that really helped inspire you for this. I don’t know if you are even aware of this, but there has been a little bit of talk about the possibility of you scoring one of these Star Wars spinoff films.

BT: Right.

FSC: So, hypothetically, let’s say that you get that job. How do you think you would approach scoring a film like that which already has such an iconic musical atmosphere in the franchise?

BT: Well, this would be fantastic. Certainly, we’ll see what happens. But, the thing about Star Wars that is indelibly connected are the themes. For me, it would be job number one to make sure that those lived on and were part of the expanding rebirth of the franchise. To me, John Williams’ work would be central, and then, as new characters are introduced, they would of course require new themes. I think it would always need to be done from the perspective of fitting in harmonically with the orchestration style that John uses and employs on those films. I would want to keep that alive and it would be a dream, of course. I kind of live and breathe those scores. Star Wars was the first score to really launch my, as many people, launch my interest in film music.

FSC: What’s one of the worst things to go wrong when you were working on a project?

BT: (Laughs) Let’s see here. I distinctly remember, going all the way back to my first film. The first film I did was called Bartender. It was actually before Six-String Samurai, which most people think was my first film. This was a small film. Scoring it was a big break for me. I get to score a film, so excited! I worked on the score for something like nine months. It was kind of a massive score. It had a lot going on. I had recorded many, many songs for it. I don’t remember how many songs, something like twelve or fourteen songs with vocals and all sorts of things. It was more of a traditional classical style, orchestral score, along with a bunch of songs which ranged from Hip-hop to rock to club songs. It had everything in it. It was all approved and everything was cruising along. We hadn’t dubbed in the movie, so the music wasn’t mixed in with the sound effects yet or anything. Before we went to go dub the film and mix the music in with the sound effects, my drives died. And my backups of the hard drives died. I had some kind of triple redundancy — this was back in the day, I don’t know, but something happened. Everything was lost. I tried to get a drive company out of Palo Alto to recover it, and they recovered like three audio files (laughs). Total disaster. I didn’t tell anyone except my closest people. I didn’t tell anyone on the film that this had happened. I just went back, recalled all the singers, all the musicians, and recorded under the radar (laughs). I did everything in three weeks that I had done in nine months over again. It was pretty close to the same. No one noticed. We dubbed the film, everything was fine. Then, I would say fifteen years later, I was having lunch with the director, who’s a good friend of mine, and I told him the story just to have a laugh. He actually felt so bad, his eyes welled up, he just felt so bad for little Brian, back in the day, going through such a trauma. The good thing was the worst disaster I ever encountered was the first disaster I ever encountered.

FSC: That sounds like quite a recovery too.

BT: Yeah, it was a pretty good recovery. Yeah. I felt if I didn’t recover, that would’ve been it. My first movie would’ve been my last.

FSC: What direction do you see the future of film scores going in?

BT: I think it’s going to be like the late 70s, in a way, or the second half of the 70s, where you really have music getting infused into scores. There are certain areas where scores are much more similar. I think we’re swinging toward more variety. You had in the 70s everything from the Lalo Schifrin style, the Ennio Morricone style, experimental things with Jerry Goldsmith, you had traditional, really Wagnerian and Holstein kind of music with John Williams doing his thing and the advent of electronic scores happening with things like Tangerine Dream and Vangelis — there was this boom of just “whoa,” where things were all in different directions and I think people aren’t as afraid of doing things that are not right up the middle now. I think people, even on big films, are looking for something that just fits the film. Maybe that’s a score that done will all-monophonic vintage synthesizers. Maybe that means instead of somebody doing a ninety piece orchestra, doing a chamber orchestra because that sounds interesting for the film. I feel like there’s going to be a lot of variety in the scores.

FSC: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

BT: I think my perception of this has changed over time. I think that there’s something to the idea of — both my agents, who I’m very close with, and John Williams, who they represent, have always told me this mantra, which seems very simple. They always say, “It’s all about the music.” Not sort of about the music, it’s all about the music. Regardless of what else is going on in your life, in your career, in what kind of deal you get, who’s scoring what thing, or what film does what at the box office, you just — I took this to heart in a way I don’t even think they realize. The way I interpret that is, no matter what the film is or the project is, you treat it like it’s Citizen Kane. You respect the fact that you’ve been brought on, and you really, no matter what, give it your all. You try to continue to challenge yourself in that way. There was a time in my career when I was doing a lot of films that weren’t doing very well at the box office, which was fine. I didn’t let that throw me. I really just wanted the score to come out very well and help the movie as much as possible. I think that’s probably helped me more than anything.

FSC: This last one is from a reader, Mark. He says, “Tokyo Drift is one of my favorite scores from you.”

BT: Ah! Thank you.

FSC: “I believe you performed yourself, especially on the drums for the score. Do you feel like performing yourself will give you the sound and energy you have envisioned?”

BT: It can. I do play a lot of instruments on my scores. You can imagine when you work with a bunch of musicians, which I do often, sometimes they bring something different to the table that I never would have thought of, which is fantastic. But if I have something very specific in mind, especially when it comes to instruments that I play a lot, things like drums, piano, guitar, and things like that, the good thing is that I have a direct line to the composer — myself. I can be as hard on myself and get as specific as possible and try to get it just perfect. That being said, sometime I fire myself and find someone who might be better suited for that style, which you need to be able to do. It’s all based around trying to get the best score possible, so however that might work. But, he is right, on Tokyo Drift, I did play a lot of instruments and had a good time with it for sure.

TMNT session 3

For more, visit Brian’s website at

Interview with Jesi Nelson

Jesi Nelson

Jesi Nelson

Jesi Nelson – composer for film and media

FSC:  What inspired you to pursue a career in film scoring?

JN:  Thomas Newman’s score for “Meet Joe Black”. In particular, the track titled “That Next Place.” I remember seeing that film when I was around 10 years old, of which I was probably too young to fully understand the depth of the film, but I remember crying so much when I was watching it, and being totally. That track came on in one of the final scenes, and I just kept rewinding the tape and playing it over and over and crying, finally realizing that it was the music that kept overwhelming me. (Along with the fantastic film itself) I remember turning to my parents, who looked understandably concerned, as this was not normal behavior for a 10 year old, and deciding, “I’m going to do this.” Not knowing exactly what “this” was, but figured it out later in high school when my music theory teacher, Mr. Larson, introduced me to the world of film scoring, and gave me the soundtrack for “The Mission”, by Maestro Ennio Morricone. I listened, cried and began the pursuit of this career without looking back!

FSC:  If, then, you have to credit a composer as being your main inspiration, would it be Thomas Newman, Ennio Morricone, or someone else?

JN:  Today, I’ll say Thomas Newman. Tomorrow, I may say Maestro Morricone, as it’s always a toss up. Newman has this indentifiability that any composer would envy and every time a score of his comes on I stop everything and just listen. Same goes for Morricone. His long form melodies are the things that can make anyone cry at the drop of hat. I think it’s pretty safe to ask, what composer wouldn’t want that ability?

FSC:  It’s time for you to start scoring a film.  What are the first things you do?

JN:  Listen. I know that sounds odd, but I’ll watch the film a few times through without thinking about music, which forces me to really watch and listen to the film. Then, spotting. That is, sitting down with the director or producer and deciding where they want music, and making sure that I’m seeing the same film that they are. More times than not, little ideas or themes immediately pop into my head and I’ll scribble them down, and bring them back later. If spotting has already been done, then I’ll find the sounds we want for the film, make a template, and off I go!

FSC:  Is there ever anything by your side when you do this, such as coffee or headphones for inspiration?

JN:  Coffee. So much coffee. Lots of post it notes for random thoughts and ideas, and always manuscript paper, so I can jot down melodies or quick orchestration ideas and such. I do this because I’m mostly faster at translating my ideas onto staff paper and keeping them there, versus playing them into my sequencer, getting stuck on or obsessing over one thing and then forgetting part of the initial idea, ruining the idea all together.

FSC:  How would you say your composing style is different from others?

JN:  I think it’s safe to say that all composers are expected and strive to be completely versatile in all styles. But I definitely write for the orchestra first. That is, I love using electronics just as much, but my brain thinks like an orchestra first. If given the opportunity, I’ll write primarily for the orchestra, and my music tends to be very melodic and emotional. (Influenced by Newman and Morricone, methinks) But it’s hardly ever for just the orchestra. That is, it’s usually a hybrid of orchestra and electronics, whether it’s synth heavy in melody or just in the ghost tracks behind the orchestra.

FSC:  Although you go to orchestra first, would you enjoy composing an all-synth/electronic score?

JN:  Absolutely!! 110% yes. There’s nothing sexier than the sound of a purely analog synth. Yes, I think like an orchestra first, but that can easily and quickly be translated and related to synth/electronic scores as well. The two can go hand in hand very easily. I’m always open for something new, and while I obviously love an orchestral sound, my favorite score this year has been Mac Quayle’s Mr. Robot, which is an entirely electronic score. Brilliant stuff.

FSC:  What has been the best piece of advice you’ve received thus far in your career, pertaining to composing?

JN:  I had the great fortune of having composer Kubilay Uner as my mentor for the last year of graduate school at Columbia College, and the best advice he gave me was to always stay positive. It’s okay to be upset when things don’t necessarily turn in your favor, but be upset, and then let it go and move forward. Don’t think of it as win or loss, just accept and appreciate that you were not the right fit for the project, and learn from the experience. There’s a lot that can be perceived as negative, but it doesn’t have to be felt or heard that way. Change your attitude entirely, if need be. I suppose that wasn’t entirely an compositional answer, but it’s necessary advice for any composer, especially for those starting out in this industry. Compositionally speaking, the best advice I received was probably to make sure you give your theme the time it needs to be heard and remembered (if you’re writing a thematic score), but never forget to vary it or develop it, if the film allows your time to do so.


Interview with Cris Velasco

Cris Velasco

Cris Velasco

Cris Velasco Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed: Unity – Dead Kings, and Clive Barker’s Books of Blood

FSC:  What inspired you to compose music?

 CV:  There was sort of an instantaneous epiphany that got me into composing. I was studying a variety of subjects in a community college, just trying to find something that would inspire me enough to pursue it full-time. At this point, I’d had no formal education in music and I was taking a very basic Music Appreciation class because it sounded like fun. We learned about a different style or era of music each week. Jazz, rock, blues, classical, etc. This one particular day we studied Mozart and his 40th Symphony. I had never heard it before, but it moved me and completely changed my life. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be a composer. So I stayed at this school for one more year and took every music class they offered…theory, ear training, music history, piano, and even some private composition lessons. I had never composed a note before in my life. I couldn’t even read music at that point. Somehow, I had a knack for it though. I spent all my free time writing music, clicking it in with a mouse one note at a time into a notation program called Finale. I put together a portfolio and used it to get into UCLA’s composition major. It’s been a hard road to break in to this industry, but one that’s offered me an extremely rewarding life!



FSC:  What’s it like to work on a franchise like ‘Assassin’s Creed’?

 CV:  There’s an added bit of pressure when you’re working on a big franchise like Assassin’s Creed. The fan base is usually huge so there’s LOTS of people hearing your soundtrack. I’ve been very fortunate to work on some other big franchises like God of War, Mass Effect, and Borderlands though so I’ve somewhat learned how to personally deal with that sort of pressure. The great thing about a game like this though is that the production value is amazing. It is so thrilling to be a part of something so massive. If I still want to play the game after I’ve worked on it for so long, I know that we have something really special on our hands.



FSC:  What was your main focus in expressing this soundtrack?

 CV:  The focus was on finding an interesting way to present a soundtrack mostly of “dark” music. I didn’t want it to ever start sounding muddy or uninteresting. A lot of thought went into the arrangements and orchestration to try to avoid this. If you’re dealing with a somewhat limited palette it can be tricky to not make the music sound monotone or one dimensional. It was also important to focus on giving the music a modern approach while giving a continuous nod to the early Classical and Baroque era of composition.



 FSC:  What was the most memorable part of your work on this?

 CV:  Just working on such a fun franchise and taking the music in a new direction is what I remember best from this experience. Every day when I sat down in my studio, I’d be completely energized just knowing that I was working on Assassin’s Creed.



FSC:  If you had to work on a project along with one other composer, who would you choose?

 CV:  I assume you meaning living composers. John Williams seems like the easy answer, although I’d be much too flustered to get any work done. I wouldn’t mind being a fly on his wall though as he works on Episode VII right now. But I think it’d be a lot of fun to collaborate with John Powell. He has such a great grasp on writing for orchestras, choir, and electronics. Plus, he just seems like a fun guy to hang out with and have a beer after a long day in the studio.



FSC:  Favorite soundtrack is… ?

 CV:  It’s probably still The Empire Strikes Back. I have lots of “favorites”, but this one just edges the others out. It was pretty much the soundtrack to my childhood. The writing is so intricate and layered. I think it’s a score that will stand the test of time.

Interview with Blake Neely

Blake Neely

Blake Neely

Blake NeelyThe 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?

FSC: Yeah.

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.

FSC: Absolutely.

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

Interview with Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera A Walk Among the Tombstones

FSC: What inspired you to compose film music?

CR: Well I’ve been into film music since I was a kid. I was more inspired to do music, just generally, than specifically film music, but it was definitely the work of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams that got me going early on. I remember the E.T. soundtrack, I saw the movie when I was about 11 years old, and that soundtrack just blew me away – the moment when the bike takes off. Just the whole feeling of that. I knew that music was playing something really powerful. A little bit on later I remember a movie called The Twilight Zone which was Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It was one of those little vignettes that they had that was called Kick the Can, and I just love the music in that for some reason. The Great Train Robbery, I remember that music specifically as well, and those were really pulling me toward getting into music. Film music started happening almost as a background to the classical direction I started going. But for the most part, for the past 15 years, I’ve been doing classical music. But this opportunity for the movie came up. It’s been sort of a long gestation thing, but it was just a dream come true without a doubt.

FSC: I know you’ve been working with film music and some other types of music for some time, but you just recently scored your first feature film in A Walk Among the Tombstones. What was that experience like for you?

CR: Surreal, man. I mean, I felt like the dumbest guy in the room most of the time. The fact that I was surrounded by people whose work I’ve admired – the cinematographer was Mihai Malaimare Jr. whose last project was The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson, and I had seen that movie and just reveled in the way it looked, and I found out that he was going to be the cinematographer for this movie.   Then the sound design was made by Wylie Stateman and Branden Spencer and Dror Mohar were basically the guys behind the sound design, and Wylie Stateman is a veteran. The most recent project they had done was Django Unchained. And they had done Inglorious Bastards, and most of the Tarantino work for the last few years. I had just walked out of that film going, “Oh my gosh, this is incredible!” as just a complete fan. I’m a total film geek. Not just film music geek, but just a film geek. I felt like this experience was very much a learning one. I had nothing really to base my decisions on other than getting supported by them, as a team in the post-production side of this. It was very, very enlightening, man. It was an education without a doubt.

FSC: Our review noted that you did an excellent job in Tombstones of capturing a very suspenseful atmosphere. How did you go about doing that? (Click here for our review)

CR: That was actually the 3rd take on the score. (Laughs) Maybe the short answer is that because the atmosphere was intense and the schedule was very tight. I had to deliver about 40 minutes of score in about a month. I had about 30 days to write it, so it was very pressured. I think the main titles, specifically, was a result of having to change gears last minute. I got a call from Scott Frank saying, “Listen, we’re gonna bring back this main title sequence with something that was originally done, then taken out of the film, then brought back.” And when I got that call saying, “We’re bringing back that main title sequence (the one that appears in the film), I need you to write music to that.” I said, “Wait, why don’t we just use the music I originally wrote when you shot that?” and he said, “No, just cut a bunch of the film, we’re changing direction, I really need you to do the same thing.” I said, “No problem.” He said, “I need it Thursday.”

“No problem.” (Laughs)

It was, like, 2 days to work on it. And I really was on the edge of, “Maybe this is when I’ll get replaced,” because in my own experience, there’s so many other people who I figured would probably be fine for the job at that point. Well, it was one of those things that came through and the music did reflect that and became the seed for the whole soundtrack. A lot of the material in that main title sequence finds a way to be changed or varied for the rest of the soundtrack. It was a very, very surreal two days of work. It was just all or nothing. But it came and I think the music does reflect that to a large degree.

FSC: What do you have in your music that sets you apart from other composers?

CR: Man, that’s a really tough question. All I have is the one IMDB credit, so there’s nothing to compare it against film-wise. But musically speaking, I definitely try to write visceral music, music that has some sort of connection in the classical world and the concert music I write. The most interesting thing, I think, was my focus in this was not so much to write a good piece of music, it was more to really help tell the story. That really was what helped the score become noted or noticed by people to the certain degree that it’s been. And that’s been beyond expectation, because the job, I felt, was very clear from the beginning that my job was to support the story. If I was doing anything more, or less than that, I wasn’t really doing my job.

FSC: Let’s talk for just a little bit about Randy Newman. What was it like to learn from one of the greats?

CR: Oh man. This came about through USC, I was getting my doctoral degree there, and they began a mentorship program. I had been doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing for a while, I was signed to Universal Records actually for, like, 3 years as a guitarist in a band, and that experience was another education. But when I’d come back to get my doctoral degree in composition, they paired me up with him, I guess because I’d been doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing and I’d been doing the classical music concert recording before that. What was cool is that he ended up becoming assigned as my mentor. I was expecting, maybe a 15 minute meeting. It turned out to be a 2 hour hang, and I did not expect that. I thought he would just go back to his world and say, “Hey, nice, keep going.” But we ended up making a connection. I checked in, he started inviting me down to sessions, I started learning how the pecking-order works in a recording session, when to talk and when not to talk, and I think that was very helpful for me to get through this project. It was surreal. When I hung up with him sometimes, I would be like, “I can’t believe I just talked to that guy!” It still blows my mind. What I’ve noticed with people at his level is that they are really who they are. There’s no front, there’s need to front, there’s just this person – very honest about where he’s at, what he’s doing, and I really felt some sort of strength. If I’d be stuck on something, I’d call him and just talking to him meant the world to me, in order to keep going. It was a very intense month for me, writing the score. I checked in with him a couple times and he was just fantastic. Great, great human being. Apart from his music and everything he’s done, as a person he’s just top-notch.

Carlos Rafael Rivera

Carlos Rafael Rivera

FSC: If you could pick any upcoming film project, like Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers 2, whatever, to do the music for, what would you pick and why?

CR: I mean, all three? What I noticed in this experience is that writing film music is larger than life make-believe. Everybody’s pretending on screen. The actors aren’t them, the sound you hear – and that was the biggest lesson for me, the sound you hear in a film isn’t real for some of it, especially at the high level production. Someone’s recording the footsteps of the actor later on. The car door is replaced. The rain sounds aren’t real. It’s all this beautiful make-believe that suddenly music fits into and it even enhances it. You mention these three great franchises, and they’re operating at that level as a starting point. So to be able to come and help tell a story that way is just a bigger canvas to work on. It’d be a privilege. I’m just grateful to work at all, to be honest. To have this experience is really a gift. If I get another opportunity, at any level, as long as the story’s strong, as long as the team that’s making the picture is really intending to say something. Even if it can’t be tangibly or articulated. That was exciting. This movie was a definite direction of intention, and I learned so much from that. So any environment that would be similar would be more than welcome.

FSC: I’m going to put you in a little difficult spot with this next question here.

CR: Alright.

FSC: Would you rather listen to a soundtrack by Randy Newman or Thomas Newman?

CR: (Laughs) Oh, man. Well I think it depends on the situation. Thomas Newman, with his incredible choice in sound and color is just, from Scent of a Woman to Wall-E, which is more classically written, or Finding Nemo, which is classically written. There’s a film I listen to, a Steven Soderbergh film, and he worked the music for it, Jude Law is in it (Side Effects), anyways, I have that running in my car most of the time. When I connect my phone to the car, it’s the first track that plays. You know when you connect your phone to the car and by Bluetooth connection it starts playing? It plays that soundtrack, but I usually let it run because it’s more like sound design meeting music. In the film world, there is a beautiful gray-zone where music, and all the notes and all the correct harmonies, kind of dissipate themselves into sound design. And I think he’s a master at that. It’s more like mood or tone for the story as opposed to just notes or check out this chord. It’s more like what the picture’s calling for. He’s so versatile at that.

But at the same time, Randy Newman is the Old Guard for me. I look at his scores and I go, “This is something that’s precious.” The whole process in of itself and how he writes the music is old school. Truly, in the sense of the word. So, I don’t think I can answer that question. (Laughs)

FSC: Okay! If you hadn’t gone into composing, what career would you have pursued?

CR: I started off as an accountant. Then I switched to music. I fell in love with music and at one point I made a decision that I was just going to do music no matter what. Teaching has been a big part of it. I teach at University of Miami, and I teach in their music program, the Bruce Hornsby contemporary program, and I get such a kick out of it, out of giving back in any way. I just made a decision about, maybe 12 years ago or so, that I was always going to be doing music somehow. I think it would still be music in any capacity because it gets me closer to the thing I love. But pretty early on, going back to The Great Train Robbery, watching that movie and listening to that music, I knew that was something to play in my life. It developed itself that way. I don’t think I could have done anything else. I can’t (laughs).

FSC: Do you have anything exciting coming up?

CR: At this moment, I’m actually back on to the classical realm right now. There’s a label, a classical label, called Cedille Records, that issued a commission to write a trio that I have to deliver at the end of January, and it’s going to be recorded I think throughout the summer. It’s going to take a bit of time because that’s how they work. Super excited about that! As far as films go, I’ve been taking meeting which I’ve never done before, so it’s been sort of surreal and cool because I’ve gotten to meet people who are “important.” I’m grateful for any opportunities. There’s nothing concrete to even talk about, and usually when these things come through, it’s best to not even say until the film’s locked and ready to be delivered than in the process of because this job is quite a replaceable one. People get replaced throughout projects here constantly. I’m just grateful to get to meet the people I’ve been meeting the past few weeks. It’s been really, really cool, man, I mean dream come true stuff.

For more, visit Carlos’ website at