Interview – Sean Callery (World Soundtrack Awards 2016)

With the celebration of the World Soundtrack Awards 2016 in Ghent last October, from which you can read an extensive article on the following link (link to article), SoundTrackFest had the opportunity to interview Sean Callery, an old friend from Spanish film music festivals, who kindly, and despite the tightness of the interviews that took place on that day, had some time to answer a few questions from Gorka Oteiza


Sean Callery - PortraitSean Callery, born in 1964 in Hartford, Connecticut (USA), is an American composer based in Los Angeles, who started in the world of music by studying piano, and then moved to the world of jazz, playing piano in bars and nightclubs, before starting his career as composer, mainly for television.


Since making his debut in TV with La Femme Nikita in 1997, which was his first major work and the one that put him on the map, his career has been closely linked to the world of television. Having series like 24 and Homeland as major referents in his career, he has come to compose the music of series such as Bones, Jessica Jones, Minority Report, Backstrom, The Conffesion, The Kennedys, Medium, Sheena or Treasure Hunters, among many others.


Winner of several Emmys for his music for the TV series 24, this year 2016 he has won an Emmy for the Main Title of Jessica Jones, having also been nominated on many occasions for his work in other series such as Minority Report, Homeland or The Kennedys.


He currently has the series Designated Survivor (Season 1) and Elementary (Season 5) on air, and in 2017 will premiere a 24 spin-off under the title 24: Legacy, in addition to continuing with Bones (Season 12) and Homeland (Season 6).



First of all, thank you Sean for taking some time to be with SoundTrackFest today, knowing the tight interview schedule you have ahead.

My pleasure! It’s always nice to have feedback from my Spanish friends.


First question, which I’m sure you’ve been asked before… but here it goes… When or how does Sean Callery decide to be a composer? Is it something that comes suddenly or is it a process? Did you begin in the world of music and suddenly, you got there?

I would say it happened when I was 10 or 11 years old. I went to a couple of films and I was so fascinated with the music against the picture! My mother took me to a Kubrick movie when I was very young, in fact too young to see it. The movie was 2001, but just watching the classical music against the images was like, Wow! This is really something!

And then same happened when I saw Jaws and other films from Steven Spielberg. I just found myself very drawn to film music. Then Star Wars came, of course, and then I saw Psycho and many other films like Chinatown, etc… Whenever I was watching a film it was like, it’s so cool!, and I wanted to collect soundtracks. So the idea just came to me, but having all those references in my head.

When I was young I was studying classical piano, but I knew that at some point I’d like to try to do that for film in the big screen or television in the small screen. So I could say it started early on. 

Sean Callery - Composing


And then you found your first project that was… 

The very first project was a Christmas movie. What happened was that I was doing some string arranging for an Olivia Newton-John record, and she got cast to play a mannequin in a Christmas TV movie on NBC called A Mom From Christmas (1990) – Una Madre para navidad (1990).

Her songwriter, her collaborator, was asked to score it but he didn’t have any experience scoring to picture. Well, I didn’t really either, but we were able to convince them to hire the both of us to score the TV movie. It was a teamwork and that was my first project, but then I didn’t have any other big steady job for the next 6 years, till I got into La Femme Nikita (1997) – Nikita (1997) which was my first major TV series that lasted and went on, and put me on the map.


This year World Soundtrack Awards is about TV and you’re a TV guy, because looking at your career, you have 24, Homeland, Designated Survivor (running show now), Minority Report, The Kennedys, Jessica Jones, Elementary, Bones, Medium, Shark… 

You’ve done your homework buddy! (laughs)…


Yeah, I try to! (laugh)…. So with that list, and many more, it’s quite clear you’re a specialist composing for TV. The question is, why do you focus on TV? Do you prefer working for TV than working for movies or it’s just that work comes out that way?

Honestly I never thought about it. I started on TV, then 24 kept me very busy, and I had done a couple of small films and documentaries which I enjoy, but when I was on 24, I got very immersed in it and I had to commit all my time to it. I didn’t have time for movies, and then TV series kept coming, so I kept scoring for TV.

I’m totally open to film, but the world of small screen just got more interesting and interesting and I didn’t really think focusing in movies. I know some composers that think “I have to do film, I have to do film”, and I respect that immensely, but I just never guided myself that way.

I just wanted to work on interesting things and they’ve been TV projects mostly. But don’t get me wrong, I’d be thrilled to score for movies also.

Sean Callery & Gorka Oteiza - Interview


Well, it looks that practice makes perfection, because you’re doing wonderfully composing for TV, as this year you won an Emmy award for your Main Title for Jessica Jones. Tell us about that Main Title, its structure, layers, how you got there and the idea that’s behind it.

Well if you saw the show, Marvel projects are always very interesting. There was a lot of security involved with Marvel content, so I couldn’t see a lot of material before composing. I was only allowed to look at still images and pictures. Almost like comic-book slides. And that was my first look at the show, from a point of view of just how it looked colorwise.

For the character, Jessica Jones, I read the scripts, and she was very tough, and harsh, and had some drama from her past which was emerging, so I just kept thinking about her character and her sense of humor. All these qualities make the person; she had the humor, she had the powers, she could jump like a cat at night, she could do many amazing things, and those images got stuck in my head.

Also it was kind of a noir story in the city, set in the shadows, so all these things came into play when I started composing the theme, and were the energy behind it, behind the Main Title… that’s where I started from; the ideas of coy, playful, drama, great heart, loyal….

Sean Callery - Jessica Jones


It looks there were too many things to put into a Main Title… But they worked!

Yeah, that’s true. I had to distill it down. I had to really grab the essence. A good theme in my of point view is self-propelling, and has to be simplified down so it’s accessible. And I felt very grateful for the award because this year there were so many good Main Titles in my category. It was very unexpected!


Let’s change subject and get back some years, to 24, one of the most famous TV series of all times, with a ground-breaking structure, ahead of the rest of the shows that could be found on TV at that moment. The show broke many rules, and the music, had to be at the same level. How did you approach the composing, fitting the music with the structure and format of the show?

They told me early on that they were experimenting with split screens, which I hadn’t seen since Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), a movie that has multiple screens and people talking at the same time. They told me “we just want to convey the idea of time always moving, all these things are happening simultaneously”. Well, split screens was the way of doing that, because you can show things happening simultaneously. So we just started getting into the idea of propelling textures over scenes, instead of music going out, that would produce an interconnected thread of energy that would make all the scenes be intertwined.

Sean Callery - 24 with Kiefer Sutherland


24 is coming back again soon, in February with “24 – Legacy” but Kiefer Sutherland, the alma mater, is not going to be there and now there’re 12 episodes per season instead of 24. What can you tell us about the music that is going to come with the new TV Series?

It’s still gonna have the energetic pace that’s always been in the show. It’s a new character so it will have new themes for the lead role; we couldn’t use Jack Bauer’s theme because he’s in a Russian Prison now, so there’re new themes. But we wanted to feel like “the show you liked”, so it’s a balancing between the new themes but keeping the energy and enjoyment provided by the series in the past, but still refreshing. I think story is very good actually! You’ll have a good ride! (laughs).


Let’s jump to Homeland now, a TV series that has had so many awards and nominations, including for the score, but with a very different musical approach. The Main Title, that was played in yesterday’s concert with Jeff Russo (Drums), Jeff Beal (Trumpet), Benoit Grey (Bass) and you on piano, was amazing. This Main Title is very curious, in structure and rhythm. It’s very powerful and unsettling. How did you get to that idea and that tone?

The idea was that when you look at the images, you see all this history of her since she was a little girl, this imagery in black and white, with all the geopolitical madness that’s happening with terrorism and violence against people.

And instead of playing the notion of turbulence and action, charging and playing it heavily, we wanted to go on another direction, to be mournful. The idea that this is almost a cry, like if the world is crying out in pain, with that kind of sadness to it, like when you’re very awake and feel what’s happening.

That’s what the trumpet is doing, kind of cries out in a mournful way. And the jazz angle, is the meditative part of it, it’s a juxtaposition against the imagery.

Sean Callery - Homeland


That’s fantastic. We’ve run out of time, and many questions are still pending, but I’m sure we’ll have more opportunities to keep talking about your wonderful scores in SoundTrackFest.

I’d love to! Thanks to you for your interest, and a big hug to everybody in Spain!

Sean Callery & Gorka Oteiza - After the InterviewGorka Oteiza would like to thank:


World Soundtrack Awards for the chance to conduct this interview

Sean Callery for his availability and his good sense of humor

Jana Davidoff for her collaboration with logistics

Piotr Wiśniewski for his help with the photo shoot