Composer Jeff Russo, known among many other works for his music for the TV series Legion, Fargo or Star Trek: Discovery, was invited this summer to the festival Movie Score Málaga – MOSMA 2018, and there, Gorka Oteiza had the opportunity to interview him for SoundTrackFest.
Jeff Russo talked about the moment he realized he wanted to compose for the image, his career centered on TV, his first short ‘Vesting’, his work with video games, his work on TV shows Fargo and Counterpart, his approach to Star Trek universe’s music with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’, and the controversy of the fandom behind the main title.
The second season of Star Trek: Discovery will premiere soon, October 4th, 2018, with Jeff Russo’s new music in it.
You’ve always been interested in music, and you played in a rock band before entering in the world of ‘composing for the screen’. Let’s talk about that transition… Did you have a moment that you said, “Ok, this is what I want to do? I want to be a film/TV composer?” Kind of having an epiphany?
Well, it all started by chance. I went to a friend of mine’s studio, Wendy Melvoin, and she was working on a show. She said “why don’t you just watch what we do and see, maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you’ll want to do that”. And I did, and I went and hung out with her, and one day turned into a year… So at that moment, I saw that you could take music and expand on the story, as it was being told by the storyteller with the actors and the dialog. You could make an emotional scene more emotional. You could make a funny scene funnier. You could make a tense scene even tenser. At that moment I was hooked. I really wanted to do that.
I think that was the moment. I’ve always loved film music, I mean, I grew up with a lot of film music around. I had all the John Williams records when I was a kid. I had Star Wars, I had ET, I had all those albums because those themes and those melodies really stuck with me. And I loved classical music when I was growing up. I was always listening to classical music and my father also was always listening to classical music in the house. But it didn’t move me to make that kind of music. I was always listening to Pink Floyd, and the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. So I wanted to play guitar in a rock band.
And you did both things…
Right, I started doing one and then I ended up doing another. It’s an interesting transition to go from writing just songs in my band to writing themes and melodies for stories. But I find it thrilling and also fulfilling, in a different way than playing and writing songs with the band.
With the band, you get instant feedback and instant gratification when you’re on stage and you’re playing, and you have that moment where everything sounds really good and everything comes together and the audience reacts. And you can see their faces.
You really don’t get that with film music. The only time you get that is when you do it live. And this is really the first time I’ve ever done that, in this festival. I’ve never performed any of the music that I’ve written for the screen. I’ve never performed it live until this week.
I remember yesterday’s concert…. it went out quite well!
Yeah, and that was the very first time I ever played those pieces of music live, apart from being in the studio when I recorded them for the score.
It was the first time for the people…
First time anybody had ever listened to them live, and that was very, very interesting to me. And I’m sure tonight will be even more interesting than it was last night. Because last night was on a smaller level, and I was actually involved in the playing and I got back there and played drums. Whereas tonight, it’s really all about the orchestra playing…
Nice! I will be ready for tonight’s concert then! Looking at the work you’ve done, we can see that your career is centered on TV, or at least it looks like you are centering your career on TV. You’ve done three or four shows this year and you also continue with news seasons of previous shows. Composing for TV has been a career choice or it just happened?
The first gig that I got was on television, and I learned the craft working on a TV show called ‘Crossing Jordan’ for Wendy and Lisa. And then the very first job that I was hired on, that I was the composer, was a television show, so that sort of rolled into another television show, and rolled into another television show… And then there’s been a bunch of films along the way.
Now, I wouldn’t say I’m transitioning away from television and going more to film, because frankly I really love television, but I’m doing more and more films lately. I really love the type of television I get to work on, because you really get to tell a story over a long period of time.
But I have really enjoyed writing the scores for a few films that I’ve done. And I just finished one and I’m starting another, but at the same time I’m starting season two of Star Trek – Discovery, and Legion season three begins in the fall, and then Fargo season four begins next year…
You have to be careful… you’re going to have too much work at the same time!
Yeah, I’ve had that problem there. I mean, it’s not a problem, I should say. I’ve had that happen to me where all of a sudden, I have to write three episodes of three different television shows at the same time.
Well, that has to be interesting, see how you can switch your mind from one place to another.
It can be good. But occasionally I’ve found myself going, “oh I can’t do that, I did that over there”. You know, “this one thing… sounds a little like Fargo… maybe I shouldn’t do that”.
And suddenly… you say… “Oh my god… I’m using Star Trek’s theme in Fargo!”
Well, not that much!! (*laughs*) So, yeah, it can be a daunting task, but it has worked really well.
Let’s continue talking about TV series. When you start composing music for a TV series, the moment you get a new project, how do you approach the music for that show/season? Do you want to have all the episodes at once, or you go one by one? Do you want to know about all the characters and the argument? How do you start focusing on how the music should look like?
I think it’s different with every project. I think the best projects allow me to treat it like a movie, where I start by writing themes for the characters or themes for the show, and then those themes sort of happen along the entire series. And I think that’s really important, especially if you’re trying to tell a story over a long arc of storytelling. That works very well with Fargo, it works very well with Star Trek, it works very well with Legion… but it doesn’t work as well with more procedural television shows like Lucifer. In fact, it doesn’t work so well with the kinds of show that really tell a different story every week. But normally, I approach it by starting writing themes for the whole show.
Has it happened to you that you thought that one character was not relevant and then suddenly after ten episodes… “Oh my God this is revealing, he/she needs a theme!” Or just the opposite, you thought somebody was really important and then the character dies…
Well, that happened to me in Fargo Season 2. I usually read a few scripts before I get further in; I’m usually like 4 scripts at the beginning, but in Season 2 of Fargo I read the first 2 scripts and I didn’t read 3, 4, and 5. So I wrote this big theme and then that character died in episode 3. And I was like oh, okay, what do I do with that? It was a really great theme…
And how did you solve it?
I was able to use the theme in other places because it made sense. But I’ve written themes for characters that finally have not been for that character and have been used for a different character. And occasionally that happens. You know, the filmmakers take the music and they say “you know, I like this theme for this, not for that”… And I say “Great, okay, I’ll adapt it”.
Let’s talk about the memories you have about your first movie. The first moment you approach a movie that’s a blank canvas and you have to start writing. If I’m not mistaken your first project it’s not a movie, I think it’s a short… ‘Vesting‘, can it be?
Oh gosh! It was the very first time I had ever done anything for a picture…
Did you feel panic?
No, because it was a good friend of mine that asked me to write the score for it and I said… Okay… At the time I was very very into Thomas Newman, and the short felt like that kind of thing. You know, American Beauty had come out like 5 years before… So there was a lot of piano and it was very interesting, and you know, that was my beginning. And then I go back and listen to that and… it’s terrible. (*laughs*) It’s absolutely terrible. I was like “oh my God I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I wrote that”.
Well, let me tell you a secret, I’ve written articles years ago that I re-read now for reference and well… I feel the same way you do (*laughs*)
That’s good. I’m not alone then (*laughs*)
Let’s switch and talk about video games. You have some references there like, ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’, and ‘Madden 18’. What can you tell us about your experiences in those projects and how is it to compose for video games?
Well, they’re two very different ideas. The story mode of ‘Madden 18’ was basically like a movie inside of a video game but with ‘What Remains of Edith Finch’ it was really a well-told story about a family and what happens to that family over generations of time. So I really go to focus on writing thematic material for the family, and then score the gameplay. The gameplay was very slow and very measured, and it’s a very quiet environment, so I had to be melodic but not big and grand.
Not too distracting…
No, not distracting at all. It had to be very subtle. I worked very diligently and hard on making the themes memorable, and yet not distracting from the game. It was very important not to distract from the game in that particular project.
In some games you have to compose on many layers, because the game engine has to do all those mixes depending on the player’s actions… Did you have to deal with that?
I didn’t have to deal with that because I usually write that way anyway. I write in layers and I write in sequences. So I was able to deliver to them whole pieces of music, like 10 minutes long, in multiple stems, and they were able to edit those stems to make those layers happen.
So your way of composing was a perfect match for those games…
Yeah, and I think that was one of the reasons why they wanted to hire me, because what they recognized in my music was that I can start very simply, and then grow and then grow and then grow, and I think that that lent itself very well to the narrative of the storytelling of that game.
Let’s talk about one of your best-known TV projects: Fargo. I’m not sure what to ask about Fargo because you have been asked nearly everything that can be asked about it! So instead, I would like you to tell me something that you think it is interesting or relevant about the show. Something that maybe you haven’t told earlier.
You know Fargo is a conundrum musically, because I have to constantly come up with new thematic material every year because it’s a different story, but yet still be Fargo. I mean, I wrote the first season and I thought “oh I’ll never do that again”. And then in the second season, the showrunner Noah said: “you know, we need all new themes”. And I was like okay, so I wrote all new themes and then in the third season I sort of saw that coming, so I knew I was going to have to do that, and I started thinking about it very early. In the fourth season, I don’t know what I’m going to do, and I’m actually kind of terrified that I’m not going to be able to figure it out in time.
Then it’s better if you read 5 o 6 scripts just in case… (*laughs*)
(*laughs*) At this point, I don’t think it’ll be about the scripts. I think that I have to figure out again how to write some new themes for the new characters, because it’s very difficult. It’s frightening. It’s very frightening to me.
You have to change every season but not too much, still keep the musical consistency.
Let’s talk about Counterpart TV series. I love it because it’s like a spy game but set into this sci-fi world, so instead Russians and Americans you have two worlds as enemies… How does the music help to shape those 2 worlds?
Yeah, that’s an interesting story, and also I take an interesting approach to the score. Originally I was thinking that I needed to write a score that would delineate the 2 worlds. But in the end I realized that what the score needed to do was tie the 2 worlds together, not delineate them. So, the characters from either side, like Howard Prime and regular Howard, they share a theme and his wife on both sides does it too. They share the same theme, sometimes played a little differently, sometimes turned a little bit on its side, but in general, what I ended up wanting to do was tie them together, to really allow the viewer to connect with both sides. Because I didn’t want to connect one side and not the other one.
You didn’t want to make a difference and mark the “good guy” vs “bad guy” dilemma with the music…
That’s it. Because there isn’t a bad or a good guy. I mean, there are bad guys and there are good guys, but they are on both sides! And they’re both parts of one personality. The whole thing is about survival. The whole show is about the one side needing to do things in order to survive. It is one of the more subtle scores that I think I embarked upon, but I think that’s the most beautiful part of it.
I’ve noticed that you use a lot of strings and a lot of melody in the score, playing sometimes with this feeling of melancholy…
Yes. All that was intended, to drive the story in the way it has to be.
Fantastic! Let’s finish with ‘Star Trek: Discovery’. I suppose it is a big responsibility for you to enter such an iconic franchise, and of course, you have many eyes on you and have to make everybody happy… but we all know that it is impossible to make everybody happy… So, how do you deal with getting in such a big project and not being too far away from the musical essence of Star Trek, but also not making the same music as always?
Well again, the terrifying part is that there’s so much expectation. There’s a lot of expectation and it’s difficult to walk in the shadows of the people who’ve come before like Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner, and Michael Giacchino, and you know, these really great composers… Alexander Courage… the list goes on.
You use some of Alexander Courage’s music in your main title, as an homage…
Yeah, yeah I do. I use his one fanfare and I use it as much as I can, because why the hell not. It’s great! (*laughs*) But the idea of needing to do a score that is in the world of Star Trek and yet still our own, that’s a very fine line to walk, because on the one side, if you’re too much like the original then you’re a copycat, and if you’re too far on the other side then you’re not true to the franchise. So it’s very difficult and I’ve tried my best to inject my own musical identity into what Star Trek is.
And for better or for worse, we tell a story that is more the way I like to tell stories, which is from an emotional point of view rather than a narrative point of view. We try to connect the characters. We try to make sure that there is an emotional arc to each one of these stories that we’re telling. I think it’s important to know that the story is about the development of the characters, not the development of the story itself, and that is what I think sets us apart from the previous incarnations of the show. That’s my opinion. I don’t know if that’s what the filmmakers had in mind, but it seems they do.
Well, what seems quite clear is that the series is very different from the previous Star Trek series. It’s darker and the characters are not clearly on one side or another…
Okay so let’s go for the final question with Star Trek, a question about the main theme. You have the fans divided there… Some people like it because it’s new and different, but other people think “this is not Star Trek… it should be more energetic, enthusiastic, adventurous…”. So… which ideas did you have in your mind when writing the theme and which instructions or directions did you get?
They didn’t have any true direction for me on the theme. They asked me to write a theme and the idea was it needed to sound modern, it needed to sound like a new Star Trek, not the old Star Trek, and it needed to still have some of Star Trek in it.
So I had an idea. It was a musical idea. In fact, it’s a musical theory idea called common tone. That’s when one note in a series of chords changes, and each one of those chords shares one of the same note. And in my mind I thought “that can indicate the continuity of the universe, connecting all of the beings of the universe”. Because I thought, and I think, that Gene Roddenberry‘s original vision is a big part of that idea. We’re all together in this. It’s all one big universe and we’re all out there trying to find our way and figure it all out.
So the idea of a common tone was very meaningful to me in writing the theme. There was that and then there was a melody I had in my mind (*Jeff sings*) (*da dum da dum da dum de bum*). And I wanted that to happen across these different chords that were sharing the one note. And as that progressed, I wrote a much longer version of the theme, which is what I’m performing here tonight in the festival. But then they sent me the picture, and I was like “okay this actually really works with this kind of picture”. But then I realized that they sent the music to the title company and the title company was working to the piece of music… which was really really great! It means the music was what they were looking for!
But going back to your question… YES, there is a divided sense of what people think of the theme. All I can say is that Star Trek is whatever you want to make it, right? But, the people who decide what is Star Trek, are the people who make Star Trek. That’s who decide what Star Trek is. The writers decide: this is Star Trek, we’re making Star Trek and this is where we’re going. So when I hear people complain that it’s not Star Trek, well, it might not be like the original Star Trek, it might not be like The Next Generation, which by the way, was nothing like the original Star Trek. I mean, DS9 was even a little different than The Next Generation, in that it was a darker version of that. Enterprise – I don’t know what that was… but it was still Star Trek, because the people who create Star Trek made that show!
So you can like it or not, but you can’t say it’s not Star Trek. And I mean that with all due respect to the fans, because the fans really are the ones that keep us going. They keep us making it. So, to the people who say it’s not Star Trek, I say I had an idea as to what this theme should be for this version of Star Trek, and the filmmakers agreed with me… and to me that makes it right for our show. Would this theme work on The Next Generation? No. It’s a different show. And as a matter of fact, it’s funny, it’s like The Next Generation didn’t even have its own theme. They used the theme from the motion picture; Jerry Goldsmith‘s theme from the motion picture. It wasn’t until Voyager that he wrote another original theme. So, you know… who’s to say really what is or isn’t Star Trek… Except for the people who make Star Trek!
Well, I can agree with you on that, because that’s something that’s happening these days everywhere. Look at what’s happening with new Star Wars movies or the spin-offs… some people love them and some people say “this is not Star Wars”…
You’re right! We see it happen everywhere… whenever a change happens…
So, we have to stick with what you said about the creator’s vision, and the way they’re going
And I think all we can do is do the best that we can… and I can tell you that I do my best when I go to make a theme or write the score.
I’m quite sure about that! Will the main theme stay in Season 2? Any changes to it?
No, I think it’ll stay. That’s what they tell me. I called and asked and said “should I be thinking about a new version of the theme or a new… anything?” And they were like “no, it’s ok like that”…
Ok, so we’ll have the same theme come back again for season two! Let’s hope we can see the show soon and listen to your new music there! Thank you very much for your time, Jeff. We know you’ve been working very hard with rehearsals for the concerts these days.
You’re welcome! I hope you enjoy the concerts and the festival!
Interview by Gorka Oteiza
In addition to the interview for SoundTrackFest, below we leave the link to the video that was broadcast live on July 5th, 2018, with the intervention of Jeff Russo at the MOSMA, in a panel moderated by Isabel Vázquez.