Exclusive: Interview (Part III)…Film Composer Steve Jablonsky on Experimentation and Career Experiences

Steve-Jablonsky_Interview_HeaderWe’ve come to the final post, Part III of the 90 minute interview we had with the incomparable Steve Jablonsky. Hitting on a number of topics we got a deeper look into his process and Steve offers even more personal experiences and insight into his phenomenal scores. If you’re just joining us, check out Part I and Part II (really, if you love film music, they’re not to be missed) but if you’re all caught up then enjoy the final leg in this trio of interview posts with amazing composer Steve Jablonsky.

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 – “Making sounds” as opposed to just composing them is a very proprietary approach. But do you think, kind of like I was asking before about trends, do you see manipulating things you record to make it original and unique to each film a trend by taking more of that “sound designer” approach to film scoring?

Well for me it definitely seems to be a trend because filmmakers I work with, other than Michael Bay, all seem to respond to that. Like on Gangster Squad, I did this weird thing for the Mickey Cohen theme and Ruben Fleischer really liked the sound I made. I did some strange things to create this pulse sound for the character and it seems like I do something like that on every movie that and they just love it because they’ve never heard it and better because they don’t know what it is. Or maybe that’s why they come to me because they know I can do this stuff. But honestly I don’t go out to a lot of movies
Battleship-2012-Alienunfortunately and I’m not able to keep up on the latest film scores so I can only speak to what I’m doing in my studio which is a lot of that sort of thing. I was actually with Marco Beltrami the other day, we were doing a panel for Billboard Magazine and he was talking about his score for Carrie. He recorded an old radio and did some cool things with static and I immediately went “oh that’s cool that’s exactly what I did for Battleship when I recorded an MRI machine”, of all things.

One day Peter Berg came to me after getting an MRI for a sore neck and came to my studio and said “oh man I was thinking about you when I was in that thing because it was making these crazy noises while they were scanning my neck”.

 – Oh yeah, that <doom doom doom> sound right?…I watch a lot of House.

*laughs* Right, well there’s that one and depending on what sequence they’re in it makes all these different noises. So I looked at him and said “I wonder if they’d let us record that thing”. So of course Pete Berg says “oh yeah, my friend owns that place”, so we got microphones in there and recorded the MRI machine. I got all these miles of raw file cut up in bits that I liked and just manipulated them in my computer and then into the theme for the aliens. And when I played that for Pete he was so excited because it was an idea that he inadvertently came up with but it paid off. Film audiences are going to listen to that and go “that’s kind of weird” or whatever, but as far as I know nobody’s recorded an MRI machine and turned it into a cue for aliens. Well maybe they have I don’t know, but for us it’s exciting because we know this sound hasn’t been in another movie.

So to go back to your question I don’t know if it’s just the filmmakers that I am paired up with or it’s a general trend of people just trying to find different sounds but there are only so many notes on the keyboard or that a string can play and a horn can play so trying to stand out is difficult because there’s just been so much music created and written up in to this Lone Survivor Theatricaldate that you’re going to inevitably borrow from something you’ve heard in the past whether you even realize you’re doing it or not. So I love the sound design stuff, I think it’s a really cool thing and you don’t want to get too heavy-handed but it’s a cool way to be more specific with a movie.

That reminds me, I did this other movie for Pete Berg, called Lone Survivor, it’s about Navy SEALs. There’s a scene with these goats, the SEALs are they’re trying to stay under cover and they don’t want the villagers to find them. So these goat herders are walking up the hill and they’re getting closer and closer, so I sampled these goats and messed with them on my computer. You wouldn’t know it was a goat in the cue but it is a goat, a living thing manipulated to sound like an instrument. When you hear it you don’t know what the hell it is but you just know it’s making you tense. So any opportunity I have to do something like that I really enjoy. I’ll do it whether they ask me to or not because I’m pushing my own scores that way.

– You keep saying, “my studio”, so just to clarify you are completely graduated from the Hans Zimmer School of Music, you’re officially Steve Jablonsky, LLC or something like that right?

*laughs*Yeah *laughs* well when I started doing my own films, starting with Texas Chainsaw Massacre I was never technically an employee of Hans’. I was an employee of Harry [Gregson-Williams] but when I moved up to doing my own films I was never Hans’ assistant, I was just a guy who had a room there but I worked with him so much, helping on all his movies you could almost call me his employee though it I was never technically employed by him. Then I got very busy with my own stuff and I couldn’t help him as much any more. I did Steamboy and Chainsaw while I was there doing my own movies, but I was a tenant, just paying rent.

Then last year I found a space here in Santa Monica where I live and it’s not far “Remote Control” which is Hans’ place. But it’s my own space, I’ve got my own mix room and a big live room where I can record, we just did some drums there the other day, so it’s nice to have  my own space. I’m a bit more low key. Hans’ place has grown exponentially over the past decade and I don’t even know half of the people there it’s so big. I kind of like it a bit more simple,that’s just my personality. I’ve got my room, I’ve got my buddy Nathan Whitehead who was my assistant but now I’m trying to help him get his name out there. I helped him get that film The Purge, I don’t know if you saw that.

– Oh yeah the Ethan Hawke home invasion film from this Summer. Solid thriller.

Yeah, Michael Bay’s company came to me the movie, which wasn’t called The Purge at the time, and they said “look, we don’t have any money, we’re not going to ask you, you’re too busy on something else but do you know anybody who can do this?” So I suggested Nathan just like Harry did for me and Hans did for me I said “let’s give Nathan a shot”. He did it and he nailed it and I knew he would because he’s already proven himself to me. So he’s in my building. He’s got a room, and I’ve got a room that I share with my assistant. That’s it. We mix and record and it’s a nice little family. So as much as I love Hans’ place, and I wouldn’t be here without, it’s nice to have my own space.

– Your resume is very diverse and composers like yourself, Hans  Zimmer and Brian Tyler alternate between films, TV, and even video games. How do you juggle it? Are games and television necessary jobs between films or  do you just like to try new projects to stretch yourself creatively?

It depends. I take the projects as they come. I’m 43 which I know is not that old but maybe 12 years ago when I was first doing this I would take a movie then a TV show and a game and I would just get it done somehow. Basically I would never leave my studio but I have a wife now and we’re planning to have kids and I built a studio in my home actually so I have a mirror studio at my house. I can start a cue here and finish it over at the other place. I’m trying not to have so many overlapping things which is why I haven’t done quite so many TV or games in the past few years.

stevejablonskyBut if something comes up and it’s really exciting I’ll take it on and find a way to get it done. Lately I’ve been focusing on films because they’re the most fun but if I did have a game, a TV show and a film going simultaneously I’d feel like it would compromise my work and I don’t feel I would be able to give any of them my best.

Now I do have friends I can bring in to help if it really gets to be crunch time. But I don’t always feel good about that, not about their talents or getting help, but I just think there are scenes that I really want to do myself. If I don’t have time then I feel like “oh I really wanted to do that scene because this is exactly what I’d want to do with it” and I feel bad in that respect so I try not to put myself in that situation.

But you’re right I did, at one time, have lots of games and TV and things happening so even though I am working a lot I think I’ve calmed down a bit. In fact I was offered a film that I had to turn down because of Transformers 4 and I know Transformers is going to be a lot of work. I’m just starting it now and I tell people that “doing a Micheal Bay movie is like doing two normal movies at the same time” *laughs*. I’m already doing work for two movies now but it’s just not the same thing. Maybe 10 years ago I would have said yes and found a way to make it work, and maybe it was a mistake, I don’t know, but I’m trying not to pile things on top of things on top of things and just focus on one thing at a time.

I think I’ve been very fortunate because the last string of films, like Gangster Squad, have all overlapped slightly and that was finishing just when Pain & Gain was starting so things weren’t crazy yet but then Lone Survivor came through and then Ender’s Game. There was a nice flow with a little bit of overlap which is nice thing although it doesn’t always work out like that. I’ve been lucky in the past year and a half that it’s been fairly spaced out.

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Then Michael asked me to do this TV thing for TNT called Last Ship, I don’t know when it comes out but when he asked me about it he knew I was going to be busy with Transformers so I said “yeah I’ll help you but how about my man Nathan goes and writes the score in the show but I’ll write the main themes?” So we worked out that deal and I will do that from time to time – if I want to work on something but can’t fully commit I’ll write themes and let someone like Nathan or another friend of mine Jacob Shea who’s really talented. I’ll bring these guys in and let them take it and run with it. Then next time maybe it can be just music by Nathan of just music by Jacob. By helping me I can help them get noticed and make that next step in their careers. Hopefully that answers you question.

– Well that does and actually brings up something I’ve been wondering about for years. That idea of multiple composers working on something, “themes by“, and “additional music by” makes sense but I’m curious about The Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Klaus Badelt got credit for scoring the first Pirates film, and you were credited with additional music, but a lot of it sounded just like Hans’ work for Gladiator. Next thing you know Hans is scoring the next three movies. So I know there’s a story there, can you tell me what went on behind the scenes? Does whoever writes the most music get top billing or was that Hans giving Klaus his big break?

That was kind of a unique situation. Alan Silvestri was originally hired to do it and I heard some of what he was doing, and it was PotC_The Curse of the Black Pearlgreat, but they just changed their mind as to what they wanted and were looking for something different. So they called Hans, and I don’t know exactly how it happened but it came to Hans’ studio and Klaus was given the role like “here you go, do this giant film”. But there was so little time, it was insanely short. I think we scored the whole thing in six weeks and there was so much music in that film so basically anyone in that building got a call to help out and they were like “ok we’ve got this huge movie coming in and we’ve got no time to do it, can you help?”

Now this is a funny story. I was asked and I said no because I was busy, I think I was doing Steamboy or maybe something else, and I just told them I couldn’t help. Then one day I was walking down the hall to the kitchen right when Hans, Jerry Bruckheimer and Gore Verbinski were walking out of Hans’ studio. Now Jerry knew me and he pointed right at me and wet “You!! We need you. Now!!”. And I was just like woah! but I knew exactly what he meant, and Gore was like “wait, who is this?”. Then Jerry just goes, “he’s good”, and turns back to me and goes “yeah you gotta get in here” and Hans is in the back just smiling because he knew at that point I had to do it. So I made some time and told them I could give them two weeks.

But it was such a crazy thing, we were all in the room presenting our cues just trying to get it done in time and because Hans is Hans Zimmer he was overseeing it and producing the whole thing and he took the lead even though it was Klaus’ film. But, it’s kind of a sensitive subject, yes it was Klaus’ job but most people know it was Hans who did a majority of the music, even though Klaus did some awesome work, which is why Hans ended up doing the rest of the films. Hans did kind of establish that sound that we all know as Pirates of the Caribbean.

So Hans, being producer, was kind of “the guy”, but on a normal film, again that was such an abnormal project, if Hans_ZimmerI have help, like Nathan, I’ll go to all the meetings and bring Nathan if I can and I’ll tell them”Nathan did this” so he can hear the comments first hand from the producer or the director. So you try to get them involved as much as possible and it helps hearing the feedback personally. But if I have help I always take responsibility for their work and have to think it’s ready before I’m going to play it to anybody else.

It’s really valuable to have that help, and help you can depend on, because if you’re running out of time being able to call my friend Jacob and say “here, I have a theme, can you do a variation of it?”. If something needs to be a little slower, in a different key, this way or that way I’ll give very specific instructions and I know he’ll do a great job but it’s what needs to be done when you’re under the gun. I think most composers now have a line of support like that, at least all the composers I know, because you just get so busy on these films because of compressed schedules. Everyone needs a little help now and then.

– Sure, I’ve talked to James Newton Howard about the number of films he scores in any one year, which is astounding, because he knows how to deal with these crazy schedules and short time frames. He said he gets some of the jobs he has because he has a reputation for getting things done so fast – some scores are finished in less than four weeks. 

Yeah it can be insane but they pay us to do our job and do our best work, so you have to deliver and “whatever it takes” usually means whatever it takes.

 – I was going to ask this next question but I think I want to turn it into a statement to thank you for the work you’ve done and say how much I appreciate your scores. 

A lot of times composers can get pigeonholed as the “action guy” or the “sci-fi guy” and when there are explosions on screen sometimes there’s this indiscernible wall to wall sound but I really like the subtleties and complexity you give to films like The Island and Ender’s Game and especially Steamboy. When I first saw Steamboy that “Collapse and Rescue” track especially the way it plays into “Ray’s Theme” at the end, man, it took my breath away. So thank you for that.

Oh, no, you’re very welcome. I had a great time on that one. That was one of those films where I was brought on very early so I did have time to develop those themes and ideas so I had maybe two months which was really great. So glad you liked it and I’d like to do another one like that which is a little more on the orchestral side. There are very little electronics and I hadn’t really ventured too far in to the electronic side of things at that point so pretty much everything is live on that. It was such a beautiful thing to look at which made it very inspiring to work on. But thanks, that’s very kind of you. I hope I get to do one of those again.

– Well I hope so. The credits play out brilliantly as they, in a condensed way, say that Ray’s adventures continue well beyond the confines of this story which is a really cool way to end the film. 

Right, right.

– Now one thing about Steamboy that I didn’t pick up on until I talked to Michael Giacchino about Star Trek was this idea about the use of themes and their need to be established. He said the reason he didn’t use the classic Star Trek TV theme in Abrams’ 2009 movie is that “they needed to earn it” and so you didn’t hear it until the end, just before the credits. So I got this feeling that Ray didn’t earn his theme until the end credits of Steamboy.

No, you’re absolutely right. We saved it. In that iteration, “Collapse and Rescue”,steve-jablonsky-steamboy-cover we didn’t play it until the very end and Michael’s totally right. I use that phrase all the time “we haven’t earned this yet” and it’s such a good tip for any composer. If you do something too soon it is going to feel wrong so yeah, that’s funny that Giacchino said that because I use that all the time. The director will say, “we should use that here” and I’ll say “we haven’t earned it yet, the character needs to get to this point, and this point and this point and then we can do that”. But yeah, that’s a good observation on your part, that’s totally what we did with Steamboy.

– Steve, I have to say it’s been an honor and man, looking at the clock we’re about 90 minutes in. I was thinking 30-40 minutes tops. Hope I’m not keeping you from anything.

No don’t worry about it. I set aside this afternoon to do this kind of thing and it’s been a lot of fun, so no problem.

– OK, well again thank you. So to wrap things up I have one last question, well more of a clarification. Transformers: Age of Extinction is technically a…fill in the blank…sequel? side-story? hybrid??

Honestly, and I would tell you if I knew, but I just don’t know yet. I’ve got only the most general, Transformers-Age of Extinctionvague is more like it, description which is kind of how I like it. I like to hear it from Bay and he’s shooting right now and this is what happens with his movies. I don’t hear from him at all because it’s such a crazy process when he’s shooting and then as soon as he’s done I’ll get a call to come down to his cutting room and we’ll just start looking at stuff and he’ll tell me what he’s thinking for it.

 – Well any route he takes is going to be an interesting one because so many main and popular characters died in Dark of the Moon.

Yeah, exactly. But back to your question I don’t know any more than you do. I’ve only heard from inside sources that it’s looking good and people are happy with what’s going on and these vague notes from Michael is that it’s new, the word “new” has been used a bit so I should just say I’ll be able to answer this question better in a few weeks *laughs* but even at that time I don’t know if Michael would even allow me to answer at that time. He might shoot me, *laughs* but I also haven’t read the script so I just don’t know.

Now I say that but I read the script for The Island and had a whole different movie in my head until Michael had shown it to me so if I had written anything based on this script it would still have been totally different. So I just like to wait and look at things once they’re read for me to see it.

 – Ok, point taken and for now I’m fine being kept in suspense. But Steve, again, thank you immensely for your time. You’re one of my bucket list composers so this has been a real honor.

Oh man, thank you. That’s very kind. I’m always slightly embarrassed when I hear these things but it really does mean a lot that people like yourself are out there appreciating what I’m doing. I’m just in my cave for hours and hours everyday so I don’t really get a sense of it until I talk to you guys so that’s really nice. Thank you.

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For someone who creates some of the most complex, bombastic and epic sounding scores of the last decade Steve was incredibly humble about his process and his career. Thanks very much to Steve for his participation in this extensive interview.

Ender’s Game in theaters now (and the score is phenomenal – a must buy for all film music enthusiasts), Lone Survivor will hit cinemas this January and Transformers: Age of Extinction is slated for release next Summer on June 27, 2014. As Steve said above there’s not much to go on save for what Micheal has said earlier this year, “We start four years later and there’s a reason why we’re meeting a new cast. We keep the ‘Transformers’ the way they were. It’s just four years later. There’s a reason the Transformers are redesigned. We’re trying to broaden the franchise and give it more places to go“. Sounds good to us.

We didn’t hit on his video game or TV soundtracks but tell us, what are your favorite Steve Jablonsky scores??