Christopher Lennertz is a composer, producer, conductor, and arranger whose adeptness for a multitude of genres has put him on the map time and time again. You many not recognize his name but if you’ve seen Horrible Bosses, Think Like A Man, shows like Supernatural or played games like Mass Effect 3 and Starhawk then you know Chris’ work.
A veritable encyclopedia of musical styles and theories Chris currently writes the music for the hit J.J. Abrams series Revolution on NBC. He’s also celebrated for his video game scores like Steven Spielberg’s Medal of Honor series and he just completed the score for the most recent installment of the iconic Madden franchise. Lennertz has even worked with film music legends Basil Poledouris and Michael Kamen and while still early in his career he’s scored 39 feature films, 5 network television series, and many of the world’s biggest interactive media titles.
So whether he’s creating the musical accompaniment to Kevin Hart’s antics and Ice Cube’s stoic demeanor in Tim Story’s Ride Along or working on upcoming sequels Horrible Bosses 2 and Think Like A Man Too, Chris is redefining the way we hear scores for comedies. His range is amazing and hopping between TV, games and films helps him expand his horizons and repertoire (click here to check out sensational samples of his work). GoSeeTalk got to sit with this accomplished and very busy composer and here are the highlights of our time with Christopher Lennertz.
GST: Good morning Chris. Great to talk with you. I know it’s only Tuesday but how’s your week going?
CL: Oh it’s going great. We had another great weekend of Ride Along so everyone is feeling pretty good and getting ready to move on to the next movie and I’m still working on Revolution so it’s fun. Things are great.
GST: Yeah I saw Ride Along has been doing very well. What was it, a 60 million dollar opening weekend?
CL: I think it was a $48 million opening and we just hit 75 this weekend. It’ll definitely hit 100 and Universal gets very happy when that happens. *laughs* I’m pretty sure the sequel is already being written.
GST: Well thanks for taking some time with us. I’m excited to talk with you about your process scoring comedies. Your publicists contacted me with an email and the subject read “Christopher Lennertz – The New Conducting King of Comedy“. Nice title, are you getting that added to all your business cards now?
CL: *laughs* Ha! They must have made that up because I had not heard that before. *laughs* Somebody must have coined that, it sure wasn’t me, but it’s certainly been a good 3 or 4 years of comedies with Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief, Think Like A Man, now Ride Along. My film work has been comedy-centric and they’ve all done so well which is just great. You know, it’s interesting because that just kid of happened. I mean, I like doing comedies and I actually think comedies are really hard to do well musically because it’s very easy to get silly and I try not to do that, but it is funny because my main teacher in college was Elmer Bernstein.
GST: Really, THE Elmer Bernstein??
Yeah, I studied with him the whole time and while he obviously did The Magnificent Seven and To Kill A Mockingbird and all these great dramas he also did a ton of comedies, he was the king of comedy. He did Caddyshack, he did Stripes, he did Animal House, he did Trading Places and it was one after another and I love comedy so I think that when I come from that world and having studied with Elmer it makes me really appreciate how effective good music in a comedy can be.
GST: Sure. And it’s funny I was struggling with what I was going to ask you about comedic music. I consider myself a big score fan and good portion of GoSeeTalk is devoted to film music. Yet looking through all my soundtracks I realized that I don’t own a single score to a comedy except for Animal House – as you know John Landis told Elmer to play the music serious and not goofy.
So what are your first steps when you are offered a “comedy”? Sometimes it’s very difficult for music in a comedy to be memorable because, as you say, it’s easy to become goofy and therefore possibly forgettable, right?
CL: Absolutely, and part of the thing for comedy, for me at least, and especially modern comedy is that for films like Horrible Bosses and Ride Along, it’s about three things and it all usually starts with a vibe for certain scenes. I mean, if you play something funny, and Elmer is the one who discovered this, if you play it very silly and comical it seems juvenile, especially for an R-rated or even PG-13 comedy. It makes it all seem forced and immature. So what I really try to do in the comic scenes, again I learned this from Elmer, is that you don’t people where to laugh, but you are tell them that it’s ok to laugh.
What that means, in terms of this movie, is composing something complimentary whether it’s something really funky for Kevin Hart or like in Horrible Bosses making sure there’s something really sexy for Jennifer Aniston. It’s not playing every time she says or does something, it’s about playing an underpinning of cool music that’s contemporary and fun that says it’s ok to laugh.
Then there’s that part of the score which gives it a lot of personality and in Horrible Bosses, Ride Along and Identity Thief there’s also a lot of action and I played the car chases and action scenes in Ride Along the same way I would have scored it had it been Training Day. There’s a lot of big action music and to me that’s also important because it makes the audience feel like it’s real, or better, like there are stakes in the game.
Then the last part is playing the parts really straight and that’s what Elmer did best. He did it specifically on Stripes. He did big military music and it’s almost the same thing that I do with Ice Cube because when Cube walks on screen and he starts being tough I did full-on early 1990’s gangster rap beats with dark, really heavy bass beats because the idea was to play Cube as the straight man who is completely oblivious to Kevin being funny.His character is someone who is tougher than nails. So for him there’s no comedy in the movie at all and that’s the other piece of the pie – making sure that while Kevin is doing his thing, we give the audience permission to laugh because with Cube you play him serious and by contrast that makes Kevin more funny.
GST: I’ve been listening to the Ride Along score in my car for about a week now and it sounds like more of a road trip album as opposed to a true score. It also speaks to me because I grew up listening to a lot of NWA and Gangstarr and heard a lot of those callbacks and stylized beats in the actiony and serious themes.
CL: Well I figured that you just can’t play Cube like you’re playing Eminem or Kanye or anybody from today, he’s just not that. He’s an old school, tough, early 90s rapper so everything beat-wise was out of that school, you know, Dre, Snoop, Coolio and those guys and that’s what his personality was.
GST: You really did mix it up with your music though. You did play a few scenes “mickey mouse”, like when Kevin is in the hospital and he’s on morphine, you used some groovy sliding bass riffs but then you also amp up the action like that intro which makes this a well-rounded effort. Can you talk about the direction Tim Story gave you and how you worked to to bring his and your ideas together?
CL: Tim basically said a lot of what I just did but his intent was to make this a funny buddy cop action movie. He’d say things like “let’s have fun but don’t forget the action”. He wanted me to play it big and exciting and stick to that as much as possible. We kept bringing up films like Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop and those were the referenced because he didn’t want to forget there was an underlying story. Aside from Kevin and Cube, there was this character Omar and this pending illegal arms deal.
The good thing about Kevin is that he’s funny with or without music and so all we had to do was give him that personality musically which had a little bit of a retro bass line and really tight percussion that was influenced by the 80s comedies and then aside from that we just made sure the action was big and Tim’s job was to make the film well rounded so it wasn’t just about this odd couple comedy.
GST: Since a comedy isn’t a “one score fits all” type of musical project, like you can get away with a blanket romantic theme or an action heavy score, I imagine you have to wait to see footage until you can really get to work on a comedy right?
CL: Oh you absolutely have to wait to see footage because a lot of your job has to do with pacing and it depends on the character too. Now in this case Kevin Hart talks fast so it’s very easy to misinterpret that as thinking that the music has to be fast and it doesn’t. If you listen to the sort of funky synth-based bassline we got for him it’s pretty slow and it plays against his quick voice. Now if I had tried to score this before I heard him deliver the lines I may have written it too fast or something that was too busy that it would have distracted him from being funny. I think that seeing the pace of the movie will actually tell you how quickly, how busy or how complex to write things when it comes to comedies. Now I love comedies but I also love dramas and action films. I’m glad and very lucky to get to do the show Revolution every week which is very dark, a medieval meets creepy type of story which is the same thing with Supernatural and most of the video games I do are strictly big action vehicles like Mass Effect 3 and Starhawk and those things are bombastic with no comedy at all, so I get to kind of do it all which for me is the real fun part of the job.
GST: Yeah that allows you to come back refreshed because the jobs vary so much, as opposed to scoring one thing again and again and again and getting burned out on it.
CL: Totally and that would be depressing no matter what genre you’re doing. Like if all I did were horror films I’d be in a rut begging people to let me write something that wasn’t ugly. And the same for anyone who gets stuck in one style, it can be creatively stifling. I’m lucky that while I seem to be stereotyped in certain genres depending on what the project is, be it TV, movies or video games, the nice thing is that I’m stereotyped differently across the mediums and I’m able to not be bored which is cool.
GST: This may seem like a strange question but I’ve talked to stop motion animators about their work and the professional output they aim for is about 6 seconds of footage per week. So is there a similar computation or expectation in the film/TV music world? Or on the creative side is the an equation that says, “every minute of music hear comes from a certain number of hours writing, playing to picture and recording”?
CL: Well kind of but it differs between projects and schedules and the resources you get or if it comes to a time frame and if film has a hard release date. But I believe Jerry Goldsmith once said that his comfort pace was writing two minutes of music a day. Now that’s written but that doesn’t mean it’s approved. But if you figure that you’re writing 7 days a week and even if you have to rewrite things because of the director’s comments I think that writing 10 minutes a week is probably a nice pace.
When you get any more than that is when you’re sweating and really flying and whatever but if you get any less than that it feels like you’re too slow and you’re not progressing with the story quickly enough. 10 minutes a week is I think fantastic but unfortunately I very seldom see that and I sometimes have to write 10 minutes in a day which I don’t wish to do that any more than I actually have to but I think if given an ideal schedule I say “give me 10 to 12 minutes a week and I’ll be thrilled and we’ll get a lot of really good stuff done”.
GST: Well that also depends on what the project is because each medium has different schedules. With a film there’s an end goal and you can see the finish line but it’s tougher to do with TV.
CL: Yeah, with a movie you can sometimes just power it out to the end and then sleep for three or four days but with TV, man there’s no sleep in television. *laughs*
GST: I’ve talked to Michael Giacchino and he says in his experience TV is a non-stop grind. You work on “Revolution”, which is a J.J. Abrams produced show and he worked on “Lost”, so is that his experience because it’s a Bad Robot production or is that all TV?
CL: I would agree with that 100%. It is a grind and all TV is like that really. Talk to anybody who’s doing it and they’ll tell you it’s just fast, fast, fast. Most of the episodes of Revolution have over 25 minutes of music in it and I have about 5 days so if you do the math that’s nearly 6 minutes a day and you have to record it every week so it’s pretty much a slam. However it’s slightly easier for what we’re doing Supernatural; since we’re in the 9th season we’ve got music pretty much squared away or at least the direction of it but it’s still a grind, it really is.
GST: I’ve heard composers say that the only time the job is easy is when there’s a sequel because you don’t have to come up with all new music.
CL: Yeah exactly!
GST: Well does it work the same way in a comedy? Have you thought abut Horrible Bosses 2 and about the new characters coming down the pike?
CL: Yeah, it’s funny, I was just on set last week and I sat down a little bit with the director and the music supervisors and I think the idea is to do everything that was great about Horrible Bosses but then take it up a notch so that we’re using a bigger band and more instruments and there are others ideas I have but I won’t really know until I see footage of the new characters like Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz to try out the new ideas. I think the guys’ music is going to be very similar to the last one but the new villains will bring a new vibe to it and for sure they’ll be the new voice and vibe of the next movie.
GST: Going back to what you said before about Kevin Hart and making sure your music didn’t get in his way, Kevin improvises a lot and some of the tracks change and are so different from scene to scene it’s like you’re finding a different groove with each scene. Some tracks like like “Police Academy” and “Stranger” have this 90s playground feel to it with clapping, echoes and synthesizers. Do you throw your ideas to the musicians and they interpret the scene and make it up on the day or do they just play what you write?
CL: When there are instances where it sounds like there’s a band, with a keyboard, a guitar or bass guitar, I’ll come up with the music and we’ll get some phenomenal players like keyboardist Myron McKinley who played with Earth, Wind and Fire, and I would say to Myron “ok, here’s our vibe, we have kind of a 80s bassline going on, but we don’t want it to feel like the 80s so let’s bring a kind of 90s hip-hop feel to it”. And in the 90s they were actually sampling the 70s, like what Dre was doing was sampling George Clinton and Parliament, so I ask the musicians to bring their own voices to make it authentic. But that’s the other thing, I didn’t want to make it so tailored to the movie like a score, I wanted it to feel like it was something taken off a record and something that if you put vocals on it it could feel like a song. That was the mindset on all the scenes with Kevin.
GST: No I think you nailed that and that’s what I was getting at in one of my earlier questions. This felt like the kind of music that would be in their car, coming through the speakers when they were driving, so you got it just right.
CL: Ok great! Well if that’s what you thought then that’s exactly right. That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I’m glad and it’s always great to talk about scoring in general because just like comedies in the Oscars, you’re not likely to see a comedy up for best picture or score even though there can be some amazing, amazing work done for them especially if you go back to the classics like Stripes. I mean, it’s a pretty great movie and I think people dismiss it because it’s less serious and, musically speaking, it’s amazing. You look at the people who are great at scoring comedies like Theodore Shapiro or Chris Beck or Rolfe Kent or John Debney and think, “man that’s really, really smart scoring!” and it may not be Dances With Wolves but it’s hard to do and it’s really interesting when you look at it from a different standpoint and how much it helps the movie.
Thanks to Chris Lennertz for his time. Ride Along is directed by Tim Story, it stars Kevin Hart and Ice Cube and is in theaters now. Ride Along 2 is currently in development.