Composer Series,  Interviews,  Movies/Entertainment

Interview…Steve Jablonsky on ‘Keanu’ and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows’

SteveJablonsky_Jason KempinIf you’re a film fan and just now getting interested in film music, we’re going to let you in on a little secret. See the happy guy in the picture above? That is Steve Jablonsky. He works in Hollywood. He writes music, big music in fact, and he’s been at the forefront of high-octane films, video games and TV shows for almost two decades. But if you’re a fan of his, or this site, you already know that. Of all the composers we’ve gotten to know over the years, Steve is one of our favorite people to talk to. Right before Father’s Day, we caught up with Steve to talk about his recent projects. In addition to his constantly packed schedule, he’s pretty busy being a first-time father.

While we always try to be mindful of Steve’s time, we end up talking three times longer than planned. It’s all good though, because Steve is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. Our talks, per usual, are as fun as they are insightful. So for those of you eager to hear about Steve’s creative process, and stories scoring two of the more enjoyable films of 2016, then enjoy the the highlights of our time with him below. Our daughters were born a few months apart, and as one first-time father to another I have to ask – what’s it like being a high-profile and in-demand composer and then being a Dad? Is this industry sensitive to those with families? How has it affected your professional life?

Steve Jablonsky_TMNT2Steve Jablonsky: Before I had my daughter, I don’t know about you, but I liked kids. I was OK being the “uncle”, but that was about it. [laughs] But now I understand what it means to be a parent. My daughter is only a year-and-a-half, but I feel such a connection to her. I love hanging out with her, and she she loves coming into my studio and hitting some of the keys. Everything she does is really cute.

I’m working on Deepwater Horizon for Peter Berg at the moment, and the lead character – played by Mark Wahlberg – has a daughter who is about 6 or 7. Since I became a Dad, it’s funny because many people have seen a change in me over the last 18 months. Even my music editor, who is working on this with me, kept noting that I would constantly bring up the relationship between Mark Wahlberg and his daughter.

There’s a really sweet moment at the end that was taken out, and I called Peter Berg and said, “hey we really need to put that back in. I want to write this piano theme for it.”. Later, my music editor told me, “I don’t know that you would have been that focused on this moment before Madeline was born.”. So I said “well, now I understand how strong that relationship is. So I think if we keep that moment at the end of the film, we will get parents a little more emotionally than we would have without it.”. So in that weird way, [laughs] it is affecting my job, especially how I look at films where there are kids involved. My perspective has most certainly changed.

Well, speaking of kids, and things kids like, Turtles is insanely popular, and has been for more than a quarter of a century. So are you a Turtles fan? And how did you take the reins from Brian Tyler?

I’m a Turtles fan through my brother. I am old enough that I just missed the Turtles crazy, but he was right in the middle of it, so I saw all the cartoons and the toys right there with him. He’s nine years younger than me, so that’s a pretty decent gap. I would watch him while my Mom was at work and he’d be playing with Turtles, so I was exposed to it, and I knew who all the characters were, but I was not as into it as he was. But, at some point last year, my agent was told that Michael Bay wanted me to score the second Turtles movie. So, my first reaction was, “why isn’t Brian Tyler doing it?”.

TMNT_Out-of-the-ShadowsAnd I was honest, I said, “it’s his franchise, I don’t want to get in the way of him doing it or continuing what he started. He should obviously have the first chance.”. But my agent said, “no, Michael wants you.”. It just comes down to different styles, and Michael is not a huge fan of traditional orchestration, and if you’ve heard my Transformers scores, [laughs] you know how much electronic work I get into and mix into my themes. Brian does that too, but Michael, for whatever reason, said he wanted me and I agreed.

At first, I felt really odd taking the job, because Brian is a friend of mine, and I don’t want to stand in his way, but at the end of the day, Michael is the boss so I agreed, no problem.

To Brian’s credit, I really, really liked his music for the first Turtles film. It’s got to be extremely difficult to out-Tyler Brian Tyler, but I say this honestly…you did it! Your score is a lot more fun, but it certainly stays in the same neighborhood. It comes across as a spiritual sister to what Brian established.

[laughs] Thank you so much! And the way you described it is exactly what I was going for! I did not want to completely disregard Brian’s music, but at the same time, both Michael and myself wanted to do something new and have fun with it. So you said it perfectly.

From the beginning, all we wanted to do was have a good time. Those Transformers movies, they can get kind of heavy at times. They get serious and dark, so I said, “this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There aren’t many things more lighter and fun. Even when they’re in the middle of a life-and-death action scene, they’re still cracking jokes, so I don’t want to take the music too seriously.”. I wanted to write things that were fun and let the audience know it was okay to have a good time. So I’m glad that shows!

The first time we talked, we brought up Steamboy, and what I took away from that film was the idea of earning a theme over the course of a story. But in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, even with the very first track, “Squirrel Formation”, you set up the themes but really start off with a bang. What was your mind set in getting out of the gates as quickly as possible, and not having to “earn” anything since that was more or less set up by Brian Tyler?

The fact that this is a sequel is a huge weight off my shoulders. It allows you to get into a very bold theme right off the bat which is not something I generally do. But the way that they shot the opening and designed this new Turtles TMNT2 Banneradventure was very dramatic – it is all about the city of New York, and the Turtles, and these energetic helicopter shots, all following the brothers on this big mission. There’s a build-up to something you think will be huge, but actually, they’re just going to see a Knicks game. And we knew that right up front. We saw this as a big theme moment, and a chance to set up the Turtles – who are important to the city – and do something bold, and high-energy, but still very fun.

It was dictated by, as you said, the fact that this is a sequel; we’ve seen these characters before. But anytime you’re meeting somebody for the first time, you need to take your time and establish them. What you get is a theme that develops as their character develops. Then, when they have a big moment in their life, you can play it with a big theme, and I like doing that because, even subconsciously, audiences feel that progression in the music. So it pays off when you get to use to the big version, but an audience can also follow across the smaller points as they happen throughout the story.

More and more, your focus has been on sound engineering/sound design to really make a score unique to both the picture and yourself. But at this point, would you say there are any “secret weapons”, any go-to motifs, instruments, or something that makes whatever you’re working on a “Steve Jablonsky score”? I know that most movies require a different approach, but what do you find consistent, be it the requests of a director, or just personal tastes?

That’s a really good question. I can honestly say there are situations when it is both, and then some films can be either/ or. But one thing I always use are certain bass sounds, and I get that from working with Hans Zimmer. Early on, he taught me the importance of bass, when it is either a live bass being played, or synthesizer bass.

I have a handful of base synthesizer sounds in my studio that I love to use underneath the orchestra. The orchestra is obviously Jablonsky TMNT2very powerful. But if I played you a cue where I used the bass underneath and then take the base out, it’s still very nice and big, but there’s a weight to it and it does what the orchestra just can’t play as low or deep as my Moog synthesizer can.

So there’s things like that which I always do, just to give it a bigger sound even though you might not realize what I’m doing. Now the sounds that are generally present and audible, I always make new and specific to the film because, for me, it’s just fun to make things original.

I try really hard not to go back into old sound folders, and wonder, “what did I do on Transformers?”. It could probably work, but I don’t want things to sound too similar. I try to vary it up sonically, and I know that directors hire me because of things I’ve done specifically. Breck Eisner, who directed The Last Witch Hunter, hired me because he really liked the sounds I did. I have a lot of synthesizers in my room so there’s a lot of things I can play with to create so many different sounds.

When I listen to your music, I love that I can tell it’s a Jablonsky score, but things sound vastly different from picture to picture. Now all respect in the world to people like Jerry Goldsmith and John Barry, but – maybe it’s because they have such a vast body of work, or they had such an affinity for certain instruments and motifs – I could name at least half a dozen scores from each that sound nearly identical.

I think I learned an incredible amount from Hans Zimmer, who, as you know, I worked with quite a bit. You could say the same thing about his scores and you know what is a “Zimmer score”. Some of his scores sound similar to one another, but he really varies it up from project to project and keeps moving sonically in all kinds of ways. I really should tip my hat to Hans in terms of what I learned being so close to him while we worked.

You are, as you mentioned regarding Deepwater Horizon, working a lot more with Peter Berg these days. Now when you have a repore with Peter, or Michael Bay, or a producer, do you get to comfort factor where you can say, “I know what you’re asking me to do, but I disagree.”? Or you watch a rush and you say, “you know, this just isn’t working.”? How well do directors take that feedback, and do you have more examples than just the one’s with Peter?

I think so. I feel comfortable telling them what I think – they may say they disagree, or that they think something is a good idea – but the directors I work with generally want to hear input from me, or anybody, about what is working. We, as composers, are sort of a insecure bunch; we’re never quite sure if what we did the day before is good enough, so we always question ourselves.

Jablonsky TMNT2_Jason Kempin

But you’re right, on day one of me working with Michael Bay, I’m not going to say, “that scene is working very well.”. I’m going to keep my mouth shut, [laughs] but after so many movies, I can say, “Mike what if we do this, or this?”. When you’ve known somebody for so long, and you do feel comfortable it can be just like you said. I can talk to him about things now that I couldn’t on the first movie. I can talk to him as a human being. I’m not as petrified at this point and the same with Pete Berg.

Over time you learn that everybody is different. There might be something I like or dislike about one of their movies, but I know what they are doing or focusing on is important to them. I know Pete likes one thing, and Michael likes another, so I’m not even going to bother because it’s all subjective. Now Pete in particular, he really does want to know. In a way, they all do. Whether they take another opinion or not, they all want to make the best film they can.

When I talked to Brian, both before the first Turtles came out, and recently, I told him that while I loved his music, I had to be honest – that movie could have been a lot better. I know he’s a consultant on the job and there are some parallels between what you do, and my job in the architecture world. A project may not end as grand as we hoped on day one, so sometimes we have to “paint the pig”. Essentially we’re putting a glossy coat on something that could have been a lot better.

[laughs] You know, there are a lot of times when a producer might say to us, “we know this is not very good. It’s terrible, but would you help us?”. [laughs] They are generally aware of the state of these films – that’s how they got to where they are in their careers – and they understand what is good, and what’s bad. But I’ve had plenty of times where somebody tells me, “yeah, we know this sucks. Can you fix it??”.

[laughs] I’m glad to hear those conversations exist. I guess, perceptively, to audience members, you imagine many producers proudly touting their film as the next Citizen Kane. [laughs]

I’m sure there are some out there who think that way, but sometimes, when I’m work on a movie, there are ten producers. Most of them I don’t even meet, they are on the business end, and there are a couple producers that are the creative people I meet with. They’re pretty normal guys, and they know what’s going on, so if something isn’t really good, they want to work to make it right. They’re pretty self-aware, and I think that’s good for the movie. You can’t be too overly confident. You have to accept some criticism, or be aware if something is just not happening.

Let’s talk about co-composing Keanu. You want talk about a love letter 80s films? I loved that movie! I got to talk to Key & Peele about it, and one of the things I wanted to ask about was your music, but just didn’t get the chance. What’s it like working with Peter Atencio, and how did you and Nathan Whitehead split responsibilities?

Peter really is the nicest guy, and he is so smart when it comes to editing and directing. But here’s a funny story. Apparently, I met him when I was working on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. He directed a low budget horror film that my orchestrator Bruce Fowler worked on. Peter Atencio_Steve JablonskyWhen I was doing the Transformers sequel, Peter, who was a fan of my music at that point, asked Bruce if he could come to one of my sessions. Now I don’t remember it, but we met and he’s been a fan since then which was really cool. So, when he started working on Keanu, he was editing it with my music from Pain & Gain as temp music. There were other of my scores in there, but he used a lot of Pain & Gain. He reached out to my agent -asking if I wanted to do this – and I was already a huge Key & Peele fan so I kind of got starstruck. I said, “what?? They want me to do a Key & Peele movie?!”.

But unfortunately I was right in the middle of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: Out of the Shadows, and Deepwater Horizon, and they were already scheduled on top of each other. It was a bit crazy working on both films at the same time, so I thought that after Deepwater Horizon I would take a break. So when I got the call to do Keanu, I said, “oh man, I really want to, but I can’t commit to a third movie. If I take it, I’ll be dead.”. Honestly, I just wouldn’t feel right saying, “yeah I’ll do it.”, and then just not giving them the time the picture needed.

So I went down to meet with them, Peter showed me the film, and I said, “oh yeah! I have to work on this! But I can’t commit to doing the whole thing. I’ll tell you right up front. I’m very busy on these other movies, but what if I write themes, and I do a couple of the big cues? I’ll set the tone and make the sounds and spend a couple weeks setting things up, and then I bring in a friend of mine, Nathan Whitehead, who I worked with a long time, and he can do the daily work once we really get into scoring the picture.”.

I didn’t think he would go for it, because I knew he was talking to Brian Tyler, and some other big names, but then I got a call saying, “Peter wants you to do it!”. The agreement we had was that Nathan would write each additional cue, then send it to me. Then I would watch it to picture and give him notes. He would pick up what I wanted and, as soon as I was happy with it, it would go to Peter.

Jablonsky Studio_Jason KempinI felt I had a really good understanding of what Peter wanted. So after I had written the themes, I took on more of a producer role. That kind of extended the process a little bit – we got a little behind towards the end because I was a little hard on Nathan’s cues. Sometimes I was very particular about some things needing to be a certain way, and so I would send it back three or four times with more notes, and more notes, and more notes, and poor Peter would say, “Steve, am I ever going to hear this cue, ever?”.

So I would say, [laughs] “yes, Nathan was done with it four days ago, but I keep asking him to fix certain things.”. But Peter was very understanding about our process. All the while, I was trying to write music for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle: Out of the Shadows and Deepwater Horizon, so it was late at night after I finished work on Turtles that I would get to Nathan’s music – maybe around midnight and stay up til 2 or 3 in the morning – and analyze what he had done, and try to improve the cues. It was a very difficult period of time if you know what I mean.

That and having a child, you must have been wiped out. At least you get to work from home.

[laughs] Yeah there is that. But it was such a fun movie to work on, and I’m just glad that he went for it. Peter is really knowledgeable about what works and what doesn’t in the world of comedy. He directed all the Key & Peele shows, and I heard in an interview that either Keegan or Jordan, at one point, said “the title of the show should be Key & Peele & Atencio because he is that involved in the success of it.”. And I saw that firsthand working with him – especially him and his editor who just go back and forth off each other trying things out and trying to get the other to laugh. When it comes to comedy, they are both geniuses.

When you come up with your blanket themes, or overarching music, how do you make it feel cohesive? How do you structure what you’re writing so that it really does build from start to finish and not feel like a bunch of different tracks all slammed together?

Honestly, I don’t think about it too much because I go off of instinct mostly. I feel my way through the film, and early on in the process, when I’m developing the themes, I might have a theme I just came up with looping to video (with all the sound off) and it gives me a feel for the film and the actors. It’s in that time when things either feel right or wrong. So, while I’m coming up with the music, it just kind of feels natural as I interpret the picture and how it hits me. I try to tie things together so it doesn’t feel like needle drop, like in a Martin Scorsese film for instance where there’s a bunch of songs. That is effective in its own right. The different kinds of music dropped in there can do the job, but it has a different effect going in.

Actually, that’s a good question, it’s really got me thinking because I don’t think that I consciously try to tie things in, I just find the language of the movie by instinct. Certain things just stick with me from the beginning of any project, and I try to make it feel like one cohesive arc from beginning to end.

One film I can think of that was a bit of a departure was Pain & Gain. Michael really wanted a score with a lot of drastic changes. There was a distinct language to that film, and we had a lot of electronic sounds, so the whole project was one where I treated everything slightly differently.

That makes sense, because if a film is a period piece – where everyone is in a courtroom for two hours – it could be kind of one note. But if you were on a freeway chase in one scene and then, later, you have a giant Decepticon robot ripping through the Chicago skyline, of course you need to follow the beats of the story. The narrative always dictates where you are going, but I’m curious what goes through a composer’s mind when you want to sonically reflect what’s happening on screen but, when you listen to the music from start to finish, you make sure the tracks co-exist.

When I write things, I am thinking forward as to how something might work on a piano. During that car chase you mentioned, I might ask myself, “can I use this same theme in a different way?”. So when I’m writing themes, I’m certainly trying to think ahead to how versatile these things can be and how can I use them in different ways so that we are not losing the audience. I don’t want to come up with 20 themes, and have no one Keanu mixingunderstand what’s happening.

That is a big thing now that you mention it. I’m always trying to write things that I can use in a variety of ways. I always have conversations with my music editor. I ask, “could you hear this as an action version…or a sad version…or a tender version?”. What I’ve done a number of times was to have a theme work both ways, and be big on action but also big on emotion. The cohesion is really important – you don’t want 50 themes. I always try to keep to a low number, 5 or 6 themes maybe.

You said you don’t like to reuse sounds, or borrow from yourself. But have you ever been working on one project, and like how something developed even though it wasn’t fitting with the project at hand, and save it to use on another project?

Not really, because if something is not working, I’ll just disregard it. Whenever I start something new, I want to start work on sounds Jablonsky Key & Peelespecific to what I’m seeing. But with Keanu, it was kind of a weird ordeal. Like I said, Peter had temped the movie to my other scores, so when we talked about Keanu, he would tell me why, specifically, he liked what I had done before, and what he was aiming to get by using it. It was all stuff that I had already done that he was responding to and liking, so he just wanted me to find a new way of doing it.

If you listen to Keanu’s theme you’ll know, very easily, it sounds a lot like the main theme in Pain & Gain. There’s a very simple and sustained pattern that I play, that has the same basic arrangement to the simplicity of it. So that’s for sure one example where director specifically says “I like this, how can you do that here?”.

There were a couple times where I kind of felt like this is a Steve Jablonsky greatest hits album. [laughs] Towards the end, in a car chase, it kind of reminded me of a Decepticon chant theme from the first Transformers.

We used a sort of rhythmic choir chanting at the beginning of the film when the smoke and oil characters shoot up the church, but there are lots of similarities you can probably pick up on. It’s just nice that Peter is such a fan of my work. [laughs]

Before we finish, I have to know, since you are not a Turtles super fan, how did that wonderful string rendition of the cartoon Turtles theme end up on the Out of the Shadows soundtrack? How fun was that, and whose idea was it?

I am proud to say that was 100% my idea. [laughs] There was one thing I wanted to do in this movie which was an orchestral version of that original theme because A. it would be super fun, and B. I can’t tell you how many Facebook, or Twitter followers have sent me messages saying, “please! They ignored the theme in the first film, please use it somehow!”. And I see these messages, and it’s important to the fans, and I thought, why not? It’s such an iconic theme.

Now here’s a little inside information. I wrote that specifically for a scene in the film. They ended up replacing it with a song, and I was a little disappointed because I was convinced that Turtles fans would have gotten more enjoyment out of it had they kept my cue in. [laughs] Not because I’m so great, [laughs] but because it was a throwback and the fans would have gone, “oh my God, there it is!”. So that arrangement you are talking about is nowhere in the film. But I told them “you have to at least let me put that on the soundtrack!”. They agreed and I’m happy that the fans, who I did it for more than anybody, we’ll enjoy it. I certainly had fun doing it, but the fans deserved it.

There’s a scene in the movie where they break into the police station to steal the Ooze that the cops have in their possession. After we had the music, there were people involved in the film who were so convinced it should be a song at that point that I eventually gave in. But I think the fans would have liked it and so I’m happy it got on the soundtrack.

You’ve got another Peter Berg film called Patriot’s Day coming out next year. But beyond that, are you coming back for Transformers 5? Have you talk to Michael Bay about it?

There are a couple things I’m not at liberty to talk about yet, and I don’t want to give anything away. Not like news of me doing a new movie is anything super secretive, but at this time all I can say is this: one title that is on my IMDb profile I am not actually doing…and another film I am going to do is not there. But that’s all I can say for now.

Well before that, “unnamed film” comes out, I’m looking forward to seeing you in the SCORE documentary. I had an interview with the director Matt Schrader in April, so I’m excited to see your segment. He wasn’t able to show anything at the time, but we’re supposed to have a follow-up closer to the film’s release.

I hope you enjoy it. It was kind of weird because they wanted to talk about Transformers, but I was working on something else, so when Score film music doc headeryou see the film you’ll see me sitting at a keyboard and it’s nothing more than this little mock up station we set up in my mixing room. I felt so out of place because I spend so many hours in my studio, and I come to this little staged area for the interview and I’must in a room with just a keyboard in front of me in a room and I’m like, “where’s the mouse??”.

I felt totally lost and in the back of my mind I kept thinking, “damn we should have done this in my studio.”. But there was another movie going on in there which would have made it logistically difficult to do, so I tried to give them the best show. But I’m so self-conscious. Matt said that it turned out great, but I thought to myself, “Did I give them anything useful?”. [laughs] On the day, I was sort of fumbling around looking for sounds on the keyboard, but I know I looked ridiculous. In fact, I’m going to call Matt right now and ask him to put some text on the screen that states very clearly, [laughs] “This is not Steve Jablonsky’s studio! Don’t hold this against him!”. [laughs]

As always, thanks to Steve for his time. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is still in theaters, and Keanu will hit Blu-Ray shelves later this Summer on August 2.