From Epicleff Media, Blockbuster Podcast tells the true story of how Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and John Williams re-invented escapism at the cinema and forever changed the experience of going to the movies. It was an adventurous and nebulous time in the ‘70s when these visionary directors took their first step into a larger world. And their movies weren’t half bad either.
What helps make this podcast so vibrant and immersive is the original score composed and produced by Ryan Taubert (above L) and Benjamin Botkin (above R). Having to write music for this series was already a challenge, but having to do it in a way that embodied the spirit of John Williams – without sounding like a rip-off – was an even tougher task. They walked that fine life and created twenty plus minutes of music that complement the human drama while staying away from the more fantastical leanings of Williams’ style.
Enjoy our time with Ryan and Ben, and have a listen to the first four episodes in this engrossing six-part series.
Ryan, you met director/producer Matt Schrader through your work on SCORE: A Film Music Documentary. Tell us about how that came together. And Ben, how did you get involved?
RT: When the crowd funding campaign was launched for SCORE, I contributed as a backer. Through that contribution, I was considered for the role of the composer. I knew it would be a opportunity to become involved in something great, especially considering it’s a documentary on film music including composer’s I’ve looked up to growing up. Matt and I met, and the sails were set. Not long after the release of SCORE, Matt reached out to me for Blockbuster.
BB: I’d actually never met Matt or Ryan in person. [Laughs] Through a mutual friend, I was recommended to Ryan because he needed some help putting this together.
SCORE: A Film Music Documentary was a one-of-a-kind endeavor. When I spoke to Matt about it while he was in the middle of all his interviews, I joked with him and asked which featured composer is going to score the film. He’s certainly got his pick of them throughout the process.
RT: [Laughs] Yeah, they’re literally sitting in the room with him. They could just go to their studio and get to work right then. [Laughs]
You two have co-composing credit, so how did you two break down the workflow and the deliverables?
RT: One of the most intimidating things I think a composer can hear is someone asking, “hey, can you write a theme for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Williams? Oh, and it needs to sound like John Williams?” [Laughs] So I thought “Great, this is just setting me up for failure.” [Laughs] I honestly didn’t know how to approach it, so I just set out to write good music and worry about the details later. On the orchestration side, I knew it was going to be a lot of work just hashing out the orchestral nuances and colors. I needed some help from someone who understood the kind of orchestration this required. Ben’s music stood out to me the most. I felt like he really nailed the style, and what this project needed. Ben was a big help in crafting the sound of the score.
Ben, you did a fan film called the “Death Star Construction Timelapse” (check it out here). Aside from being an awesome approach to something in this universe, the music stylings were dead on. I can understand why you were also right for this project.
BB: Ryan took a liking to my music and we had initial conversations about that. We talked about music and harmony and the very things that make that sound. It was something that Ryan was looking for. When people listen to my music, they sometimes say (and I take this as a big compliment) that it sounds reminiscent of Williams but in a way that feels authentic and not forced. I think a big reason for that is because that’s what I grew up listening to. While some kids grew up listening to pop, rock, or whatever, I mostly listened to classical/romantic orchestral music and film scores of the ‘80s and ‘90s. So this kind of music is in my DNA. I really love the dramatic sensibilities of neo-romantic symphonic music which is a big part of Williams’ musical background as well.
The podcast is being advertised as offering fans groundbreaking and immersive sound. The music is big part of that. Did you have live players, or was this synthesized?
RT: Actually the score is all samples currently. We do plan on doing some live records to complete the soundtrack album. During the process of creating the sound, I would write some melodic ideas and mock them up on the computer. I would then send them to Ben for arrangements and additional orchestrations. In the early stages, we tried to work quickly without spending much effort on the sound of the mockup in order to get the right notes in there. In the later stages, I would spend a lot of time working on programming details in the strings and other vulnerable instruments to create a more realistic orchestration.
For a 2-1/2 hour series, how much music did you two contribute?
RT: When we started work, the podcast wasn’t completed yet, so our work was not created to the cut of the dialog. We wrote twenty minutes of music consisting of several themes, and variations on those themes independently from the cut. At the end it was just a matter of finding a home for those cues within the story.
BB: We’ve only ever communicated via email and phone calls, but it was real fun to go back and forth. Ryan would send a sketch that he’d shown Matt, and he’d send it to me to explore and see how I could expand or improve it. Ryan would give me his thoughts, and we’d go on to the next piece of music.
Since we weren’t usually scoring to specific scenes, the package of music we put together needed to be forward-thinking enough to include musical ideas and moods that would be useful in many different kinds of scenes. We both had a sense that we needed some big themes as well as some ideas that were more subtle and understated. Like we wanted a version of the Spielberg theme that was big and hopeful but also a version that was a little subdued and suspenseful to echo the disappointment he feels at points in the story.
From what I hear between the dialog and narration in the series, I’m getting a Jurassic Park and Superman vibe at times. What were some of Williams’ scores and themes that might have been a guide for you?
RT: At least for me, I was inspired by everything because there are so many ideas in each of John’s work that stuck with me. In the beginning, the more I tried to sound like him, the worst it got. [Laughs] I couldn’t think so analytically. During our initial brainstorming sessions, we decided to avoid going too fantastical with the score. This was an epic drama about real people, not the arrival at Hogwarts. [Laughs]
BB: A lot like Ryan, there’s so much music which Williams has written that everything was a chance to try and channel him. After listening to his music for so long, and at some point you start to mirror his dramatic instincts for when it’s the right time to resolve or not resolve a harmonic idea, or develop or not develop an idea, to be intricate, or be simple.
For the most part, Blockbuster is more about people than it is fantastical worlds or settings. So I prioritized re-listening to some of the real-life drama score that Williams wrote like Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal, and Ryan suggested The Book Thief to get a dramatic baseline of what we were going to do with the music dramatically. Some of the music in Blockbuster gets adventurous, but even that is not as over the top as it could be.
What excites you most about your job? Is it the actual composing of the notes, is it writing for a particular instrument, or the orchestration to achieve a full sound?
RT: I really enjoy the process of creating a sonic world for someone to step into. My favorite part is the mixing and layering process. It’s a thrill when an idea starts to take shape and reveal itself.
BB: I really enjoy the composition process. On this project, some of it was taking ideas that were already written by Ryan, and some of it was creating new ideas from scratch. I love the process of starting with a simple idea and turning it into a complete theme. That’s enjoyable, but then putting it against the scene and seeing it *click*, to say nothing of making the director happy, really makes my job worthwhile.
To wrap this up, I’d like you to give me five scores that you enjoy revisiting or ones that inspire you. They can be composers other than John Williams, but since we’re talking about Blockbuster, you can throw in one or two.
RT: Wow that’s a tough question. The Social Network, Collateral Beauty, Interstellar, The Imitation game and The Village are at the top of my list. I’m really drawn to the scores that feel sophisticated, restrained and emotive.
BB: I have a deep love of Williams, so for me I’ll put E.T. at the top. The score for Hook by Williams is also fantastic and makes that film special in ways logic says it probably shouldn’t be. I love James Horner, so I don’t know if I should put The Rocketeer or Braveheart as number three. I love the How to Train Your Dragon scores by John Powell, and there’s something really great about Zimmer’s The Lion King. These picks are mostly scores from my childhood, so I guess nostalgia really helps to cement them at the top of the pack of the many, many terrific scores out there.
Thanks to Ryan and Matt for their time. Give the series a listen on the official page at www.getblockbuster.com and please contribute to their efforts on the IndieGoGo website. There you can donate to the production and claim any number of perks.