Last month I posted the first in a series of dialogues labeled as “lost.” You can read my conversation with Nathan Johnson about his score for Looper (2012) and a little bit about the history behind these misplaced interviews here.
My latest “lost” interview is actually quite serendipitous. Joe Kraemer is a composer whom I immediately took notice of upon hearing his subtle yet effective score for Jack Reacher (2012). It ended up ranking #10 on my Top Ten Film Scores of 2012 and I continue to be impressed by the surgical precision of this throwback charmer.
This interview is of special interest to film composers and filmmakers. Joe has some insanely cool perspectives about the creative process and the potholes that one might find in your path. It’s definitely one of the better interviews I’ve ever conducted and I’m thrilled to finally make it public.
The publishing of this several-year-old interview is timely because Joe has been slaving away these past several months on Mission Impossible V: Rogue Nation (2015). I’m thrilled for Joe and for the franchise itself. I absolutely can’t wait to hear what Joe comes up with. I have no doubt whatever elixir he concocts will be just what the doctor ordered. If you’re getting jazzed up to see Rogue Nation and you’re wondering, “Who is Joe Kraemer?” Now’s your chance to find out.
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ScoreKeeper: So you know already how much I enjoyed JACK REACHER. I went to see this cold with a few buddies and all three of us had an absolute blast! I believe a big part of that is the music. You already had a connection with Bryan Singer which led you to director Christopher McQuarrie. Can you take me back to those early days and trace the history of your relationship with these two filmmakers and how it led to you getting the job of scoring JACK REACHER?
Joe Kraemer: Sure! The pocket version of this story is that I went to a very small high school, and as a 7th grader, I was friends with a senior who made films on Super 8. His name was Scott Storm, and he went to New York City the following year and attended SVA (the School of Visual Arts in New York City), where he was classmates with Bryan Singer. That’s where they met.
I lived in upstate New York. They would come back to Albany on the weekends to shoot their student films because they had access to the forests and other locations that other students weren’t getting shooting in New York City. They wanted their films to look bigger. So, that’s when I met Bryan.
It was around 9th grade when I started working with Scott as an actor on a film he was making. He dropped out of SVA and made a feature film on Super 8. I was the star of it and during production I asked him what he was doing about music. He’d never had original music. He was only using tracks from Tangerine Dream albums, from Peter Gabriel CDs, cassettes, and I told him that my dad had recording studio equipment, that maybe I could do the music for his movies.
So, I was in 9th grade, I was 15, or 14 turning 15, and I was acting in, and scoring, this movie. So, that’s how I met Bryan, because of Scott. In the summer of ’87, Scott made another film, and I was the star with Bryan. Bryan was the other lead actor. He wanted to experience being an actor, as part of his growth as a director.
I composed the music for that movie as well. Then I got into Berklee (College of Music, in Boston) in 1989, and coincidentally Scott was living in Boston at the time. So Bryan would fly out to Boston and hang out with us, and we would fly out to California and hang out with him, and so I just kept in touch with him over the years.
When we were shooting another movie in 1987, one weekend, Bryan was driven to Albany by Chris McQuarrie. I struck up a friendship with Chris and then through the years we just kept in touch. When I moved to Los Angeles in the winter of ’94, Chris picked me up at Bryan’s house. I didn’t have a car. Chris and I just hung out together, like non-stop, for three or four months. As I got settled, I got a car, and I got a job too. We really struck up a unique type of friendship. In the meantime, during the winter of 1994, The Usual Suspects was released. They started shooting in June of ’94 and by August of ’94 they wrapped shooting and started scoring. I remember going to Bryan’s house in San Diego to visit some of the scoring for The Usual Suspects with John Ottman. That was fun! After that, Chris won the Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects and he begun to get opportunities to produce and direct.
He wrote a pilot for NBC with Kevin Pollak and his wife at the time. NBC bought the pilot and I did the music for that. That was our first professional collaboration. The show didn’t get picked up for a number of reasons. Chris then decided to make a movie.
He was having dinner with Benicio (Del Toro), and he would start venting his frustrations about trying to get this particular film off the ground. They were competing with Oliver Stone, Gus van Sant, and a bunch of other directors. Finally, Benicio just said “Chris, you’ve just gotta make another crime movie. That’s what they want from you.” That motivated Chris to write The Way of the Gun (2000).
He went off to Utah to shoot The Way of the Gun in the summer of 1999 and then he came back to L.A. and we spent the next 6 months bashing away at the score for that. Chris had never directed before. He hadn’t directed a student film nor had he ever directed a music video. So it was a crash course for him, and the scoring process was very much sort of chiseling away until it was completed.
Once we found “the statue within the stone”, we could polish it but it took a while to find what the score was for The Way of the Gun. The end result, Christ was very satisfied with. It was well received and the music was really well received. Chris and I both hoped we’d get the chance to work together again and when the opportunity came for him to join Jack Reacher, in the interim he had been developing a bunch of other scripts. At one point, I think he hoped to direct Valkyrie (2008) himself. I know we talked at some length about the music for that. When Bryan accepted the directing job for that, it became John (Ottman’s) job which was totally understandable. Not a problem at all. I don’t bring it up in any sort of negative way, but it was heartbreaking. “Oh! So close!” to a second chance at that.
Meanwhile, my score for The Way of the Gun starting to get a life of its own with editors as temp music on other projects. Sometimes they would call me to score the films, like in the case of some westerns that I did for the Hallmark Channel.
I just kept waiting for another opportunity.
SK: When JACK REACHER finally comes along, was it easy for Chris to bring you aboard or did you have a lot of hoops to jump through before the studio bosses felt comfortable using you?
JK: I can’t speak for Chris. I can only speak for myself. I took nothing for granted. I had a great experience with Chris on The Way of the Gun. The process of scoring The Way of the Gun was a nightmare that hinged mostly on the fact that Chris hates temp scores and the process of putting The Way of the Gun together without a temp score was completely alien to the people we were working with.
For whatever reason, the process of doing that cast some doubt, maybe, on Chris’s choice of composer, which caused a lot of tension between Chris and the studio, and between me and the studio. In the long run, when everything came out, in the end, they were thrilled with the score, and they were totally supportive.
We wanted to avoid that with this, and obviously the people involved in this were at a much bigger level. I mean, Tom Cruise is arguably one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Paramount is a major studio, and this is a beloved series of books. So, there was a lot at stake, and the last thing that Chris wanted was everybody going, “Well, who’s your friend?” There was a lot of concern that it not be seen as nepotistic.
When the wheel came around, Chris was like, “I’ve had experiences with two composers, and one of them is completely unavailable, and the other is dying to do the movie.” Tom (Crusie), to his credit, and Don Granger and Dana Goldberg at Skydance, they all said “Chris, hire your guy.” I think the final vote was Tom. Tom said something like, “I like people who make decisions, so make a decision. If Chris wants to hire Joe, hire Joe!”
That’s sort of an abbreviated version. I had been doing some demos with Chris, sort of in private, just between Chris and I, but our concern was that the demos were obviously synth mockups. As good as the Vienna Symphonic Library can be, it’s still not the same. Chris didn’t want me, sort of, writing for samples. He wanted me to write with the idea of using a live orchestra.
You know as a composer yourself that there’s, when you have to use samples, you hedge your bets a little bit, you know what I mean? You might not write such—you know, the staccato strings of the opening title, on synths, they sound a little bit more machine gunn-y. It’s still different than a live orchestra with the bow bouncing on the strings.
Chris was just concerned that we were never going to get the demo to the point where it would trick the listener into believing it was a live orchestra. He didn’t want the demo, the content of the demo, and the concept behind what we were doing to be rejected on account of the production value. That’s the danger with demoing.
To me, asking a composer to score, like, one or two scenes on spec, that’s like asking an actor, instead of coming in and reading in a casting office and say, “okay, you go hire an editor and a cinematographer, and a bunch of other actors and you go film the scene, and we’ll judge the finished product before we give you the part.”
When you score a scene on spec, they listen to your sounds. You’re trying to cram in all the great things you can possibly do as a composer into this one scene, that might not merit that kind of music. The deck is so stacked against you. That’s the challenge.
SK: I don’t want to get up on my soapbox, but I frequently opine that mockups are detrimental to the craft of film music.
JK: It can be.
SK: …and it’s not just producers and directors, it’s detrimental for composers too. I know for me personally, I find myself making compositional decisions based on what I’m hearing from the samples and there have been many times when I stop myself and say, “No. Don’t do that. Trust what you know about the notes you have written and don’t let these mockups lie to you.” No matter how great the mockups are, that’s what they’re doing. Constantly lying to you.
JK: Femme Fatales (2011) was a show where there was never the resources to do live orchestrations, so it always had to be synthesized realizations. So, in that context it was perfectly valid to make decisions about composition, not only by me, but by the director and the producers.
If something sounded too “synthy,” we had to back off and figure out another solution because you don’t want to come across like ‘80s Doctor Who.
That kind of stuff works with live players, and if you try to do that on a synthesizer, it sounds like the Nintendo from the ‘80s. It’s not the composition and it’s not even the samples because the samples are okay, but it’s just not real and you can’t hide that, so you find yourself writing against that.
What I was really lucky with, with Chris, was that I could tell him, “trust me, when we get to the recording session, this is going to sound right, even though as a mockup, it sounds a little fake and tinny.” He even knew from the experience on The Way of the Gun the role of that. So I was lucky there, but there are other directors who would never trust that, you know?
SK: Of course. What you're describing to me sounds like a very refreshing experience. That’s not the status quo. A lot of people don’t have that trust and that goes back to something else that composers are constantly talking about, and that’s building relationships. That’s what you have here. You and Chris have a decade long relationship so that trust has been earned.
JK: What’s nice is I’ve known Chris for so long. He does trust me. What I’d hope readers would take away from our conversation is that it’s not just because we’re friends, though. I’ve had experiences with other directors that I’ve met on the project, and it’s very much into the collaborative process and the give and take.
Once I’m working on the film, I’m all about the process of trying different approaches, trying two or three different approaches, different takes, and finding our way. It’s a collaborative process. I think a lot of musicians sometimes get a little holier-than-thou with their music, and their art. A very healthy approach to film, as a composer, is to compare your contribution with the contribution of an actor.
An actor will show up on the set. They might do five takes, and each take might be different. They trust that the director will go through and pick the take that works best for the film. Like on a lot of film music fan sites, you’ll hear people complaining because the director took a cue that (John) Williams wrote for one scene and plopped it in another scene. “What was the director thinking? How dare they mess with the Maestro’s work!”
Personally, when I listen to a score, I’d rather hear it the way the composer wrote it when I listen to it on my iPod, but in the movie, I understand that there’s a lot more at stake than just preserving the composer’s vision for the movie. Some of that is a result of temping, which Chris is completely different than anyone else I know. You were saying before about one of the things that’s a detriment to film music is mockups, and I think the other one is temp scoring, which has become so much about the cart leading the horse.
SK: Yes! I could’ve continued my rant by going there as well (laughing)…
JK: Avid is a great tool for editing, and it’s an awesome tool for giving you choices, but the downside of temp-scoring has been that it’s allowed editors to create such a definitive presentation of a movie using elements that they can’t keep for the final version of the film. You find that it’s created this obstacle not only for composers, but I find also for sound effects editors and even sometimes for visual effects editors. They’re competing with things that the editor has done in the temp that directors and producers have been living with for a year, for months.
We’re all up against this temp love. Music is really the most obvious thing, but I’ve worked on films where they’ve gone back to Avid tracks for sound effects not because it sounded better or more effectively constructed, but it’s just what they were used to. Then, the sound mixers are trying to take these crunched down Avid tracks and make them sound like a movie.
One great thing about Chris is that he doesn’t cut to music. He bans temp music from the editing room. He did it on The Way of the Gun and he did it again on Jack Reacher. One difference on Jack Reacher, having gone through the process on Gun is that he warned everybody ahead of time that that’s what he was going to do on this, and not to be surprised when they see the movie without any music for a while.
There’s two great things about it. One of that is that you see what you’ve got and you make it work with what you’ve got. You’re not sort of tricked into a complacency by the band-aid that music can sometimes give you. The other great thing is rhythm, which is that when you cut to a piece of music, you end up cutting to the rhythm of the music.
Let’s use, as an example, the opening cue from American Beauty (1999), which is a great cue! It became the go-to piece for every picture editor for the next five years. What ended up happening is that all of these scenes, all of their dramatic beats, all happened in exactly the same rhythm.
You’re shoe-horning these performances to fit the rhythm of the temp, and then the composer has to copy that to the cutting and the dramatic beats. What we’ve noticed now with Jack Reacher is the one thing people are struck by is that it doesn’t have the rhythm of any other movie. It has the rhythm of the performances, and the rhythm of the dialogue writing.
SK: I completely get that. I think that might be one of the things that I’ve tapped into, as well. It did have this very natural flow to the editing. I didn’t know it at the time, but since you bring it up, it makes perfect sense when you tell me that it didn’t have a temp track and they didn’t cut to music. That totally makes sense to me.
JK: It’s funny because from a stylistic point of view, in a lot of ways Chris and I both embraced the music of the 70’s which we love: All the President’s Men (1976), Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), Bullitt (1968), even The Exorcist (1973), which Chris encouraged me to rewatch during this proecess, just for thoughts about the music, which I thought was a really odd suggestion.
Jack Reacher would fit in with those films. If you were having a film festival of ‘70s films, this would almost fit in with all those films. What’s funny is that younger audiences, when they were testing the movie, they thought this was sort of something new because they would never bother to watch, for example, Dirty Harry. They think that’s some cheesy movie that their parents liked, and then they see this, and they almost don’t know what to make of it. It seems like some sort of new filmmaking style for them. What’s old is new again, I guess.
SK: When I wrote up my JACK REACHER piece for my Top Ten List, there were two things that I absolutely loved about this score that I thought brought it home to the 1970s. One of them is the spotting (deciding where music starts and stops in a film). I think this is one of the more cleverly spotted films I’ve seen in a long while.
Spotting is a dying art which is also due to temp-tracking. You look at guys like Jerry Goldsmith, who was a bona fide master at knowing when to start the music and when to stop it. His spotting decisions were at the heart of every great score he composed. You just don’t see that anymore. It’s very much “what you see is what you get.” If it seems like music should go there, it usually does and if it seems like it should drop out, it does. But when you study the great masterpieces of film music, you’ll discover that it’s littered with instances where the music enters or exits in the most unexpected places.
The second thing that piqued my ears about the score for JACK REACHER was that it seemed focus more on the setup rather than the payoff. This entire score is about setting up the action, not necessarily underscoring it. This is also a very 70’s thing.
There was one moment early in the film where the music gets pretty heavy and then right to the cut of the POV of the rifle scope, the music drops out! I could hear my heart thumping in my chest. I have to believe that if this were scored or directed by any number of other filmmakers, there would have been music there. But there wasn’t! It was the implicit focus on the setup and the surprising exit of the music all together during the climax are both characteristics of 70’s film scoring.
Who was responsible for making spotting decisions. Was it your or a collaborative effort?
JK: The process was such that I, during the twelve years and one hundred movies between The Way of the Gun and Jack Reacher, I did about forty or fifty TV movies for the Hallmark Channel. That was a situation where they really believed we needed wall-to-wall music. The way the Beatles had to play the Star Club for 8 hours a night (an artistic comparison), but in terms of honing my chops, you know, it takes a lot of practice to get skillful at what I call "treading water" as a composer.
You have to be playing music because they insist you have it, but you want to stay out of the way of the dialogue, so it's like you almost have to learn to be invisible. What was nice was making decisions on this purely based on the film and the art of filmmaking, and not on the thought that, "oh, well, you know, let's say Paramount was like, we need to have wall-to-wall music, no matter what." So having that freedom literally was a case of watching the movie and waiting as long as possible to come in, and then getting out as soon as possible.
SK: You don't know how refreshing it is to hear a composer say that. That is the responsibility of music, and it's not on a lot of people's minds, composers, producers, directors, anybody.
JK: There's two ways you can look at it. One is, there are a lot of filmmakers who think music is exciting. They want that all the time, you know? That's not an invalid approach. If a director came to me and said "I want to make a movie, and I want wall-to-wall music", I would embrace it as a challenge to give them what they want without ruining their movie, without drowning their movie in my music.
So when I talk about treading water, I don't mean that necessarily as a film or to the filmmaker. But, it is different. It's a different approach, and this film, the approach was to wait as long as possible. I often quote the statistic of Patton (1970), which is a two and a half hour biopic with about 28 minutes of music. The music makes a major impression in PATTON, partly because when it's in, it counts.
With the spotting of Reacher, Chris gave me access to the movie without any temp music at all, and just said "do whatever you want." When we started on The Way of the Gun (I'm speaking as Chris), “I gave you all sorts of rules and restrictions. I feel like I steered you down alleys that never paid off. We wasted a lot of time, and then you would show me what we should have done in the first place, and then it was usually right. So, just do what you think is right, and then we'll talk.”
So, I scored that first eight minutes of the movie, the way I thought I would want to score it, if I could have my dream spotting and my dream orchestra if this is what I would do. I took a couple of stabs at it before I nailed what I wanted. I showed it to Chris, and in a lot of ways he wasn't expecting it at all. Big, jagged string writing over the helicopter shots of the city were not what he would have instinctively thought would go there.
My feeling was that if we were going to have any part of the movie where the music could be adventurous in any way, it would be the main title sequence, because we don't really know what's going on yet, and there's clearly something building. I thought it was really cool to have it sort of poke out, build and double over the shots of the guy working at the bench, and then, pop out to the big shots and then get tight, and squelch back down for the working shots again. To get out to the killing, because I just had this sneaky suspicion that Chris was going to do something with sound, where you would hear across the river, and the breathing of the guy.
I tended to overspot the movie compared to Chris, even if it was still longer spotted by those people's standards. So I believe I had music actually start (this is going to be a spoiler filled interview) when the second victim is shot, which is the real intended victim of a crime. That's where I started the music, and that's where that thumping, thump, thump, thump, but we pulled it out in the finished mix. I felt like part of my obligation to Chris was to provide him with the option.
I'm certainly not offended that he pulled it, but there's a whole cue that we also scored, just in case, but we didn't use it, which was later in the film when Helen gives Jack the address of Robert Duvall's gun range. The cue is in the album, and it sounded like a really lovely clarinet solo, and a flute solo. At one point, there was a kiss at the end of the movie, and if the kiss stayed in, this cue would probably have stayed in. When it was decided that the romance was not staying in the movie, that cue went as well, which made sense, but it was such a lovely bit of music, and such great performances, that I put it in the album anyway.
SK: I think I made a point in my little write-up about it to recognize that those decisions are collaborative. It could have been the composer's choice. It could have been the director's choice. That's what makes the collaborative art form of film so fascinating, but the end result was there. I just thought that those decisions, whoever they were made by, or however the evolution of the creative process turned out, resulted in one of the better spotted movies I've seen in a long time.
JK: Thank you. We worked really hard at it. There's a sequence where Reacher pulls up to a hotel and he sees that this girl's been killed. Then Emerson comes out of the hotel lobby. Chris is cutting back and forth between their eyes and their hands. Jack Reacher is reaching for the gear shift, and Emerson is clinching his fist.
I wrote a piece of music at one point just to show Chris what his options were, if he wanted to have something build up. As soon as Emerson yelled "get out of the car" and the car chase began, that's where the music clashed. He didn't use it, and it was the right decision, but I also felt like he deserved, at least, to see the possibility.
SK: Yeah. Sometimes it'll let you know what not to do. Sometimes, when you go there, you realize, "maybe we won't need it" but you won't know that until you actually go there.
JK: Right. He's watching and saying things like, "if you want to record it because it's a cool piece of music, go right ahead, but I don't think we're going to use it in the movie." You speak about spotting, and another thing that was nice is if you watch the opening, the sound effects from the opening until the POV shot through the sniper's rifle, the sound effects are fairly few and far between.
Certainly with the number of tracks available in the sound effects library and foley at their disposal, they covered the whole opening in every detail in the sound effects tracks, but Chris said, "Look, this is music in the opening. Take all the sound effects out except for these pointed specific effects that he asked for. You guys get the car chase, you guys get the gunshots, you guys have gotten your moment to be in the spotlight. The music has, like, four moments, and this is one of them."
So, he also is very conscious in the entire soundtrack of movie moments within the score, and when the score should take focus, and when the score should back off. What's nice is when you get a moment like the opening credits. As a composer it's gratifying, and then you're happy to stay in the background and just support anything, and not constantly trying to get a moment in the spotlight.
SK: Lalo Schifrin has a great quote from when he scored BULLITT about the famous car chase sequence, and why he didn't score that entire sequence. Even though the director wanted music during the car chase, Schifrin convinced him to let the sound of the engines, crashes, and wheels screeching to be “the score” for that scene. He didn’t want the music mucking up the beautiful array of sounds that were integral to the car chase.
I felt that equivalency in JACK REACHER, with this car chase, because it’s an exquisitely choreographed car chase. I loved it. Going back to the ‘70s, it’s not always about who could drive the fastest and who could jump the farthest, but rather it’s more cat and mouse. I love that shot where Jack Reacher’s stealthily creeping through the alley, and then things pick back up again.
That seems directly inspired by BULLITT because there are plenty of moments where the action stops and then picks back up again. Was that a conscious parallel or homage, or was that just the natural progression of where the action led everybody?
JK: To be honest, I still haven’t ever watched all of Bullitt. It’s one of those movies I want to watch, but in fact, once I started on this, I avoided it, because I didn’t want to, like, steal from it inadvertently. So I actually still haven’t seen all of Bullitt. I remember seeing bits of it when I was a kid, like on the Channel 9 movie out of New York.
I did think about, and I know all the readers will cringe, but I thought about The Phantom Menace (1998), and to a lesser degree, Return of the Jedi (1983), because Williams didn’t score the pod race, and he didn’t score the speeder bike sequence, and to me, this was like that. This whole sequence was going to be about the engine. Chris, it turns out, was thinking the same way. He had a whole soundscape planned out where the Chevelle that Jack Reacher is driving has a growling, fierce engine.
SK: I noticed that. Whoever made that sound, that was an awesome car engine sound.
JK: Then, like the Audi that he’s chasing has a wimpy “brrrrr” sound and then the cops have their V8 cop car engine. He sort of had the idea that these would have their own individual pitches, and that a score would fight that. There were times where maybe in another movie, another director, it might have been more insisted that we squeeze music in. Like you say, I agree.
It’s like silence. The tires rolling slowly over gravel, those are little breaks the ear needs so that when they take off again, you know, it’s less exhausting to the audience, too. It gives them more energy and more excitement, because they’re not being bombarded with noise. There’s a layering to it.
SK: There is a paradox there, and you’re right. A lot of music can be very effective. That’s true of anything that’s not done in moderation. I love pizza, but if you eat pizza every single day for two weeks, it’s going to start getting pretty annoying. That’s true of any visual, audio, any sensory thing that’s going to do that to you.
JK: Pancakes are the best example. You get a plate of pancakes. The first bite is delicious, and you can never finish it. “I hate pancakes! Why do they get these?” Music is like that. (laughing)
SK: In those aural breaks, you’re right, all those scenes (the scope POV and the car chases), I was conscious that my heart was literally thumping out of my chest. I attribute that to the fact that there’s no music there. In the article that I wrote, I said it might be a bit of a paradox to compliment a composer for not writing music, but that is what makes a film composer a film composer and not just a musician.
Bernard Herrmann is my all-time favorite film composer, and if somebody asked me to present to them three scenes that demonstrates Bernard Herrmann’s genius, one of them is going to be the crop dusting scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) which has no music at all. That’s part of the skill that goes into being a good film composer, and it’s not a skill that’s often flexed enough as it should. That’s one of the main reasons I responded so well to JACK REACHER. It was just a joy to kind of get that flavoring back into film.
JK: Well, that shows Hitchcock, you know? He trusted that an airplane trying to kill a guy is exciting enough. It doesn’t also need music, but that was sort of the M.O. in those days. You write a really great main title. You have music for montages, but you don’t bury the entire movie in music. That’s more common these days.
SK: There’s plenty of older movies that have great scores that are almost wall-to-wall. Again, even though there might be music, it’s the contouring, it’s the shape. I absolutely don’t want to be the “I’m down on film music guy”, because I’m not. I love film music so much and there’s so much film music to love, but there’s this proliferation of the status quo where it just seems like a few little steps, a few little things, a little bit of craft injected here and there. I understand the film industry, and how it works, and there’s not always that opportunity. That’s what I try to perpetuate the importance of craft in my writing, and in my coverage of film music.
JK: The other thing you were talking about was payoff. If you’re talking about thematic payoff with the score, I tend to compose from beginning to end. So, what I’ll do is I’ll watch a movie, I’ll watch it a few times and I’ll step away from it. I will think about it in the abstract, or in my brain, and not at a piano, and not at my keyboard, and start to kind of come up with material, sort of, I don’t know intellectually is the right word, but sort of away from any musical instrument.
I’m a motivic composer. I believe in the power of characters having themes, or concepts in the film having themes, and I believe in trying to structure the score as a written work that has buildup and payoff. So in a movie like E.T. (1982), Williams hints at E.T.’s flying theme, so that when it gets to the scene where he flies over the moon, it feels like the final sort of expression of something you’ve been dying to hear for the past hour.
Now Jack Reacher is a little different in that we literally poured right in with the theme right away at the beginning, but generally I write it so that you're experiencing the score as part of the storytelling on its own, in its own right. If you were to listen to an album that was the score in the way it was written, you could almost tell the story just from the music.
The soundtrack album has been edited a little bit, because certain parts of the score were kind of short and they didn’t seem to translate as a listening experience on their own as little short connector things. So they were sort of used to glue together to create suites of score material. Overall, I prefer a score album that sticks fairly straight to the presentation in the movie, and I try to construct the score so that it makes sense when you listen to it that way.
SK: I think it does that. I respond well to narrative music. When you can hear the story in the music, I consider that a fairly important aspect of a good score. I could definitely hear that.
JK: Some of the music for Robert Duvall’s scenes is actually near the beginning of the album, but it sort of takes the place of some of the music that’s in the beginning of the movie. Sometimes, when you’re trying to make things work, the keys of different things, segues work better. Overall, all the major set pieces are in the order they appear in the film. The other thing is that as a composer, you’re writing action music, but in this particular case, most of the real action scenes didn’t have action music.
So when I was putting the album together, I had to change the order of some of the cues at the end, because the heights they rose to musically didn’t match what I thought needed the kind of payoff that the album would need.
SK: That’s kind of what I meant about you scoring the setup vs. the payoff. I think it’s a bit misleading to classify this as an action film. It doesn’t really play like that at all. It has action in it, but I don’t think it’s an action film. Likewise, I don’t think it’s an action score. You focus on a lot of the narrative elements that set up the climaxes, or set up the payoff so to speak. When the climax actually hits, it’s a much different thing than you would expect, like in an action film, where the music’s just going crazy and loud and fast. There’s none of that in there. I think that’s a very refreshing approach for a filmmaker.
JK: I try to think of the score as almost like a Greek chorus to the movie. I know composers are often accused of manipulating the audience. We’re all manipulating the audience. When you use a sound of a lion roaring under a motorcycle, you’re manipulating the audience. That being said, I try to be organic to the film and I try to comment on the film, rather than sort of push the film in places where it doesn’t want to go.
You know this as a composer yourself, or an editor, sometimes they don’t get what they want when they shoot it, but you have to help them get there. That’s part of the business. If a certain actor is not “in the moment” when they shoot it, they need music to help the audience to understand what they, where the director wants the audience to place their attention. Music helps you do that. I’m talking about when everything is sort of working at its best. Music is reflecting what’s going on and amplifying it without superimposing it.
I love the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) where Indiana Jones is on the boat with Karen Allen, and they’re bickering. They’re fighting, and if you watch the scene without dialogue, it’s sort of funny, and sort of bratty. The score is the solo flute playing her love theme, and it totally gives the scene a whole other level. It’s commenting on the scene. I don’t feel like it’s manipulating the audience. It’s showing what’s really going on. It’s showing you the subtext, the way a Greek chorus might.
SK: It’s refreshing to talk with somebody that can talk about their music. It’s amazing to me how many composers can’t talk about their music, and it’s frustrating from an interviewer standpoint. This is the kind of quintessential conversation I love having, where we just go back and forth and ramble about all the inner guts, and details and mechanics. Not everybody can do that.
SK: Any talk yet about a sequel?
JK: I think all factors considered, everybody would like to see another Reacher movie with Tom. I hope it happens, and I’d love to do it. I’d love a chance to take the themes and develop them in different directions. I don’t want to sound arrogant or pretentious, but I look at composing like you’re sort of teaching the audience a new language. Each theme is sort of a word in the new language. In the first film, you sort of teach them the basic words, and in the second film, maybe we can start teaching them sentences. The chance to do what Williams did with Indiana Jones, or with Star Wars, and develop themes across the films, would be really cool.
SK: As soon as that movie ended, one of the first thoughts that came to my mind was, “all right, let’s hope this film does well, because I’m ready for another one!”
JK: Thank you, man. That’s gratifying to hear that.
SK: Congratulations. Overall, I think it was a hell of a lot of fun.
JK: Thanks a lot! It’s been great to talk to you. It’s awesome.