(photo by Cliff Lipson, CBS)
Much like the shape shifting of a certain multiple identity mutant that he scores, the Emmy-Winning TV-centric composer Jeff Russo has shown no end to his ability to morph across the small screens brave new worlds. Hailing from a Grammy-nominated background with the band Tonic, Russo has shown no end of personages from the murderously loopy miscreants who populate “Fargo” to “Waco’s” apocalyptic cult leader and the lethal club kingpins of “Power.” But no playing field affords Russo such notable creativity as the genre, whether it be the body-swapping surreal atmosphere of “Altered Carbon” the devilish antics of “Lucifer,” “Ghosted” and “The Santa Clarita Diet” or creating an alternate musical world from the other-earth agent of “Counterpart.”
2019 have given a noteworthy blast-off for Russo. Not only is he saving humanity from the vampire plague of “The Passage” alongside frequent collaborator Jordan Gagne, but Russo has also impressively returned to the commander’s chair with “Star Trek: Discovery” while steering a woefully dysfunctional band of ex-superheroes known as “The Umbrella Academy.” Coming on board a television starship whose post-classic incarnations had a prime directive order of bland scoring, Russo invigorated the small-screen franchise with the kinds of big themes, and melody that hadn’t been heard in that TV universe for decades. Now with a new “Discovery” season leavened with humor decidedly missing from the show’s deceptively bleak start, Russo is going boldly with terrifically exciting, and humane music that show creator Gene Roddenberry would no doubt be happy with – from a John Williams-worthy flight through a meteor shower to a sense of mysticism for a mysterious angel-like figure that haunts both Michael Berman (Sonequa Martin-Green) and her “brother” Mr. Spock (Ethan Peck). It’s a return of O.G. characters to a Kelvin universe that also gives Russo the chance to capture the heroism of a fully mobile Captain Pike (Anson Mount).
A far wackier approach worthy of Russo’s “Legion,” if not the eccentricity of “Fargo,” is “The Umbrella Academy. Adapted by Netflix from Gerard Way’s Dark Horse comic, this smash-up between “The Incredibles,” “Johnny Quest” and any number or ironic, dysfunctional avengers finds a band of lethal child superheroes brought together by the death of their sadistic English explorer mentor. Grown into woeful adulthood, the collective that includes a gorilla-powered leader, a drug addicted clairvoyant and a time-warped kid assassin must somehow unite to prevent The Apocalypse. Russo’s richly thematic, violin-topped score does much to distinguish each basket case. Whether using cheerfully chirping bells to rock guitars or more traditional orchestral fisticuffs, Russo’s witty emo score captures how children who were once the idols of millions end up as truly screwed grown ups. It’s a powerful, poignant approach that still delivers on ironic, ultra-violent hipness as well as Marvel-worthy save the world stuff.
Whether he’s warping to a new quadrant of the universe of showing the blackly humorous workings of the time continuum, Russo’s ever-prolific work continues to run with inventiveness and energy, creating some of the most thrilling television scoring out there while also making cinematic inroads. Now Russo expounds on his musical team spirit, whether said groups are united by a Federation, or neuroses.
I felt that every TV incarnation from “The Next Generation” onwards had music that wasn’t memorable, a “wallpaper” approach that was the producers’ Prime Directive. What was it like to bring back actual themes, and scoring that truly did something to the franchise since its original series? And had they asked you to take the same approach as the Trek shows before, do you think you could have even done “Discovery?”
I don’t know what I would’ve done. Early on, I had a meeting with the producers where I had a concept in terms of how to approach the musicality of the show. They were on board because their original idea also was “Hey, we need to bring back what music means to this franchise, what music does to the story.” It was certainly more in line what the franchise does from the films than it did from the last few iterations of the show. It’s not that the last iterations weren’t great, because the themes and music that composers like Dennis McCarthy and Ron Jones did were amazing. “Discovery” just wanted to bring thematic music back into the show so music would be a real part of it as opposed to just “wallpaper.”
In any show I score, I want music to have an emotional core. I write music based on what I think and see a character feeling rather than what I see that character doing. It’s an approach that has more of an undertone, an undercurrent emotional base that than what I’d think you’d expect. Had “Discovery” wanted to go in the other direction, I don’t know what I would have done.
I wasn’t a big fan of how “Discovery’s” first season started out, with episodes that were way too violent. But then, it really won me over in the second half with its switch to adventure, and an attempt at peace with the Klingons. Were you aware of the overall arch when you started the show, and how did you intend to reflect that tonal “course correction” as such?
I have to deal with stories as they come in and to also think about what the endgame is pretty much at all times. It’s difficult to address fan concerns and people who don’t know what’s coming, especially how things are on a certain episode when I’m thinking about 10 episodes ahead. There was always this idea about how we were going to end Season 1, and how that was going to affect the jumping off point for what Season 2 was going to be. I’m assuming that the producers deliberately chose this “Kelvin” timeframe leading up to seeing The Enterprise, and how that timeline would affect the way we’d continue to tell “Discovery” stories. I needed to manage the music for the Klingon war, so there was always this big overarching feeling about how to approach storytelling for the long term. I try to keep that in mind when writing music as I continue to go back and say, “Okay, so how I do this one theme in this one episode will affect something that I’m going to need to do again, perhaps in Episode 11 when this and that happens.” I need to think about the whole thing in order to keep it all of the music tied together.
Do you think there were any lessons learned from Season 1 in terms of making Season 2’s story more tonally consistent?
I think that we as storytellers do the best that we can to come from an honest and emotional place. The beginning of Season 1 was fashioned in a deliberate way in how it was going to lead into its second half. We want to make “Discovery’s” new season a swashbuckling adventure, rather than a story of war, which has affected everybody’s idealism. Now we’ve become a more swashbuckling-adventure type of show with Season 2, and I’m trying to mirror that in the music. I think that’s a somewhat natural progression of how “Discovery’s” story is being told.
What was it like to get the O.G. characters of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock with Season 2?
It’s totally thrilling! At the end of Episode 15, you hear the bridge crew saying that there’s a message coming from the Enterprise and it’s Captain Pike! I threaded in Alexander Courage’s classic “Star Trek” fanfare for that moment. That was thrilling for me, even though I knew it was going to happen. I even got a tear in my eye! I threaded Alexander Courage’s classic “Star Trek” fanfare into the scene, which was as a nod to a new season in which we’d get to know Captain Pike. I thought how I was going to represent him musically. He has an aura about him that is really bright, and I wanted to represent that. You also have moments of seeing a younger Spock, in Season 2’s premiere, which was also exciting for me. I’ve been a “Star Trek” fan for my entire life, and we hadn’t seen Spock on the show since they had him years ago on “The Next Generation.” I practically lost my mind to see him coming back as a viewer, so I can imagine the same thing is happening for everyone on the show, to have these iconic characters as part of the storytelling process. It’s pretty incredible.
The second episode of Season 2 brought the names of actual religions into the franchise, which might be a first.
I talked to the producers about how to musically approach that aspect without sounding religious at the same time. Star Trek has always been about us trying to be grounded as we possibly can to tell the Human Story. I look at that as spirituality, which really doesn’t stray too much from the show’s ethos. It’s all about how you perceive religion from a literal standpoint, I think it’s always been spiritual instead of being directly religious.
Your other big “team” score this month is “The Umbrella Academy.” Do you think that doing so many off kilter shows like “Fargo” and “Legion” has set you up well for an eccentric superhero series that plays like Wes Anderson meeting The X-Men.
I think that “The Umbrella Academy’s” eccentricity comes from the way these really interesting individual characters are written and performed. I just really had to support that from, as I usually say over and over again, an emotional space. There’s a lot of emotion in the way the story unfolds and the relationships between this “family” and their father. The show is relatively close to the original comic book and its left-of-center feeling. The idea is that if these superhero characters were real people, then what would they be like? That was the most interesting storytelling part to me. But they’re also real people who fall in love and make real mistakes. The only thing that is really above reality is their powers. Everything else feels very grounded and very real. I think that that juxtaposition is what makes “The Umbrella Academy” feel like it’s very much in line with Wes Anderson’s kind of storytelling. He tends to write and direct from a real place, and that’s the thing that makes his films feel so oddball.
Can you talk about your thematic approaches to the various characters?
These are really deep characters, so I thought it would be a good idea to sort of start out by writing an overall suite of music that could represent them as a unit. Doing that made it so much easier for me to build the score over the course of the ten episodes in a way where my themes could really grow with these characters—starting with Vanya, and her solo violin theme, which then becomes an apocalyptic symphony that is the culmination of the show. The piece is called “The White Violin.” At the same time, I was also writing motifs for the characters that were added to the series.
Another interesting “family” series as such deals with “vampires” for “The Passage.” What’s it been like scoring that show?
It’s a score I did with Jordan Gagne. We had done two versions of the pilot because it changed, which often happens with pilots. The redone version of it was much better, which let us change the score from the ground up. Our “vampires” are called “virals,” because they have this virus that makes them vampiric. The challenge was trying to keep an emotional beat for an action-oriented show, especially as “action” music doesn’t really interest me that much. We played a lot less of that, and it worked out really well because there’s an emotional core to the show where there are a lot of related characters that need to be linked together thematically. There’s the kid and her reaction to this father figure whom she’s rebelling against. She’s got a lot of weight on her shoulders, so the question is how do you represent that through music? It’s been somewhat of a challenge but we’re getting there!
You’ve maintained a consistent quality through the numerous television series that you’ve scored. How important is a team to achieving that, as well as you writing your own music?
The commitment to writing the music is there, but we do work as a team. I couldn’t possibly do this by myself. I spend 12 hours a day writing for each show, but it takes a village to make these scores happen. So I take a very concerted team approach to this thing, because I don’t think it can be done without it. I’ve got an assistant who helps edit and rearrange scores based on the themes that I’ve written. It really runs the gamut of things that get done from the top down.
You recorded a lot of “Discovery’s” first season at The Bridge scoring stage, which unfortunately has since closed. What do you think about its loss, and what it says about recording in Los Angeles now?
Without The Bridge It’s been difficult, I did most of “Discovery” at Warner Brothers, while also using The Bridge. Now with one less scoring stage it does make it a difficult conundrum when it comes to recording music. I’m not sure what happened, but it could be many factors that led to the Bridge being shut down. With television there is a lot of sink or swim with new shows. And if there’s a hiatus, then there’s nothing new to record for quite a while. At the end of the day it’s a business. But it’s really unfortunate that it happened.
Besides television work you’ve been scoring films as well like “Mile 22” and “Lizzy.” How do you get your voice out there as a composer with the same success that you have on television?
I’m not sure I look at it that way, because I treat TV scores in the same way I treat film scores. I was asked to do “Lizzie” because its director Craig William Macneill had worked with me before on the show “Channel Zero.” Pete Berg called me after watching Season 2 of “Fargo,” even though “Mile 22” was nothing like that show! Now I’m working on “Lucy in the Sky,” which stars Natalie Portman, and is directed by “Fargo’s” Noah Hawley. It’s thrilling to be doing movies that are entirely different from television work, especially in terms of their more relaxed schedule. But in terms of my approach and desire, I want to continue to write music and make art. That’s the great thing about being able to jump from one medium to the next. I get to use different parts of my brain and shake my cobwebs loose, where I get to score an episode of “Discovery” and then get to mix a song for “Legion” in the same day.
What shows are coming up for you?
We have just finished the new season of “Santa Clarita Diet,” and the second season of “Altered Carbon” will begin shooting soon. The final season of “Legion” should be starting in April, which I’ll be getting to work on as soon as I finish “Discovery.”
When you look at all of the work you’ve done, how do you feel your music is reflected in how television itself is becoming a more challenging medium?
I think it all depends on the show. Not every show is like a movie. Some shows are “television” shows, like “The Passage” which is written in an episodic way. “Star Trek” has a musical approach that’s very cinematic, for a show that is really shot for the big screen with all of its special effects. But it has an overarching story in the same way that “Fargo” does with each season. When music takes center stage like that on a series, it becomes part of the overall art form. I think more and more, people are making television like that.
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Thanks to Alexander Portillo for his interview transcription