Interview with Joseph Vitarelli

Since his striking directorial debut with 1991’s “The Indian Runner,” Sean Penn’s camera has dwelled with outsiders, often on the fringes in his memorable snapshots of America. “The Indian Runner,” as memorably scored by Jack Nitzsche, saw two brothers drifting apart on opposite sides of the law. The Jack Nicholson-starring “The Crossing Guard” and “The Pledge” saw the star’s intense personages vowing revenge against a drunk driver who killed his daughter, then playing a retired detective on the trail of a serial killer no one thinks exists. Then with the true life “Into the Wild,” Penn’s snapshot of the country travelled with a young truth seeker to his sad end in the middle of beautifully treacherous nowhere. 

“Flag Day” soundtrack on Node Records

Now Penn at last returns to the director’s chair, while appearing in front of his camera for the first time in the real-life follow-up of “Flag Day.” Joining him in equal charismatic measure is his daughter Dylan Penn as Jennifer Vogel, a young woman trying to find her place in the world while haplessly caught in the orbit of her criminal dad John. Born on the holiday that he views as taking attention away from him, the ironically classical-loving robber-counterfeiter just can’t fit in to society, drifting on charm at first until he drags his daughter through various, and ultimately catastrophic schemes from adolescence to adulthood.

A theme uniting Penn’s films is the idea of memory, as played out through the country’s often rustic landscapes. One effective collaborator in merging past and present in this tale of redemption and tragedy is the haunting score by Joseph Vitarelli. As heard among the elegant Chopin Nocturnes that counterpoint Jack’s rough life, Vitarelli uses piano, guitar and ethereal atmospheres to draw a portrait of two lives on the run. Deeply introspective and poetic, it’s a score that drifts through the memory of Jennifer, and her increasingly dashed hopes of finding some kind of salvation in the father she never had – one he can never be. It’s music that draws western-like portraits of a hardscrabble rust belt existence, it’s drifting, dream-like melodies telling Jennifer that she really can’t go home again to an idyllic past she never had. 

Conversely, “Flag Day” marks a powerful return to the scoring territory that Vitarelli had last travelled with 2010’s family thriller “Lies in Plain Sight.” The son of memorably imposing character actor Joe Vitarelli (whose first credit was in the Penn-starring gang drama “State of Grace”), Viterelli made his big screen debut with 1989’s comedic higher education double headers “Big Man on Campus” and “How I Got into College.” His prolific, stylistic career would see him dive into heated jazz noir with 1994’s “The Last Seduction,” break the almighty’s laws with “Commandments,” romance “Kissing a Fool,” bring history alive with HBO’s “John Addams” receive an Emmy nomination for that channel’s supernatural series “Revelations” and bring Depression-era determination to “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.”

Having first provided additional scoring for Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” before playing his roguish character with “She’s So Lovely,” Vitarelli is now on center musical stage for the director-actor’s “Flag Day” for a striking family affair on both sides of the screen. It’s alternative, yet emotional old school scoring as done by a longtime pro, continuing to show off a fresh, poignant vibrancy for a film that heartbreakingly tells a young woman to look to the future as opposed to being caught in a world her father can’t escape.

Tell us about your path into music, and what led you to composing? 

I was a working musician by my early teens. My father was a wonderful guitarist and he encouraged me to play through the “fake” books we had in the house. So, I was raised on standards and through that was able to find work as a pianist in New York bars and lounges from an early age. I was very tall, dressed “older” and of course, it was the ‘70s and the laws were lax. By the early 80’s I was living in Los Angeles and had some early success as a musician and record producer when I met Bronislau Kaper (“Mutiny on the Bounty”). We became close friends for the remainder of his life, and it was during this period I considered the possibility of a career scoring films. 

Your first features were the college comedies “Big Man on Campus” and “How I Got into College,” How was it to debut in that genre? 

I’d never thought of them as genre films, but I suppose they were. It was to enter the pool at the deep end. Both were budgeted for large orchestral scores and the first,-“How I Got into College” directed by Savage Steve Holland, was a Twentieth Century Fox feature. It was pressurized to put it mildly. And I was all of 25 at the time. The scoring sessions were on the Fox stage with Armin Steiner engineering. Of course, everyone on that stage was world class and represented vast experience. So, I had to step up and produce that score or drown. Armin and I ended up working very well together and I had the additional support of Elliot Lurie who was then running the Fox music department. I also had the extraordinarily good fortune of being able to hire Jorge Del Barrio to work on the orchestrations with me. That was the beginning of a remarkable friendship and collaboration that lasted until his passing in 2012. He was the finest musician I’ve ever known and I learned more about orchestration from him than anyone. 

You’d really break through with John Dahl’s modern noir classic “The Last Seduction.” 

I was introduced to John by music supervisor Karyn Rachtman. I’d worked with Karyn producing some songs for “Pulp Fiction.” The first impression of the film was “who is this staggeringly attractive woman playing a monster?” Linda Fiorentino-you couldn’t take your eyes off her. She was amazing in that film. “The Last Seduction” immediately spoke to me and seemed to dictate a jazz score. Specifically a score that might be associated with west coast, cool jazz in the spirit of Brubeck and Chet Baker. I think my first call was to John Pattitucci and was thrilled he was available to play bass. Then, I reached out to Jeff Beal, Steve Tavaglione, Kurt Wortman and Walt Fowler. Suddenly, despite my sloppy piano playing, I had one helluva band. Now, it’s 1994 and this is our first Pro Tools score. I owned two Synclaviers and the usual array of keyboards, but we were still recording to tape. So, this was the beginning of a new chapter for us and for virtually the entire industry. How we worked would radically change. I was very happy with the score as was John Dahl. 

Unfortunately, the film first aired on cable for a short time before being released in theatres. This disqualified it for Academy consideration otherwise I’m convinced Linda would’ve been nominated – not just my opinion. I met the brilliant screenwriter William Goldman some years later and he told me he was involved in changes to the Academy rules due to that film, that performance. Yet, at the time, it was an independent, low budget film and it was anyone’s guess what future it would have. Little did we know it would go on to great success-there were lines around the block in New York and I was in Paris when it was released there to great acclaim. I still get mail about that film. It’s very gratifying. 

The “Endangered Species” session with (L to R) Rick Hart, Joseph Vitarelli, Wayne Shorter, Lenny Castro and Russ Castillo

What have your jazz experiences been like outside of film scoring?

My foray into the jazz world was limited. Most significantly I co-wrote “Endangered Species” with Wayne Shorter. He was finishing his album Atlantis and I had an idea-a bass figure which I shared with him. We traded some ideas and the result was that piece. CBS heard a demo of it and agreed to support the recording which was very well received. I was thrilled when the inimitable Esperanza Spalding recorded a new version of  it with lyrics. 

Your first scoring for Sean was writing additional music for “The Crossing Guard.” What was that experience like, and did you interact with Jack Nitzsche? 

Jack was a wonderful composer. It was at first contemplated that we score the film together. Jack and I met and he embraced the idea of collaboration. But then, I think he came to see it as an imposition and so I backed up and ultimately only contributed a few pieces to that film. 

In 1997, you’d score Sean Penn on screen for the first time with “She’s So Lovely,” which was directed by Nick Cassavetes – whose father Sean dedicated “The Indian Runner” to. How was it to musically capture Sean’s performance, as well as to work with Nick on an eccentric, intense dramedy? 

Well, it was a Cassavetes Film which is a category onto itself. The first thought is you’re scoring a Cassavetes film. The second thought is it premieres in Cannes in two weeks and it’s all waiting on you. That’s exactly what happened. I was brought in at the eleventh hour. More accurately 11:45. I love that film. Nick did a beautiful job. His father John would’ve been proud. In retrospect I wish I’d had more time with it. It was a circus act getting it done. I think I’d heard Sean say in a screening “these are not nice people.” And I’m sure I used that thought to find the whimsical, romantic and terrifying impulses behind that score. Ultimately, musically it’s very simple. It was something like a stream of composition. There wasn’t time for reflection, for rewriting. The performances from Robin, Sean, Travolta and Harry Dean Stanton are just stunning. Robin’s performance reminded me of Giulietta Massina in “Nights of Cabiria.” It’s heartbreakingly soulful and beautiful. 

One particularly interesting stranger-than-fiction film you’d score was for the HBO movie “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself.” How did you want to capture a revolutionary playing the media like a fiddle? 

I was in New York when I got the call from Evyen Klean. Bruce Beresford directing a Larry Gelbart script with Antonio Banderas as Pancho Villa. An embarrassment of riches. Beresford was in Australia on his next project, so I worked mostly with Gelbart, Evyen and Keri Putnam from HBO. Here again there was a major time crunch. It was a western about the making of one of the first westerns. It was great fun writing the score.

Ken Gruberman, Evyen Klean and Joseph Vitarelli at the recording session of “John Adams” (photo courtesy of Dan Goldwasser at

My concertmaster Endre Granat performed the violin solos depicted in the film and I was able to bring in the inimitable Tommy Morgan on harmonica who’d probably played on more westerns than anyone. It was a bizarre, true story and the opportunity to work with that group was a great gift. I was able to introduce Larry to the orchestra who gave him a beautiful standing ovation. He went on to tell them the story of the film with his natural grace, skill and humor. The key to that score was finding a whimsical, satirical bent amidst the horror, the tragedy of war. 

You’d score three episodes of the exceptional HBO miniseries “John Adams.” How did you want to do a vibrant musical take on an often misunderstood, if barely acknowledged historical figure that this show made popular again? 

From my perspective there were 7 parts, acts of a 9-hour film. Each chapter was a feature film on its own. When I came onto the project I was to score chapters 3 & 4 first as Rob Lane had already completed 1 & 2. At this point, Adams travels to Europe so there’s a natural shift that accommodates a significant departure in musical approach and sensibility. I was never reflecting anything that had been articulated earlier- thematically or otherwise. I returned to work on Chapter 6 and at that point the ‘music’ of “John Adams” is firmly established. Some of my work appears in Chapter 7 as well. Tom Hooper did a remarkable job-he’s a world class director and I couldn’t have been more supported by HBO and by Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and their company Playtone. There had never been anything on this scale produced for television and it was truly an honor to be a part of it. It was a massive project, and I had a lot of help navigating it-from my own crew and especially the music supervisors Evyen Klean and Deva Anderson. 

You’d next get an Emmy Nomination for your work for NBC/Universal on the apocalyptic show “Revelations.” Tell us about scoring the end of the world. 

244 minutes of score for orchestra and choir in 248 minutes of film. “Revelations” was written by David Seltzer who’d written “The Omen.” I’d worked with him on the comedy “Nobody’s Baby.” This was an entirely different animal. The project was being shot in Prague and to meet the post schedule I had to score the first 2 of 5 hours to picture and the rest based solely on scripts. I’d never done that before. After writing the score for the first two I began writing large pieces based on the script- developing motifs from the first 2 episodes. When I’d reached a point where I felt I had enough material, we contracted an orchestra and choir in Prague where the series was being shot. We recorded each cue in its entirety and then would record sections, pieces of cues for later use in other applications. So I might stage call for bars 16-32 woodwinds only, or 64-128 strings and brass to create foundations for other cues to be determined. Also, after the first day of recording I began preparing alternates with my copyist Ken Gruberman, score producer Brad Ellis and music editor Nick Viterelli based on that day’s work. So much of it was intuitive. I was aided by the fact that so much was being recorded without picture we were able to move at great speed. And since I avoid click tracks whenever possible, we were able to shift tempos and dynamics on the fly which was a great asset in this environment. It was a wild ride. 

It’s great to have you back after a long while since you’ve last scored a feature. What were you up to in the interim, and how did the call for “Flag Day” come your way? 

I’d started young. Very young. And for many years my focus was entirely on the music, the work. I was orchestrating the music but not my life. A friend of mine said “In our fifties, we have to deal with, visit all we’d been avoiding in our youth. In our 20s-40s.” That was certainly true for me.

Gabriela Garcia Marquez wrote in his remarkable book Love In The Time Of Cholera “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but…life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” I suppose that’s what I was doing in the interim.

Were you involved with “Flag Day” from before its shoot began? And did you research the real story of the Vogels? 

No. I knew of the book, the story. The first call I received was during shooting. Sean wanted two Chopin Nocturnes recorded for him to shoot to. We were able to engage Robert Thies to perform the pieces which he played beautifully and are featured prominently in the film. 

“Flag Day” is the first film Sean had directed that also features himself as an actor. What do you think that brought to the collaboration, let alone having his daughter in the lead? 

I can only imagine how complex that process was. Yet, Dylan’s performance is so compelling, so extraordinary, that I’m sure it was exhilarating and inspiring for Sean as an actor, a director and of course, as her father. She is otherworldly great in this movie and to have done this work, under those circumstances is simply remarkable. 

Given that the performances are so strong in “Flag Day,” how did that influence the style of the music? 

You’re influenced to stay out of the way. At its best I hope the score is present without being demonstrative. 

Tell us about the instrumentation of “Flag Day,” and how you wanted it to capture the film’s rust belt setting. In a way, it’s a score that sounds very much like an intimate western. 

I’m thrilled if it’s perceived as intimate. The Chopin Nocturnes set the table and so piano was certainly fundamental to what I was doing. Then the guitar which I hope assists in what was a collaboration between my work and that of the brilliant songwriters-Cat Power, Eddie Vedder and Glen Hansard. The task was to find a thread that served the arc of the film while sharing the canvas. 

Dylan Penn stars as Jennifer Vogel in FLAG DAY A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Allen Fraser © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The film is told in an elliptical style where the past often becomes part of the present. How did you want to capture that mournfully tender, dream- like quality? 

Hopefully gently and simply. There are also ambient elements which might suggest a dreamlike or reflective state. 

Have you run into people in the musical world who reflected Sean Penn’s character? 

In life, yes. Not the musical world in particular. You wonder what extraordinary things might have been possible for such a talented, dynamic person and yet they’re drawn to the quick fix, the quick score and end up destroying their lives and wounding those closest to them.

FlagDay_FilmStills_056_R Sean Penn stars as John Vogel and Dylan Penn as Jennifer Vogel in FLAG DAY A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures film Photo credit: Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures Inc. © 2021 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

While John certainly does screwed-up things, he’s never depicted as a malicious person. Instead, he’s depicted as a catastrophically well- intentioned one who haplessly tries to be a good dad – quite unlike the kind of murderous, true-life matriarch that Christopher Walken played opposite Sean in “At Close Range.” How do you think this humane depiction of a career criminal affected your score? 

I’m not sure I agree with this characterization of John Vogel.
First, Walken’s character in “At Close Range” is a sociopath. I certainly wouldn’t put Vogel in that category. But Vogel is not without malice and Is possessed of an intelligence that would betray any notion of haplessness. I suppose there’s a disconnect between the dream and the path, the work. Perhaps-as the film suggests, there’s a sense of entitlement that eclipses any logical course of action. 

How was it to score “Flag Day” during the pandemic?

Some work was done via zoom. Some in person with social distancing and masks. Challenging to say the least but we had wonderful support-especially from music supervisor Tracy McKnight. While remote recording has been available for years, it’s never been an option for me. I need to be in the room. To collaborate, to sit at the piano and trade ideas- particularly when working with soloists. 

Some might look at “Flag Day” as a spiritual successor to Sean’s debut with “The Indian Runner,” which dealt with a rural brother’s fall into criminality. In a way, do you think you’ve carried on the rural spirit of that film’s composer Jack Nitzsche with “Flag Day?” 

I’d be honored if any such association were made. Jack was a great composer and “The Indian Runner” is absolutely brilliant. 

Editor Michelle Tesoro, Composer Joseph Vitarelli and Music Supervisor Tracy McKnight at the “Flag Day” premiere at the Directors Guild of America

What do you want your score to help audiences take away from “Flag Day?” 

I hope they’ll experience and fully appreciate Sean’s brilliant film and Dylan Penn’s remarkable performance. And if my score has augmented that in any way, I’m thrilled. I had the privilege of attending the premiere with a large audience in Cannes. It was an extraordinary reminder of what an exhilarating experience seeing a beautiful film in a great theatre can be. 

Now that you’re “back,” do you hope to become active as a composer again?

 Yes. I think time away from the work along with some travel has offered a clarity and an opportunity to wonder, to be amazed. To quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “to live life in radical amazement.” At our best, it’s possible to see the world, to experience it as challengingly marvelous.

See “Flag Day” in theaters with Joseph Vitarelli’s score available on Node Records

Visit Joseph Vitarelli on Instagram

Special thanks to Bobbi Marcus and Chris Pizzolo