Interview with Sean Callery

From the big to the small screen, there’s been a fine tradition of gumshoe music that’s blazed a trail of clues from the jazz past to the electrified present. Built from rainy saxophone streets, the smoke of lush strings and the atmospheric synths of future noir, it’s a realm of morally beat-up detectives with a distinctive tone for anti-heroes who keep taking a beating. But rarely has the genre seen, or heard the super-powered likes of Jessica Jones, a Marvel comic book character who became the trailblazer for Netflix’s Marvel shows in 2015. Now she is the last of them at the streaming service to be given The Big Sleep, which makes it only fitting that her continual composer Sean Callery is sending her off in style – building on a mesmerizing, Emmy-winning signature sound to mark her final prowl through the city as she takes on an especially nasty serial killer determined to end her career on a lethal note.

Callery’s own TV-centric beat has boasted some of the most popular women and men of action to grace the medium in the last two decades – music that’s helped create a sound for new, no-nonsense wave of “appointment television” that’s broken down the quality wall between movie theaters and one’s living room. Starting his career as a sound designer on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” Callery would develop a suspenseful, pulsating sound through the spy action of “La Femme Nikita” and real-time race of “24.” His hundreds of episodes and numerous seasons of music have encompassed the procedurals of “Medium,” “Elementary” and “Bones,” heard the dark political intrigue of “Designated Survivor” and accompanied the boastfulness of the crime doctor “Bull.”

Callery’s music is no more intense, or filled with character than when in the company of women, whether it be “Sheena’s” jungle queen, “Homeland’s” spy mistress, or a female virus hunter who’s just now crossed into “The Hot Zone.” But among these strong females, none quite has the physical abilities or sarcastically sullen personality of “Jessica Jones,” a P.I. who’s unleashed especially hypnotic music from Callery in service of show creator Melissa Rosenberg (who’d previously tackled DC Bat-verse heroines with “Birds of Prey”). With Jessica (Krysten Ritter) first facing off against the omnipotent just say yes powers of Kilgrave, Callery delivered a mesmerizing soundtrack caught between eeriness, empathy and action, delivering the film noir goods in an ear-catching way, no more so than in its rocking, sultry main title that netted him an Emmy. In her second outing that saw Callery nominated for scoring, Jessica found herself at odds with a murderous, power-crazed mom Alisa (Janet McTeer), a tragic conflict that let the composer bring more humanity to its emotionally deadened heroine, as well as energy to the show’s batty detour into mad science.

Now as Jessica’s dangerously opens her apartment door with the tragic finality of season three, Callery further expands Jessica’s sound as her surreally jazzy, moodily sampled presence is pitted against the twisted, organic strings of a serial killer with an ego the size of Kilgrave’s – a villain here who makes up for his lack of mutant ability with a Lector-ian web of deadly cunning that upends Jessica’s world. Matters are equally taut among Jessica’s friends as they sink deeper into their own psychological pits, with ex-bestie Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) finding that her own newfound powers bring as much pain as good, The fatally afflicted lawyer Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss) joins an anti-superhero bandwagon to mask her desperation’s body count and ex-junkie NYC neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville) falls several steps down his ladder while trying to find success in Hogarth’s firm. It’s a hypnotically tangled, vibe-filled web that Callery thematically weaves through an impactful season brimming with tragedy and menace, his sensual and menace-drenched tones swinging between detective scoring past and its future to still stand tall as some of most intriguing, and suspensefully haunting music heard on television for an investigator unlike any other,

How did you become interested in composing? And how much did soundtracks, especially what you might have heard on TV, influence your career path?

It started with watching reruns of “Lost in Space” as a kid. I remember the music grabbing my attention. The credits listed the composer as ‘Johnny Williams”. The main title themes (2 of them) were awesome, and the underscore was amazing – and still is. Dr. Smith’s antics took a back seat to what Mr. Williams was doing with the music. Then I saw “Jaws” at the age of 11 in 1975. This, I suppose, was the hook for me (pun intended). In my opinion it is still one of the all time greatest film scores.

You first worked as a sound editor on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” for which you got an Emmy nomination. Do you think that experience taught you anything about music, and the particular impression it had for television?

I learned much about composing by working as a sound effects editor. My job initially was sound designing ship interiors, alien world ambiences, Cardassian doors and exotic weaponry. I had to design the shape shifting sound for the character “Odo” – things like that. Designing ambiences for alien worlds was where I learned that very subtle sounds could have profound effects on an audience’s emotional response. If we went to a hostile world I would put very subtle pulsing textures or unsettling reversing sounds in a background to conjure a sense of unease. I would go on to apply these kinds of techniques into the scores I would compose for later on. Working on the Star Trek shows also taught me about the importance of interrelationships between music, sound effects, and dialogue. They have to work together to tell the story properly. The quality of those older Star Trek shows hold up brilliantly after decades.

Tell us about how you made your transition into professional scoring?

I moved to Los Angeles in late 1987. I was lucky enough to land a product support position for a digital audio company that made the first digital samplers and recorders (This was pre-Protools). Through that company I met composer and producer John Farrar, who wrote and produced for Olivia Newton-John. John hired me to do a few arrangements for one of Olivia’s albums, and when she was offered a part on an NBC Christmas movie, “A Mom for Christmas” in 1989, John asked me to compose it with him. That was my first credited music composing job. I would go on to briefly be Olivia’s music director for her upcoming tour.

Years later, Mark Snow (composer of “The X-Files”) took a liking to me when I did some arranging for him. He took me under his wing and helped me get my first television series, “La Femme Nikita”. That was a wonderful experience and I made some life long friends on that series. The show runner on La Femme Nikita was writer / executive producer Joel Surnow, who would go on to create the television series, “24” in 2001. He brought me along with him.

Some of your first shows were “La Femme Nikita” and “Sheena.” How do you think those strong female characters helped shape your approach for “Jessica Jones?”

Each character is different. It begins with the script and getting to know each of these amazing characters and their unique stories and situations, male or female. Nikita, Jack Bauer, Carrie Matheson (“Homeland”), and Jessica Jones all possess the qualities of being fiercely independent, having their own moral code, and each being very intelligent (to name a few). Their journeys however couldn’t be more different in terms of their emotional life and the challenges they face and how they evolve.

Your true breakthrough show was your Emmy-winning work on “24.” Could you talk about scoring a “real time” action show, and how it shaped the kind of atmospheric and percussive style that’s distinguished your work?

The show was quite different. I’d never seen anything like it. The earliest cuts were very experimental in the picture editing. Multiple boxes onscreen, overlapping dialog, and of course, the digital clock and the aspect of the show running in real time. The real challenge was figuring out how to convey sonically to the audience that all the stories were interconnected and happening at the same time, in real time. The visual boxes certainly helped with that concept, and when I started experimenting with music, I began working on pulsing kinds of textures and atmospheric things that would seamlessly carry over into other scenes without interruption. By having the music carry over in this way (much longer than I would on other shows) it would try to convey at a subtextual level that the characters are all interconnected by the thread of time and the continued progress of existence. Experimenting with spotting was key.

What did scoring such detective shows as “Bones” and “Minority Report” teach you about how to play the process of investigation?

“Bones” was such a joy to do because it was the first series that had some wonderful light humor woven into it. I had never really done that before, and it was a wonderful new area to explore for me personally. It was also the first investigative procedural I ever took on, and this presented its own set of unique challenges. There are many scenes where people are exploring a crime scene or looking at cells under a microscope, and much information is exchanged between the characters in these moments. There are unique story turns when discoveries are made. Sometimes there are jolts of fear, and there are little quips and light banter between the characters. All of these things have to be worked with in composing the music for a scene on “Bones,” all while keeping a good sense of pace. “Bones” was also the first series where I hired younger composers to work with me on a series. Jamie Forsyth and Julia Newmann were both credited as composers on the show, and I loved the collaboration I had with them.

“Minority Report” was such great fun too. It was based loosely on the terrific film (with a phenomenal score by John Williams to boot). However we did not use any themes from the movie in the television series because the series was centered more around the lives of the clairvoyant subjects in the floating pools instead of the police detective in the series, and the mood was different.
Nonetheless, it was a very full orchestral score with a lot of sound design and some humor as well.

Tell us about what led you to take on the case of “Jessica Jones?” Did you find the “real world” take the show had interesting?

Show runner Melissa Rosenberg heard my music on “Homeland” and asked me to come in for an interview. True story—I wrote the time down wrong and was an hour late for the meeting. Not exactly a great first impression. But thankfully she was very understanding. I knew nothing about the character, but it was clear this was a different kind of hero. The earliest discussions were about finding a different kind of score involving a possible jazz score. I was very intrigued. In terms of “real world,” the first season addressed Jessica’s past involving ongoing psychological and physical assault that was put upon her by a person she trusted (who would later be her adversary) the villain, Kilgrave. It was an extraordinarily prescient topic coming at a time when the entire world’s consciousness was being raised by the shining of bright light onto these kinds of issues.

Sean Callery and Melissa Rosenberg (photo by Jana Davidoff of Rhapsody PR)

Once you got the assignment did you do your own research into the Marvel comic character? And if so, what do you think distinguished her from the “typical” super heroine, let alone detective?

I’d never heard of Jessica Jones before. She was a superhero who drank, heavily, was ambivalent about her powers; and worked as a private detective set in a noir kind of moody city world. I was hooked. I found that the show mirrored very closely the mood and feel of the comic character. Our show runner Melissa Rosenberg truly conjured that world onscreen, led by the great Krysten Ritter. The Marvel folks, led by Jeph Loeb and Karim Zreik, also contributed greatly to the initial tone.

Sean Callery and Krysten Ritter (photo by Jana Davidoff of Rhapsody PR)

Talk about establishing the surreally jazzy tone, and instrumentation of “Jessica Jones.” What kind of detective, or film noir genres did you want to call upon?

I was thinking about the remarkable scores to great noir films like “Double Indemnity” and “The Maltese Falcon.” I also thought the music of “Blade Runner” was also a wonderful kind of sound. We wanted to create some kind of noir sound—but have it refreshed and updated, if we could do that. We called it a ‘neo-noir’ kind of approach. Melissa Rosenberg was so great in our conversations about tone. One of the great insights she gave me was that she wanted the show to remain intimate and personal. And that clue for me was to have the instrumentation be minimal and be no more than 4 or 5 instruments. Each instrument would be very expressive and have its own kind of voice and execution. Jessica’s main theme in the show was performed on guitar. Often in scenes, you’ll hear nothing more than guitar, piano, bass, ride cymbals and some sound design. Even in the bigger action scenes, I often kept things confined to a drum kit with additional percussion.

How much of an influence did you think the hypnotically omnipotent villain Killgrave had on the mesmerizing, overall tone of “Jessica Jones?”

Jessica Jones and Kilgrave

David Tennant is such an amazing actor, and his performance as Kilgrave is simply mesmerizing. He doesn’t appear onscreen until episode 4, but his presence and influence on Jessica needed to be felt early on The music and sound effects played a big role in evoking the notion that he had a hold on Jessica’s psyche. She would sometimes dream of him, or hear his voice in her head. This involved the introducing of very subtle moody textures that would just sort of permeate and overtake Jessica in certain moments. Often this was accompanied by an ominous purple hue onscreen.

Was it important to musically signify her super-strength in how you played the show’s bursts of action?

We made a specific choice that the score not be overly enhanced for her super-strength sequences. We wanted to stay grounded in the real world, even when she was demonstrating the extraordinary. There were of course exceptions to that rule, but the intent was always to keep the orchestration to a quintet / sextet kind of ensemble, even in the most intense of action scenes. 

Given that Jessica is so sullen, was it even more important to bring a sense of empathy, and even a bit or ironic humor to her character?

Yes! You made a very important observation about the character. I’ve always thought that Jessica has a huge and loving heart, and it is there underneath the trauma and damage that she has suffered. The humor can often be a bit of armor to cover up some pain she’s feeling, but she also was genuinely good-natured, and I quite loved those moments when those parts of her character could manifest. Her relationship with Trish, her Mom, and Trish’s Mom all had elements of real warmth and compassion, and those moments balance nicely with the other parts of her personality.

Your first season on Jessica stood out for not so much playing the action as much as it did atmosphere. Was that important for the show’s creator Melissa Rosenberg?

Yes it was. Melissa and I spent much time discussing the relationships on the series, and how each character evolves and what that journey sounds like and feels like over time. For example, the first time we meet Malcolm he is in the throes of addiction. He has an incredible transformation throughout the series, and we took great care how each step in his journey would unfold musically. Kilgrave was also interesting in that his effect on people changed over time. It was very important that we didn’t overplay his influence on people. We had the luxuries of experimenting with these things because the writing and the acting and directing were so good.

“Jessica Jones’” introduction got you an Emmy for the first season. What do you think makes for a memorable TV theme like “Jessica Jones’” – especially in an age when main titles are drastically shortened?

When I think of the great themes like “Mission Impossible,” “Star Trek,” or “The Jetsons” (the list goes on and on) they each have recognizable and catchy themes. They also capture the mood of the show you love. They are almost like folk songs for those of us who grew up watching television. Pay channels and streaming services have more freedom here with main titles, and I’m so grateful to Netflix and other pay networks for keeping up the tradition of having a proper main title open a show.

Season 2 of “Jessica Jones” got you an Emmy nomination for its score. How did having her murderous, super-powered mom add to your work here, especially as you couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her, let alone Jessica?

The relationship between Jessica and her mother was probably the most interesting and complicated relationship of the entire three-season run. There was love, anger, compassion, pain, a desire for making amends, a fear of forgiveness, and the ups and downs of holding that difficult journey. The music had to weave very carefully between these various states and emotions. It was such an honor getting a nod for Jessica Jones’s season 2 score.

In Season 3, Jessica is pitted against a serial killer with a distinct superiority complex. How did you want his music to stand out from Jessica’s?

This man is a really strange and scary character. He’s genuinely one of the darkest characters of the series. He has a sense of precision and isolation to him. He is a very intense individual, and the music I composed for him is its own new sound, consisting of only 6-8 string instruments. I am hoping people will find this character a great addition to the Jessica Jones world.

Trish Walker now has super powers, which she puts to “do-gooding” use. What do you think that having Jessica with a peer, who murdered her mom, adds to this season’s music?

Trish has a major transformation in this season, both emotionally and story-wise, and there ends up being two different themes for her and a new theme for Jessica and Trish, which I introduce towards the end of the season. Their relationship is tested in all kinds of interesting and engaging ways.

“Jessica Jones” has always had an interesting moral dance with characters behaving in self-destructive ways that they try to redeem, particularly in this season with Jessica’s neighbor Malcolm now working for a fatally-afflicted Hogarth, whose own needs push her over the line. Do you think that gives the music an extra depth?

Yes. The ‘dance’, as you nicely describe it, changes relationships and forces Jessica to make choices she was hoping not to make. These are the kinds of stories that could only happen in a later season, when you’ve gotten to know the characters so well. I think the fans will really enjoy seeing what certain peoples’ fates are.

Where many television shows have wall-to-wall scoring, “Jessica Jones” has especially impactful spotting that really lets silence play out. How important was that?

For “Jessica Jones”, the spotting was so important. This was not a show where the music could be everywhere. It just wasn’t the show’s style. We picked our moments very carefully so that the music would be at its most effective at telling and supporting the story. As an example, we were looking at a scene once where Jessica was examining an abandoned apartment. It was quiet and in the daytime. There was a little rodent in the apartment crawling around out of sight making sound. Her being in this crowded apartment space, with the sound a moving rodent was just perfect. Unsettling, and a little creepy. Music wasn’t needed there. Then, when Jessica finds a clue, the score comes in. The music works so much better playing her discovery than if we played the rodent moment leading into the discovery. These are the kinds of these we discuss and play with.

In the end, what do you think makes this season of “Jessica Jones” stand out both story wise and musically? And how do you think it places in your large repertoire of action hero scoring?

I love the way the last season unfolds and how it ends. I loved having a new villain to score. The relationships between the characters deepen, which is a luxury afforded to longer running shows. There is a sense of ‘coming full circle’ towards the end of the series, which provided a nice sense of closure for me. Hopefully Jessica will return again somehow, somewhere.

Is it especially bittersweet for you that “Jessica Jones,” which started Marvel’s Netflix run, now ends it?

Yes, I am sad. How can you not be? But at the same time, I am so happy for the series. I am so proud to have been a part of it. To be able to return to my early jazz roots for a score like this is a once in a blue moon kind of opportunity. I’m sad, but also so grateful for it having happened.

Does “Jessica Jones” give you the taste to score more superhero shows, perhaps one where the “comic book” elements might play a bigger, more symphonic part?

I would love to expand more into that world. The superhero genre is evolving in such exciting and unpredictable ways, with new characters and new kinds of stories. I would love to be a part of that.

How do you think your work shows how television scoring has changed, and evolved, especially when it comes to suspense shows? And would you hope that your music would have the same kind of influence on young viewers as the shows that first caught your ear?

It is the highest compliment when a composer writes me to say that they thought the music I composed for in an episode or series was inspiring to them in some way. I keep every one of those emails. They mean the world to me.

Watch “Jessica Jones” on the case HERE, and listen to Sean Callery’s music for her HERE, with Season 3’s soundtrack available digitally HERE on Hollywood Records

Listen to Sean Callery’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Sean Callery’s website HERE