Rhythmically scoring men of action with “Bloodshot” and “Spenser: Confidential”
Interview with Steve Jablonsky
By Daniel Schweiger
Steve Jablonsky (photo by Katia Lewin Jablonsky)
From metal to muscle, Steve Jablonsky has pumped rhythmic iron like few composers in the business. A protégé of the Hans Zimmer school of electric action propulsion, Jablonsky emerged from his arrangement, orchestration and co-composing of such scores as “Antz,” “Deep Blue Sea” and “Pearl Harbor” to solely impress with his propulsive, period-accented fantasy score for the anime “Steamboy.” However, it was his often eerily spare music for the reboots of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror” that impressed their producer Michael Bay to put Jablonsky amidst the futuristic thrills of “The Island” before assembling his percussive talents for the smash “Transformers” franchise.
Since these giant, super-heroic robots, Jablonsky’s prolific credits have provided no end of adrenalin. Yet rather than just going with the beat, Jablonsky’s always been sure to his rhythm an interesting spin, from the alien intelligence atmospherically washing over “Ender’s Game” to the crime busting fury of “Gangster Squad” and the death-defying heroism atop “Skyscraper” among his numerous credits. Now Jablonsky raises both fists with two character-driven action scores with beatdown attitude to spare, one set in a world of super-powered espionage and the other in the punchy environs of South Boston.
Believe it or not with a repertoire that includes mutant ninja turtles, a plethora of dragons and tank-like super soldiers, “Bloodshot,” marks Jablonsky’s first outright human superhero score, here hopefully launching a Valiant Comics’ movie universe. As embodied by Vin Diesel, Ray Garrison’s trooper has a mad-on for revenge, an unstoppable drive made indestructible with a bloodstream full of instant repair nanobots. “Bloodshot” soon enough breaks through his red haze to deal biblical payback upon his oppressors, all while taking on his former comrades. It’s a mix tape of killer subservience and angry awakening that brings out Jablonsky’s boss level beat downs and a dynamic superhero theme. However, it’s a titanic wash of ever-intensifying thematic action that doesn’t lose the human core underneath, even as the villains try to wipe it out of Garrison’s system. Rarely has Jablonsky’s rhythmic approach seemed this weighty or adrenalized, with his keen sense of melodic build fusing with orchestra and chorus for an awesomely relentless feeling of Teutonic majesty by way of super-computer rhythm steroids
Where “Bloodshot” marks Jablonsky’s first collaboration with Dave Wilson, who’s spread his videogame cut-scene talents into the cinematic frame, Netflix’s “Spenser Confidential” marks the composer’s fourth teaming with Peter Berg, a “Shocker” actor who’s found his calling behind the camera. First teaming up to thunderously repeal the aliens who dared to try and sink “Battleship,” Berg and Jablonsky have since partnered with star Mark Wahlberg for the far more down to earth, and stylistically stretching pictures “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon.”
Where those last two films were based on the factual heroism of a soldier beating impossible Taliban odds and an oil worker leading an escape from hell on water, Netflix’s “Spenser Confidential” is a far more playful adaptation of an ex-cop turned hopelessly altruistic private dick. Last seen on TV in the form of Robert Urich, author Robert B. Parker’s tough, yet caring guy now gets to the bottom of a murderous racetrack scam. The mood here is neo-buddy cop fun as Spenser, his burly boxer roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) and their pugilist coach and father figure Henry (Alan Arkin) ferret out a racetrack conspiracy between cops and gang members. It’s a mystery that leads Jablonsky down quirky paths, with a wisecracking tone given a Hammond organ, as contrasted with the bad guys’ dark guitar chord energy and sinister sampling. Soon enough, both worlds of eccentric musical jabs and gritty menace converge for a score that’s pure living room popcorn fun, delivering an edgily hip score for a composer who’s never lacked for clever, macho energy with an impact.
“Bloodshot” director Dave Wilson
While you’ve scored mutant ninja turtles, “Bloodshot” is essentially your first comic book (and human) superhero film. What’s it like to take on that genre with a Valiant adaptation?
It’s always fun to try something new. As you point out I have scored comic book type films before with Ninja Turtles and Transformers, but I liked this character because he is a human being motivated by real human emotions. Yes he has incredible superpowers but throughout the film he is driven by the love for his wife which is something audiences can relate to and hopefully will connect with.
Were you familiar with Bloodshot before doing the film? And once you got the assignment, did you do a deep dive into the comic books?
No I had never heard of this character before being approached for the film. And yes when I signed on I did pick up one of the books which I enjoyed very much. Bloodshot is such a badass but at the same time has a deep and somewhat tragic story. I loved that dichotomy and complexity.
What do you think makes Bloodshot stand out among other superheroes?
For me Bloodshot stands out from other superheroes because of what drives him to do what he does. It’s love that drives him, which is something we can all understand and relate to. And it’s that same love that is used to manipulate him which makes the story even more complex and surprising.
“Bloodshot” marks the directorial debut of Dave Wilson, who’s done quite a bit of cut scene work for video game titles. How do you think that sensibility translated to “Bloodshot,” and what was your collaboration like?
Yes Dave has directed some incredible scenes and trailers for video games that are not only visually stunning but also emotionally gripping. They are as effective if not more so than a lot of movie trailers. When he reached out to me for “Bloodshot” I watched some of this prior work and realized immediately that he’s not only gifted visually but also dramatically. These talents most definitely translated to “Bloodshot.” He also has terrific musical sensibilities which made for a great collaboration.
Having scored Vin Diesel in “The Last Witch Hunter,” what kind of energy and attitude do you think he brings to a movie, and its music?
Vin Diesel brings his own unique strength and determination to his films. He has a raw intensity that the audience can feel, even with just a look or an expression, which perfectly suits the Bloodshot character. In this film he is an unstoppable force driven literally from within by the nanotechnology in his blood, but also by the love for his wife. Much of his struggle is internal but Vin’s energy an intensity makes that struggle palpable. And musically I can feed off of that.
Tell us about the main themes of “Bloodshot”
One of the main themes is more of a rhythm than a melody. The director nicknamed it “The Bloodshot Train.” It’s a rhythm that plays whenever Bloodshot is about to go into action. The idea was to give him an inner pulse that builds in intensity as his character progresses and discovers the truth. He also has two other themes, one being a simple piano melody that plays during his introspective moments. And the other is a heroic motif that we use as he starts to really embrace his superpowers.
I also wrote a theme for the character KT. She is another super soldier who becomes Bloodshot’s main ally. She is beautiful, smart and strong. The first time her theme plays in the film it is very soft and lyrical, but as KT becomes more badass her theme gets much bigger and more intense.
There are also themes for RST and its creator Dr. Emil Harting. Harting is responsible for the nanotechnology that powers Bloodshot. He walks the line between good and evil and I tried to reflect that in his theme.
How did you want to get across Bloodshot’s past as a soldier?
I didn’t focus much of the score on the military aspect of his character. We see him as a solider in the opening of the film, where I do incorporate a bit of trumpets and military snares, but after that the solider aspect of his character becomes secondary to him being a wronged man searching for his wife’s killer.
When you’ve got an all-powerful character like Bloodshot, how important is it for the score to have quieter, and more emotional moments?
In this film the quieter moments are very important. There are several scenes where we see Bloodshot alone trying to process everything that’s happening to him. He wakes up not knowing who he is or where he is, and it was important to Dave that we keep those moments small and personal in contrast to the bigger more bombastic moments.
Tell us about expressing the “Groundhog Day” aspect of “Bloodshot”
I wrote a piece of music specifically for this aspect of the film. It has a very rhythmic ticking clock feel with a repeating string motif. I wanted to musically play with time and the idea of repeating time. We use this theme extensively during the scene when the entire “Groundhog Day” idea is revealed to the audience.
How did you want to get across the idea of the nanobots and regenerative qualities of Bloodshot?
Scoring the nanobots was an interesting task. They are Dr. Harting’s creation, but they exist inside of Bloodshot. In the beginning they’re used to manipulate Bloodshot, so I score them more with Harting’s theme as he is the one in control. But as Bloodshot learns to take control of the nanites I score them more from his perspective, making them more a piece of Bloodshot than something being used against him.
Brass and rhythm often distinguish your action work. How did you want to give them an identity for “Bloodshot?”
The Bloodshot Train I mentioned earlier is a perfect example of this. I wanted this character to have an inner pulse, and the director really responded to the idea. It’s a rhythm that plays in 7/8 meter. This odd number of beats gives the rhythm a slightly unsettled quality, which I thought was appropriate for this character. And as the rhythm builds I introduce growling brass chords to play his raw power and strength. It’s like a train coming at you.
Were you a fan of the “Spenser for Hire” TV show before taking on this new version?
I was well aware of the show when I was younger, but I’ve only seen a couple episodes. I know a lot of people loved the show, and the original book series is also very popular. When Peter Berg reached out to me about this film I thought what a great idea to do a brand-new take on such an interesting and well-loved character.
Having worked with director Peter Berg several times before on Mark Wahlberg projects, what kind of distinguishing spin did he want to give to “Spencer” and its star?
Our previous Wahlberg collaborations were based on true events, so the dramatic approach to those scores was very different. Pete wanted “Spenser Confidential” to be tense when necessary but fun at the same time. There are a lot of really funny moments in this film which allowed us to be a bit less heavy with the music than we were in those previous films.
Where action heroes are often driven by revenge, Spenser is driven by an altruism he just can’t quit. How did that play into the score?
Peter Berg described Spenser’s motivation to me like this: imagine the circuits in his brain buzzing and firing making it impossible for him to not get involved. I took that literally and created a library of electrical synthesizer sounds that you hear whenever Spenser gets that look in his eye. I also created several guitar and organ riffs for the lighter moments, like the very end when we see Spenser getting that feeling once again.
“Spenser” is essentially a “buddy” film in its interplay between Spenser, Henry and Hawk. How did you want to capture their comic chemistry in the midst of the danger they often find themselves in?
I wrote several cues for comic moments between Spenser and Hawk that we ultimately decided to drop out. Mark and Winston are so good together those scenes didn’t need my help. And for the many comic moments that happen during action scenes I found that dropping the music down to one or two pulsing elements worked well. When the music is pumping along at a high energy level and then it suddenly drops down, that gives the audience a moment to breathe and laugh at the humor before we kick back in with the high energy music. Quiet is one of the more effective tools when scoring comedy.
What kind of musical hat do you put on when you’re having a score solve a mystery along with the characters?
For this film I used synthesizers to create the mood for the mystery story. I wrote several motifs for the various players in the mystery: Terrence Graham the framed cop, John Boylan the murdered police captain, Tracksuit Charlie the goon for hire; they all have motifs that are woven throughout the film as Spenser uncovers their roles in the murders. I’m a huge fan of murder mysteries so I had a lot of fun creating these motifs.
What makes the action different in “Spenser” is that he’s a boxer, and mostly takes on his foes with his fists. How did that play into the score?
Pete loved the idea of using drums for a lot of the action scenes. Drums can play the action, but they can also play the fun. As you point out Spenser uses his fists a lot. Any kind of traditional orchestral action music would have felt out of place with this character. Drums and guitars felt much more appropriate, they give the music both energy and fun.
How did you want to play the character of Boston?
Pete picked a lot of great songs for the film, and I think for the most part those songs do a great job of playing the city. And because of the songs I gravitated towards using rock elements in the score as well. You’ll hear a lot of guitars, drums and keys that we hoped would mesh well with the classic rock songs.
“Spenser” makes effective use of your talent for sampling interesting, often metallic sounds. How do you think that textural, percussive approach works here, especially with the part that the electric guitar plays in it?
Having worked with Peter Berg several times I know that he loves unique and edgy sounds, so early on I created a collection of sounds specifically to create an unsettling mood for the murder mystery. There’s one scene where Spenser is inspecting the crime scene, and there is no dialogue, so it gave me room to play with metallic percussion and distorted sounds. The Tracksuit Charlie montage was another great scene for me to get a little wild sonically. I think these sounds help us keep the audience on edge even in a film with so much humor.
For as darkly mysterious as the score can get, how important was it to put humor into it, especially with the Hammond organ?
The humor was hugely important. Pete never wanted the movie to feel too heavy. He wanted the mystery to be dark and tense, but never so much so that we couldn’t transition back to the comedy. I used Hammond in an early cue and Pete loved the vibe, so it became one of our comedy tools. Organ is actually very versatile. I use it in a few more serious scenes as well but it’s mostly there to lighten things up.
Photo by Katia Lewin Jablonsky
After “Bloodshot” and “Spenser Confidential,” do you feel more than ever like a “guys” composer? And what do you think it is about your music that keeps you so in demand for their exploits?
This question made me laugh! But you’re totally right. I remember I was up for a movie years ago; I can’t even remember what it was, but we learned I did not get the gig because “Steve’s music is too macho.” I honestly don’t know what I’ve done to earn this reputation. I suppose it’s what you said earlier about my use of dark percussion and brass. I do love writing in that style, but I also loved writing “Desperate Housewives.” I can tell you a couple of my upcoming projects will likely be a bit more lighthearted which I am very much looking forward to. But I’m always happy to write macho music when asked.