1) JOEL, YOUR CAREER IN FILM/TV MUSIC HAS BEEN CONTINUING SINCE THE LATE EIGHTIES. AFTER SO MANY PROJECTS AND AWARDS, WHAT ARE SOME STANDOUT MOMENTS OF YOUR ILLUSTRIOUS JOURNEY?
I’d say some highlights are The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles of course. Working so closely with George Lucas was incredible. Getting to work closely with Jerry Goldsmith on Air Force One was an experience I will never forget. I loved working on The Avengers. Even though the film was not well received, I thought the director Jeremiah Chechik was incredibly creative and the film was really fun to score. Working with James Cameron was super educational. What a masterful filmmaker. My decade with DisneyToon Studios led to so many memorable moments. The Tinker Bell films were a blast. And finally, my work with Seth MacFarlane has been a real gift. A Million Ways was by far and away the best experience as a composer I’ve ever had.
2) YOU HAVE COLLABORATED MANY TIMES WITH Seth Macfarlane. WHY DO YOU THINK HE IS A REPEAT CLIENT OF YOURS? I BET IT’S NOT JUST YOUR AWESOME MUSIC CHOPS, RIGHT?
Well, I feel lucky he likes what I do. He’s a fine musician and we both think about music in the same way…that it should be performed, not ‘striped,’ that it should have orchestration and compositional integrity and complexity and at least in the case of the records, that it should swing. I can’t stress enough how fortunate I feel to work with a very successful artist who is so passionate about great orchestral music and playing…who believes that all the greatest scores were written before mock-ups and that they are an unneeded distraction to the composer and that he hired the composer because he knows what they can do and he wants them to be able to just do it. I’m not saying that I feel mock-ups are unnecessary, they can be enormously helpful and in the case of the sessions, time-saving. But when you’re working with someone able to articulate so precisely what they want from the score, it’s liberating to be able to just go do that and spend all the time worrying about what’s on the page, not how the mock-up, which is ultimately discarded, sounds. The most memorable thing Seth ever said to me was, ‘I know what you can do, go do it and I’ll hear it at the session. I know it’ll be great.’
3) ACADEMIA PLAYED AN IMPORTANT ROLE IN YOUR FORMATIVE STAGES. CAN YOU PLEASE ELABORATE ON IT? IS IT A PREREQUISITE TO BECOME A FILM/TV COMPOSER?
Not exclusively. However, there is just a lot of information to absorb to be able to compose. I think knowing how to write music should be a prerequisite although that certainly isn’t the case these days. Basic understanding of harmony, melodic and thematic construction and development, as well as a solid grasp of orchestration are all important to me. Truth is, after all my training in school I came out here realizing that all I really knew for certain was how little I knew. It took a good ten years of working before I felt truly confident that I knew what I was doing compositionally. But also, this is music for media and you must understand narrative. David Shire has a degree in literature from Yale. Now, he is absolutely a trained composer but I think he has a better sense of treating drama than almost anyone and I think it’s because he so deeply understands story.
4) YOU ONCE SAID IN ANOTHER INTERVIEW: ‘EACH SCORE IS A PUZZLE TO BE SOLVED’. CAN YOU PLEASE ELABORATE ON THAT THOUGHT?
The first part of the puzzle to be solved is to absorb what the filmmaker wants. The job is to execute the vision of the filmmaker. If they need help or input, terrific! Some do, some don’t. Then the puzzle becomes, at least for me to winnow away what the score is not. Usually if you’re lucky that leaves you with what the score is. Finding the palette is essential, as is score architecture. I like to make 2 flow charts when I start that both relate to the narrative. One is a linear graph of dramatic intensity. Sometimes when writing cues, they become isolated and you think, ‘wow, this is a big moment, I can let it fly.’ But then you see it in context and you realize, ‘damn, this is only in the 2nd act and I haven’t earned the right to go big yet.’ So, making a chart helps. The second if it’s a thematic score is a timeline showing thematic use. It helps me visualize the use and development of the themes and to make sure they don’t get overused. Nothing more annoying than having the same thing endlessly repeated in a score. It wears out its welcome pretty fast.
5) THE EXPERIENCES YOU PICKED UP ALONG THE WAY ARE SO VALUABLE. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OUR FORUM MEMBERS WHO ASPIRE TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
Hmmm, well one thing is to always remember it’s a relationship business so cultivating those is important. One must always be willing to go the extra mile to get a project you really want. I’ve done many custom demos, and a few times travelled to set on my own dime to meet the filmmakers. My first feature was so low budget I put $10,000 of my own money (which I definitely didn’t have to spare) into the score to get a bigger orchestra so I would be able to give the film what it needed. And it quickly led to other things. Another thing is to always remember it’s not about you. How many scores have we heard that were amazing musically and totally got in the way of the film? I heard one recently that was showing off in such a big way, it seemed to literally be screaming ‘hey over here…don’t watch that film, pay attention to me!’ It killed the dramatic moments. The score lives in service of the film, never the other way around. Lastly, I think I’d say that you must be willing to work harder than the next person. Good enough, isn’t. Bring your best at all times. That way you have no regrets. There have been a few times I’ve been flipping channels and came across something I’d done years ago and maybe hadn’t given it my best. It actually hurt to hear it. These things can last and you want to be proud of every note with your name on it.