Interview with film and TV Composer Jeff Russo

I had the pleasure to interview composer Jeff Russo recently for The Digital Fix. Russo is a two-time Grammy nominee and Emmy-winning composer for television, film and video games.

In addition to his recent Emmy-award winning work on Fargo, Russo is currently scoring Mark Wahlberg's action-thriller film Mile 22 and also scored two Peabody-nominated TV series, FX's hit TV series Legion and CBS' cult classic Star Trek: Discovery. His other TV work includes Counterpart, Altered Carbon,The Night Of and Power and he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Music for Annapurna Interactive’s indie video game What Remains of Edith Finch.

Russo also founded Grammy-nominated rock band Tonic in the 1990s, utilising his guitar playing and song writing skills. Russo has composed music for the New York Ballet Company Cedar Lake Ensemble.

Thanks for talking with The Digital Fix. What was it like to contribute musically to an iconic franchise like Star Trek?

Oh you know, it's terrifying. I mean, just feeling like I'm standing in the shadow of giants and I can't really live up to what's come before. So you have to learn to let that go and let it stand on its own. And it's difficult; there are moments of sheer terror and moments of like, oh it's working , it's good, it sounds good and then it's no, you suck! You can't do this!

It's all the different feelings you can imagine, from being thrilled that they picked you to being terrified that they picked you. From feeling like you can make it through to feeling like you'll never make it through. There's the self loathing and then there's the fear and then there's the finality of the deadline. It's so many different feelings that it's sort of possible to describe it in one sentence.

You did a great job. There was something timeless about the opening credits. They felt fresh but also in keeping with the rest of the franchise. How much freedom did you have when creating the theme for Star Trek: Discovery?

Well I had had whatever freedom I sort of granted myself. I did a first pass and that basically what we ended up with some slight changes and revisions. And it was always my intention to nod to Alexander Courage's fanfare at the end because I thought it was a good bridge point since our show takes place before the original series. I thought it was a nice idea to do that and give a nod to where we were going.

But I would say it was a wide open train and nobody gave me any real solid direction other than to say we wanted to hold dear to the principles of what the original sound of the show was and also make it more modern version, a more modern take on it; update it to scoring techniques of today.

You actually did the reimagining of Alexander Courage's  original 60s theme in the closing credits of the season. Was that a lot of fun to do?

Yeah that was a lot of fun to do, getting on the podium and conducting an orchestra playing that theme; that was a dream come true. It was definitely a lot of fun working with my orchestrator to figure out what Alexander Courage did and how to sort of update it for the new century but without changing it from its original intentions; and what could we add and what we could take away and how could we record it in a way that would make it sound fresh and new. So yes, it was a lot of fun.

Star Trek: Discovery was much more story arc driven series than its predecessors, particularly the Mirror Universe arc. What I really liked about your work for the second half of the season was how the music became much more darker and twisted, which suited the narrative well. Did the extended story arcs in Discovery give you more opportunity to experiment in a way that episodic television wouldn't allow?

I tend gravitate towards those kind of storytelling techniques; we treat it much more like a movie than we do episodic storytelling. The difference from us than previous incarnations of Star Trek is that we're telling is a long arc of a story but also little bits of stories for each episode. So I get to really utilise themes in a much longer period of time than  having to come up with a different motif or music completely for every episode.

I get to really expand Burnham's theme and Georgious' theme and how will that apply to them in the mirror universe and what could I do really drive home the fact that this is the opposite of them, another version, slightly more darker, evil version of them. And then how do I tie together the emotional content between characters like Stammets and Culber and Georgiou and Burnham and Burnham and Lorca and Lorca and the crew. So I really did have this opportunity to score the series like I would a movie.

Did you get much notice in terms of scripts and how the storyline was going in Discovery before you got to score the music?

They sent me scripts at the beginning and after I got past about episode five or six, I stopped reading, because frankly I didn't have time to read them all and score the music. But it's also nice to have a bit of a surprise when you really don't know what is going to happen, shake lose ideas that may not have been shaken loose had I known what was going on.

It's one thing to have an idea of the beginning, middle and end; I did have ideas on how that would work and the entire idea of the story. But there were little things too, like I didn't intentionally read the Harry Mudd episode, episode seven, because I wanted to give myself the opportunity to be surprised by the performance of Mudd. I didn't know what that was going to be, I didn't know if they were going to try and replicate the original or be darker, or zany, I didn't really know. And so when I saw it for the first time, I paused and then I had an idea because I had never seen it before.

Let's move on to Legion now, which you're also working on. Does the surreal nature of the show and the big music numbers allow you be more experimental than you would in other mainstream television?

Well, the thing about Legion, is that the sandbox is big and we have no boundaries, we sort of operate in a world that goes from what's real to what's delusion. We can basically do whatever we want, without being confined to anything, making quick changes and 180 degree shifts to doing things in a way that haven't been done on the show and not have it be terribly surprising.

So that makes the production of the music for the show so incredibly unique and it's probably the most fun I have writing because I literally have no boundaries. I have a couple of conversations with Noah Hawley, the creator of the show and I talk about the feeling that he wants and the idea for tone and then I can basically do whatever.

What was really noticeable of the scores of shows like Star Trek: Discovery, Legion and Fargo was that you've got a real balance in your work between big epic pieces and emotion as well. How do you approach getting the emotion of the story out through the music?

I tend to write music from an emotional centre, so as I get into a story I start to think about scoring the feelings and not the actions. That's a big deal to me. So as I watch the story, I try and feel what I would do musically, in order to deliver something that has a very visceral, feel your way type of thing.

Talking about Fargo, which you won an Emmy for; each season has its own time setting and storyline. When it came to scoring each season of Fargo, did you a different theme in mind when it came to approaching the score?

I approached each season differently as they came; each version of the show has a unique voice but the tone is the same. So the real question is writing new thematic material for each season so I can utilise that for storytelling for each one of those seasons.

We may have covered this with Legion already, but what's been your favourite shows to work on?

It's hard to say. Each score is like my baby and I have so much fun writing Legion, so much fun writing Star Trek, so much writing Fargo or The Night Of. I enjoy the work of crating music so it's hard to really know. But I would say I've got to stretch out and really do stuff that I've really always wanted to do with Legion. Because I get to bring all of my tools to that show.

There's this mix of autumnal music with big orchestral melodies and psychedelic rock, psychedelic synthesised music. So I get to do it all and that to me is a lot of fun.

You mention the use of rock there and of course you are a member of rock band Tonic. Are you still working with the band at the moment?

Yeah, I try to show up for shows when I can. The band is going on tour this summer and I can't do a tour because I'm really, really busy but when there are shows I can make, I definitely show up. We're all very happy working together.

Are you able to use your guitar skills when creating music for film and television?

It's funny, because I've been playing guitar - and guitar music - for so long I've shied away from using guitar in most of my scores. Simply because I've been doing it for so long and I like to try something different.

Lately I've been working on a film with mark Wahlberg called Mile 22 and the director had asked me why not try some guitar. And he was right and it worked really well; it just wasn't my go to instrument. I just try other stuff. But the guitar seemed to work really well for a lot of these moments. So yeah, when I've had to do it, I've strapped on my guitar and had a lot of fun with it!

What Are you big musical influences when it comes to your work?

That's another really difficult thing to answer, because it depends on the work and what I am listening to at the time. I mean, I love the classics. I love classical music, I love Beethoven and Bach and Mahler, every type of classical music. And I love big film scores; I love John William's music and I love Tom Newman. And I love rock music; I'm a huge fan of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

So I would say everything I am listening to can be an influence. Anything I love. I don't feel that there's one main influence that I have. I kind of feel that I love to write music, I love to write melodies and I love cool sounding things. I can be influenced by anything; I can be influenced by the sound of a truck going by, that sort of sparks an idea. But all ideas come from somewhere, a spark, some sensory influence.

But I have a hard time pinning down what my main influences are. My main influence is everything!

Well that's a good place to start! Thank you Jeff for your time.

The soundtracks to Legion and Star Trek: Discovery are available to buy now. You can check out our episode reviews of Legion here and Star Trek: Discovery here.

Star Trek

Debuting in 1966, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek survived cancellation and returned with a series of films featuring Jame T Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise. It spawned four massively successes TV spin-offs and movies and ruled cult TV in the 1990s. After Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, it spawned a film prequel / reboot under the guise of JJ Abrams but returned to its TV roots in 2017 with Star Trek: Discovery...

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