Interview – John Paesano on Composing Music and Both Seasons of Daredevil

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The full phone interview is available at https://youtu.be/g40YCBPhoyUThe following transcript has been edited for clarity. 

You studied music composition at Berklee College of Music, and their program for film and television scoring is world renowned. Out of the various techniques and technologies you learned about way back then, are there any that you still use today when writing and editing music?

That’s a good question. The process about going to scoring film has changed so dramatically between then and now as far as from a technological aspect. There are definitely still techniques and applications that are still relevant that I was using while I was in school but they’re kind of broader strokes. The intricacies of scoring film and television, when it comes to technology, have changed so dramatically that any type of technological advancements that I took part in while I was at Berklee, the advancements in technology have completely wiped those out compared to where we are today.

To Berklee’s credit, they are so far ahead of the curve with a lot of that stuff, especially at the time I was at school. It was kind of the renaissance of technology being brought into the music world. Development of Pro Tools was coming more into play. We were getting into the computer for a lot more of the recording, and people were going away from tape and starting to get into hard disk recording. It was definitely the beginning of that time. It was kind of the Wild West – things were definitely changing at a very, very fast pace. It was an interesting time to be in a technologically driven application such as film scoring because we rely so heavily now on the computers and everything. It changed pretty dramatically over that time I was in school.

The short answer to your question is there’s not much that I learned in school from a technological standpoint that I still use today, but from a compositional standpoint and from a functional standpoint as far as looking at scenes and how to go about scoring them, and relationships, and how to deal with directors, how to deal with that translation bridge when it comes to talking with music with people who are not necessarily musical as far as their vocabulary is concerned, all those things are still in play today. I definitely learned a great deal while I was there. Berklee College of Music has a great, great film scoring program and it’s also just a great school for modern music.      

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Are you involved with any of the non-musical business meetings or processes as far as getting soundtracks out? Do you work with the studios and networks?

It’s interesting. People always come to me and they say, “Oh, you’re in the music business.” Honest to God, I feel like with film scoring, you’re more a part of the film business than you really are in the music business. It’s interesting being in a job where you’re creating music for something. The reality is music’s not the most important thing in the grand scheme of film, nor should it be. It’s more about the film, the dialogue. The music is a functional, very important aspect of the film but it’s not king of what you’re working on. When you’re doing an album or when you’re working on a song, the music is front and center, but when you’re doing scores, there’s a reason why it’s called underscore.

Back to your original question, the film scoring job entails so many other aspects besides just the actual physical writing notes for the scene that you’re scoring or for the movie that you’re scoring or the show that you’re scoring. There’s a lot of other aspects to the job that come into play, whether its dealing with politics, trying to sort out if some person wants this. Let’s say a producer wants this type of music in the scene but the director’s got a different idea, trying to figure out if there’s a common ground or a commonality. There’s a lot of problem solving when it comes to the political side. Music’s a very subjective thing. A lot of people have different ideas of what they want for stuff, and I think it’s your job as the composer to be Switzerland in those situations and try to see if there’s a commonality, or try to see if there’s a way you can satisfy both sides. It’s not all the time. The majority of the time people have an agreement of what they want, but there’s definitely these times where you have those situations that arise. 

There’s also scoring film, TV… there’s a lot of different stages too. You have the compositional stage. You have the pre-production stage, where we’re spotting the film and we’re trying to figure out where we want music in what scenes, what we want the music to convey. These are all things that are taking place before you’re even writing a note of music. There’s also the post-production side of it. After the music’s written, we’ve got to get the music recorded. We have to hire musicians. We have to get orchestrators. We have to get a mixer to mix the film. You have to find the studio where you’re going to mix the film at. You have to deal with different budgets. There are a lot of different things that go into it that’s beyond the physical composition of music, so it’s a pretty in depth process.

Music theory will always stay the same, no matter what, and that’s the easy part.

It is. It’s also the most important. You can have the greatest samples in the world, the greatest sounds in the world, the best equipment, the best mixer, the best orchestra, everything top of the line, but if the notes don’t work, the notes don’t work. At the end of the day, that is the foundation of everything and it always is the most important. But at the same time too, you get to a certain level and everyone’s really good at writing notes. There are not a lot of guys who are writing music for major television shows or movies that are bad. Subjectively, some people might prefer one to the other, but no one’s bad at what they do. Everyone’s very talented and they’re very good at writing notes.

I always say ten percent of getting a job is the music. The other ninety percent is how you deal with the director. Do you get along with them? Do you guys have a commonality in the language that you speak? Do you see the same vision that he sees? How’s your relationship with the studio? Do you get along with the producer? It’s all the other stuff besides writing the music that is becoming very important in the hiring process. Certain people fit really well together. Other people don’t fit well together, and jobs get sorted out that way in the upper ranks. It’s a very interesting process to get through.

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Speaking of collaborating with other people, you’ve written the score for the hugely successful movie The Maze Runner plus its sequel, The Scorch Trials. You also won the Annie award for scoring Dragons: Riders of Berk for TV. The Marvel Cinematic Universe includes both big screen and the small screen, and Daredevil’s production is on such a huge scale compared to most TV shows. Did that affect how you composed for it?

Another great question. It’s funny, I’ve worked television and I’ve worked on features, and I almost feel like Daredevil and Netflix and the subscription services almost fall somewhere between both worlds. From a creative world and from a production standpoint, they’re very much in line with features. They have a pretty big cinematic feel to them. It’s almost like a movie that’s been cut up into thirteen parts. I think that it maybe has to do with the way they’re released. When they released Daredevil, they released all thirteen episodes at once and people can sit there and watch it like a movie. I think that mentality is, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, is thought about as these scenes are being filmed, as the score is being done, as the effects are being done, as the sound is being done. People that are working on these projects really have this mindset of, “We’re working on a film here; we aren’t necessarily working on a show.”

When you’re working on network television, you’re so bound by the schedule. I just did a show for FOX called Second Chance. We have to have around thirty to thirty-five minutes of score done every four days. That’s a pretty tight schedule. You’re moving at a good clip, when you’re performing and having to write and produce and mix all that music in that short amount of time. When I’m working on a movie like Maze Runner, I might work on one minute of a four minute cue in five or six days. One allows you more time to experiment, to play in the sandbox, so to speak, than the other does. With network television, you’ve got to move quickly because the schedule forces you to in many ways. With the Netflix and the Marvel series that I’ve done for Netflix, it falls somewhere in between both those worlds. They all have different challenges and some have advantages and disadvantages but they definitely all pose a challenge as far as that situation goes.

I love the combination of the musical styles, with hearing that industrial grittiness of Hell’s Kitchen and then hearing the classical orchestration mixed in. It’s really striking during that incredible hallway fight scene – the music took that scene to the next level. How much of the instrumentation throughout the series is influenced by elements of each character, like Murdock’s religious convictions, or Foggy’s idealism, and things like that?

There is an overall theme. When I first went into season one, Steven DeKnight, who was the showrunner for season one, really, really had strong convictions that he wanted. There were a couple of things that were important to him. He wanted to really make sure that the score is effective, but at the same time he wanted the score to be grounded because we really felt that it was important. 

The Marvel universe has such a reputation for being this larger than life, fantastical, very clean, very fanfare-ish, traditional, you know, it has a very traditional superhero sound to it. I’m speaking from a musical perspective. Whether it’s The Avengers or Captain America, there’s almost an Americana superhero sound to it all. When we got into doing Daredevil, Steven really felt that Matt Murdock’s character was such a different character than what people are traditionally seeing out of the Marvel characters that were already presented in that universe. It was important that we kept that; the music brought that element out of them. Matt Murdock’s a handicapped superhero. He lives in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a very grounded character. He’s a lawyer. A lot of people can relate to his character. There are things that humanize him a lot, more so than a lot of other characters, especially season one. He’s not running around in a superhero outfit. He’s kind of like a vigilante. 

Right.

When we set up to do the music for this, we wanted to make sure that the music let people in on that side of it. There’s a tendency when you do large scale music and music that is larger than life that it pushes people out of the scene.  I use this term all the time – when you have music that’s felt and not necessarily heard, it sucks people into a scene. You feel like you’re standing there next to Matt Murdock and Karen in a scene. It invites people and it doesn’t push them out and make them viewers.

It was important that the score in general for Daredevil allowed for that. It also allowed us to let people hear New York City. New York City’s got a feel to it. It’s got a sound to it. It’s got an energy to it. Our sound team did a fantastic job creating that world. We wanted the music and the sound to live in harmony together and the hallway fight’s a great example of that. It’s gritty. It’s got energy. It’s got pulsing. It’s a dynamic cue. You have the initial fight in the hallway. Then it goes into more of an emotional tone when Matt picks up the boy and he’s carrying him out of the hallway. Then we go into the Matt Murdock scene. 

We wanted to make sure that we had the energy during the fight but we also wanted to make sure that people could hear the punches. We wanted to make sure that they could hear the grunts. We wanted to make sure that they could hear all those efforts just because it brings people into the scene. It makes them feel part of it. If we brought big bombastic music over that whole scene, all of a sudden you’re a viewer on your couch watching a fight scene. We really wanted to make people feel the hits and feel the efforts. That way, when you get to the end of the scene and you feel Matt carry the boy out and we get into the big emotional Daredevil cue, it pays off better. All of a sudden now you’re enveloped with the theme and the music. There were very conscious efforts throughout the whole series to make sure that we allowed for a lot of moments like that.

In one aspect, the score was tricky because we’re doing a superhero show, but at the same time we wanted to make sure that it was grounded. We wanted to make sure that there was a lot of variety in it but we also wanted to make sure that it was minimal at the same time. It was challenging trying to accomplish all that stuff with minimal music but I think it works well. 

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I know how I just give you a super long answer for a question [laughs], but as far as Wilson Fisk goes, we wanted to do the juxtaposition thing with him. He’s this big bullish threatening character, but for some reason we put classical music behind him, light and sparse and elegant, and it just created this out of kilter feel. 

It was beautifully complex.

It worked really well with him, even though he’s a character that demands a lot of respect. He’s imposing and bullish like I said. There’s a weird elegance about him the way he carries himself. He’s clean cut and he wears nice suits and he’s got good manners, but there’s an evil twisted side to him and classical music, and not just any classical music but for some reason with lighter fare classical music, whether its string quartets or pieces by Bach. There were a couple of cues that were really inspiring that we used around Wilson Fisk that worked really well. Then there were other times when I took classical pieces of music and I twisted them up and played them backwards or redid some of the harmony or put them through distortion and created a classical vibe but really mangled and twisted. 

So to answer your question, every character’s definitely had their own world, and [in] season two we get the same thing. I’m sure I’m answering another question [laughs], but in season two it’s even a broader story. There’s even more characters involved. The stakes are higher. Matt Murdock now is wearing his suit that was introduced in the last episode of season one. We keep growing and maturing from a score standpoint.

Daredevil 2 has the additions of Elektra and The Punisher. What do their characters and their themes bring to the overall musicality of the show?

Without divulging too much, it was really nice to have a variety of characters to write for on season two. With season one, we were more centered on Daredevil and how he came to be. There was a little bit in there with his relationship with his father and some other stuff, but [in] season two we really get in depth with a host of other characters and their relationships, how they correlate with each other, their stories, how they came to be. There’s a lot more depth I think, and I think the fans are really going to enjoy that side of it.

They all have their own world and all their worlds still have to work within Daredevil’s world. That was another challenge with season two. I didn’t want to all of a sudden jump into a big superheroic atypical score that you would hear in Avengers or something, because now you have all of these characters that are all larger than life. I still wanted to keep it grounded. I still wanted people to relate to all these characters. I wanted them to feel as human as possible. It was still important to me to make sure that we kept the intimacy of season one and bring it into season two but also make sure that people feel there’s some more weight going on.   

Marco [Ramirez] and Doug [Petrie] did such a great job carrying the torch from Steven with season two. They did a really, really great job making sure that we stayed on point and we didn’t let it get away from us, especially from the music perspective. It would’ve been easy to say, “We got Punisher, we got Elektra; we really got to amp it up.” They were good with making sure everyone remained patient and not overdo it.   

The main theme really gripped me when I first heard it and I watched the images unfold on the screen. Everything was so beautiful, and so dark, and so compelling. I understand that you’ve changed up the main theme for the second season. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

No, actually the theme is the same, believe it or not. I think there was some talk about maybe trying to do something, but because the main title was so hugely popular they didn’t even want to mess with it. It’s become an iconic signature to the show that they wanted to keep it in line. 

Back to The Maze Runner series, I understand that you’re going to be working on scoring the next movie, The Death Cure, and that you’re collaborating with the amazing Junkie XL on that. Since that movie is going to follow the novel a lot more closely, have you two started collaborating already?

Junkie’s not working on it, on Death Cure. There was a listing somewhere; I read the same thing too. I know what you’re talking about. I do start on that though. Wes [Ball] is getting ready to start shooting and I’m really excited to work on it. He’s a great, great guy to collaborate with. He’s one of those guys I was telling you that, when you get one of these jobs, it’s important that you mesh with the guy that you’re going to be working with and collaborating with. From day one, I met Wes, I felt like he was my brother. We definitely got along great. We grew up on the same stuff, Spielberg and James Cameron and Ridley Scott. We have a very similar taste in music. He’s a huge score fanatic. He knows score just as well as anyone I know and he’s a great, great guy to work with. I’m looking forward to jumping in and working on Death Cure. I know that he’s been working hard on getting ready to do the third one so I’m excited for him because I know he’s itching to get started. They start shooting up in Vancouver, in I think six or seven days.

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My last question is for anyone who is thinking about a career in doing what you do or being in the industry. We know that making relationships with a variety of people in a lot of different areas is so important. What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the industry and how would you suggest they market themselves? 

I think that the biggest key is that you just have to be patient. When I got Maze Runner, which was my first feature, I think I was thirty-two. It took a long time. Not to say that whole time I wasn’t doing [anything] – I was still working behind the scenes, I was working with other composers, working with other guys. It takes a long time to get where you’re trying to go. If you can go in with a plan and realize it’s going to take some time, and you have to allow yourself time to grow, I’m sure it could happen faster but it might not. I think a lot of people burn out on this job because they get into it and they go, “Oh I’m still not there, I’m still not there… I’m just going to give up. The hell with it.” 

You have to keep going. It’s like that with any job, whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer or film composer or an architect or whatever you might want to do. It always takes time to get to where you want to go. Because film scoring is not such a defined path as some of those other occupations, I think it’s a little bit more frustrating. It’s like the Wild West when it comes to trying to figure out how to become a film composer. You want to be a doctor? You go to college, you do well, you get into med school, you do well in med school, you get a job at a hospital, you do your residency, [and] you’re a doctor. Film scoring… there’s a thousand different ways to become a film composer. I think that poses a challenge for young kids trying to figure out, “How do I get to this position?” There’s no one way to do it. There’s a lot of different ways, and patience has to be in play in order for you to suss out what way is going to work for you. There’s a different way for every single person to get there. Patience is a skill that you need to acquire. I didn’t have patience when I first started off doing this. It was something that I had to learn how to manage. 

You have to have the drive and the desire to want to do it, too, otherwise you say, “The hell with it. I don’t want to develop the patience skill for this thing. It’s going to take too long.” The first thing is you’d better love doing this. This better be the only thing you want to do because you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to do it. That’s the deal. 

Follow John Paesano on Twitter @johnpaesano