Exclusive Interview (Part One): We talk to composer Steve Jablonsky about Transformers, Ender's Game, and more!
As a bona fide movie score nut, having the opportunity to talk to one of my favorite composers was one of the coolest things to ever come down the pipe working this gig. Having listened to composer Steve Jablonsky's music ever since STEAMBOY and THE ISLAND, all the way up to his recent work on PAIN AND GAIN and the TRANSFORMERS franchise, as well as videogames like Gears of War. Last year, Jablonsky scored the sci-fi adaptation for ENDER'S GAME and his most recent score is a collaboration with the music group Explosions in the Sky on Peter Berg's LONE SURVIVOR. I talked with Jablonsky at length, who was warm, friendly, and offered a ton of great information, especially for those who both love composed music or are aspiring composers.
In Part One of the interview we discuss how Jablonsky got into composing, collaborations with Hans Zimmer, his horror movie beginnings, developing themes, ENDER'S GAME, and how he came to score TRANSFORMERS...
How did you get into composing?
I never really set out to be a film composer. I played some clarinet through school and played some piano, just a little bit here and there. I was drawn into mathematics and computers, that was initially what i went to college for, was Computer Engineering degree.
I just on a whim decided to switch to a music major, my Mom and I talk about this a lot, my father passed away when I was very young. We think, had he been alive, he might have said, "You are not switching your major, you need to stick with the computer thing."
She said, "OK. If that's what you want to do. That's fine with me." I did it. Got out of college, came back to LA where I grew up, did a few little odd jobs, started getting more into the engineering side of it, essentially where I thought I might end up, like recording engineer.
Because I had a little bit of gear at home. I had been a big fan of Hans Zimmer for many years, I knew his studio was somewhere in LA. I found the number and said, "Do you need an intern, or a helper, or anything like that?" and they said, "Yep, come on down."
And then you started working with Harry Gregson-Williams, right? How did that work?
Yeah, it was great. I started with him just doing technical stuff. When he would go home at night, I would get in there. Whenever he wasn't in there, I would get in, or write some music. I'd score a scene, just grab a scene, just messing around really, whatever movie he was working on.
I remember he was working on THE FAN with Robert De Niro. He was helping Hans with that, so I just put some scenes for that, just for fun. I was sitting there going, "Let me show you guys what I can do." I obviously was just doing it for fun. I remember the receptionist coming in, and saying, "Oh, what are you doing?" She thought that was good, and I thought, "That's nice." Somehow, I don't know, Harry realized I was doing this, and started giving me cues to do on his own films. He said, "You want to look at this scene?"
That just kind of snowballed into writing a lot of scenes, and still doing my technical duties for Harry. There was a lot of days that never seemed to end. It was all good, because I loved being there. I loved doing it, so I didn't mind.
Did you ever work with Hans in that manner at all?
Yeah. Just as a writer. I worked with Harry for a few years, and then got a room at Media Ventures, a little writing room of my own. The idea was that us young guys were going to do commercials. There was a commercial company there that had just started, and maybe some library music, or whatever little things there were to do.
Hans kept me busy right from the start of me having my own room. It's all a blur. I worked on several of his movies, and it was a similar situation. I think the first one was "Hannibal," where he really just hired me to write on, to help him out.
I know PEARL HARBOR was a big one, where I did quite a few cues. That was the one that stepped me up to doing my own stuff,because Hans appreciated what I was doing. The Music Editor on the film was a guy named, Bob Badami, who had been working with Michael Bay for a long time. That was right around Pearl Harbor was the time Michael was starting up Platinum Dunes, his Production Company that made all those horror movies.
Right. Were you like the go‑to guy for all the reboots?
Yeah. Michael's first reboot was THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. There was a discussion on, "Who can we get?" Bob Badami, and another guy who I think, Pat Sampson, who works for Jerry Bruckheimer. They both told Michael, "This guy, Steve, he did a lot of good stuff on PEARL HARBOR, so if you want to give him a chance."
So, they did. That was both real exciting, because I'm a big horror fan, and terrifying. That was the first proper studio release. I'd done a couple films before that, an HBO film, which were equally challenging. This was Michael Bay saying, "Here, do you want to do this?" That was really frightening but I did it, and he liked it.
At the end of the product he said, "I really like this. This is great," and then offered me THE ISLAND, which that was a shock. I had no idea that I was going to score Michael Bay. With [TEXAS CHAINSAW] he didn't direct it, so it wasn't quite that level of pressure, and then came THE ISLAND, which was another level of big pressure. That's how it all started with me doing my own.
You've done video games. You've done TV. I know you've done "Desperate Housewives," since season one, and then you do movies as well. I'm curious what the difference is in how you compose between video games and movies?
I guess just creatively speaking, it's the same process. Like on games, I literally say to them, "Just give me everything you can possibly give me," because they can't give me a game to play yet. They have a lot of footage of them just testing the game, I say, "Will you send me that, and the art work?"
I get my inspiration from what they've created. They are paying me to make this product better, and give them something that supports what they are doing. They're not hiring me to just write whatever I want, and then stick it on the film and hopefully it works
How do you develop your themes for movies like Ender's Game and for your other films as well?
Right, like no specific process comes to mind, but if I think about what I do every time, I will take whatever themes they have to give me. Hopefully, I will have a rough outline by the time I start working which is usually the case.
I have some amount of footage. And I will pick a section of the film and just loop it, have it playing. If I am working on a Ender's theme I will pick a theme with him, that's particularly inspiring and just have it going in the background. That I see it but I am not paying that much attention to it.
Then I will start noodling around the keyboard and as I said before it's just I do it by feel. I will keep working an idea that maybe has something going on, develop that, and if it's feeling right then I will keep developing it. The ultimate test is if you can stop working for the night, go to sleep, wake up, hit play, and you still think it works. Because half the time you go, this was good at the time but, then the next day is the ultimate test; you realize it's not very good.
It's more simple ideas. If a theme gets too flowery or complicated, generally it's...I can even back that off a little bit. It seems and that happened with ENDER'S GAME. We kept it vary dark and moody film. The performances are so good it didn't require me to do that much. There are some big scenes where we have to get big but for the most part we kept the theme simple.
And Ender's theme, which the filmmakers really liked, especially the solo cello aspect of it, because it was very fitting for Ender's, who is very isolated and lonely character for a lot of the movies.
I would argue that TRANSFORMERS was your "he's done it" score. Do you feel that's accurate?
I have heard that before and I appreciate it. Even Hans Zimmer had said to me one day, like, "You realize you have written something that's now part of the culture?" I said, "Wow I didn't know, I didn't actually realize that" but especially coming from him who has done that time and time again.
What was the process of doing TRANSFORMERS like?
I don't know, I didn't even know if I was doing it until he [Michael Bay] called me one day and started talking about it like I was doing it. I said, "oh, am I doing it?" [laughter] And he said, "Oh, yeah what do you think?" [laughter] I thought great. And of course TRANSFORMERS is- I had known about it since I was a kid. My brother was way into it, my younger brother. That was another level of...there is going to be a lot of people looking at this movie.
I wrote a ton of themes for that, I just started writing and writing as much as I could and because I really wanted to...and as Spielberg was involved and I always had that in the back of my mind. I wanted to give them many options, I just remember writing a lot of stuff. I think most of it ended up in the film but the main theme, it's interesting. I wrote this piece that is now considered the main Autobot theme. I just wrote it, it came out and I didn't really know what I was going to do with it.
And Michael picked up on that and Hans came into my room one day he is like that right there saying "that is good." Everybody told me that, that part was good. I didn't realize...I didn't think it was any better than anything else in the score so far.