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Tuned In Tuesday: Emmy-Nominated Composer Sean Callery [Elementary, Homeland and 24: Live Another Day]

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With the 2013 Primetime Emmys rapidly approaching, TV Goodness has been chatting with a few of the Emmy-Nominated composers. We’re always interested in hearing how someone turned their passion into their job and Sean Callery‘s journey from music student to composer is quite an interesting one. Sean recently received his 13th Emmy nomination, for CBS’s Elementary. Below is our exclusive discussion with him about his work on that show as well as Bones, Homeland and the upcoming series 24: Live Another Day. Sean tells us how he got his start in the business, how he finds the sound for each show he works on, and what his dream project would be.

TV GOODNESS: Congratulations on your 13th Emmy nomination.

Sean Callery: “Thank you very much. It was very exciting.”

TV GOODNESS: Is it just as exciting to get this Emmy nomination now? How is it different from when you got your first nomination? 

Sean: “The short answer is it’s just as special. When it happens it’s extraordinarily humbling. This is a nomination that happens from your peers. These are people that work in the industry with you and it’s always an honor. I guess it is true when I first got nominated for 24 that was sort of mind-blowing because it had never happened before, so that was extraordinary, it being the first time. But every time it’s happened it kind of it does, it blows my mind every time.”

TV GOODNESS: You’re very busy right now. Tell me about working on Homeland, Elementary, and Bones. And then you’ve got 24: Live Another Day coming up, right?

Sean: “That’s true. That’s right. Well you know what happens is they start at different times in the year. 24‘s not going to start until the winter of next year and then Homeland will be on hiatus. Elementary starts a little bit later in the summer, sort of early fall. And Bones I have a couple of co-composers that work with me, who I’ve sort of mentored over the years and they’re credited on the show with me and that’s a lot of fun. It’s interesting because 10 years ago, a show would have 22 episodes and then you’d have a summer without a lot of original programming. Now what’s happening is there’s a lot of original programming year-round. People are really engaging in binge-watching of shows and it’s a wonderful new sort of development in consuming entertainment. I think 24 – I think this is true – I think 24 was the first show that released its first season between the first and second seasons on DVD. Now what’s happening is it’s now all streaming and now you have these wonderful shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad and Homeland. They’re shorter, sort of 12, 13 episode seasons and people are now getting into the habit of watching it sometimes week to week or sometimes people say,  ‘You know what I’m gonna wait until the whole thing’s out and I’m gonna watch it all at once.’ There’s a whole new diversity of fans and there’s a new kind of narrative. People are patient. They love this kind of longer form storytelling and its exciting.”

TV GOODNESS: Let me step back. How did you get into the industry to being with?

Sean: “Well, I was a classical pianist in Boston and I went to college at the New England Conservatory. And when I got out of there I took a job briefly with a college orchestra in Florida for Epcot Center in Walt Disney World. That was fun. It was very hot. It was in the summer. [Laughs]. I was thinking of applying to composition school when I got out and this was in the late 80s and I got very lucky. I met a gentleman who was running a digital music audio company. This was right at the time when people were starting to get interested in digital technology and there was a lot of technological changes happening and how that benefited composers and so forth. I got hired to work out of the Los Angeles office for this company. It was through that experience that I met a lot of artists that were people that I tremendously admired like Alan Silvestri and Mark Snow and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Pat Metheny and just a lot of interesting artists. I was working in a product support capacity but then one time I was helping out Mr. Snow, who was working on The X-Files at the time and he needed someone to help out with some arrangement of some Christmas carols. He only knew me as the guy who knew how to help solve his computer trouble, but I said, ‘I could do these arrangements for you.’ I did and he was impressed and we began sort of a mentor/student, teacher/student relationship. He and I became great friends and then he helped me get on my first show in the mid-90s called La Femme Nikita, which was on the USA Network.”

TV GOODNESS: I loved that show.

Sean: “It was a lot of fun. It filmed out of Toronto and it was a great experience. One of the producers, Joel Surnow went on to do 24. He was kind enough to bring me along with him onto that experience, onto that show. And that is that.”

TV GOODNESS: Is there a difference when you’re composing for a network show as compared to a cable show, or a pay-TV show, or even a mini-series? Do you go into a different mindset or are you just inspired by what you see on the screen?

Sean: “That’s a great question. I’d say from the point of view of composing when I’m just looking at the picture it doesn’t matter whether it’s a TV show with commercials or a show like Homeland without commercials. Having said that, what’s interesting about working on a show on cable like Homeland is that because you don’t have commercials the pacing and the flow of the show is different. On a show like Elementary, for example, there are act breaks and so the pacing and the mood and the spotting of the music- that changes and is affected by the fact that you do have commercial breaks. Because you have no commercial breaks in a show like Homeland the spotting of the show has a much different- you’re not constrained by having to play an act out or something like that so you spot it more like just an uninterrupted film. So from the point of view of how you lay in the score and where you’re gonna place music, [it] can change-up a bit with a show without commercials. But from the point of view of composing I kind of try to come from the same place.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you ever get stuck when you’re working and what gets you out of it?

Sean: “The answer is yes I do get stuck. [Laughs.] I’m only laughing because it does happen.”

TV GOODNESS: And you have deadlines that you have to meet, right? So you’ve got to work through it as fast as you can.

Sean: “Yeah you do. You do. I mean the only thing that seems to break that up- the reality is I think when you’re blocked, if you’re having any kind of creative block  and you have a deadline you can then progress into a kind of panic or anxiety. Some people can feed off that from time to time and still be creative. I find that when you’re experiencing that kind of angst that generally means that you’ve sort of left the present moment, if you will. And so the best thing to do is to stand up and take a break. I mean literally. I don’t know what it is, but if you have the ability to just take a moment even though it’s probably the last thing you want to do because you don’t want to waste any time, but having a little bit of space to hit any kind of reset button in yourself and then return to it with a slightly more refreshed mind then you can kind of return to the moment at hand. I think it’s what we all feel. It’s fear. I don’t think it’s possible to expunge that condition from yourself as a human being. You just have to practice working through it, I guess. I hope I’m not sounding too metaphysical.”

TV GOODNESS: No. That’s great. What’s your favorite type of project to work on and what would be your dream project?

Sean: “That’s a really great question. Honestly, I’ve found 24 and Elementary and Homeland – they’ve all been so different, so many different kinds of experiences and they really in their own way were dream projects. I worked for people who really encouraged me to experiment and explore. I worked with very talented people who had a lot of confidence in themselves and in the product and that was something I really appreciated when I was sort of finding my way, with finding a sound for a show. But I suppose I grew up with Star Wars and Jaws and I suppose if it was a huge wonderful, emotional story in a large cinematic story of some sort I would love getting involved. It’s a hard question to answer because I really have loved what I’ve done. I love working on Elementary but before I was asked to do it I didn’t know anything about it. Then all of a sudden you’re engaged in something that makes you curious- that’s really, that’s probably the best thing.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about finding the sound for each show. Your Emmy nomination for Elementary is for the main title. How did you come up with that? How long did it take?

Sean: “It went sort of like this: I had a conversation with the director of the pilot, who worked on Homeland with me. It was Michael Cuesta. We were at some function, some event and he said, ‘Hey I’m working on this pilot out of New York.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ He said, ‘Sherlock Holmes. Modern Day. And Watson is gonna be played by a female.’ You say those three things and you’re like, ‘Wow. It’s really unique. It really sounds interesting.’ He said, ‘Do you want to work on it?’ He wasn’t offering me the job yet in any way. I said, ‘Oh, I’d be curious. I’d definitely be interested.’ So he sent me the script and I read it and that’s really the way I work. When I’m reading the script the first time I pay very close attention to what I’m feeling when I’m reading it – the emotions, whatever comes up. I don’t discard anything that you feel when you’re reading it and then you sort of digest that and when you put the script down and, again I wasn’t hired on the job yet. I just read the script and I went about my work and doing my thing. But it was always sort of in the background, sort of ruminating when I was reading the story about who the Holmes character was. And Holmes was like a superhero to me as a kid because his powers were that of deduction and observation. What I remember about the story and certainly in the script was he was thinking on so many different levels simultaneously. He was observing all different kind of phenomenon in a room or on a person, all the senses working at once and the closest thing- what started to form for me was the idea of when I was playing classical music in college. When I was playing baroque music a lot of times you would be playing multiple voices at once and you had to keep track of all these individual lines. It wasn’t hard to play technically but it was very hard to play from the point of view of understanding where all the lines were doing at once. And that was the closest I ever came to thinking about how a Holmes character might function so I began to think, well maybe a baroque kind of sound. Classical music, baroque music in conjunction with some modern texture since it is set in New York in the modern-day. So I started fooling around with that notion and then I started messing around with some themes at the piano involving a cello and just sort of experimenting and fooling around and hunting and pecking. It’s kind of hard to describe. And then you come to something that you think, ‘You know what. This is interesting. I kind of like this.’ So I wrote this three-minute piece and I put it aside. I put the piece on my website (www.seancallery.com) and I didn’t do anything with it. Then in April when the pilot was in full swing they called and they said, ‘We weren’t gonna use any original music for the pilot but now we want it. Would you help out?’ We had very little time, we only had a weekend to work on it. So they sent me the show and I was delighted to see that the color and the tone, the structure and the way it kind of read off the page translated beautifully visually and I just loved- have you seen the show?”

TV GOODNESS: I have, yeah.

Sean: “I think Jonny Lee Miller is so talented. And Lucy Liu is so talented. They work so well together, the supporting cast and etcetera. I started putting the melody, this sort of thematic idea in the pilot and I was happy to find that the producers and the director responded to it. When the show got picked up they offered me to work on the show and I, of course, accepted. A lot of times main titles are the last part of the process when a show’s going to air, when it’s being finished because you’re getting the pilot done and finally they work on the main title. So you want to have a main title that introduces the energy and the mood and the vibe of the show right there in a catchy, nice, engaging way. I went back to my original piece and they were talking about these mechanics and Rube Goldberg-like machines and the visuals that began [the] back and forth process. I re-worked the theme to have a few different flavors to it, but they settled on the one you hear now. They worked well and we tweaked it further and here we are. It was wonderful. It was great working with those guys. They’re nominated too, the people who did the visual effects for the main title.”

TV GOODNESS: That’s great. For something like Homeland, do you always come in at the beginning of the project? It’s really important to get the sound right so I assume they’d want to work with you on that as early as possible and then keep you on throughout the whole thing.

Sean: “Yes. On the Homeland pilot I remember this specifically, I had read the script and I just- do you watch Homeland? Have you seen it?”

TV GOODNESS: Absolutely. I love it.

Sean: “When I read the script, and this was before I knew that Claire Danes and Damian Lewis were even in the running for being cast. I had dinner with the two executive producers and Mr. Cuesta again – this was Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon. They said, ‘Well, what did you think?’ and I said, ‘I loved the script.’ And they said, ‘What sound are you hearing for the show?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to get thrown off the gig right away. I think there’s a Jazz language that I’d love to try, some sort of vernacular of Jazz I’d like to put in to experiment with. A very minimal kind of Jazz texture.’ And I said, ‘It’s not just because in the storyline she listened to Jazz, it’s just something about her personality that spoke to me about that. The improvisational nature of her, the impulsiveness, the unpredictability. All those kinds of qualities in that personality.’ And they were responsive to it. They were thinking the same thing. I also thought it should be a very minimal score. It was more like a political thriller than an action series. So when the music comes in its presence in a show like Homeland is far different than in a sort of propulsive, storytelling narrative like 24 where it’s almost constant. When Homeland or even in Elementary, which is more minimal a score somewhere inbetween… the music’s function is much different, but no less important. Then you start exploring with sounds and you starting experimenting. I think the first piece I ever wrote for it actually is a piece in the Jazz club at the very beginning of the pilot that the Jazz musicians play when she puts together that Brody was using hand signals at a press conference. It was a clue. The very first thing I worked on was a Jazz quintet piece that was played live on the set. Then the sort of cerebral aspects of Brody- does he have terrorist leanings or doesn’t he? Who is this guy? It was extraordinarily important in that score to not have the music inform the viewer one way or the other and that was a bit of a trick to work with. It was very nuanced. Whereas with Elementary, the sort of constantly moving, plate-spinning parts of Holmes’s mind is playful and quirky, but it can’t be too gimmicky. It has to really get out of the way of the actor and I just laugh when I think about talking with you because they’re completely different. You have to do the same job but they’re completely different kinds of energies musically that you put in to serve the picture at hand.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s been so great to talk to you. Any final thoughts?

Sean: “I hope you enjoy the next season of Homeland. I hope you watch season 2 of Elementary.”

TV GOODNESS: I will and I can’t wait for 24: Live Another Day.

Sean: “Yeah, that is crazy. It’s crazy how that’s coming down.”

TV GOODNESS: Actually, let me ask you about that. When do you start working on it? Did you work on the entire series of 24?

Sean: “I did.”

TV GOODNESS: So, is there going to be anything new and different or are you just going to have to wait and read the scripts?

Sean: “I had a preliminary meeting with the producers a couple weeks ago about the storyline they’re pursuing and I think it’s really good. 24 ran for eight seasons and each season, if you really look at it, had an evolutionary arc of Jack Bauer’s character. Supporting characters came and went, but the story evolved and continued and the series, when it ended I thought it ended wonderfully. It’s always a little sad even though you’ve been working a large part of your professional life on it. But I think their approach with this reboot if you will, is no different. They’re taking the story forward. We want to, of course, up it and keep it interesting and fun and very suspenseful and certainly action-oriented, which it will be. There’s a lot of excitement about it. It’s a balance between- you don’t want to show them something so completely different that they don’t recognize it as being the show that they remember loving, but you also want to have it evolve like with any good series, like any good series would. It’s an exciting time and I hope you’ll enjoy it.”

TV GOODNESS: I’m sure I will. I love the series. I’m looking forward to it coming back.

Sean: “That’s great.”

Season 9 of Bones returns Monday, September 16th at 8/7c on Fox. Season 2 of Elementary returns Thursday, September 26th at 10/9c on CBS. Season 3 of Homeland returns Sunday, September 29th at 9/8c on Showtime. 24: Live Another Day premieres in Summer2014 on Fox.

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