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Tuned in EXCLUSIVE: Killing Kennedy Composer Geoff Zanelli [INTERVIEW + Preview]

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Timed to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, National Geographic Channel’s TV movie Killing Kennedy chronicles the buildup to one of America’s most shocking events. TV Goodness spoke exclusively to composer Geoff Zanelli about how he heard about this project, the challenge of finding the sound for the movie, how he got started in the industry and what other projects he’s working on.

TV GOODNESS: How did you hear about Killing Kennedy and what made you want to work on it?

Geoff Zanelli: “It actually came through the director Nelson McCormick, who I had met in the past and we’d been looking for a reason to do a movie. He called me and said, ‘Look. I think you’d be good for this.’ He had a little bit of footage and some rough ideas about where they were going musically and it was intriguing right away. His pitch to me was everybody knows this assassination as the most resonant murder in American history. It’s this big event, but what people are gonna be surprised at when they watch this movie is actually how – I think he used the word intimate – the story is. There are elements of it, which is JFK and Jackie‘s love story, for instance, in contrast to Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife Marina’s love story that are really compelling. It sort of becomes about how does someone like Lee Harvey Oswald come to be who he is and do what he does? It was intriguing from a personal standpoint. We’re obviously still doing the scope – the enormousness, if that’s a word – of the actual events, but for me what makes the movie work is that back and forth between the very small moments that are just about a husband and a wife or just about what was Oswald’s experience like when he was in Russia, all these things. So there’s that and the really interesting thing for me, too, was the biggest puzzle of all of it , which is how do you take Oswald – who is so obviously a villain and tell his story – how he became Oswald, without being sympathetic. That’s obviously not the goal. The goal is to say what are the elements that construct a person like this? What environment does he have to be in? What does he have to be put through? What does he have to be like to begin with to become someone who would actually go and do this? That was intriguing just from a storytelling standpoint.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about your creative process. For this project how did you go about finding the sound?

Geoff: “I did start with Oswald, because that to me was the big hook, the way into the story. I started by saying, ‘I want to be very introverted with the music,’ but the music isn’t so much on the surface of the picture or the surface of the movie. Instead it’s inside it and inside Oswald’s head. What does that noise sound like? When you fall asleep at night – I’m being a little bit pretentious, but go with me for a second – and you’ve a had a good day, the music is totally different from when you fall asleep at night and you’ve just gotten in an argument with someone. So what is the noise like in that guy’s head when he goes to sleep? That’s where I started. Without it being a horror movie, what is it actually like to be in there? It’s so twisted. But in his mind it isn’t at all. It’s normal and it’s righteous to him, what he’s doing so how do you do that sound? So I started exploring from there and I started very small combinations of instruments, sometimes just a piano, maybe a piano and some woodwinds and it really did evolve from where I started. ‘What if Oswald is just a single piano note?’ which has absolutely nothing to do with what the score ended up being, but that’s where I started. In a funny way, I did the opposite with Kennedy. I started by going,’ What is the classic, big, presidential sound in music? and, in fact, ended up scaling down from that, kind of the opposite of where I was starting out and instead ended up getting much, much, much smaller and focused on the man more than the myth. It’s about ordinary people going through extraordinary things, as opposed to extraordinary people, which is whole other way to look at it.”

TV GOODNESS: Were there any challenges with project? How did you tackle them?

Geoff: “Plenty. Every score has big questions, which is what I’m sort of talking about and then you break them down into smaller and smaller challenges so they become manageable. You can’t bite that all off in one day. Let’s see, specific challenges. Like I said, the score evolved so much. The two biggest challenges- the tone of Kennedy and how do I get the tone of Oswald. I started in very different places from where I ended up, so I guess I just sort of snuck up on the answer. Once I found what I thought the tone would be, it became pretty quick to write the score but it took a long time to get to that point.” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: For a project like Killing Kennedy that’s based on a real event and where people have a lot of opinions about the events leading up to it, is there ever any apprehension about how your work will be received or interpreted or do you just have to let it go?

Geoff: “That’s interesting. In this case I found I was able to let it go a little more. You can see in my past credits when I did The Pacific or Into the West, I think I felt more apprehension – and I couldn’t tell you why either – ’cause this is a story, along with The Pacific, where some of the people who lived it might still be around and have huge opinions about it. When I watched Killing Kennedy I thought Rob Lowe did something very, very smart here. He didn’t just do a Kennedy impression. He did Rob Lowe’s interpretation of inhabiting the character. You’re not necessarily watching it like it’s a history lesson, you’re watching the essence of the story. I suppose the easy thing to do would be to go, ‘Well it was the ’60s, let’s do ’60s music,’ but that didn’t feel right to me at all. To me what felt right was to go we’re telling the story in 2013, so that’s the approach. It’s gotta be done that way so I don’t know what I was necessarily going, ‘I have to handcuff myself to the time period.’ I don’t know if I know how to do that. I wouldn’t be the right guy to do that, frankly. I didn’t really feel an apprehension, but I certainly do feel it’s important to tell the story in the most honest and genuine way you can. I sure felt that during The Pacific, where I thought, ‘If I’m having this much trouble falling asleep and I’m just writing the music, think about what those guy went through.’ And it’s not actually a thing that you’re immune to just ’cause you’re the composer sitting in a room. It’s mentally taxing, but it’s obviously nothing like fighting a war.”

TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts about Killing Kennedy?

Geoff: “I’ll tell you one thing I think probably everybody’s gonna be talking about is the fellow who plays Lee Harvey Oswald. I think he’s a brilliant performer. We all know and expect that Rob Lowe’s gonna deliver as Kennedy. You can’t take away from that, he really is brilliant. But Will Rothhaar plays Lee Harvey Oswald and I just think the world’s about to find out a lot about Will. That’s what I think. He’s really, really special. I think people are going to be sucked in by these performances. They’re special.”

Geoff on getting into the business, if he gets blocked and what’s coming up next for him. 

TV GOODNESS: What made you want to be a composer and how did you get into the industry?

Geoff: “I was a teenage guitarist and a pretty good one. I think what I figured out when I was really young was if I go and have a band and everything goes perfectly well then I’m gonna go out and I’ll be on the road. I’ll be on tour and we’re gonna play our hits for twenty years or until people get tired of us and that just didn’t sit well for me because I like to shift gears, if that makes sense. I’m also not much of a traveler so I thought, ‘Why do I want to go and play the same old songs for forty years?’ That’s if things go well. So what else can I do because I was always trying to find a new idea and a new concept and a new style and all this stuff every week really. In hindsight it’s sort of obvious, but I eventually figured out, well if you work in film or you work in television you get to change every [few] weeks and you don’t have to tour the world either. You can kinda do your thing so that’s the short version of the story, but I knew all that even before I went off to college. So I was pretty young, I think, to have made that decision. I thought this is it for me. Then I went off to college in Boston and I studied both music engineering and, well a production/engineering program and scoring at a college called Berklee in Boston. From there I just started beating down doors because I wasn’t blessed with a single contact in Hollywood. I didn’t know anyone. I was a suburban kid so I banged on every door and I said, ‘Will work for nothing.’ In fact, I’m sort of cutting the story. What I really did was send a cover letter and a resume to every studio saying, ‘I want to intern at your studio this summer.’ And I thought I’d get forty-five phone calls back, but I got one. [Laughs.] So that’s how green I was. I thought, ‘Who says no to free work?’ Then I got an internship with Hans Zimmer and I suppose the rest is history, but it was not so simple. It’s been a twenty year walk along that path.”

TV GOODNESS:  I know you’ve done work for movies, TV and video games. Is there one medium you prefer or is it just all about the story?

Geoff: “It really is about the story. If you take the long view, probably 80% of what I do is in film and conspicuously, the thing I haven’t done yet is a television series. I’ve done a miniseries and I’ve done some TV films like Killing Kennedy and then another one that’s coming up next year, but they’re more filmic. I guess even though I say I’m happy to work in any medium, I’m still approaching the television miniseries or the Killing Kennedy project as though it’s for cinema because that’s just how I’m built. I also get to [work on an album], but that’s another good bit of fun. Now that there’s no money in it, it is just for fun.”

TV GOODNESS: It’s so true.

Geoff: “It is, but it’s collaborating in a totally different way. It’s finding my way back to my roots ’cause, like I said, I did have a band and everything but I don’t have to go and join a band. I get to be an auxiliary member for a day and then work on a record and off they go.”

TV GOODNESS: Are you ever blocked and how do you work through it?

Geoff: “I’m lucky in a certain sense in that I never feel like I get writer’s block. I feel like sometimes things take longer to evolve, but there’s never really a day when I’m not able to come up with a new idea or keep writing. It’s actually a matter of going, ‘Here’s my idea,’ and I sit down and I work with it and I go, ‘Ok. That didn’t work the way I thought it would. Here’s my new idea.’ I just keep doing that until it starts to really work because one thing I always trust is that I have another good idea should the first one not be the best idea. And what that means is my work evolves hugely from where I start to where i finish. I don’t know if that’s common. I also know guys that go, ‘I need to write two minutes a day,’ and then they sit down and write two minutes a day. I’m jealous of that process because, for me, if you really scrutinize each day’s work you’d find whole weeks where nothing gets done technically. But I’m evolving the music and evolving sound and all of a sudden it clicks and I can write very quickly once that happens. I don’t know if that’s normal process but it’s the only one I know. I’m jealous of those guys who can sit down and work that smoothly. It’s not how I am.”

TV GOODNESS: All the composers I’ve talked to have the same process: sitting down, doing the work and trying something new until it works.

Geoff: “And also if something does work I still keep trying. I remember – now I’m getting really pretentious – but I remember a guy who was talking to me about chess who said, ‘When you see the move you think you ought to play, don’t play it and look for a better one,’ which is a really sideways analogy but I think you get what I’m saying. Now I have something that works and it’s a better answer. Sometimes you’ve got to sleep on it and, frankly it’s like falling in love. As soon as you know you just know and then it’s done.”

TV GOODNESS: What do you have coming up and is there a dream project you’d like to work on?

Geoff: “There’s a movie that ABC is gonna show called Christmas in Conway, which is in December and then I have to bite my tongue a little tiny bit about what I’m doing after that, but it’s really exciting. But I hate to be anticlimactic.”

TV GOODNESS: No. We’ll want to talk to you whenever that project comes out.

Geoff: “And we should. And that one, I guess what I should say is that I’ll be working with a director I’ve worked with in my past. How about that? And it’s a really, really cool movie. Let’s leave it at that.”

TV GOODNESS: And your dream project?

Geoff: “Oh, right. Let’s see. There’s so many things I want to do in my life. It would be a little bit surprising if I didn’t get to go and work on the next Pirates [of the Caribbean] movie. I’ve done all four of them in the past, so that’s certainly one. I don’t know. Why is that a stumping question for me? [Laughs.] I have to say I’ve always secretly wanted to go and do a Big Band score, but the good news is that may actually be something I get to do relatively soon. But that said, who knows. It’s an early idea and that might evolve into kazoo. [Laughs.] But that is something that’s on my mind because I think it’s a style that is not fully exploited and I think there’s a way of modernizing it into something that cinema doesn’t really get to hear anymore.”

Edited for space and content

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Killing Kennedy Synopsis: 

Killing Kennedy stars Rob Lowe (President Kennedy) and Will Rothhaar (Lee Harvey Oswald), with Michelle Trachtenberg (Marina Oswald) and Ginnifer Goodwin (Jackie Kennedy). The film traces the stories of the two men beginning in 1959, when each faced a major turning point in his life, one in Washington, D.C., preparing to run for President of the United States, the other at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, preparing to renounce his American citizenship. It ends in Dallas on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when the two men come together for the shocking events that will change the course of American history.

Killing Kennedy premieres Sunday, November 10th at 8/7c on National Geographic Channel.

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