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Tuned In Exclusive: Into the West Composer Geoff Zanelli [INTERVIEW] 

Geoff Zanelli

Tuned In focuses on the world of music on TV. Geoff Zanelli has created scores for countless films and TV projects. If you’ve seen any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, then you’ve heard some of his original music. He was the composer for HBO’s mega-huge 2010 miniseries The Pacific. But right now, we’re spotlighting him for his work on the acclaimed TNT mini-series Into the West. While the production aired back in 2005 — and starred Josh Brolin, Gary Busey, Skeet Ulrich and Rachael Leigh Cook — the soundtrack featuring Zanelli’s Emmy-winning score has only recently been released. TV Goodness talked to the composer about Into the West, winning that Emmy, his contributions to this summer’s The Lone Ranger and what’s next on his busy schedule.

TV GOODNESS: Into the West aired in 2005. Why has it taken so long for this soundtrack to be released? 

GEOFF ZANELLI: The main reason for the delay in the release time was that at the time of the release, DreamWorks Television had produced a different CD of music “inspired by” the miniseries. So the timing wasn’t right to also put out the score CD. But last year Into the West was broadcast on AMC, and with that came a renewed interest in my score. It turned out that the rights to the show had changed ownership to Paramount, so a few phone calls later we found ourselves on our way to the release. Ironically, everyone’s reaction was along the lines of, “Why haven’t we done this yet?”

TV GOODNESS: What can you tell us about this 2-CD release?

GEOFF: One of the luxuries of releasing this album so long after it aired is that I’ve been able to incorporate the requests I’ve heard from supporters of the show over the years. I’ve listened to them talk about what scenes or parts of the score resonated with them via emails, Facebook and Twitter. At first I thought I’d whittle down the six-hours of score I wrote for the series into a single CD, but as I got into it I found that there just wasn’t enough time on one CD to encompass all of my favorite moments. So this 2-CD release is what I, and viewers of the show, have come to think of as the essence of the score.

I think with digital-only releases, we’ve lost a little bit of the magic we used to get when we held an album in our hands while we listened through it, so another thing I wanted to do was give something to the listeners in the liner notes. La-La Land Records put together a 24-page booklet. It’s far more in depth than what I originally imagined, and it gave me the opportunity to talk about my process writing the score. It details the way the thematic material in the score relates to the long story arcs of the mini-series, and the particular challenges with the sheer amount of music needed for a project of this caliber.

I realize I’m being old fashioned by talking about a physical CD release. Paramount is also going to release the score on iTunes and I’m excited that it will allow people to discover my music.

TV GOODNESS: What did you particularly enjoy about the entire experience? And what did you enjoy most about the mini-series itself?

GEOFF: There are two points in every project that inevitably become my favorites: The very beginning, when the ideas are first coming to life, is intoxicating for me; and the very end, when you finally record the music with live musicians, it’s easy to feel elated. Into The West was no exception, although this last step presented some challenges. We recorded every note of this score with a live orchestra, which involved me producing the session remotely because the orchestra was in Bratislava, Slovakia, and I was in Los Angeles. These days, it’s much easier to do something like that, but back then we were just barely able to pull it off with the technology we had. I don’t think it had been done at that scale before, with so much at stake.

This was the first mini-series I scored. I went back to mini-series again with The Pacific for HBO. The thing I enjoy most about the mini-series format is that you get to do these long story arcs. You can take your themes and really develop them over the course of 10-hours of show in a way you can’t when it’s a two-hour movie.

TV GOODNESS: And how long did it take you to compose the soundtrack for such an epic mini-series?

GEOFF: I had about nine months to write, orchestrate, record and mix the score for Into the West. The production would be shooting and editing the next episode while I was writing the music to the previous one, so if I was doing the third part of the series, they’d be shooting the fourth. In that way, it was more like scoring a movie and then scoring five sequels one immediately after the other.

TV GOODNESS: What were the challenges of creating the music for this series?

GEOFF: I was very concerned with honoring the Lakota culture and their story when creating the sound of Into the West. I knew that the goal was to take this story and tell it in an accessible way to the whole world, but I felt real pressure knowing that I was looking in on this from outside the culture it concerned. That kept me up at night, honestly. I used Lakota musicians and singers whenever I could to bring an authenticity to the score. For instance, one of the directors, Robert Dornhelm, made some recordings on set of actors playing woodwind instruments while on their breaks, which I incorporated into the score. So the score had a genuine feel to it, and that magical musical quality that you get when a musician is just playing music, unaware or unconcerned with being recorded.

TV GOODNESS: What’s it like to see a project of yours once it’s complete with your music? Do you still get chills?

GEOFF: I find that no matter how many times I watch any piece of film, I never build up an immunity to it. Yes, I do still get the chills, particularly when it’s good filmmaking like Into The West.

TV GOODNESS: Talk about winning the Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Mini-Series, Movie or a Special (Original Dramatic Score) for Into the West — what was that experience like? 

GEOFF: I remember the day the nomination came through really clearly. When I woke-up, there were a dozen voicemail messages waiting for me. I had no idea the nominations were coming out that day, that’s how unaware I was. I thought there was a family emergency or something! So the nomination came as a complete shock.

Then I learned that we were the most nominated program of the year, which was a testament to the great work that was done by all disciplines on this show.

There’s a nice period of time when everyone wants to take you to dinner after something like that. It’s seductive. I felt like I’d really arrived on the scene, in a way, which I’ll admit was a great feeling for me since I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider here in Hollywood.

The actual moment at the ceremony when they announced the win is a complete blur. I can remember the look on my wife’s face, but I have zero recollection of my speech. I do recall when I was walking off the stage though, cause I asked the woman escorting me off if I remembered to thank my wife. “Yeah, you did. Don’t worry, you’re good!” she said.

TV GOODNESS: Your work can be heard this summer in The Lone Ranger. What can we expect? Is there a particular scene that we really need to look out for where your music and what was going on in the movie made for an especially magical moment?

GEOFF: There’s a huge moment in the film that I scored — I don’t want to give away any surprises but let me just say the whole 12-minute action finale of the film is my work. It weaves in and out of multiple musical themes from the rest of the score, plus a few surprises. I did some interesting things there beyond the music. The finale takes place on a train, so I took all the train sound effects and cut them in time with the music there. The idea is my music, the sound effects and the dialogue are all working in concert there. It’s a little bit absurd, operatic and great fun!

TV GOODNESS: What other projects are you working on?

GEOFF: I’ve just finished the score to a drama called Louder Than Words starring David Duchovny, Hope Davis and Timothy Hutton, which is a beautiful story. In some ways, it’s the spiritual successor to my score for The Odd Life of Timothy Green. And I’ve got a comedy that Nick Cannon directed called School Dance coming out soon. I also recently had the opportunity to write all of the string arrangements for Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s bluegrass album Love Has Come for You. That was the first time I heard my work on the David Letterman Show! I’ve got to keep a bit quiet about what else I have going on, but I’ll say don’t be surprised if you see me working in television again sometime soon…

TV GOODNESS: What have been some of your favorite projects to compose music for and why?

GEOFF: Into The West is surely one of them, for its challenges and for being so fulfilling. The Odd Life of Timothy Green is another one, cause it came along at the perfect time in my life. I was a new parent, and the film is about parenting, and what you can learn from your children if you let them teach you. That allowed me to write a very personal score. And I’ve always felt a bit like a pirate at heart, so working on all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies was a dream come true for me.

The Into the West soundtrack is in stores now. We’ll let you know when it becomes digitally available on iTunes and Amazon.

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