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Tuned In Tuesday: Composer Jeff Russo Talks Fargo [Exclusive INTERVIEW + Preview] 

jeff russo

We’ve been excited for the premiere of this limited series for months. We know and love the film, the cast is talented and what we’ve seen so far has impressed us. As part of our Tuned in Tuesday series TV Goodness spoke exclusively to composer and musician Jeff Russo about when he discovered he wanted to break into the business, how he finds inspiration and why working on Fargo has been one of his best musical experiences.

TV GOODNESS: When did you know you wanted to be a composer and how did you get your start in the business?

Jeff Russo: “It’s actually an interesting story. My backstory is that I’m from a band and I continue to do that. I’ve been doing that for a very long time, but in 2000 I was asked to act in this movie called Hollywood Palms. They knew I was a guitar player. That’s when I met a good friend of mine, Ben [Decter]; we‘ve worked together now a couple of times. He’s a composer and he was the composer on the movie. He asked me to come in and play on the score. I did and I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool. This is fun, making music and looking at the picture and the narrative.’ I had been a child actor so that seemed to all play into my desire to be involved in filmmaking. The band was doing its thing over the next few years and then in 2006 a very close friend of mine and my wife – her name is Wendy Melvoin, she’s one half of the duo Wendy and Lisa - had asked me to come and sit in on a session of hers that she was doing on a show called Crossing Jordan. At the time they were working on a few other shows and they were looking to hire an assistant, someone to help them work, write, create music for these shows. So I did. I started watching what they were doing and got really into doing it. And then all of a sudden I found myself working with them. That was pretty much my entryway into this and I definitely credit Wendy and Lisa with helping me and showing me how this is all done from a technical aspect.”

TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked on a number of shows as a musician, but not the composer. How is that process different? 

Jeff: “Well, I’m not certain how true that is. All the shows I’ve worked on, I’ve been the composer on. I’ve rarely, rarely been asked to play sessions. I have on a few occasions, but all the shows that I’ve worked on in the past 7 years I’ve been the composer on. There is a big difference, however, when doing a session. Certainly you’re there in service of the composer and when they ask you to, they tell you what to play and what to do, or sometimes they let you have some creative leeway, which I like to do with musicians I trust. But it’s a bit of a different feeling.”

TV GOODNESS: When you’re working on something, tell me about your process. How do you get inspired?

Jeff: “It’s different with every project. It’s different with any piece of music. Inspiration can come from a lot of different places. A lot of times – certainly with television – I get inspired by characters and I get inspired by the vibe of the medium, the vibe of the piece. Sometimes when that doesn’t work I look to being inspired by a new instrument or a new sound. That can certainly spark the creative inspiration. Finding a new sound or creating a new sound where it didn’t exist before, or finding a new interesting instrument to try something new. I always love to pick up an instrument that I’ve never played before and start playing it and see what happens, then screwing it up and messing with it, distorting it and making it something that it isn’t. That’s always very inspiring.”

TV GOODNESS: Do you ever hit roadblocks when you’re composing and how do you work through them?

Jeff: “Creative roadblocks happen all the time. It’s different when working in film than it is when working in television because the schedule is much different. When you’re doing a film, if you get creatively blocked you can take the day of, you know? ‘Hmm. I can’t really find it today. Maybe I’ll go grab a hotdog and come back later. Or take a break.’ With television because the turnaround is so fast, a lot of times you have to ignore the block. Literally ignore it and just write something, whatever it is and then come back to it. Because with television the turnaround on a normal television show – and this doesn’t actually apply to Fargo. We’re on an adjusted time schedule because I started writing so early. But on a show like [Starz’s] Power or on a show like Hostages it was like sometimes I’m inspired and sometimes I’m not. When I’m not I still have to write something and so you just ignore the block, open a session, turn on your keyboard or pick up your guitar or do something and just write something and just force it. Then as you do that you fall back on to your skill as opposed to the art. As you’re building that thing that you started from skill art will come into it. A lot of times that breaks the ice, like if you just force it through you can then shake the block. But that’s it. It’s just basically forcing yourself through it in television because you don’t really have time to take a break. Sometimes it’s just having a coffee and I’m the kind of writer who if that happens I will just get up and walk away and then come back in five minutes. And that sometimes helps. It’s like any little change or any little chip can help you force it through.”

Photo Credit: Chris Large/FX
Photo Credit: Chris Large/FX

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Fargo. When did you hear about it, how did you hear about it and what made you want to be part of the project?

Jeff: “So let’s talk. First of all it’s Fargo, so that made me want to be a part of the project. Noah Hawley, who’s the showrunner, creator, adapted for television writer, does everything on the show, he’s had me work with him on the last two shows that he created, The Unusuals and a show called My Generation. Back when he was originally thinking of the idea to do it, he had mentioned it to me. I was like, ‘Wow that sounds great. That sounds like so much fun, fantastic,’ and he was like, ‘Are you up for it?’ and I said, ‘Yes. Totally, I’d love to do it,’ so I heard about it very early. He sent me his script that I read and then immediately started writing music, way before they ever shot anything. Way before they had even cast the show I had already written what ended up becoming the main title, the main theme. That was how that all happened. It was a building process, but he had mentioned it to me. As soon as he said that I was like, ‘Wow. How do I sign up? Where do I sign up? What do you need from me?’ ’cause the movie was one of my favorite movies and just being able to do something in that world…the show is in that world. We’re in the Fargo universe, but it’s all new characters, all new story. The only thing that has survived the transition is the tone that they created and to me, it’s one of the most important aspects of it.”

TV GOODNESS: When you’re working on a project like Fargo, do you read the script and the music comes to you? How does that process work?

Jeff: “In this case, I did read the script very early, like last July. Actually, I think I might have even started writing before I read the script. We sat and talked about a tone and a vibe. One of the things Noah had said to me is, ‘We really want it to feel cold and lonely,’ not lonely but lonesome was the word. As soon as he said that I went back to my studio and started writing, just started sketching a couple of different pieces of music and then sent them to him and he said, ‘Wow. These are right on. Right on the money.’ I kept writing music in that vein, then he sent me a script. I went back and adjusted some stuff and at that point we realized that this really would benefit from doing the score with a full live orchestra to really make it cinematic in nature and then began that hill to climb, which is a mountain let me tell you. That’s really how that all started to come about in terms of becoming inspired by the story.”

TV GOODNESS: Most of the composers I speak to have to work with an orchestra in the box. Tell me more about the process of working with a live orchestra and if there were any challenges or surprises with that.

Jeff: “One of the main challenges is how do you pay for it. It becomes expensive, but it really does make a difference. It really does. Now with samples you can make mock-ups sound really, really believable. They really sound remarkably like an orchestra and when you do those same pieces with an orchestra and you listen back to back, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah. No, you actually can’t make it really sound like an orchestra,’ because when you do it with an orchestra there’s just the air that moves. I don’t really know how to describe it. You really can’t tell until you make an actual comparison. Then when you make the comparison, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah. It’s a thousand times different.’ The process is basically the same. I write the pieces and make the mock-ups as though I’m going to have to use them and I send it to an orchestrator/copyist who takes those MIDI parts and puts it on paper for the orchestra to play. In this particular case I chose an orchestra in [the Czech Republic] and there were a number of reasons that led me to that, not the least of which is financial. It is significantly less money to do that but I realized using a European orchestra actually does make a tonal difference in the way the orchestra sounds.”

TV GOODNESS: That’s interesting.

Jeff: “Well, there’s generations of oppression in eastern Europe. I’m reluctant to talk about it because a lot of this work is leaving Los Angeles because of the cost-prohibitiveness of many factors in recording live musicians. But if I were to take that out of the equation, the orchestra I’m using in Prague is actually the sound that I was looking for. I auditioned 4 or 5 different orchestras. I didn’t specifically audition them, I just listened to a bunch of music from 4 or 5 different orchestras and came to Prague because of the sound. It had that lonesome, cold sound. I don’t know how to explain it, but they had it where certain North America orchestras didn’t.”

TV GOODNESS: Were there any challenges or surprises in working on Fargo and Power at the same time?

Jeff: “Yeah, when it rains it pours I guess. You’re working on one thing then all of a sudden you’re working on two and it’s difficult because switching gears between the two has its disadvantages and it’s advantages actually. When I get pulled out of one and into the other it clears my head to go back to the other. But the surprises and challenges? You know, having to create a score in that quick of a time, having to create the sound in that quick of a time was a challenge for me because I haven’t really worked in that way before. Most of the time if I’m hired on a job I’m hired at the pilot stage so I’m really creating the sound of the show and then once we’re in production that’s been done. So I know what I’m doing. I know how to write, I know what my criteria is for the end result and in this particular case [for Power], it was, ‘We really loved your demo. You’re hired. Go. Here’s the tone we really want.’ So in a very quick time I have to create this sound, get it approved and then write the score and that happened very quickly. That was the one big obstacle. It didn’t stop anything, but it was like, ‘Oh ok,’ and then I had to do it. Of course I said to myself, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’”

TV GOODNESS: I know you’ve worked on some feature films. Do you have a preference? Do you prefer working on films or TV or is it really all about the material?

Jeff: “It’s funny. That’s a question that gets asked a lot. I feel like I love to write music. I really do. I love to create music so I don’t really have a preference as to which medium I like to work in. I mean, they’re very different because with film you just have to treat it in a different way because music has a different place in film than it does in television. It’s used as a different tool. I think they use it for the same device, as the same device for the same end result, but the way you do it is just different and I like doing both. There’s something really invigorating about working in television that you have to turn something around very quickly and try to make it really artistically meaningful for the medium. With film you have just a much larger canvas, which by the way is the thing that I’m so lucky about in Fargo. We’re making it like a movie so I’m using the techniques for making music in movies in a television setting, which is rare for a composer.”

Photo Credit: Chris Large/FX
Photo Credit: Chris Large/FX

TV GOODNESS: You’ve worked on a lot of TV shows. I don’t know if this is a fair question, but I’m going to ask you anyway. Do you have a favorite project and what made it so?

Jeff: “Well, yeah. My favorite television project to date has got to be Fargo. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to write music that is really artistically meaningful. I’ve just really enjoyed writing it. I mean, I love what I do so when I say I’ve never enjoyed anything else as much it’s all just levels. It’s funny. When somebody said to me, ‘You realize the music that you’re writing for Fargo is what every composer dreams of being able to do,’ which is these big, full orchestra pieces of music every week. You get to just do that and it’s true. I’ve been afforded this opportunity to do something that’s really, really great. Just from my perspective, I enjoy writing this kind of music and then, I get a call from the producer who’s like, ‘You know, for this opening why don’t we do something with just drums. Just percussion.’ I’m like, ‘Great.’ So I get out a drum kit and start writing a piece that is literally just drums, very unexpected. Another one of the great things about working on this show is that we get to be unexpected and do the unexpected. There’s a piece in show 8 that opens up with a ukulele and a whistle, which is totally different than our 45 piece orchestra. Halfway through the piece, the orchestra joins. It’s really interesting. Being able to do that, it’s great. This is the thing that I love. I get a phone call from the producer who says, ‘Why don’t we try doing Ode to Joy on steel drum?’ and I was like, ‘Are you joking?’ He was like, ‘No. Why don’t we try that?’ I immediately went to start to do that and then I got a steel pan player into the studio and did it and it’s fantastic. Where else do I get to do that? So those are the kinds of things that make this project my favorite, but I’ve loved everything I’ve done because the fact of the matter is I could just sit in my studio and play all day long and that’s just the best thing in the world.”

TV GOODNESS: You mentioned your band Tonic at the beginning and I want to circle back on that. You’ve been nominated for 2 Grammys, which is amazing. Do you think being part of a band helps with your composing or is it nice to take a break and completely focus on your band? Do you even have time for that?

Jeff: “Yeah. We still go out and play shows and we still write songs and try to make records. The landscape of the music industry has changed so much over the last 5, ten years that we were lucky enough to create a base that we can actually go out and still tour and still play and people still come and buy tickets and have fun. To me, I like having a very diverse musical experience so yeah, I feel like everything that I do helps everything else.”

Photo Credit: Chris Large/FX
Photo Credit: Chris Large/FX

TV GOODNESS: Is there anything else you want to talk about?

Jeff: “Please tune in. It just keeps getting better with every script I read and every time I would get a cut, I was just like, ‘Oh my God. How do we continually make it better?’”

TV GOODNESS: Right, especially considering that the pilot is so strong.

Jeff: “Yeah. 2 is great. All I can say is just wait. It keeps getting better. It keeps being unexpected. There’s a big thing episode 4. You’re gonna go, ‘Oh my God.’”

TV GOODNESS: That’s good to hear. With so much good TV on right now, the audience has come to expect certain things. It’s nice when you can be surprised.

Jeff: “Well the good news about this particular show is they’ve given us the opportunity to let things happen. You don’t have to make something happen. It’s one of the bigger difference between cable television and broadcast television. If this show was on CBS it would be a procedural. We wouldn’t be able to just let things happen and that has actually really helped the music make a big impact on the show. So if you notice in the pilot there are these big pieces where there is no dialogue, where music gets to do something. That’s rare, which is another reason I feel really excited to be on this. I get to do things that I wouldn’t normally get to do.”

Edited for space and content.

Fargo premieres tonight at 10/9c on FX.


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