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Tuned In Contenders: Composer Jeff Russo [Exclusive] 


With 2016 Emmy nominations less than 2 months away, we thought it would be fun to talk to composers who have been doing some great work on TV. Our first interview is with Jeff Russo. Definitely a favorite here at TV Goodness, we wanted to talk to him about FX’s Fargo, Starz’s Power, a few of his upcoming shows, his process, what he’s proudest of musically and if there’s anything he hasn’t had a chance to do yet.

Photo Credit: CW3PR
Photo Credit: CW3PR

TV Goodness: Let’s talk about Fargo first. You’ve been nominated for an Emmy for that show in the past, which is great because I love the music. Do you know anything about Season 3 yet? Ewan McGregor was just announced, but it’s still a ways off for you right?

Jeff Russo: “I’ll start writing themes for that show, I don’t know, probably June or July. I have the first 2 scripts and I usually read the first two or three and then start sketching some ideas for themes. So, yeah. I’ll get started early. I don’t think they’re gonna start shooting until December or January.”

TV GOODNESS: When I talked to you at Comic-Con last year, you said it was important not to repeat any Season 1 themes in Season 2. What can you share about Season 3?

Jeff: “Here’s the thing. Between Season 1 and Season 2, there were a couple of themes that we did actually use in Season 2, but they were really general. Certainly the main theme we used a couple of times and there were a couple of motifs that we ended up using that are a hallmark of the show.

Most of those themes from Season 1 were so tied to those characters, but because it’s all new story and all new characters, we couldn’t really use them. So I’m imagining that the same thing will happen in Fargo Season 3. The characters in 3 are distinctly different than 2 and distinctly different than 1, so I’m assuming I will have to sketch all new thematic ideas. But some things might carry over. I’m not quite sure. You really don’t know until you start seeing it.”

TV GOODNESS: Are you allowed to tell me anything about Season 3 other than what’s already out there?

Jeff: “I’m only allowed to tell you what you already know. We’re going forward in time from 2 and past 1, so we’re going to 2010. Ewan McGregor has been cast as two characters. He plays his own brother — not twins, but brothers. The same mayhem will ensue. [Laughs.] That’s about all I’m allowed to say.”

TV GOODNESS: You’ve talked about earning a cue. When you’re spotting an episode with Noah Hawley or watching an episode or even when you’re composing, what’s your process of determining what goes where and what sounds right?

Jeff: “What I said then still applies. You have to wait to earn the right to play music emotionally. We never want to lead the narrative. We want the narrative to lead the music and for the music to support that narrative as opposed to drive the narrative.

The most important step is to wait until we really feel like we want to have music exploit the moment emotionally. The moment you start leading is the moment you start being melodramatic. We never want [that], we want the drama to be brought out by the narrative and by the dialogue and by the story. We don’t need to help that. We need to just support that. So it’s really just a question of waiting until we both feel like, ‘Ok. We’ve earned this right now. This is where music should come in.’ After the emotion has presented itself.”

Photo Credit: Starz
Photo Credit: Starz

TV GOODNESS: Season 3 of Power is premiering very soon. How has your work on that show changed over the course of the series so far?

Jeff: “It’s interesting. I don’t know that it has changed. The thing about Power is, as the characters develop I try to develop the themes across that arc.

I’m almost done writing Season 3. With that in mind, the characters have made some significant changes since Season 1. So even though the themes tend to stay in the same world, I’m trying to develop them so they grow with the characters. That means maybe the instrumentation doesn’t change, but how [I] arrange [it does]. I can exploit different types of motifs inside a theme and as characters grow and change I can do the same with the music.”

Power Season 3 Trailer:

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Tut. I love that Spike tried something new with that series. How did you hear about it and what was that process like?

Jeff: “I knew the director, [David Von Ancken]. I had had conversations with [him] about another project a while back and I heard he was doing this show for Spike. It seemed like something I’d be really interested in because it felt like it could be an epic movie. Even though we were doing it as a miniseries, it felt like I could really explore epic orchestra and this more traditional swords and sandals epic and I was able to do that.

They let me hire a huge orchestra. I did it with an 80-piece orchestra, big horns and brass and all kinds of stuff. It was a lot of fun to do, but it was a mountain of work. We had to prepare 260 minutes of music in a very short time, so we recorded it over 3 days and that was monumental task. It was so much fun.”

Tut Trailer:

TV GOODNESS: I was looking at your bio and saw that you worked on Manhattan and The Returned as well. Tell me a little bit about those shows.

Jeff: “I collaborated on both those shows with a cellist named Zoe Keating, who I love dearly. She is such a fantastic artist and cellist.

It was a lot of fun because in that collaboration we got to share each other’s musical traits. She tends to write in a certain way. I tend to write in a certain way. And when we brought that together, [we] really complemented one another. At least, we both thought so. I would send her stuff. She would play on it and send me stuff. I would do my thing to it and then we came up with this, for both these shows, really very melodic, ambient type scores that I think were really pertinent to the show.”


TV GOODNESS: Manhattan was a period piece exploring a topic we thought we knew and The Returned was a great horror/mystery/thriller. Is there a genre you prefer to work on or is it all about the story?

Jeff: “It’s really all about the story. It isn’t about the genre, it’s about what I’m going to be allowed to do. I tend to write music from a melodic and emotional point of view. So I really want to work on projects that will afford me that opportunity. I’ve been very, very lucky so far.”

TV GOODNESS: And you have The Night Of coming up with John Turturro, right? What can you tell me about that?

Jeff: “It’s a crime story told from a completely different perspective. It’s not really about the crime, it’s about the trial and what the criminal justice system can do to a person who’s been thrown into it. I think the verdict is not really even that relevant to the story. The verdict is obviously an important part, but what’s more important to the story is the transition and the journey that this person takes. Being arrested, tried and then changed by that whole situation.

The Night Of Teaser:

TV GOODNESS: Do you have anything else you’re working on for TV right now?

Jeff: “Right now I’m working on a show for CBS called American Gothic and we premiere in June. And I’m working on something for FX with Noah Hawley. I’m not really supposed to talk about that one.

I just finished a movie with Stanley Tucci and that was fun. That’s about it. I don’t get started until the fall again with a show called Time After Time for ABC.”

TV GOODNESS: I saw the Time After Time trailer during ABC’s Upfronts.

Jeff: “It looks pretty interesting. We wanted to make a big movie score for that one, so I think we did.”

Photo Credit: ABC/Bob D’Amico
Photo Credit: ABC/Bob D’Amico

Time After Time Trailer:

TV GOODNESS: I want to ask you some bigger, general questions as well. Out of everything you’ve worked on so far, what’s your favorite piece of music or your favorite musical cue and why?

Jeff: “Wow. My favorite piece of music and my favorite cue. It’s really difficult to answer that question.

The thing I’m proudest of is probably the main theme for Fargo. I just love that piece of music. I really feel like that piece of music is indicative of everything that I love to do, which is write from a melodic and emotional standpoint and try to convey the tone and the feel of the show. And I think I did that pretty well with that particular piece of music. I also super proud of the theme I just wrote for The Night Of. When you see it, I think maybe you’ll agree.”

TV GOODNESS: I know you have your own band, you’ve been nominated for a Grammy. What influences your music in general and what do you get most excited about when you’re making music?

Jeff: “I get most excited when I stumble onto a melody that I remember, that’s memorable to me. That’s the thing that excites me the most. It’s always excited me writing songs with my band or writing score or writing pieces of music just for me.

I’ve always been thrilled about finding a melody that the next day I’m humming. That to me, I think, is the thing that connects people when it comes to music, something that really emotionally connects is memorable. I guess not everything that’s memorable is emotionally connective, but when you do find that melody, and make no mistake, the melodies find you. They exist and it’s just a question of trying ti pull them out of the air and put them into music. I think it’s such a great thing to find it. That’s the thing that thrills me most about writing music.”


TV GOODNESS: It seems like composers don’t necessarily work in different ways, but maybe you take inspiration from different things and go about writing a piece of music a certain way. I was just wondering about your specific process.

Jeff: “I’m a pretty normal guy. Maybe some of the things that make the way I do things a little different is, I come from being in a band so I write music from a different perspective. I think I write with an openness for collaboration whereas it’s possible that some other composers may not have that tool in their toolbox right away because of them sitting in a room by themselves their entire lives writing music.

I don’t know that that’s necessarily better or worse one way or another, it’s just simple a way to go about the gig. And I think that comes from me coming up in a collaborative environment, so it’s maybe easier for me to collaborate with filmmakers. It’s less of a personal attack. Sometimes when people makes notes on pieces of music, some people will take it personally and I don’t think I do, for better or for worse.”

TV GOODNESS: Speaking of collaborating, is there anyone out there you’d like to work with? Either a composer or a filmmaker or someone in TV?

Jeff: “You know, you’re not the first person to ask me that question. That’s so difficult to say because I really don’t know. You never really know until you work with somebody, right? So I don’t know the answer to that question. There’s so many creative people and there’s so many creators of content and narrative and media that I actually don’t know the answer to that question.”

TV GOODNESS: Is there any type of story you haven’t done that you’d like to work on?

Jeff: “I really have been wanting to do a straight, dramatic science fiction story. High-concept science fiction. It’s only because I love that type of storytelling. I don’t know what I would do or how I would contribute to that, but because I love that sort of storytelling I would really love to work on it.”

Edited for space and content.

 American Gothic premieres Wednesday, June 22nd at 10/9c on CBS. The Night Of premieres Sunday, July 10th at 9/8c on HBO. Season 3 of Power premieres Sunday, July 17th at 9/8c on Starz. Time After Time premieres in 2017 on ABC. Season 3 of Fargo returns to FX in 2017.

Manhattan can be streamed on Hulu and The Returned can be streamed on Netflix.

Interested in our other Tuned In Contenders? I also talked to Gabriel Mann, Mac Quayle and Laura Karpman.

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