Supe Troop’s Rachel Hughes interviews The Marksman composer Sean Callery about film scoring, creating The Marksman‘s emotional action score, and soup!
Supe Troop (ST): How did you get into film scoring?
Sean Callery (SC): My interest began as a child watching reruns of Lost In Space. John Williams had scored that show. I can’t explain why but I found his music mesmerizing. Aliens could be running around wearing spaghetti strainers as space helmets and the music was epic! And speaking of epic, I also revere the scores to any Warner Bros. cartoon composed by the great Carl Stalling. That music is some of the most elegant and evolved music composing ever written as far as I’m concerned.
I was a classical pianist and studied at the New England Conservatory in the 80s. I moved to Los Angeles in 1989 and met various composers while working for a computer music company. I got to meet Mark Snow, the infamous composer of The X Files television series. He helped me get my first major scoring job on USA’s La Femme Nikita. From there I would go on to work on the television series 24. I’ve been very lucky to meet very talented and kind and supportive people along the way in my career.
ST: Is there one cue in The Marksman that you particularly enjoyed creating?
SC: [Spoilers ahead!] I wrote a piece for when Miguel and Hanson arrive in Chicago, and Miguel is united with his extended family. The music evokes a sense of homecoming, family, and healing. It was also the end of the journey for them. Rob Lorenz, our director, liked the cue so much he wanted to have the theme bookend the film by introducing it as Hanson is driving back to his house in his truck with his dog at the very beginning. I was happy for this direction, because I had originally scored that moment with that same theme, but I decided to change it out for a new piece of score. In the end Rob must have read my mind, and the original theme was restored there.
ST: When scenes give you trouble, what are some of the things you do to make them work?
SC: Confusion arises for me as a composer when I’m not sure of the story I am telling in a particular scene. The music has to come from an authentic place in me, and if I’m not clear on my emotional point of view, there will be a disconnect of some sort. I take a step back to reconnect with the story and the moment at hand. When I think of the very best film scores I’ve ever heard they all have the full beauty of emotional clarity, authenticity, and specificity. I connect with those scores every time I hear them and I try to bring that kind of essence into my own scores.
ST: What is your favorite instrument?
SC: Piano is my first instrument and it certainly is the instrument I’m most connected to. My dad gave me a melodica (a wind instrument with piano keys on it) which I also love playing. It sounds a little like an accordion — a great instrument for cheering someone up!
ST: Your work in television is expansive and impressive. What, if any, aspects or challenges of scoring television have influenced the way you approach scoring film?
SC: Television schedules tend to be much tighter, and the episodes flow one after the other, so working in television has been a valuable practice in having to be open and creative with the pressure of looming deadlines. While films generally have longer production schedules, the picture in films is constantly changing and adjusting, so there are extra logistical steps in making sure the music is conformed and playing to its full emotional effect.
The Marksman has a beautiful expansiveness to it, which is wonderful to see on a big screen. The opening scenes of the wide open desert and the introduction of our solitary hero Hanson is very immersive. Sometimes in television projects there isn’t as much time to allow for that kind of opening expositional pace.
ST: The Marksman is part action, part drama, part road trip movie. Can you speak a little bit about how you approached creating a score that captures and supports all of these genres at once?
SC: A composer is part artist and craftsman. I only get to see a film for the first time once, if that makes any sense. I pay attention to what I’m feeling when I’m watching a film for the first time because it’s an emotionally pure experience. Whether Miguel’s mother is wounded, or if Hanson is mourning the loss of his wife, or when there is a big shootout in the desert, I feel very deeply all different kinds of emotions. All of these emotions inform how I will score the story of the film. If I’m coming from an honest place in the writing, all the pieces will flow together into a cohesive musical experience.
I often get ideas for melodies and colors on the first viewing. Every subsequent viewing afterwards will involve the realizing of those artistic impulses which is where the craft part of the process comes in. Choosing tempos, the choice of instrumentation, refining a melody, etc. – it’s all a combo of artistry and craftsmanship working together.
ST: What is an example of where you think another composer nailed a project or particular scene?
SC: So I’ll have to go with two answers. The first is from the movie Jaws featuring the phenomenal score by John Williams. The scene is when the three men on the fishing vessel “Orca” encounter the shark for the first time. They attempt to weaken the shark by shooting a harpoon attached to a yellow barrel into it. The shark gives chase and Mr. Williams infuses this moment with an adventurous swashbuckling energy, creating a brilliant balance between tension and excitement (and the infamous shark theme is there as well). Jaws is one of my favorite scores.
My second choice was the finale scene of the film Death And The Maiden starring Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, which was released in 1994. The score was composed by the great Wojciech Kilar.
The scene takes place on a cliff at daybreak. Ben Kingsley’s character is going to be killed unless he confesses to a crime he may or may not have committed. The score plays over Mr. Kingsley’s confession in a single close up shot. It is such a complex moment because it is ambiguous as to whether he’s telling the truth or lying. The score is hypnotic—rocking back and forth between two chords into a haunting and beautiful climax – all doing so without betraying in the music whether the character is telling the truth or lying. I thought this approach by Mr. Kilar was absolutely masterful.
ST: What music are you listening to right now?
SC: I have been circling back to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, which is an ongoing masterpiece that continues to educate and humble me.
ST: What projects do you have coming up that you are excited about?
SC: I finished the Fox Series Next about an AI that becomes self aware, which is currently on Hulu. I hope people can check it out.
ST: What is your favorite kind of soup?
SC: Rhode Island Clam Chowder!!! It’s clear, not milky (like New England) or red (like Manhattan). Just clams, butter, vegetables, and oh my, I’m getting hungry just thinking of it! You won’t regret it!
Thanks, Sean! I’m definitely checking out Next and Rhode Island Clam Chowder (next time I’m in the area)! You can grab The Marksman on DVD starting May 11th, or rent the film wherever you rent movies. The soundtrack album is available for purchase on Amazon or wherever you get your digital music. See the blurb about the soundtrack album in our latest Soundtrack Album Release Roundup.
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