ScoreKeeper With MEDAL OF HONOR And SUPERNATURAL Composer Christopher Lennertz!!
Published at: Sept. 29, 2006, 5:19 p.m. CST by merrick
Greetings! ScoreKeeper here on the podium waxing poetic with a composer whose name resides on a short list of sonic artisans changing the scope of television music one episode at a time.
While many video game fans of the world might already know Christopher Lennertz for his rousingly raucous work on the “Medal of Honor” series (Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, European Assault), fans of film and TV music are hardly missing out either.
As one in a pair of composers tasked to create the music for the series “Supernatural” on the WB, Chris Lennertz crafts top-shelf music not frequently heard on the small screen. Season one of the series was just released on DVD and I had a chance to talk with Chris a mere days before he starts up the writing marathon again with season two.
Enjoy the interview and don’t forget to look over your shoulder.
ScoreKeeper: Chris, thanks for taking the time out to talk with me tonight. I’d like to start off discussing your music for the TV series “Supernatural.” Could you address all those folks out there who have not yet seen the show? What kind of show is this and what about it makes it worth watching?
Chris Lennertz: That’s actually an awesome question. No one has ever asked me that one before. The thing that sets “Supernatural” apart is that it has two very distinct elements. One being that it has a ‘horror-movie-of-the-week’ aspect which is the premise that everybody hears about. Every week, it’s like a little hour long horror movie dealing with a supernatural being, or a demon, or an old wives tale, or anything of that sort.
When you get down to it story wise, it’s really a ‘family-business’ show where these two brothers
run a business which happens to be ridding the world of demons and ghosts…and ultimately the demon who killed their mother. So there is a lot of emotion in the show which I think I lot of people don’t know about.
I’ve always been one of these guys who believe that if it’s a one trick pony, it has a hard time keeping my attention. The movies I love and the things that really speak to me are things that have multiple levels to them. THE GODFATHER (1972) is my favorite example – it’s my favorite movie. Here you got this mob movie, a gangster movie about crime and mob hits, but beyond that you’ve got this crazy family drama spanning over three generations.
The more people that see that part of “Supernatural” the more people will get hooked.
SK: It really sounds like an ideal project for a composer. The whole supernatural/horror element is just so much fun. But you also have that flip of the coin where you can get intimate with the audience, bring up the emotion, and have that dual-layer effect happening.
CL: Absolutely! I think that’s why, for me, it’s such a fun show to do every week. I think it would get old merely doing ‘the scare’ every week. You’ve got this arch of a storyline which goes beyond every week’s episode and is showing you how these guys are getting closer to solving the question that's haunted them. That, to me, is something that makes a much more human story. It’s not so much about ‘the legend of the hook-man,’ or ‘bloody-mary.’
That’s always been Eric Kripke’s (executive producer & creator) style too which is why we’ve always liked working together. He really gravitates toward that kind of a story. If you want to just watch one week you’ll have a great time watching it. But then, if you watch the whole season, you’ll really start to pick up on a lot of other stuff.
SK: I’m hesitant to bring up the comparison, because I think it compromises the uniqueness of “Supernatural” but there does seem to be a heavy influence from “The X-Files” (1993-2002). “Supernatural” is almost like “The X-Files” meaner cousin. In general, how much did “The X-Files” influence you, the producers, the directors, etc.
CL: First of all, I wouldn’t not bring it up because I think everybody would take it as a compliment. That show was so legendary. There’s no way you can say that it’s not influencing it because so much of our production team has come from “The X-Files.”
Kim Manners is on as a supervising producer…I don’t even know how many episodes of “The X-Files” he directed. David Nutter is the other guy who was involved as an exec producer and as a director (of “Supernatural”) for a couple of episodes including the pilot episode.
SK: How does “The X-Files” influence you if it all?
CL: Honestly, it influences me probably very little. I think the influence is much more visual to the style of the show than sound wise. When I started talking about the show with Eric (Kripke) we mostly referenced feature films when we were talking about music. Things that were mentioned were Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), POLTERGEIST (1982), and old Jerry Goldsmith stuff, and Hitchcock-ian ostinatos like Bernard Herrmann used to do.
One of the guys I studied with was Christopher Young who is a hero of mine and a good friend as well. I know that the producers liked his work a lot. We came at it trying to do as much a feature-like job every week. That’s not to say “The X-Files” didn’t do the same thing but we really didn’t reference it musically as much as they probably referenced it visually.
SK: The show in general seems to push the television envelope a bit. What do you do as the composer to keep the show on its edge?
CL: There’s been a lot of times, for example, where a certain shot got nixed by the censors and so they’ll get as close as they can. There was this time where a floating butcher knife comes flying across the kitchen and ends up going through somebody’s eye. You couldn’t actually show the impact. So, for me, what it comes down to is how aggressive can I make that music to make up for the fact that the cutaway is going to be right on the frame where the knife is supposed to hit the eyeball?
I know that sounds gross. (laughing)
It then falls on our shoulders with music and sound effects. When something is pushing the envelope and they make you cut at a certain time or if there is something that can’t be shown on TV then our job is to actually make up the difference and come in and have the music push it over the edge. That has definitely come up quite a few times.
SK: How do you mix up the scare gags? You can’t play every gag the same or just simply hit them the same way each time.
CL: I think what we’ll do from episode to episode, depending upon what the nemesis of that particular episode is, we’ll actually switch up the approach to the scoring. If it’s a very spiritual kind of demon then you may get a treatment that’s much more gothic with religious vibes as a scare. You won’t hear a lot of the piercing strings or the really ugly brass that you might hear in an episode that was purely about…say the ‘hook-man’ episode which was purely a wives tale where you hear the hook scraping along the wall. That one was much more visceral. You wouldn’t have any religious elements. You certainly wouldn’t have any world music elements. You’d probably have the really ugly aleatoric strings hearing the rosin on the bows scraping away. We definitely approach it in that sort of manner.
There was an episode called “Dead in the Water” that had this thing in a lake which you never saw. It turned out to be a young boy who had died mysteriously. We actually had gurgling water as part of the music here and there. We also used a young voice that was saying ‘water’ but we put it down an octave so you couldn’t actually hear what it was saying.
Scary is scary but there can really be different gradients of it. I think one of the things that’s cool about a show like this, and I think “The X-Files” did this as well, is this idea you’ve got these different starting points of where the fear or terror or at least the unease is coming from.
SK: As you were working on the show and you were getting closer to the end of the season, did you find it challenging to keep your ideas fresh?
CL: The hard part about doing a whole season of a show is you see what people like, what is working, and there’s this inclination…even “The X-Files” did this very well, you get a sound that’s working and you almost don’t want to change it. In a very good way, it becomes associated with your show. But at the same time, as an artist the question becomes ‘how do you stay interested in the sound?’
Eric (Kripke), who’s been very supportive, will say ‘we have the sound that works really well for the episodes involving their dad and their family bond.’ It’s got a very high, pensive piano with strings and it’s also atmospheric. There are five or six episodes from last season that heavily involve their father. So then the question became ‘can we bring in a new instrument with each episode?’
So in one of the episodes, their dad was in it but part of the discovery was that Sam had fallen for this girl. So in that particular show we used a lot of woodwinds. We used live flutes, oboes, and clarinets. It became a much more organic, woodwind based element to go along with what we normally hear for the dad. It doesn’t drastically change the sound of the entire series but it gives that particular episode a little interest.
SK: I think that’s a real asset to the show because one of the things that struck me the most is that nothing seems to be off-limits musically. There’s the solo piano, orchestral strings, distorted electric guitar, vocals, techno elements, you name it. But yet all this doesn’t make the music seem arbitrary or random. It’s all tied together.
Are all of these individual reactions to the material? Or is there a conscious effort to keep an overall eclectic sound?
CL: Hmm? That’s funny. It’s totally true and I think you’re completely right. To me one of the things that was interesting is that Dean (the older brother) has this love for – depending on who you ask – either very cool or very cheesy classic rock. I know that was a big fight for Eric when the series first started. It goes against what the WB was known for which was breaking in new hip bands, and the whole teen-band thing.
So here’s this guy that wants to put Black Sabbath and AC/DC on their prime time show. I think they were just dumbfounded originally or didn’t quite get it at first. It really connected with fans. It’s funny how absolutely feverish even the younger fans are for some of the classic rock that’s on there. From the very get-go we’d talk about ‘how do we get those elements involved in the score?’
They’ve really crept in as we go along. In the later episodes we see it more and more. Where people are getting used to that sound for Dean, they’ve almost become more accepting of it as part of the score as well. A lot of the chase scenes and action scenes toward the end of last year become a lot more guitar based or at least mixed guitar with orchestral elements which to me is cool. That’s what gives the series some identity.
You always want the drama to dictate the music not the music to dictate the drama.
SK: There are some pretty freaky scenes in the show. When you’re alone at home and you’re working on this in the studio does it ever freak you out?
CL: It does. The studio is not at my house. The place that I think it freaks me out the most is if I’m working on the show – a lot of times I’ll work on the show until 2 or 3 in the morning – and then I have to get out of the office, lock everything up, turn off all the lights, and get and my car and drive home. It’s not far but it’s a good ten minute drive. Then my neighborhood is very dark.
Yeah, if I’m on edge already from basically playing shrieking violins for the last day or two then absolutely. When I hit the street at 2 o’clock in the morning I definitely look over my shoulder.
SK: I’ve always wondered that. I love horror but I’m rarely creeped out to the point that it really affects me. You brought up Christopher Young earlier…When I saw THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005) it completely freaked me out. I couldn’t possibly imagine scoring that film having to see those images and hear the music over and over again. I thought there could possibly be some scenes in “Supernatural” that might have that same affect.
CL: It’s absolutely interesting to see how much music can affect your daily life. I talked to, I think it was Elmer Bernstein, who was one of my teachers, and he actually said that when he was doing TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), it was such an emotional experience for him writing that music. It was gut-wrenching even when he was at home during that period of time when he was composing. Because you just can’t let it go. You can’t leave it at the office. It’s so part of what your brain is doing. It’s really amazing to see how much of a connection there is.
SK: I think that’s a sign of having a good project too. You know you’ve got something great when you can react like that to it.
CL: Oh yeah. The hard thing about being a young composer especially, is that the better the project, the more inspiring the project…the easier it is to score. Where as if it's a project that really didn’t hit the mark emotionally…that’s when it’s hard. Very seldom do you get writer’s block with a truly amazing project.
SK: In that sense, is that how you feel about “Supernatural?” Do you find it comes easier?
CL: It does. It absolutely comes easier. I’ve done three TV show and by far this is the one that writes the quickest.
SK: When do you start season two or have you already started?
CL: I am just getting ready to. It’ll be about another week and then I should be under way. I’m excited.
SK: Looking down the road, let’s say the show is still on 3, 4, or 5 more years. Are you still the composer?
CL: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I stay the composer. There are actually two composers on the show and we flip-flop episodes. It’s great because I’ve got this really amazingly long relationship with Eric Kripke, the creator, and Bob Singer, the other producer, and Jay Gruska, who’s the other composer. We all have the same long relationship. So we all really speak the same language. It’s become a situation where it would be too fun to give up.
SK: One final question. It’s a juicy, philosophical question for you.
We seem to be at the front door of a renaissance in television. No where is this more evident than in the music. TV hasn’t always been a fertile ground for great music for some time and I think shows like “Supernatural” among others, reflect a gravity toward a higher overall standard. Why is TV music getting so good these days? What do you think has happened to cause this?
CL: That’s a good observation and a good question.
I think it’s a cycle that has come around. If you really look at what was so great about the hey-day of television music like “The Twilight Zone” or “Amazing Stories,” you’ve got these amazing composers like Goldsmith, Williams, and all these people who are doing these episodic shows. The studios didn’t really differentiate the idea of storytelling as much back then from film.
Then we had a lot of, television soap operas for example, and it became very unfilmic. You had shows like “Melrose Place” and other shows that were so much more soap opera driven, and it’s just so very hard to write fantastic music for something like that.
The studios then started hiring a lot of big-time feature directors, for example “Supernatural” is produced by McG whose a feature guy. They wanted him to bring a feature element to weekly television. There’s no other example that’s better than (Jerry) Bruckheimer who’s now got like nine shows on the air. You’ve also got J.J. Abrams, same idea. You’ve got these people who love movies. They’re in the TV world but they do realize the greatness of fantastic entertainment. Whether it be “Supernatural,” or “Lost,” or “24,” you’ve got these shows that are high concept programs.
It’s also a reaction to the reality television that’s out there. But you have these shows which are much more movie-ish in their scope. There’s no doubt that shows like that demand music that is a lot more intense, a lot more complex, and plays a bigger role in the storytelling. You combine that with the fact that there are a lot of really great young film composers out there who are jumping back and forth between TV and films. Ten or fifteen years ago TV composers did TV and movie composers did movies. I did a season of “Supernatural” last year along with three features and two video games. Then you’ve got Michael Giacchino whose also done two video games four features and two TV shows. Then you’ve got Sean Callery whose done two or three features last year plus “24” plus “Medium.” So there is a lot of people jumping around and I don’t think there is that line anymore.
Really great writers along with really great composers are getting back into that world. The lines are blurred. Everyone just wants to score good projects. I’d rather score a good TV show than a bad movie. No doubt about it. I’d rather score a good video game than a bad movie. Everyone prefers to work on things they enjoy and work with people they respect. That’s definitely the situation with “Supernatural.” I like the show and I love the people so it’s easy for me to give my all and try to write great music for that show. I think overall in TV that’s where were going.
SK: It is nice. TV was just not the place you went to if you were a fan of great film music.
CL: And it’s not that they weren’t entertaining shows!
CL: I’m sure I watched plenty of episodes of “Love Boat.” I just don’t remember the music very much.
SK: Yeah. It kind of snuck up on us in the last several years. I just started noticing one day that I’m buying quite a few more TV soundtracks than I normally did. There’s some great music out there.
CL: There really is. I’m glad the timing worked out that I could be a part this.
SK: Are there any hints at all about a possible CD release for “Supernatural?”
CL: I know they’re talking about it. I don’t know when they would end up doing it. The normal idea is to piggy back onto either the DVD release date – which comes out today or tomorrow, so it’s not obviously coming out with that. Perhaps during the season two finale? I’m certainly all for it.
SK: With so many TV shows out there releasing their soundtracks on CD…
CL: Yeah, it’s become much more viable especially because you can get a lot of exposure from iTunes and things like that where you couldn’t get five years ago. That’s the real key. A lot of people will hear a show on TV, check it out online, find out who the composer is, and the next thing you know you’re at iTunes. For $9.99 you can download it and then it’s a done deal. I think it’s actually worked out really well especially for film and TV music. It seems like there’s a lot more being released now because of it. I miss the art work and everything else but it’s nice to get it out there.
SK: Exactly. I’ve been noticing several things that are getting released directly through iTunes. I would prefer a CD but if they have no plans to release a CD whatsoever I’ll take a release via iTunes.
CL: Absolutely. I try to get the artwork if I can get it but I still think it’s pretty great.
SK: Cool! Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. I could easily talk with you another two hours about your video game career but I’ll save that for next time.
CL: Well I hope there is a next time. I’d certainly be happy to chat about movies or games or any of the other stuff. Feel free to give a ring whenever.
SK: Super. Thanks again and best wishes for a successful and fun season two!
CL: Awesome! I appreciate it.
I’d like to give another hearty thank you to Chris Lennertz for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with me. I’d also like to give thanks to Tom Kidd for his assistance with this interview.
Check out Chris’ official website at www.christopherlennertz.com/ and for fans of the “Medal of Honor” video game series, soundtrack albums for all three titles he scored are available on iTunes.
Next up, a feature film composer plucked off Hollywood’s A-list. He’s got four films in theaters right now and miraculously was able to take some time to chat.