An interview with Joel McNeely by Rudy Koppl
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.21/No.81/2002
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Rudy Koppl
It’s been fifty years since Disney released one of their biggest animated features of all time, PETER PAN. Now, with that film’s sequel, RETURN TO NEVER LAND, being released in a new millennium, the story of PETER PAN continues through Wendy’s daughter, Jane, a little girl whose sense of imagination has been misplaced in order to survive the blitzkrieg’s devastation of London in World War II. Whisked away by Captain Hook and brought to Never Land by mistake, Jane must face the reality of fantasy. Peter Pan soon rescues her and tries to show her the wonders in Never Land, but Jane’s reality is seated in the urge to return home. Through all this there is a need to discover one’s sense of joy and wonder. We must believe in make-believe. As in all the great Disney films, this once again supports the notion of the power of faith in great adversity and the willpower to succeed. This is indeed a fertile ground of emotions and adventures that are highlighted by a wonderful fantasy-based orchestral score by composer Joel McNeely.
Joel McNeely has been scoring television and motion pictures ever since his first job, YOU TALKIN’ TO ME, in 1987. Through his 15 years of creating film and television music he’s scored over thirty five projects in every genre imaginable, including SAMANTHA, THE INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES (9 Episodes), TERMINAL VELOCITY, RADIO LAND MURDERS, IRON WILL, GOLD DIGGERS, WILD AMERICA. AIR FORCE ONE (additional music), ZACK AND REBA, SALLY HEMMINGS: AN AMERICAN SCANDAL, DARK ANGEL (the series), LOVER’S PRAYER, and now RETURN TO NEVER LAND.
I met Joel McNeely at his Woodland Hills, California, studio on Wednesday February the 13th. As soon as we began talking about film scoring, McNeely’s total commitment to his craft came Shining through. This composer absolutely loves writing music for film, it’s his life and he wouldn’t have it any other way. As McNeely enthusiastically admits, “I love it when you can take a scene and support it in such a way that there’s now a new dimension to it that wasn’t there before the music was there. Where you can bring energy, drama, or emotion to a scene. When you walk into a room and you’ve finished a cue and there are a bunch of people standing around with eyes that are welled up, that is just the best. It’s so much fun.” Towards the end of our interview McNeely, excited, pointed to a storage closet right across from his desk. He took me inside to reveal the charts of the full scores from some of the greatest classic films of our time. “I have access to all this knowledge,” he said enthusiastically. “There’s a wealth of education in here and it makes me a better composer.” As he spoke, he showed me scores by Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Franz Waxman, and John Williams. Afterwards I photographed Joel amidst his studio set up and with his daughter Claire. My last photo was of the composer sitting at his grand piano with a score sheet in front of him. McNeely smiled when the photos were over, and asked me to take a look at that score sheet. I came closer and read at the top of the score sheet: GONE WITH THE WIND 2. Below that title there were just five words written: REALLY GREAT SCORE GOES HERE. There were no notes at all.
How did you get into film scoring?
My dad was an unusual guy, professionally, in that he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in communications, playwriting, and such. He had a pretty thriving career out here in Hollywood as a screenwriter. We lived in Wisconsin; dad went out to Hollywood and ended up working on MARCUS WELBY, M.D., so he commuted. Then came this spin-off that dad got to executive-produce called OWEN MARSHALL: COUNSELOR AT LAW. That was his show, so we were all going to move out to California for a year when I was in the 7th grade. By then I was a young musician and I was working hard in music. For my birthday, before we moved out, dad said, “Hey, we’re scoring the Main Title to my new TV show, so for your birthday I’m going to fly you out to L.A. and you can come to this session.” Well, it was Elmer Bernstein doing the Main Title. I was 12 years old and I got to go to this session with Elmer conducting the Main Title to my dad’s new show. Elmer let me come up on the podium and showed me the score – in fact he gave me a copy of the set of the scores. He was so kind and took me around. In those days they used to project the movie, there was actual film projection, so the lights went down, the film projected, and Elmer conducted. Imagine being twelve, a young musician, and going to a session like that. It was all over – from that moment on I knew that was what I wanted to do, and from that moment I set about working towards that goal.
How did you get the job to score RETURN TO NEVER LAND?
It came about with some very hard work on the part of my agent, Vas Vangelos, and also some real belief and hard work from Matt Walker, who’s a music executive at Disney. Matt fought for me because it came down to myself and a couple of other fine composers. It was through the efforts of Vas, Matt, and some other people at Disney that I was hired to score this. It was a real horse race, honestly, but I was honored when I was chosen. With this score, I feel a pretty significant sense of responsibility because it’s Peter Pan. There’s that great tradition of the first movie, which fifty years ago became a classic, and now every effort was being made to have this live up to the stature of that movie. It couldn’t just be a poor cousin; it had to be a logical classy sequel in the same vein with all of the same wonderful elements. Daunting!
Your very first animated scoring job was for Steven Spielberg Presents TINY TOON ADVENTURES in 1990. It’s been twelve years since you’ve score an animated project.
Yeah, it’s been that long, but in this film there’s an element of more traditional animation scoring. There’s a small percentage of my score that gives a nod to the Carl Stalling style – real specific episodic moments that are commenting on every little action. The larger percentage has more of a feature style, a real sweeping score. There’s so much of it that’s of value in the scores of Korngold, Rozsa, North, and Newman, and I wanted to capture some of those elements. In a sense it is an old fashioned score. There are moments where I was consciously trying to pay respectful tributes to Korngold. With swashbuckling pirate fights between Peter Pan and Captain Hook – how are you not going to go that route? So I really wanted it to be, hopefully in the best sense, an old fashioned approach.
How is scoring animation different than live action? What changes for you, as a composer?
It tends to be more detail oriented. There were times when I would play a long line through a scene, not commenting on things, going more for the emotion and not specifically commenting on the direct action. You have a lot more of that, so it’s a lot more work from a technical standpoint. It’s a lot more work because there’s a lot more detail in hits. The timing is different. I orchestrated this, myself, so I spent a lot of time working on the detail. Even when I don’t orchestrate and I use my colleagues Dave Slonaker and Don Nemitz to orchestrate, my sketches are very complete.
What elements of RETURN TO NEVER LAND do you feel were most inspiring for you?
What was inspiring about this movie is the heart of it. It has such a kind heart. The message is essentially about rediscovering one’s childhood. The central character Jane, who is Wendy’s daughter, lives in war-torn World War II London during the blitzkrieg and has become a stiff, upper lipped, good soldier girl, and has lost her childhood. She doesn’t believe in Peter Pan, she doesn’t believe in anything of innocence, and she gets kidnapped by Captain Hook, taken back to Never Land, and rediscovers her childhood. I like that idea a lot.
Animation takes so long that by the time I was brought in they had been working on this for four years. I was brought in about a year ago; by that point the script was long gone. I never even saw a script; there was the film, essentially complete, except it was just in the pencil test stage. Hand in hand with that, I had a really fine relationship with Kevin Lima, who was brought in by Disney towards the end of making this film, respectfully to Robin Budd who directed the movie and hired me. Budd directed this film for 80% of its life, but I actually worked through the scoring process with Kevin Lima. We spotted the film together; we worked through all the demos. Kevin shaped the score.
What ideas in the film opened the door to creating your score?
I always had a preconception about this score, that it was divided into three parts. The first part was young Jane in London, until, she goes to Never Land. I wanted the score to be dark – shades of gray, no sparkles; just kind of subdued. Then, when she goes to Never Land I wanted the music to color up and come to life. All of a sudden, like in THE WIZARD OF OZ when it starts in black and white and goes to Technicolor. I wanted the equivalent of that to happen with the music. Orchestrationally I kept everything tight, dark, midrange and below, until we go to Never Land and then it explodes into the whole orchestra. Then in the last third of the movie where she believes, she learns to fly, and she comes home, that’s the real emotional part of the movie.
How did you deal with the film’s temp score?
In this case I really didn’t pay any attention to it. There was a temp and some of it was my music, but it went away quickly. As I started doing demos of my cues, those became the temp. I can switch the temp off now, but when I first started I was very insecure about writing music for films. There’s a certain amount of battle-worn wisdom that you get after doing it for a while. As a young composer doing this early on, I didn’t necessarily know that when people tell you they want the temp and they like the temp, it might be a good thing to fight against that and interject your own ideas. You have to have a lot of courage to say to a studio or a director, “I know you love the temp, but let me do this thing over here that’s completely different.” So early on in my career I got into situations where I perhaps didn’t have the courage to stray from the temp. But I don’t do that anymore.
Do you mock up your score for the director before going to the scoring stage?
Everything gets mocked up; it’s a very important part of the process. It’s become critically important now because so much of the creative back and forth between a director and composer can be done before you get onto the incredibly expensive scoring stage, with all those musicians. You can have those creative discussions and I can make changes and rewrites before we ever get in front of an orchestra. That way, when we are with the orchestra, we’re very efficient and everybody knows what the cues already are – they’re used to hearing them, and then the scoring sessions become more about performance.
I spend a lot of time conducting – that’s a very important part of bringing my scores to life. So I can spend a lot of time worrying about the music itself and not worry about making changes because everybody’s already heard the cues and they’re already familiar with them. This is when the performance comes to life.
Conducting your score sounds like an extremely important part of the process for you.
It’s a huge part of the process because of the emotion – how can you put emotion on a page? So much of the emotion or the intent of a piece of music comes from the guy with the stick at the front. I had an odd experience on RETURN TO NEVER LAND, which illustrated to me how important conducting is. We scored this largely in August of last summer; we were over in London for quite a while. There was some of the animation for two of the critical sequences in the movie that weren’t completed by the time we went over there, so we planned to have a pickup session at the beginning of October. I would just go back there for a day or two and finish the movie.
So we got back here and September 11th happens and I’m supposed to go to London the following week to score. We went though all the different permutations of what would happen and we decided that the safest thing, because nobody knew what was going on in the world really, was for me not to go and to hire a conductor to finish those sessions. What they did was to set up an ISDN line and I sat in a studio in Burbank, California, they had me hooked up to Abbey Road where I pressed the talkback button and all the musicians and the conductor could hear my voice and vice versa. It was startling to me, the difference, in how the orchestra played and the different interpretations of having somebody else conduct my music. It wasn’t that the conductor who did it did a bad job, it’s just: how could he know the moments of dramatic importance that I would have brought out through certain gestures? Coming in cold he couldn’t possibly know that. He couldn’t possibly know the passion that I wanted these particular phrases played with. To accomplish that, I wouldn’t ever have to talk to the orchestra – I would just have to show them through a gesture and they would play it a certain way. So it was a very abstract, bizarre feeling, sitting there and hearing somebody else conducts my music! It was hugely frustrating, and it made me realize how important conducting is, and what a component to bringing my work to life it is.
A case in point is a score I did for LOVER’S PRAYER, which I did with The London Chamber Orchestra. That score I think is probably my favorite score of anything I’ve done. That score is all about the performance. It’s a very simple score musically, but we worked for hours and hours on the performance, on the phrasing, on the dynamics, bringing it to life. I had a real classical orchestra and the sessions were all about performance. I listen to that CD and I’m most happy with that of any score I’ve ever done because the performance is so refined and thought out and that’s all about conducting.
What is the most important part of the scoring process that made your music successful in RETURN TO NEVER LAND?
It was finding my footing with the filmmakers, with Kevin Lima, Chris Chase the producer, and Sharon Morrill, the Executive in Charge of Production. It was just going in and playing themes. I’d just sit at the piano at Disney, they have a little studio there, and I would go in and sit down and play themes. We all did a lot of going back to the blackboard there – things they loved about it and then things they wanted to try again. It was all finding the heart of the themes with those people, getting inside their brains and seeing what they wanted. Then, once I felt like I was inside their vision, it became comfortable. As far as a working relationship, my feeling with Kevin was that I’ve never felt so in tune with somebody, creatively. He had these intuitive meaningful suggestions that he gave to me and I could translate them into music. It was a real productive relationship.
Can you explain you score in themes?
You can break it down thematically into character themes. The opening of this movie is really quite wonderful. This is a concept that Kevin brought into the game very late. Essentially Kevin envisioned a new opening for the movie that was designed to take you back to the original. It starts off with a late evening field of clouds, the Disney logo, which falls away into the clouds at twilight. From off in the distance you see a twinkle of light come ripping through the clouds. As that twinkle comes flying though the clouds it cuts shapes out of the clouds. It cuts the Lost Boys, a hook, the crocodile, and for each one of those cuts there’s a musical theme from the original movie. Then it cuts a Peter Pan shape that flies around and illuminates the front of the character. We see it’s the real Peter Pan, and the camera pulls back as we see that he is on a pirate ship floating in a moonlit sky.
Since this was done late in the game as the production commenced, they didn’t have the animation done, they just had the concept, so I wrote the piece of music and they animated to that. I wrote a rip-roaring piccolo line (I’m a piccolo player, that’s my instrument) that was designed to represent the movement of Tinker Bell. Then I had little five to seven second injections of each one of those themes, the crocodile theme, the Lost Boys theme, Hook’s theme and Peter Pan’s theme; each one quoted in this overture. You can imagine how exciting it was to write this piece of music and have the animation be done to that music, rather than the other way around. The movement of Tinker Bell is so precise, the way they were able to emulate the movement of piccolo by animating to it, in a way that I don’t think I could have ever scored if the animation had been done first. That was really cool.
So we got all those original themes out of the way – we called them back, let everybody remember them, and then boom!, we’re into a new movie. But as far as Peter Pan goes, I stuck to the original Peter Pan music, which is less of a theme and more of a motive (McNeely jumps over to his piano bench and plays three notes on his grand piano). In any key of F it would be F, B flat, G, so that’s the Peter Pan motif you will hear anytime he appears heroically. Then I wrote a new Hook theme, a new Tinker Bell theme, and the anchor theme of the score, which is a piece we came to call ‘The Flying Theme’. Anytime they started ripping through Never Land, they’re flying, it’s picturesque, so this is kind of a soaring theme. Then there’s the ‘Swashbuckler Theme’ which is heard anytime they get into confrontations with Hook, like the pirate battles. But the most important theme really was ‘The Home Theme’. The movie is about Jane leaving her home, rediscovering her childhood, and rediscovering what home means to her – it’s all about going home. During the moments of the movie where she’s in crisis and she’s thinking about home, this is where we play that theme, and ultimately at the end when she flies back home we play a big version of that theme. So those are the tent poles of the score, and then inside that there are all kinds of little sub-themes. This score is very thematically driven.
Do you write your score out by pencil and score sheets?
I’m one of the few left doing it that way. I tried it the other way, but I guess I’m just a dinosaur. I know that the thing now is to play into a sequencer and that’s what most of the composers do, using keyboards. This is just for me, but I don’t feel the level of detail that I can compose is something I can improvise. That’s essentially when you sit down at a keyboard and you play things in; you’re improvising the score, layering things on top. I can’t improvise counterpoint; I can’t improvise that level of detail by sitting down and playing. I’m sure there are some people who can, but I need to look at a line and compose another line to go with it, and then sit and look at it on the page, reading the orchestrational detail, looking at it as a score instead of a MIDI file. There’s just something about having a pencil in your hand and having a piece of paper in front of you that I’ll never get past. I’ve tried it both ways, but I can’t make the music as sophisticated or as rich when it’s sequenced. On the other had when I’m scoring the television series DARK ANGEL, it’s like the difference between jazz and classical music. DARK ANGEL is very improvised in the best way. I’m a jazz player, so DARK ANGEL is as free form and as weird as we want to get. My colleague, Judd Miller, and I will just turn on the recorder, we’ll each have some sounds up, and we’ll just go for a seven minute sequence and improvise off each other. Then it’s, “Ok, we’ve got those two tracks,” then we’ll go back, get different sounds, and do it again. It’s a real free form thing. I’ll have my sax on here and say, “Put the microphone up and let’s put same saxophone on,” but then I’ll grab the bass. Sometimes it’s not even thought about or talked about before we start a cue, we just start doing stuff, reacting off each other. That’s a very different way of making music. This can be fun, really freeing, and very satisfying. It’s amazing what sometimes comes out of this. If you were trying to reproduce what we did on Tuesday, if we were trying to do a thing like we did yesterday, we could never do it again because it was that time, that moment, those sounds.
Do you think that orchestrating your score is a big part of your sound?
Of course it is, down to the registers you write instruments in to the choices of instrument on a particular line, all of these things. I think of orchestration as the painting. If the composing of the themes is the sketchbook or the outline, then orchestration is what colors you decide to use. You’re sitting there with a palette of infinite colors, but you have to narrow it down to a certain number of paints. It’s what paints you use. I do think it’s part of the process; handing that part over to somebody else is strange to me. Why would you choose not to participate directly in how it sounds? Look at this score sheet, you have woodwinds divided by three lines, then you have trumpets, horns, and bones on a line, percussion on three staves, keyboard and harp, and then strings on five lines. So it’s essentially close to a full score. You could copy from this, but what I have Dave and Don do is to blow it up on the big paper, which is easier to conduct from. I’m not really handing these choices over to them. Let’s say I wrote out a one line melody here and said, “Orchestrate it.” That’s also orchestration, but that’s not what I do. I give them a complete sketch and they’re executing my orchestrational decisions. It’s complete to the extent where the instrumentation is all written out specifically. If I want two alto flutes and one piccolo, that’s written in the margins. Those decisions are made by me.
What did you learn from working with Kevin Lima and this film?
I learned how to bring out the intent of the story. There was a scene where Jane is behaving really badly, she’s quite shrill, and she’s yelling at her younger brother and acting like a brat. Kevin helped me find my way to a moment of scoring that’s completely against what she was doing, playing it very innocent and childlike, which completely turned the scene on its head. All of a sudden you don’t feel like, “Oh, here’s this obnoxious brat throwing a temper tantrum,” you feel like, “Oh my God, here’s this little child who’s under so much stress and doesn’t know where she is. She’s completely lost and she just doesn’t know what she’s doing.” It made her kind and it made her sympathetic, whereas before you just didn’t feel sorry for her at all. Making those unusual choices about bringing out the emotion of what perhaps isn’t even there on the screen, but turning something on its head, that’s what Kevin is really good at.
Tell me about your involvement with Bob Townson at Varese Sarabande and your conducting some of the great classic film scores of our time.
Bob and I are great friends, and we really have a great passion for doing this. We recently finished REBECCA, which we had started a year ago. That’s a gorgeous score by Franz Waxman. We’re getting to the point now where we’ve got Bernard Herrmann pretty well covered, but I still hope there is a NORTH BY NORTHWEST in my future. Even though it has been done, I feel like I have some things to say as a conductor about that. I keep telling Bob that I want to finish out the Herrmann series with TAXI DRIVER. I want to conduct the orchestra while I play the saxophone part and do it live. This whole project has been an amazing journey; imagine what you can learn. I’ll show you the wall of scores that I have in there (pointing to a closet across from his studio desk). I’ve got some of the greatest film music ever written and I’ve got their scores. I can put my nose into an Alex North score or a Bernard Herrmann score or a Franz Waxman score, how cool is that?
Imagine what you can learn by sitting there and looking at these scores? It’s just an incredible education, and then being able to stand up and conduct one of the great orchestras of the world, The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, it’s a gas. These projects with Bob complete my life in an odd way. The pressures and the vagaries of the business side of things can be daunting, tiring. On the other had, to be able to do these recordings where only the music matters, we’re just trying to get the record to sound as good as we can, and that’s a great balancer to the pressures of the business. It’s energizing and it’s fun.
What are your future plans and scoring projects?
I’m going to do JUNGLE BOOK 2 for Disney. That will be an ongoing thing this year, and it’s going to be a jazz based score. I’m also working on THE COURT for ABC Television, the Sally Fields show based on The Supreme Court. Then I’ll continue to work on DARK ANGEL and continue to do these re-recordings. I’m not only involved in conducting these scores for Bob, but now I’m editing and mastering them here in my studio as well.
My deepest appreciation and thanks goes out to Vasi Vangelos (Joel McNeely’s agent), and especially to composer Joel McNeely.