An Interview with James Dooley by John Mansell © 2008
James Michael Dooley (born August 22, 1976 in New York) studied music at New York University, majoring in music composition. After finishing the university he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied music with prolific film score composers Christopher Young, Elmer Bernstein and Leonard Rosenman. In 1999, he started working for Hans Zimmer as his chief technical assistant. He works in Santa Monica, in Hans Zimmer’s film music studio Remote Control Productions (formerly Media Ventures). He composed, arranged, and orchestrated music for films like Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and The Da Vinci Code. He also composed music for inFAMOUS 2, and worked with Celldweller.
I understand you studied film music under Chris Young, Elmer Bernstein and also Leonard Rosenman, How did you feel in the company of these film music greats?
At first it was fairly intimidating! These are world class composers and you can ask them questions that only they can answer. The best part is that they are working composers on the front lines. It doesn’t make sense to learn from composers that aren’t out there working from my perspective. What a dream it was to be able to ask Elmer Bernstein, “When you were scoring Ghostbusters…” How often do people get to meet their heroes?
What would you say was the purpose of music in film?
The primary job of any music in film like any other part, is to tell story. The medium itself is based on storytelling, so how could the function of it be anything else? There are millions of ways to do this that can highlight films in equally numerous ways, and there lies the art and fun of it!
Do you orchestrate all of your own music?
When you say, ‘orchestrate,’ I’m assuming you mean the actual putting it to paper part. That I do not do. However, my mock-ups are incredibly detailed down to the articulation, voicing, and I usually end up mixing a fair bit of the synthetic version into the final.
When and where were you born, and do you come from a family that is musical at all?
I am from New York City, and I don’t come from a musical family. My family does have a great ear for music and I grew up listening to everything from The Beatles to Tchaikovsky. I believe that is what sparked my interest in music from an early age.
Did you always want to write music for film?
I remember the first day that I said “THAT IS WHAT I WANT TO DO!” A schoolmate made a short film involving a cue ball. It was shot with really cool angles and a fast moving ball. The soundtrack was Danny Elfman’s ‘Batman’. I was blown away and found out what the music was and that is what set me on my path.
When you agree to do a project, how many times do you normally have to watch the film before getting any fixed ideas about what type of music is required and where it will be placed etc?
Figuring out what to write seems to come more from the dialog between me and the director. It’s a process of discovery where you try different ideas and explore a bit. The only way to figure it out is to give it a try and see what sticks. Some ideas are great on paper, then you find out it’s a horrible idea… but that can lead you to the right place regardless, so it’s important to be open and react emotionally to what goes on. This is the best way to add a part of who you are and how you see the world into a project.
The question of the use of the temp track is something that composers have different opinions upon, do you favour the use of the temp track on movies, or do you think that this practise is sometimes less than productive?
Ah! Temp Tracks! This has become a thorny issue as of late because it can get you into a bit of legal trouble. Having a temp track means that you had ‘access’ to a piece of music which makes the court less tolerant of similarities. This can make things awkward, especially if the ideas are quite simple. I know film editors that have to edit to music, which is where this begins. So then if the director likes it, they would want me to see it for feel and direction, but it can get one into trouble as it has to a few composers in Hollywood lately. It’s a tool like anything else, so it can be used for good or evil, just depending on the team you work with. I often will through up random pieces against a scene, just to see what sticks and what makes a frame pop. The best way to go is to work with someone you trust and that you get to know their aesthetics well. If you are working with someone the first time, it can be a handy tool. It’s all how you use it.
You have worked on projects from varying genres, is there any genre that you would particularly like to work in that you already have not?
I think I’ve hit all the major genres apart from ballet and opera. I’m quite happy jumping around as it keeps me fresh. After one type of project, I’ll say ‘Never again!’ and then two months later I’ll be dying to do one!
How do you work out your musical ideas, i.e. do you use a synthesizer a piano or maybe you write them down straight to manuscript?
I have a piano at home and normally do theme sketching by hand there. Sometimes I do them at the studio, but almost all the time I write them on manuscript. It’s a lot of fun to see the ideas and sometimes you have to go back to them, so they can be handy to have around!
Do you conduct all of your own film scores?
I don’t like conducting and it’s not the best use of my time. I’d rather sit with the director and talk about drama and emotion. I’ll leave the conductor to work out note problems and work with the band, and I can still talk to the orchestra though talk back. It’s more important for me to be with the filmmaker talking about the film at that point.
PUSHING DAISES is already popular in the UK after being aired just once; it has a certain appeal to it. Your Music is vibrant and haunting, do you think it is important for a TV series to have a distinctive theme, so that people hear it and straight away think My Programme is starting?
I love this show so much! I can’t wait to get back to work on it. I think it’s important for a show to have some identifiable part. It doesn’t have to be music as there are some shows with little or no music that work well. I have fond memories of the scores for shows that were incredibly distinctive. You can listen to the theme from ‘Cheers’ or ‘Hill St. Blues’ and it sets the tone right away. I feel that we have done that for Pushing Daisies and it is my honour to work on it.
You have also been involved with the album MY WINTER STORM, which is the latest offering from Taria Turunen, What was your role on this project?
I wrote the orchestra pieces to some of her songs, and did some arranging as well. It was a blast and I can’t wait to get to work on her next album! It was a very collaborative role in discussing what the songs purpose was in the story of the album. Tarja is a fantastic talent and great fun to be with as well.
Impys Island is due for release this year I think, what size orchestra did you utilise on the score?
We recorded the score in Bratislava with what I believe was an 80 piece orchestra or so. It was very cold! That is what I’ll remember most about that score!
How do you think the film music of today compares with scores from the 1960s 1970s?
The style of story telling has changed a bit, so the music has changed with it. I miss some of the bizarre musical sounds that were brought to the table. I love the score to ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ It’s such a unique sound and still indelibly attached to the film. I hope we get back to that sensibility soon. I think it’s time.
Have you ever had a score rejected or indeed have you ever refused to work on any project at all?
I’ve never had a score rejected, but I have had a couple things I would not participate on. One project was a parody national geographic type video with animals having sex. What would you write to that one?!?!
You have recorded in various studios around the world, what studios in particular would you say were the best equipped for scoring movies?
I love Air Studios, Abbey Road, Sony, and Fox. Those are world class obviously. We do Pushing Daisies at Henson studios in Hollywood. It’s a smaller group and the stage is fantastic!
You have worked on TV shows, video games and motion pictures, how does working for the small screen and games compare with working on a feature for the cinema, or do you approach each project the same?
Each project you approach with the same idea of ‘how do I tell this story best.’ Each medium requires a different type of story telling so you try to match up the music as best as you can. Serving the project is all that matters. Again, the dialog with your director/producer is what keys the score. Pushing Daisies required French Romance and Crime Jazz Thriller music. It doesn’t matter that it’s on TV. The idea of the show is operatic in nature, so the score must follow.
Are you working on anything at this time?
I am currently mixing the score to LITTLE MERMAID: ARIEL’S BEGINNING for Disney. Pushing Daisies starts up at the end of summer and I have a couple TV projects on the go in between which will be announced soon! Also, the Simpson’s Ride at Universal studios is opening this summer in Orlando and Los Angeles so go and check it out!
Are there any composers either classical or maybe film music composers, that you think have influenced you in the way you compose?
I love Prokofiev! So much creativity, melody, and wicked sense of humour! I hope to balance those sensibilities in my writing as well as serve the project.
I am influenced by food, wine, architecture, and people! Everything can teach you something about music. That is the beauty of life.
When you are working on a score for a movie, have you a set way in which you work. By this I mean do you tackle smaller cues first or maybe the larger tracks, and do you work from main title through to end credits?
Usually I do one thing that I know I can get done to just break the ice. It’s like dating a bit, and you have to go slow and earn your way with the project. I do write themes early on so that the film has it’s voice. Leonard Rosenman used to say he’d tackle the biggest cue in the film first. That way you’d have all the material you need in the film. With Little Mermaid, they gave me the ending song to orchestrate and write first. This is fairly daunting! I’m glad that happened though, because after it, I had everything I needed to go forward, so I guess Leonard was right!
How early on in the proceedings do you like to be involved on a project?
I love to be brought on as early as possible, even though you might not be writing much. It’s so important if there are songs, or things to animate to. It seems the more thought there is that music is vital, the earlier people generally look for a composer, which is why I’m happy to get on sooner than later.
Do you collect or buy soundtracks, and have you a favourite score either of your own or by another composer?
I used to be a crazy soundtrack hound! I don’t have as much time these days to listen to music, so I am very selective about what I do listen to. It’s also important to keep on top of what other composers are doing. Ravel played through ‘Rite of Spring’ before it’s debut. Why should I not be as interested in other peoples work? I love Arcade Fire! I have listened to ‘Funeral’ a million times!
Do you think that a good score can save a bad movie, or at least help it a little?
A good score can make a bad movie watchable. You can’t polish a turd, just spread it around!