Music composition for any film or television series is essential. It is what helps capture a viewer’s interest and emotionally connect and invest in a story conveyed by images and performances on the screen. From drama to comedy to gripping documentaries, music composition is what connects scenes together though sound. A great music composer does so in a way that it subtly draws one into the scene and makes the viewer feel that image come to life. One such composer is Gary Lionelli, who has been honing his craft across the spectrum of film and television spanning decades. Gary has previously composed for the 2015 Emmy-nominated PBS special “Last Days Of Vietnam” and HBO drama series “Luck,” which starred Dustin Hoffman and produced by Michael Mann and David Milch. Gary also recently composed the ESPN 5-part documentary series “O.J.: Made In America.” In an exclusive interview, Gary Lionelli talks about his experience composing for “O.J.: Made In America” and the rewards and challenges that came with it.
You have had a remarkable career composing for film and television. How did you get connected to or approached in composing for “O.J.: Made in America”? What was the appeal of the project?
GARY: I got a call from director Ezra Edelman, with whom I’d worked before on some films for HBO. At first I wondered what more there could be to say about the topic, but I soon saw that the entire film was so much more than a regurgitation of the facts, and that it was ultimately a treatise on how America got to the point where the events of the trial of the century were completely explainable. This film was going where no film on this subject had gone before, and in unprecedented detail. I knew then than I had to echo this overview musically. Given a project of this scale, that was an exciting prospect.
Were there any specific challenges composing “O.J.: Made in America” and if so, like what? And then what were the rewards for you?
GARY: First of all, I love writing music for film. When you create a piece of music that brings a scene to life, it’s a thrill. To get there with this film, it meant executing the director’s vision, which, more often than not, means scoring the subtext of a scene rather than commenting musically on what is literally happening in the scene — that is, scoring what is going on in the mind of the character rather than what he or she is doing, or scoring the impact or consequence of an event rather simply the action of the event, literally. So the challenge was to make sure I was executing this in sync with what the director had in mind. Much of the time the music comments in a much broader sense, rather than simply echoing what’s going on in the scene at any one given moment.
What scene or sequence were you most proud of after you saw the finished product?
GARY: I’d have to say the very end of the film, where I’d hoped to be able to reprise an earlier theme for continuity. When I first placed the theme in the end sequence, it just worked from the get-go. I felt the music gave the end of the film the emotional impact it needed, and on a few different levels.
What did you learn from this experience overall? What do you feel you took away from the experience?
GARY: That I can score a project this long and get it done on time — now regular-length films seem really short!
What instrument(s) did you find were key in this particular to set the tone or musical theme you were striving to achieve?
GARY: The director specifically wanted solo trumpet and oboe in the score. I had Jeff Bunnell on trumpet, playing in a lyrical, introspective, and detached style. Most of the cues he played on also had a 40-piece string orchestra, which we recorded at the Eastwood Scoring Stage at Warner Bros. I think this combination had the effect of a forewarning about O.J.’s ultimate tragic fall from his once great heights. Again, the main theme here functioned completely as a subtext to the events of the film.
Were you given freedom to choose the sound for the project or were you under specific parameters to work within?
GARY: The only specifics were solo trumpet and solo oboe. The rest was up to me. In addition to the orchestra, another element of the score is musical sound manipulation of live instruments. It’s an extremely time-consuming way to write because of all the trial and error involved, but the results can give a film an identity that sometimes goes beyond what you can do with an orchestra alone. However, and this is a big “however,” it’s my opinion that a lot of this edgy sound manipulation has now become somewhat commonplace. You even hear it in TV commercials—that’s when you know it’s not really cutting-edge anymore. And while it’s sometimes an important element, it many not carry enough emotional weight on its own. So the orchestral elements — through composition, harmony, and use of different orchestral textures – help the score get a greater reach and depth of expression. In the end, the score was really a blend of the introspective jazz, the electronics, and the orchestral element — often all in the same cue.
How fast do you work when given a project of this scale? Are you allowed considerable time or is it kind of a rushed thing? Did it take days or weeks to compose for?
GARY: I don’t take pride in being able to write fast. I like to put in the time the film deserves. The overriding challenge with this project was working to an almost impossible deadline. The film is 7 1/2 hours long, and that meant there would be at least six hours of music to write. Yikes! I originally was given a little over three months, but I managed to get the deadline extended to within ten days of the theatrical debut, which gave me a tad over five months. And I had to set aside time for the orchestra, too, so it was an extremely tight schedule. “O.J.: Made in America” was conceived and executed as simply one long film, so I just kept working on the whole thing for five months straight, seven days a week, fifteen hours a day.
When looking for a project what is something you look for? Do you take everything that comes along can you pick and choose?
GARY: I don’t take everything that comes along. But I used to, for sure — that’s how you learn and make a living in a profession where it’s hard to find work in the first place. Now I look for projects that interest me. I want to feel like I can bring something new to the table, so it’s always a better situation if the film is about something that really interests me.
What is an essential element of being a music composer for film and television that makes the job easier for you?
GARY: You have to be able to wear a lot of different hats these days. Sometimes you have to be a composer, performer, and a mixer all in one. I learned how to play a lot of different instruments rather than just relying on keyboard sampled versions. And I know how my studio is wired, and that can be invaluable. When deadlines are tight, it helps to be able to fix any unexpected problems yourself.
What tools and equipment do you rely on to get the sound you want?
GARY: My studio is filled with all sorts of acoustic instruments, from a grand piano, marimba, harp, vibraphone, cello, violin, guitars, and percussion, to some really odd instruments such as the Array Mbira, a GuitarViol, a Guitaret, a keyboard blown flute, a cumbus, hang drums, and on and on. I like to use these real instruments almost exclusively over digitally generated electronic samples played on a keyboard. The range of expression you can get from playing the real thing is so much greater than what you can get from samples.
What are some of your favorite instruments to use? What makes each so appealing?
GARY: The GuitarViol, invented by Jonathan Wilson, is a fascinating cross between a cello and a guitar, and it ends up sounding like neither. Sometimes it sounds very exotic, almost like a duduk, which is an Armenian wind instrument. You can also process the sound through various electronics and delays and come up with some very inspiring sounds. I also like to use guitars, both acoustic and electric, and process and play them with various techniques so that they end up sounding nothing like guitars, but still keep an organic, expressive sound.
What in your background inspired to pursue a career in film/television composing? Was it a conscious decision or did you kind of fall into it?
GARY: For a number of years I was on the road and in the studio with various rock bands. After a stint in Boston, I was about to move to New York City when my girlfriend, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, suggested I come out for a visit. I never left. (And we got married!) I had always had a fascination with film music, so I enrolled in the UCLA Extension Film Scoring program and various BMI and ASCAP workshops. I then got my first film on a recommendation from ASCAP.
What kind of advice can you offer to others seeking to pursue a career in film and television composing?
GARY: Be open: sometimes connections come from places you’d never guess would lead to anything. One of my first big jobs came about because my eye doctor’s sister was a producer on a TV series, and I ended up getting the job. I got my first documentary because my college bandmate was friends with an HBO film producer, and introduced us. And then, once you get hired, never miss a deadline!
In addition to “O.J.: Made in America,” what else have you been working on that you can share?
GARY: I’m about to start on a documentary film about homegrown terrorism.
Was there anything upon watching “O.J.: Made in America” that you found surprising or interesting that you want to highlight for those just getting a chance to watch it?
GARY: I’d have to say the very beginning of the film, where O.J. is at his parole board hearing, and he’s trying to see how far he can get with his charm. Even to this day he is still trying to use his engaging personality to his advantage. Things seem to be going well, but then one of the members of the parole board bluntly asks him about his age at first arrest. This surprises O.J., and he realizes right then and there he’s not going to get out any time soon. It’s a gripping scene. And we hit it musically with the start of the main title music.
What made that experience memorable for you?
GARY: From the very beginning it was obvious to me that the director had created a truly remarkable film, and I knew I had to really bring it to match what he had done on the screen. So despite all the pressure from the tight schedule, it was really gratifying all the way through just be contributing to it. And of course the Warner Bros. orchestra recording session — when you hear everything played by a live orchestra, it’s always a big thrill. There’s just nothing like it.
Gary Lionelli’s astounding composition work can currently be heard in the ESPN series “O.J.: Made In America” and be sure to keep an eye (and ear out) for his new work coming later this year in an special on homegrown terrorism — another thought-provoking piece that is certain to be a chilling reminder that no place is safe anymore.