An Interview with Film Composer Joe Kraemer

Joe Kraemer has been teasing the film business for years with his moody, melodic scores. He composed the music for The Way of the Gun some years back, then did a lot of television and documentary work. Now he’s returned to the big screen with Jack Reacher, the new Tom Cruise movie. The score, which is available from La-La Land Records, is darkly melodic, and one can hear, now and then, the influences of John Williams, John Barry, and Michael Giacchino. But the sound is really all Kraemer, and his work is a breath of fresh air in a film-music environment that sounds very much the same from composer to composer. What comes through is Kraemer’s ideas, his thinking, and I was curious about a few things. ••• Kraemer agreed to answer some questions recently. I wanted to know, first of all, about his influences. ••• “Of course, John Williams tops the list for me,” Kraemer said. “I listen to and study his scores more than any other composers. I have noticed a tendency to sound like John Barry as well, but believe it or not, that is entirely accidental. All I can think is that we both rip off the same Brahmsian gestures. I have enjoyed Giancchino’s work, especially on Lost, but any resemblance to him is coincidental. ••• “Other inspirations include Jerry Goldsmith, David Shire, Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Hermann, and Howard Shore. Shore in particular writes music that seems to please modern directors’ desire to avoid histrionics while at the same time allowing some level of compositional detail into the score.” ••• My own view of composers has a lot to do with their approach. To my way of thinking, John Williams composes for characters. What they’re thinking and feeling as well as what they’re doing. Just about every other composer scores action. I wondered what Kraemer’s approach was. ••• “I try to score films from the point of view of the audience. That is, I want to reflect where I think the audience should be focusing their attention. That also means the score might react to the film rather than lead the film. My process begins with watching the film from beginning to end. I don’t usually read the script unless the director has asked me to for a specific reason, such as music that needs to be on hand during filming or something like that. I prefer to react to the movie itself,” Kraemer told me, “rather than go into my first screening of it with preconceptions. Also, it can be valuable for the filmmakers for me to come in with as little baggage as possible, since I am often one of the first people on the team to see the movie as a movie.” ••• And what’s his process after he watches the film? ••• “After I’ve seen the film, there is usually a spotting session where I discuss with the director where the music should begin and end, how the music should sound and where it should fall on the dramatic spectrum. I have a number of tricks that I use to spark the creative process at this point. Sometimes I’ll use my mathematical understanding of music to devise a theme (such as the open fifths of Reacher’s theme), sometimes I’ll have an orchestral color in mind (i.e. the music for The Zec). ••• “The actual composing process probably resembles Max Steiner more than anyone else I know of. I start at the first frame of the movie and work my through to the end, chronologically, in order. What I find is that this procedure allows me to discover what I romantically refer to as ‘little treasures’ that I develop as I move through the score. Once I get to the end of the picture, I go back and do a revision draft where I reintegrate any of these little treasures into the earlier parts of the score as needed.” ••• Does he compose at a piano or at the computer? ••• “I work at the computer, where I compose and orchestrate using orchestral samples. I’ve done many films where the final product is a sample-based orchestra, so I make my work at this stage as realistic-sounding as I can. I have studied many symphonic works and conductors scores, including film cues by Williams and Goldsmith, and done mock-ups of their music to hone my skills at simulating a live orchestra with samples, so I’ve gotten to the point where I am confident in my orchestration choices and how they will translate from the samples to the stage. ••• “Once the score is recorded and mixed, I hand it off to the music editor who [handles] the final dub. I’ve reached the point where I think the film is best served with me staying out of the trenches during the [final mix]. Having a composer [there] is like having an actor in the cutting room. Too often a choice that is better for the movie might impact the score in a way that my ego may disagree with. I find by sitting out the dub and going in at the end for a playback of the full mix gives me a chance to voice any major concerns, while freeing the filmmakers from the burden of having someone there trying to protect the trees in spite of the forest.” ••• One thing I kept coming back to was the fact that Kraemer has jumped into major Hollywood scoring with a Tom Cruise movie. This isn’t a little film the composer can hide behind. His music is right up front with that larger-than-life persona. I asked how that reality affected his work this time. ••• “The size and scope of the project definitely factor into the production of a score,” said Kraemer. “If I know for sure we will be using a live orchestra, then there are certain musical gestures I can include in my arsenal that just aren’t possible using samples exclusively, especially in the brass section. I believe Joni Mitchell once said that at a certain point you stop writing the song and it starts writing itself. I find that the film will tell you what kind of score it needs, and part of the specific skill set a composer needs is to listen to the film when it tells you something isn’t working.” ••• Jack Reacher is as terrific and taut as its star. Better yet, so is the score.


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