Triple Threat: Chatting With Film/TV/Video Game Composer Christopher Lennertz of NBC’s Revolution
Christopher Lennertz’s composing career has settled nicely across three mediums, making him one of the busiest musicians in Hollywood. His most recent film successes includes scoring a string star-studded comedies like Identity Thief, Think Like a Man and Horrible Bosses. For scoring TV, his credits include NBC’s new series Revolution, about a family struggling to reunite in a totally powerless American landscape–and we mean that literally, where every single piece of technology, including computers, planes, cars, phones, even lights, has completely blacked out. Revolution returns tonight at 10pm EST, but it's not Lennertz's only major TV credit–he's also working on the 8th consecutive season of the CW hit series Supernatural. In the video game world, he's scored the final installment of the mega-popular Mass Effect series, as well has putting his musical touches on Medal of Honor, the James Bond: 007 series, and Gun. Lennertz has also racked up some awards, including two Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences awards for Best Original Score, and an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Music for a Series for Supernatural.
We spoke to Lennertz about the difference between scoring film, TV and video games, making the dulcimer the key instrument in his Revolution soundscape, and the legendary film scores he played at his very own wedding.
Let’s start with scoring NBC’s Revolution—what kind direction did the show’s creator give you when creating the score?
The first call I got was from my old, dear friend Eric Kripke, who created the show and also created Supernatural. I was friends with him in college at USC. And he called and said ‘what we need here is an epic journey, in a post apocalyptic world, but, it’s not a dark post apocalyptic world, it’s an organic, almost medieval because the power’s gone.' And then once I got the gig, Jon Favreau directed the pilot, and Jon and I talked a lot about what he wanted the music to do, and one of the things he wanted to do was it to feel like a film every week. So we got the opportunity to use live players and record a real orchestra every week. And he also really wanted to have a melody that could be played big on brass, but small as well on flutes for the main theme.
Is there more pressure on you these days to come up with a really memorable soundscape for the show? Lost, for example, had really big, memorable scores.
I think that’s definitely the case, and I would absolutely say that big kudos go to [Lost creator] J.J. [Abrams] and [composer] Mike Giacchino for ushering in this new era. Starting with Alias, and through Lost and Fringe, a lot of the really great shows on TV are using a real orchestra now, and the music’s also playing a bigger part in it. I think that’s why when you look at television now, you’re seeing so many composers who have done a lot of films also scoring TV, with real musicians. I think everyone’s seeing television as a way to tell stories with music.
Are there any ‘all-star’ instruments that you use for Revolution that give you a memorable score, something fans can associate with the show?
The big instrument that we use all along, that I hope people associate with Revolution, is the dulcimer. Sometimes it’s bowed, sometimes it’s hammered with a mallet, sometimes it’s struck with a brush. And we have this on every show. And it’s very much what I would consider to be a medieval type sound. It’s very basic folk sound that you would hear in ancient Celtic music, like in a Braveheart, or in a King Arthur kind of thing. And one of the things we do is we always have that layered throughout the show and I think it gives us a sound that hopefully everyone will say, ‘hey, that’s Revolution.’
Pardon my musical Philistine-ism, but can you explain what, exactly, the dulcimer is?
There’s many different kind of dulcimers. It’s basically when they string metal strings from low to high across a piece of wood. Sometimes it’s a hexagonal kind of thing, or sometimes it’s long and more like a guitar. They’ve been used in Celtic music and all over the U.K. You’ll also find Turkish dulcimers, and Persian dulcimers, and then it translated into a more guitar-y like feel in Appalachia. A lot of the Appalachian instruments are all dulcimer based. It’s got that long, open strummy kind of feel to it. Hunger Games had a bunch of that kind of stuff in it. It gives it a very folky sound, but with a lot of expression. And it’s much more gritty than a regular violin or a cello would be. It’s got a lot more base life to it.
Is there a specific character on Revolution that you really enjoy
One of the many things that’s great about this show is nothing is better for a composer than bad guys. Captain Neville [the main bad guy], that’s Giancarlo Esposito who used to be on Breaking Bad, he’s just so good to write for. And I just write nice dark, dark music for him.
Is there any discernible difference in your approach when you score films as opposed to television or video games?
The big differences for me are television is a situation where have to always keep in mind you may not have as big of an orchestra as you would on a film. So you have to make sure you can produce the kind of sound you need with a smaller orchestra. And you also have to move a lot faster because you’re doing an episode every week. A lot of it has to do with getting down to the base elements and delivering a vast quantity of music quickly, whereas in a film you often have this big orchestra, but you also have to make sure you support the dialogue and the story and you don’t get in the way of anything. One of the great things about video games as a composer is there’s not nearly as much dialogue and the dialogue is very often not moving the plot along, you’re actually responsible as a composer to move the plot along musically. I feel like in video games you get to show off the most, perhaps, and write bigger melodies, longer melodies, that can sort of sit above the gunfire, the explosions and things like that.
Can you tell us a bit about your background…when did you get interested in music?
I loved music from an early age. My grandfather was a singer. And he was sort of in the Sinatra world, and so I grew up listening to a lot of jazz. I would spend every summer [in Boston] with him and we’d go see John Williams conduct the Pops, that was late 70s, early 80s, so it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones, so I definitely fell in love with film music at that point. And then when I got to college, I snuck into a scoring session with Henry Mancini, and of course I knew him from my grandfather and all the great films like The Pink Panther, and I watched him work, and I saw how amazing it was that he was able to, in the course of one movie, do an action piece and a comedy piece and a big band piece and a sweet emotional thing, all in one day. As someone who really hates to have to pick one style of music that they love, it sort of struck me at that point that, 'wait a second, this is a career where I could actually do different music all the time!' So it was really an eye opening day for me. I basically changed my major the next day at USC and became a composing major.
So how did you get your career off the ground?
At that point I started doing student films and independent films and then came out and proceeded to work my way up doing lots of Indie movies and assisting really big composers like Michael Kamen and Basil Poledouris, and learned from them, and slowly started getting bigger films, and bigger TV shows. And luckily, people like Eric Kripke, who I went to school with, and did student films with, ended up furthering their careers and creating Supernatural and Revolution and kept me on board to create their music, and I have long histories with a lot of those folks. It’s just such a blessing to be able to work with your friends.
Can you tell us about some scores that inspired you, or scores from past films you absolutely love?
My favorite score of all time is The Mission by Ennio Morricone. And it’s just stunning, and his Gabriel’s Oboe’s piece is the piece that my wife walked down the aisle to when we got married. I think that’ll bring tears every time you hear it. To give you some idea of the humor in our relationship, she came down to that, which was very romantic, but when we walked out of the church, we played the finale from the throne room in Star Wars, after they blew up the Death Star.
So I definitely have those two as big favorites of mine. I’m a huge Godfather fan. And I love James Bond’s stuff, so I’m a huge John Berry fan as well.
I’m a big proponent of intellectual property and believe when you create something, it should be yours, you should obviously be able to benefit from it. Because the problem, the thing that breaks my heart, is people feel like ‘oh, it’s okay if I pirate this movie, because Brad Pitt has enough money.’ Well that’s not the problem, the problem is if you take away the profits from the big movies and the big music, then there won’t be any money to fund the next generation. Eventually everyone, unfortunately, is going to start wondering, ‘well where’s the next group of great artists? Whether it be musicians or filmmakers or actors, you’re going to start realizing we don’t have them, we didn’t foster them, we didn’t promote their study and promote their development because a lot of these low budget films and indie movies, and even things like web series, a lot of those things get funded as pet projects from bigger producers and other actors. George Clooney may decide to throw money at an independent film with a very small budget, and that’s what’s going to discover the next big actor or the next big director. It’s how you get a Steven Soderbergh [with his low-budget, career-making first film Sex, Lies and Videotape] or a Darren Aronofsky with Pi. You get a very small budget thing. And if everyone starts basically stealing the big stuff under the guise, ‘well they’re so rich they don’t need the money,’ unfortunately it’s going to then effect, ten, fifteen years from now, when we’re all wondering why there’s no really great art or entertainment being made, and I think that’s the real sad thing. I don’t think people think that far ahead. And I really hope that people realize that it’s not about people getting rich, it’s about spreading that to the next generation and developing the new talent and the young filmmakers and the young composers.
Featured Image: NBC's Revolution, courtesy Warner Bros. & NBC.