Chatting with Jessica Jones’ Emmy-Nominated Composer Sean Callery
If you couldn’t stop your pulse from pounding while watching Jack Bauer’s clock tick down (24) or you held your breath as Carrie Mathison navigated terrorist plots in the CIA (Homeland), Sean Callery is likely to blame. His music has driven viewers to the edge of their seats in some of TV’s most pulse-pounding thrillers and earned him a stunning 16 Emmy nominations. Callery has already taken home three Emmy awards for Outstanding Music Composition. This year he’s likely to bring home another with nominations for Outstanding Music Composition for Minority Report on FOX and Outstanding Main Tile Theme Music for Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix. The music for Jones is an audible treat that is both compelling and compassionate for one of Marvel’s grittiest and most tortured superheroes.
We spoke with Callery about his inspiration for the noir style series, what it’s like for viewers to devour 8 months of work in 2 days, and his upcoming professional reunion with Kiefer Sutherland.
Congratulations on your nomination! The bulk of your impressive Emmy nomination count comes from 24. How did you feel to be nominated for the first season of a new show with Jessica Jones?
It was wonderful. Despite the fact that I’ve been nominated a few times, you really do not expect it and when you happens you’re really excited. You feel really humbled by the fact that it’s a peer group nomination. That’s a very big honor because people who are doing what we do are the ones who are casting the votes, you know?
All of those are extremely popular shows with huge fan bases. Is that ever intimidating to you?
When I started working on 24, we really didn’t have Facebook or any kind of social media. And by the end of 24’s run, I was beginning Homeland. I was quite struck and excited about the possibility of interacting with fans more. Up until that time, it really came down to people sending faxes or letters or email, we had email back then. But the social media component of the industry is rather exciting. Sometimes you hear from fans that really love the show and sometimes you hear from people that don’t love the show. You have to take the good with the bad. But all things being equal, it’s a very nice part of our world to be able to meet fans, particularly at conventions or concerts, which is fun too.
Marvel is known for their high production quality that carries over into their series, but Jessica Jones is often a grittier more grounded feel than many of the other comics we see on screen. How did that shape your work as you were composing?
Full confession, I didn’t really know much about the Marvel Universe. I read some comics as a kid – Spiderman, Ironman, things like that. But I didn’t really know about how large the Marvel Universe was and I didn’t know anything about the character of Jessica Jones. But, I found her character to be so unique and unlike anything I had ever been exposed to. Whether it’s Marvel or not, it’s just such a unique character. [She’s] a detective that has a very sharp wit, brains, and a bit of a dark, traumatized past. All set within almost a noir-ish environment of New York and the idea that I had from the beginning when they asked me to work on it was to honor all of these facets of the character. They were kind of reinventing the noir genre. And I wanted to kind of make something – I told them I wanted it to be “neo-noir-ish” and they were excited and enthusiastic about that idea, but they didn’t know what that sound would be. I said, “Well, I don’t either.” But I knew I wanted to do something kind of unique. And it is nice when I hear from fans. I have heard from some Jessica Jones fans who responded to the show really well. They said that it’s a very different kind of feel for the show. It’s more intimate, a bit more grounded. Her superhero powers weren’t as front and center as other characters are. It was it’s own particular kind of flavor and nuance and it was a joy to explore that.
Were you a fan of noir before working on Jessica Jones? Did you draw from any of the classics for inspiration?
When I was a kid, I did watch some old ones. I remember watching noir movies with my parents and I thought they were cool. They were stories about mysteries and had a bit of swagger to them and style. You can go back to a movie like Blade Runner, which in and of itself to me had some noir qualities to it. It had some beautiful textures. It was set in the future. The idea of a noir story thankfully doesn’t mean it’s confined to a certain kind of musical sound. You want to just envelope and encompass the energy of the character and the world that they’re in. So, I did watch a lot of noir when I was younger with my family, and then I welcomed revisiting those kinds of styles just to get ideas as to what I might do on this show. It wasn’t like I went to the movies to figure out what kind of sound Jessica Jones had. That isn’t what happened. I had to find the sound independently, but the comparison to older noir films was not something we were afraid of.
From where do you draw your most inspiration? The story, characters, director?
I would say the person I followed and devoted myself most to was our show runner and Executive Producer, Melissa Rosenberg. She is a brilliant, brilliant storyteller and when we had conversations about the character and the tone and the look, we were having these discussions before I even looked at a picture. So after reading the first 4 or 5 scripts, I began to just sit down and sort of conjure and try to play around with what I think a sound for this character and her world might be. It isn’t an exact science. You’re just sort of following emotional impulses and little inspirations that have no schedule for popping up. Sometimes an idea sort of forms out of the clouds and you just try to follow it. You have to develop a sense of trust in following it. As a matter of fact, the very first time I saw any footage of the show was not moving images. I wasn’t able to look at a cut of the show until the director saw the first episode. Legally you can’t look at a cut until the director has had his pass at it. So, they showed me still slides – about 100 slides in a dark room. That was quite a wonderful experience because you’re looking at frozen images of every part of the show. Whether it’s the detective office she works in or her friend’s high-end apartment or Kilgraves’ menacing appearance with his purple tie. There’s all kinds of things that you get in a still photograph that come across to you more than a moving picture and I never really realized that until this show. It was quite a neat little lesson to me. Exposing myself to the show in the very early stages that way.
You have created music for a lot of intense and suspenseful dramas. How do you discover a unique feel for each show?
Each episode, even a show that has run for years, has its own kind of particular shape and style. It’s almost like a bottle of wine. You can have a bottle of wine, even if it’s from the same vineyard, each bottle is always a bit different in some respects. Each episode is really very different. It’s written by different people, it’s directed by different people. There are different actors that come in and out of the show. Even though when you watch a show you have a certain expectation for a certain kind of entertainment, it still has to be unique and original. You have to come at it from a very unique and fresh point of view. When you’re paying attention to the story and just focusing on telling the story as best you can with the music, generally it is always a different path. I have never worked on a show that is exactly the same as any other. Especially on a show like Homeland or Jessica Jones or Elementary. Elementary is more of a procedural and yet each episode is very different.
Do you have desires to try a new genre? Any sitcoms in your future?
Well, I work on Bones. It’s a lighter faire. That was the first lighter kind of show that I ever worked on. I would love to try anything and everything. Anything new is always good for me. Trying something new is always good, it keeps you alert and exploring. Keeps you from getting lazy.
Well, I definitely don’t think you’d be accused of being lazy. A lot of your work has been for network and cable TV. Were there any differences working on a Netflix series where all of the episodes are released at once?
Jessica Jones was my first series for Netflix and my first series for Marvel. But I did work on Homeland, which was on a cable channel. Homeland was the first show I ever worked on that did not have any commercial breaks. The big difference between pay-channel and Netflix streaming services [as opposed to network television] is they don’t have streaming services. And so as a result, the shows have a different kind of flow and arc. Your music has the freedom to be placed in different ways whereas when you’re in a more structured commercial inserted show, the music obviously can’t play into the commercial breaks so the shows have a different kind of pace with commercial breaks. Which is fine. We’ve been doing that for decades. It has it’s own unique thing and it obviously works because it has been around for so long.
Do you have more flexibility with the Netflix model?
The Netflix pay channel model is a bit longer form. Almost like a film even though the episodes aren’t 2 hours long. But you could have an episode easily 55-58 minutes. That’s pretty long without a break. The other unique thing about Netflix is when a show drops you’re not premiering a single show. You’re premiering the entire body of work that you worked on for a season. That was a very new thing for me. When Jessica Jones happened, I distinctly remember, 2 days later, someone wrote me who watched all 13 hours. They really loved the series and wanted to tell me, but when I read that I thought, “Wow, that was 8 months of my life writing music that was basically consumed by a viewer in the space of 2 days.” It was a real compliment and it was an interesting thing I had not encountered before. On other shows you get to see them when they premiere. Now, if you catch up with a show that you haven’t seen in years, you can catch them all at once. Jessica Jones was unique because it literally all premiered at once, all 13 hours. So those are two of the differences.
Sometimes you can really tell that the music is leading up to a commercial break, which you don’t have on cable or Netflix.
Some shows I worked on were really famous for building up to the break. There are some producers that are big fans of that kind of build and there are other producers that go right to break without so much as an inkling that you’re going to commercial. And both ways work, but it just depends on what’s best for the story and the show.
What are you working on next that we’ll definitely want to catch?
I am working on a series called Designated Survivor for ABC starring Kiefer Sutherland who I’ve known for years. That’s a fun show about a guy who becomes President of the United States after a terrible disaster. This is a real position. The designated survivor is someone who stays away from the Capitol during the State of the Union address just in case something like that disastrously goes wrong. Well, something like that goes disastrously wrong and someone who has never had any plans to run for office or is not considered to be a very political person becomes the President and that’s Kiefer. That’s his role. It’s a really great story. There’s something rather unfortunately timely about this. There’s so much disruption going on in the world. In that room that night, there are 9 Supreme Court justices, the head of the Joint Chiefs of the military, every member of Congress, the Vice President and the President. They pull out one member of the cabinet. It’s generally a thankless position because you don’t think anything is going to happen. He’s watching the State of the Union and then the TV line goes dead and that’s the end of it. It’s a neat show and Kiefer does a really great job with it.