Composer John Paesano on Scoring A Hero’s Journey in “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes”

Editor’s note: This article contains light spoilers for Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

“What’s interesting about this film, and it played into our favor, is you couldn’t score it like you could a normal film that’s been done the last ten years,” says composer John Paesano about director Wes Ball’s Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes. “A lot of it wasn’t conceived by the time we started working on it because it was so visual effects heavy.”

What that meant for the composer was coming up with ideas that were emotionally connected to the characters rather than composing for pictures on a screen.

“I’ve wanted to write film score since I was nine years old, and I grew up on John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Barry. A lot of these old-school composers weren’t able to throw up a digital video and score to it. They’d have to read a script, talk to the director, and discuss the characters. Then they would go away and write themes based on those conversations and would later apply that music to the picture when it was edited,” explains Paesano. “Everything is so visual now. Composers get the film, and they are almost fully conceived. We can take the Quicktime files, put them on our timeline, and move things around digitally. Because of that, scores have become less character-based and more visual-based.”

The irony is that Kingdom is one of the most tech-forward films made this year, thanks to its stunning visual effects. But even still, Paesano took an off-screen approach, pulling inspiration from previous films in the vast franchise and discussing the score’s dynamics with Ball. “Wes really wanted the audience to feel like they were there. He kept saying, ‘I want it to feel like the audience is sitting there with them. I don’t want the audience to feel like they are sitting in a chair watching a movie,” Paesano notes.

(L-R): Noa (played by Owen Teague) and Raka (played by Peter Macon) in 20th Century Studios’ KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The compelling story being told on screen takes place several hundred years after the War of the Planet of the Apes. It brings attention to a small group of apes known as the Eagle Clan and how a young ape named Noa (Owen Teague), who sees his entire village taken hostage by a ruthless ruler named Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), fights back for what’s been taken from him. 

The aural magnitude of Ball’s installment leans into a flavorful, world-building sound design rather than the score doing the heavy lifting. As Paesano puts it, the score is “supporting” the soundscape and “popping its head up every now and then.” The design choice was specific to Ball’s vision for Kingdom. Paesano discusses his inspirations, the difference in scoring for apes and humans, and why it was important to parallel Noa’s journey through music.


Finding Inspiration 

The Planet of the Apes franchise dates back to the 1960s, with several books, films, TV series, and comics telling the tale of apes ruling man. Paesano referenced what came before to furnish something new.

Paesano: Wes is a crazy score junky. It’s a huge part of his process, and we both have a huge appreciation for this franchise and what comes before us. When you go into these big properties, you have this choice to make: ignore what came before and do something completely new, or you try to adopt what made these films successful and bring some of that along. Because Wes and I are huge fans of what Jerry Goldsmith did in the original film and what Michael Giacchino did with Dawn and War, we knew there was a little bit of responsibility. From a pure passion standpoint, we wanted to bring what Goldsmith did and add a little bit of the DNA from Dawn and War. Then there’s this tricky responsibility of how to bring it to a new place. It was an intricate balance.


Unconventional Instrumentation

Paesano wrote an emotional, compelling score inspired by instruments from previous work. A less is more approach allowed the music to push through the soundscape with identifiable themes.

Paesano: We went into it with a sonic idea. Wes would use the word primal, and I would use the word gritty, but we wanted to have tone to it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score has it. When you listen to it, you can hear everything. You can hear the celli, hear the violin. You can hear all the instruments. It’s not just one big wash of sound. There’s so much character and space in it.

The one thing we took from Goldsmith was the palette. We didn’t want to use synths in the score. We wanted it to be completely natural and use instruments that reflect the environment. For instance, if I was going to use the piano, I wanted to use a piano that looked like it had been sitting in a schoolhouse for a couple of hundred years. It’s a little out of tune, and maybe we mic’d it a little closer, so it wasn’t a beautiful pristine grand piano. I made sure on the strings, we closed-mic’d everything, and we used smaller orchestral sections so you could hear more of the instruments and less of this big, lush sound. 


Another thing we took from Jerry was his use of this effect called an Echoplex. It’s kind of like a delay pedal normally used on a guitar. We used it in the orchestra. I also borrowed serial composing to write the trackHuman Hunt.” It’s something Goldsmith did in Planet of the Apes. It’s a tone row, a custom scale, but if you start going one way, you can’t skip any notes up or down. It’s a way to get thematic ideas through rhythm. Then, with Michael Giacchino’s sound, it wasn’t about using his themes but approaching scoring these characters with a simplicity that allows the themes to be obtainable.


Scoring for Apes                                  

Paesano began scoring the film early on, but when the final visual effects were delivered, everything changed.

Paesano: It’s funny, when I scored the characters as humans it was much more complex. We can absorb that because, as cinema people, we grew up on that lush, orchestral, intricate score. But when the visual effects came in and they turned into apes, it got so fantastical. It was so wrong.

(L-R): Noa (played by Owen Teague), Soona (played by Lydia Peckham), and Anaya (played by Travis Jeffery) in 20th Century Studios’ KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2024 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

We realized that we needed that simplicity. Michael Giacchino’s score has it. It’s got this wholesome, emotional, but very simplistic sound to it. I say that in a complimentary way because you can tell with Michael it was a choice. He knows how to write very intricate, complex music. I am just speculating, but I really think he probably ran into the same issue Wes and I noticed. With apes, it has to be simple.


A Simple Search

As Paesano started to write the music for Kingdom, he searched the internet looking to find any ties to apes and music. What he discovered added to the authenticity of the score. 

Paesano: I was researching and typing in Google ‘music and monkeys’ to figure out if there’s any throughline. I came across an Emory University study on primates and music. What was fascinating is they did this experiment trying to figure out if primates have any response to different types. And whenever they played traditional western music, music played in 2/4 or 4/4 time, the monkeys stayed away from that part of the enclosure. It drove the primates crazy. But when they played non-traditional Western music, whether it was African or Indian, anything that uses different compound rhythms, it was the opposite reaction. The monkeys came over to it and liked it. This was low-hanging fruit, and I thought what an easy thing to use as inspiration.


Antagonistic Themes

The composer used the Emory research and the original Planet of the Apes (1968) as inspiration to create the theme for Proximus Caesar, the power hungry king who wants to end human existence.

Paesano: Proximus Caesar’s theme has a motific idea to it, but the biggest part of his theme is that it’s done in an 11/8 time signature. [11/8 has eleven beats to a bar with the eighth note as the beat.] I took Jerry’s Goldsmith’s “The Hunt” and used motific ideas from that but did it in 11/8 to give it a little wrinkle to it.

You can hear it when the marauders attack Noa’s village; that part is in 11/8. Then, when you first see Proximus trying to explode the door open at his village, you can hear this 11/8 rhythmic thing. I used the non-compound time signature to sculpt it around Proximus and the marauders.


Creating a Hero

When we first meet Noa he’s an innocent ape trying to win his father’s approval. That bond became an inspiration for Noa’s musical theme. 

Paesano: Noa’s theme was born out of the idea that his father is the master of birds and Noa would eventually become the master of birds. One of the things I had to do was come up with a tune that his dad would sing to the birds. Wes and I went back and forth, wondering if we wanted his father to sing the theme that we would be hearing in the movie or did we want him to sing an entirely different song. We ended up going with a different song because if we didn’t, it could have turned into the musical Cats.

The tune his dad sings had to be really simple so that the audience would believe an ape could vocalize it. So when I came up with Noa’s theme, I borrowed the idea from the master of birds tune and adopted it to Noa. It’s this very simple melody and on the soundtrack it is called “Together Strong.”


The theme is written in Dorian mode, and it feels hopeful but not really happy. It can also feel intense and sad too. It was written to avoid leaning one way or another emotionally. We wanted it to be personal for Noa and believable, something that wasn’t too saccharine or over the top.

A Hero’s Journey

Part of the musical storytelling was being patient and earning moments for when a note would hit. After Noa’s village is attacked, the young primate starts to become a leader. Paesano wrote a parallel score to reflect the character’s journey.

Paesano: Wes had to hold me back at times. He was very focused on doing something different than what Matt Reeves and Micahel Giacchino had done on Dawn but still adopt the heart and character they had at the same time.

For Noa, it was more about growth. When we first start the film, Noa’s theme is introduced when he arrives in the village after getting his egg. The Eagle Clan theme can be heard in that big wide shot when Noa gets off his horse. There’s a little hint of French horn, and you can hear just the melody before he goes up to talk to his dad. Then, we don’t come back to Noa’s until after the attack on the village.

Wes was saying, ‘He’s not Noa yet.” It’s a growth thing. The whole idea for Noa went from being very simple and unsure to having the confidence to go to the valley beyond, and then this emotional statement of becoming the clan leader. We don’t get to its full glory until the film ends when Noa says, “climb Eagle Clan climb” during the flood. There’s this heroic moment when he eventually faces Proximus, and the largest part is when he bonds with the father’s eagle. It goes through these stages.

Delicate Placement

Kingdom builds compelling environments through lush sound design. Finding the right moments to include the score required balance.

Paesano: Technology has changed a lot since War, and it is interesting because the more real the characters look, the harder it is for the audience to accept crazy ideas. We took the character of what Jerry Goldsmith did but brought it to a modern place. A lot of it was writing the music but it was also about how Wes applied it to the film.

With a big-budget film like this, you’re expecting this giant score. But our score is pretty subdued. There are moments when the soundtrack is big, but when you hear it applied in the film, it’s very intentional. Wes wanted to apply it in a way that is very different from what’s out there, and I think it gives it character. We were conscious that this film moved a little slower, and I have to give Wes credit. He wanted it to take its time, for audiences to sit in the world and appreciate it so people didn’t feel rushed through scenes.  

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is in theaters now.




Featured image: (L-R): Soona (played by Lydia Peckham) and Noa (played by Owen Teague) in 20th Century Studios’ KINGDOM OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. 


Daron James

Daron is a veteran journalist, who has been writing about the film and television industry for over a decade.