Last year, Marvel’s Daredevil surprised audiences, surpassing even the highest expectations of jaded comic fans and skeptical TV critics alike. All were blown away by its realistic, nuanced approach to the superhero vigilante serial drama, bolstered by a roster of amazing performances, pitch-perfect writing, and action choreography that could stand toe-to-toe with any big budget film. Still, one of the most notable and memorable aspects of the series was something many viewers take for granted (and most TV dramas these days all but forego) — the opening credit sequence.
Written by award-winning DreamWorks Dragons and Maze Runner film composer, John Paesano, that haunting opening theme was only the first hint of what the show had in store. Pulsing, rhythmic, tonal, yet brimming with emotion, Paesano’s Daredevil score stands apart in a world filled with brassy superhero anthems.
On the verge of the second season release, I had the privilege of talking with John over the phone about his return to Daredevil in season 2, his early experiences as a fledgling composer, his creative process, and geeky obsessions.
Geeks of Doom: I’m really eager to talk to you about Daredevil, but first I want to go back in time a little bit — I’d like you to tell me about your first experience composing a score, big or small, and what that was like, your first time out.
John Paesano: I had no idea what I was doing. It’s interesting — I had this conversation not too long ago. When I initially got into this business, there was this huge renaissance going on with music technology and how people were going about scoring films. There was kind of this split party in town where some people were jumping on the bandwagon of all this new technology, and some people were still in the old school; paper & pencil, writing for live musicians, and all that great stuff.
Computers were coming on the scene and they were starting to become incorporated in the scoring process, so there was this kind of no-man’s-land where, if you were a young composer at the time, you really didn’t know which way you were supposed to do it — were you supposed to do it the old traditional way? Were you supposed to try to use these new computers that were sort of archaic at the time?
So it was really confusing, actually, when you were a young composer trying to break into this business, because there’s this huge technical side to scoring film. It’s not just about writing music, you know? You’re writing music to picture — there’s different formats of picture, whether it’s film, or video at that time. What’s the frame rate — what was this whole frame rate thing? Sample rate? There was all this technical jargon you had to navigate in order to score film, so there was a learning curve involved.
I was fortunate enough, the first thing I really scored, there was this editor — an associate editor on the movie Hannibal did a short. And I can’t remember how I got that gig, I think I answered an ad in craigslist or something. I was probably 19 years old at the time. And I was fortunate enough to work with a picture editor who was able to explain a lot of these things to me and kind of gave me the inside track on what was typical at the time. What was the technology I should be using; what was going to break through and become permanent in the industry; what things were fads [and] not to pay too much attention to.
So I had a really good education scoring my first film, and luckily enough he was very patient with me and kind of walked me through the technical side of it and allowed me to concentrate on the music and things of that nature.
But it was one of those things where you almost need to have a couple jobs like that before you figure out what doesn’t work, before you can kind of figure out what does work. And I think that’s why it takes a certain amount of time to break into the industry. There’s so much about this job that has nothing to do with writing music. It’s a lot of other things involved — and that’s just from a technical side! We aren’t even talking about the political side of it and how to deal with, you know… studios, producers, directors, different executives, different TYPES of executives, music departments, all the different areas you have to traverse in order to become a film composer. So, it’s a pretty in-depth subject. Hopefully that answers your question!
GoD: It absolutely does! Now, by this point, you’ve composed music for film, direct-to-video, network TV, and now Netflix. Which of those experiences has been the most positive for you, creatively?
JP: I really enjoy the film scoring experience. And the main reason why I enjoy it is because you have a lot of time to—and I’ve said this already—you have a lot of time to figure out what doesn’t work before you figure out what works, you know? There’s a lot of experimental time, just because the schedules tend to be a little bit more forgiving with film than they are with television. Especially network television. When you’re doing network television, you’re on such crazy time constraints, depending on the show, but majority of the time, you’re on a very quick turnaround time. You’re looking at anywhere between 25 to 30 minutes of music in 4 days or less sometimes, and that requires you moving at a pretty good clip as far as creating score. When you’re on a film, it might take me 5 days to work on a harp and a string part for a piece of music.
There’s definitely a lot less time to play in the sandbox when you’re working on TV. Film allows you a little more time in the schedule. So for that reason, I enjoy the schedule of film more. But, there are some great things that come along with working on a faster schedule. There’s a certain rush to it; there’s definitely a challenge that I find enjoyable, you know? And the cool thing about TV is everyone is working on that fast schedule; it’s not just the composer. It’s the FX people, it’s the show runners — everyone is working on a very advanced schedule. So it’s definitely a complete different art form than scoring for film.
And then you have something like Netflix, where Daredevil is, where it’s almost like a good blend between both worlds. Those Netflix series and the Marvel series that I’ve worked on, they’re almost like movies that are broken up into 13 parts — just because that’s the nature of the way they’re distributed. They release all 13 episodes all at one time and people can choose to watch how many of them as they want; they can binge watch through all them, or they can take their time and plot their own pace.
But because of the way they’re distributed, there tends to be… a greater scope when it comes to working on the project, and an overall sense. You aren’t working week to week to week to week on different episodes, so you tend to take the [same] creative approach as you would with film.
GoD: In the world of superheroes, theme music is a pretty big deal — you want something memorable, hummable, and of course heroic. What was really interesting to me about the first season of Daredevil: you nailed all of those elements, and yet it doesn’t sound anything like any other superhero score out there. I know you’ve said before that you came up with that melody when you were auditioning for the job; I’m wondering, what inspired you to go that direction with the tone of it?
JP: The initial conversations I had with Steven about the score — Steven DeKnight, who was our show runner in season 1 — they were really centered around the idea of, we wanted to make the show very grounded in reality. We didn’t want people to have the impression that they were watching a “superhero show” — we just wanted people to feel that they were watching a show about a blind lawyer that did incredible things. But we really wanted to stay away from the typical, you know, “Dat-ta-da-da!” (emulating John Williams’s Superman) superhero-ish type themes; big fanfare, bombastic, orchestral, fantastical scores that are so part of that Avengers universe… That Marvel sound has a very flashy, bright, orchestral, thematic score to it. And because Daredevil’s character seems to be a little more complex than some of those other characters — as far as his personal life, as far as that he’s got a handicap — he’s got kind of a darker history than some of the other characters that we’re used to seeing in popular culture today that marvel’s put out there. It was important that we wanted to make sure that we captured that grittiness.
In order to do that, we thought one of the elements to do was to keep the music as minimalistic as possible to allow people to kind of — and I’ve said this a bunch of times — I wanted to create a score that was felt and not necessarily heard.
And the main reason for that is, I feel like when you’re watching a show and there’s big music out front, as a viewer, it pushes you out of the scene and makes you be a viewer of the scene. When there’s music that’s very subtle, minimalistic, and that’s felt and not necessarily heard, it sucks you into the scene and lets you almost participate in the scene as if you were standing in the room with the characters. And that was very important to me and Steven DeKnight and we wanted people to feel like it was realistic and grounded as possible. So, simplicity in the score became a very important aspect.
It was challenge, though, too, because you are scoring a pretty epic idea, and the score had to have weight to it. But at the same time we wanted to try to do it without it being too notey and too overdone. I think the way we ended up with the Daredevil theme, and the way we end up with that Daredevil sound, was always trying to keep an eye on it being simple and simplistic, but at the same time also being interesting, and I think that’s how we ended up using a lot of drones, a lot of sub-pulses. We really made sure the punches and the efforts and the sounds of New York City were really part of the fabric of the score as well.
The soundtrack’s interesting, because I listen to it and I go, “I like it, but I miss the sound of New York, I miss the punches in this cue right here from the fight scene. All those things contributed to the music as well,” so the soundtrack I think really worked well with the sound design. And it was something we were very conscious of as we were doing season 1.
And I think we carried that through too, to season 2. I think we really made sure that season 2 incorporates a lot of the same stuff.
GoD: And what’s the experience been like returning to the show in the second season? What’s different this time around for you?
JP: It’s been awesome! I mean, Doug [Petrie] and Marco [Ramirez], the new show runners, have done such a good job taking the torch from Steven and carrying it. They were a big part of season 1 as well, so… I think everybody really wanted to make sure that we didn’t get far away. There’s more characters in season 2, with the arrival of Punisher and Elektra, but we really wanted to make sure that we didn’t get— it would be really easy to say, “Oh, we’ve got all these characters now, we need to amp everything up and take it to the next level and do all this stuff,” and there IS that, but at the same time, we wanted to make sure we didn’t overdo it. The characters are strong enough to bring their own weight that we didn’t need to hype them up with anything too much.
So, I think it was about still making sure everyone felt part of that world that we created for season 1 without overdoing it, from a musical perspective. There’s definitely more weight, though, in the score in season 2. But it’s not weight as far as tonal weight. It’s more just that the stakes feel a little higher. And the music is, you know, we had some additional characters that needed to be acknowledged musically. But they’re acknowledged the same way we acknowledged Daredevil in season 1.
GoD: When you’re composing a score that has that many characters, and characters who are kind of iconic, do you leave their musical identity to the melody, or do you find instruments, or do you find a certain emotion? How do you find your way into each of those characters?
JP: I always kind of go by feel. There are projects I’ve worked on that are really melodically thematic, you know? I did a movie over the summer called My All-American, it’s a very old-school— it’s the same producer/writer who did Hoosiers and Rudy, so he comes from an ilk of wanting a very melodically thematic score. And I work on the How To Train Your Dragon series for DreamWorks, coming from the ilk of [composer] John Powell’s stuff; very thematic, musical. And then I do stuff like Maze Runner, which is more of a feel and a tone and a sound.
And Daredevil, I think, falls into the latter. There is melody in it, but for some reason, a feel for Matt Murdock almost felt better to me than using a melodic sort of— melodies tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves. And when you’re doing a score where you’re trying to accomplish subtlety, melodic scores aren’t necessarily the best technique to use for things like that. That was a challenge, though, because I’m a big fan of character and making sure that the scores bring a certain character and element to them, but trying to accomplish those sometimes without heavy, thematic, melodic elements is tough sometimes.
But I think we accomplish it with Daredevil. I think it definitely has a feel to it; it has a tone center to it. Matt Murdock himself does have a theme. It’s used subtly throughout the series, I don’t think it’s too overdone, and that was important. I think the same thing holds true when we get into season 2. You know, we obviously have the arrival of Punisher and we have the arrival of Elektra, and they all have their own feel and their own world when it comes to the score. You can feel in the score when one of them is on screen. You can feel the different feels blending and meshing with each other when you have Daredevil and Punisher operating together, or when you have Elektra and Daredevil on screen together. All the themes and feels work well with each other, and I think there’s a distinction. It’s not John Williams’s Star Wars, where you’ve got the Darth Vader theme and the Luke Skywalker theme and the Princess Leia theme. It’s a very different style of that approach, but I still think the same concept is accomplished, just using a different technique to accomplish it.
GoD: In the first season, I would personally describe Wilson Fisk’s theme as “menacing,” “intense,” “heavy” — it’s all in the sound of the horns and that feeling that you gave him. If you could describe that feeling for Elektra, or for the Punisher, in a few words how would you describe the feeling of each of those characters?
JP: Without giving away too much, I would say Elektra is… I’ll use the word “mystical.”
And for Punisher, it’s “angry.”
GoD: And, knowing you would be returning for season 2, did you start writing any music ahead of time, or was it like the first season where you waited to see the footage?
JP: I’m a big fan of waiting to see the footage. I definitely have ideas, though. I have preconceived ideas of what I think it’s going to be, but I’ve been down this road before where, it happens with scripts a lot: People always give you a script and they go, “Hey I want you to read this script and tell me what you’d think about it for score.”
And I just have been down this road so many times where you think you know exactly what it’s going to be — great example: Maze Runner. When I did the first Maze Runner, Wes [Ball, the director] and I got together, and we were talking about the script and the story — this is before he shot anything and this is before I saw anything — and we had this great idea, going “You know, a Jurassic Park thing would be great for this. Like, Jurassic Park, Lost World, it could be dark and haunting. We have these big walls and it all takes place outdoors; they had dinosaurs, we had these walls.” He’s a huge John Williams fan and we had all these great ideas about how that type of score is going to be great for this movie.
And then, all of a sudden, I got my first footage and we started putting up stuff against frames and it just couldn’t be a further… it was the worst choice ever. It just did not work at all. It didn’t lend itself to what we needed to accomplish. [It was] one of those things where you really don’t know if it’s going to work until you start throwing stuff up against frames. So, until I get footage, it’s really hard for me to commit to anything.
But I do think there’s value in writing something just based on imagination, or just based on a picture, or a piece of art from a storyboard or something. There’s something liberating about writing not-to-picture; you kind of let your imagination run and I think you come up with a lot of good ideas that way. How many of them stick? I don’t know. But before I do a project, I always try to write like a 10-to-15 minute long suite, not to picture, and it’s almost like a brainstorming method that I kinda use. And when I get picture, I listen to my suite against picture, and I find little bits and pieces of it that work really well and I also throw away other parts of it, and at least it leaves me a good starting point. I did that for season 1, did a little bit for season 2, I do it for all my films, so it’s definitely a great starting point for me.
GoD: That actually brings me to a question I was going to ask a little later on. Obviously, I’m a fan, I love the album release of the first season. There’s a lot of music that was in the show that did not end up on that album. The album covered a lot of the main themes, but there was a lot of incidental music that I love that wasn’t in there. Is there a complete collection or an extended score out there somewhere that we might be seeing someday?
JP: I would love to! There’s probably close to 300 minutes of score in the whole entire show. It’s one of those things where it’s so hard to go through all that and go, “What about this cue? Should we do this cue?” Because you can only put so much on a CD release. I’m all for it, [but] it’s really not my decision. It kind of falls on the decision of the studio and the record label. If there’s a demand for it, they will definitely, I’m sure, put it out.
But there’s definitely no shortage of music we could put out there. Sometimes I feel like it would be great to just have 30 fans come in and tell me what cues they love the best so we could put the album together that way. It’s so hard sometimes for composers to try to pick what tracks they want to put on these albums because we’re so close to the music, and sometimes the cues that composers end up putting on these things are not necessarily the cues that people want to hear, you know what I mean? You’re so close to the music that it can be a difficult situation, weeding through that amount of music and trying to figure out what goes best on these albums.
GoD: That kind of sounds like what happened with Hans Zimmer and the Interstellar soundtrack — the one track everybody was buying that soundtrack for wasn’t on there and everybody freaked out about it.
JP: Yeah, it’s tough. It’s really hard to figure out what people are going to want to hear. Sometimes composers go, “I don’t want to put that one on there; that cue took me 5 minutes to write. I want to put this one on. This cue I worked really hard on and it’s got all this intricate stuff.”
And at the end of the day, people say, “I don’t care, I want this cue, this is the cue I like the most,” and it’s that small little cue that took you no time to write.
So, you tend to pick cues that took you a lot of time, that you’re emotionally tied to, and those sometimes aren’t the best cue for the album.
GoD: By the time people read this, the season will be out, but we are very anti-spoiler at Geeks of Doom, so I have a couple questions that I want to play surreptitiously with:
FIRST – Without giving anything away, have you crafted a theme for any characters this season who we have NOT seen in the trailers or press releases? You don’t have to say who it is, but I’m wondering if there’s a surprise character from the comics out there that you’ve worked on that we don’t know about yet.
GoD: Okay! And if you want to leave it at that, that’s fine, I don’t want to press.
JP: (laughs) I think that’s all, I’ll leave it there.
GoD: Okay, cool. And then the second one, again without giving anything away story-wise, do you have a favorite musical moment in season 2, and if so, what should we look out for or listen for in order to spot it when it pops up?
JP: There’s definitely, you know… one person I really enjoyed scoring to in season 2 was Elektra. Just because she’s a very complex character, there’s a lot of different sides to her. Also, there’s a lot of storylines around her that we didn’t have a lot of opportunities to explore in season 1. So there’s definitely some areas for growth as far as the score goes, stylistically, that we weren’t really able to go to in season 1. So, it was really fun and challenging scoring her.
As far as Punisher goes, I honestly, I just didn’t want to get in his— he is incredible. The performances are great. People are gonna absolutely go crazy over him. I just wanted to stay the hell out of his way.
JP: We didn’t! We scored him — but I mean, he really, really brings it in season 2, and I think people are going to be really excited to see him brought into this world.
GoD: I always like to ask creative people: since you work in the industry and get to see how the sausage is made on a day to day basis — you yourself get to MAKE some of that sausage…
GoD: …Do you still get to just sit back and enjoy movies and TV? Or does the professional or creative side of your brain kind of ruin that experience for you?
JP: Y’know, no, honestly, I can still lose myself in films and still watch TV shows and, kind of, see it as a viewer. That’s interesting, that’s a good question, because I was always curious about that myself. There’s a difference between wanting to do this and then actually doing it, and when I wanted to be a film composer, I always wondered, if I was ever able to do it, would I have the same question for myself. And I can happily say that, no, it hasn’t really ruined my excitement for cinema or television or shows like this. I can still lose myself in a good show, and it’s really had no effect on me at all.
GoD: I’m glad to hear that!
JP: If anything, it’s actually made me appreciate some things more about the industry. I’m definitely a lot more forgiving now of things that I— you know, let’s say that I hear something and I say, “Oh, I’m not too fond of that choice right there.” I know that there are so many reasons behind why that choice may have been made that it’s hard to point the finger at one person and say “I wish they’d handled this differently.” There’s so much politics involved in these projects and there’s so many different people taking part of them that I think it’s actually made me appreciate the craft and the process of making films even more, just being involved. If anything, it’s given me a greater appreciation of this stuff.
GoD: At Geeks of Doom, we love to encourage and embrace any topic that people feel passionate enough to just geek out over. So, John, what’s your geeky passion?
JP: I’m a big gamer. I love gaming. And y’know what, honest to god, I’m a big techie guy. I’m into any type of technology, I think it comes from, you know, when I was a little kid, I wanted to write music for orchestra, and… I couldn’t afford a real orchestra, so I had to figure out a way to do it virtually… and that brought me to the computer. And that’s always been kind of my palate, was computers.
So, in order to do that, I had to learn a lot of new technology and how that technology was utilized. And back then, when I was doing it, which was probably around early 2000s… this stuff was not where it’s at right now. So, it required a lot more understanding of how computers worked and how the software worked within the computers and how to get musical equipment hooked up to the computers — so I think that really got me interested in the tech side of this business.
And now it spans even further away from just music, but just software in general. I would say if that’s the one thing I geek out on, it’s I have an addiction to technology, whether it’s Apple watches or PCs or Macs. Anything that you can plug into a wall and try to get information out of, I’m in to.
GoD: That’s awesome! And, finally, what’s next for you? Do you have anything in the pipeline that you can tell us about?
JP: Yeah, I’m actually working on two — I can’t tell you specifically what they are, but I’m actually doing another Marvel thing right now ((you heard it here first, folks!)) and then I’m working on a video game for EA right now. I’m getting ready to start Death Cure, which is going to be the third installment in the Maze Runner series. Wes, my director on that, starts filming in six or seven days. I’ll be scoring that probably in three of four months. I’m in my fourth season right now of the Dragons show that I do for DreamWorks and Netflix. Just finished a TV series for Fox called Second Chance. So, I’m definitely staying busy.
Staying busy indeed! Thanks so much to John for his time! You can find the soundtrack for Daredevil season 1 for sale on Amazon and iTunes, and be sure to check out season 2 which is streaming in its entirety NOW on Netflix!