Interview with Joel McNeely

By • May 21, 2014

When Wisconsin-born composer Joel McNeely went from a land of good old fashioned American purity to the far more ornery streets of Los Angeles, his innate melodic talent arrived just at a late 80s time when newfangled synths and rock music were taking their place as underscore – putting any number of old studio composers out to pasture as they tried to adapt to the changing sound of Hollywood – or saw their legendary careers bite the bullet. Yet McNeely was a greenhorn with the symphonic chops to more than match his elders, with a particular talent for a golden, Disney-friendly nostalgic sound that made him ideal for such early film and TV projects as “Splash, Too,” “Parent Trap III” and “The Wonder Years” (not that he couldn’t also play Hitler’s daughter or a Frankenstein’s monster).

In the early 90s, McNeely truly assumed his mantle to follow in the symphonic steps of such mentors as Bruce Broughton and David Grusin, composing sweepingly orchestral adventure for “Iron Will” and winning an Emmy for TV’s “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” He impressed with the throwback comedy thrills of “Radioland Murders”” as much as he did the deliciously hip spy action of “The Avengers” and the modern, breathless suspense of “Terminal Velocity,” whose car air-drop cues remains a standard bearer for escalating excitement. As family friendly as McNeely’s sound could be with the likes of “Flipper” and “Gold Diggers,” the composer also showed a muscular dark side with “Soldier” and “Virus” as he gave into the menacing force altogether with his majestic “Shadows of the Empire,” a magnum opus worthy of John Williams that had the greater distinction of being attached to no movie at all. While major studio films became more infrequent over the last 14 years (though given the occasional wide release like “Holes”), McNeely remained just as impressively, and stylistically prolific with such diverse soundtracks as “Lover’s Prayer,” “Dark Angel,” and “Stateside.” Disney video projects particularly beckoned again with McNeely giving gossamer flight to “Mulan,” “Lilo & Stitch” and no small amount of “Tinkerbell” features.

scoring session of A Million Ways to Die in the West - photo by Tony Rivetti, Jr./Universal Pictures

Yet while Joel McNeely’s fans could enjoy his spot-on re-recordings of such classic scores as “Citizen Kane,” “Vertigo” and “Jaws,” his current, rapturously melodic voice was sorely missed, as completely orchestral scores seemed to go the way of the Dodo Bird. All of which makes his symphonically gun-slinging return to The Big Leagues all the sweeter with “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” For what’s likely the highest profile western comedy since “Blazing Saddles,” McNeely’s pistols are blazing with the majestic Big Country strains of Jerome Moross, Alfred Newman and Elmer Bernstein. This is a real, 95-piece deal western score with themes to spare, galloping across the range from heroic derring-do to dastardly villainy, folk dancing and woman romancing that John Wayne and The Magnificent Seven rode to. Except instead of The Duke, McNeely’s rapturously straight-shooting, all-orchestral gift from the western heavens is accompanying a complete chickenshit sheep farmer, as personified by everyone’s favorite wise-ass Seth MacFarlane in his first attempt at leading man status outside of voicing a foul-mouthed teddy bear.

But then, MacFarlane, has more than proven his own movie score fan geek status with any number of good-humored composer goofs on such shows as “The Family Guy,” While a longtime fan of McNeely’s scores, it was the composer’s other talent as a jazz and pop arranger for the likes of Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Melissa Manchester that brought him together with the comedy impresario with an equal love for 40s jazz. McNeely provided the big band and orchestral arrangements for MacFarlane’s Grammy-nominated album “Music is Better than Words,” a partnership that led to scoring gigs on his series “American Dad” and backing a bustily controversial turn when MacFarlane belted out “I Saw Your Boobs” as part of his Oscar emcee’ing duties.

MacFarlane’s lustily profane and more often than not hilarious brand of humor is just one of the driving parts of “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” a film that delights in putting a very much modern, swear-filled sensibility into a classic setting of good and bad guys – a counterpoint that couldn’t be more gloriously rollicking, dramatic or just beautifully sweet in McNeely’s hands. Just as John Morris proved for the equally controversial Mel Brooks when he scored “Blazing Saddles” way back when, McNeely’s old-school sheriff is back in town with a vengeance to show that there’s nothing quite like the power of purely innocent, immediately recognizable western melody when it comes to playing a very R-rated sensibility for serious laughs.


How would you describe Seth’s comic persona, and would you compare him to Mel Brooks?

I’d describe Seth’s comic persona as fearless. He never second guesses himself and rarely pulls back because something has gone too far. That said, I know about this mostly from viewing his work, just like you. In person, he’s as regular a guy as you’ll meet. One thing I have learned from working with a comedic genius, however, is to keep my humor to myself. For a comedy professional like him, I think it’s probably painful when amateurs like me crack a joke. It’d be like people handing me songs they’d written. Most are going to be terrible. No, I would not compare Seth to Mel Brooks. Both are incredible, but they each have their own voices.

It’s rare that you have a director who’s such a “deep” movie score fan like Seth MacFarlane. What kind of appreciation do you think that adds to your collaboration?

The collaboration on this film has been like no other for me. Because Seth has such a deep knowledge of scores, we were able to speak with contextual references that would fly over the heads of most. More importantly, however, is the fact that Seth is a real musician of the highest order. He has a composer’s mind. He hears melody and harmony distinctly and has wonderful insight into orchestration. He would suggest changes in melody and harmony that were truly great. He’s no dilettante, that’s for sure. If he had not been any one of the many hyphenates that he is, then I’m quite certain he would’ve been a composer. And knowing how quickly he can master new things I wouldn’t rule him becoming a very good one at that.


What are the elements of a great western score for you and Seth? And on that note, what makes a great western comedy score?

It’s a genre for sure. Much of the style evolved from music of Aaron Copland. But then composers like Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven”), Alfred Newman (“How the West Was Won”) and Jerome Moross (“The Big Country”) was built on that. Elmer’s muscular style is somehow perfect for westerns. And Newman’s way with a melody kills me every time. And the inventiveness of Moross is unmatched. I’d say themes are critical in this kind of score as is rhythm and orchestrational weight. But I don’t know what makes a great western comedy score. Seth wanted this score to play it completely straight, never commenting on the comedy. It’s funnier that way I think.

How important for your score to be the straight man to Seth?

Yes, that was always the plan. The music was NEVER to comment on the comedy. It was supposed to play it as earnest as a John Ford western.

Does having a relatively unproven lead actor like Seth in the starring role make your dramatic support even more important?

No, I thought he was wonderful in the role, and after a short while he disappeared to me as Seth in the role and became Albert Stark.


What do you think audiences expect from a western score, and how did you want to deliver that here?

Gosh, I don’t know that audiences expect anything from a western score anymore. There really aren’t that many westerns being made, and the ones that are have a wide variety of scores. Look at “Django Unchained,” which had a very eclectic score that worked great. What I wanted to deliver was an intentionally old school western score in the style of the greats I’ve mentioned.

Do you think it’s hard for audiences to take a traditional western seriously these days, especially when it’s been so long since we’ve had a serious one?

I don’t know. This is neither a traditional western, nor a serious one.

Seth’s humor is frequently, and hilariously profane. Do you think there’s a nobility to the score that makes the movie’s hard-R jokes even funnier?

Well, that’s certainly the case at times. One example is the main title where I deliberately set up a very important and grandiose feeling, which is completely blown away as soon as Albert is introduced. In a way it tells the viewer they’re about to see a movie that never actually materializes…a red herring of sorts.


Was working on the score with Seth serious business, or was there always fun in your collaboration?

It was always serious business, as I wanted to make this the best possible score I could write, but at the same time, there’s never a moment working together that isn’t fun for me. Seth’s love for music is so infectious that it brought joy to the whole process. Seth freed me from doing any mock-ups after about the third one I did for him. He said he was sure they took a lot of time and energy, and he wanted me to focus my creative time on writing the score, which is unprecedented these days. It was freeing in a way I can’t describe because he had given me his trust and let me go write the best score I could.

There are some particularly lovely romantic moments in the score between Albert and Anna. How did you want to play their relationship?

There’s a very sweet scene between Albert and Anna sitting on a fence where it becomes clear that they have feelings for each other. I had to be very careful to play the scene delicately as it’s a very long sequence. From beginning to end it’s almost 4.5 minutes long, culminating in a passionate kiss, and I needed to be able to hold the music back until the very end when I could release the orchestra a bit. But the thing about this scene that made it incredibly simple to score is that it’s incredibly well performed and edited. Seth and Charlize give simple understated and VERY honest performances that are so touching they hardly need any underpinning at all. And the editing, the shifts in emotion and tone was so musical that my theme which has an AAABA form just lay perfectly with flow of the scene. I basically just had to do an arrangement of my theme. That’s when you know you have great editing.

Could you talk about working on the songs of “West?” You could almost imagine “If You’ve Only Got A Moustache” as a Broadway show tune, while the main title wonderfully recalls “Rawhide.”

The Moustache song in its original form by Stephen Foster is quite different than the arrangement I did. It’s written in a rollicking triplet feel, which recalls a Gilbert and Sullivan song. There’s a great recording of Samuel Ramey singing it with piano, and it comes across as a Mozartian ditty. I took the song and jammed it into a 4/4 bluegrass feeling and it becomes a whole different thing. The song “A Million Ways to Die” which Seth and I wrote was intended to emulate the 60s recordings of country songs by Johnny Cash and others. The original demo that stuck around for a long time had me singing all the vocals. Now I am the farthest thing from a singer, but I put up a microphone super early one morning before I had spoken so I had that low morning voice and sang the melody and all the backgrounds just so Seth could hear what I was going for. That demo to my horror wound up being sent to the producers, the studio and even its singer Alan Jackson.

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” is one of the lushest western scores we’ve got to hear since the days of “Silverado” and “Wyatt Earp.” How did you achieve such a resonant quality with the recording? And do you think there’s a particular sound you can only get from a Hollywood orchestra?

We achieved this sound by capturing performances, not just individual parts. As to it being a Hollywood Orchestra, good orchestral playing isn’t geographically confined. However. I do think there is a key to this sound. I spend a good deal of time rehearsing and most importantly balancing the orchestra before we record. That way it is essentially mixed in the room. Then we record with me conducting the whole orchestra on the edge of their chair letting it fly. We rarely do intercuts or pickups. There is a kinetic energy that happens when everyone is not just making a take, but instead performing. While I understand there are times when it is stylistically necessary, I think on the whole the practice of striping sections one by one in my view leads to a sterile and lifeless recording. It’s debilitating to the musicians and underutilizes the great artistry they can bring to a score.

What do you think was most instrumental experiences in your development as a melody-centric composer?

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.” That was my school. I really didn’t have much of a clue about anything when I started that show, and I had to learn fast. There was roughly 40 minutes of symphonic music per episode in a huge variety of styles. Each show was like a mini feature film requiring its own themes. There’s nothing like terrifying full immersion training to hone your craft.

How do you think starting your career with Disney and youth-friendly shows and movies developed your rich, and frequently warm sound?

Working for Disney is always great because the style of music for their projects embraces great orchestration and orchestral palettes. I’ve loved working for Disney cartoons over the past decade. They’ve allowed me the opportunity to do what I love to do most, which is to write orchestral scores.

You did a remarkable “sound alike” score on “Air Force One,” where your music was undistinguishable, and just as good as Jerry Goldsmith’s work on the project. Could you tell us about that experience?

Well, first of all saying my cues were just as good as Jerry’s isn’t really accurate. I was taking Jerry’s material and fashioning cues with it. I never looked at it as my music because it wasn’t. It was his. As you can imagine getting to sit at the right hand of one of the all-time greatest film composers was something I will always be grateful for and never forget. I learned a great deal in a really short time. I learned more from looking at his sketches than in 10 years of school. I still marvel at his efficiency, economy and maximum use of thematic material.

“Cadillac Freefall” in “Terminal Velocity” still stands as one of my favorite action cues ever written. What do you recall about creating the continuous momentum of this scene?

Sheer panic. My son had just been born very prematurely and was in the hospital. I was working days and going to the hospital at night. I was exhausted and just trying to get the score finished. So maybe the overwhelming feeling of drowning had something to do with it.

“The Avengers” (not the Marvel one) is finally coming out on blu ray. While the film got critical brickbats, I actually thoroughly enjoyed it, especially your score. How do you think that soundtrack helped you create music with a sense of fun that could also play suspense?

I love that movie. I wish they were releasing Jeremiah Chechik’s director’s cut that was a wonderful film. That score was designed around a small bebop jazz quintet playing within the orchestra. The whole score was tremendously fun to create and still makes me smile when I hear it.

What’s up ahead for you and Seth?

More “American Dad.” We have Seth’s Christmas record coming out this fall that I’m very excited about. We’ve been working on it for two years, and I’m really proud of it. Seth sings his butt off.

How do you hope the potential success of “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and its score can help bring back the kind of sumptuous, old school, fully orchestral scoring that sadly seem to have been going by the wayside?

While it’s optimistic to think one score can change the tide of scoring trends, I do hope it at least sparks a discussion about how far we’ve departed from certain musical elements that without question resonate within people. I think the shunning of melody and any real developed harmonic scheme in scores has been unfortunate as well as the fact that they are categorized as ‘old school.’ That definition would make basically the entire history of music up until the last decade or so old school. I strongly believe those elements directly resonate within people in a way that static and unstructured musical forms do not. Now that said, there are films that certainly creatively require these kind of sound design and drone scores, but most don’t, and I think that’s one reason why it’s hard to name more than a few truly classic scores from the last 15 years.

“A Million Ways to Die in the West” opens in theaters on May 30th, with Joel McNeely’s score available on Backlot Music HERE

Visit Joel McNeely’s website HERE

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