Interview with Jeff Russo
With the winning likes of such improbable fim-to-tv adaptations as “Hannibal,” the boob tube and its scoring seem to have gotten significantly smarter and edgier than it’s been in the last several decades – or at the very least since the 16 years that “Fargo” first hit movie theaters. This North Dakota-set film noir represented the Coen Brothers at the height of their gleefully twisted irony, as a horrifically violent kidnapping-gone-wrong played out amidst cheerful salt of the Midwestern earth types. And only a humble (and very pregnant) female sheriff has the horse sense to figure out that this escalating insanity has bourn out from a pathetic car salesman’s plans. Adding icy musical bombast to this story was a cleverly dramatic score by Coen regular Carter Burwell, who used a Norwegian-flavored fiddle, strum-und-drung orchestra and cheerful percussion to create a brilliantly mocking, Herrmann-esque tone to the shocking true events.
“Fargo” didn’t exactly have the kind of story one could imagine stretching out over ten episodes of a television show, let alone the kind of music that one might imagine fitting network sensibilities. But thanks to the very long, and adult way that TV has come for cable, “Fargo” has now ended its first ten episode run as one of FX network’s most critically applauded and ratings-reaping series. Show runner Noah Hawley (“Bones”) has taken his own brilliantly black-hearted, happy go lucky spin on the original film, creating a whole new mythology for a sad sack-turned-supervillain, a devilish assassin, aw shucks local yokels and unlikely heroic officers to create a bigger, and even arguably better snow-filled canvas to fill with the victims of blackmail gone bad (with a side trip to Vegas included).
A big part of the tonal continuity between big and small screen is this “Fargo’s” music by composer Jeff Russo, who similarly opens up Carter Burwell’s mordant tone with an impressively sweeping orchestral quality. It’s a nice balance to the score’s Slavic heritage, as well as a crime jazz one as its plays with a lonely fiddle, cheerful bells and a piercing instrumental effect that tells us another body is about to bite the ice. The lyrically mesmerizing effect is as ironically dangerous and eerily dream like, a high point in Russo’s TV scoring resume that includes such titles as “Charlie’s Angels,” “Necessary Roughness,” “Hostages’ and the Hawley-run “My Generation” and “The Unusuals.” Also holding down a gig as the lead guitarist and songwriter for the Grammy-nominated rock band Tonic when he isn’t scoring such indie films as “Free Ride” and “Bad Behavior,” Russo has now truly landed on the Minnesotan map with “Fargo,” not to mention the Hollywood one with a hit that does Burwell and the Coens proud – boldly honoring the legacy of these tragic events, while having much musically vernacular fun with them as well.
Could you talk about your entry to composing, and how it particularly led you to TV work?
About 14 years ago I was asked to go into a studio and play guitar on a film score. After that I became really interested in writing music for picture, but my band was still touring extensively and recording albums. Five years later, when we were about to take a hiatus, I was hanging out with my friend Wendy Melvoin and we got to talking about her work in film and television, and I expressed an interest in it. She asked me to come work for her and Lisa in the studio…at first just assisting, engineering and editing, then additional writing on “Crossing Jordan” and “Bionic Woman.” Soon after that I was doing demos for my own shows and then finally got one. That was a show called “The Unusuals” for ABC.
When you first heard they were going to make a series out of “Fargo,” especially so long after the film came out, what immediately crossed your mind? And how did you get the gig?
I had worked for the creator/show runner, Noah Hawley, on his two other shows. He told me about the project and I was, of course, immediately interested. Basically I said, “Where do I sign up, and what do you need me to do?”
When you got the show, did you contact Carter Burwell? And did you intensely study his score?
Actually, I haven’t had any contact with Carter about this. I didn’t really study his score for the movie other than to watch the movie once to get the feeling that the Coens created. It had been 20 years since I saw the movie in theaters.
How did you continue on with “Fargo’s” telltale musical sound, yet make it your own as well?
The task was to stay in the world of “Fargo” but create our own identity (a very tall order considering the iconic nature of the movie and its score). So I felt I had to write all new melodies and themes while staying with the orchestral nature. The main theme for the movie is taken from and based on a Norwegian Folk song called “The Lost Sheep” aka: “Den Bortkomne Sauen.” I thought it would be good to sound a bit more Eastern European to give it a bit of different feel. The idea was to sound cold and lonesome and yet retain the emotion. To really underscore the beauty of the landscape and its contradiction to the evil ugly nature of Lorne Malvo and Lester’s descent into evil. Most of all, to treat it like it was a ten-hour movie as opposed to episodic television. For that I used an orchestra based in Eastern Europe…usually about 45-piece with an emphasis on strings and woodwinds.
It’s surprising to hear how lush the orchestra is in “Fargo,” a quality that also helps it match pitch-perfectly with the original score’s sonic quality. How important was it for you to get that depth of string sound?
The idea was to make it sound like a movie so using a big orchestra was necessary. A lush string section was very important in getting that sweeping emotional sound. You can get about 70% there with samples but there is no substitute for 45 people playing in a room.
How did you achieve this particularly eerie string effect that signals whenever danger is near?
I used a few different samples of a saw that was being bowed, and also utilized a violin playing behind the bridge in tremolo. Then also, deconstructing a piano with a hammer and a bow.
What was the difficulty of balancing comedy and tragedy, the feeling that viewers shouldn’t be laughing at the awful things that happen here, yet can’t help themselves from chuckling?
Interestingly I mostly stay away from playing comedy. If there is a scene in which it turns from drama to comedy, I will never make the shift. I would just come out… That way it’s never “dramedy.” Leaving comedy dry proved to be way more effective then trying to punch it up.
There’s an absurd air of country politeness to the characters in “Fargo,” especially when they’re about to kill someone. How did you want your music to get to the real thoughts behind their seemingly simple facades?
It goes back to playing the contrast. The air of “Minnesota nice” is in direct conflict with the evil that we are seeing on screen, so I tried to play the cinematic beauty behind the ugliness to draw out that contrast.
How did you want to balance the inept, but developing villainy of Lester with the all-knowing, super-smiling evil of Malvo?
As the series develops and we see Lester descend into darkness, his theme starts to change slightly, until finally I started to play Malvo’s theme for Lester (that cue is called “Lester as Malvo” on the album). It’s a pretty subtle shift from episode to episode, so it’s not that noticeable until you listen to the first and last episodes back to back.
On the other hand, how did you want to play the legitimate sweetness, and deceptively “aw shucks” detective finesse of Molly?
Molly is smart! Smartest person in town. In episode one, her theme is more of a mis-direct since you don’t know that she’s the person who will end up solving the whole crime, and the chief of police will get killed and replaced by the terribly naive Bill Oswalt. Once in episode two, I tried to give her underscore her strength and resolve.
If any character in “Fargo” is in search of redemption, it’s Gus. How did you want to approach him?
Here is another character that makes a pretty big shift. I didn’t want to play him too much of a fool at the beginning, so I had to be pretty subtle. But once he starts to transform (episode seven and on), I gave him a bit more strength and some percussion.
Did you have a character that you were particularly rooting for, and why?
It’s such a great character piece, so I was rooting for everyone at some point. The only character that really stays the course of the show is Molly. I guess I really rooted the most for her, and maybe Bill too. Bill has such a simple view of life that he can’t understand that someone who he sat across from in school could be capable of such evil. He didn’t want to live in that world. That was very endearing.
The snowy landscape is as much a character in “Fargo” as those spreading blood across it. How did you want to play the vast, white space?
This goes to playing the beauty against the ugliness. It needed to be emotional and sweeping to accentuate the vast expanse.
If you ever visited the snowy Midwest, what struck you about it?
I did visit the set in Canada while they were filming the first episode. Besides the cold, I was struck by the quiet. It’s very quiet. And of course lonesome!
Do you think in a way that a person listening to “Fargo” might mistake it for a particularly ironic Christmas score with all of its “jingle bell” percussion?
I actually never thought of that…In fact, yes, maybe.. Ha!
Wth its jazzy elements, how “film noir”-ish did you want your approach to be?
Originally, Malvo’s theme was played by a single upright bass. It felt a bit too jazzy, so I changed the part to be played by three contra basses in pizzicato. We didn’t want to be too jazzy or noir-ish but a little shines through.
Could you talk about the score’s “ethnic” character?
I leaned toward a more Eastern European sound, utilizing Viola (an under appreciated orchestral instrument, In my opinion), and English horn for a lot of the melodic elements.
Like the original score, “Fargo” is strikingly thematic in the way it ties all of the character arcs together, almost like a spider’s web that draws to a seemingly inevitable, but still surprising conclusion. How did you develop that strongly identifiable musical path?
It really all spread out from the main theme I wrote the day Noah told me about the project and how he wanted the score to sound. Once I had that theme, I started writing others based on the first script. As the story progresses and characters start to evolve, I needed to do the same to their themes. I wanted the viewer to be able to watch all ten episodes in a row, and not feel jarred by the evolution of the music that accompanied the characters’ shift. So my keyword was always subtle!
One of the many surprising touches in “Fargo” is the jump it makes in years for the final two episodes. How do you think the music helped make the transition slightly less unsettling?
We played the main theme over that transition to a year later. I think that helped ground the shift and made you feel like the story is still the same. Life goes on, and the subtle differences in the themes help to underscore the shift, but still keep you in the same place.
The show struck me as being particularly well-spotted in terms of musical placement. How did that process work?
We never temped the show. Noah, Skye (my music editor) and I would watch the episode dry and just talk about the places we thought music would be the most effective. We liked quiet. We liked spare and wanted to make the best use of the music. With as much silence as we allowed, it made musical pieces and entrances way more powerful and effective. That was such a big part of the sound of the show.
With the heavy hand of fate looming over “Fargo,” would you say the score is at all mystical?
There is an element of hyper realness and a magical thing happening. One cue in particular rings true to that sentiment…”The Parable” in episode five. I had written the piece as part of a group of themes I wrote before we shot the show. We set it aside for the first four episodes, and when that scene came in, we dropped it in as is and it just worked in a magical way.
The Starz show “Power” now teams with you 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson). Could you talk about that collaboration, and your approach for your newest TV assignment?
It’s definitely a 180-degree turn from “Fargo” in terms of score. I really don’t have direct contact with 50 Cent, but I’m sure that he’s listening to every note of the score. We use score in a very different way in “Power,” more for subtle vibe and tension. All of the big musical moments are songs since we spend a good amount of time in the club in which the show takes place. I tried to incorporate the sound of the city into the score…the hum of the subway, the sound of metal on metal, the overall noise you hear…
Give us a sneak for your feature scores to “The Surface” and the Chamberlain biopic “Wilt.”
“The Surface” is a mainly guitar based score, which is always a treat for me. I get to sit with my acoustic guitar and write all of the themes while looking at the picture, and it really doesn’t change from there, aside from adding a few bits of bass or pads or percussion. The Wilt biopic is a work in progress.
As someone who’s been scoring episode TV since the days of “Crossing Jordan,” how do you think the form has developed to the point where we’ve gotten a show like “Fargo,” and what do you think is ahead for the medium and its music?
TV seems to be changing. It’s more like making indie movies. That gives composers a huge opportunity, because music doesn’t have to just be a backdrop. It can have a voice and character.
With a whole lot of people dead, where do you think “Fargo” will go from here now that Molly is heading the local police station?
Who knows??? It could be ANYWHERE!
When you look at the many “based on a movie” TV series that have been made (and failed), why do you think it was about “Fargo” that showed it would succeed beyond peoples’ wildest expectations?
The writing! Noah is so great at telling a story. But really, you never know what people are going to like or not like. As I read each script, it just kept getting better and better. It’s really all about the writing and the execution.
If you could score another TV adaption of an “unadaptable” movie, what would it be?
“The Shawshank Redemption.”
Pick up Jeff Russo’s score for “Fargo” HERE
And watch the whole darned series HERE
Visit Jeff Russo’s website HERE