Interview with Blake Neely

By • July 14, 2020

By Daniel Schweiger

WWII films are no more riveting than when given immediate life or death situations, as a horrifyingly grand theater of combat becomes claustrophobically tense. From Tom Hanks leading the Allies’ D-Day landing in “Saving Private Ryan” to Jurgen Prochnow’s U-boat commander avoiding depth charges aboard “Das Boot,” all of modern cinema’s tools come into play at conveying men under pressure in these standout WWII movies, from sound effects to alarm-tinted photography and music that’s usually far more about impossible courage under fire than it is waving a heroic flag. On that count, 2020 has proved an especially seaworthy year, beginning with the pulse-pounding battle of “Midway” that changed the course of Battle of the Pacific, and now goes to the start of the Battle of the Atlantic with the viscously hunted convoy crossing of director Aaron Schneider’s “Greyhound.” 

Just like the film’s star-writer who embodies a distinctly American brand of heroism, Paris, Texas-born composer Blake Neely has spent a good part of his recent career playing nobility – if in the comic book context of any number of CW/DC shows. Beyond prolific in the spandex colors of Green Arrow, Supergirl, Batwoman and The Flash, Neely’s start as an orchestrator and additional composer for the likes of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard now really pays off with the massively propulsive and beyond tense energy he brings to “Greyhound.” It’s a breakout score in an epic cinematic arena, one whose widescreen force can certainly be felt, even given the Apple TV + forum that the war against corona has landed “Greyhound” on. 

With a propulsive wash of electronics, orchestra and percussion, Neely embodies a raging ocean, the howlingly evil submarine wolfpack below it, and their desperately racing prey above. As commanded with steely fortitude by Hanks’ Captain Kraus, Neely’s score plays a heart-pounding game of chess between Nazi predator and Allied prey. Given the trend of non-stop action scoring that can become aimless wallpaper, Neely’s score terrifically accomplishes the feat of steering a direction to air cover that’s melodically and propulsively loud and clear in its thematic determination.

Using sonic howls and synth atmospheres to create as much fear as an 80’s-style serial killer score, Neely’s hammering percussion and coalescing symphonic, brass-charging energy bring out heroic nobility at its finest, and darkest hour. The score goes at impossibly long and continuously riveting stretches, using music-design embodiments of radar pings, triple-repeated orders and cannons to outwit the wolf pack explosively nipping at their ships’ heels. Filled with determination and a sense of sacrifice, Neely’s “Greyhound” is a dynamic, all-enveloping score that puts the listener through a wringer before finally allowing emotionally patriotic release. The result is beyond intense and exhilarating music that conveys a world at stake as the hours tick away, a chase that makes history and heroism roar to contemporarily vibrant musical life.

Do you think that your work on HBO’s WWII miniseries “The Pacific” set the cinematic course for “Greyhound?”

My history with Playtone goes back to 2005. When “The Pacific” came around, I had done several projects with them and also with Hans Zimmer, so it was a natural fit. They loved my theme and had asked me to write another one for the CNN “Decades” series in 2013. A year later, they were producing a concert honoring veterans, HBO’s “Concert for Valor,” and asked me to write something “like those.” So I think what really put me on the list for “Greyhound” was this continued relationship of writing patriotic themes. Gary Goetzman called me from the “Greyhound” set in Louisiana and said, “Hey, buddy, I need another big theme for this movie we’re filming, and I think you’d be perfect.” And here we are today with our tenth endeavor together.

“The Pacific” was produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman. Could you talk about your creative relationship with them as producers, as well as with Tom Hanks as an actor in the wonderfully unsung “The Great Buck Howard?

L to R: “Greyhound” engineer, score co-producer Greg Hayes, composer Blake Neely and producer Gary Goetzman

Tom and Gary are amazing people to be even associated with. After fifteen years, I still think “how did this kid from Paris, Texas, get to write music for these titans?” They are incredible about letting me write what I feel is right, guiding with notes that are always elevating, and then championing my work. The fact that I was able do this little guitar score for “Starter for Ten,” a quirky score for “The Great Buck Howard,” a big Americana orchestral sound for what was then called “The Sixties” to a tense score with anachronistic synths and wailing sounds on “Greyhound” proves how they allow an artist to be as creative as they want and support the hell out of it. They’re also a lot of fun to be around, as you can imagine.

What challenges did you see were in store for you with “Greyhound?”

When I first watched “Greyhound,” it was barely even temped at that point. This is an amazing thing for a composer, because you can watch and not be influenced by other music supporting it. I immediately had ideas, but the main focus for me was structure. The score needed to provide constant tension but always amp up as the story unfolds. Once the first U-boats are seen, Captain Krause and the crew are really never at ease until the end. The difficulty was to make the score big and exciting from the get-go but not blow it out on the first battle. As Gary said, “You have a long way to go, so pace yourself.” For me, it became this “OK, that cue worked, but the next one has to be even more.” That means constantly exercising restraint, while also trying to one-up yourself on each new piece. It was quite the exercise, but I found that if I really embraced the story, my job was no more difficult than what Tom faced in writing the script with mapping out a constant, steady increase

How did you settle on the idea of a hybrid score?

It’s a period piece, so it needed to have a traditional sound. But it’s also a thriller and feels very modern in that way. I knew I wanted the score to be tense and spooky, almost like a horror film. So the film itself is a hybrid: modern period horror thriller. Thus, a hybrid score should also work.

I love creating sounds and experimenting with musical sound design, so I just started messing around with ideas and themes, and the hybrid approach started gluing to picture in an exciting way. Some cues have this old-fashioned harmonic style on top of a modern electronic beat and screaming effects. Again, Tom and Gary supporting some crazy ideas.

Could you tell me about the major themes in “Greyhound?”

My main theme for “Greyhound” isn’t really revealed until the end of the movie. I hint at it in the opening and fragment it throughout, but it’s not until the battle is over that you hear the full theme. That was also an exercise of restraint. We composers would love to start a film with “here’s my tune!” But it wasn’t right in this one until Krause had earned it. I consider this main theme, heard fully in “But at What Cost?,” to be Krause’s inner dialog. What is all of this worth? The loss of so many lives, the toll on the body, the probable end of a relationship with the one he loves. The ending scene still makes me cry, as he realizes both the accolades and personal loss this journey has brought him and his men.

The second theme of “Greyhound” is more elegiac, heard in its entirety during “Lost Souls.” This theme is used throughout the movie, even in some battle sequences. It was helpful to have a sad theme that could intertwine with an action theme, since the battles were never without a cost. I consider this theme to be Krause’s perspective, what he is witnessing and having to adapt to, as he struggles to save lives.

And the third theme is more of a “sound stamp” — the creepy, wailing cries on the U-boats. To me, this couldn’t be a melodic theme. It needs to be our version of Williams’ iconic “Jaws” two notes, just not something you can hum. So I started experimenting.

Most movies about the Battle of the Atlantic are set about the claustrophobic confinement of submarines, but “Greyhound” is really the first major film in a long time to have a battleship’s point of view. How do you think want to hear the idea of the action in its tight quarters, yet with the ability to run on deck to see the vastness of the ocean, play into the score? 

That’s the real fun of making a score like this. I love writing music that has sudden surprises or takes quick hard turns. I could be small and tense and driving, waiting for a sonar ping, and then suddenly expansive as we are plunged into the sight of torpedoes chasing the ship.

Most of the cues are very long. One, in particular, is over twelve minutes and goes from two minutes of static tension to a massive brass figure and orchestral explosion and back down again, etc. That can be very satisfying creatively to write something like that. And then you get to do it fifteen more times.

Having played no small number of superheroes on television, how did you think you were suited to playing reality-based, very human characters doing incredible things under unimaginable pressure?

“Greyhound” is a superhero film! For the DC television shows, yes, they are fictional characters, but Greg Berlanti wants them to be grounded in the human condition. So what I’ve learned over the years is to mine the emotion, whatever the genre, even during tense action sequences. To apply this same aesthetic to “Greyhound” came rather instinctively. The big difference was that it didn’t feel right to herald a big leitmotif on Krause saving the day, like I might do on The Flash.

Captain Krause doesn’t take any particular pleasure in destroying the U-boats. Instead, he’s a religious man to whom all life is precious, even in the midst of battle. How did you want to capture that?

I wanted to give Krause an inward, stoic and resolved theme, almost hymn-like. He is surrounded by men but, to me, he is ultimately lonely. He never really says what he’s actually thinking, but you can see it in Tom’s eyes. So I tried to match the score with his performance to give a sense of his true feelings. The hymn-like part of the theme is presented in the somber four-phrase string chords in “First Crossing” when we first see Krause in his cabin. We also hear it after he realizes he is relieved of his duty.

There’s a relentless race-against-time progression to “Greyhound.” Could you talk about the role of rhythm and percussion in the score?

When I approach any project, I think first of tone, which can be the harmonic language or the instrumentation or the overall sound. I think next of structure and pace, which is a huge component of the shape of the score, whether it’s within each cue or the entire arc of the story. And most of the time, actual melody comes third. It’s a bit like painting, in that you coat the canvas, then you do the background, and then you finally add all the “happy little trees” (thank you, Bob Ross). When the melody comes first, of course, I build the other elements around it. But tone and structure are very key for me.

One of my favorite memories of creating the “Greyhound” score was actually performing all of the percussion myself. I rented thirty different pieces of percussion and laid out this huge array in my studio. Over the course of five days, I moved from drum to drum and banged out all the parts. I didn’t realize how many layers it would take to achieve the sound I wanted, but we finally got there. I had blisters for days to prove it, but it was worth it for the memory.

Eerie stillness is also an important part of “Greyhound.” How did you want to reflect the calm before the torpedo storm?

It’s never calms in “Greyhound” after Krause’s first breakfast, so neither could the score be. Stillness is something interesting to play with in music, because I think you can be still even with movement. I would write rhythmic figures that were constantly moving but not expanding, if that makes sense. Keeps it alive and pulsing. There’s a progression forward but always returning to the start, so it’s like you’re running in place. Also interesting is to have the orchestra play the same notes repeatedly but with varying intensity per note, creating a sort of a loop but never repeating the same way. It creates subtle tension, because you aren’t sure if the next iteration will be less or more.

How difficult was it for you to keep the action cues going on for such an extended time, yet make them musically interesting?

By using repetition — of themes, of riffs, of sounds — you can create a false comfort zone for the ear, and then make subtle or sudden changes to keep the audience on the edge. It’s similar to going to a live concert of your favorite band and hearing the songs you know by heart presented in a new way. You think it will be what you know, but even small variations are exciting and keep you engaged.

I use lots of layers so that the music continues to build but also changes in an interesting way as the layers react. I love puzzles and LEGO, and it’s very similar to building those for me.

Writing in extreme ranges for an instrument or a very difficult phrase or tempo can also create tension. Not just for the listener. It’s pretty tense in the room when they’re all looking at me, the conductor, with a “you want me to play what?” face. I think the player’s stress in attempting, even though they nailed it, comes through. We had a good laugh recording the climax of the final battle when my concertmaster said, “I don’t think I’ve ever played up there.”

The wolfpack, and its deranged voice are like a bunch of serial killers chasing the ships. Could you talk about your approach for the U-boats?

We want you to be scared of these shark-like beings that are the Nazi submarines, lurking all around. But I didn’t want to do an aleatoric horror-like orchestral sound. I love that effect, but we all know what it is, or even how it’s made, so ultimately it can lose its scare value. But if you don’t know what the sound is, or what’s making it, that’s more eerie. I’ve already received lots of requests to tell what those sounds are, but I politely refuse. Once you know your ice maker made that noise in the middle of the night, it’s no longer frightening.

Dialogue is usually repeated twice, if not three times in a realistic way in “Greyhound.” How did you want to make way for, yet capture the urgency of these orders?

That’s all Tom. There’s really no actor like him. The way he commands the audience and pulls you into every word, every look. I just tried to stay out of the way and support. But it’s also easy with “Greyhound,” because it’s so loud most of the time that score is the least of the mixer’s problem to work around. Krause is yelling orders over crashing waves, alarms, men running, gun fire and ship noise, so I just try to find my place in the mix and enhance the drama.

How did you want the music to embody radar?

I had this idea to write most of the string ostinati, or rhythmic figures, like Morse code. Often you will hear a kind of short-long-long-short-short pattern that varies, similar to the dots and dashes of Morse code. This was easy to play on my synth keyboard while writing the demo score, but I quickly realized when conducting that it was a puzzle for the orchestra. They are more accustomed to repeated patterns, and these were changing every bar in some cues. For obvious reasons, however, I avoided anything that sounded remotely like a ping.

Brass and the “sonic boom” come into the fore with “Surrounded.” Tell us about that cue.

My attempt with “Surrounded” and its battle theme was to create the same feeling I get when I listen to a particular Shostakovich symphony that I love. It has this relentless and unflinching forward motion to it, so I wanted to do that kind of feel. That was my jumping-off point and then built from there with more and more of our U-boat sounds surfacing, Morse code figures, super difficult orchestral phrases, etc. I enjoyed the challenge of going from a cacophony of sound to a heavy melodic stillness as Krause realizes the incredible weight of the situation.

In the same way, the full orchestra announces itself with “Here They Come” before taking center stage with the climactic “Bring Hell from Down High.” What was it like finally giving “payback” to the seemingly untouchable and taunting wolfpack?

This cue presents the fullest version of the battle theme, again with a nod to some of my favorite Shostakovich and Prokofiev stylings. But as we ascend into the heavens and view this battle from above, I used the more elegiac second theme, a precursor for what will come in “Lost Souls,” to take you from highly intense action to a feeling of fear and despair.

When I got to the final battle, depicted in “Bring Hell Down from On High,” I felt like I was out of tricks for building tension. I remember it was two days before New Year’s, and I was super close to my presentation meeting of the full score. A bit frustrated, I left the studio to drive around, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to play anything or make music, rather just think about an approach for the apex of the film. I was sitting at a stop light and a semi-truck went by at the same time as a motorcycle. They were going the same speed and the same direction, but their different-sized wheels were rotating at different speeds. I finally had an idea and hurried back to the studio!

The music finally gets truly patriotic for the first time in the final cue “But at What Cost?” What was the emotional importance in that sense of salute-worthy idea that we’d gotten through the storm?

I actually wrote this final piece with the intent of more sadness than celebration. What was it all for? What did it cost him? Historically, this is just the beginning of what would become a horrible war. What are they possibly heading into? So while I did want to write a theme that can be heard as patriotic and celebratory of a great leader, I wanted there to be a bittersweetness to capture Krause’s ultimate realization of having won admiration from the fleet and pride in completing his duty, but he’d lost so much more. And what I love about this film so much is that the ending is completely up for interpretation. I have no idea what the ending was really supposed to mean, and I doubt that Tom would want to tell you. It’s whatever you take from it. Hopefully, “But at What Cost?” is also open for the listener’s interpretation.

Do you think the idea of perseverance against impossible odds gives “Greyhound” particular relevance now, especially given that this was supposed to be on the big screen?

I think “Greyhound” could have particular relevance in any time period, given that its great lesson is that we are all in this together, everyone has a role to play, and no one person is more important or more vital than anyone else. I do find it amazingly relevant to this incredible year of loss and our need for leadership.

What kind of future do you see for orchestral scores now? And do you think your ability with “hybrid” music, as well as solely sampled scores, put you in a better position than other composers facing this?

We will come out of this. We will play together again in concert halls and recording stages and studios. In the meantime, we are allowed a chance to innovate and explore, whether it’s distanced, at-home recording or synths and solo work. I have been very fortunate to have always been able to learn new technologies. It has become vital for the kind of music I make. I have also been lucky to have worked with some of the greatest musicians on the planet, all around the world. But I’m not trying to be in a better position than anyone else. Music should never be a competition. Whether it’s a kazoo, your voice, your laptop, or a symphony orchestra, making music is an individual expression. I can’t wait to hear where we innovate next and who those new voices will be.

Watch “Greyhound” on Apple TV +

Buy Blake Neely’s score for “Greyhound” on Lakeshore Records

Find Blake Neely soundtracks

Visit Black Neely’s web site

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