Joe Trapanese: The Art of Going Unnoticed

A conversation about Earth to Echo, working with Daft Punk, and Jack Nicholson

    For a man who makes a living off creating music—either as a composer, producer, orchestrator, or musical arranger—Joe Trapanese appreciates that often the best sound is silence.

    “My art sometimes,” Trapanese says in a call from Los Angeles, where he lives, “is not being noticed, and really just supporting the scene in a subconscious way for the audience. Really, what our job is, is to reinforce the deeper meaning of what’s being acted out on screen.”

    Although CoS readers didn’t nominate Trapanese for this month’s Greatest Film Composer of All Time tournament, the veteran movie industry composer admires many of those included, especially John Williams and Wendy Carlos. He’s been involved with the music for many movies you’ve probably heard of: TRON: Legacy, Oblivion, The Raid: Redemption, and Zach Braff’s upcoming Wish I Was Here, to name a few.


    Recently, I spoke with Trapanese—who also made the music for the new Super 8-meets-E.T. film Earth to Echo, which will be released July 2nd—about collaborating with Daft Punk, loving Kraftwerk, working with a variety of directors and musicians, and why composers are often the unsung heroes of the movie industry.

    How did you first get involved with Gareth Evans for The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2: Berandal?

    You know, that was such a fortuitous situation. I first met up with Gareth on The Raid because of Mike Shinoda, as well as the studio behind the film, Sony. So, I say fortuitous because I had just met with some of the music supervisors—one in particular named Kier Lehman—who worked with Sony. Just to meet with him and talk with him—we’re about the same age, we got along really well.

    And then Mike Shinoda from the band Linkin Park, who Sony was talking with about possibly coming and possibly scoring The Raid, had seen TRON: Legacy while he was on tour on the biggest IMAX screen in the world. So, he was very blown away by that film and that soundtrack, which I had worked on for about two years with Daft Punk. So, he went, “OK, who helped Daft Punk score that film? I want him to help me score The Raid.”


    Since Gareth directed, wrote, and edited both films, I’m sure he had a very strong conception of what he wanted visually. What was it like working with him?

    A lot of planning goes into those films because of the intensity of the fight sequences—highly choreographed, highly diverse. So, months before they start filming, they’re planning out these sequences. And they’re actually doing test filming while they’re doing the choreography. So, before they even have the big camera and they’re on the set and whatnot, they’re at a rehearsal space videotaping the fight from different angles. And even Gareth is editing it together exactly how he wants it in the final film, so they’re doing a lot of trial and error, as well as the choreographers are using internal rhythm to really sketch out the fight.

    So, by the time I get to a fight scene like that, there’s already an internal rhythm for me to pick up on, which is a lot of fun. It’s really interesting, film scoring in reverse. They already have rhythm, and I kind of tune in. And Gareth is very specific about which parts of the action he wants us to acknowledge and to hit, and what kind of tone he wants from scene to scene. It’s really, really fun working with him—he’s a great filmmaker.


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    I read that editing was going on for The Raid 2: Berandal right up until it debuted at film festivals. Was that stressful?

    I was involved up until about two nights before Sundance. We weren’t picture editing; we were doing a lot of sound editing. And I was involved, helping to make sure any music adjustments could be done up until the last second, because sometimes the music needs to repeat something if they insert a scene or if maybe one of the musical layers is now interfering with a gunshot sound or a punch sound. So, I was there up until the very end, working closely with Gareth and our sound team, ensuring that the music was always enhancing the picture—never being detrimental, never outshining the sound, and vice versa. Making sure that when there were moments that music could be forward, making sure that those came across in the sound.

    When I see a film, I think a score contributes so much to how the movie feels, but it almost always operates on a subconscious level for me.


    I’d agree with you completely. The job of a film composer is really unrewarding in some ways—and I’m fine with that because I love the art of film music. And my art sometimes is not being noticed and really just supporting a scene in a subconscious way for the audience. And really what our job is, is to reinforce the deeper meaning of what’s being acted out on screen. And sometimes the best way to do that is no score. I think the scene is more powerful without music, and then finding a time for the music to come in that at that specific moment, you’re really enhancing something the actors are saying or an action that’s happening onscreen. So, I try to be very aware of when music enters and leaves for precisely that reason, because we can have such a great effect on the film in so many different ways. We’re like another actor. Just like editing, just like cinematography, just like set design, there are all these elements that contribute to story, and we’re another one.

    The Raid 2: Berandal has so many visually striking scenes. Do you have any favorite scene when paired with your music?

    There are two favorites I have, and I very rarely have favorites. I just have these favorites because these scenes were so, like you said, arresting visually in so many ways. And I think there were a couple moments that I’m really proud of the combination of music and the picture: One is the lead-up to the mud fight, some of those slow-motion sequences and the rain. I think that the music there really contributed a wonderful atmosphere to the film, and I’m very proud of that moment.


    I’m also really proud of the car chase. I think for me growing up, I grew up watching John Williams, watching Jerry Goldsmith movies, that sort of thing. I was really into action scoring. I’m a child of the ’80s, so Indiana Jones, Star Wars, E.T., the set pieces of action. And being able to do something similar on my own with such an arresting visual—the car chase, which Gareth was able to choreograph and shoot. That was an incredible moment for me in my film-scoring life.

    Earth to Echo will be released on July 2nd. Can you tell me how you got involved with that film?

    I’ve been very fortunate to develop a good relationship with the Disney music team from my involvement with TRON: Legacy, TRON: Uprising, as well as some recording projects. So, I know a lot of the music department from Disney, and when they were trying to figure out how best to create the musical atmosphere for Earth to Echo, they thought it would be good for me to meet Dave Green, our director, to see how we got along, and just to talk about aesthetics, talk about how we think about music, how does Dave think about music in his films. And I think what it came down to was I had a skill set and background that worked for Dave. And also Dave and I are about the same age—we’re generationally linked up. We grew up with the same movies. And the movies that inspired him to make Echo were the movies that inspired me to become a composer. So, it was a very natural fit for everyone.

    Watching the trailer for Earth to Echo, it strikes me as Super 8 meets E.T. Did you revisit or listen to either of those movies’ scores in preparation for this film?


    You know, it’s funny. I have seen those films fairly recently. It’s like when I was working on TRON with Daft Punk: You want to know what came before you, but you don’t want to know it so well or let it be such an influence that you can’t adjust to the specifics of what you’re working on. I want to be able to write and just think for Earth to Echo that is the sound and the music of Earth to Echo without being referential in a way. And I think the filmmakers achieved that as well. Obviously, there would be no Earth to Echo without E.T. or Super 8 or even The Blair Witch Project because of the creation of the found-footage style. So, obviously you have these films that came before us that inspired us, but at the same time it was really important to head on into Earth to Echo without worrying too much about these other films, to create something unique for our project.

    Earth to Echo is obviously a very different film from The Raid: Redemption. Do you find it easy to wear different hats as someone involved with diverse film projects?

    Oftentimes, I talk about the composer as another filmmaker. And I think it’s really important for a composer to approach projects with an open mind and to approach it as early as possible in production. For instance, I’m working on another film at the moment that’s coming out next year. I’ve already read the script; I’ve met the filmmakers; I’m going to the set in a few weeks. So, I think it’s very important that the composer is exposed to the project and is aware of what’s unique about the film and can adapt to the film and create something essential that feels right for that project. And then beyond that, it really is about then translating all that effort, all that thought, all that deliberation into tangible things like, “OK, what kind of sounds am I gonna use?” … For me, I think less about “Oh, it’s The Raid, it’s super violent; oh my goodness, now I’m doing this E.T.-like movie that needs to be like John Williams.” I obviously am aware of those things. To me, I try to let all the decisions that I have to make musically grow out of the films’ content.


    TrapYou also worked on Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. What can you share about that film?

    I didn’t work directly with Zach. I worked with his composer, Rob Simonsen, who’s a good friend of mine. He did an amazing job on that score. And on that film, I acted as an orchestrator. One of the things that is in my background that is very essential to who I am as an artist and a composer is the fact that I’m classically trained. So, I went to a music conservatory [Manhattan School of Music]. I learned orchestration very deeply, so how to work with an orchestra, how to write for an orchestra properly. So, Rob had detailed sketches of what he wanted the orchestra to do, and I came in. And he explained to me what was happening in certain scenes, what kind of feelings he was going for, and how to make sure that his music was played by the orchestra properly. And I conducted the session with strings.

    You talked about many of the different things you do: orchestrator, musical arranger, conductor, producer. Out of all those jobs you do, is one your favorite?

    You know, I look at it as it’s all under the same umbrella. I look at myself as an artist, as many other composers do. These are all certain skills I have as an artist, and it helps me attract the right kind of project. For instance, on Oblivion, working with M83, since his background is in the pop world, that’s somewhere I have very limited experience. So, he’s been making pop music since he was in his late teens. So, he comes to the table with so many skills that I don’t have. But at the same time, when he’s paired up with me, I come to the table with a lot of skills he may not be able to have.


    So, obviously we’re writing the music together, but he’s coming to the table with his sound, his unique melodies as M83, and I’m coming to the table with my background with the orchestra, my ability to be a conductor, my ability to arrange. So, I think what’s really great about my background and the background of the people I work with, we try to find ways to work together that are gonna make something greater than if we did it alone. I think this all just makes me who I am and makes me more valuable as an artist to the people I work with.

    What is the most important thing you’ve learned, either from working or in school?

    Oh, that’s a hard question. I think one of the key things I learned a film composer taught me early on when I came to L.A. He said, “If you want to be a film composer, if you want to work in film, you’re not working in the music business; you’re working in the film business.” So, I took it upon myself—and I still take it upon myself if I’m scoring a film—to really learn as much as I can about the film, but also I tried outside of the specific projects to learn how films are made, what filmmakers go through, what a producer goes through, what a writer goes through. So I can understand all of their perspectives as best I can, and then be able to interpret their notes, their ideas. So, if a writer approaches me with a concept that they might not be able to say, “Hey, I want the trombones to be loud here and quiet here.” Obviously, no writer or director is going to really say something like that. They’re going to say something more from the emotional level, from the story level.

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    Do any memories stand out from collaborating with Daft Punk for TRON: Legacy?

    I’ll never forget working with them in the orchestra, and to see them light up and finally beginning to understand the power of live music. It’s not that they didn’t respect or didn’t understand live music; it’s just they had never worked in the studio with live musicians. They had done some stuff here and there with vocalists, but never in the classical world. And Thomas and Guy-Manuel are highly consummate artists, brilliant producers, brilliant artists themselves and have a deep understanding of music and acoustics. So, when we were working together, just arranging the score and putting together the orchestral ideas, they were always involved.


    They would always clearly inform me of their intentions, and whenever I did an arrangement, they gave me clear feedback that would allow me to adjust the orchestra properly. They’ve been listening to orchestras ever since they were kids, but to see them with an orchestra live, to hear the music come alive and to see in their eyes the light going off, like, “Wow, this could be a relevant, cool thing for us.” And to then see them take the orchestra as they did on Random Access Memories, I was so fortunate to spend almost two years with them in the studio. They really changed who I am as an artist and made me who I am today.

    Did you listen to Daft Punk previously?

    I was aware of Daft Punk, but I was never an avid listener. So, it was a lot of fun when I met with them to talk about TRON: Legacy, if that collaboration would work. It was a lot of fun for me to get deeply familiar with their music.

    I think one of the great things we can do as musicians and artists is to be open to new things. And it was frustrating for me sometimes in the classical music world growing up, going to music conservatories. A lot of people in those environments are very closed to anything that’s not orchestral, not classical. They shun pop music.


    To be closed from learning from it, that’s the problem. For me, even if I don’t like a record, I might listen to it and say, “I want to learn from it.” Of course, I love all the Daft Punk records—don’t interpret that that way!

    Have you listened to Kraftwerk either growing up or recently?

    I actually went to a summer music camp in high school. My teacher introduced me to Kraftwerk there. And it was just incredible hearing this early electronic music. I actually took a class that talked deeply about the history of electronic music. Kraftwerk is about 20 or 30 years after the first experiments with electronic music—stuff like [Edgar] Varèse is doing at the World Fair and installing four speakers and having sound bounce around people.

    I think really what I want to say and what I want to take away from it is what’s really interesting as an artist—especially coming out of the Manhattan School. I love working with orchestra, but there is this world of sound out there, from the electric guitar to the Moog synthesizer to taking a recording of metal objects scraping on something else and turning that into a musical device. We now have a world of sound to work with that allows us to create virtually anything we can imagine. I think it’s a wonderful time to be an artist.


    Yeah, I asked about Kraftwerk because I saw their 3-D concert, and the influence on Daft Punk is so clear.

    Amazing! I saw that at Disney Hall, out of this world. They would not exist, nor would I exist as who I am today without them. It’s funny ’cause I’m not a huge Kraftwerk fan. I don’t sit down and go, “Oh, let me listen to that Kraftwerk album.” It’s not something that I actively seek out, but I know their repertoire. And hearing it live, like you said, experiencing that concert, it had been a while since I’d listened to much Kraftwerk. I was sitting there going, “Oh my God. TRON would not exist; that tour would not exist without Kraftwerk.” Heck, maybe even the TRON world wouldn’t exist without … maybe Steven Lisberger saw Kraftwerk live and saw these guys acting like robots onstage with these crazy outfits and these synthesizers. Wendy Carlos might not be writing the original score without Kraftwerk. It really is insane.

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    Who are some musicians or directors you’d like to work with in the future?

    There are some brilliant artists out there, like anyone out there from someone like Woodkid to Kanye West. Those are two huge ranges on the spectrum, but people I respect tremendously. Filmmaker-wise, I think there are very amazing, young filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn. My buddy Nathan Johnson, he’s a composer. He writes for his cousin, Rian. They just announced Rian is directing the next few Star Wars movies.


    I dream of working with Daft Punk again, at some point. And can’t wait to see what they do for their next album, which is probably 10 years away [laughs].

    I don’t know if you can generalize, but is it different working for a musician than a director?

    I really look at it as one and the same, because filmmaking is really about collaboration, and the same with music. If I’m working with an artist, it’s about doing a lot of listening, absorbing as much as you can, and then speaking up when you have something to contribute.


    If you could go back in time and do the score for any film created, what would it be and why?

    There are two that I can think of. And it’s funny ’cause I’m not a crazy Jack Nicholson fan, but they’re both Jack Nicholson movies. And now mind you, both of these movies I’m thinking of have incredible scores that I worship, and my score for them would be far worse than they have in the end. But from a pure filmmaking standpoint, Chinatown and The Shining are two really incredible movies that touch on subjects and ideas that are so much greater than what we see on the surface. And I just love the idea of what music can contribute to a picture like that. I’d love to be on a film like that where I’m called upon to help the audience through these complex emotions and ideas and subject matter.

    I once took a class in horror writing, and one of my classmates, who was a musician, focused specifically on the score and the sound of The Shining.

    That’s a Wendy Carlos score, but there’s a lot of classical music in it, as well. And classical music not only played as is classical-wise, like Penderecki or Ligeti, but classical music used in a way where Wendy Carlos took classical themes and incorporated them into the synthesizer. It’s such a creative piece of work musically.


    You have one acting credit, a cameo on Dexter, which you also worked on in varying musical roles. Is acting anything you have any interest in pursuing?

    No, not at all [laughs]. I think actors are the most tortured souls. Singers are almost as tortured, but I think actors are more tortured. Dexter was an inside joke. If you go to season three, and you go to the wedding between Dexter and Rita, the wedding band is the music department of the show.

    Any other projects coming up that you’d like to talk about?

    I can’t really talk about them too greatly ’cause not a lot of info has come out about them, but I just finished scoring my first video game, called The Crew. It’s with Ubisoft—it comes out this November. And I also just provided some additional music on the team for Transformers, led by Steve Jablonsky, an incredible composer who’s scored all the Transformers films.