Ask The Composer: Enter the Marvel Universe With Sean Callery From “Jessica Jones”

Sean Callery is no less than a luminary in the world of television composers. He has won multiple Emmys for his work on 24 (2001 - 2010), ratcheted up the tension for all of us watching Homeland (2011 - ), and made life a little more logical on Elementary (2012 - ). More recently, he has helped bring to life Jessica Jones (2015 - ), part of the Netflix Marvel Universe. His work is always thoughtful, exciting, and, not infrequently, unexpected.
We caught up with Callery on the day that Marvel announced the release of the Jessica Jones soundtrack, leading Callery to utter one of the coolest things a person can say: “I just received a text from Marvel.” He talked about the simultaneously nostalgic and modern sounds of Jessica Jones and how TV theme songs are our generation’s folk songs.

ScreenPrism: Jessica Jones lives in the smaller, darker corner of the Marvel Universe. How did you approach the project?

SC: When I first began, I went in to interview for Jessica Jones and met with Melissa Rosenberg, who is the head writer and showrunner. She was just a brilliant, brilliant person and incredibly great to work for, frankly, and [she’s a] professional. I really can’t say enough about her. She had heard my music for Homeland, and she thought there was something in the score for Homeland that might be effective in finding the music for Jessica Jones. She thought there were some jazz vernacular kind of elements that spoke to the show.

I have to be honest, I did not know the Jessica Jones character. When I think of Marvel, my memory goes to much larger and grander characters saving the world and so forth. I think it was [Executive Vice President of Marvel Television] Jeph Loeb who said to me that the difference is that [characters like] Jessica Jones and Daredevil are saving the city. The others, like Iron Man and Avengers, they’re saving the planet. They’re saving the universe. That was an interesting way to think about it.

Sean Callery

I said, “Well, wouldn’t it be great if we could find a kind of noir-ish, neo-noir-ish sound for the show.” You could kind of tip your hat to the way the genre has existed in such an effective way. You could look back to the earliest noir in film, and you could look back to Blade Runner (1982), you know, and find different interpretations of noir-ish city energy that captures that kind of mystery and intrigue. I said that I would love to try and explore finding that sound for this series. Melissa was completely like, “That’s great! What is that sound?” This is where, as a composer, you say, “Well it’s this thing, of course”, and I said, “I don’t know. I’m not sure. [But] I’d like to think I’d certainly be playing the piano on it.”

SP: The show’s music is a distinctive combination of nostalgic and modern. How did you go about writing the theme?

SC: That really was the idea. We didn’t want to have something…that was so on the nose from another time. That [can be] wonderful, but [we] wanted this to have its own voice. When you say nostalgic and new, that was really the perfect yin/yang kind of idea that we wanted. So I’m happy it hits that way. I hope it hits other people that way.

[The theme-writing process] was so funny. Security at Marvel is very high, and rightly so because their content and properties are so special. I was having my recording studio modified for security firewall purposes so I could get the content on site. But before then, I was able to go to their offices; I wanted to look at the show. What was really interesting – this has never happened to me before – [was that] they weren’t able to show me running picture because the director hadn’t finished his first pass, I guess because there are laws and guidelines about the director [getting] to do his first pass before anyone gets to see it. So I was only allowed to look at still images.

They put me in a room with the lights out and projected in sort of five-second increments images of the city, shots of Jessica Jones, shots of Luke Cage, her roommates, her office. And it would flash on. And then I’d be in blackness again and then five seconds later another image would come up. It was so cool because I was getting immediate input from still images as opposed to watching it in real time. It really was a neat way to keep finding a sound because I just had to go with what I was seeing; I couldn’t walk out of the building with anything. I just had to go home and work with what I saw. It was a neat way to find the theme and the sound from that show.

Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones

SP: Does the fact that the show streams on Netflix as opposed to airing on TV affect your process?

SC: That’s a really good question. I think when I’m sitting down to work the answer is no. I mean, from the point of view of composing for scenes and a singular episode, it had its own independent set of challenges and so forth.

I will concede that I was aware that this is a format where what I’m doing in this particular hour of story might be seen in two more hours of story in real time.

One of the first real experiences I had with streaming was at the very end of the process. I started working on the first episode of Jessica Jones in April or late March of last year. I finished the score in September. That was 13 hours of TV. It got released [one evening] in the middle of November. We had gone to a premiere here in New York. I got an email 15 or 16 hours later from a fan who wrote on my website. He had watched the entire run in about 14 hours. And he said, “That was amazing. I really loved the music – where can I get the soundtrack?” I just thought, well, that is really weird. Seven months creating a score and this fan consumed the entire experience in 13 or 14 hours.

It was quite lovely to hear from a passionate fan. I had not worked on a Marvel or Netflix series before this and I’ve met some of the fans at a couple of conventions. They are incredibly smart and passionate and very welcoming, and I just appreciated that very much.

Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones

SP: It is hard to avoid binging and exercise some self-control, but the delayed gratification is worth it.

SC: With Jessica Jones, there was a richness to the textures of the performances, especially with the leads like Krysten Ritter and David Tennant, who didn’t really show up until the third or fourth episode. I think it helps you to allow yourself to ingest it. It helps the viewing and the storytelling experience to spread it out. I’m with you. You get to the end of the run, and you feel the cold loneliness of the room that you’re in. Now what? There’s no message that says, “Your next episode will begin in…” And you’re like, “Oh, no, [I’m] done.”

SP: Composing is generally a solitary pursuit, while creating television is necessarily collaborative. How do you deal with both sides of that coin?

SC: It is true. We spend a lot of time alone while we are creating and then we have to reveal the work to the world. We need both worlds in order to do what we do. We can’t be completely living in a vacuum. [Whenever you’re] interacting with [a showrunner], whether its Melissa Rosenberg on Jessica Jones or Alex Gansa on Homeland or Joel Surnow and Manny Coto and Evan Katz on 24 – oh, and I have to give a shout out to Rob Doherty who does Elementary – you develop a dialogue. You develop a relationship with them in some way. They are the brain trust of the show. They are the people at the very beginning who you turn to about exchanging ideas about the vision for the sound of the show. You’re sitting across from someone who is thinking about the writing, the cinematography, the casting, the directing – there are 90 other things going on in that person’s mind – and I learn a lot of from that. When they mention something about cinematography, you cannot escape that what we do is part of a collaborative medium.

David Tennant as Purple Man and Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones

Are there moments of tension because you feel vulnerable and exposed to criticism and all that? Yes. Of course. And I know of no composer – whether it’s Mark Snow, or anybody that’s worked for me, or any young composer – where you simply don’t have that kind of natural vulnerability that you have when you’re showing and sharing your music for the first time to somebody. It is part of the gig.

I have been on Homeland for six years – we’re about to start our sixth season. It’s one of the few shows where the producers still come to the house. They come to the studio, and we play back the score in real time, and I mix it while they’re here. They’re not looking at QuickTime movies and writing emails. They are on the spot listening to what I’ve decided to compose. And even after 60 episodes, you still have a bit of, “Geez, I sure hope they like this. I sure hope they like what I’ve written.” Even though we know each other very well.

SP: Are there any TV scores that we, as viewers, should be paying attention to?

SC: I’ve known Jeff Beal for quite a few years, and I think his contribution to House of Cards (2013 - ) is so elegant and beautiful and extraordinary. I love his work on that show.

If you’re watching Bloodline (2015 - ) – I know Jimmy Levine – he’s doing very, very beautiful work.

I met the composer of the Showtime series called Billions (2016 - ), Eskmo [Brendan Angelides]. His was a very subtle, electronic-based, textural score and it was unique. It perked me up because it was different.

Those are three really different kinds of musical styles that are doing great work. There’s a lot of great music on television right now. There always has been, but there’s particularly so much of it right now, you can’t really watch everything. It’s a happy problem.

You should ask composers what their favorite TV theme song is.

SP: Great idea. Okay, then, what is your favorite TV theme song?

SC: There’s one that sticks out for me: The Jetsons (1962 - 1963). That is a brilliant, fun piece of writing. It’s such a multi-rhythmic, jazzy piece. It plows ahead. It’s just fun.

Someone suggested to me once that [TV theme songs] are almost like our twentieth-century folk songs because folk songs are the songs that everybody knows intrinsically. Those days when theme songs were big – you had three networks and no cable – so many people got exposed to them. The Brady Bunch (1969 - 1974). Gilligan’s Island (1964 - 1967). Everyone knows them.

To Marvel’s credit, they wanted a real theme song for Jessica Jones, something that really spoke to the energy and the tone of the show. Now I know a lot of people skip through it, but they hear it at least a couple of times when they are getting familiar with the series. It was a lot of fun to do. They gave me permission to explore that neo-noir style and be nostalgic and be new at the same time. They were very supportive of that. That was a lot of fun.