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Ten Minutes With: “The Night Of” Composer Jeff Russo

Jeff Russo’s score for “The Night Of” features themes that play against type for main characters including Sgt. Box (Bill Camp.). Photo Credit: HBO

By: Marjorie Galas

Jeff Russo considers himself extremely fortunate. The composer recently received his second Emmy nomination for the critically heralded, and Emmy nominated, second installment of FX’s  “Fargo.”  He received his first Emmy nomination for the first installment of the 2014 Emmy winning mini-series “Fargo.”  He’s found himself attached once again to a limited series that has caught adoring attention from critics and audiences alike: HBO’s “The Night Of.”  The opening sequence pulses with New York City’s late night energy while simultaneously emphasizing the heartbreak burden its main characters will come to bare over its eight episode run.

Variety 411 recently sat with the composer for ten minutes before he ran off to continue developing the score for on his next television special, “Legion.”

Variety 411: When I visited you in your studio you mentioned you were working on “The Night Of” but I didn’t realize what it was.

Jeff Russo:  Right, because it hadn’t come out yet!

411: And what great television it is!  But …even before my memory kicked in, as I was watching the first episode I thought: ‘That sounds like something Jeff scored.’  Is that a viola you used in the main title?

JR:  The main title is a quartet, so it is cello, viola and violin, and it features the cello more than the viola.  I tend to write a lot for viola, but in this particular case it was the cello featured, playing a little higher. So it might sound a bit like a viola.

411: I recall you mentioning you’ve been learning quite a lot about that string instrument in the past few years.  Is there something that has inspired you to turn to its use?

JR: No, just the sound of it, and it’s really mostly about what I loved about how it sounded.  It’s a very evocative, sound, more evocative than violin, I think. When you hear a violin you know it is a violin.  But when you hear a viola, it has a little bit warmer of a flavor, and I just happen to like it.

411  Did you get a chance to review the full script for “The Night Of” before you started?

JR: They were finished with all eight episodes, so I got to watch them all before I started writing the main theme and the score.  That’s a rarity in television, receiving all the video after they already finished.

411:  There’s a lot going on in this story; the exploration of the criminal justice system and its trickle down affect in particular.  What were you most influence by when working on the score?

JR:  I would say that the most inspirational part of that show is the character writing overall.  Stone and Naz and Helen, the DA.  And Box; Box is big!  I think the second theme I wrote is Box’s theme.  And it is interesting, the writer/creator of the show directed all eight episodes. His name is Steve Zaillian.  I mean, he wrote “Schindler’s List”, “Money Ball”, “Awakenings”, “Gangs of New York”.  He has written some of my absolute favorites movies of all time!  So when I first met him, I was scared (laughs).  But you get to know him, and you get to know the characters he’s written, and the process really engaged me.  I really got drawn in to writing the music for his characters that he created.

411: Another thing that is really interesting is this: I know that there is a score, and I re-watched the first episode.  It’s hard for me to recognize the score within the scope of the sound design.

JR: I sort of framed it in a different way than I normally have done before, which is; there is this big, powerful main title, then there is no music for the first 27 minutes in the first episode.  It’s dry.  There are a couple of songs weaved in, like the Matthew Stark song playing when he meets the girl.  Other than that, it is all sound design.  Then score comes in, and when it does, it’s like, ‘Oh wow!”  We used score in the first episode very carefully and subtly.  It then builds across the season and pinnacles in episode six, where there is the most music.  It is sort of written on a bell curve: it goes straight up, then six there is a lot of music, then it comes down.

411:  I have a sense episode six is going to be very major.

JR: You know, it is funny. Every episode is major. That is the great thing about doing an eight episode mini-series.    You can make every episode as important at the last, because there is no fluff.

411: Going back to the emphasis on the characters and their emotional journeys: their development has been left intentionally vague so the audience is left wondering about each one.  ‘Do I trust this person, how do I feel about them, is this person authentic?”  It must have been curious for you to highlight them, knowing that was part of the intention of the writer to a certain extent.

JR:  Steve’s overall directive to me was for the score to be as thought it was as an overseer: not to comment on the narrative, but to be the thing that is looking down on the narrative like a spectator.  I was never to play the emotion of the scene or what you see.  I was only to play what was the feeling that we were trying to get.   So I play opposite a lot of times.  For Freddy’s (introduction in episode three) I play very much opposite what you think you would hear when this character is on screen.  So that was an interesting way to go about creating the score for it which was, I could never play the emotion of the scene, I could only play the vibe of what we were trying to create.

411:  Did you get to speak a lot with the sound designer as you are working?

JR: Sometimes I do, in “Fargo” I do, but in “The Night Of”, I did not.  I was not privvy to what they were going to do.  It is interesting how they merged my score into sound design, and the sound design into my score.  It’s a very effective use of music.

411:  Before you have to go, let me ask you about receiving the nomination call for “Fargo” season two.

JR:  It’s always such a thrilling feeling being recognized by your peers.    Especially alongside people that I think are so fantastic, these people that I am surround by are so good at what they do.  I’m honored to be amongst those singled out.

411:  It is amazing to see the selection for there is a ton of great stuff out there.

JR: There is – there’s a lot of great stuff!  So there were many people who weren’t nominated who should have been maybe or might have been, so, it’s just a really thrilling thing, to have someone stand up and say about your work, ‘That’s really good, let’s talk about that.’

411: And what are you working on now?

JR:  I’m finishing up “American Gothic” and working on “Legion” for FX then “Fargo” season three.  I’ll probably start that late September or October.

411:  Is “Legion” based on the comic book?

JR:  It’s less comic book oriented and more character driven.   It’s written and produce by Noah Hawley who produced “Fargo” so it’s very much in the style of the way he writes characters, is very rich and deep.  I’m not all that familiar with the comic book. Apparently “Legion” is like the comic in that it has a parallel universe and there are there mutants that have mutant ability.

411: Can you give us a hint at what to expect from the score?

JR: There’s a mix of orchestral and electronic.  It goes between being organic and non-organic, a way of dealing with moments of reality and non-reality and trying to bridge the two things is the ride of the score.

To learn more about “The Night Of” please visit: http://www.hbo.com/the-night-of