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Music Hits Emotional Beats: An Interview With Editor Joe Leonard

Editor Joe Leonard used music to highlight the tension between Luscious (Terrence Howard, right) and Jamal (Jussie Smollet, left) on “Empire..” photo credit: 20th Century Fox Television

By: Marjorie Galas

“Empire” was the first job editor Joe Leonard took after his daughter’s birth. His new family experience fueled his power to fully tap into the intense emotional beats and complex dynamics between members of the Lyon family, from the tenderness between Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), to the powerful devastation that arises from patriarch Luscious’ (Terrence Howard) actions.

“The scenes in the pilot affected me the most. They were emotional, intense and powerful,” said Leonard. “I knew as I was cutting I’d share this episode with my daughter someday, and I immediately understood how powerful that was.”

Leonard had been a longtime fan of “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels work, and was thrilled when his agent called him suggesting he read the pilot’s script. He’d just finished a horror film and fell in love with the complexity the story presented. Having worked on “Glee” from its onset, Leonard was familiar with editing storylines that were powered by son lyrics. After a 45 minute meeting with Daniels, the two men hit it off and Leonard was hired for the job.

Sitting with Daniels in the editing room, Leonard quickly discovered those moments that the creator gravitated to. As the season moved on, Leonard would review the footage and select the moment with the strongest emotional beats.

“He is passionate about truthfulness in the storytelling,” said Leonard. “All the characters are based on family or friends. He is really keyed in to the performances and the truth of the acting. There cannot be a single inauthentic moment.”

After reviewing the footage and finding the most authentic moments, Leonard plays close attention to the music. Set in the world of a hip hop dynasty, R&B and hip hop as well as the dramatic score supplied by composer Fils Eisler is important to the editing style.

“This isn’t a musical per say. The characters don’t begin to sing in a dreamlike way,” said Leonard. “The performances are telling a story that isn’t shown in a dialogue scene. The songs become an engine for the story as well.”

Leonard will use a musical number to energize the scenes around it through his ability to separate the music into individual stems. He can then match the rhythm of these stems to specific characters, enhancing the emotional impact the character has on a scene. An example of this would be the introduction of Cookie in the pilot who literally enters the scene “marching to the beat of her own drummer.” Leonard used the musical stem of a hip hop backbeat and matched it with the tone and entrance of Cookie into the scene.

“Cookie is walking in and turning the room over,” said Leonard. “I used the stem as a scoring device, matching with the dramatic storytelling. It became a really interesting, fun way to find storylines.”

Stems are also used to emphasize emotions or connect storylines during flashback sequences in “Empire.” In an episode written by Danny Strong, closeted gay son Jamal comes out by performing “You’re So Beautiful” during a massive party. A flashback of young Jamal being tossed into a trashcan by Luscious occurs; this flashback was first introduced in the pilot during a song entitled “Good Enough.” Leonard ran stems from “Good Enough” through the flashback scene, coupled with stems from “You’re So Beautiful”, then restarted “You’re So Beautiful” after the flashback concluded to emphasize the power Jamal had in finally overcoming the fear-based tyranny of his father.

Leonard learned how to use music as a character to keep scenes invigorated while working on “Glee.” It requires a sound editing skill set in addition to the editorial role. While a series such as “Empire” – set in the music industry – has an organic use for music and the stems Leonard finds, his primary concern is bringing an audiences’ attention to the performances, energy and emotion of a scene. His style of editing is always based on what feels right during any given moment.

Leonard has written and directed a number of films and considers himself a filmmaker who continues to write and develop his own projects. Above all else, his passion is in editing. The opportunity of working with people including Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and John Singleton on “Empire” has been a formative experience for the editor.

“I’ve learned a lot from this show. I’ve learned from Lee’s desire to be authentic and truthful,” said Leonard. “I’ve always been careful, but now I try to see more like Lee.”

As “Empire” became increasingly popular, Leonard often watched the show amongst crowds that would throw “Empire” parties at bars. He enjoyed seeing people stand, cheering and embracing the emotional highs and lows the characters experienced. It’s the second time the editor has seen a project he worked on become a cultural phenomenon, and he’s extremely pleased the material has been embraced.

“I’m the luckiest editor in the universe,” said Leonard. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time from the beginning of both shows.”