Interview: John Paesano / by Charlie Brigden

By Paul Weedon daredevil

As the second phase of the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe draws to a close with the release of Ant-Man later this year, our attention recently turned to Netflix and Marvel’s third foray in to television. Following the success of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter, Daredevil marks the first offering from Marvel’s nascent partnership with the online broadcaster and it’s fair to say that it far exceeded all expectations. Unsurprisingly, the show has proven a massive hit, even going on to become the second most illegally downloaded series after Game Of Thrones.

Bolstered by a rich, understated synth-oriented score from American composer John Paesano, Daredevil’s gritty depiction of a grim, crime-ridden New York is quite unlike anything else to have come from the Marvel staple in quite some time. Just days before Netflix confirmed the show’s return for a second season, I caught up with the man behind the moody soundscapes of Hell’s Kitchen to discuss the creative processes behind the score to one of the year’s most exciting television events thus far.

Paul Weedon: Daredevil is quite unlike any of the live action Marvel properties to date for a number of reasons, but the fact that Netflix release all of the episodes in one go must have made this quite a unique experience for you.

John Paesano: It’s interesting, yeah, because the way it was handled, that was the cool thing. I do theatrical stuff and I do television and this is kind of in between both of them, and the way that it works with Netflix was it was almost handled like it was a movie broken up in to 13 parts. The online platform is becoming the new frontier for all this stuff.

PW: And it’s clearly providing an enormous opportunity for composers like yourself.

JP: Yeah, absolutely. And also I think it’s giving the creative a lot more freedom to pursue the vision they were going for with the show, because you aren’t restricted by language and, as you can see with Daredevil, it’s a pretty gritty, gory, in your face show where you could never do the stuff they’re doing with network television here in the States. You’re so restricted by advertisers and what the studios want you to do… The online platform and subscription based platform just gives you lot more freedom creatively to go for it… it’s like films, you just have a little more creative freedom with it.

PW: And the Marvel stories definitely open themselves up well to a novelistic format like this.

JP: Oh yeah. And it’s funny, because we don’t think about it, but it’s so nice to work on stuff where you don’t have to deal with commercial breaks. It allows you to have a lot more continuity in the story and it allows the music to really play like it does in a film. You aren’t hammered by those scene breaks and trying to get out for a commercial. Breaking the action can sometimes be draining in television.

PW: Does that mean you have to get a little more creative? Aside from cable television, that must quite a unique position to be in for a composer working in television.

JP: Yeah, I’ve done work in network television as well and it’s so true you have such a different mentality. It seems like such a small thing, because it’s just a two-minute commercial break. But when you have that break in action it really does kind of throw you in to a different mindset.

I think with the modern technology and the way composers write these days it’s really easy to get something and chop it up in to a bunch of little segments. It’s just kind of the nature of the way we write. When you write in the computer like a lot of people do these days. It forces you to break the show up in to a bunch of little segments, but by the time you’re done with a movie you might have 40 different sessions. That’s the score, and it’s broken up.

Back in the day a guy like John Williams would get the movie and he wouldn’t write like that because he wasn’t using a computer. It would force him to look at the whole entire breadth of the movie as one giant living organism… and you would get this kind of flow with the score where it was much more cohesive and much more thought out. He would write for the movie versus writing for scenes. When you have a show like Daredevil, that kind of allowed me to do the same thing - it allowed me to view the story as a full arc versus just trying to compartmentalise and just write for scenes.

PW: And there seems to be a lot more crossover between film and TV nowadays. Composers seem to have to be able to juggle both mediums.

JP: Yeah, especially these days. I think twenty years ago you were either a film guy or a TV guy. It’s really cool. I’m seeing a lot of feature guys doing television. And I think, as a composer these days, you kind of do a little bit of everything. It’s creating a lot of different palettes for me to work in, whether it’s film or TV or video games. It’s just a really fun place to be in.

I think with the state of what’s going on with television… the product has gotten so much better and the technology has allowed the product to get better. I think because of the technology that we have now, you can have a big orchestral score in your TV show. Back in the day you couldn’t do that - it had to be guitar and pads. But these days now with the samples and blending in live players , you can get a really big sound for a TV show, which I think adds a lot of quality to the show and can make a show feel very much on par with a feature.

PW: You’re also able to work on a wide array of different projects, which are all tonally quite different from one another.

JP: Yeah, and it’s interesting because they all have different challenges with them. Each one is completely different from the other. For instance, I do an animated show for Dreamworks and Netflix as well, which is based off the How To Train Your Dragon movies and it presents a completely different challenge to something like The Maze Runner.

And Daredevil presented another different type of challenge – different style of music, different recording processes – every project is kind of like a different puzzle to figure out. Dragons is very, obviously in the realm of John Powell and in the spirit of his music and then Daredevil is something that’s very minimalistic- gritty, dirty, non-orchestral. The Maze Runner has kind of got a little bit of both in it, so you never really know what hat you’ve got to put on with every project.

PW: The superhero genre has a great heritage when it comes to music, going as far back a Danny Elfman’s work on Batman to Ramin Djawadi’s work on Iron Man, the first film in the MCU. What was your jumping off point for Daredevil?

JP: With Daredevil I was really fortunate. I worked with Steven DeKnight, who was the showrunner and one of the producers on the show. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted. He wanted to really keep the show grounded and he wanted to make it feel real and not so fantastical like some of the other Marvel properties were. He wanted music you could feel and not necessarily hear. We cut the score to be minimalistic. We tried to underspot the show so it wasn’t wall-to-wall with typical comic superhero music. There are moments where we’re able to flex the muscle a little bit and get a little bit bigger with it, but we try to be a little bit reserved and save those moments for when they really happen.

I think the other big part of Daredevil that was interesting was we really don’t have the licence to go too crazy with the music because he’s not wearing his suit until we get to the last episode. When you get to that last episode and the suit does reveal itself, you’ll notice that the music starts change colour and we start to get more in to that Marvel universe. But the music kind of grows with our character - as we learn more about Daredevil and he learns more about himself, you’ll notice the music starts to shape with it. That was definitely a long-term plan with the score and the way that we wanted to treat it.

PW: Talk me through how you first came to work on Daredevil.

JP: Well, I had worked on a proof of concept with the showrunner, Steven DeKnight, called Incursion, which is near and dear to Steven’s heart and I know that he has been trying to get it made and he’s going through the process of getting it out there. We had a mutual friend and that friend recommended that we worked together on that project and it really went well.

Time moved on and then he took over the showrunning job from Drew Goddard and when that happened I got in contact with him and said “Steven, I would love to be thrown in to the mix for this.” And he got me in the mix. I had to go through the normal process where there are bunch of other people in the mix at the same time and at the end of the day I ended up with the gig, so it was just one of those things where I think Steven kind of got me in the door…

PW: Can you tell me a little bit more about the audition process? Most people have an idea of how the process works for actors, but it’s obviously a completely different process for composers, isn’t it?

JP: Yeah, it’s a good question and I’ll take you through it bit by bit. For me, my agent submitted a reel of music that we thought was appropriate for the show. I ’m just speculating on this, because you never really know the true process, but I’m sure they get a bunch of reels from a bunch of different composers and then from those reels they probably take off some kind of shortlist.

Then they have an interview process with a couple of the composers and they take a look at your ideas, what your opinions are on the scripts and how you would handle that… things that resonated with you about it and then from that process I’m sure they shorten the listen down even more. And then once you’ve got that handful of people, we go through a demoing process… I’m sure they gave everyone the same two or three scenes and then we actually went back to the studio and mocked up what we thought would go with those scenes. Then they collect the mock ups, view them and then at that point they take every single bit, whether it’s your interview, your reel, the demos you did and they arrive at a decision based upon that.

So Daredevil was a longer process than most and I’m sure it was because it was a very in demand job and I’m sure they wanted a very specific thing. And on a show like this you want to make sure that you make the right decision because it’s hard when you’re on deadline. Daredevil was a relatively quick timeline as far as from when I got it to how fast we delivered everything. We moved very quick on the post-production side, so you really want to make sure you don’t make a mistake when you make those decisions and make sure you get the right people who are creatively aligned with each other and can handle the speed.

PW: At what stage in the process did you come in?

JP: They were a couple of weeks in to post-production when I started. The first four or five episodes had to go real quick and then we kind of settled in, but we were probably averaging around an episode every four or five days for me to write. So it was a really quick turnaround. In each episode there’s probably around 25-30 minutes of music in each episode, but it was a tough write.

Steven knew exactly what he wanted. He had a very good idea of where he wanted stuff spotted, so the minute you got off track he’d let you know and you could correct it as soon as possible, so we didn’t have to figure out what was wrong before we figured out what was right. And we had a co-producer – a guy called Alex Shevchenko on the show who was really great at making sure that Steven’s vision was secured and that we were getting it across, because there were times where Steven was so busy that he wasn’t able to be at every spotting session, so Alex did a really good job of making sure that we were staying on track with what he wanted. So it truly was a team effort.

PW: The end result is fantastic.

JP: Yeah, and it gets better and better. It really does have a good trajectory and it really picks up speed as you get towards the end, so it was a dream project to work on.

PW: How did you go about crafting the opening theme? It’s the piece of music that ultimately comes to define the show in most viewers’ minds. How challenging is the process to come up with that theme?

JP: It’s funny. The simple piano motif that’s in the theme; that was actually developed in the original demo that I did to get the show, which usually never happens. Usually the demo I do for the show is something that I think I want for the show and then they like it, but as I get in to the show it usually gets tossed out with the bathwater and we never get to use it again. But this one actually stuck and we were able to take the material from the demo and convert that material in to the main title. And as you go through the show you’ll see that that basically becomes Daredevil’s theme. And it worked itself in to the show.

Main titles are tough because they’re short and you have to get in and out and you want to make sure that it’s somewhat memorable. So the key with that for me is I try to keep those things as simple as possible. It’s so easy as a composer to… you want to write complicated music that’s impressive to people, but the composer has a tendency sometimes to over think and over write, so I think it’s important to make these things accessible to everybody; for people who aren’t big in to counterpoint and harmony and different complex chord progressions.

All that stuff’s great for the composer, but I think most people just want a simple hummable, memorably melody that they can kind of bob their head to and recognise when they hear it. So I think that’s always the challenge for a composer to always make sure that the music’s accessible, especially for the main titles – to make sure that it’s simple and that people can absorb it and when you hear it, It’s a signature for the show and with the Daredevil theme I think we accomplished that.

PW: The heartbeats were a nice touch.

JP: Yeah, that was a big thing for me with the show. Because Daredevil has that kind of heightened sense, especially when it comes to sound, and especially how he hears a lot of people’s heartbeats, we used a lot of low pulsing heartbeat in the score and in the main title and just throughout the show itself. I wanted to kind of create the energy with that low pulse and, because Steven wanted to be minimalistic with the music, I thought that low end energy would be a great way to keep the drive and the energy up but without being too intrusive, rather than if I was using big snare drums and taikos and all these other things to drive scenes. For the procedural stuff I thought it was a really cool thing to use – to take the heartbeat and use it as pulse and energy, and we work it in to a lot of scenes in the show.

PW: And how much of the final score incorporated live composition?

JP: We did some live stuff, but it is a very electronic score and I think because of our timeline and the schedule that we were on it was really difficult to do live sessions because they kind of slow down the process a little bit. So we tried to infuse as much live stuff as we could when the time allowed it, so it’s a good combination of live and I call it “in the box” sampled music.

We used some electric cello, we used just straight cello in a lot of it and a lot of it is electronic hybrid and a lot of sound design. When I knew that we wanted to do a minimalistic score the thing that was really important to me was I wanted to bring a really good mixer in who could take simple music and give it a lot of character and give it a lot of drive and grit. So I brought in Alan Meyerson, who has been mixing Hans Zimmer’s music for years. He did Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, Pirates of the Caribbean and he really brought a whole other level; taking that simple heartbeat, running it through distortion, reversing it, giving it a really cool reverb. I thought he brought a whole other level to that score.

You want to make the music simple, but you still want it to be intriguing, and it’s interesting because I’m going through all 13 episodes and we’re putting together a soundtrack for it right now and it’s really cool. It’s not big orchestral, slammy music, but it’s still very interesting and, I think, intriguing to listen to.

PW: Is it strange going back and listening to the music without the images when you were originally scoring to picture?

JP: It is, yeah. It’s really interesting listening to it without picture, because at the end of the day we’re writing music for picture. We’re not writing it for a soundtrack.

I think first and foremost the most important thing with this job is you want to write music that serves the picture. If it ends up being a great soundtrack, that’s great, but there are a lot of scores that end up working really, really well with picture but as a soundtrack they might not be as interesting to listen to. And then there are scores which work the opposite way – they’re great as soundtracks but as score they might seem a little overdone, so it’s interesting how the picture really is the king and really should dictate how the music is functioning.

I think Daredevil was one of those scores where I initially thought “it’s working really, really well on the show and I don’t know if it’ll be the interesting as a soundtrack,” but as I started digging in to the cues and doing some edits, I started realising that it’s a really interesting, eclectic score. It’s definitely got its own feel to it and I’m hoping that people will feel the same thing when we release it.

PW: Is there any chance we might see a vinyl release at all?

JP: We’ll see. Yeah, I’m hoping so. I always push for it. I know on The Maze Runner I pushed for a vinyl and they did it and I thought that was really, really cool to get that. I’m always going to push for that on soundtracks.

PW: Can I ask a little bit more about working with Marvel and Netflix as a creative force? It’s a very exciting creative pairing from a content perspective. How was that experience for you?

JP: It was really cool. I felt from a creative standpoint it just freed up all the creatives to just put together the best show they could without thinking about the different boundaries that you would have to navigate through with network and some of the other outlets that you could have released this on. And I also think, you have to look at Netflix too – Orange Is The New Black and House of Cards and all the properties that they’re putting out - they’re just becoming such a mainstream place for content and I think Marvel was kind of on the tip of the sword with understanding that.

I’m sure that Marvel probably thought that Netflix also gave them the ability to tell the story in the way that they wanted to tell the story as well. It would be really hard, I think, to get the true nature of the grittiness of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s definitely not a PG show, it’s pretty R-rated and I think that there’s a certain aspect of that that’s integral to telling Matt Murdock’s story and I think that Marvel probably thought that Netflix would be a great platform for them to be able to tell that story the way that the fans wanted to see it.

PW: To do it any other way might have felt disingenuous to the source material.

JP: Yeah, absolutely. And I think Steven DeKnight did such a great job of being true to the character and being true to the fans. He really did his homework on making sure that the character was grounded the way that he needed to be. The show has a lot of heart to it and he really covered all of the bases and I think he did a really good job too of just doing what he really wanted to do from his heart and just kind of putting the blinders on and just doing the show he wanted to do and making the show that he wanted to make. And I think Marvel and Netflix did such a great job of letting him see his creative vision out.

Joe Quesada, who is the CCO of Marvel, was so supportive during the whole process and Jeff Loeb and everybody at Marvel and Netflix were just really, really great on letting everybody do their thing. They didn’t micromanage. They let everybody do their job and they just encouraged and steered people in the right direction if they thought they wanted to see something different and they were really a pleasure to work with.

PW: It’s a massively high-profile project. Is it opening up a lot of new opportunities?

JP: Yeah, absolutely. I think any time you can work on a successful show, the more eyes that are on it, it definitely always helps. It’s funny, I always tell people, this business truly is a labour of love and I’m sure most guys you speak to say the same thing. As a composer, you never get in to this business to make money. You always do it because it’s just the only thing you know how to do. I mean when I was a kid I saw the movie Empire of the Sun with the John Williams score and I knew from the young age of 9, that this was what I wanted to do. I want to be in this world. And it’s one of those things where I never really thought I would even be successful at it. I just did it because I loved doing it. And I would always say to myself that I’d always try to figure out a way to live, but this is what I was going to be doing no matter what, so it’s almost like the success with a show like this is just the icing on the cake for me. I’m just glad that I’m able to write music and continue my life this way.

PW: So what’s next? I understand you’ve got the Maze Runner sequel on the cards next.

JP: Yeah, actually I just started The Scorch Trials, which is the second Maze Runner. I just finished a fantastic film for Paramount called Same Kind of Different As Me, which is based on a New York Times bestseller with a really talented director, a guy named Michael Carney. Mary Parent is producing that, who produced Pacific Rim, Godzilla and Noah. So that’s a movie that’s coming out next year. And then I finished a movie over the summer with the guy who produced and wrote Hoosiers and Rudy, and that’s a movie I did called My All American. And then, of course, I’m doing the Dragons stuff. That’s constantly ongoing. There’s two more seasons left of that and I’m doing a pilot right now for Fox, so I’m just busy.

PW: And can we keep our fingers crossed for your return should there be a second season of Daredevil?

JP: I am keeping my fingers crossed. They haven’t told me anything. I think everybody would like to see it. I know that right now they are concentrating on AKA Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and those are kind of ramping up right now and there’s the Defenders thing that they’re doing on Netflix. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they did a second season and I think it would be fantastic and I think everyone would like it, including myself. So we’ll see. Your guess is as good as mine right now.

PW: Just finally, Marvel are notorious for the secrecy on their projects.

JP: [Laughs] Yeah, they are.

PW: That must have been a challenge. At what point were you able to tell people that you were even working on it?

JP: It was funny. My agent was more paranoid about it I think than Marvel was. He was like “don’t say anything,” because one of his clients [Tyler Bates], did Guardians of the Galaxy and you just never know, I guess. They never really came out to me and said to me to be quiet about it. They never gave me any restrictions, but I just didn’t really talk about it myself because you never know what’s going to happen until these things are in the can, but they were pretty good about it. In general, I’ve learnt over the years that I always wait for it to be more mainstream before I say anything about it. You never want to be the guy who releases the information! [Laughs]

It’s interesting, for me being a composer, you’re kind of on the tail end of the project, so you aren’t under as many restrictions as some of the people who are more involved in production and pre-production stuff are. Because by the time I get the film, it’s pretty much public knowledge where everything’s moving and when it’s coming out. It seems like the ball’s already gotten to that point, so I feel like there are a lot less restrictions on us at that point than there are to other people in the business.

Thanks to John Paesano

DAREDEVIL Music from the Original Series is now available to download from iTunes.