Interview: Joe Kraemer (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation)

By Karol Krok mission_impossible_rogue_nation-wide

It’s hard to believe that the first Mission: Impossible came out a whole 19 years ago. Director Brian De Palma kicked off a successful big screen franchise based on 1966–1973 television show of the same name. It also helped to solidify Tom Cruise’s status as a true action movie star. Because his name is often associated with this series, it is no wonder the actor is so willing to carry on making so many sequels. After three of them, directed by John Woo, J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird, respectively, we finally arrive at the latest chapter – Rogue Nation. Christopher McQuarrie, known for such films as Jack Reacher and The Way of the Gun, created a real thrill-ride that manages to entertain modern audiences while, at the same time, never forgets about spy roots of Ethan Hunt’s adventures.

McQuarrie brought on board his friend and frequent collaborator Joe Kraemer to provide musical accompaniment for this latest chapter in the Mision: Impossible saga, thus following in the footsteps of such famous names as Lalo Schifrin, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino. The composer, previously known for scoring smaller drama and independent films, took full advantage of his role and created a truly great film score that provides Rogue Nation with a considerable dose of class and style.

Joe, very busy lately due to Rogue Nation's worldwide promotion, was kind enough to find some time and talk to us about his perilous journey into the world of globe-trotting espionage.

(Please be aware that minor SPOILERS are present in this interview)


KK: You worked on all of Christoper McQuarrie’s feature films. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is the third one. How did you two start working together?

JK: We first met when I was 15 or 16 and I was acting in a movie (filmed) on Super 8. My co-star was a kid from New Jersey named Bryan Singer. That “kid”, you know (laughs). He was 5 years older than me.

Chris was his friend and he drove him from their city in New Jersey to upstate New York, outside of Albany, where we were shooting this project. So that’s how I first met Chris and we hit it off, I thought he was hilarious, irreverent, likeable and smart. And we became good friends.joekraemer5

Years later, after moving to LA, I actually ended up living a block away from him. Since I didn’t have a car yet, and LA is such a car city, I ended up hitching a ride with him everywhere he went. And we just hit it off. We talked about movies and movie music all the time and we just vowed that if someday we had a chance, we would work together. After Chris won an Academy Award for writing The Usual Suspects, he had an opportunity to make a TV pilot for Warner Bros., which he wrote and produced. I did the music for that. He was so happy with it that, when the time to make his film The Way of the Gun, I was brought on board. And that’s sort of a capsulized version of how we started working together.

KK: Rogue Nation seems like so much bigger project than Jack Reacher (which also starred Tom Cruise). Was it hard to move from a moderate size film like this into the big budget blockbuster extravaganza?

JK: No. In fact, it’s just the opposite. At least with my own personal ambition as a composer, it’s much harder to restrain myself on a small project, and to deal with the frustration of not being able to use live orchestra or things like that. It’s actually much more fun and liberating to have access to large orchestra and all the resources that movies like Mission: Impossible provide.

KK: Well, that’s where all the fun is (laughs).

JK: Yes, exactly.

KK: What was yours and Chris’ musical take on this series? You are, obviously, referencing the timeless sound of the original television show. But were you also looking back at the other Mission: Impossible scores for inspiration? That’s quite a musical heritage of its own.

JK: No. Chris said: “If you’re going to look at anything from the past, look at the TV show. Don’t worry about the other movies.  Those other movies are other directors, other writers, other composers. And we’re not making a sequel to those movies. We’re making an extension of the TV show, in terms of style.” And Tom Cruise, who was producer on this film, was totally on board with that. His feeling was “go retro”.


And so, I went back and looked at the pilot, then many episodes from the early seasons. And decided that I would make a score that could have been recorded for the pilot, in the sense that I didn’t want to use any sounds that weren’t available to Lalo Schifrin when he scored it. Which meant no synthesisers, no drum machines, no techno loops. Everything was done with acoustic instruments recorded in a symphonic setting. Which is essentially how Lalo did the pilot. What I felt was that it would help me sound sort of retro but it wouldn’t limit what I could write. It would only limit how I could achieve it.

And I was really concerned for it not to sound like a spoof of old scores. Austin Powers scores are very good but they’re also very much a parody of Bond scores and other spy movies of the 60’s. And I didn’t want to fall into that trap.

KK: Yes, of course. Even the previous Mission: Impossible scores often had a sense of tongue-in-cheek in some places. Especially when compared to your score, which is much more rooted in spy genre in general. And has that 1970’s vibe.

JK: Well, of course, Chris and I love films and film scores of the 70’s. (Jack) Reacher is almost a love letter to that. And, you know, in the other two films Chris made, we never scored action sequences. And that’s a very 1970’s idea. If you go back and look at the first Star Wars movie, half of attack on the Death Star has no music. It wasn’t unheard of to not score action sequences and in Reacher the car chase had no music. There were two sequences in this film (Rogue Nation) that made it to the final dub without music. I wrote the music for them just in case. But the car chase that I wrote never made it past the demo stage. Same with the music that I wrote for the sequence that we call “The Torus”. I wrote music for the whole thing which ended up being dialed out. But it’s on the CD.

KK: Yes. I was about to ask you about that piece actually. That’s probably the only sequence on the album which feels more modern.

JK: Well, that was the idea. It was such a high-tech setting in the film. And it was one sequence I worried about scoring using this idea of “no synths”. And I thought: “How am I going get away with that?”. I was inspired by the music of minimalist composers, like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, to create the music for that sequence. It’s very staccato, essentially techno music for symphony orchestra. And instead of having a synthesiser do the pulsating rhythm in the low end, like a bass loop, I had bassoons doing that. I had clarinets getting louder and softer in waves, sort of like turning the envelope knob on a synthesiser.

KK: Yeah, the effect is very nice. It’s a pity this is not in the film.

JK: If I’m going to be completely honest with you, I miss it.  I can totally recognise that it works without it. There are very few people who heard this music against the picture. I’m one of the only few. But like the narration in the original Blade Runner, even after you take it out, I can still hear it. And I can still hear that music in my head when I watch the sequence (laughs).

KK: I always find it interesting for different composer’s to talk about working with already established material. In this case, it’s the famous Mission: Impossible theme by Lalo Schifrin. Do you find it difficult to work around somebody else’s style while trying to retain your own voice?

JK: Well, I didn’t find it difficult. It never felt like I’m sort ripping off or losing my own identity in this. Do you know what I mean? I did take Lalo’s theme and figured out what would be the core pieces of that. And I broke it down into three constituent parts and felt free to modify those parts anyway that I please. So, in a way, I thought of it as if I had scored the original and now was coming back to do a sequel. How would I treat my own material? And I guess it involved a certain degree of arrogance, if you will, to presume that I could have created that material in the first place. But whether I created it or anybody else did, it existed. It’s the same thing if I was ever asked to do a Star Wars movie, a Bond movie, or any major franchise with a musical history. I think you owe it to the fans, to honour and respect what’s already been established.


KK: I noticed that you’re very comfortable with those themes. They’re a constant presence all throughout your score to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. It’s not just a “copy & paste” kind of approach.

JK: That was the other thing that was important to me, as I really didn’t want it to feel like we’re just plunking a needle-drop into the movie.

KK: To compliment the famous Lalo Schifrin themes you also created a handful of your own ideas? Would you talk a bit about the new themes and motifs that you developed for Rogue Nation?

JK: Sure. After watching a rough cut of this film, I thought about the structure and everything. From different conversations I had with Chris and other people, I thought a lot about The Empire Strikes Back and how Darth Vader’s theme is really a centrepiece of that score. I thought that I needed to come up with a really good theme for the villain for this movie. Whether it ends up being the centrepiece to this score or not, I need to come up with a good theme. So that kind of became my goal for the next couple days. It’s a track on the CD called ‘Solomon Lane’. It’s the original version for that theme, more ornate and melodic and it captures a sort of snake charmer quality that the villain had. And it was written for the longer cut. Scenes changed and got cut down. As a result, the theme got simplified. But it still retains that haunting and mysterious quality.

The next thing was to figure out a way to take some elements of Lalo’s theme and create music for Tom’s character that worked in concert with that, but didn’t replicate that exactly. And the solution I found for that was to look at the underlying chord sequence of Lalo’s theme and then create a theme that worked against it. And that became Ethan’s theme for the movie. What’s nice is that, by the climax of the film, I’m able to intertwine the two in a really powerful way.

KK: You also used the Puccini piece that is quoted numerous times throughout the score?

JK: I do. Our female lead is this mysterious sort of femme-fatale type character and we’re never quite sure which side of the line she’s falling on – good guy or bad guy. And Ethan has this moment when he sees her backstage. And it synchronises perfectly with the music that Puccini wrote, ‘Nessun Dorma’. And that’s one of those great movie moments - it’s small but beautiful. And I just thought there’s a connection between those two characters as a result of that moment, in the mind of the audience - because, obviously, she doesn’t know he can see her.

Later on in the film, when they have conversations about what that could do, and say goodbye to each other at one point, I just thought it would be lovely to use that music to connect them together. And to recall that moment when he saw her backstage, in that beautiful dress. They’re somewhat kindred spirits in this movie, two people who devoted their life to being spies. At various points in the film, I think, both of them question whether it’s worth it or not. There’s a hint of romance in it as well, but that isn’t really the principle intent.

KK: And it’s more subtle like that.

JK: Yes.

KK: Film like this must be quite challenging on a purely technical level. Is there a particular sequence that was particularly hard to crack?

JK: Well, probably one of the hardest sequences to score in the whole film was the escape from the opera house. On the CD it’s called ‘A Flight at the Opera’. It begins after the chancellor gets shot and the opera director interrupts the play. It carries through as they run around backstage and run across the roof and then slide down the rope. And that was just difficult because it had to be energetic and you had to feel danger. But it also had to be kind of fun. Chris really wanted it to feel like a first date. And there was an elusive quality to that and it took us many tries to get it right.


And then, the second thing that was very difficult was the first fight scene where Tom is held captive - shirtless and chained to that pole. The bad guys are beating him up. And then, Ilsa decides to help him. And in that sequence we did many, many versions, trying to find the right degree of action music that wasn’t too big, wasn’t too small, wasn’t too fast, wasn’t too slow. And so, those two sequences we spent the most time on, really struggling to get them right.

KK: In the liner notes for the soundtrack album there is a mention that you had to oversee the opera sequence in Vienna before scoring process even commenced. Would you talk a bit about that?

JK: Yes, I flew to England, while they were filming the opera sequence, and supervised it, and helped them to come up with a plan on how to shoot it. So that when it came to edit the movie, they weren’t stuck in a corner. Chris had a recording that he loved, wrote the sequence to, and imagined it to, and timed it all out in his head. We used that version as a playback guide when we shot the sequence. And then, after it was done…the picture editor Eddie Hamilton and Chris, they cut the sequence so that it told a story. And then, between Eddie, Chris, myself and my music editor John Finklea, we edited the music to fit the storytelling of this sequence. And once edits were made, we recorded a new version that timed out precisely. And that became a version you hear in the movie.

KK: Pretty cool actually.

JK: It was very complicated. We had to record new instruments, new singers. So what I had was actors lip-synching to a recording and then new singers coming in and singing new vocals to match the actors who were lip-synching to another recording. We ADR’d an opera! Very logistically complicated and, in a way, it’s amazing that it worked. But it did.

KK: Speaking of logistics, Chris doesn’t use pre-exisitng music while editing the film, right?

JK: No. When he’s cutting the movie, he does it without any music at all. He wants the film to find its own rhythm, based on performances of the actors and his dialogue. He doesn’t want the editor listening to another piece of music and then shoehorn-ing his scene into the rhythm of that music.

KK: Yeah. That’s quite rare, especially in a film like this.

JK: To be completely honest, at some point temp music has to enter the picture. Because Chris and Tom, they very much believe in test audiences. And you can’t show the movie to an audience without music. And the score is not ready in time for those screenings. So what he does at that point, is that he brings in a music editor who creates a temp score just for that screening. And I never see it. If Chris does hear something in the temp that he likes, he’ll direct me in my composing. If I write a cue for a scene and then he hears a piece in the temp that he likes, he may say: “Listen, I love what you wrote. The temp is a little faster. Can you try yours faster?”. But he won’t play me the temp and say: “Copy that”. I’m very lucky to have that.

KK: You partially recorded the score at Abbey Road Studios. Was it your first time recording in London?

JK: Oh yeah, it was my first time. A dream come true. It was awesome. We actually recorded the entire score twice. You know, there is a very common practice these days of recording orchestra in sections. Where you record just the strings, just the brass. And then, like an album, you can mix the elements separately. What you gain by doing it that way is a really clean mix of all recordings. You can change your mind later on about the different volumes of things. But what you lose is that energy of the whole orchestra playing together in the same room and at the same time. So what we did was record individual sections in a smaller configuration at a wonderful studio called British Grove. And it was more of a TV sound. Instead of 56 strings, it was 28. Close microphones, smaller room. And during those smaller sessions, we made most of the changes that we needed to make to satisfy Chris. And then, at Abbey Road we had the whole orchestra playing together.


And since I did everything in this film to click track, it would all line up together. And so, we had this recording that, on one hand, was this giant recording from Abbey Road. And then, at the same time, is this tight focused recording from British Grove. We would go between those two in the film, depending on what the context was in the scene. In an action scene oftentimes it was the smaller recording that cut through the mix better. You could have the action music playing and it wasn’t being drowned out by the dialogue or action sounds. Like the motorcycles, for example. But it also wasn’t clobbering all that sound either.

KK: That makes sense actually. So how much music did you record for Rogue Nation?

JK: Overall? Because of the editorial process on this film, the schedule was shortened by five months. And that meant…I did a lot of extra things, in order to cover ourselves during the dub (final mix of the film). There might be a cue where I did one version that relied more on Lalo’s theme. And then, there might be another version that didn’t have any Lalo’s theme in it. Just to give Chris options when he was mixing the film. As a result, we ended up recording about two hours and twenty minutes of music. I ended up writing and orchestrating even more than that. But we didn’t always end up recording it because some of it was written  and orchestrated for scenes that were cut from the movie before recording sessions. And that was just an unfortunate consequence of the abbreviated schedule.

I was on this film much earlier than a composer ordinarily would be. I was scoring the movie before they were done finishing it. I was doing the beginning of the movie while they were still shooting the end.

KK: That’s quite interesting.

JK: It’s crazy!

KK: Given how complicated recording process was, putting the album together must have been an interesting puzzle of its own?

JK: Yes. On the album, I favoured the action music. Because, to me, that’s the most interesting music and because I’ve never really had a CD with this much action music available before. The Way of the Gun had very little, Jack Reacher had virtually none. So it was fun for me to have a CD that was energetic and action-driven.

There is quite a bit of material that’s in the film and which didn’t make it to the album. But a lot of it is what you might call “utilitarian music” that film needs. Quieter, atmospheric things that perhaps weren’t quite as exciting to listen to on their own.

And I did make a couple of little trims and tucks in certain spots. CDs can hold about 74 minutes of music and I wanted to fit as much as I could, so the album is 73 minutes and 45 seconds long (laughs). I just made a couple of trims to make sure it all fit.


KK: Do you have your favourite piece from the score?

JK: Oh, I have moments that I love. For example, when we transition to Morocco and I present Lalo’s theme called “The Plot” in a sort of Lawrence of Arabia setting. That was so much fun and it sounded so huge with the live orchestra. It was great.

Doing the theme for the opening title and curtain call was fantastic. The cue called ‘Meet the IMF’, which is the climax of this film. It’s funny,  because even without all the electronics and amplification of any kind, just acoustic instruments, it was so loud in that studio! You forget how loud a symphony orchestra can be. The hair on my arms stood up, it was fantastic.

KK: I would love to be there!

JK: I’ll give you another story I haven’t told anybody. It was a great moment. It was on my birthday. They surprised me. I thought we were going to be recording a cue called ‘The Syndicate’. The told me “We don’t have the picture online yet we’ll just do it to the click track.” And so, I started conducting and the click track seemed fast to me. But I was, like, “They must know what they’re doing”. And then, this gigantic sound. This humongous great B Flat chord came out of the orchestra. I’m a huge John Williams and Star Wars fan. And they secretly put Star Wars on the stands. And so, the orchestra starting playing the main theme for me as a little present. I can’t tell you how amazing it sounds, when you’re standing at the podium and the London orchestra is playing it to you at Abbey Road No.1. It’s breathtaking, sounds so good.

KK: I can only try to imagine. You seem to be one of those composers who likes to interact with their fans online? Do you enjoy doing that?

JK: I love it. I’m a film music fan myself. And I’ve had an opportunity in my life, two or three times, to interact with John Williams. And it’s always been a very rewarding experience. I think one of the really great benefits of the modern age, with Facebook and Twitter, is that ability to interact with people who like your music. I didn’t grow up in show business, I grew up in upstate New York. Yes, I befriended filmmakers when I was young. But none of us were famous when we met. The fact that there are people in countries I’ve never visited, who’ve heard my music and who have reached out to me because it means something to them, it just blows my mind.

KK: Film music festivals are now very popular. I come from Poland originally and there’s a big film music festival in Krakow that became quite an event.

JK: Yes.

KK: And maybe, one day, you’ll visit and present some of your music?

JK: I would love to go. It’s a secret dream of mine. I would love to hear a piece such as ‘Solomon Lane’ at a film music festival in a concert. That would be a dream come true.

KK: And my final question. Are you working on anything at the moment?

JK: Not at the moment. This was a long job, because of the schedule. It was all I could do for five months. I didn’t see my wife or my children for five months. I have two children. One of them was old enough to visit but the other one wasn’t. And I’m taking a little time off. You know, a week or so (laugh). And the movie is coming out tomorrow, as we speak, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it does on the opening weekend. And then, going from there.

In fact, it might be of interest to you especially and members of your family and country. One project I’m slated to work on is a documentary about how John Paul II helped Holocaust people in Poland. A classmate of mine from high school is actually doing sound on it and he asked me to contribute music to that. That’s something I’m looking towards doing in the not too distant future.

KK: Could be very interesting actually. I’m afraid these are all the questions I had. Thanks for your music and congratulations on a really great score.

JK: Thank you very much, people are so gracious. I’m really grateful.


Special thanks to Beth Krakower, Chandler Poling, Ashley Moore and Charlie Brigden for making this interview possible.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is out now in cinemas.

The CD album is available from La-La Land Records.

You can read our review of the soundtrack album here.

Visit Joe Kraemer's official website.


Island of Lost Scores #3