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Composer Jeff Russo Channels Carter Burwell's Musical Mastery For FX's "Fargo"

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Almost 20 years after Siskel & Ebert picked up "Fargo" as one of the best films of 1996, it's still as relevant today as it was back then. It's withstood the test of time and become a rather important film, and rightfully so! When the idea of a television series based upon the film was pitched, many thought it was blasphemy; how dare they make a show off a great film! Well, with the current success the show is currently experiencing on the FX Network, "Fargo" seems prime to become a very memorable television standalone series inspired by the film it was based on thanks to the solid acting of Oscar Winner Billy Bob Thornton and Colin Hanks, son of Oscar Winner Tom Hanks.

Jeff Russo had a slight shadow looming over him with Carter Burwell's memorable film score overshadowing the show but now, with the success of FX's "Fargo" and a killer score, he can step out of that shadow! It's safe to say that although Jeff is inspired by Burwell's score, he has created his own musical world and it's memorable in it's own right. Jeff's talents shine through moment by moment and beat by musical beat with each episode and there's no telling how far he or the series will go, but one thing is for sure and that is Jeff is the musical backbone of the series.

For this very special interview with Jeff, he candidly shares with me his thoughts on "Fargo", how he got the job on the series, how his music for the series has come to be, as well as looking back on his other television work on "Hostages" and "Necessary Roughness" as well as his future projects. So sit back and enjoy the candid thoughts of this talented and rising composer.

Hi Jeff, thank you for taking the time to answer some interview questions for me today. Please tell the readers what first got you interested in music.

JR: I’ve been playing music since I was a kid. Started with violin lessons (required in the 4th grade) when I was 9, but never settled on any one instrument. Next was clarinet, then flute. Finally I started playing drums in the 6th grade and stuck with that for a while. When I was in high school I started playing guitar and it was all history after that. I started a band and drove to LA … Followed the dream. Music was just something I always wanted and had to do.

Let’s talk about your recent work on the hit FX series, “Fargo.” What got you interested in working on this project?

JR: Noah Hawley (The series Writer/Creator/Showrunner) and I were at dinner when he told me
about the project. I loved the movie, so I just said “How do I sign up; what do you need me to do?” It was a no brainer, really. Having the chance to do the kind of music that I knew we would need for this was very exciting.

Recreating the film into a mini-series seems like it would be a rather daunting task. How did you go about re-creating and reinventing the score for the series?

JR: The task was to stay in the vibe while creating our own identity (tall task!). The show lives in the world of “Fargo,” but is all new characters and stories, so we needed all new themes and melodies. I knew I had to utilize an orchestra to achieve the cinematic feel that we were looking for.

How did you go about writing the main title for the series?

JR: After the first conversation about the show, I went back to my studio and immediately started writing what was to become the main theme. I really just sat down with my guitar and wrote the first part of the melody right away. At that point I started thinking about how it would translate to an orchestra. I took the guitar melody and adjusted it so it would work on solo violin and harp. From there I just expanded the whole thing to include various chord passages with strings, woodwinds and horns.

Did the musical themes come to you naturally as you were watching an episode for the first time?

JR: Actually, I wrote about 75% of all of our themes before seeing any picture at all. I was working from scripts and ideas. Certain themes had to be written later to picture, as new characters were introduced and older themes got retired.

Did you often collaborate with the showrunner or episode directors when writing the music for the series?

JR: On a TV series it is rare for a composer to interface with a director, except in the case of a pilot, as opposed to a film where it’s all in the directors hands. The process of writing a score is very collaborative, so yes the showrunner and I are usually very collaborative. In the case of “Fargo,” Noah is a musician himself, so the process of talking about the score and understanding what he wants is made easier since we both speak the same language.

Is there a specific favorite piece of music that you’ve written for the series, such as a particular character theme?

JR: The main theme is probably my favorite with “Wrench & Numbers” and “Stavros’ Prayer” being a close second and third.

Did you use an orchestra for the score?

JR: Yes. 45-piece orchestra including strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion.

Will there be a soundtrack released of your music for the show? If you were to put together a soundtrack, what would it consist of?

JR: There will be an all score soundtrack that I am compiling now. I am not sure what the exact content will be yet, but it will include the main theme and the best of the rest.

You also co-wrote the music for the entertaining drama “Hostages” starring Dylan McDermott. What was it like working with another composer on the project? How did you each go about writing music for the series?

JR: That was fun. Ben and I had wanted to work together for a long time, and that show posed the perfect opportunity. We had both been close with the writer/showrunner, with whom we had worked in the past, so it worked out great. We wrote the music together, co-writing the main title and end titles, as well as all of the main themes from the show. Then we could go and create all of the cues for the show based on all of those themes in our own studios. It was a really great experience. Since there was so much music in the show (about 38 minutes in a 42 minute show), it also made the time much more manageable.

You also worked on one of my favorite shows - “Necessary Roughness” which starred Callie Thorne. How did you get involved with the series?

JR: After the producers had decided on a type of score (sort of guitar based rock and bluesy type), they had some composers submit reels, and then took meetings with a few of us. I had a really nice meeting with the Producers and we just really hit it off. They liked what I had suggested bringing to the musical identity of the show.

Was it hard for you to write music for each episode, considering there is a lot of character dialogue?

JR: Part of the job is staying out of the way of dialogue, but also to enhance the emotional aspect. Since I come from a songwriting background, I look at it like I am writing a song and the dialogue is the lyrics. So I try to support them without getting in their way.

How did you approach writing the music for each season?

JR: Since Season 3 had a distinctly new backdrop, we decided to add a few elements to the score to enhance that change. The score themes, didn’t change that much, though. We kept the feel of the show the same, while pumping up the new look.

You scored a rather interesting and entertaining film called “About Cherry” a few years ago. How did you get involved with the film?

JR: I was introduced to the director who told me about the script that he had written, which sounded like a really great idea to me. He wasn’t sure about what he was going to do about the music, so I wrote some pieces for him that I thought would work, and he really liked them. Then it was just really collaborative from there. I would send him sketches of cues, he would make comments, and then I would record the cues for real.

I really enjoyed your score for it. How did you come up with the themes that you did for it?

JR: The director didn’t want music to really drive the emotion so I had to be really careful not to be too forceful with themes that could be noticed. It was a lot more arpeggios and ostinatos that could be more mesmerizing and vibe creating. Once those were in place I could add little bits of melody for theme.

Do you find it harder to compose music for a film or a television series?

JR: TV is a bit harder because of the schedule.

Which project (film or television) has been your favorite to work on and why?

JR: Certainly “Fargo.” I get to write music that seems so unlikely for TV. Big emotional passages and sudden stops and orchestral effects. All the things that I love.

Which film or television show (past or present) that you have not written the score for would you like to do?

JR: The “Shawshank Redemption.”

Who is your favorite director that you’ve worked with so far in your career?

JR: I can’t say, really. Everyone is different and there isn’t a favorite. I haven’t had a bad experience working with a director or producer, so that’s good!

Please tell the readers about your future upcoming projects.

JR: I am in the process of finishing up the new STARZ show called “Power,” which makes its debut in June, and have a film coming out this year called “The Surface,” starring Sean Astin.

Very special thanks to Jeff for being so gracious with his time for this interview. I totally appreciate it and you're awesome. Thanks. Also very special thanks to Jana Davidoff for introducing me to Jeff and for her great support.

"Fargo" starring Billy Bob Thronton and Colin Hanks airs Tuesday Nights at 10 P.M. (EST) on the FX Network. Please feel free to visit the show's official site @ http://www.fxnetworks.com/fargo

Please feel free to visit Jeff's official website for updates on his current and future projects @ http://jeffrusso.com/

Here Is Jeff Russo's Bio:

"Jeff has become a prominent composer, songwriter and arranger in the film and television industry. Russo is currently composing music for two highly-anticipated television series: FX’s ten-episode limited series, FARGO, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Bob Odenkirk and Kate Walsh and Starz’s new original drama, POWER, from executive producer, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. He has just completed work on the feature film thriller, THE SURFACE, starring Sean Astin and Mimi Rogers and later this year, he is slated to begin work on the upcoming Wilt Chamberlain Biopic, WILT.

In addition to composing music for film and television, Russo still plays music with his rock band. He is a founding member, lead guitarist and co-songwriter of two-time GRAMMY® nominated, multi-platinum selling rock band, TONIC. Their debut album, “Lemon Parade,” posted three singles in the U.S. Mainstream rock Charts’ Top 10, with “If You Could Only See,” rocketing to number one. In 2003, the band received two GRAMMY®-nominations, one for “Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal” for “Take Me As I Am,” and one for “Best Rock Album.”

Most recently, Russo co-composed the score for CBS’s television mini-series drama, HOSTAGES, starring Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette, and wrote the original score for USA Network’s NECESSARY ROUGHNESS, starring Callie Thorne, Marc Blucas and John Stamos. In 2013, he also worked on several feature films, including Shoreline Entertainment’s WATERCOLOR POSTCARDS, starring Laura Bell Bundy, and the independent feature, FREE RIDE, starring Anna Paquin, Cam Gigandet and Drea de Mateo. Russo’s work can also be heard in films and television shows such as Marvista Entertainment’s film BAD BEHAVIOR; the independent feature ABOUT CHERRY; Lifetime’s MEET JANE; the pilot for ABC’s CHARLIE’S ANGELS; Showtime’s SHAMELSS episode, “It’s Time to Kill the Turtle”; ABC’s MY GENERATION and THE UNUSUALS; a documentary featuring interviews of the original students and teachers of the 1967 “Third Wave Experiment,” LESSON PLAN; and ABC/Bad Robot’s main title song for WHAT ABOUT BRIAN with Low Stars. Russo has also contributed to the score for Showtime’s WEEDS; a rap song for ABC’s hit-series CASTLE; score for NBC’s SMASH; and NBC’s final season of CROSSING JORDAN and debut season of THE BIONIC WOMAN, both under renowned composers, Wendy & Lisa. Tonic’s music has also been featured in films such as, Universal Pictures’ AMERICAN PIE and Dimension Films’ SCREAM 2.

In addition to scoring film and television, Russo has composed music for the New York Ballet Company Cedarlake Ensemble."

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