Interviews - James L. Venable

For those who may not know you, care to do a quick rundown on your background in the industry?

I started off composing music for anything that I could. This included student films to travel logs, industrials, anything. Anybody that wanted to me to write music I’d do it. My first paying jobs after doing those kinds of things was writing music for what would be considered kind of ‘ghost writing.’ I would go in and cover cues for these composers that were doing different animated shows. I would come in at night and work all night, and then they’d come in and critique my cues. I learned a lot that way.

After a couple years doing that I was fortunate enough to have a chance to be part of the audition process for The Powerpuff Girls, and that led ultimately to me getting that show. So I would say that was my sort-of break into the industry. And I was really lucky because Kevin Smith happened to watch The Powerpuff Girls. So when he went to do his cartoon Clerks: The Cartoon, he invited me to come in and do what I did for The Powerpuff Girls. That’s basically what he asked me to do. He said “whatever you do for that show I want you to do it for my show.” So that was really cool. And then I even got more lucky when Kevin went on to do Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, he and Scott Mosier invited me to do the score for that, which was amazing as a first live-action film experience. I got to have an 80-piece orchestra, three days of recording at Paramount Studios, a choir, pretty much anything I needed for the score or I could have. It was amazing.

From there that led to a relationship with Harvey and Bob Weinstein, and I did a number of movies for Miramax, including Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4. I was fortunate enough to get invited back to do Kevin’s films like Jersey Girl and Zach and Miri Make a Porno. I’ve done a decent amount, and I’ve actually got to do a horror movie called Venom which I really, really enjoyed. That was sort of a departure from a lot of the either comedic music I had been asked to write. It was interesting for Scary Movie, even though those were comedies the score was serious, so that was kind of a neat opportunity to write horror in a lot of different genres.

To date I’ve done a lot of comedies, although lots of music I’ve done for the comedies has been serious. My most recent feature film was I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, which is available now on DVD, based on the book written by Tucker Max. And actuallyJustice League: Crisis on Two Earths was my most recent project.

How did you get attached to Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths? Was there a specific project that drew the creative team’s attention to you?

Chris Drake introduced me to everyone. He had started the music for this movie, he wrote the main title which I think is amazing, and had started the first several cues in the movie. Due to personal reasons he had to step off the film and he referred the team to me. I’m really grateful to Chris Drake because I got an opportunity to write for all my favorite super-hero characters simply because he recommended me. That’s how I got involved with Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths.

While comparable to your work on Samurai Jack, this is quite a shift from your recent projects, which include the likes of Clerks 2 and Zack and Miri Make a Porno big-screen flicks. Is it a jump to go from a romantic comedy to a straight-up superhero slugfest? How do you adapt to drastically different projects?

Is it a jump to go from romantic comedy to super-hero slugfest? Well, yes it is because in general romantic comedies they don’t have huge epic fight scenes and the music tends to be a little more along the lines of supporting either the emotions on the screen or the comedy on the screen. Those films were live-action, so that brings in another element of how I approach the music. With a movie like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths it was really cool because there were some definite opportunities to write some epic fight music, which is great. There was actually plenty of opportunities for that. So much so it took a bit of doing to score the scenes without repeating myself. That I found to be a very cool challenge.

The projects I’ve done in the past, like The Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack, all had big fight scenes in them too, so that wasn’t too much of a stretch. But another kind of a unique thing was scoring the dialogue and any kind of expositional type of thing happening, and finding ways to create the right tone and not getting in the way of what was being said or ways to support whatever was being conveyed to the audience. I found that to be a really cool challenge.

Really, as far as adapting to drastically different projects, I think every project- whether it is comedy or big action epic kind of film or whatever it is - there is sort of a tooling up of the machine, if you will. There’s just that time when I have to sort of spend time deciding what sort of music is going to fit the film the best. This also involves discussion with the creative team, getting their ideas on what works and doesn’t work. That helps. A lot of it is narrowing it down to the language musically we’re going to use, and then sort of figuring out how I’m going to get that voice. Am I going to use samples, am I going to use synthesizers, am I going to use both? Is it going to be an orchestral score, or it is going to be a score where I do it all out of my studio and give it an orchestral sound? But is it going to be out of various samplers and that kind of thing or is it going to be recorded live, am I going to bring in live players or will I be the only live player? All of that stuff comes into play when adapting a project.

What type of influences did you bring to the board when working on your score for this project. Who did you look at, what did you watch, when coming up with the Crisis score?

Probably the biggest thing I watched, or I should say listened to, was the spotting sessions that Chris had done with the creative team to get their input. It’s interesting that even though I had done a lot of comedies, a lot of the time the music is serious. I had scored a movie called Superhero Movie and that kind of brought a lot of the superhero vocabulary into my toolkit, if you will. So a lot of the devices and things that I had studied for that movie I brought to this movie because really - it’s the Justice League and there’s all these amazing superheroes all over the place.

So, as far as who did I watch and listen to, I didn’t have a lot of time to research it ahead of time. I spent most of my time watching the movie itself and letting it inspire me and also listening to what Chris had done. I wanted my contribution to the score to match what he had done on the main title and the first few cues. Really I just kind of ran with that. My cues started with the first big fight. So, there was the thing of figuring out the language of these fights going to be. Is it going to be big orchestral a la John Williams or is it going to be more fun electronic stuff like a la The Powerpuffs Girls, though it’s never going to go quite to The Powerpuff Girls place.

So we sort of worked out my first cue and got feedback from Bruce Timm and we sort of landed where we ended up. We definitely wanted to pay homage to the large epic superhero music, but he definitely wanted it to be not too heavy and not too dark. So it was sort of like giving it more energy and less about weight.

Can we expect any prominent themes in the score? Will Superman get his grand heroic cues, for example? Did you leave your mark on some of the work Drake did for the score?

There are themes in the score. It’s interesting with the Justice League there’s so many superheroes and so many characters it almost undercut everything to score each superhero individually, but there were some stand outs. I guess the Owlman and Batman had their tone since they had their clash in this movie, and then the Justice League and the Crime Syndicate had their sort of themes. Chris had done a really good job of establishing those so I tried to incorporate those as much I could. And then I kind of went with more general action stuff, good guy/bad guy type stuff, and then there’s also some thematic material that accompanies Owlman’s point of view and his goals and agenda. So I tried to score that as well. In other words, I gave that a theme.

Were there any scenes in particular that you found hard to wrap your head around to score? On the opposite end of the spectrum, any moments that stick out as your favorite to put music to?

Really none of them were really hard to wrap my head around. There were some challenges in that some of the fights were really epic and really long. I don’t mean long to watch, I think they fly by from a viewer’s perspective, but as a composer, to keep energy going for many, many minutes in a row. If you can establish the energy and keep it going the same for too long then that energy sort of loses its effectiveness. To find ways to keep the dynamics going up and down and playing the arcs of the different fights and events that were going on and at the same time keeping the energy up without keeping to “samey” that was probably the biggest challenge of the movie.

The moments that stick out as my favorites were the Owlman battle with Batman and also the latter third of the movie, which really offered the most enjoyable scoring moments for me.

Are there any big super heroes you’d like to compose music for, or did you get your wish here with Crisis?

I’d love to score any music for any of those heroes, and I’d probably welcome the opportunity to score for them individually where I could really get into their character. So yes, I think Justice League: Crisis on two Earths does offer a composer an amazing opportunity to score for these classic superheroes, the Justice League having all those heroes together. I would welcome the opportunity to score a movie with each of them individually, if that is what I would wish for. I think I did get to score for all of my favorite superheroes, I just wish I could get into them each individually. So I would welcome the opportunity to score each of their individual movies. And the villains. I actually really enjoy scoring the villains, too. I think that’s where you get to go to all those meaty, dark places. Owlman was one of my favorite characters to score for.

To wrap things up for the time being, any final thoughts on your work on Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths? What else can we expect from you in the future?

Right now I am on hiatus from film composing and I’m using the time to work on my next record. It’s been about six years since my last record, which was a CD called “Holding Space.” My next big project is my next release and it’s hard to call it a record. And it’s not a CD either. It’ll actually be a DVD - an experiential DVD home theatre immersive experience. That’s my goal for this next project of mine, and I’m hoping to have that done as soon as possible. I’ve already written a lot of the music, but this project is sort of a multi-media project. It’s definitely a challenge for me because it’s involving music as well as visuals. I’m very excited about it, though. It’s also involving getting into the whole 7.1 audio for the Blu-ray and I’ll be composing the music in the 7.1 format. In other words, I’m thinking, as part of the composing project, in terms of the sevens speakers and one sub. So I’m very excited about it and I’m really kind of glad to have this time to put into that project because it is something I’ve been wanting to do for years.
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