Writing movie and TV music with Lost in Space and Sausage Party composer Christopher Lennertz
Christopher Lennertz is an Emmy-nominated composer with an immense versatility that has seen him score projects ranging from movies Sausage Party, Horrible Bosses and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 to hit TV shows Supernatural and Lost in Space. Here he tells Mandy News how he became a composer and what his scoring process is like on such a variety of film and television productions.
Christopher, if you could please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about how you got involved in music first and how that lead to you working in the film industry?
My name’s Christopher Lennertz and I am a composer and conductor for TV, movies and video games sometimes.
I got into music at a very young age. I started playing the trumpet at nine at school, but didn’t really catch the bug until I guess I was about 12 and switched to guitar because I heard Eddie Van Halen play and decided I wanted to be a rock star. Through high school I was playing in rock bands at weekends, at parties and things like that, and then I started getting more and more serious about studying theory and things of that sort, and started learning more about jazz and classical. I was also in a lot of musical theatre when I was younger.
I was in a couple of plays and then decided that I wanted to go into music professionally and moved from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to study guitar at the University of Southern California. The second year I was there, I was writing some music for guitar ensembles and my composition teacher said “have you ever thought about writing film music?” And, of course, I hadn’t, but I knew a lot about film music because I grew-up with John Williams and E.T. and Star Wars and that kind of era. So I said "yeah, I’d definitely be interested in thinking about it", and he set me up with a friend of his.
He asked me to come check out a recording session and, when I first went, I was pretty-much just a roadie – I brought in his keyboard and things like that. When I got in there, I found it was Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther)! So I got to actually watch Henry Mancini work. He re-wrote a couple of pieces and he was just so amazing and had so much command of the orchestra. He also showed me the one thing that I always had trouble with, which was that there were all kinds of different styles in this one score.
There was a classical piece and a jazz piece and that was the one thing that I always hated doing, picking a particular style of music; because I like rock as much as I like jazz, as much as I like hip-hop and orchestral. I hated to have to make a choice and here was a situation where I finally thought “wait, you can write all different kinds of music, all the time and have that be what you do?” It was pretty amazing.
I was such a big movie buff anyway so I changed my major at university and ended-up studying with Elmer Bernstein for a year while I was there, and went on to be an assistant for Basil Poledouris, who did Conan and The Hunt For Red October, and Michael Canan, who did Die Hard and Robin Hood and just ended-up sort of working my way up in the business that way.
So fast-forward to some things you’ve been working on lately. The first season of the Lost In Space revival. Tell us how you got involved with working on something with such an iconic past?
Well that was pretty great, and similar, story. The showrunner of the new Lost In Space was a friend of mine from college.
He was at the U.S.E. film school, where George Lucas went. It’s a big, famous film school and I had met him there but we’d never actually worked on a professional project together. But we remained friends for a long time and so he eventually reached out to me from the middle of nowhere, in the fall, and said: “Hey do you have any availability? I have this really great project for Netflix.” I asked him what it was and he said “It’s Lost In Space and it’s not camp at all. It’s going to be a big, adventure series, good for the whole family with big themes.”
I wrote back to him and said “I’m in – how do we do this?” It was that easy and then we ended up meeting and really getting on the same page. We both really think of music in the same way, we love the old Amblin, ’80s, Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis movies anyway, so it made a lot of sense to go down that road.
You had the same sort of ideology and processes in the things that you liked, but what was the process from scratch of making the music for Lost In Space?
The first thing I did was talk to Zach Estrin, the producer. I said, “I know we don’t have a lot of time, but let me have two weeks. I want to write you all the themes for the characters that you want.” So I took two weeks and really sort of immersed myself in the footage that I had. I played them for him two weeks later and he loved most of it. We tweaked a couple of things and then he was on-board. And, at that point, we played them for Netflix and they absolutely thought that was the right direction.
So then I wrote like crazy for about three months and we ended-up taking two trips to London to record all the orchestra music at Abbey Road with the Philharmonia Orchestra. I conducted as well and it was a tonne of music. All 10 episodes were packed-full of music – almost eight to ten hours of music I think.
It was really a fast and furious fall, where we actually spotted all the episodes in big chunks, so I would know what the story was going to be and where the characters were developing to. I felt that was really important, to be able to tell the story at the right pace in conjunction with what the viewer would be seeing. So that was kind of what I did and it was a fantastic experience. Netflix and the production company, Legendary, were really supportive.
It was really great – I got to work with my old friend, who loves music the way I do and we really just got on great.
You’ve also recently worked on movie Uncle Drew, and past projects include Agent Carter and Sausage Party. A lot of different genres. Do you approach them all differently?
The main approach is actually very similar. I always try to write the music that the character would hear in their head. If that’s on a film like Horrible Bosses, it’s obviously much different than on a show like Agent Carter. When Peggy Carter was crushing somebody from Hydra, I tried to get in her head and when Jason Bateman is fumbling around in somebody’s house full of pills and coke and weapons, it’s a whole different ball-game.
With Sausage Party, even that was a situation where, very early on, we sat down with Seth Rogen, who said “Look, these food items don’t know they’re food. He wants to find his friend; he wants to finally get out of his wrapper and get to the love of his life. And then he wants to tell the entire world of food, that what they’ve believed forever is a lie and that they need to get out of there and save themselves.”
He said: “It really isn’t a comedy and we shouldn’t score it like a comedy – the comedy will come from what’s on-screen and what’s being said.” He really wanted me and Alan Menken, who I wrote the score with, to approach it as if it were a real, epic story. When it comes to comedy, I always take that approach anyway. The comedy, for the most part, plays on its own. And, if anything, it becomes funnier if you treat the emotions of the characters and the actions of the character more straight and legit.
That’s really the way my old teacher Elmer Bernstein did it when he was scoring Stripes and Animal House and things like that. When they were stealing that new invention in Stripes, he played that as if they were going into a massive war-battle. He didn’t play it silly and that’s what made it so funny because then you look at what’s happening on-screen and it doesn’t totally connect. I think that really plays-it-up and that’s often my approach with comedy.
You said that you started with trumpet and moved onto guitar. Do you have a certain instrument base that you sit down and begin to work with?
Yes, I usually will write on the keyboard first, or piano – although I’m not a great piano player and wish I was. Since guitar is my main instrument, if it’s a guitar-based score, something like Horrible Bosses or Adam, then I’ll start writing with guitar. But normally, when it’s orchestra, or anything like that, I’ll start with a keyboard or try to write the melodies away from the keyboard a lot of times. I’ll think of the melody while I’m out walking the dog, or hiking or something and I’ll go back and write it down and go from there.
That’s usually the way I start and it’s really a process because I’ll write some sketches and always bring in whoever my director, or producer, is and say: “Hey do you like this, is it going in the right direction? Do you like how it gets big here? Do you like how it’s playing?” And I let them guide me to make sure I’m telling the story that they want to tell. It’s their story and I’m just sort of doing the musical part of it.
Are you working on anything at the moment, or are there plans to work on anything for 2018?
A lot actually. Right now I’m working on a movie called The Happy Time Murders, and I’m almost done with that. That’s Melissa McCarthy and puppets and Brian Henson – Jim Henson’s son – directed it. It’s very raunchy and very funny and that comes out in about a month and a half.
After that, I’m doing the new Shaft movie, with Sam Jackson and that one’s going to be really, really fun.
Then I’ve got an animated kid’s movie musical called Ugly Dolls, which is coming out next year. I’m co-writing the songs on that as well.
And then I’ve got an Amazon TV series that I’m doing in the fall for Seth Rogen again and my friend Eric Kripke, who created Supernatural, which I do. It’s called The Boys. It’s based on the same writer who did Preacher, the graphic novel with Gareth Dennis. The same writer did this show called The Boys, or the book called The Boys; which is about a CIA team who has to keep a bunch of superheroes in line when they’ve gotten too big for their britches and too cocky. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are producing and my friend Eric is the showrunner and also writing and going to direct an episode. Dan Trachtenberg who did 10 Cloverfield Lane is directing the first episode so that’s what we’re working on in the fall and it’s going to be really, really cool.
That sounds really exciting.
That’s going to be a great one and then, right after that, I’ll probably go back to season two of Lost In Space.
How do you find time to do anything else? Is this something you do mainly from home? Do you have a studio in your own house that you work from?
I have a separate studio that is right in Los Angeles and that’s sort of my office. I have a studio at home as well, so I go back and forth, and I will work in either one.
They actually both have the same equipment, so sometimes I stay home, because I have kids and I wouldn’t get to see them much if I didn’t work from home. Whenever I do any real recording, I’ll go up in my office as well.
What advice do you have for people wanting to get into music and then apply that skill to film and television?
When it comes to music, I’ve always said to learn how to play what you love first. That was what really got me into music beyond school. So I learned things like Van Halen and Prince and Michael Jackson and Metallica and all the stuff I was listening to when I was growing-up and that’s what made it fun.
Then, in the world of film, it’s really about telling stories, so get familiar with everything. Watch movies constantly – especially watch classics like The Godfather and Hitchcock – and just really see what’s scary, or tense, or romantic, or nervous and then interpret them in your own way.
As far as getting into the business side of it, it’s really all about who you know, so the big thing is to make yourself available to people who are making movies, which can usually be done by going to a great film school.
Also go to film festivals and get involved with things like that. I did a tonne of internships and volunteering at film companies where I met a lot of people that I now work with, so it was really putting myself in places where either the directors, or editors, or aspiring directors would be, so I could develop relationships with them and so we could both come into the business together.
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