Christopher Lennertz is the jubilant Emmy-nominated and Grammy-winning composer who is widely regarded as a seasoned specialist of mega-budget blockbuster scoring. With an ambitious breadth of musical competencies and infectious enthusiasm for his craft, Christopher has fashioned stately and multi-dimensional sonic treatments for universally known projects including Supernatural, Shaft, UglyDolls, Baywatch, Lost in Space, Horrible Bosses, Sausage Party, Agent Carter, Galavant, Think Like a Man, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, Thanks for Sharing, Uncle Drew, Ride Along, Acrimony, and Pitch Perfect 3. In our entertaining conversation, Christopher explains how Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys flips the conventional superhero trope on its head, and details how he melded explosive garage rock with warped orchestral arrangements to capture the chaotic struggle between mortal vigilantes and celebrity superhumans fueled by corporate greed.
Looking back on your college studies with Elmer Bernstein at USC and your subsequent successes in the film music realm, what do you perceive as the most transformative decisions you’ve made in your composing career that led you to higher-profile opportunities?
Well, I think the most transformative decision I, and probably anybody, can make, is to take the chance to meet potential collaborators and filmmakers that you will hopefully work with for decades if you’re lucky. That’s exactly what Elmer did when starting first with Cecil B. DeMille, of course, but then with John Landis and Ivan Reitman in the 80s. All of your huge Elmer Bernstein box office blockbusters in the 80s were made by those guys. You’re going to start with Animal House and go all the way to Stripes and Ghost Busters.
I think the same could be said for my career. I look back, and it’s like Eric Kripke, who I went to college with — we met and ended up being next-door neighbors and fraternity brothers. Then we did short films and film festivals together. That led to Supernatural, which led to Revolution, which led to The Boys, you know? The same goes for people like Tim Story and Seth Gordon.
Even in terms of The Boys, I got a call five years ago to co-write a musical show called Galavant on ABC with Alan Menken. At the time, I hadn’t been doing a lot of co-writing, but they called and said, “I know it’s a TV budget and timeframe, but it’d be really great to have you and Alan to do this together since he doesn’t live in LA and you’re accustomed to TV schedules and things like that.” So, I took a chance and said, “Yeah, of course.” because he’s one of my heroes and that led to, not only two great years working on that show, but also doing Sausage Party, where I met Seth Rogen. So, Seth [Rogen] and Eric Kripke developed The Boys together, and I’d say that had a big part in me being involved.
So, absolutely, the most transformative decisions are always going to be about who you decide to work with and how you take those chances to meet the people you do want to collaborate with. That’s changes my career for the better all the time.
What are the non-musical skills you possess that have positioned you to lead such a varied career in the entertainment industry?
I think the biggest one definitely has to be that I’m a movie and story buff. I grew up with Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and [Steven] Spielberg movies. More than just being a musician, I just love storytelling, fantasy, sci-fi, superheroes, and goblins — all that good stuff. So, I think that is what most filmmakers are like, and I think I get along with them because I’m such a huge geek. We get along because we speak the same language; we sort of love all the same things. I think that’s been really helpful because they feel like I understand them, and I certainly do, and probably vice versa.
The other thing that was very important for me was learning pretty early on that my job is just to tell the story for my director and for my producers. It’s not really about the music as much as it’s all about forwarding the story. It’s been really beneficial for me to be able to sit back and say, “What can I do to help your movie tell your story?”. It’s easier to approach it from that respect rather than think, “How can I write the music?.” That’s really what it’s all about, and I think everybody appreciates that approach too.
At the end of the day, writing a great melody is kind of like writing a great story. It doesn’t have to be complex. It doesn’t have to be super involved. It can be very simple, but if it grabs you just like a good story or a good character, then that’s all it needs to be. Like John Williams, his stuff is sneakily complex. It’s really complex once you get into it, but the melodies themselves are just super singable. Same deal with Alan Menken, The Beatles, Rodgers and Hammerstein. All of that music is about hooky melodies that everyone can grab onto.
You have been lauded for the eclecticism and larger than life personality you bring to bear on universally beloved comedies, joyous animated features, and blockbuster action flicks. At this point in your career, have you established clear methods for identifying what characters need musically?
I’m not sure I think about it that specifically. It’s not like a recipe or a clear plan, but when I watch a movie for the first time with a director, it seems pretty apparent to me who’s going to need what in terms of melodic material or a sound, an instrument, or something like that, you know? And then it’s always a collaboration. I always bounce ideas off them, but I think it does become more apparent as you get better and get further along in your career.
I certainly am better at it now than 20 years ago when I was doing bad slasher movies. I think experience helps a lot, and making a lot of mistakes also helps a lot. There are many of my early movies I probably should have been fired off of, but I didn’t because they couldn’t afford to hire anybody else. That gave me the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes that I can look back on now and go, “Oh wow, you know what? That’s why this was just serviceable instead of really great. It’s ’cause I did this.” And then 20, 25 years later, you are a little smarter, and you’ve gotten a little more time under your belt, so you can go, “I know my job on this particular movie is to make the audience feel a certain way at this moment.”, or “I know this film is probably going to fall into this wheelhouse.” It just takes time.
Adapted from Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s comic series, The Boys is a black comedy show centered around a squad of mere mortal vigilantes, who are hellbent on taking down corrupt, power-hungry celebrity superheroes. Permeated with hyperviolent acts, obscenities, and dark humor, this raucous project is a welcome diversion from the Marvel vs. DC Comics rivalry that continues to dominate the mediascape. In your opinion, what does this series achieve and provide within the greater category of superhero programming?
Well, obviously judging from the success of Avengers: Endgame, I think it’s safe to say that right now is almost like the pinnacle, or the highest peak, at least so far, of this massive juggernaut that started with Iron Man so long ago. That led to this resurgence of superhero films, and it’s almost insane how huge it’s become. It’s gotten to the point that it’s no longer just the geeks who like comic books. The entire world can’t get enough of this — at least for now. [The genre] has become so popular that it’s like, “What else is there to do with it?” in terms of staying true to what everyone considers to be a superhero. And so, [The Boys] is based on a comic that was actually written quite a while ago, back in the early 2000s. It’s very appropriate now in terms of comics and in terms of society. So, what happens if you flip it around, so the superheroes that are in power are actually greedy and corrupt? What happens when they are not who you think they are, and you get betrayed by your heroes? What happens when regular people — the every man, every woman — have to try to take them down and expose the truth? That’s what this show is all about, and it’s fascinating, especially given how our culture has been permeated with what we would consider to be stereotypes of traditional superheroes.
The only thing to come out recently that’s somewhat in this vein is Brightburn, where the superhero is also the villain.
Right, right. This is similar, but even then, in The Boys, there’s more of a skewering of the Avengers or Justice League superhero stereotype because they’re also controlled by a corporation, and it becomes very money and power-driven. What’s really interesting is how much social commentary there is in The Boys. We all know that’s pretty standard for both Kripke and also for Seth Rogen. They’re really, really smart about disguising social commentary behind gore, humor, and what seems to be very visceral, simple entertainment. There are a lot of little nuggets in the show where they could be referring to superheroes, but they could just as easily be about a politician on social media and all kinds of fun stuff. So, it’s pretty uncanny how similar all of it is to what’s going on, both in entertainment and in society right now. I think it’s really smart. Hopefully, people are going to really latch onto it, and find that there are a couple of different levels of reading besides just being a really fun show.
At the start of your work on The Boys, how did you envision the primary functions of your score within this narrative, and how did those fundamental concepts evolve into a finished product?
In the beginning, I had heard from Seth and Eric, and I knew the goal coming in, so I checked out the comic. I loved the concept behind it in terms of being rhythmic and really flipping that script. I had started writing pretty early last summer and turned in a bunch of demos to Eric, who kept coming back with all of these comments like, “I get it, and it’s going to sound superhero-influenced, but it’s actually just not dirty enough. It’s not nasty enough.” As I kept turning in new demos, he kept going, “It’s closer, it’s closer.” We finally figured out that the entire show had to live in this world where things are a little wrong and off, and we do that by using two methods.
One is for ‘The Boys’, who are the average, non-superheroes, who are the actual heroes of the show. They are very gritty and scrappy, and they’re led by Billy Butcher who’s played by Karl Urban — he’s really such a badass. Billy’s British, and a very, very sketchy, morally ambiguous character. That inspired us to go very much into a garage rock meets British punk beat noise vibe with the music for ‘The Boys’. There’s a lot of feedback and guitar in there. I ended up actually having to go to pawn shops and other places to buy old beat-up guitar amplifiers and other instruments because the stuff that I already had was just too good sounding.
I had some sessions early on with guitar players, but I ended up stopping that and playing a lot of instruments myself. I played a lot of guitars, and my assistant played a lot of stuff because we actually aren’t that good. [laughs] I barely play drums at all, but I played a lot of drums for the score because it’s supposed to sound like they’re being played in a garage. The more I did that, the more Eric loved it, so it really turned into a situation where it became super nasty, messy, and noisy. It was a blast to go back to my roots as I spent most of my weekends thrashing in garages when I was growing up. That sound ended up working great for ‘The Boys’.
And then as far as the second method for our superhero team, we have what would originally be called very classic superhero kind of music. We recorded in Budapest with an orchestra. Whenever we got those tracks back, we actually would run them through processing and change the pitch. Sometimes, we’d slow them down, or reverse them. Sometimes, we would put the tracks through fun boxes, add distortion, and things like that to make the orchestral music feel mangled in a way that the listener could perceive that things were taking a turn for the worse. We wanted it to feel like something was really off, so as the audience begins to see how deranged the superheroes in the show are, their music would get appropriately warped at the same time.
Within this somewhat revolting and visceral world of The Boys, there are conspiracies, revenge plots, and even romance, but it seems that the underlying message is that in a fraught reality dominated by wealth and abuse of power, average people can still stand up and catalyze change. Can you tell us about the different emotional layers you had to be mindful of in building the musical likeness of this series? Which characters provided the most inspiration for you personally and why?
Sure. I think you’re exactly right about what the concept is. And I think that’s what every great show is about — a sort of wish fulfillment and aspirational quality. In this case, it makes you go, “Hey, this could be me. I could fight back against these bad superheroes and make a difference.” I think that’s why it’s fun to watch, and will hopefully be something that resonates with people. And you’re right, that’s exactly what led to the most emotional music.
The character that I probably personally relate to the most is Hughie, which is your every-guy — that’s your Jack Quaid character. He’s the one who has a whole room at home plastered with superhero posters, and he eventually gets betrayed more than anybody else by them. In his eyes, he’s lost everything, and there’s a piece at the beginning of episode three where I ended up writing this very scratchy, scathing violin solo that plays while he’s really dealing with that betrayal. It’s that kind of thing that brings out the emotion. Hopefully, it makes it a human experience that people can relate to, even though it’s in this world that’s not very realistic.
And then on the flip side, there’s the Starlight character, who is played by Erin Moriarty. She’s sort of the aspirational new member of the team. She goes through some really rough stuff at the beginning of the season, and the music has to turn with her coming from a small town and follow her as she deals with all of these moral questions and anger, wondering whether she should give up or not. The music is supposed to be able to get in her head and her heart. It weaves in and out of where she came from and moves further along with her arc as she becomes more sure of herself. It was really my job to hopefully bring some of that to life. These are the places in the show where the music can be a little bit more emotional. I wouldn’t say it’s done traditionally, but there’s definitely something people can relate to in a broader, more understandable way.
The Boys has already been renewed for a second season ahead of its premiere. What do you look forward to most about continuing this edgy voyage? Going forward, what would be your dream scenario to compose for within the confines of this sound world?
Well, first of all, I’ll just put it out there that the end of episode eight is so awesome! It’s such a surprising turn that makes it really easy to get excited about the next year. And then, I’m always 100% in when people I love to work with like Seth [Rogen], Evan [Goldberg], and Eric Kripke call. So, for me, so much of this has to do with developing things and being on this journey with people who I really appreciate and get to have fun with. They’re definitely some of the most amazing people I get to work with.
So, I’m really excited about that, and the bottom line is that I love the genre stuff. I love superheroes. I love the idea of entering a world that’s not just like our world and then having an experience with these characters where I can feel like I’m part of the action and part of the adventure. This show is definitely like that. You feel like, “Hey, I could imagine myself in this world, sneaking into this building or going through with this plan with these people.” And I think that’s likely how the audience will feel too.
Hearing you say this makes me think of how intense it would be to have to fight against people with superhuman abilities.
Yeah, it’s not easy, which is why the show is so violent and tense. The other thing is that the show says, and everyone knows the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.”, but I think sometimes, with great power comes, perhaps not enough humility. Sometimes, weakness gets exposed when one gets a little too big for their britches. So, again, I think it’s a big corollary to life. Sometimes, things can get so huge they feel like they’re unstoppable, but it can also expose some vulnerabilities.
As a musical theater enthusiast since your formative years, it must have been a significant personal achievement to pen nine original songs for STX Entertainment’s inaugural animated musical, UglyDolls. This family-friendly film touches on themes of diversity, societal pressure to fit in, acceptance, and perfectionism within the charming frame of an animated fantasy comedy. What sparked your interest in contributing to this project? What creative sensibilities did you share with your songwriting partner, Tony Award-winning lyricist Glenn Slater and what were the dynamics of your working relationship on this film?
Well, I’ve always wanted to do something like this. That’s one of the reasons I dove into working with Alan Menken in the beginning. I was in musicals in junior high and high, so I’ve always loved musical theater. I even got a chance to do the first full musical number in any Marvel project when I worked on an episode of Agent Carter in season two. So, I just jumped at the chance of doing a full musical, and getting to write all the songs. It was really about telling the story of these characters. As a dad to two young girls, it was really important to me to get across this message of being who you are. Accepting what it is that makes you different, and knowing that’s also what makes you special and unique — that’s really what a lot of the songs in the movie are about.
Once our cast came together and we knew we had all these amazing pop stars onboard like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, and Janelle Monáe, Glenn and I really tailored a lot of the music we were writing to what they could do and what we felt their characters were all about. One of the best examples is the song, “Ugly Truth,” which was Nick Jonas’ song. He’s the bad guy, and it was a song where he was telling everyone they have to be perfect, but it was really important to us for him to be a lovable villain with a lot of charm and charisma. We ended up doing a very Prince meets Morris Day meets Bruno Mars style to make sure his character had a fun, funky quality to it.
A lot of these songs were written specifically for the artists we were getting, but at the end of the day, it had to be right for a fun family film full of adventure, and it definitely had pop elements because of our cast. We also wanted to make sure that it all related back to this theme of being yourself and knowing that trying to become what someone else wants you to be is not going to make you special or fit in. In fact, it actually works the opposite way, making you sort of blend in with everyone else. So, we wrote these songs to help propel these ideas in a fun, adventurous way. It’s also how they kept saying, “Let your freak flag fly” in the movie. That’s in the chorus of the first song, and that’s really what it’s all about. You can look a little different, you can be a little weird, but embrace those things because they make you into more of an interesting person. That’s where a lot of that musical inspiration came from.
To end on a high note, what was your personal favorite of the musicals you participated in throughout junior high and high school, and why?
Well, I was in Hello Dolly, Oklahoma, and Bye Bye Birdie, but because I was the lead in Bye Bye Birdie, I’d probably have to go with that one. I played Conrad Birdie in junior high, and the experience was super fun!
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Christopher Lennertz and Costa Communications.