Sean Callery is the refined four-time Emmy winning composer who has shaped the sound of television phenomenons including Homeland, Elementary, Bones, 24, and Designated Survivor. After attending New England Conservatory and developing his jazz piano chops on the East Coast, Sean relocated to Los Angeles and was hired by a music company specializing in digital audio products. Shortly after, Sean met Mark Snow, composer of The X-Files, who became his mentor and led him to his breakthrough scoring job for Le Femme Nikita. Since then, Sean has mastered the art of evoking a broad spectrum of emotional resonances and injected his signature suspenseful impulse in novel and fulfilling ways. In our engaging dialogue, Sean delves into the components of his jazz tinged neo-noir treatment for Marvel's Jessica Jones.
Congratulations on your Outstanding Music Composition for a Series Emmy nomination for Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Can you describe how your artistic process has progressed since then? What instrumentation did you initially gravitate towards and how has that sonic palette expanded?
Thank you! Well, I'll begin at the end first. The sound palette from the core of the series was basically a jazz quintet. The core sound was solo instruments, whether it was acoustic bass or solo nylon guitar, piano, or ride cymbals. Melissa Rosenberg, our wonderful showrunner, had really intuited that the show had more of an intimacy to it than other Marvel properties, which made it unique. Jessica worked in this detective agency in a darker part of town, in the shadows and so forth. If the score got too large and dramatic, flourishing with larger orchestrations, we discovered that it didn't quite feel organic to the show. So, we kept it more on the intimate side with a focus on live playing and the solo expressiveness of each instrument. That tended to be the fabric of the show through both seasons and continues on as I begin the third season.
I will say that the character development in the second season, which is the season that I'm honored to have the Emmy nomination for outstanding score, was really one in which relationships between Jessica and her mother were explored much more deeply. We never knew her mother before. Relationships with parents, they’re often loving, but can also be very complicated with friction and so forth. Melissa shared the human part of their relationship so well in her writing, so I tried to represent it in the music. It is always challenging, but great fun when you connect with it.
We also explored the relationship with her friend, Trish and the wonderful Carrie-Anne Moss playing 'Hogarth', the vulnerability and the situations that unfolded in her character were quite profound. So, these characters go through a lot of changes and I’d like to think that the score responded to the delicate nature of these relationships.
You won the Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Sequence for Jessica Jones back in 2016. How did you set out to highlight the duality of your heroine’s persona right off the bat?
When I was thinking of sounds for the character, Jessica Jones, she had a lot of different facets of her personality. There was a naturally cool part of this person, always in control of the room she walks into. She has a lot of wit. It’s almost like she’s a very elegant cat of sorts that jumps up on the fire escape. Underneath, there’s an undercurrent of trauma and residual pain for her character. She’s also capable of aggression and there’s a lot of power in that. It naturally morphed from a cool, jazz-like opening into a more driving force in the second half.
When I saw the graphics of the main title, I was so delighted to see that the people who were making the visuals, right around the halfway point where my music started changing, included more aggressive lighting effects, strobes, and more aggression in the movements of the shadows and so forth. We never even had that discussion, it just happened naturally on their end and mine. So, it was quite a great happy accident to have that connection happen between the visuals and the music.
In general, does the visual atmosphere of Jessica Jones directly influence your score?
The way it's filmed is so well done, and all these contributions from the lighting and the set design and costuming and so forth, it all goes into what I hope to bring to it in the end with the score.
Lighting can inform things without even knowing it consciously. If you think of the character of Malcolm in season one, for example, his makeup and the way they shot him, he looked sick, he is portrayed as an addict. The shadows around him really told the story of a man in despair and struggle. In season two, one of the last images of him is dressing up for an important meeting with Hogarth, and he's cleaned up his act. You’re looking up at him, the lighting is really beautiful and it’s the picture of a guy who’s reset himself. You watch him tying his tie, putting on a jacket, and looking great. I wanted this music to be of a man who is confident and on a new path. So, how can the music display that without leading the picture, without being too self-conscious? I wanted to help enhance the story as it exists in that moment of the episode.
These are the kinds of clues we take on as a viewer. I said this recently, but you just can’t master it. You can't have it ahead of time. You can't know it ahead of time. When you're looking at it, you have to be present and observe, then take the things that you're feeling intrinsically, make them part of how you express yourself artistically and make it one with the show. It’s nice when you are in sync with the producers’ vision and they say, “Great.” when they hear your musical approach. There is a healthy back and forth with this process.
Are there specific benefits or challenges associated with working on a project within the Marvel franchise?
The beauty of it, for me, is I'd never worked on any part of the Marvel universe before Jessica Jones and I had not realized how integrated it was. What I love about the Marvel people I've worked with is they were very supportive of wanting me to find a unique sound for this character. At the same time, they also know, specifically, what their character does and how the character fits into the universe, unlike a show that I worked on, like 24, which, the entire universe of Jack Bauer was created from the ground up, and never before existed. But the Jessica Jones character did exist before in print form. There's a lot of detail about that character that you can sort of absorb and read about. I didn't want to take in too much because I wanted to be responding really spontaneously and organically to the actress, Ms. Ritter [Krysten Ritter, Jessica Jones actress], who does such a wonderful job. That's always really nice when you're working with people that know their story, and when they give you information about the character, you can take that in and then musically work it, so that it serves everybody.
I understand that you are originally from Hartford, Connecticut and that you spent many years playing jazz piano on the East Coast. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, I was born there but I grew up in Bristol, Rhode Island. That's where I spent my childhood and where I learned how to play the piano. Then, I went to college at the New England Conservatory in Boston. I played with jazz trios, and sometimes swing bands and wedding bands on weekends when I was in college. When I was about 14, I worked at a small restaurant in my town called Eliza's. That was where I first started playing cocktail piano. I started learning songs for the dinner hours, just comfortable music, little jazz standards and the great American songbook. I learned a lot about arranging and so forth just by putting together medleys and things for people to eat their steaks and their fish, their lobsters and so forth. It was a great gig.
Sounds a little similar to the rise of John Williams. I know he was also playing jazz piano in nightclubs when he was coming up.
Well, thank you! I certainly don't have the level of accomplishment that he has. I did know that about his upbringing and then when you hear his brilliant score for Catch Me If You Can you can hear the love and affection for that form. For me, Jessica Jones was about experimenting with some of these more intimate and improvisational jazz sonorities and so forth, and making it work within the construct of an episodic score, one that would be compelling in a modern sense for Jessica Jones.
Growing up, who were the musical influences that played a part in cultivating your identity as an artist?
Mr. Williams [John Williams, composer] was certainly an inspiration to me when I started listening to his scores. When I got to college, I never really heard the music of Igor Stravinsky, and when I heard his “The Rite of Spring” and “Firebird,” I thought that was an amazing experience. I thought that was just incredible. I remember as a pianist, I played a lot of Beethoven and Chopin and even a little Prokofiev. Those were deep influences on me as well.
How were you introduced to the world of film music and what were your early aspirations?
Well, the first couple of movies that I saw that really got me interested in film music, was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was not even 10 years old. My mother took me to see it and it was a very scary movie for me with Hal and the computer, but the use of classical music and the way it was put into the picture was extraordinary. Then, in 1975, I saw Jaws. That score, even to this day, I think, is one of the great scores of all time just in terms of how music and picture work together. And I wanted to learn how do you even do it? I worked briefly for Disney World as a musician after college.
Then, I got hired to work for a music company that was making digital audio products. There, I met a few composers like Mark Snow, Alan Silvestri, and Chick Corea - people who were utilizing technology in their own way with their own musical talent and craft. That's how I got to meet Mark Snow who would become my mentor, as he began working on The X-Files and he helped me get the Le Femme Nikita job. It really is one of the great friendships of my life. We still work on projects together. You don’t know how to properly thank people for making that kind of contribution to your life except by trying to pay it forward.
Mark is such a humble, non-ego guy. Look at his IMDb page, it’s four times the length of anybody else's. He has always worked on every project with such dedication and heart. You hear it in his music and you really get a sense of his personality. I believe that to be the case in many composers I’ve met. You can hear something about who they are in their music.
Can you elaborate more on how a composer’s personality can shine through and manifest in their work?
I believe it involves the ongoing practice of trusting oneself and letting the heart and that authenticity through. I feel this in the music of Bill Evans and Chet Baker, for example. Regardless of what you are tasked with creating or composing, you bring all of yourself and your truth to the task at hand. I say this as someone who tries to work on this every day. It can be very hard. It takes work, but it can also be very joyful. Whether I’m working on Jessica Jones or Homeland or 24, it’s still me. I’m accessing different parts of myself, learning and trying to make good music. A lot of the time, you have to breach comfort zones to find new ways of expressing yourself and that’s also part of the journey.
What would you cite as your breakthrough projects in television scoring?
I briefly was a keyboard player and music director for Olivia Newton-John for about six months. She had done a Christmas movie on NBC called A Mom for Christmas, in which she played a mannequin that came to life in a department store to fulfill the wish of a little girl whose mother had passed away. It was a sweet little story. That was the first writing credit I ever got on anything, and that was in 1990.
It was another five or six years before I started working on Nikita. That was my first major steady television series. In between then, I was working as a sound effects editor for Star Trek, I did sound design work for Deep Space Nine, and I had a night job doing that for a few years.
The creator of La Femme Nikita, Joel Surnow, then went on to do 24. So, after I proved myself with him on Nikita, he lobbied very strongly for me to work on 24. I was very grateful he did. Nikita was a really fun show.
Many of the television series you’ve been a part of have had the good fortune of continuing for unusually long runs. What are your strategies for keeping your approach fresh while maintaining the essence of the brand?
I get my inspiration from the story and the writing. It starts there and then spreads outward to the acting and everything else. Each season is different. Bones ran for 11 years. Bones’ premise involved a central mystery about a corpse being found somewhere and the characters figuring out what happened. Executive Producer, Stephen Nathan very articulately said to me once that having a good story is always important, but what you really care about are the characters. The characters are what keeps you wanting to come back. You stay with a show because of the characters and their journey.
In the case of whether it's Jack Bauer, or Carrie Matheson, or Sherlock Holmes, or Tom Kirkman from Designated Survivor, they are characters that you care about and you musically respond to that. And in the case of these shows like Homeland, or in the case of Jessica Jones, we had a darker feel in the second season as Jessica began to uncover the origins of her past. She started to explore even farther back to the roots of her existence and how she came to be who she is. As we start going into season three, it's about looking forward. So you take these little clues and they inform you about whether you're going to write a new melody for a character, or for a new character that comes on the scene that's going to go through a tremendous challenge. You follow the story as truthfully as you can and you aspire for that truth to manifest into the music somehow.
Presently, are there any genres or figures in the film music realm that you draw upon for inspiration?
Nowadays, there are so many amazing scores out there. In the last few years, I was watching a movie with my wife called Under The Skin. I thought Mica Levi did an outstanding job, coming up with something gorgeous and very, very bold. I didn’t know her, but I had to reach out to say I was an admirer because I thought it was so great.
I also remember watching Breaking Bad and I became friends with Dave Porter. I just thought his work was beautiful and very creative, wonderfully composed and extraordinarily musical. I would say the same about Nathan Barr and his score to The Americans, and Mac Quayle’s work on Mr. Robot is also wonderful and inspiring. When you hear great music, it stays with you.
If you hadn’t pursued film composing, what do you think you would be doing today?
I would've tried to be a cartoonist. It's true, I would have. I started making cards for my father. My parents had gotten divorced when I was young, and I remember making birthday cards for my Dad. I used to hand-draw cards and I would do that plus give him a little gift of some sort. He said to me once, he said, "I don't want any gifts from you. I would just love the cards." I enjoyed drawing for some reason, even though I never was really that good at it. Anyway, he passed away a few years ago, but not before giving me a huge book of all the cards I ever drew him since I was 10 years old. It was quite a gift!