EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Michael Bay's 'Transformers' Composer Steve Jablonsky Talks Making Music For Movies, TV, Video Games And More!

By Jon Niles | Jul 31, 2014 05:11 PM EDT
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Though action sequences and explosions may come to mind when thinking of Michael Bay films, music plays a huge part in the Platinum Dunes filmmaker's productions. This is why he turns to film, TV, and video game composer Steve Jablonsky to create memorable scores that tie in all of the action and help tell a story.

We were lucky enough to talk with Mr. Jablonsky about his busy life as Michael Bay's main composer for his projects, like 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction. Steve also talked about starting his career at Hans Zimmer's studio and eventually blossoming into one of the most notable film and TV composers today.

You just got back from the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con and appeared on the "Crime, Death, and Resurrection" panel for Behind the Music. How was that?

That was my first time. It was great! I knew it was going to be nuts ... my question is: Is it legal to let that many people into one location? But they do it - it's very fun. My favorite part was meeting all the fans and getting to talk to them after the panel. It was really cool.

How did you get into composing for TV commercials, Film, and Gaming?

I'll give you the short answer because it is quite a strange way I got in. Not that strange, but I didn't plan on it. I went to college up in Northern California at UC Berkeley; I went there for computer science. About a year in, I hit a point where I just did not like it at all. It was so boring. I had friends who were so into it. They were all excited when we got an assignment, but I was just not excited about any of it. I decided right there that I was going to switch to a music major because I had kind of dabbled in music up until that point. No idea what I was going do once I got out of college.

So I got out of school, graduated with a music major, and thought I would be a music recording engineer because I had some experience there, a little bit of gear at home. I had been a huge fan of Hans Zimmer's for many years, and I knew his studio was somewhere in L.A., so I looked it up, found the phone number and called him out of the blue and asked, "Do you guys need any help of any kind?" And they said yeah! It was 1996, which was a good time for me to make that call because at that time Hans' studio was quite small compared to what it is now; he practically has a city block in Santa Monica now, so many buildings. Back then it was small, he called me in and I was just an intern/runner guy for a few months.

I got to see a lot of things and meet a lot of people. I met a composer who had just moved there from London, Harry Gregson-Williams - another talented guy. I was at the right place at the right time and the studio manager said why don't you give Steve a shot? So I became Harry's assistant and worked with him for several years doing technical stuff at first, but he would let me use his studio when he was not in there. I would write music just for fun and he took notice of that somehow and said, "Do you want to write a cue for this film? I don't have time to do it, so if you can do that little cue..." I said yeah, and that's how it started.

I just wrote little cue here and a little cue there. Then it was five cues, and then ten cues. I got to know Hans over that time period and he took notice of what I was doing, so I started helping on his films. So I consider that to be where my real schooling happened. I got to not only write for Harry and Hans Zimmer but I also got to sit in the room while they had their meetings with whomever: Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay, and all these huge Hollywood people - and I got to see how they interacted and how they dealt with problems when they didn't like a cue or things like that. That was great, I got to meet a lot of people being in that environment until they started asking me to do projects on my own as opposed to me helping Zimmer or helping Harry. It took years to work my career to where it is, but it was certainly worth it. A lot of hard work, but definitely worth it!

You've worked with filmmaker Michael Bay and his production company, Platinum Dunes, on a number of projects. How involved is he in working with you?

He's very involved. He said to me one time that for him, the sound of his movies is 50% of what he puts out there. He considers it that important. That includes music and sound effects. He wants to hear every cue, he likes to live with it for a little while-which I get, when someone hears a piece of music for the first time and I say, do you like it or not? If I were in his position, I would go "I think I like it. I need to hear it a few more times. Can I hear it again tomorrow?"

He's very involved, not just in sound and music, but he's very involved in every aspect of his films; which I think is why his life is just so crazy because he'll come to me to hear some music and he's always racing off to go to look at the color timing of the picture or to go listen to sound effects. Whatever it is, there are a million things ... he might be more involved than people think. The music to him, he either feels it or he doesn't. He feels the music and he knows it's something working for him. That's how he judges it, and like I said, he wants to hear everything. It's good for me because he pushes me to make it right. There's so much music in these movies, I kind of get lost in these scenes, writing for days and days. He's a good judge of what works, what doesn't and what's boring. It's a good collaboration, I think, that we have at this point.

How much creative freedom do you have?

He gives me all the freedom in the world, which is great. When we started Age of Extinction, the only thing he said to me is that it was a brand new cast; let's treat this as something new. We have three movies worth of music, but let's set it aside and start working on these new ideas. That was it; I just started writing and would send him theme pieces that I was writing. I wasn't even writing to picture yet, I was just writing music inspired by some of the visuals that I had seen in his cutting room. I would just send pieces to him to see what he was responding to. He seemed to be responding to the simpler things. This little piano melody I did and things like this, which is just something I thought would be cool in the movie. It's not something he asked me to do, so he definitely does give me an open canvas to try new things that I think might work. Of course, if he doesn't like it he's gonna say so. If there's something that's not quite right, he will definitely give me general notes. "I like this, you lose me here..." We have a good shorthand now where I can just send him music and he will listen to it when he's in the music mood. He will call me up and tell me if it's good or not. He let's me do what I think is right and we take it from there.

You've worked on the previous Transformers movies, 2014's Age of Extinction, and will probably work on any future Transformers movies to come. Do you already have an idea for the next Transformers score, if more movies are made?

I literally don't know anything about Transformers 5. I don't even know if they're going to make it. So I haven't even thought about it at all.

With Michael's movies, before I write a note, I like to see something that he's filmed because his visuals are so inspiring. I can read a script beforehand. For instance, for The Island, I read the script before I saw any footage. I had some musical ideas based on the script. Once he showed me some footage from the film, all those ideas went out the window. A hundred different people are going to picture a hundred different movies in their heads when they're reading a script. Once I saw The Island footage, I threw all that out. I knew kind of what I wanted to do. That's sort of the way I work in general but definitely on the Transformers films. I just waited to see something from him to see what kind of craziness he came up with. So I haven't thought any further beyond this one, Age of Extinction.

You probably know more than I do! Nobody's said anything to me whether Transformers 5 is happening or not. If it does happen, then I will think about it at that point.

What other projects are you working on now or have lined up?

I just got back from Comic-Con and I have three scripts that I need to read. But more importantly, my wife is pregnant. So I think I am going to take a little time off, I am at least going to take off a few months to relax and have our child and then jump back into the craziness; because Transformers films are always really intense for a 6-month period, like seven days a week for six months. I don't like to go immediately into something else but I worked it out this time. This is kind of like the slower time. The summer movies are finishing up now and the TV season is kind of wrapping up.

In the next month or so, I'll kind of sign on to one of these things. But no, nothing specific to answer your question.

Are there any artists out there within your realm of work, or any musical artist that you're excited about?

I just saw a film on a plane, I have to watch it properly but it was the one with Jaoquin Phoenix, where he falls in love with his operating system ...


Yes, was that Arcade Fire?

Yes, they did the soundtrack.

I was like this is really cool, moody stuff. Of course, I had heard of them before I saw that film, but I didn't really know their music. And I don't know if that represents their music but I thought that it was a really cool vibe they set up for that film. It was really very simple yet emotional. It pulled me in more to the film, and I was on a plane and I could barely hear any of it. So God only knows if I've actually seen it in the theater [laughs].

I've been a long time fan of Trent Reznor so I'm always looking forward to hearing his scores and Nine Inch Nails projects. I love that sort of thing. I was really looking forward to seeing Ennio Morricone in concert. He's a film composer - pretty famous; I've been a fan of his for as long I can remember. He was going to play in L.A. and New York but his health unfortunately, he's quite old, he's in his eighties I think and sadly they had to cancel the show. I was looking forward to that; it would've been quite a pleasure. He's more in my world, even though he's been doing it longer than me. But I am a huge fan of Ennio Morricone, and John Williams of course. I will be seeing him in concert at the end of August. He does it every year at the Hollywood Bowl. Those are the artists that came to mind. I do want to find more out about Arcade Fire. I know they're huge, but I don't get much time to listen to current music or any music really.

For more on Steve Jablonsky and his work, check out his Twitter and Facebook pages!

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