Interview With Film Composer Steve Jablonsky


With music embodying an operatic and dramatic flare—film composer Steve Jablonsky has been making a name for himself as Hollywood’s go-to top talent for high-octane, thrilling films.

Steve Jablonksy first came to prominence in 2001 when he scored the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor. Ever since then, he’s been providing the music for some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and action franchises.

With his latest work being heard in the recently released Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Jablonsky spoke with Bam Smack Pow about his background, creative process, and what drives him.

Bam Smack Pow: Tell us about your background—specifically your training and how you got into film scoring.

Steve Jablonsky: Originally, and in terms of scoring films, it wasn’t a straight path. I grew up in Los Angeles and went to the University of California, Berkeley intending to major in computer science. I was always good at technical things: math, science, and programming. I studied it for one year—classes, assignments, projects. It was enough to where I knew it wasn’t for me. Although my friends and peers loved it, I never saw myself doing that sort of work in the long-term.

More from Movies

Throughout my life, I always played an instrument, but the art and science of film scoring was something totally new to me. I thought that since I had a technical background, was scientifically inclined, and had some computer science under my belt, I would become a recording engineer—some of those skills do transfer over because of the equipment and concepts you need to use.

After college, I asked myself, “What studio should I work for?” I looked up Hans Zimmer because, growing up, I was a huge fan of his work. His studio was in Santa Monica and, back then, it was this small building. Now, it’s a whole block!

I interned at Hans’s studio for six months and met Harry Gregson-Williams who had just relocated from London to Los Angeles. He gave me my first exposure to film scoring—seeing the actual process of creating and producing film music.

Before Tony Scott passed away, Harry did a lot of scoring for his films. When Harry first moved in to Hans’s studio, I helped him get set up with a lot of the equipment. Eventually, Harry had me write some of my own music. Hans then heard my work and loved it. After two to three years, I was scoring some pieces on my own. It was a process that allowed me to learn a lot. I had an all-around good time there.

The studio allowed me to get my foot in the door in terms of working with some really big industry figures—namely, Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay. I worked on a lot of Bay’s films. The first was Pearl Harbor (2001), and, later, Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). After that, a lot of studios came calling.

BSP: Who influenced you the most in your career?

SJ: If it wasn’t for Hans, I would’ve never have gone into scoring. Other role models I looked up to were John Williams and Ennio Morricone. Overall, I’ve always been into movies and loved the music that accompanied them. Sometimes I would go home and want to listen to those tracks just by themselves. I’ve always been a fan.

But Hans really had the biggest influence on me and my career. As a young guy who was just starting out, I was able to observe various things in Hans’s studio. He’s just extremely generous and one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet—he really wants to help young composers.

BSP: What were the biggest challenges in composing for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows?

SJ: Well, the first thing is that I’m usually accustomed to starting eight to ten months before the movie comes out. Because this movie was so CGI-heavy, it made it extremely challenging. There was basically nothing to see at the beginning.

Don’t get me wrong, the people who played the Turtles—via voice and motion capture—are legit actors. They, in fact, helped me to visualize how the Turtles would move and interact. There was still a lot of imagination involved because, at the end of the day, you still had guys with cameras on their heads.

The visuals coming in late made it challenging for an additional reason—almost nine times out of ten, the music doesn’t fit the scenes or sequences when post-production is finished. It would necessitate a re-scoring.

The height of popularity for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually came after my time. I have a younger brother who I would call because he was quite familiar with the franchise from his childhood. I would ask him all kinds of questions about each character.

Even though I did score for the Transformers franchise—which was a lot of fun—those characters were a lot more serious than the Turtles, so it was very different. The Transformers are serious big guys who are knights and have some dramatic heft. The only exception would probably be Bumblebee, who had a bit of humor. The Turtles are more fun and less serious.

BSP: What is your favorite track(s) in the score for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows?

SJ: Hmm, that’s a hard one. When I’m writing music, I never get overly confident. I like to play it off of people. After I wrote the whole introduction theme, I played it for several people and they said it was great.

Taking those cues, I ended up using it in different ways throughout the movie. I also used it in the main theme, which is now my favorite. The overall process was a pretty daunting task.

BSP: You mentioned that creating the score for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was difficult due to it being so CGI-heavy. What about films that were less visual effects-driven. In general, what is your creative process like in terms of creating a new score from scratch? Is there a framework you always follow or is it different for every film?

SJ: I always start as soon as possible—virtually the second I get the call about the assignment. I’ll talk to the director, read the script, watch scenes if they’re available, and ask the director to show me anything that he or she sees as a musical moment. After that, I’ll spend anywhere from two to four weeks in the studio developing individual themes.

When the themes are done and ready, I’ll present them to the director. Everything evolves from there. For Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, I found ways to improve from the original—which was very different. All in all, it’s about figuring out the language of the film.

You’ll actually be surprised how close studios cut it in terms of a finish date. They’ll go as late as one month before the scheduled release date of a movie. There are so many things coming in at the last minute.

BSP: I know that technology has played a big part in the distribution of film. And with everything going digital, it actually makes the distribution a lot less time consuming. So does that mean you guys cut it even closer as the technology improves because you don’t have to give that “extra” time of moving physical film prints?

SJ: Exactly! You got it. We will use up every single minute we have. If you tell a composer and director that they have eight days to finish it, they’re not going to finish it in six days. Creative people will use up every second of that time to get the best product out.

Having less time on the distribution end buys us that luxury now. And it’s actually kind of scary if you think about it. Like you said, the technology is going digital, so they can probably just stream the movie to theaters without the hassle of actually delivering the physical film itself.

BSP: What’s next in the world of Steve Jablonsky?

SJ: Well, I’m currently working on Deepwater Horizon with director Peter Berg, and it’s scheduled to be released on September 30, 2016. It’s about the 2010 BP oil spill—specifically the people on the rig where eleven men died. It’s a powerful film about survival.

After that, I’ll be taking a vacation. I’ve been working on four movies back-to-back with no rest in between, so some rest is in order.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows—Official Synopsis: Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo, and Raphael return to theaters this summer to battle bigger, badder villains, alongside April O’Neil (Megan Fox), Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett), and a newcomer: the hockey-masked vigilante Casey Jones (Stephen Amell). After supervillain Shredder escapes custody, he joins forces with mad scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) and two dimwitted henchmen, Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (WWE Superstar Stephen “Sheamus” Farrelly), to unleash a diabolical plan to take over the world. As the Turtles prepare to take on Shredder and his new crew, they find themselves facing an even greater evil with similar intentions: the notorious Krang.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was released in the United States on June 3, 2016. It is directed by Dave Green, written by Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec, with music by Steve Jablonsky, and stars Megan Fox as April O’Neill, Stephen Amell as Casey Jones, Will Arnett as Vern Fenwich, Brian Tee as Oroku Saki / The Shredder, Tyler Perry as Dr. Baxter Stockman, Brittany Ishibashi as Karai, Laura Linney as Police Chief Rebecca Vincent, Pete Ploszek as Leonardo, Alan Ritchson as Raphael, Noel Fisher as Michelangelo, Jeremy Howard as Donatello, Tony Shalhoub (voice) and Peter D. Badalamenti (via motion capture) as Splinter, Gary Anthony Williams as Bebop, Sheamus as Rocksteady, and Brad Garett as Krang.

Steve Jablonsky has composed the music for many of Hollywood’s most successful films.  He previously composed the score for director Michael Bay’s blockbuster “Transformers” films:  “Transformers,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”  He also created the music for the director’s dark comedy, “Pain and Gain,” as well as his 2005 futuristic thriller, “The Island.”  In addition, Jablonsky composed the scores for Bay’s Platinum Dunes horror remakes “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Hitcher,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror.”

Jablonsky has also worked on multiple projects with director Peter Berg, including the action drama “Lone Survivor,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Taylor Kitsch, and the action adventure “Battleship,” starring Liam Neeson and Alexander Skarsgård.  He continues his collaboration with Berg on the action-thriller “Deepwater Horizon,” opening September 30.  Jablonsky also recently composed the score for the Keegan-Michael Key-Jordan Peele action comedy Keanu which was released April 29 and the action adventure “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” opening June 3.

Jablonsky’s additional film credits include the scores for the Vin Diesel-Elijah Wood actioner “The Last Witch Hunter”; Gavin Hood’s adventure “Ender’s Game,” starring Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield; Ruben Fleischer’s “Gangster Squad,” starring Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling; David Gordon Green’s comedy adventure “Your Highness,” starring James Franco, Natalie Portman and Danny McBride; and the Japanese anime film “Steamboy,” directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, as well as the documentaries “Origin Story” and “When Elephants Fight.”

For television, Jablonsky wrote the music for the smash hit ABC series “Desperate Housewives.”   He also composed the score for the award-winning telefilm “Live From Baghdad,” as well as several series, including “Threat Matrix” and ESPN’s “Sports Century: The Century’s Greatest Athletes.”  He more recently scored the entire first season of NBC’s comedy, “You, Me and the Apocalypse.”

Jablonsky developed his film composing career collaborating with such noted composers as Hans Zimmer and Harry Gregson-Williams.  He has written additional music for such films as “Bad Boys 2,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “Armageddon,” “Tears of the Sun,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Hannibal” and “Deceiver.”

With videogames becoming more innovative and sophisticated, so have their scores.  Jablonsky’s music can be heard in such top-selling games as “Gears of War: Judgment,” “Gears of War 2 & 3,” “Transformers: War for Cybertron,” “Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands,” “Transformers: The Game,” “The Sims 3” and “Command & Conquer 3: Kane’s Wrath.”

He also scored the music for the BMW spot “Hostage” for director John Woo, as well as commercials for such products as Chevrolet, Coca-Cola and the U.S. Army.