When talking about Bruno Heller’s The Mentalist, praise is always given to the superior writing, cast, and crew. An undeniable highlight of the show is also its incredibly unique and beautiful music. Composer Blake Neely (The Pacific, Brothers and Sisters, Everwood) has done a fantastic job coming up with highly original and superb accompaniments to support this special show. Running the gamut from lighthearted and playful to dark and eerie, his tunes are a perfect match to Patrick Jane’s complicated character.
Neely continuously outdoes himself year after year, creating new pieces whilst maintaining the show’s signature bittersweet, whimsical, and at times heartbreaking tone. The season four finale especially had fans raving in awe over the fantastically stirring score including myself (RB) and fellow mentalist fan and reviewer Connor Davey (CJD). Needless to say an interview was in order. Upon Blake’s gracious acceptance we took to twitter to find out what information his fans craved most. The following questions are the result of their love and collaboration.
RB: First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to do this. I am always interested to know how artists came to choose their vocation. Was there a specific moment where you realized that you wanted to work with music and specifically composing for film and television?
Thank you for your interest! I began playing piano and “writing” music around the age of 4, and I can’t remember music ever not being part of my life and who I am. I watched lots of movies and TV shows growing up, perhaps too much. Then when I was 8 years old, “Star Wars” came out. It was the first time I realized there was music in the background that must have been written specifically for the movie. That’s it! That’s what I want to do, and I will stop at nothing until I do that.
But there I was in Paris, Texas, with no connection to Hollywood or film making. (And don’t forget: no internet!) Through a long and diverse set of circumstances, chance encounters, help from family and friends, and perseverance, I made it to Los Angeles 1n 1991. And in 2004, I finally saw my name a movie poster for the first time. Hilariously, on my first poster, they misspelled my name as Neeley. But my first actual composer credit came 2 years earlier on the television series “Everwood”. Thankfully, they got my name right there.
RB: On your website you mentioned that the letter you received from the School of Music advising you to “consider another career path” was probably the best letter you ever received. Can you elaborate?
It’s no joke. The school telling me I shouldn’t or couldn’t do something that I was determined to do gave me a drive to prove them wrong. “Don’t tell me I can’t be a musician. I’ll show you!” So it motivated me, but it also made me more self-reliant. I wouldn’t have a diploma or music degree to sit back on and wait for the jobs to appear. I had to figure out my own way to achieve my goals.
RB: So what was your university major, since you weren’t accepted into the Music Department at University?
I majored in Linguistics with two minors in Russian and Japanese. At the time, my very supportive parents told me to choose a major that I could “fall back on” if music didn’t work out for me. When I told them I’d chosen Linguistics, my father said, “That’s not a fallback!” And I said, “I know. Now I really have to make music work out!”
But actually, my odd major has been helpful in my career. As I’ve traveled to many countries in the world to work with orchestras and musicians, my background in Linguistics and musical ear has enabled me to pick up the local language very quickly and communicate with the players.
RB: That is so cool. That you know several languages I mean. Now CJ has some questions regarding the Mentalist…
CJD: I am in awe of your work on this show. I cannot imagine anyone else’s sound accompanying the on-screen action. I’m very interested in what the process is in terms of you receiving an episode and scoring it, could you explain that, as well as an idea of the time it takes to score an episode?
I think a composer’s first duty is to put a stamp on a project and make the show or film have its own unique and (hopefully) recognizable sound. Your wonderful compliment makes me feel like I’ve achieved that. But I’m sure the show would be just as phenomenal with another score. It would just be very different. But I thank you for that.
In terms of the process, I receive each episode generally on a Friday. The producers, writer, editor, sound supervisor and I all watch the show together and discuss where we should have music start and stop, and what the music should convey. Then I go home and get to work, writing music for these spots. By the next Friday, I have to be ready to record any musicians, then mix all of it and deliver the finished score to the final dubbing mix stage on Monday. So, I usually get nine days. But notice that within this time, another episode comes in. So there’s usually some overlap and it whittles down to about a week for scoring each episode. They mix all of the sound (music, dialog, effects) on a Monday and Tuesday, and then the episode airs on Thursday. So from me watching it to you watching it is just under two weeks.
I’m very used to the pace of television, however, and with the sound of the show firmly established I can write these episodes’ scores quickly. Every so often, an episode comes along that spooks me into a writer’s block or panic. I was so intimidated and excited by the last two episodes of Season 4, for example, that I couldn’t write a note for about three days. I just really wanted to make them special and was second guessing every idea. But thankfully this is rare. I usually just hit the ground running after our spotting sessions.
CJD: On ‘The Mentalist’, I admire how you are able to re-use (what are now) the shows trademark/familiar motifs, create new iterations of them and create new sounds altogether. It’s that blend that works so well. Robin’s Green Shades @RobinTunneyBlog wants to know, what is your favorite recurring motif or the piece you are happiest with from the score?
I’m glad you notice the recurring themes and, in particular, that you realize I always try to change them, even subtly. I’m a firm believer that a theme, motif or even iconic sound is like a character. You need them to return within the show, just like the CBI set staying the same or Patrick’s trademark vest. It’s not me being lazy or refusing to write a new theme. I do that all the time. But if used the right way, in the right moment, a known theme can instantly summon the right emotion or mood needed.
My favorite theme is the first one I wrote for the show, even as the pilot was being filmed. I long ago titled it “Believe (Patrick’s Theme),” which is on the soundtrack and iTunes. To me (and hopefully to all viewers by now), it represents who Patrick is and reminds us of his loss and internal motivation. And although it sometimes gets imbedded in or around Red John, it is very much not Red John’s theme. Red John has more of a sound motif. Careful listeners will notice that when we see the work of Red John, you will then hear one (or all) of three distinct sound motifs. If Jane discovers this, then we hear the harp theme, which is sometimes used to start “Believe.” The two characters are so tied to one another that often their themes blend together. It’s fun to do. And it’s fun that “Believe” can be played on just about any combination of instruments and have the same effect. So far, I’ve done it on piano, alto flute, strings, bells, and electric guitar.
My second favorite motif seems to be a big fan favorite, because I get emails about it often. It first appeared at the very end of Episode 3 of Season 3. It’s called “Let’s Go,” and was a turning point for me for the sound of the show. I like to turn the corner a bit each season, and this was one of them. In fact, right now I’m spending this month trying to find a way to turn the corner a bit for Season 5. It’s usually subtle but keeps it interesting for me and progressing the show forward.
But I am also a big fan of Lisbon and have given her several themes over the years. I’ve always liked “Rain,” which comes back from time to time. Cho, Rigsby, Van Pelt all have their own themes, and I bring them in regularly. For a composer, themes can become a bit like your children, so it’s hard to pick a favorite. And you also tend to care for them and make sure they aren’t over-used or used incorrectly. Sometimes my head spins when I hear an editor use Cho’s theme, for example, in a Lisbon scene. But to the editor it was simply a Mentalist piece that worked perfectly for the mood. It’s up to me to make the scene work the same way but with the right character or show theme.
RB: Thank you for that detailed response; the above was a very popular question. As was the following: you made some spectacular music for season four. Which episode and/or scene did you most enjoy working on and which are you most satisfied with?
First of all, thank you. You never know if you are doing better or lesser work from season to season. I tried hard to keep up the potential for Season 4, because the writers really raised the bar. Your question, however, is difficult to answer. I may have to pick a few.
First of all, I always love working on our season openers and finales. So without a doubt, those two were among my favorite episodes of the year. For the season opener, I just had no idea how we were going to get Jane out of his predicament, having killed whoever it was in the mall. I was like a kid before Christmas all summer, waiting to see the episode and get started again. When we came to the end of the season, I was so excited the night before the finale spotting session, I didn’t sleep at all. When I saw it and realized how many places I would get to go emotionally — with Emanuelle Chriqui’s character, Vegas, Jane’s descent, Red John, etc. — I was intimidated but thrilled. I like how both of those scores turned out.
But there was an episode early in the season that Simon Baker directed, called “Blinking Red Light” (Ep 407) that I’m really proud of. I loved the story, the performances, the puzzle. Plus, Simon did a wonderful job directing it. That episode was very special to me, and the score was a lot of fun to write. I had fun with the string players, trying various playing techniques and combinations to creep out the sound a bit more on David Paymer’s character.
If I had to pick one single scene from Season 4 that I am proud of, it would probably have to be Patrick setting a flower on the ocean at the end of “Blood and Sand” (Ep 405). It was a very easy scene to write. When I first watched it, I knew exactly what I would use and how I would do it. And that scene still moves me six months later. But then again, I love doing the fun “looking for clues” scenes, like Patrick and the wine bottles. I love writing the darkness of a scene like Stiles in the jail cell getting into Van Pelt’s head. It’s just a great show to score each week.
RB: It truly is. And I have to say that while I loved all the themes you mentioned, the one for Blood and Sand was my favorite too. Now you used quite a bit of drums in The Crimson Hat, to stunning effect. Jordan Davis @imsonotMelville wants to know what other types of instruments and or equipment do you use to compose your beautiful score?
I have a large multi-computer setup with tons of audio samples, plug-ins, apps and sounds. On top of that, I live in a city with perhaps the best musicians on the planet. So really, if I can think it, I can have it on the score. I’ve always enjoyed combining sounds and styles that don’t really go together. So making Japanese taikos drums play a Samba rhythm over a collection of banging metal and a melodic string orchestra is interesting and fun. I use a lot of synths and processed sounds on the show, because I think you can get very subtle and subliminal with synthetic sounds. Your ear isn’t picturing the player. But then I use the real players and known instrument to pull out the emotion. And yes drums. Always quite a bit of drums in the score each week. Drums make things exciting, propulsive, cool and even tense. I compose in a sequencer program called Logic, playing a large template of sounds in a program called Vienna Ensemble Pro, recording into a large ProTools session. I then add anything from myself on piano or percussion to my friends on guitars and strings.
I love when I discover a sound that really works under a scene, whether planned or by accident. For example, I was just digging around and improvising with this arpeggiated synth patch and accidentally loaded the wrong plug-in that gave it this weird distorted but watery sound. And this was while I was watching a scene with Patrick sneaking around, and it somehow heightened the tension, made him look even cooler than he always does and just kind of elevated the scope of the scene. A happy mistake. I’ve since saved the sound as a go-to patch.
Then there are instruments I have avoided for 4 years, because they just don’t seem to be a part of our Mentalist world. You won’t hear brass, woodwinds (except for an occasional alto flute used on the “Believe” theme), or acoustic guitar (except in a couple of rare and specific instances). This is not because I don’t like these instruments. On the contrary, they just aren’t part of the musical fabric, in my opinion. Everything else is fair game to me, as long as it works for the story and the characters.
RB: So which is your favorite instrument?
No contest — the piano. It’s very much a part of me. And I get panicky when I’m away from it for too long. I was in Vienna for 2 weeks last summer, and towards the end of my stay I asked the concierge at my hotel if he could find me a piano and rehearsal room just so I could just play for a while.
RB: Would it be accurate to say that, to make a soundtrack for a character you would have to know him/her very well? If so, Crina Ducrichy @ducrichy wants to know how you would describe Jane.
That is a very cool question. I don’t think you have to know the character absolutely. For me, I need to know what the character’s intentions are in the story and what they are feeling at that moment and try to convey that. Only two people really really know Patrick Jane, and they are Bruno Heller and Simon Baker. When I really get stuck and want to know what to do, I ask Bruno about a scene, and he guides me. But I really think that if I knew too much about the characters, I might give something away. Music is very subliminal and works in odd ways, as you know. So it’s good to keep me in the dark a bit. It helps me keep you in the dark, too.
RB: Because the relationship between Jane and Lisbon is so hard to define, fans use everything, including music, to try to gauge the pair’s status. x_Vintage_x @x_Nyah_x is a huge fan of your work since ever since she first heard the Everwood theme and was especially moved by the finale. But she feels that the music for Jane and Lisbon scenes in The Crimson Hat wasn’t as emotionally telling as music scored previously for other characters (i.e. Cho and Summer’s goodbye in “So Long and Thanks for all the Red Snapper”; Rigsby and Van Pelt’s moment at the end of “Bloodshot”). Thoughts? Was this intentional or happenstance?
Nothing is happenstance, but I don’t think there’s anything to tell emotionally…yet (ever?). It was different with Summer and Cho, Rigbsy and Van Pelt, because we knew their relationships outright. Jane and Lisbon’s relationship is complicated, and may always be. When I know what it is, I’ll do my best to help convey the emotion, but I have no idea either. I’m an active audience member, too. I made the writers promise not to tell me too much, so that I can enjoy the ride like you. A perfect moment to me in Season 4 was when Jane and Lisbon hold hands at the end of “The Crimson Hat”. It says exactly what we need to know about them: they are close friends, love and support each other, survive horrible situations together. Are they in love? Who knows? Hopefully the score said just that.
RB: MInTheSky @bmoon_sky loved the use of “Wonderful World” in Blinking Red Light. Was the song choice your decision? What about “Wanna Fall in Love” in the finale?
The songs are chosen by the producers. I thought they were brilliant uses, too. The one I also enjoyed very much was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which I got to arrange and record with an orchestra and singer. The most fun we’ve ever had with a song, though, was in “Rhapsody in Red” (Ep 322), when we cast, shot and recorded a full orchestra. At the end, Patrick goes over and plays bass in a jam session with other orchestra members. When we were shooting the scene, I taught Simon how to play the Main Title bass theme on the bass. Imagine how surreal it was: the actor who plays the character plays the character’s bass theme on a bass in front of the person who wrote that theme for that character. Wild!
RB: It was. I remember many fans wondered how Simon Baker knew how to play. Now we know. Moving on from the Mentalist…
CJD: What is it that you enjoy the most about making music for a show like ‘The Mentalist’ and how does that differ from doing the score for, say, Brothers & Sisters?
I like each project for different reasons. This is absolutely imperative, because if you don’t like the project, how can you possibly give it your best or even come up with something that enhances it that will be any good? Everyone on “The Mentalist” team gives me great freedom to explore and be creative, so I really enjoy that. I also enjoy being able to use a wide range of sounds and styles. “Brothers & Sisters” also gave me wide creative autonomy and was a wonderful ensemble cast to score each week. The sound was very different than this show in that it needed to be more acoustic. It also had far more overt comedy than on “The Mentalist”. But the writing process is exactly the same for me: what is the story? who are the characters? and how can music add to or enhance these? Music is emotion, and both shows are heavy on emotion, whether it’s dark or light or in between.
CJD: Some of your Film & TV work, such as The Mentalist, has been released as an album. Is this an easy thing to do or is there more to getting an official release for some of your music?
The real answer is that we don’t own the music we create. It is always a work-for-hire for the studio that produces the film or show. So that means they have to be the ones to release the music commercially or allow it to be released. It’s a constant battle for us composers to try to get material released. But with online and digital releases becoming easier, I think the paradigm will shift, and you will see many more releases from all of us. It’s not about the cost and hassle of physical album releases anymore. It’s simple to do, and the fans want it. But still the studio bureaucracy slows down our wishes to make the material available to you.
RB: You have writing music for both television and film. Can you elaborate on the differences between the two experiences? Which of the two do you prefer?
I like both but for different reasons. Film allows me lots of time to explore, craft, write, rewrite, try, test, consider. But it also allows all of that, which isn’t always positive. Something that worked perfectly the first time in a film may stop working after the director or studio has seen it 30 times over 6 months. The ability to go with my first instinct erodes a bit. With TV, I have no time to even think about my first idea much, so I am always pressed for time and feeling the pressure of that. But it forces me to go with my instincts and not over think it. Sometimes I look back and think “Oh, if I’d had some more time that could’ve been a lot better.” Of course, I always have the next week to try and make it better.
But I don’t approach film or TV differently as a writing process at all. The only difference to me is time allowed. All other factors — how I approach a scene, musician ensemble, type of sound, length of cues — are the exact same in my brain. It’s just music for a story being told through moving pictures. And these days some people have TV theaters that rival the quality of your local theater. So we have to keep quality control at a high for all media.
CJ: You have worked with another favorite artist of mine, Vangelis, orchestrating and conducting for his project ‘Mythodea’. What was it like working with him and how did this experience inform you in terms of your work going forward?
Vangelis is one of my favorite people on the planet. He is so sweet, fun, supportive, jovial, smart, talented. I miss him. The project was an amazing accomplishment for all involved and taught me an extremely important lesson: always say yes. I received a call late one night asking if I could meet Vangelis in Athens, Greece, the next day. I said yes. He asked if I could orchestrate a 70-minute oratorio for orchestra, choir, percussion and soloists — a huge feat. I said yes. When I flew in for the first rehearsal, he asked if I would conduct — something I hadn’t done before. I said yes. I ended up conducting a 110-piece orchestra, 200-member choir, 30 percussionists, Vangelis, Jessye Norman, and Kathleen Battle at the Temple of Zeus for a PBS television special. And this got me noticed by quite a few people who later hired me, such as Hans Zimmer. So I always just say yes, and then figure out how to do it.
The other way it changed me is that Vangelis does not subscribe to the “Hollywood system” at all. He has his own way of working, his own methods. He is a real musical genius and really fascinating to watch work. I would have long discussions with him about composing and music in general. I still think about things he told me and ways he approached his work, and it inspires and influences me. When I find myself stuck because I’m subscribing to the Hollywood way, I can remove myself from this and approach it from outside, like he would, and it frees me. One very memorable thing he said, which I’ve already paraphrased in this interview, is “if you can think of it, you can build it.” And that gives the art of composing music unlimited possibilities.
CJ: Along with Vangelis you have worked with many other famous composers and musicians, including Hans Zimmer who you are good friends with. Who else would you like to work with?
I’ve been very fortunate and honored to work with many heroes of mine. The first CD I ever bought was a Hans Zimmer CD, and to work with him so closely and now call him a friend doesn’t even feel real sometimes. Especially to a guy from Paris, Texas. I would enjoy working in some capacity with Thomas Newman or John Williams, but they both do it all themselves! The funny thing about composers and musicians is that we tend to become friends quickly once we meet. It’s similar to how many actors marry other actors. On one level it seems ridiculous and oddly competitive, but then you realize how much you have in common. We composers become friends, talk through similar problems, find ways to help one another out, even collaborate.
In terms of work, I actually find myself wanting to work with other artists, though, not composers. That’s something I’m always trying to pursue. And it comes from working with Michael Kamen, because he had such success working with artists like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, and others. I would personally love to work with Prince, The Crystal Method, Sigur Ros.
RB: Speaking of Hans Zimmer, in “The Last Samurai”, on that film you are listed as having pulled duty as composer, conductor, score arranger and programmer. Do you usually take on multiple roles or was this a special case?
The short answer is yes. On “The Mentalist,” I also perform all of these, as well as orchestrator, performer and producer. That’s not to be a megalomaniac or credit hog. I love to hire friends and others to help, and I do all the time. Many of these roles, though, sort of blend together in writing music. But then there are projects where I only do one duty, such as only conducting a film I had nothing else to do with.
CJD: Are there any TV/Film scores & their composers that you particularly admire?
So many to name. I am a huge fan of Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Williams and my personal mentor and friend Michael Kamen. But I love Goldsmith, Silvestri, Herrmann, Desplat. I also like Britney Spears, No Doubt, Gustav Mahler, Aaron Copland, Arvo Pärt, Beethoven. I could go on and on with my influences and loves. I do admire when someone creates a style or voice, remains true to it throughout their career, yet knows how to subtly change it and always make it fresh.
RB: You were a good friend to the late Micheal Kamen, who wrote music for some of my favorite films and whom you have stated “His guidance, loyalty and introduction to the world of film music put me where I am today.” Can you share how you two met?
I met Michael through a mutual friend at the publishing company. Michael wanted someone to help put his entire catalog together for a concert tour, and I was recommended as someone who could re-orchestrate and digitally engrave all of these great themes of his for a concert setting (usually much different in setup than a typical film orchestra). After 2 years of working on this concert project for him, Michael called me one day and asked if I’d like to orchestrate on this “little Metallica thing.” This led to me working on his films, too, and I shifted into the role of one of his main orchestrators. He was a wonderful human being, and I owe everything in my career to his generosity and willingness to give me a chance.
CJD: You’ve won GoldSpirit, BMI and ASCAP awards and have been nominated for 2 Emmys. Are awards and the recognition that comes with it important or is the opportunity to make the music itself enough?
I know it’s a cliché to say this, but I don’t measure my value or success in awards. Yes, I submit every year for the Emmys, and I would always be absolutely thrilled and honored to receive any award for my work. But I don’t think about them. They don’t motivate me. Awards don’t get me more work or better projects. They are a wonderful recognition by your peers and fun to receive, but that’s not why I got into this. I got into this to make music and tell stories through music. I get much more pleasure out of writing a score that I’m proud of, or getting a genuine “thank you” from my director or producers. And the biggest award of all is if I hear someone whistle a tune I wrote. That’s only happened a few times, but I love it!
RB: Finally, where do you get your inspiration? Does your music stem solely from your respective projects and its characters or does it come from a more personal place?
Yes and yes. I have times of no inspiration or ideas until I watch the scene or episode or film. And I have moments of inspiration when I just write music that might work for this project or that. And I still continue to write for myself, no project attached. Usually there is some kind of story attached for inspiration and tone, whether it’s one I’ve made up or one given to me on the screen. I improvise a lot, and then start working with ideas that I think are interesting. I’m inspired a lot by things I see. I might watch a story on the News, and it sparks something in me, and then I have to go write about it. If it’s emotional, it is usually inspiring in some way. But I’m also inspired by funny things too.
CJ: It is now my turn to express my extreme gratitude to you for agreeing to do this interview and for continuing to make incredible music for my favorite TV show and all other brilliant projects you work on or have a hand in. It’s been an honor.
I am truly happy to do this and very touched that you would want to hear about me and my music. It is such a thrill and motivator to be appreciated for your work, especially in a profession that is supposed to go unheard and hide under the scenes. I will do my best not to let you down in Season 5. You guys rock! Thank you very much!
Please join us in thanking Mr. Blake Neely for all his exemplary work on our favorite show via comments on this post. It would also be a great time to offer your congratulations- the Emmy nominations were announced today and he’ll be running for his work on a pilot call Pan Am. Best of luck and congratulations! Hopefully third time’s the charm 🙂
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