Header image credit: Impact24 PR
Greetings and happy Friday! This week I was able to interview composer Mateo Messina, who recently worked on John Cena’s new film, “Blockers.”
Mateo is best known for his Grammy-winning music for Jason Reitman’s “Juno.” He is currently working on season four of Reitman’s Hulu comedy series “Casual,” season three of NBC comedy “Superstore,” starring America Ferrera, and the new YouTube Red original comedy series “Swipe Right.”
He also wrote additional music for the Golden Globe-winning and six-time Oscar-nominated film “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney, Reitman’s Golden Globe-nominated “Thank You For Smoking,” and “Young Adult” starring Charlize Theron.
Here’s the interview. Enjoy!
Where did you grow up and how did you get into the business of scoring films?
I grew up in Seattle. I was playing drums in rock bands in college and I played piano a lot. One day a guy in one of the bands I was in told me he was taking a [sound] engineering class and that he could sneak me into the studio during certain hours and we could record my album. So my first three piano records were recorded in the student studio there at college. In that process an engineer here asked me if I had ever used MIDI and he showed it to me and I was blown away that I could see notes on the computer screen as I was playing. I was playing a piano song and then he switched it to flute and then switched to strings and he asked if I planned on using those instruments and I hadn’t. I know this sounds crazy, but I had always heard it this way in my head and immediately I thought “I’m going to write a symphony someday.” I hadn’t studied classical music or anything but it just kind of hit me.
Within two years I had B.S.ed my way into the symphony hall here in Seattle while it was under construction and convinced them to book me in their hall. I premiered my first symphony at 24 years old. I did two Saturday nights apart and the first one did so well that the second one sold out. I had a business degree and I had no aspirations to do music as a career, I just knew I was always going to play music cause it was in my heart. But then a colleague/friend of mine and told me he was at an academy of arts film school and made a student film and wanted me to score it. It was like ten minutes long. I told him I didn’t really know how to do that, and he said “You just wrote a symphony, of course you know what to do!” So I decided to take a chance and just fell in love with the process.
I then went to every single film scoring session that they had here in Seattle, there are a ton that happen in Seattle. I would meet tons of different composers and it was Angelo Badalamenti who was scoring a film for David Lynch who took me aside– I think because of our common Italian ancestry–and said “I hear you want to be a film composer.” I told him I did and then he said “Do you play baseball?” I said I didn’t now but did when I was a kid. He then asked where I played. I told him where it was and he said “So you went to a baseball diamond to play baseball, but why do you think that you’re going to write film music in Seattle?” Six months later I moved to Hollywood.
When I got to Hollywood I just hustled as much as I could. Doing tons and tons of shorts films and that’s where I met a lot of directors that are great now but were just starting out back then. That’s where I met Jason Reitman. I just learned as I went and I remember telling myself that I would give myself 7 years and in the 6th year I did Juno. And that kind of launched mine and everyone else involved in that movie careers. From there it was just “Keep up.” I have been writing non-stop for 10 years straight.
I stick mostly to comedy, I mean I love doing all genres but comedies with heart tend to be what I go for.
I’ve seen most of the films you have scored, even the less well-known ones, like Barely Lethal and Butter.
Butter was brilliant. It really was, which is why I did it. But it became a battle between Harvey [Weinstein] and the director and unfortunately it just did not go the way it could have. It was really a shame. I thought the director made it a little bit too cartoonish in a strange way, but Harvey and him didn’t agree and it ended up being this kind of mess. The script was amazing and the film still ended up great but just not the A+ that it should have been. It ended up being like a B+. I loved it, a lot of people loved it, and it had a great reaction. But Harvey decided that he was going to push this other film called My Week With Marilyn instead of Butter and that was kind of it.
Juno is my favorite of the ones that you’ve scored.
Wait until they see Blockers!
Do you have a favorite among them?
I don’t have a favorite, to be honest. I definitely like doing films with heart. I actually like films more for the filmmakers. When I look back I did 3 films with a director named Kat Coiro, it was like 3 films in 3 years, which is crazy. When you’re making a film you’re moving a mountain and when I look back on that I’m like “Holy crap, we did something pretty incredible.” I invited her and her husband to my wife and I’s wedding. So I don’t have favorite films as much as I have favorite experiences. Every time I work with Jason [Reitman] it’s always an absolute pleasure just because we’ve become good friends in the process over the last 10-15 years.
Some of them are challenging. If you work on a film for so long you lose objectivity. I always have to trust my initial reaction so now when I watch a film if it doesn’t jibe well with me but it has big stars in it or something, I learned now not to get wooed by famous actors. Just because that they are in it doesn’t mean that it’s good. If you’re not the right fit, it’s best to skip it. I remember watching a film last year and I really wanted to do a film because I had been doing several TV series and hadn’t done a film in a long time. My agent sent me over one and they wanted me to do it but after watching it I just didn’t get it. And then I told myself that if I didn’t ‘get it’ I have to pass because I’m not going to serve that picture well at all. And I remember seeing films early on and unless it’s a very early cut, you should trust your first instinct on it.
You tend to do guitar driven scores. Does a director or studio set out with that type of sound in mind?
No, not at all. The funny thing is I don’t even play guitar very well. I usually have other musicians do it in the recordings. The reason that my guitar scores sound unique is because I’m writing for guitar on piano, so I’m having guitarists play things that are a little strange. It usually isn’t what they would intuitively do. Ocassionally people will want a certain sound that I’ve done before where they have their hearts set on that particular vibe or tone. I just did a film right after Blockers called Little Italy, where I had just recorded tons of guitars and drums on Blockers but then switched to this romantic comedy where I recorded this accordionist and then surrounded her with a 40 piece string orchestra. Each project is usually pretty different. It helps to keep things interesting.
No one usually comes up to me and asks me to do a guitar score, but they might really like something I did that was a temp cue from one of my old films and they ask me to do it in that style. And we usually talk about all that up front, I’m not usually surprised by it. I’m just trying to serve their story the best I can, help them dig into their characters and tell the story they want to tell. I want to give people a place to feel. That’s what I set out to do.
The film music fan community generally has a really sour taste in their mouths about ‘temp’ music because it locks composers into a corner.
Yeah, it dumbs it down. It leads to homogenization of the sound of film music. I don’t get into that too much because when they come to me they’re looking for something fresh and different vs another action movie or superhero and they’re temping it with something like Brian Tyler or Harry Gregson-Williams. There are certain sounds that start to get homogenized but I have to give credit to every composer that has to fight a little bit of that ‘temp’ love with our producers and directors. You have to work harder to show them something that will work because they already tested a film with that temp track and they just don’t want to change it up if it’s already getting a higher score.
I came into this interview thinking that you were a guitarist, which would be why you use the guitar so often. But, I guess I’m wrong on that. From listening to your scores I would put you almost in the category with Junkie XL, doing very unique sounds. Is that accurate?
Yeah, that’s pretty spot on. Basically I’m always asked to do a film because of my creativity and for being unique. For example, in Juno there was a cue that I just wanted it to sound so organic, even down to the drums. Instead of using a traditional drum kit, I put a pint glass of water into a bucket and then hard hats to get the sound I wanted. And when you hear the finished cue you don’t necessarily know that you’re not listening to a regular drum kit. It was very subtle and just a little different. And that’s what I go for a lot, for the nuance and subtext. The best way to describe it this: an actor will tell you what they’re doing and saying, but the music will help you know how they’re feeling. I like to go about it in the most unique way possible. Another example is the show Casual. Those are really broken characters so I try to write a score where we don’t tune the instruments. We went to do those sessions and none of the instruments were tuned just like these characters were just a little out of tune. They’re imperfect and if I can show those imperfections through music it helps people feel relatable to the character because the audience is imperfect and identifies with the actor. I always call it ‘Me too’ (no relation to the #MeToo movement) when you write a song, put it out in the world and if someone says, “Me too,” then you’ve won.
What was the process of you getting the gig for Blockers?
Usually you get a gig because you’ve already worked with someone on the production before, and I hadn’t worked with Seth Rogen’s company before or the director Kay Cannon. So I got a call from my agent saying that this production company is interested in you and think you would be a good fit. They then asked me to send over some stuff and then I got the script and was eventually asked to come down to the studio. I screened it with a bunch of producers and comedy writers and it was really cool. I met Kay, the director, and a bunch of other people there. While I was there someone said, “Oh you’re the composer!” I was like yeah I’m A composer. And it happened again so I called my agent and asked if I missed something. Turns out she forgot to call me and tell me that I got the gig.
Within a week of getting the gig we were at a spotting session with a pretty early edit. I setup my music editor and my producer and the film editor and Kay and the music supervisor and one of the producers. We spotted the film and when I first got it, I thought “This is the most hilarious 90 minute chase scene ever.” It was bombastic and fun so I basically said that percussion is our answer. So we continued to spot it and there was just so much emotion in reels 4 and 5 and also the film is just so funny. So many great jokes and bits that I just thought it best to stay out of its way on that. It sounds weird but I just want music to set the tone and the pace and feel empathy for the parents who are so afraid to lose their daughters and then feel the empathy for the girls who are just trying to deal with being teenagers. Then I just wrote and wrote and wrote some more.
Normally there are challenging times composing a film. This one went pretty smooth except for one scene where the whole movie just comes down to that one scene. Not that the story culminates to this scene, but this scene is the most beautiful scene, it made me so happy. But it took 14 passes to get it. After I got into the 7th or 8th iteration I started questioning whether I was a good composer! And then eventually you get to a place where you just have to suck it up and keep trying.
What percentage are you given final cut, meaning that the film is done except for your part?
We used to always wait till it was a locked picture, but they don’t do it much anymore. It’s very rare. I mean, that’s why I have a solid team to help me in every step of the process. My music editor, etc. You just have to suck it up and that’s how it works now. I remember when I started this career and it was like “Wait till locked picture,” but now it’s just go with the flow. You constantly change which is very challenging.