April 15, 2021

Film Interview: Off The Grid


Here’s the thing about Joseph Trapanese: the name may not be instantly recognizable but once you put on the headphones ... different story.


Film Interview: Off The Grid

Joseph Trapanese takes a break from Tron: Uprising to talk with the Topanga Messenger about his craft.

To say the arranger/ composer/ producer is on a career hot streak is an understatement.

In the past few years he has collaborated with luminaries such as Daft Punk on the Tron: Legacy soundtrack, M83’s 2011 breakout, Hurry up, We’re Dreaming, while contributing to the eerily lush orchestrations for Showtime’s “Dexter.”

2012 has been a busy year for the artist who has composed scores for the Indie gem, Mamitas, and the propulsive and frenetic, The Raid: Redemption.

Topanga Messenger: Working with Daft Punk for two years on the original Tron: Legacy soundtrack, in what ways are you striving to make Tron: Uprising your own?

Joseph Trapanese: A lot of what a film composer does involves great focus on subtle details. While there were certainly big initial decisions made when approaching the series — new sounds we are adding to the Tron world, the introduction of some new instruments, and tweaking the balance of electronics and orchestra — I think it’s the small moment-to-moment decisions that make the show my own. When working in such a huge shadow, it’s important not to over-think what you are doing. If I try to analyze my process, I usually start second-guessing every little decision, which hampers my workflow and weakens the quality of my music.

While film music is certainly functional and sometimes a bit conventional, I like to be daring and unpredictable within the boundaries of the story. The most important thing is to translate my own emotional reactions to the drama into music.

TM: How would you compare your work on The Raid: Redemption versus Mamitas compared to Tron: Uprising?

JT: I like to think of the music as a character in whatever film I’m working on. Moving from project to project is akin to slipping on a different role. You have to understand your function and importance (sometimes unimportance) within the framework of the drama.

Mamitas is a great independent film that premiered at the LA Film Festival last year and will be in theaters soon. It’s a delicate story about a teenager finding himself while struggling with family and social issues in Echo Park.

The role I play there is very different vs. The Raid! Mike and I spent a lot of time finding musical elements that would help convey the brutality of the fighting while enhancing the urgency and tension that the characters would be feeling.

When working on Tron: Uprising the most distinct element to acknowledge is the world we are operating in — not only are we in a computer but the medium is 3D animation. Musically, we have to straddle the boundary between sounds that draw you into this world and help you understand it.

TM: When you collaborate, how much is inspired by the collaboration?

JT: You’ve struck at the heart of why I love collaborating! Collaboration is about bringing your strengths and your creativity to the table while being open to your partner’s creativity, experience and taste. The best collaborations yield something better than what the artists could have done on their own while representing the absolute best of their talents.

TM: What would you also say you get personally out of the collaborations?

JT: Personally, the experience I draw from collaborations is priceless. I get to learn more about the art of making music from highly accomplished producers and composers that I apply to my own work.

TM: Mike Shinoda has worked with Steve Jablonsky and now you. Describe his transition from rocker to composer and how it was working with him.

JT: I was elated to get the call from Mike for The Raid: Redemption. I’m familiar with his work and I knew that Mike’s talent and experience would translate well into film.

What’s really important in scoring are the abilities to explore, evaluate, adapt and execute. When the deadline approaches, you have to break things down into their simplest elements — it’s a fine balance of creativity and diligence. It also helps that Mike is a visual artist and has a great understanding of drama. It was a great creative partnership.

TM: Jason Segal’s character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall said he didn’t create music, he just combined very ominous tones. What depth do you add to your soundtrack to make it so visceral?

JT: Great movie. It was really funny to see a lead character as a composer. I think the joke in the movie is that the composer just had a bunch of ominous keyboard patches and didn’t pay much attention to detail!

A lot of my sounds are custom made. Making a sound hit the audience in a visceral and direct way has more to do with taking away things from the sound. In short, it is about making a sound feel like it’s right in front of your face, rather than placed far behind the speakers. I’d rather my music be felt than heard.

TM: What inspired you to start scoring?

JT: Like a lot of my contemporaries, I grew up with a great love for John Williams’ classic orchestral film scores. This sparked my interest in the orchestra, which led to a love of classical music. When I was in middle school, I would try to arrange my favorite pieces of music, usually very badly, making lots of mistakes and asking my music teachers way too many questions. It led me to work even harder!

TM: Do you feel scores are becoming more popular?

JT: I think music is becoming a more respected part of film than it was a decade ago. No longer are audiences okay with wallpaper music. An engaging, unconventional story needs a score that represents it appropriately. When I went through schooling, there was a notion that anybody could become a film composer. If they could get a gig, music and talent were secondary. I’m happy to say that I feel those times are close to being gone.

TM: What three scores inspired you to do what you do?

JT: These change all the time. Recently it’s James Horner’s Aliens, Ennio Morricone’s Navajo Joe, and Tangerine Dream’s Risky Business. My iPod is always on shuffle, there is so much great work out there to be inspired by. Jerry Goldsmith, John Murphy, John Carpenter, and John Barry have all been on a steady rotation through my playlist lately.

TM: What do you listen to?

JT: I listen to a bit of everything- including country music. I don’t have any rules about what I should or shouldn’t listen to while I’m working on a certain kind of film score, but I usually listen to things that are completely different. This sometimes inspires me to go in unusual directions — maybe I’ll incorporate a Wagnerian leitmotif-style into a synth-based cue, or steal an afrobeat rhythm and place it in the cellos. I’m a big fan of finding creativity in interesting places.

Just like my favorite film scores are always rotating, I will never have a favorite band! I’m listening right now to a lot of John Lennon (post-Beatles), Terry Allen, David Bowie, Venetian Snares, Death Grips, Neon Trees, Hem.

TM: What’s next?

JT: I’m wrapping up an EP with my girlfriend, Joy Autumn, a singer-songwriter based in LA. We are very excited about the production and it will be released in the next month or two. I’ve also been fortunate to collaborate with more great artists; there is some really special new music on the way. But I can’t talk about those yet!

Stay tuned….