Interview with Mateo Messina

Mateo Messina is the composer behind the film “Juno” and the TV series “Fairly Legal”. His score can also recently be heard in the film “Life Happens”. Movie Mikes had a chance to chat with Mateo on his scores and what he has planned upcoming.

Mike Gencarelli: What is the first process you take as composer when coming on a project?
Mateo Messina: I like to before we even look at the picture to discuss the story and the emotional content and what they want to get across.  It is really just trying to find out what they want to say with their movie, without even talking about the context of the picture.  Basically its what they want people to come in feeling and what they want them to be leaving feeling.  From there we would move into a spotting session.  I always tell them my job is just to help you tell your story.  We then discuss style, instrumentation and whether we are using an orchestra…things like that.  I am big on discussing the emotion of each scene.  Once I understand that story, the characters that is kind of our starting point.

MG: Do you have a genre that you like to work most in?
MM: I have done drama, I have done comedy but the three things I look forward to is it smart, is it funny and does it have a heart.  That is like my three points of criteria for doing a film.  If a film has that, I am in.  I sadly just had to turn down a horror film due to another film which I couldn’t turn down.  But I know when people are going to walk out of that theaters, they are going to feel really good.

MG: You composed for two TV series this year “Fairly Legal” & Perfect Couples”, tell us about working on those?
MM: “Fairly Legal” was simply a blast.  It has really smart writers.  Setting the tone for that show was really fun because here is this character who they want to show as the rebel of the group.  But you don’t just want to play rebellious music, that is too on the nose.  The character is very smart and sexy.  So the approach for her was how do I innovatively get across something that is sexy, fun and sometimes raunchy. What does that sound like?  So setting the tone for that so, I swear, took just as long as writing every episode.  It was really fun too, there is another character named Leo and he is super nerdy.  He was a “Dungeons and Dragons” kind of guy, so I took an old Casio 8-bit and sampled the crap out of that.  I also always made sure to include some really 8-bit sounds especially in the rhythm structure.  With “Perfect Couples”, that was another really fun show, just America did not like it as much [laughs].  The show was a little more buttoned up.  They wanted it to feel more loose.  One of the things I did was went out and got a drum set.  I put it in my studio in this room that has like 25-30 foot high ceiling and wood floors.  It is like you are just sitting in the room listening to someone play.  It felt like a garage band that had experience but were still in the garage playing.  I gave it a real human feel and that is what I like doing most with my scores.

MG: How do you find that working on TV differs from movies, if at all?
MM: The timelines are sure different [laughs].  Honestly I think there used to be this big difference between TV and film. There is a different feel in the act structure with films you work in three and TV you work in five.  They are definitely differences in the arc for the shows and stuff like that.  In film, you don’t really have that much time to flush something out.  There might be a character in television that you write a theme for them, you may be only able to catch that motif for like 10-15 seconds an episode.  It doesn’t matter though because you have 13 episodes to flush it out.  Then you will start relating the motif to the character when you watch each episode.  Like Lauren from “Fairly Legal” is a good example of that.  She was this drop dead sexy but also domineering boss, her stuff is more hip hop.  It didn’t really fit the rest of the score per se but it worked.  So whenever we get into her the music gets swanky, in a good way though [laughs].  I just doing love both mediums.

MG: You have also done a lot of short films, is it more challenging to create a score for a short film?
MM: Yes and no, it is more challenging that people do not have as much experience.  If someone is doing their third feature, they already know the drill.  Sometimes when people are just doing their first film, they want their score to be more on the nose and hit all these different points that don’t really need to be hit.  I have done some shorts that were so awe inspiring.  I just did one earlier this year called “Starsucker”, it won some festival awards.  The director, Nathan Skulnik, did an incredible job telling a story.  It is compelling and captures you and you just want more.  We even recorded with an orchestra for it.  People think that that doesn’t happen with shorts but it definitely can.  From a creative stand point, I love doing shorts.

MG: What was your inspiration for the score to “Juno”?
MM: There was a few things, one I was just blown away by the script.  My oldest brother and his wife were adopting their second child, I knew that side of it from the Lorings characters.  It was such a fun process.  I remember meeting with Ellen Page and we asked her what does Juno listen to and she said “Oh, The Moldy Peaches”.  Then I found myself on a plane going to meet Kimya Dawson while she was out on tour.  We went into the studio and we were recording stuff.  Actually a really funny story about Kimya, when she was younger she didn’t want her mom to know what she was doing playing guitar and writing songs.  So she would take a bed sheet hold it over her head and play the guitar and she had a cheap Radio Shack microphone.  She would sing very quietly into this microphone and that became her style.  So when we were recording her she ended up being so quite, I had to set up, no joke, the death-star array of mics in front of her.  It was a little intimating, so we turned off all the lights and it was pitch black and just started recording.   Then I did a ton of recording back in my studio and we were just playing guitar and we never let it go to the click.  We were working really hard to make it sound really simple.  I had a real emotional investment with the story.  I loved the idea of doing something that wasn’t a typical Hollywood score.

MG: You are actually working with Diablo Cody again, in her latest film “Young Adults”, tell us about that?
MM: Basically I got a call to do some very interesting tracks that I probably can’t share much about.  I basically did additional music on there, probably about a half a dozen samples for it that fit really well in the story.  All I can say is I have been given the gift of taking really great rock hits of the 90’s and turning them on their eyes and it will hurt a little when you hear it [laughs].  That is all I can say.

MG: Tell us about composing the upcoming film “Butter”
MM: What I can say so far is that it is a great story.  It has been so much fun.  It has an incredible cast.  We went with a full orchestral for it and also have been exploring some Motown sound.  This is being recorded some in New York, some in Detroit.  It is a really good project and it is really strong.  Musically it has been a challenge but also very fun as well.  It is really about capturing nuance in this one.  Such a great team and I am happy to be on board.

MG: Any other projects you currently working on?
MM: We just released a film called “Life Happens”.  We just premiered it at the LA Film Festival and I sat through two screenings with audiences.  I love listening to people laugh, I think it is so fun.  I watched it 85 times and still forget where you are suppose to laugh at.  It is a really good film.  I did another called “Frankie Goes Boom” with Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman, that is a really good raunchy comedy.  I just signed another project as well that I cannot talk about yet and I start working on that in about a month.  So yeah keeping really busy.

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