With projects such as ‘Juno’, ‘Blockers’ and ‘The Angriest Man in Brooklyn’, Grammy winning composer Mateo Messina has built a highly impressive collection of work. Lift Off spoke with him to hear about his influences, how he got involved with the recently released laugh-out loud comedy ‘Blockers’, and his advice for any aspiring composers.
Interview by Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career within the industry, and how did you go about making it a reality?
MM: When I was in university I played in a rock band, I always loved playing Music. I actually had no aspirations to be a musician for a living. I got a business degree, but I always knew that I would play music. Then, at 23 or 24, I wrote my own symphony by ear, and got some players to come and record it at City Hall. One of the musicians said to me “Oh, you know we record a lot of film scores in Seattle, you should come down and watch one!”, and at about that same time, a friend of mine was at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco, filming a short student film, and he asked me if I would write the music for it, and I told him I didn’t really know how to do that, and he replied “Yeah well, you just wrote a symphony and you didn’t know how to do that either!” and I was like “yeah, that’s a good point!” (laughs).
I scored it and ended up falling in love with the process, I just thought it was so much fun, such a beautiful thing to help tell a story. So that is when I started going to all of the film scoring sessions in Seattle. I didn’t know exactly what I was doing but I learn’t a lot. I then moved out to Los Angeles a few months later, and thats when I got started. I hustled a lot, and was very serious about it.
Do you think there was a specific film or score that inspired you?
MM: Well, there was a certain score. Ennio Morricone’s score for ‘The Mission’. It is a film from back in the eighties. I hadn’t even seen the film and fell in love with the music, then I actually watched the film and I was blown away at how the score is used alongside it. A children’s choir is used to juxtapose a really tragic scene, and it’s just these beautiful children’s voices singing whilst there is this atrocity on the screen, and it just struck me. It was so incredibly powerful, well, on it’s own it is still powerful, but yes, this score was highly influential to me.
How do you choose your projects to be involved in? What is your process?
MM: What happens is, or at least what i’ve found in Hollywood, is that it’s really difficult to get heard. You have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. But, you know, when you work on something that people love and respond to, like ‘Juno’, people want to hire you for projects like that, with that type of energy, or is similar to.
All of the films that I get asked to do – essentially, if they’re a good fit, then i’ll do it, but if they’re not the right fit, I will decline. But, it is really hard to say no, especially when you are starting out.
I remember I was on the set of the film ‘Up in the Air’ with Jason Reitman, and I remember on the first day he came over and said “Hey, George, this is my friend Mateo, Mateo this is George”, and it was George Clooney! I remember thinking ‘Wow, i’m meeting George Clooney’ (laughs). I sat down with him for three days in-between all the takes, and he gave me really good advice about taking opportunities.
You also composed the score for the recently released film ‘Blockers’. How did you get involved with this project?
MM: You know, it’s funny. Usually if you work with a director once then you’ll most likely work with them again, but on Blockers, we had never worked together.
My agents said that Kay really wanted to meet me and I said “Ok!”. So, she invited me down to The Soho House, which is in Hollywood, to the film screening. When I showed up there was probably thirty or forty comedy writers there, and it was funny because I said “Hi, I’m Mateo” and they all went “Oh! You’re the composer!’” and I replied, “Well, i’m a composer” (laughs). So when the film was over, I called my agents and asked “Am I already signed onto this film?!”. Two days later I got a call from my agents who told me “You are on the film! She just forgot to tell you!” (laughs).
At the night of the screening, I wrote down how I felt about the movie, where I thought things could go musically, the overall tone of the film, and I actually wrote all of it into a letter that I sent to the director.
You know, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. When I talk to the director of the film they say ‘Oh, I don’t know music’ and I go “Oh, don’t worry. We won’t ever discuss music, we talk about emotions”, and that usually sets them at ease. I know how to write music, but what I want to understand is what the feelings are. You know, we can establish things stylistically and instrumentally, but after that, it all comes down to them going “Ok, now you go and do your thing”.
From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?
MM: It is kind of strange how it works. Sometimes you can have multiple projects happening at once. You know, I might have a TV show going on whilst doing a film. But I would say that, when you switch gears, it is good to then switch your whole mentality into the current project you’re in.
Always switch your attitude, and just really dive in. When you are a composer, the project can last anywhere between three weeks and six months, you know. The film might have been in development for five years, and then it was in pre-production for a further three years, then it was shot for a month or a month and a half, then it is edited for months, it’s just years and years of effort from hundreds of people, and you have to take that into consideration and think “Well, ok, how do I do my best on this project?, How do I help this production?”. Your job as a composer is to help the director tell the story.
Leading on from that then, what do you think would be the biggest surprise about the role of a composer to an outsider?
MM: The amount of solitude.
Also, if someone tells you that your work isn’t right for theirs, they are never criticising you as a person. That is a big one for young and aspiring composers. You know, the director is going to keep saying no, no, no and no until they get exactly what they are looking for, and it’s not because they don’t like the music or think that it isn’t good, it’s because it doesn’t fit. More often than not, you can then ask the question “Why isn’t this right? Or why doesn’t it work?”, and that actually helps you a lot. Or sometimes, when you write something and it’s ‘wrong’, that is okay because it helps them (the director) go “Oh, I guess I didn’t want that, I really want it to be like this”.
I feel like I write three or four film scores for every film that goes out.
Finally, my last question is, is there one thing that you personally think would make the film industry better today?
Just finishing on a light question!
MM: (laughs) Yeah! Err. Probably distribution. I’m not really sure of how the economics work out, but there needs to be more opportunities for original characters, and original ideas. You know, the big studios focus on putting out blockbusters, superhero films, franchises etc, more focus on independent and original films would be great.
Thank you so much for all of your time!
MM: No problem, thank you.