Composer Mateo Messina with Blockers Director Kay Cannon. Courtesy of Impact24 PR.
During the 2018 SXSW Film Festival, film composer Mateo Messina sat down with Cultured Vultures to discuss the new film, Blockers, opening in theaters today (April 5th).
How’d you get into film composing? It’s a long story. I’m trying to think of how to do it in two minutes. When I was younger, I always played piano and enjoyed it. I made some albums when I was in college because a friend had a key to the university studio — we’d sneak in and make albums. When I finished, someone showed me how I could write with MIDI. I thought I would write a symphony one. At 23, I decided to write a symphony. I released a symphony when I was 24. Two months later, another friend that I had known through sports and whatnot was going to the Academy of Arts in San Francisco and was like, “Hey, I made a short film. Would you write the music for it?” I went, “I really don’t know how.” He was like, “But you just wrote a whole symphony! You didn’t know how do to do that a year ago.” I’m like, “Good point!” So I tried it and I just fell in love with it. Instead of being out performing just lighting a candle and being in the studio learning how to help a director tell a story, how to cue emotion, how to give people a place to feel, how to help people empathize with a character; I just fell in love with it.
I moved down to Hollywood within—I went to every single film recording session in my hometown of Seattle because they record a ton of film scores. I met a few guys like Elmer Bernstein and a few guys I really admired. One of them was named Angelo Badalamenti. At the end of his session for a David Lynch film, I think he invited me to have a glass of wine because my last name was Messina and he knew I was a young composer who wanted to do film music. He goes, “I hear you want to be a film composer.” I go, “Yeah.” He poured me a glass of wine when his session was done. He goes, “You play baseball?” and I was like, “No, but I did when I was a kid.” “Where’d you play baseball?” I go, “Across the water at Bar S. Field.” He goes, “So there’s a baseball diamond?” I go, “Yes!” “So you go to the baseball diamond to play baseball?” I go, “Yes!” He goes, “What do you do thinking you’re going to do, write film music up here?”
Six months later, I moved to Hollywood. I was in my 20s and took a big risk and started doing short films. I met Jason Reitman and lots of great writers, directors. I kind of gravitated to comedy just because I love comedy. I’ve done all sorts but I love comedies with heart. My bigger break was Juno for sure.
It celebrated ten years last year. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. That’s what got me into it. It’s interesting because I didn’t go to school for it yet I’ve learned by doing. I feel like I’ve been going to school for it for 15 years. Even just the tone of comedy and how it’s told—not only does it vary from director to director but it varies from 15 years ago to now. It’s very different, even stylistically. We tried something very different with Juno. We were trying to play a comedy that wasn’t the traditional orchestra and all these things. It worked. It started a new style. It’s been fun to try and branch off to different places after that.
How does composing for an indie film like Juno compare to a studio film like Blockers, which I hate to say I could barely hear the score from laughing so hard? One thing, everybody thinks Juno is an indie. It was marketed like an indie but it was Fox Searchlight although it was like the indie side of Fox and Peter Rice is an awesome exec over there that has done great things. There isn’t a big difference to me, to be honest. I don’t approach those aesthetics any differently. I think there’s another studio one down the road and one that’s coming up that I want to do that indie that I watched and it’s so good but I’m not going to change my aesthetic for one or the other. I write those characters. I’m there to serve the characters. I’m there to tell the story that the director wants to tell. I’m stylistically going to do what I can to help them tell the story in an imaginative, creative beautiful way. I don’t approach a studio picture any different than an indie. The funny thing about Blockers, the score was pretty low. I don’t know if it was the mix or how it came out in the theater. Also, this kind of movie in a theater has so many laughs that I would rather people go, “I couldn’t hear your score because of the laughter” rather than the mix.
I was sitting right in front of Kay Cannon falling out of my seat laughing. I could barely hear the score from laughing so much. There were jokes you didn’t hear that are hilarious jokes. One of them —nobody even heard this— at the very end, Lisa says they’re upstairs having sex and Lisa says, “Do you think I should go back up there.” Both Mitchell and Hunter go, “No, no, no!” It’s a funny joke and then Hunter goes, “It’s one or the other.” He was saying where to put it — it’s one place or the other. It’s a funny joke and people will hear it at home. People were laughing so hard. Same with like the butt-chugging scene. Kay and I worked really hard carve out and hit just the right spots and do all the things musically for that scene. People were howling from the moment his pants were down all the way through to when the beer hits Ike’s face. Ike even shouts “Ass beer!” when it hits his face. People didn’t hear it because they were screaming laughing!
I’m definitely seeing it again in Chicago. Blockers is definitely worth a second time. I’ve seen it 180 times so I’m good. I’ll go to the premiere in LA and I’ll be good.
What’s your process like for composing movies? Like when did you sign on for Blockers? I think I signed on in October and we just finished a few weeks ago, so about 5 months. My process is I read the script two times. I read the script once to take it in, being entertained or not entertained. Am I relating these characters or am I not? Do I like it? Is it something I can see, get into, and support? Do I serve the picture? If I like it, now I’m reading it and studying all the characters. My job is helping the director tell the story and I love telling story through characters. If I can write music that people can empathize with how Lisa is feeling with how her daughter is moving all across the country and how that guts her verses Hunter, who has got his shit all over the place but by the end you see him with such vulnerability talking to his daughter when she comes out to him. It’s one of the most beautiful moments out of the entire film in my opinion.
So I look at these different relationships. I think producers said can you come down to a screening. I went down and watched it. I couldn’t take notes because I’m there with 40 other people (comedy writers). Kay was so collaborative—I was thrown into—I thought I was going there to interview and I was basically introduced as the composer. I called my agent and I’m like, “Hey, am I on this film?” (Laughs) We immediately go into a spotting session. A few days later, we sit down and I ask her tons of questions. Literally, in a spotting session, I’m just asking, what do you want people to feel here and there. We go through every scene whether I’m writing music for it or not just so I can understand the aesthetic and intension. Then I start writing ideas. My idea for Blockers; it’s so dialogue-driven and funny banter. I called it the 90-minute hilarious chase scene with a lot of beautiful sentiment at the end. I pitched her on, okay, I feel like this needs to be percussion-driven. You can talk over the percussion. What’s funny is you hopefully didn’t notice the music but even when they go to leave, there’s big drums there. If anything, hopefully you’re just feeling that shit’s going on and going down, not going oh, what’s this music here.
At the end, there’s a few cues where we can explore more of the melody and the sentiment. I had been playing Lisa and Julie’s theme throughout and it kind of pays off very much at the very end when she does the cameraphone, she’s leaving and is really sentimental and holds it. What’s funny is their motif versus Mitchell’s and Kayla’s, who are both jocks. Lisa and Julie’s are piano and organ whereas Mitchell and Kayla, I’ll just do it with guitars and other stuff. Hunter and Sam, his shit’s all over the place and she’s coming out to him. What’s so beautiful about that scene —it’s my favorite scene in the film— she’s showing him all the disdain for being hurt for so long and him ignoring her. He’s admitting to it and then he ends up having the horrible ugly cry. For him, that’s not something that’s simple. It starts with acoustic guitars, then it goes to electric guitars. There’s a trumpet in it. There’s accordion in it. There’s a tuba in it. There’s voices in it — well the voices are there to hearken back to Angelica, the girl crush. It’s about being intentional with the score so the process is like how would I play these characters because the characters are vehicles in it even though the whole ridiculous scenario takes you on this fun ride and has so many ridiculous great jokes that go through. There’s so many funny lines. The music is really to serve the characters so people can empathize with them but really give it a good energy, tone, and pulse. It’s a long answer. I’m tired.
It was nice meeting you and thanks again for your time.