SPOILER ALERT: THIS ARTICLE REVIEWS PLOT DETAILS OF STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN EPISODE “WILL YOU TAKE MY HAND.”
Back in January, CBS Television Studios invited journalists to witness the scoring session for the final moments of Star Trek: Discovery’s season 1 finale. Audiences have finally gotten to see the footage that Russo and his team worked on that day — footage of the arrival of the Enterprise that blew those journalists’ minds almost a month ago.
Russo, who started his career as a founder of Grammy-nominated rock band Tonic, now has an impressive list of credits as a composer for film and TV, including recent releases Altered Carbon and Counterpart, as well as Legion, The Night Of, and Power. He won an Emmy award for season 3 of Fargo.
We got on the phone with him this past week to get the full lowdown on scoring such a huge moment for Discovery.
Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: You’ve got such an amazing list of credits. How’s the past decade treating you? Amazing?
Jeff Russo: Well, you know, yeah, I would say. I’ve been working on a lot over the last four, five years. Before that, it was the day to day struggle. I mean, still the day-to-day struggle, but I’ve been working on some very, very cool over the last few years, and I really feel very lucky to be doing that. But, yeah, I guess it’s been treating me really wonderfully, and I’m knocking on wood, because we’re all just independent contractor people who tend to go from job to job. And so, you never know what’s ahead, you never know what tomorrow is gonna bring.
RT: I read that you freaked out when you found out you’d be working on Star Trek. Can you tell me about that moment?
Russo: That’s one of those very unique special moments that you find out that you’ve been hired to do the thing that you’ve loved since you were a kid. I mean, I was watching Star Trek early on when I was watching the original series in syndication, and then when Next Generation came on the air, it was so exciting because it was a new Star Trek, and then the next one. I’ve been a fan of the movies, all of the original movies, and then all of the newer movies. So, to find out that I was gonna be working and writing music for a story and a franchise and a way of life for some, it was mind-blowing to me. It was literally mind-blowing. I couldn’t believe it.
Imagine growing up loving baseball, and then all of a sudden you are on the Yankees. You know what I mean? It really is like that, it really has that feeling like, “Oh, my God.” It almost feels and felt and continues to feel unreal, to me. And, yeah, so the day I found out, I literally lost my mind. I got that phone call, like, “Yeah, they want you to do Star Trek.” At the same time it was thrilling and terrifying … “Well, what if I can’t do — what if I don’t do a good job? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m sitting there and writing and nothing comes out?” It’s pretty terrifying, and amazing all at the same time. It’s almost impossible to put into words the emotional feeling, the feelings that went through my head at the time and continue to go through my head.
— Doug Jones (@actordougjones) February 12, 2018
RT: When I was at the scoring session, and the first time you guys started playing The Original Series theme, and the Enterprise came on screen, I felt like that little kid in The Incredibles: “That was totally wicked.”
Russo: I know exactly what you mean. Like, even when I was in my studio writing that. So, I was writing the cue that sort of comes before you see Enterprise. I’m writing the scene and they’re talking and then Michael Burnham looks up, and when you’re in the scoring session, you don’t hear any of the dialogue. She looks up and she says, “It’s Captain Pike of the Enterprise.” And I just started tinkling around playing. I was like, “Oh, OK. So that’s where this theme should come in.” And so, when I went to start playing that theme, and I looked up, I got a chill. You know? It was really weird. As I was writing, as I was doing it. And then I sort of went from the thing that I was writing to, “Oh. Oh, yeah, this is the [Alexander] Courage theme right here.” And then the Enterprise came on. She said, “It’s Captain Pike.” And my head exploded even though I knew it was happening. Like, I had read the script. I’d seen the thing, I spotted the episode, I knew it was going to happen, but it was still spectacular.
Holy shit those last 30 seconds, I think I'm gonna cry #StarTrekDiscovery
— Matt Hansen (@mhansen0207) February 12, 2018
RT: I think Star Trek fans on the internet, their heads will all collectively explode.
Russo: It’s funny because I’ll go on Reddit, or I’ll go on certain places and see what people are saying, and there’s a lot of speculation like, “Will we see the Enterprise? Will we see this? And who would it be? And who’s on the thing?” I think the thing that’s gonna really freak them out is the way it happens because you don’t expect her to say, “It’s Captain Pike,” like she knows him. But it’s possible, of course, she knows who he is. So, it’s just I think that’s gonna blow people’s minds.
RT: Getting into sort of nuts and bolts a little bit: How do you get the scenes? How do you start? And like, do you just watch it first, and then decide?
Russo: Generally speaking, episode to episode I sit down, or have sat down with a producer and screen the episode in a pre–visual effects form, but it’s locked. Like, the all the scenes are there, but not all the great stuff you actually see when it’s broadcast. And we sit down, and we watch it and we talk about like where we want music to go, and what we want that music to do at any given time in the episode. And it’s gotten easier, and easier, and easier as we’ve gone along throughout the season. Like, we started and it was really, really like long. We took a few hours to do an episode. Whereas, now, we sort of have the tone, and have the understanding of how we use music, and how we spot the music to help underscore the episode. So, we sit down and we watch the episode, we talk about that, and then I go to my studio, and write music for wherever we needed music. And then takes about five to six days maybe a little longer.
It depends on how much music is in the episode. And then from there, I simultaneously send the score to them to the producers to review. Like, a mocked up version of the score, and then we start orchestrating it to go to the scoring stage because we do every week with an orchestra. I say every week — it’s like every 10 days or so, every 10 to 15 days. So, the entire time between the time we watch it to the time it has to be delivered to the mix stage, which is where we dub the music into the show, is about two and a half weeks because after I write it, then we go and record it, and then it gets edited and mixed, and then it gets mixed into the show.
RT: Do you ever get writer’s block?
Russo: Somebody else just asked me that. It’s a question, I think, that gets asked to anybody who writes anything. Right? It’s like, “Do you ever sit down and just are not able to write?” I’ve sat down and like had to think like, “OK, what do I want to do here?” And I try something, and it’s not working. You just try something else, but music exists. Right? It just exists in the world. So, I just have to sort of chip away at the world in order to find the music. That’s sort of how I look at it. So, writer’s block, for me, is just trying to find the inspiration for writing something. Some days are easier than others, but I don’t know that I’ve sat down and gone, “Oh, my God, I have nothing. What am I gonna do? I’ve got nothing.”
Occasionally, I’ll just get up and walk around, or go make a coffee and come back. There are moments of, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do right now, so why don’t I wait a half an hour, or switch to something else.” So, if I’m working on Star Trek, and I’m working on something else at the same time, I can just flip over to that and see if I’m inspired to do anything on some other project and then come back.
I can’t believe that it’s all that different from writing an essay, or writing an article, or writing a script, or writing anything, a book. It’s just trying to tell a story, and how are you telling it? What words are you using to tell it, and how are you describing it, and its colors, and its sounds, and its words?
RT: Going back to the Star Trek theme that you — would you say that you had to “reimagine” it for Star Trek: Discovery?
Russo: OK, so here’s the thing, so, my main title theme that I wrote for the show is basically our opening title sequence. What I had wanted to do was give a nod to the Alexander Courage theme, so at the end of that theme when you Discovery sort of fly around, I play the Courage, “Dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.” That was something that I had imagined I would do from the very beginning when I was thinking about what I was gonna write for the main title, so I thought about that. And I think two or three times during the entire season I have nodded to that theme. Meaning like, I could use it because it’s very effective at having an emotional response. It can evoke that very fast. I did the same thing at the end in 15 where, “OK, so now it’s obvious we see the Enterprise. I have to play the Enterprise theme.” So, I did that. Now, the idea to play the original series end credits music right after that … that was an idea that was born out of something else. I was recording a vocalist for episode 12 and 13. There’s this Kasseelian opera that I had to write for the episode. So, I had a singer come in to sing it, and then I thought, “Oh, you know what? Let me just see like what it would sound like if I just have her sing the notes from the original series end titles, see what that sounds like.”
So, I just like literally scribbled it down on paper, and said, “Hey, can you sing this?” So, she sang it, and I recorded it on my iPhone. I recorded a video of it on my iPhone, and I sent it to Alex Kurtzman (pictured with Russo above), who is one of our executive producers, and I said, “Check this out. Isn’t this cool?” And he said, his response was, “We have to do that for 15. We have to do the end credits for 15.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.”
So, then I had to go and find the original scores, and then do a rearrangement and a re-imagination of that. I didn’t want to change it too much from the original, but I wanted to sort of update it and bring into the 21st century. So, we did it with a much bigger band and a much bigger string section, and brass section then they did originally. And I think it sounds like a modern sort of version of that. But the idea was born from just, “Check this out. Isn’t this cool?” You know? I just wanted to show him because we’re both Star Trek fans. I thought it was fun, and it turned into us doing it actually live for the end of just our finale, which is a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun to do that.
RT: That’s a great story. So, did you have the same singer? Was she there? There was a vocalist there.
Russo: Yes, she was there on the day. Same person. Her name is Ayana Haviv. Love the sound of her voice. She has the ability to evoke that old Hollywood sound, which is exactly what we wanted to do.
RT: It was really a joy to watch. I was so very pleased to have been there. So, thank you for allowing it.
Russo: Oh, absolutely. Those things are so much fun, and that, to me, that was the most fun I’d ever had on a podium conducting an orchestra. Now, I’m also new to the world of doing orchestral music. My background is I’ve been in a band for 20 years, and rocking on my guitar, and playing drums. So, doing this kind of music has been great, and then getting to conduct the orchestra at that level is just such a fantastic feeling. And then to do that for Star Trek is — my mind kept getting blown at every level. It was kind of funny.
RT: How long you have you been working with orchestras, and was it a weird transition when you first started?
Russo: My first truly orchestral score was Fargo season 1 … It was a terrifying transition to go from writing and playing music on the level that I had been doing for 20 years, and then all of a sudden writing for a much larger group. At the same time, in my mind I was thinking, “If I can write a melody for me to sing, or if I can write a melody for me to play on guitar, why can’t that melody be played by 20 violins, and why can’t all the chord stuff that I do on guitar be played with the cellos, and the violas?” And it actually I think it had a great effect on the way I write that kind of music. I think that I tend to utilize that part of my brain when I’m writing music for all these orchestral instruments.
I think the thing when I listen back to it, I say, “Oh, it doesn’t sound terribly traditional, but it still has this cinematic feel because simply because of the group playing.” But it was pretty scary, like, this is something new for me. I’m continually in awe of the way orchestras work, and the way orchestras play, and how taking a simple melody, and sort of fanning it out to these many players how that feels when that all comes together. There’s something that is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts when you put all these really wonderful musicians together to play and it sounds better than you think its gonna sound in my opinion.
RT: You’ve got some rock stars behind the scenes, too, not just the players in the orchestra. You seem to have a very professional team that you’re working with, and it was inspiring honestly to see everyone work so cleanly together.
Russo: I think that to put together scores of this size, having a good team is imperative. I have a really, really great team of people that I work with, orchestrators, and my engineer, and assistant, and score editor. You couldn’t do it without all those people. It’s such an enormous undertaking to do this much music at this level and the breadth and scope of the music itself, like, to not have a team that like a well oiled machine team to work together. It would be next to impossible.
We work under these like ridiculous scheduling constraints, so if we’re not all operating at 100 percent at all times it’s like something will get missed. So, we do our best, and … our vernacular with each other is just like it’s all second nature the way we speak, and my telling the booth things, and the booth telling me things about what’s going on. It’s a pretty incredible experience to like be a part of that, it’s really great.
RT: It was very impressive to watch. How long did you know that you would be doing the original The Original Series theme for that last episode for the finale?
Russo: A few weeks. It might have been right before the holidays … right before Christmas. So, three weeks, I’d say, is when we were like, “OK, we’re gonna do that for the finale.” As soon as the idea was sort of in play it was like, “Oh, yeah, this is gonna be a lot of fun.”
Star Trek: Discovery season 1 is available to stream on CBS All Access.