INTERVIEW: Composer Jeff Russo Discusses Making Music And HBO Film OSLO

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Oslo is an HBO Original film based on the Tony Award-winning play that’s coming soon from director Bartlett Sher about the back-channel negotiations during the 90s Oslo Peace Accords. Emmy Award-winning composer Jeff Russo creates the sonic soundscapes for the political narrative.

In the early 1990s, the Oslo Peace Accords aimed at achieving peace and fulfilling the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. The film stars Ruth Wilson (Luther, His Dark Materials) as Mona Juul, a Norwegian foreign minister, and Andrew Scott (His Dark Materials, Fleabag) as Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian sociologist and Mona’s husband. It follows a small but committed group of Israelis and Palestinians whose unlikely friendships helped bring about the talks.

PopAxiom spoke with Jeff about going from rock bands to creating scores for film and television shows like American Gothic, Fargo, and The Umbrella Academy.

Musical Journey

“I’ve been playing music since I was a kid,” Jeff’s journey begins. “It’s hard to put a time on the exact moment I realized I wanted to make music for my life.”

“I’d been writing songs and playing in rock bands all my life,” he continues. Those bands include Tonic and Low Stars. “It wasn’t until about 12 years ago that I wanted to make a go at writing music for film and TV.”

legion-fargo-umbrella academy

The Band

Adding composer to his skillset came about organically. “Two or three moments happened,” he explains, “In 2000, I was asked to be an actor in an indie movie playing a guitar player because that’s what I was.”

“The director asked me down to the composer’s studio to play guitar on the score and in the movie for some ADR,” he continues, “When I got to the studio, I got to talking to the composer where I found the whole idea of writing for movies and television exciting. That person went on to become one of my best friends, composer Ben Decker.”

Five or six years later, Jeff and the band decided to take a break. “I was handing out with a friend of my wife, Wendy Melvoin (of the duo Wendy & Lisa). She asked me to come down to the studio and hang out and just watch what they were doing. They were working on some TV shows at the time.”

“I watched what they did and basically went to work for them as an assistant,” he says. “Eventually, they asked me if I wanted to try writing a cue, so I did, and I got the bug.”

At first, things were slow, but Jeff juggled creating demos for various projects. “In 2009, I got my first job scoring a television show on my own [The Unusuals]. That’s sort of when everything changed.”

But the band’s not a thing of the past. Jeff’s new bug was composition, but his lifelong bug is creating music with a band. “I still do stuff with the band and some minor amounts of touring and shows. We continue to make music together, write songs, and make records.”

Making Music

Jeff’s credits include many science fiction projects such as Brave New World on PeacockTV, Netflix’s Altered Carbon, and Star Trek: Discovery and Picard on Paramount+. He says he’s “drawn to those types of projects. I enjoy the way those stories are told. I don’t know if science fiction is a deliberate choice. As I’ve done a good amount of sci-fi films and TV, producers and directors know my work in that realm.”

It is also what comes around that pique’s Jeff interest the most regardless of genre. “That’s really the way it goes.”

“There are the occasions,” he says, “where producers like a particular thing you’ve done, and they want that same sort of sound for a different genre altogether. I did a show called Channel Zero, and that was in the horror genre. I wouldn’t say I’ve done a lot of horror, but it was an interesting way to utilize the way I write.”

Jeff writes from a “melodic standpoint. That’s how I roll. This producer thought it would be an interesting idea to utilize that type of writing for the type of story.”

One producer for the Umbrella Academy called Jeff about Vanya’s violin solo in season one. “We talked about creating that piece and how important it was for the soundtrack. “Creating the violin solo for Vanya in that first season was pretty memorable.”

Into The Project

Every film and television project is a unique beast. There are familiar parts and repeated processes, but it’s rarely, if ever, the same from one project to the next. “Like, for real. I’ve done it all different ways,” Jeff says about his process for creating a score.

“The best way for me to get into a project is the script,” he says of his ideal situation. “As soon as I start reading the script and get into the story, music starts to occur to me.
I look for inspiration in the storytelling, the character development, the geographical locations, and how things are described. What piques my imagination?”

“When it happens and it all lines up well, the music starts to write itself early on.”

How much of the process produces unused material? “Not very much ends up on the cutting room floor in Fargo in terms of music. Even when things don’t get used where they were meant to, they get moved around and used elsewhere. Music is an important part of that storytelling, and I would say most stuff gets used.”

“I think I have a particular writing style,” he explains. “I’m not saying that stuff doesn’t get changed around. I’ve worked on movies where I’ve gotten to version twelve of a piece of music. That happens.”

Jeff thinks his tool includes the ability to “figure out how to repurpose things throughout a project so that not much gets wasted.”

Wrapping Up

“I’m inspired by everything,” he says with a lot of joy in his voice. “There isn’t one thing that I look to for inspiration. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd, The Beatles, and all these different types of music that inspired the kind of music that I wanted to make. I listen to film scores, classical music, then turn on some AC/DC and rock out with my kids.”

Jeff’s dream project only needs one qualification: “I always want to work on interesting narratives and a well-told story.”

“The filmmakers I tend to work with are the same, and they want to tell evocative stories,” he explains. “Would I love to work on the next Star Wars? Sure! Would I love to work on some interesting pieces by filmmakers that I love? Yes, of course!”

But he shares that it’s impossible to know what’s a dream project. “I’m currently working on finishing a movie that’s coming out in May. It’s been incredible working on this movie. I’d never worked with the director before, and he’d never made a movie before. So, there was no way I would know that this would be such an interesting thing.”

Russo’s worked on dozens of TV shows, wildly popular shows I’ve already mentioned, but you can add Lucifer, Bull, and Santa Clarita Diet to the mix. But there’s one that’s left a mark. “I would love to do something else along the lines of Legion. That was interesting to me, and I had so much fun creating the music because I had this very big sandbox to play in. Those are the best kinds of projects where I have a wide playpen so-to-speak and can utilize many different tools to get where I wanted to go.”

“I tend to work on a lot of things I can’t talk about,” he says as we get to talking about what’s coming next. “I’m starting to work on season four of Star Trek: Discovery and looking at season two of Picard. I’m working on a big video game. I’ve been working with an artist named Zoe Keating, with who I’ve collaborated in the past. I’m a very collaborative composer and enjoy that very much.”

Oslo releases in May. Is it on your watch list?

Thanks to Jeff Russo and Rhapsody PR
for making this interview possible.

Read more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!

Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.