We Create Music Blog
September 22, 2014

Film Music Monday: John Paesano on The Maze Runner

By Jennifer Harmon, Director of Film & Television/New Media

John Paesano

John Paesano

Composer John Paesano has been climbing the ladder in Hollywood for many years with his work on Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas, NBC's Crisis, and his Annie Award-winning work on the DreamWorks Dragons series. That climb led him to The Maze Runner, the film adaptation of the first book in James Dashner's young adult book series, which hit #1 at the box office in 50 countries this weekend. John sat down with us to discuss his collaboration with The Maze Runner director Wes Ball and his process for developing the score for this dystopian adventure.

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Where did you record The Maze Runner score?

Here at the Newman stage [at Fox Studios]. We did 80 players with choir for seven or eight days. There’s nothing better than recording in LA when we can do it. It’s becoming less and less [common], but Fox is awesome. They’re always trying to keep stuff in town and do it right. I mean, they had a huge box office last year and I think it’s on all levels whether it’s the filmmaking, all the way to the scoring. When you see The Maze Runner, you’ll be amazed at what they squeezed out for 30 million dollars. It’s amazing! This movie holds up against The Hunger Games, it holds up against Divergent, and those are 100 million dollar films. It’s a little scary because that’s what people are going to compare it to. But I’m not worried about it. Wes [Ball, director of The Maze Runner] was always like “ We are going to get compared to all of the other YA films" but I say bring it on! I feel like it really holds up against all of those. He did an amazing job with it!

How many minutes of music did you record?

90 minutes, and we had everybody in the room. Wes is a huge fan of Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams and John Barry and more of the older guard composers. When I initially sat down with him to talk about a plan to put together for Maze Runner, his initial idea was, “I want to do a big Jurassic Park score!” This movie is taking place out in the wilderness, there’s this place called The Glade, it’s all outdoors, big walls. You know, replace dinosaurs with walls.

There were walls in Jurassic Park!

Yeah, totally! It did have that feel, that vibe to it. And it’s funny because this happens a lot: “Hey, read the script and tell me what you think the score will be.” And you really don’t know what the score’s going to be until you can actually see frames of the movie and put music up against it. You can have the greatest ideas in the world, but man, the minute that footage comes in and you start throwing those ideas against it, you really, in a very quick fashion, find out what’s not going to work.

Even though he and I both loved the idea and we thought it was going to work absolutely perfectly for the film, that Jurassic Park original idea, when I started putting those ideas up against picture, even temped with it a little, it was just completely wrong.

What was wrong about using Jurassic Park as a reference?  The tone?

Yeah, the tone was one thing. I think that [Maze Runner] is a much darker movie than Jurassic Park. There’s a lot more tension than there was in Jurassic Park. It wasn’t a horror story. The Maze Runner is more sci-fi, dark, dystopian. Wes has a great description of it – it’s Lord of the Flies meets Lost. 

It’s very different than all the other young adult stuff out there. Wes would always say, too, “You have a target on your back when you make a young adult film now,” because everyone wants to compare you to The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, The Vampire Diaries, Mortal Instruments...Twilight is obviously a big one. But it’s very different than a lot of those movies. It’s a lot scarier. There's a lot more tension than those movies.

And this is the first film of a series?

The Maze Runner is the first of three. The next one’s going to be The Scorch Trials. It’s a group of boys, it’s about teamwork and brotherhood and unity. There’s some inner turmoil that’s between different tribes of boys living in The Glade, so you can kind of see how it’s got that Lord of the Flies vibe to it. And the Lost aspect is this giant mystery that they’re trying to figure out. So after explaining that, you could see how Jurassic Park would be an odd pairing for it...I don’t know if it’s just the pacing of the film, the editing of the film, the tone of the film, it just didn’t vibe correctly with the style of score of Jurassic Park, a very big, thematic, melodic type score. Now that being said, there were definitely elements of Jurassic Park that worked extremely well in it. Whether it was the instrumentation, the way that John Williams does develop tension in some of the scenes with the more scary scenes with the dinosaurs and stuff, really, really worked well. This is not electronic music sweetened with orchestral score. It’s an orchestral score sweetened with some hybrid elements.

So I definitely did lean on using more orchestra verses hybrid elements in The Maze Runner score. Which, in a sense, makes it feel like it’s a throwback, even though it’s not pure, 100% orchestra only. It had to be its own thing. You couldn’t just rip off a score and put it in there, but I definitely had a lot of influence from different scores of that era. Aliens was another one.

Is that why you incorporated the hybrid elements?

I think it needed it, too. When the score starts off, it’s very organic in nature. I use a lot of orchestra, but I’m using a lot of skin drums, taikos. I went out to New Orleans, actually, when they were filming and I sampled a lot of stuff they had on set because it’s this group of boys and they’ve built this village and in the village there are oil drums and there’s all this material there. Okay, first of all, it was recorded in New Orleans, in the swamp. As miserable as it was, it was so beautiful, too. Because if you’re from that area, you know it’s so hot and muggy.   

I’m from the South, so I have sympathy.

But at the same time, when the sun’s going down and you have all the cicadas and the wind blowing through the grass and the trees and there are all these fires going...They built this whole Ewok village-type setting. It was very primitive even though it was a futuristic movie. The set was very primitive because it was a group of boys with nothing. They had to build. Even though it was in the future, at some point, they didn’t have dormitories and homes, they had to make lean-tos. They were eating wildlife that lived around. They were basically being thrown back into the Stone Age and that’s how they had to live. So when I went out there to visit, I remember hearing all the different sounds and I was like, “Oh, it would be really cool to come back here with some of my guys and record a lot of this stuff around.”

So you went back to the set in Louisiana to record live?

I recorded the cicadas and we tapped on oil drums on set, and recorded the fire and did a bunch of field recording and we took it all back here, brought it into the samplers and sequencers and we manipulated it and made drones out of the cicadas and percussion out of the sticks that we used. And I incorporated a lot of that into the score, mostly in the first half of the film. So even though there are hybrid elements in the score, I tried to make them organic in nature. I tried to make them out of organic things instead of just synths, at least in the beginning half of the film.

Now, as the boys go through this mystery, and they started realizing that there’s a greater world outside of these walls, and a more technically advanced world, when stuff like that starts getting introduced, I start taking these hybrid elements and start bringing them more into synthetic sounds and more modern vibes. The score starts to transform a little bit into this new world that they’ve discovered. So it starts out very primitive, big taiko drums and sticks and clacking noises and big oil drums for percussion, and it transfers into a more modern score. By the time we get to the end, we’re fully in modern land.

Was it your plan from the start to have the score evolve in style?

It wasn’t exactly planned that way in the beginning but it was something that naturally just happened. I thought I’d record this stuff and use it throughout the whole entire score. And then, again, once we started putting it up against picture, it worked great in the beginning, but then when we got to the end, it was like, “Wait, we’re in a different world now.” And the great thing with Wes, he was such a collaborator that I really, honestly didn’t feel like I was writing out the score myself. He was along with me pretty much every single part of the way. They were over at Fox cutting and he would come here two times a week at 12 o’clock at night and we would hang out and listen to stuff and talk about it; we were night owls. And even though I wrote it, we really wrote this plan, kind of like a blue print for the score, together.

And this is Wes’s first feature?

Yeah, first feature. He did this short called Ruin that caught a lot of fire on social media. He did everything himself on it.

Because he’s a visual effects guy.

He’s a visual effects guy. But he’s a very story-driven guy, too. Like I said, we had the same influences growing up. We were huge Spielberg fans, huge James Cameron fans, big into Raiders, big into Jurassic Park, big into The Abyss. I think essentially, at the end of the day, [that's] how I even ended up getting the gig. The first time I talked to him, when we were talking about ideas, I remember it was just like, “Oh, we’re just the same person.” It made total sense that we should have been working on this thing together because we had similar ideas, even before we shot. Which was another unusual thing. I was brought onto the film even before it was shot.

How early were you brought on?

About a year before we dubbed. Which, again, is such an old-school thing. Because the process took so much longer back in the '70s and '80s, we didn’t have all this equipment to helps us record and get mock-ups done. Now, film scores are written in three months. And let’s be honest, who knows if John Williams had only three months to write Star Wars, would he have come up with the great themes that he came up with in that movie? I feel like guys had so much more time back then to live with the film, to sit with it. Sometimes it takes you three months to figure out what doesn’t work. It’s a lot of ideas to suss out.

Well, films that have these strong visual elements take time to develop and seem to afford that opportunity for you to sit with it.

I have so much respect for anybody who can even get through one of these scores, let alone write something as thematic and amazing as Star Wars or Jurassic Park! ::laughs:: Having that amount of time allowed me to go out to set, do all that field recording, allowed me to come and incorporate it in into the score. I would have never been able to do that if I had three months to do the score.

I had to work through an idea that we were going to try to do A Thin Red Line thing and realize that we could use a little bit of it. It was about, “This part of Jurassic Park works really well so let’s take that and put it in a bucket, and this idea from A Thin Red Line idea and put it in a bucket.” Of course you take all these influences and ideas and you have to make them into your own. You can’t just take A Thin Red Line and throw it under the score and mimic the score and expect it to work.

If anybody thinks they just start a film score and just come up with a completely original idea, it’s hard to believe, to be honest with you. We’re all influenced, whether it’s by classical composers, whether it’s by other film composers. I think John Powell said it the best: "Take the opportunity to write music VERY seriously. It’s taken a lot of other people a lot of work, talent and energy to allow you to sit there at a computer, ripping off the temp. But don’t take yourself too seriously. After all, you are just sitting there at a computer, ripping off the temp. It’s not exactly art now, is it? For fuck's sake, you’re a 'film' composer…" We have so many influences we pull from.

It sounds like John Williams is one of your big influences. Who else would you say is a big influence besides him?

I would say Jerry Goldsmith is a big one. But then even modern guys. I’m really influenced by Hans Zimmer and what he’s done with music and how he’s taken it to a completely other place. And Danny Elfman who’s really between both worlds. James Newton Howard, Gabriel Yared...I have so many people I’m just huge fans of. I don’t even consider myself a film composer. I consider myself more of a fan of this than anything. I’m just fortunate enough to do it now.

In The Maze Runner, I hear Tom Newman, I hear a little bit of John Williams in certain things, I hear a little bit of Jerry Goldsmith, I hear a little bit of Hans in some of the more subtle, ambient cues in this film. As it gets a little more modern, I think there's a cue called “Into the Maze,” it’s a very hybrid, aggressive, ostinato string thing, and there’s definitely some Zimmer influence in that. There are so many different guys that have crept into the score. You could even say there’s a little bit of Michael Kamen in certain parts. There’s another cue called “Ben’s Banishment” that has tons of that Jerry Goldsmith, monster movie type vibe to it. There are so many different influences.

I still have plenty more to learn. It’s such a deep subject. I think it’s one of the best parts of the film industry, the music portion of it. There’s nothing better than sitting on that scoring stage and watching a director finally see his music and his score being put to picture, and they finally see their film. It’s such a long journey for them, you know? They start off in pre-production, they go to production, even post. By the time they get to that scoring stage, it’s like this is it, this is the final piece that’s going to be put on this thing. You get to see their eyes light up in this year-long, two year-long journey that they’ve been on. Some guys, it’s very, very emotional for them, and I get it. It’s like they’re handing you over their baby, and they’re letting you put the final touches on it.

It’s a really rewarding part of the business that we’re allowed to be part of. Most people do their thing and it moves on to the next stage and then the other person does theirs, but music is one of the final ones. And it was like that on this film. I was on from such an early stage that I got to go through a lot of those stages with Wes, kind of be along for that ride. It was smart of Fox. 

One of the things I pitched Wes when he came here was that it would be smart, no matter who he hired, to hire someone quick and to be able to work through all those different problems and have the time to work through what didn’t work before you found out what did work. And it was his first real score experience. He’s done some other things, but when it came to doing live orchestra, a big full feature score, this was his first experience, so being able to have him do it that way first...I hope that he does that way for the rest of his career, you know?

But is it a challenge when you come in so early that you have so much time to think about it?

You work more. You end up working more hours. You end up working through more ideas.

When did you finally have to lock down and start, really start to write?

I was writing around five months. I wasn’t just writing from a year out. I was developing samples for it. I wrote a 15-20 minute long suite where maybe 5% of it got used. But I was spitballing things back and forth with [Wes]. He was on set, I was sending him mp3s of different things he would listen to and tell me things like he liked about it and things he didn’t like. I found out early he didn’t like a certain instrument so I wouldn’t use it in the score.

Was there something that you worked on early on, something that made he and you feel like "Okay, this is where we start?"

Yeah, I think conceptually. I had an idea before the film was actually shot. There was an idea for the score but the funny thing is, it ended up not being able to work. The Maze Runner is a 30 million dollar movie, it’s not a 130 million dollar movie. So we had these big huge grand ideas of what we were going to do with it all.  I think even from Wes’s point [of view], he had some ideas that he wanted to do story-wise, and conceptually for different scenes and different ideas. But at the end of the day, you could only do what you could fit into the budget. So our ideas at first were these big grand ideas of how we were going to do this thing, and as we soon realized where we were going to land with budget, film, story, those ideas had to change and shift. 

But I think it was more for Wes. He liked the way I thought about the movie as a whole story, not just compartmentalized as scenes. I think that happens a lot now with film scoring: someone gets hired on a project, they have three months to do the job, and you just gotta start writing scenes. You break up the film - "Okay, we gotta do 70 minutes of music in three months - here’s 1m1, 1m2, 1m3, 1m4..." and you start breaking these things up into scenes. Because of the schedule, you have to move so quick, and it’s hard for guys to sit back and say "You know what? This is a movie about a maze with kids and they’re marooned and the movie starts here and it has this growth here and maybe by this point in the movie you want the score to shift." Remember the idea about how I wanted the score to transform from going organic to a more of an electronic type vibe? That was conceived out of an idea about thinking about the picture as a whole versus me just getting in there and writing scenes and trying to fill up the movie.

It’s very easy to compartmentalize scores with the technology because every cue is a different session. It’s hard to keep continuity in the computer world if you’re thinking about the score that way.

So you turn away and you go to the piano.

Yeah, absolutely, I still do piano sketches. Only after I have a full idea of how the score is going to completely operate in the film, then I’ll start going into this [computer] world. I feel more comfortable writing on piano for theme development. When it comes to orchestration and arranging and instrumentation, I need the [computer] for help because it allows me to hear it. I’m not like Mozart, where I hear everything in my head. I need help to realize some of that stuff. But when it comes to harmony and melody and the music at its most rudimentary level, the piano for me is where everything is developed. Plus, you can be way more emotional on this ::points to piano:: than you can on this. ::points to computer:: I always say the piano is my primary instrument, but the computer’s also like a primary instrument of mine. I use the sequencer as a writing tool. Doing non-orchestral things, developing sounds and all the little pads and random little things we use in hybrid scores, are all kind of born from this world, too. So they’re both extremely important, for sure.

You’re conceiving of the picture as  a whole, but did you have to conceive of the trilogy as well?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we did, but we were more concentrated on The Maze Runner. Luckily, we’re just following the journey of this main character Thomas, and we’re seeing the world through his eyes. We never leave him. The score is always being told from how he’s looking at things. And he’s our main character, so it allows the score to kind of hit us when we get into the second movie. It’s always going to be with him, so it kind of polices me against going too crazy somewhere where it’s not going to work in the other films.

And now you’re back to work on the DreamWorks Dragons series?   

Yeah, that’s a crazy job, that’s a harder job than all these jobs. It’s so much work because it’s all mock-up.

Do you have a preference between animation and live action?

I love them both for different reasons. I love animation because it’s still one of the only genres where the music can be so out front, you know what I mean? You can throw the biggest, craziest cue on something and because it’s part of this bright, shiny, crazy animated world, it has a tendency to fit much better. You can be more aggressive with the music, you can be more aggressive with your melodies, you can be a little bit more aggressive with your harmonies, you can be more aggressive with your rhythm. It’s very hard to do that in live action because the last thing you want is for people’s attention to shift from what they’re supposed to be listening to towards a piece of music that’s busy and crazy and going nuts in the background. That’s one of the challenges, why I like live action - trying to write music that’s felt and not necessarily heard. 

The Maze Runner was very hard to do a super heavy thematic score for. It was more of a feel movie than it was a thematic movie. I did develop some ideas for themes that are going to be expanded into the next film, so we have some ideas churning. The movie kind of touches on a lot of different areas and story and plot lines and its almost like an intro to where we’re going. And the score kinda does the same thing. This was a film that was more about the energy, the pace, the tension, than it was about just blasting people with a theme.

You’re creating a world.

I feel like when you listen to [the score], you know where it's from, even though it’s not something you’re going to be humming in your car. It’s like Alien in that regard. When you listen to Alien it works so well in the film, but it’s very hard to listen to as a score. And I always tell people, at the end of the day, I’m writing music for the film, I’m not writing it for a soundtrack. I’m glad that they do albums for soundtracks, but sometimes not all great scores lead to great albums. There are a lot of great pieces in the score that play as great pieces of music. But the score really works well in the film. I think that’s what I’m most proud about with this movie. It really adds a character and a level to the film. I think this music lives best when it's with picture, which I guess is the point of all this, right?

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Visit John Paesano on the web: www.johnpaesano.com

The Maze Runner opened in theaters on Friday, September 19th. Find out more at themazerunnermovie.com.