Electric Bento had the opportunity to sit down with the Grammy-winning composer Mateo Messina at South by Southwest to discuss his score for Blockers, as well as his influences.
What better way to celebrate music and movies, then to have spoken with Mateo Messina (Juno) about his score for the latest comedy, Blockers. The film premiered at SXSW in March and opened nationwide this past Friday to rave reviews and positive box office dollars.
Before I get into the interview itself, I want to set the stage because, you guessed it. . . .I have another secret about me to share: I LOVE FILM MUSIC! I was so excited when I got the chance to speak with Mateo about this film in particular.
I wasn’t on the ground in Austin for more than 12 hours when my interview time came up. I was actually at the new Fairmont in Austin attending another event when I placed a call to Mateo. At that time, I hadn’t seen the hilarious film from first-time director, Kay Cannon (writer of the Pitch Perfect film series).
But, I had heard a number of his pieces before we talked, so I understood where a lot of Mateo’s passion comes from and I tapped into it. “I understand that you have scored the music for the upcoming film Blockers, which is going to premiere at SXSW. From what I understand, it’s a comedy. Is that right?”
Mateo responded in the affirmative and I built on the comedic aspect with my follow-up question, “You have traditionally scored films with a comedic touch. I know that one of your more famous works is Up in the Air,” to which Mateo added, “I did additional music for Up in the Air. Juno is probably the biggest one.”
I offered a bit of perspective with my next question, “In both films you had a light, comedic touch with your scores, but you focused on the characters. From a film buff’s perspective, I really appreciate that because I think music adds so much of another dimension to what a movie is trying to say. Could you speak a little more to that point?”
Mateo explained that the “main purpose of music is to help the audience empathize with the characters more. My job is to help a director tell the story, to help give people a place to feel and not tell them what to feel.” He went on to add that his approach is all character-based, that he has done mostly comedies, but has not yet done a horror score or a dramatic score.
Expanding on the empathy theme, “it’s really about if an audience can empathize with that character then they can walk out of that film going ‘oh I loved that story because I know that feeling. I’ve had a broken heart,’ anything that helps the [audience] empathize. Mateo and I were in sync when he mentioned, “the role of music is to add a dimension and add this support for the audience to find empathy and relatability with a character.”
We next spoke about Blockers and I reiterated a part of the film’s synopsis when framing my next question about how he approached the film’s score. “Essentially it’s a pact between three daughters to lose their virginity. You probably had a field day when it came to this type of scenario, yes?”
Mateo was quick to respond, “yes, it is such a fun and funny movie. At its heart, it’s a story about three girls that are ready to become adults; they want to spread their wings to become independent.” He was quick to delineate the other characters adding, “It’s [also] about three parents who are having trouble letting go.”
Bringing the empathy theme back into the conversation, the “reality is that teenagers are going to be able to empathize with the teenagers in the film and parents are going to empathize with heart break. It is such a smart and funny film. It feels a little bit like a roller coaster.”
Since we had broached the subject of characters, I wanted to discuss how the cast affected his musical
choices. I mentioned John Cena first. “Looking at the cast, is scoring for a character and an actor like John Cena. How difficult is it to find a motif or an instrument to be able to capture someone with his background?”
Now that I’ve had the benefit of seeing the film, Mateo was on point. “It’s interesting. I’ve never looked at John Cena as a big wrestler. But I look at this character, Mitch and [I ask] ‘how does he relate to Julie or Ike’s character.’ I don’t even think about how will he be viewed on screen as much as how great a job he does as this character,”
Mateo transitioned in to Kay Cannon’s direction as he continued talking about characterizations. “The best way to describe these characters is you believe they are authentic. They don’t seem far-fetched or made-up. They are people you know. If you see Mitch, he’s the jock and he loves his daughter like crazy. He does a tremendous job and is a great actor actually. I knew of his background, but he plays comedy so well, his timing was impeccable. I didn’t have to treat his character any differently than any of the other characters.”
I asked him where the film was scored and a bit of the writing process. Mateo mentioned that he scored the film mostly in Seattle and Los Angeles. “I wrote part of the score in a writing room on the Warner Bros. lot and in my recording studio. I recorded lots of percussion. When I read the script I was like there’s all this comedy in it, but it really feels like a chase movie. It’s almost heisty in a way that they’re chasing their kids around, so I wanted a lot of percussion to help drive that pace. I brought in different drummers from Los Angeles and Seattle. [I] tried lots of different things and experimented.
Mateo has not limited his career to just film music as we discussed our next topic. “Do you find that the level of scoring you need to do for an hour and 45-minute motion picture is more or less complex than the work you’ve done on say, “The Office”?” Mateo was quick to point out that with today’s longer form of television they’re able to be just as expansive as feature films. “When I’m on a film, I’m on it for four months. I was on a film back in 2011 called Butter that we spent a day on it. When I’m on a TV series, I’m on it for a few years, developing motifs that carry on with the character and story arcs.”
He went on to say that his passion is film, “because that’s where I began. Now, I do television too and I love, love, love doing it. But film is where I cut my teeth and where I learned to really write for character and how to help a director tell a story.” On this subject, Mateo concluded with project turnarounds, saying “with film, you usually have more time. Television is ‘do this part and we only have to turnaround a 30-minute score.’ Turnaround means 32 cues over the course of a few months.”
We next spoke Mateo’s collaboration with director Kay Cannon. “It was wonderful. She’s funny and smart. She’s surgical. I was blown away by her thought process. Because she’s written a box office trilogy with Pitch Perfect, she knows what she wants and she’s willing to experiment. She was very open to my ideas, and she wasn’t afraid to peel it back, to find out what she needed in the score.” Mateo folded the idea of character scoring back into the conversation as he mentions, “I really loved writing for her because she’s smart in the way she approaches comedy. Comedy is the most difficult of all the genres to write for musically. Stylistically, you can write for anything. There’s even a scene in Blockers where I wrote straight-up horror music. It plays so hilariously. That idea extends from Kay. The hardest part of comedy is tone. Every director and writer has a different style. Even the difference between a network comedy and an HBO series has a different tone. I just really enjoyed writing for her sensibilities.”
Since I am a professed film music lover, I wanted to ask Mateo who his greatest musical influence was. “That’s a good question. I would say Elmer Bernstein. He mentored me for a little bit before he passed away. He changed the way music for comedy was written back with Stripes, an Ivan Reitman film. He was prolific in his writing. Interestingly enough, what I learned from him the most was the craft. I was blown away by his attention to detail with timing, tone and character.”
I mentioned that I had a soft-spot for Mr. Bernstein’s work as well and that I loved his Stripes score.
In keeping with the character and empathy themes we built up over the course of our conversation, I closed out by asking Mateo which director was his greatest influence. “Without a doubt, Jason Reitman (Juno).”
Mateo continued, “I feel like I grew up in my career watching him, learning from him, collaborating. He was the first to person to say ‘don’t ever tell someone how to feel, just give them a place to feel.’ He is one of the most intentional directors I’ve ever worked with. You know, some people say ‘he shoots from the hip.’ Well, he shoots from the heart. I’m not saying that in a sappy way or a saccharine way. He puts such artistry in the way he tells a story. I’ve watched him pass up on a payday to make the films he thinks are important, that resonate with him and a story that he wants to put out in to the world. When he directs, he has a tone about him, and I’ve grown up in that camp. In Juno and in Casual, he’s articulate and he’s ever the artist.
I thanked Mateo for his time and his passion. “I feel a part of your heart every time I listen to a piece of your music. It really shines through.”
And with that, my conversation with Mateo Messina ended. I missed the film at SXSW but I was able to catch it right before it released and every little insight that Mateo offered over the course of our conversation is on point. Now in theaters, check out Kay Cannon’s Blockers and listen closely for Mateo’s score in the film.
And for your enjoyment, see Mateo speak to a group at a TEDx Talk at Claremont College, “The Symphony of Your Life.”