Having worked on the Adult Swim TV Show Children’s Hospital and feature-length comedies such as Role Models, They Came Together, and the upcoming How To Be A Latin Lover, Matt Novack is an experienced composer with a keen ear for just the right music to compliment comedy. I had the pleasure of speaking to Matt Novack about his work on these projects, and how he goes about developing a score with some of the most well-known actors and directors in comedy.
Staley Sharples (AE): Tell me a little more about your background. How did you first get started composing?
Matt Novack (MN): I started composing in high school. I played percussion in college and I started writing a little bit in high school. I went to Northern Illinois for undergrad and got a composition degree there, and then I eventually moved out to LA and went to USC’s scoring for motion pictures development program. Out of there, I got my first gig working for a music library.
AE: How long have you been composing for film and TV?
MN: For about 12 years, I hit the ground running right after USC. I started with movie trailers, commercials, and worked for another composer named Steven M. Stern who I tracked as an assistant on a short lived TNT show called Wanted. That’s how I kind of got my start, working as an assistant and everything.
AE: Oh, I remember that show!
MN: Yeah! It was a good show. We were bummed that it only lasted one season, but it was fun.
AE: So you’ve done a lot of work on different comedy projects, including one of my favorite comedies They Came Together, and I was wondering: is there any difference between scoring a comedy versus scoring a more dramatic genre of film?
MN: There are subtle differences. I approach in kind of the same way, but thinking of a comedy like They Came Together which is so absurd and silly, I still tend to score things straight and earnest. Especially in that movie, the comedy comes through because all the actors are being so earnest with this crazy premise, with all this crazy stuff going on they’re playing it all kind of straight. So the comedy of the score helps by doing that—by playing it dramatically, by playing it fun, rather than being overly jokey or something. If it was too jokey, I’d find that it kind of…takes the comedy out of it a little bit? Because you run the risk of pointing out the jokes, rather than just letting the jokes speak for themselves. That’s not to say that a fun, plucky, quirky comedy score doesn’t work, but I usually start by scoring it like a drama. Another difference would be…I may oversell it a little bit? Like, kind of push it a little too far. Not too far, but push it a little over the top so it really hits the emotional content. In a drama, I might subtly underscore it a little bit more. All these things depend and vary based on what the film needs.
AE: In what ways would you overemphasize a moment with your score? How would you do that in a comedy like They Came Together, or Role Models?
MN: I think with orchestration. So with an orchestral score, but I may thicken it out a little more and really build up to big moments and accent big moments more than I would with a drama, if that makes sense (laughs).
AE: That definitely makes sense! Like adding in more of the romantic-sounding violins would signal to me in a drama that there was something…big about to happen.
MN: Right! Yeah! I guess the kind of unspoken rule with scoring for drama is that you want to do just enough to support the scene. You want to keep the music interesting and emotional, but you don’t want to overtake the scene unless it’s appropriate. With comedy I think you can push that envelope a little bit more.
AE: How do you usually break down scoring a film or a TV show? What’s your process like?
MN: Process…it’s a little different between a film and a TV show because film I usually have a little bit more time. TV schedules can be a little hectic. But ideally, I’m usually sent a cut of the film with temp score. I try to watch it without temp a few times to get my own idea and my own concepts before turning on the temp and using that as a conversation starter with the filmmakers. Then I’ll just meet with the filmmakers and we’ll discuss music and if they have a temp that they like, we’ll use that as a conversation starter, and try to discuss music and discuss the tone of the film, discuss story like which of the main characters we want to follow with the score, if there’s any we don’t, subplots we want to score, things like that. Then I’ll go away for a little bit and germinate some ideas, and bounce them off the filmmakers, and we’ll go back until we find the right concept for the score. And then once we get it out, I’ll score the rest of the film and we’ll have back and forth notes until everyone’s happy or we run out of time!
AE: How do you find the projects that you work on? Do people usually come to you, or do you go out looking for a certain type of project? Is it a little bit of both?
MN: It’s a little bit of both. Most of the projects I get are recommendations from friends or people I’ve worked with before. I’ve been lucky to work with some great people, and there’s been a few times where I’ve gotten an email or a call that will be, “So and so loved working with you on this project, so we’d like to discuss this with you.” I haven’t had too much luck with cold calling, but I’ve been very lucky working with friends and having them recommend me.
AE: Oh yeah. I feel like recommendations, especially within music supervision or scoring, are important. It’s really hard to sell yourself in that way and say “Hey! This is why I’m a better choice than the other person! I can pick better music!”
MN: (laughs) Also being a composer, a lot of it comes down to relationships and how well you work with other people, because you’re going to be working together for a few months and going back and forth, so developing a working relationship is so important. So when you have a recommendation from someone, saying, “This person’s good to work with, you should considering hiring them,” that carries so much more weight than a blind music demo or an email or something.
AE: Speaking of which, I saw that you’ve done a lot of music for Children’s Hospital, and then you’ve also worked on a film directed by Ken Marino. I was wondering how that friendship came to be, how did you two first start working with each other?
MN: That started with another composer, Craig Wedren, who I worked with as his assistant on Role Models a number of years ago, and over the years we’ve continued to work together, we co-scored They Came Together, and he’s the one that initially got me onto Children’s Hospital. He was the recommendation! He’d worked with Children’s Hospital before, and he saw that I’d be good for the show. He recommended me to that show—which was fantastic. Still the most fun I’ve ever had scoring. Then with How To Be A Latin Lover, which is Ken Marino’s new film. Again Craig was hired to score that, and the film needed A LOT of orchestral music, which is what I specialize in. So he brought me back on again and we collaborated and just finished that up about a month ago. It was a lot of fun.
AE: Did you take Latin influences for that score? What do you go to for inspiration when you’re working on something?
MN: I try to find as many different inspirations as I can. I like to look to some Latin music and some other Latin scores. There wasn’t too much Latin in the score. It’s an interesting project in that its kind of a Mexico-US co production, so they wanted to make it have more broad appeal, and we didn’t go with too much Latin. There are some subtle Latin influences in the score, which is great and a lot of fun, but we also kind of want to keep the orchestral part of it more traditional. So I studied other romantic comedy scores, orchestral scores, and some more Latin music trying to get more of the feeling of it, rather than specific references. It’s like kind of different and eclectic the way it all gelled together.
AE: It sounds like it was a cool project. I would imagine that every project must be different in terms of finding inspiration.
MN: Yeah, every project’s different, and as I’m growing as a composer, I like to try to do different things with my scores. So I try to make sure if I’m dipping into the same well of references, or things like that, and try to find, “Okay, what haven’t I explored yet? Whats something new I could try to bring to this score?”
AE: Do you have a favorite score that you’ve worked on? Maybe a few favorite scores that you’ve done?
MN: Children’s Hospital has been my favorite score, I think…I was so lucky to work on that show for seven years, and they always pushed me to be a better composer and try new things. I’m very proud of that. Also, I tried new, different genres…even though I’ve been doing mostly comedy, a couple years ago I did a couple independent comedies—A Better You and Spare Change—and again, both of those were great and both of those were different scores for me. They’re kind of indie, poppish kind of scores, and they’re a lot of fun in different ways.
AE: I was looking at your IMDb page and I saw that you did A Better You. I’ve been meaning to watch that, so now I definitely have to watch it!
MN: You should, it’s funny and it also has a lot of heart and is kind of a dramedy in a way. It’s a good movie; I’d like to see it get out there some more!
AE: You’ve worked on films with all these comedians, so…do you have any wild, wacky stories from working on any of these films, or do you have one that’s kind of a crazy story?
MN: There have been fun moments. All those guys, like Rob Cordry, Paul Scheer, Brian Huskey, and Matt Walsh, they’re all just wonderful people to work with. They might be comedians but working with them, they’re very professional. I can’t think of a wacky moment because they’re just so wonderful to work with, and they just…yeah (laughs).
AE: That’s good, though. It’s so important to the work, and you have to be on the same page as everybody, and then if someone doesn’t know how articulate what they want for the score, or what they’re liking or not liking…
MN: They’re always very good at articulating what they like or don’t like, and I always encourage them to not think about music, per se, but story and emotion. Like if the first version of a cue I write wasn’t quite connecting with the story that they wanted, I encourage them to express that in terms of story and emotion. That’s the common language that we can come together on, most of the time. Sometimes, they’ll have specific music notes, but most of the time story’s what’s important.
AE: Are there any directors that you would love to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?
MN: Oh, yes. So many! Some of these newer, younger directors now…I’m a big sci-fi fan, and I would love to work with Alex Garland. Ex Machina blew my mind. These indie sci-fi films are pushing the boundaries of what the genre’s doing, and that would be fantastic. In comedy, I’d love to work with Dan Harmon, I think he’s a genius. I would love to be a part of something that he does some day!
AE: I love Rick and Morty. That show is so good.
MN: It’s so good. I just re-watched it, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
AE: I haven’t seen the second season yet—
MN: It’s so good! Drop everything and watch it. I know, there’s a lot of TV.
AE: I want to go to go back to your blog now, because I really like your blog. It’s interesting and for people who don’t know as much about film scoring, it gives them more accessibility to that part of movies. I was wondering if there’s anything in your posts that you look to highlight usually. Are there any specific aspects of a project that you like discussing more than others?
MN: That’s a very good question, but first, thank you for [saying that]… I’m glad you like the blog. Generally, especially the past few years, I have tried to describe my projects and put a little extra thought into the stuff I put out there. Like most composers, I kind of just want to write music, and just let that speak for itself. But I find I really appreciate when other composers talk about their work, so I try to do a lot more. I think I try to—or kind of try to—talk about more…like specifically what went into the score, like, why did I make the choices I made, if there’s any interesting instruments I got to use, any particular thing that would in my mind make the score stand out, or add a little more interesting information to the score, and dig into that. If there’s a story about working with the filmmaker somehow, how we arrived at our destination, I like to do that too. I even put an older Children’s Hospital blog from a couple years ago. I talked about a cue that got rejected, and then I did this whole long post of how we were kind of missing the mark, and how it worked better as a scene [with the cut]. And also I think that things like that, behind-the-scenes things where every cue goes through multiple revisions with filmmakers even on the best scores, sometimes its nice to show the original idea…
Sorry, I went a little rambly there.
AE: No, no! I think for anyone that was looking at your blog, it makes it very accessible and relatable when you break down how you made those choices, or how the score came together, with the collaboration between you and the director. I think it’s a good thing.
MN: Thank you. I’m glad to hear that.
AE: So, how would you describe your trademark sound in three adjectives? What would you say is the Matt Novack sound?
MN: As I grow as a composer that’s also something I’m trying to figure out. And maybe…
AE: No pressure.
MN: No pressure. These three words are going to stick with me for the rest of my life! Um, I’d say “evolving.” I love old classical scores, traditional film scores, like what every composer would say—John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith. I come from this school of thought that I’m trying to incorporate synths and try to push the envelope of different sounds I can use. “Eclectic.” That’s another adjective. That’s what I try to bring into my score, and…I’d like to say “emotional.” My goal is always to tell the story and get the audience into the emotional state of the character.
AE: All “E” words. So they’re easy to remember and all great things to have in a score. Where should our readers look for you next?
MN: I guess I should plug again How To Be A Latin Lover. And right now I’m working with Craig Wedrend again on the new season of Wet Hot American Summer for Netflix. We’re right in the middle of that and it’s more of the same craziness. If you loved the first season, you’ll love this one.
How to be a Latin Lover opens nationwide on April 28. The new season of Wet Hot American Summer will be released this year. And you can find more from the evolving, eclectic, and emotional Matt Novack on his personal blog and on Twitter @MattNovack.