Devil’s in the Details: Daredevil Composer John Paesano on Scoring Hell’s Kitchen

TV Features Daredevil
Devil’s in the Details: Daredevil Composer John Paesano on Scoring Hell’s Kitchen

For many fans of live-action superhero stories, the musical themes often prove to be just as integral to the hero as their color-coded costumes. Think John Williams’ rousing score for Superman, or Danny Elfman’s sweeping theme for Tim Burton’s Batman. Netflix’s Daredevil aims to be a different kind of superhero tale—one whose sounds and music emulates the chaotic, industrial urban setting of its blind protagonist. Enter John Paesano. A relative newcomer to the film scoring scene, Paesano cut his teeth on an assortment of short films and animated projects such as Dragons, the How to Train Your Dragon TV spin-off, and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, a WB Animated film. His first big Hollywood gig came when he was recruited to score the YA sci-fi-thriller The Maze Runner and its subsequent sequel. It was a chance collaboration with Daredevil’s Season One showunner Steven DeKnight, however, that landed him the coveted role of crafting the sounds for The Man Without Fear.

Paste talked with Paesano about the challenges of creating the score for a grounded, gritty show like Daredevil, as well as recent developments in film scoring and the Spielberg film that fueled his personal origin story.

Paste Magazine: In accepting the job, how familiar were you with the Daredevil universe and mythos?
John Paesano: I was very familiar with it, but there had been a few different renditions on Daredevil and takes on the character. I’m glad Steven [DeKnight] went with the Frank Miller story. It had a little more bite to it, a little more edge. I wasn’t extremely familiar with that take on it, but it was refreshing to come in with unperceived thoughts. So I wasn’t a Daredevil superfan boy, but I’ve always been intrigued by the Marvel Universe.

Paste: Did you collect comic books as a kid?
Paesano: No, I wasn’t a comic book guy. It was one of those things that I’m sure I’d be into if I took the time to get into it.

Paste: Yeah, it’s very daunting for outsiders. You need someone in the know to help guide you to the right stories.
Paesano: It’s such a huge world. You might have one character, but there’s been a couple different takes on that character through different generations. It’s a hard thing to jump into. You take a character like Superman—how many takes have there been from the beginning until now? It’s like, shit, were do I start?

Paste: Are you allowed to mention DC characters?
Paesano: (laughs) No, probably not.

Paste: At what stage did you come aboard the process? Had they filmed some of the episodes?
Paesano: I think they were more than halfway done shooting by the time I came on board. I had worked with Steven DeKnight on a project he’d been working on called Incursion. It’s something I know he’s still planning to do one day. He was doing a proof-of-concept on this property that he created. I helped him do music for the proof-of-concept, and that was my first introduction and working experience with Steven. When Daredevil came up and I found out he was doing that, I really wanted to be considered for the composing gig. I put a call into him and he said, “Yeah, I’ll definitely get your hat thrown in there.”

As you can imagine, a lot of people were vying to get that job as well. He got me introduced to Marvel and, from that point on, there was a demo process where they had a list of composers, and the composers all had to demo for the job. I was lucky enough to happen to end up on the other side of it. That’s how I got involved, in a nutshell. Steven had a fresh approach to how he wanted to tackle Daredevil from a musical perspective. It was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

Paste: In what ways?
Paesano: Well, you think of superheroes and the first thing you think—especially with Marvel—is the tendency to be shiny and bright and fanfare-ish. Very much a wink to the old superhero music of old. Which is great for a lot of those characters, whether it’s The Avengers or Hulk. But the approach that Steven wanted was to make Matt Murdock very grounded, and Daredevil a very grounded show. The concept behind it was, “How do we get the energy we need, but at the same time, be as minimal as possible?” Because the less music we have, the more grounded it feels. Music has a tendency to push people out of scenes and make them feel more like a viewer as opposed to being part of the scene. If you have a scene going on and there’s big bombastic music and Daredevil’s flying around and suddenly it’s a big cacophony of sound, you have a tendency to be a viewer watching that scene. Whereas if you have scenes of Daredevil jumping around, punching people and you’re hearing those punches and that effort and the music is felt but not necessarily heard, it pulls you closer into the scene so you feel like you’re there. And that was a broad concept we had for the show. The trick was, will we pull it off, or will things just fall flat? It was a balance we were grappling with throughout the season. But, at the end of the day, I think it worked. and gave the show more grit and made it seem more present.

Paste: What are the challenge in writing music that works well but, in the end, doesn’t overpower a scene where it’s used?
Paesano: The first question I always ask when I’m doing these soundtracks is “Does the music have to be written to help the show?” It’s not about creating a cool piece of music, or creating a really great counterpart. or harmony. It’s about what I can put behind this scene to make it the best scene it can possibly be. If a good soundtrack or good piece of music comes out of that, that’s great but, if not, it’s not the end of the world. The score really is a functional part of the film, and it’s not there just to be great music. It’s awesome when it is, but that’s never the initial goal growing into it.

It’s something you have to manage and be careful with, especially with something like this. It’s easy to get into a situation where you’re writing a cue for a scene and you’re going, “It’s working, but musically it’s not very interesting.” It could just be a drone, or spaced-out bass drums or some real minimal stuff that works fantastic on the show but, on its own, doesn’t accomplish much musically. That’s a constant fight. A lot of people who work on this level, they have a lot of tools at their disposal, and they can study music for a long time and they have all these tricks they can apply, but it becomes a matter of knowing when to apply that stuff and when to hold back.

That’s very challenging when you’re doing something like a Daredevil, where the goal from the onset of the project is, “We want this to be minimal and gritty.” They didn’t want an orchestral, fanfare score. They wanted something more industrial with a percussive pulse-y feel. Steven had a very strong idea of what he wanted and he really stuck with it. We knew we had to perfect it going in. It was challenging in that regard, because you knew you couldn’t fall back on all your typical progressions, or orchestration techniques. Every week was exploring how we make this minimal but interesting at the same time. A lot of the stuff I worked on leading up to this was very epic stuff, like The Maze Runner soundtrack or the Batman/Superman film for Warner Animation. With Daredevil, it was a different exercise.

Paste: Did you have any reference points—either from certain composers or bands when putting together the Daredevil score?

Paesano: Not really. The great thing for me was I got the gig through a demo, which was helpful—as much as I hate doing demos for gigs. It was a helpful thing, because by the time I got the job and started it, I’d already developed a direction I wanted to go with. The opening theme we use in the main title was developed in that demo. The scene that I did in the demo was the big hallway fight in Episode Two. That had a lot of dynamics to it. There was obviously the fight, the mystery leading up to the fight, and then the heroic Daredevil theme when he carries the kid to the back of the hallway. So it was a chunky scene to do, but it allowed me to develop a palette for a direction I wanted to go in. There wasn’t really anything from the onset where Steven was like, “Oh, I like the sound of this.” If anything, he’s good at being descriptive and he’s a great communicator in terms of explaining what he’s going for. And he doesn’t beat around the bush. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll say “I don’t like it.” As a composer you love that, because you don’t waste a lot of time searching. There’s a translation process sometimes when you’re trying to figure out what someone means when they say, “I want this to be more energetic.” So he was really good at describing what he was looking for. A lot of guys use music to explain what they’re looking for, but—I guess since he’s a writer—he’s very good at explaining himself.

There is one score I want to tip my cap to. I really enjoyed the score from Michael Clayton. It had a cool vibe to it, and I love that kind of stuff whenever it was surrounding Matt Murdock, and it just seemed to fit the geographical location and the tone of a lot of the legal stuff in the movie. I’m a huge [James] Newton Howard fan, so that was one place there was definitely some inspiration.

Paste: Were there any particular musical moments, or a track that was hard to crack or figure out?
Paesano: There have been some things in Season Two that were—I don’t want to say difficult—but Season One was such an origin story. Now that we’re going into Season Two and there’s all these new characters being introduced with Elektra and Punisher, balancing those personalities onscreen musically has been a challenge. It’s important to me we keep Daredevil in the grounded world we had him in Season One, but there is a lot more going on in Season Two. Each one of them has their own pasts and interactions with Daredevil that need to be acknowledged from a musical perspective but, at the same time, we want to make sure the world we created in Season One carries over into Season Two. I still want people to think this is a real place in New York City. There are also some new genres of music we have to incorporate into Season Two that we didn’t have to incorporate into Season One. So there was a new tone we had to create, and new rules we had to expand upon.

Paste: How did you go about developing the themes for The Punisher and Elektra, who are—in many ways— as iconic as Daredevil?
Paesano: The way I came across their scenes was each of them has their own story. Within their own story, they each have an interacting story with Daredevil. So it was about trying to look at them almost as a solo characters, and developing their themes based internally on what they’re dealing with. Not so much from Matt’s perspective, but from their own perspective. We could have scored them from Matt’s perspective if we wanted to—how he views them. But it was important because—as you said—they’re not making cameos, they’re dense characters and a big part of Season Two. So they need their own space. There were plenty of opportunities to concentrate on them from a musical perspective. I’ll say this—we weren’t struggling for story in figuring out how to develop their themes. We had plenty of ammunition!

Paste: What’s the experience like, scoring a show like this? For a movie, you have an hour and a half or two hours and that’s it. For this show, you’re up to around 26 hours of material. Does it get any better with Netflix, considering how they release it all at once?
Paesano: That’s a really good question. I break it up into three categories. You have film—schedule-wise that’s my favorite to write for, because you are allowed a lot of time for development and trial and error. It’s so important in music to figure out what doesn’t work before you figure out what works. And that process takes time. I tell directors I work with, “we’re never gonna get it the first time.” Studios will say, “Okay, you have two months to do the score.” And you’re like, “Sometimes it takes two months just to figure out what doesn’t work.” It’s a lot different than it was 20, 30 years ago. Back then, guys had an orchestra, and what separated them were what their themes were, whether you have John Williams, or Jerry Goldsmith, or John Barry or Alex North—all of these guys were working with the same sound. Whether it was a 50-piece or 90-piece orchestra, it was all orchestral theme music. You kind of had this smaller sandbox to play in.

Cut to now, orchestra has become another sound in the palette of stuff we use, whether it’s sound design or synths. Hybrid film scoring right now is such a huge palette of all the different sounds and textures. So the process, there’s a lot of exploratory work that needs to go into it. All depending on what you’re doing. I did a film this summer called My All-American, and it was directed by Angelo Pizzo, the writer of Hoosiers and Rudy, and he wanted a big orchestral, non-hybrid score. That inspiration was an old-school way of scoring things, whereas with Maze Runner, [director] Wes [Ball] wanted to explore every single sound out there. We’d write a cue, throw it out, write a different cue—we were constantly in flux. That process takes a lot longer.

So film allows for that type of stuff. We could never get away with that stuff in network television. Network television is moving so quick. I just finished a show on Fox called Second Chance where you’re looking at 30, 35 minutes of music in like four days. Sometimes it takes me two days just to work on the harp part. So it’s much different, mostly because of schedule and budget and you’re moving at a quick pace. You don’t have extra help to facilitate certain aspects of the scoring process.

That brings us to, what I’ll call subscription-based services like Amazon or Netflix. It falls in the middle between the two. It has to do with how the projects are released. They’re released as one big chunk, so I look at Daredevil almost as a feature film broken up into 13 parts, versus one two hour-long release. You’re right though—it is a very long score. Each season is close to 13 hours of footage and there’s a lot of music in that footage. So your music/minute count gets way up there. I think you have to be patient with the music and not drill people in the head with themes. Unlike in film, where you can get away with 40 minutes of score and hit people with the theme a bunch of times because the film ends, and it’s over with, it’s hard to do that on a television series without people going, “I’m sick of hearing that theme, over and over and over again.” Variety is important, as well as being able to develop music that’s in the spirit of the world you’ve created.

Paste: You mentioned earlier that you could have done scenes from Matt’s POV. As a composer, how do you determine when to reprise an old theme or when to include something new?
Paesano: It’s a conversation that, luckily for me, is not my decision. Every week we have spotting sessions with the showrunner and some of the executive producers. Marvel is involved, and Netflix is involved and a lot of people weigh in on what they’re looking for. It’s my job to take everyone’s ideas and see if there are any commonalities between any of them, and try to incorporate them. So it’s definitely a group decision. How intense do we want to be in this scene? Do we want to bring back something? Do we want to push people through this scene faster? Do we want to slow this scene down more, using music? There are a lot of discussions and negotiations that happen before I actually write the score.

Film scoring is one of the most collaborative things in the cinema world. Lots of people are weighing in. Music is a very subjective thing and everyone has their own taste in music and people like to be involved in that process. For some reason, the score is something people have a lot of opinions about, so it’s my job to really be able to listen everyone, absorb what everyone is saying, and try to connect the dots. Usually, you still have to sacrifice one person’s idea for someone else’s idea, but you can still get them something they want. There’s a lot of navigating in that manner.

Paste: Were there any particular films that made you go, “This is what I want to do?”
Paesano: Yeah, there’s one specific one—I saw it when I was nine years old. It was Empire of the Sun, with a young Christian Bale. I was probably the same age as him at the time. I was enamored with that film. I was really into planes as a kid—Top Gun had been popular and I remember wanting to be in the Navy. When that movie came along, I related to Christian Bale’s character because he liked model planes. But there was something about the film from just a cinematic experience that I was drawn to. The first thing I got from the film was the soundtrack. That was one of the only things you could get from the movie back in the day. There were no action figures for movies like that (laughs). So I got the soundtrack and listened to it over and over again, and grew to be infatuated with it. It made me want to start scoring music. That was my first run into the film-scoring world.

A lot of guys I work with never set out to be film composers, they kind of just fall into the job, but I reverse-engineered my entire music career, because I wanted to do film scores.

Paste: Do you have composers that are in your pantheon?
Paesano: I was a huge fan of film scores before I was doing it, so everyone from John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, John Barry. All the old maestros are guys I looked up to. And I’m listening to guys now—I love Michael Giacchino and James Newton Howard. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can just finish a score, let alone have it be musically great on its own (laughs). It’s even more challenging these days because cinema has changed a lot. A lot of guys who hire you don’t want a big operatic thing like we used to do back in day. Very upfront, melodic, lyrical film scores—there’s not that much space for it. Those are still my favorite types of scores, but filmmaking’s just a lot different now. It’s all cyclical. I think it will come back. But where we are right now—aside from some animated films—scores have a different tone. Daredevil is a great example of that. Even though we’re not in the film world, they wanted more attitude and less melody. It’s about creating a tone and a world and a sound.

Paste: I know what you mean. I saw The Hateful Eight and remember thinking, “Man, I miss music like this.”
Paesano: No, I know. Listen—John Williams is the greatest composer of all time in my head. There will never be anyone like him. I’m a huge Silvestri fan and I love James Newton Howard, I think he does a great job of bringing a new sound, but also paying homage. Michael Giacchino is a great guy who’s done great score. I want to credit him with making it okay to write scores the way they used to write. He and [J.J.] Abrams are responsible for making sure that orchestral sound is still relevant. I think Jóhann Jóhannsson is doing really cool sounding orchestral film work. There are so many guys out there and so many to learn from. Every day that I drive into work, I’m listening to scores thinking, “How is that guy doing that?” You never stop learning.

Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.

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