In this conversation with J. Blake Fichera, author of the Scored to Death books and host of the companion podcast, we explore his love for music and how it relates to the work he does as a film editor, podcaster, and blues musician. We talk in-depth about music as a language, the importance of rhythm and structure, and his work as a development editor for reality shows. He also shares about the growth he experienced writing his latest book, Scored to Death 2: More Conversations with Some of Horror’s Greatest Composers.
About J. Blake Fichera
In addition to writing the Scored to Death books and hosting its companion podcast, J. Blake Fichera has taught film studies at the State University of New York at Purchase, has been a professional film/television editor and producer since 2001, and has contributed as a writer and interviewer to several noteworthy film and music-related publications and websites, including Video Watchdog magazine, Rue Morgue magazine, Scream magazine, MovieMaker magazine, Fangoria.com and Dreadcentral.com.
Blake has also written album liner notes for Cadabra Records and Mondo/Death Waltz Records. In 2018, he hosted the Damn Fine Network’s horror film music podcast, Cuts From the Crypt. He also cohosts the popular film-themed podcast Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers and has been a featured guest of such notable podcasts as Wrong Reel, F This Movie, Filmwax Radio, Damn Fine Cast, Hellbent For Horror and others.
He is a gigging musician in the New York City area and a New York Blues Hall of Fame inductee.
- Scored to Death Books and Podcast
- Scored to Death on YouTube
- Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers Podcast
- Development Reel
- J. Blake – New York City Blues
- In the Mouth of Madness (1995)
- John Carpenter
- Dario Argento
- Lucio Fulci
- Fabio Frizzi
- Max Martin
- John Harrison
- Mondo – Death Waltz Recording Co.
- Waxwork Records
- La-La Land Records
- ROB (Robin Coudert)
- Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- Holly Amber Church
- Michael Abels
- Richard Band
- Joseph LoDuca
- Brad Fiedel
- Charlie Clouser
- Kôji Endô
- Bear McCreary
- Bob Cobert
- Burnt Offerings (1976)
- John Massari
- Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash
- Chris Martin Studios
J. Blake Fichera (JBF): My name is J. Blake Fichera. I am the author of the book, Score to Death: Conversations with Some of Horrors Greatest Composers, and its new sequel, Score to Death 2 More Conversations with Some of Horrors Greatest Composers. I also host the companion podcast, Scored to Death: The Podcast, and the co-host of the movie podcast, Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers. I’m a blues guitarist in New York City, and I also edit and sometimes produce television content.
Chris Martin (CM): Where do you start with that background because you do everything! And I love talking to people that have all of these interests. And what’s great about you, Blake, is that you not only have the interests, but you have the proof to show that you’re a man of action.
JBF: Yeah, I don’t know exactly how that started. And it’s funny because thinking about it now, because the new book is just out, and we’re taking, for the first time, taking a bit of a hiatus from the Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers podcast after six and a half years of doing it strictly, five and a half years or so, doing it every two weeks, never missed a week, sometimes more. And then we cut back in 2020 because of COVID to once a month. So now with the book done, the podcast on hiatus, it’s like I never realized just how busy I was, how busy I kept myself for the last six, seven years. It’s almost like a breath of fresh air to actually have a weekend where I’m not thinking about either the podcast or my podcasts or writing something.
And it’s funny, because I never really thought of myself as someone who needs to be doing something. I always knew people that were like that. My mom is like that. She needs to be doing something. She can’t sit still. I never really thought of myself that way because I am happy to sit for two weeks on a couch and watch Saved by the Bell reruns and Price is Right and Let’s Make, whatever. I’m very content not doing anything.
But sometime, something happened over the last decade or so, and I found myself just pursuing interests, more than a decade or so, but in the last, decade, seven years or so, because I started the first book about seven years ago, that’s when I just started piling everything on top of everything else. I just kept really busy. And I don’t really know why, or sometimes now I look back and I don’t know how I managed it for so long without completely breaking down. I think the key is to, if you surround yourself and you fill your schedule with things that you enjoy doing, it doesn’t seem so laborsome at the time.
CM: As you’re going through this journey of being a blues musician, and editing, and producing, and writing these books, what was item number one? What was the first thing that you fell in love with of the things that you’re still doing?
JBF: That’s a tough question because like the books, for instance, both books explore the craft of film music through interviews with film music composers. Now I started the first book in late-2013, but my love for that music started in the 90s. When I look back, it’s like really that journey started ’94 or so when I saw John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness for the first time. That’s when, film music in general was always, I wouldn’t say a passion, but part of my passion for music. I wasn’t specifically a film music fan, but to me film music was just an extension of my love for music and also my love for film. And I didn’t even realize until I really started writing the books and stuff that there were people that didn’t maybe think of film music that way, or think of film music at all, I should say.
JBF: But when I saw In the Mouth of Madness and I heard that score, that’s when I started to fall in love specifically with horror movie scores, and then I got into the music of John Carpenter, and then in the late 90s, I fell in love with Italian horror, I fell in love with the music of Goblin who scored many Italian horror films especially for Dario Argento and then Fabio Frizzi who scored Lucio Fulci films. And then that’s where that obsession or passion for that music started.
Full fledged, ’98, ’99, then 2013 is when I started the book. So in a way that music, that passion started then, and around that same time in the mid-90s, was when I started playing guitar and fell in love with the blues. So musically, all that stuff had started in my teens in the 90s. And also my love for film started then, and that’s why I ended up going to film school. And then out of film school is when I started editing professionally, because I don’t know, for some reason I guess I was too intimidated after learning how to make movies to then just jump into making movies. And so I’ve been editing professionally in various formats, whether it’s for television or educational videos, industrials, all kinds of things, independent films, ever since 2001.
CM: What’s so unique about that journey is that A, I love the connection that you have with the music coming first and how, in a way, you’ve translated that into the craft of film editing itself. Because sometimes I know a lot of people who just come at editing from the pure visual sense or the pure storytelling sense, but I get the impression that you’re coming at it from a whole nother angle of just that connection through music.
JBF: Well, editing in a lot of ways is about rhythm. And I tend to be good at things like development reels, which is what I’ve been working on most consistently for the last couple of years, for a few reasons. One of which was that I was working on a second book and I needed a job that, one, was steady, but two, had some leeway with a schedule.
Because when you work on a series, you might only be on the series for six to eight weeks or whatever, or if you have do two episodes maybe longer, but it’s very strict. You have to get, there’s a rough cut that needs to get out to the people you’re working for, and then that rough cut has to go out to the networks, and then you have to address notes, and everything’s on a very strict schedule. And there’s just, you can’t take off, even if you’re sick, too bad, this has to get done.
JBF: Whereas with development, it’s a lot of short projects, and depending on the reel itself, the deadlines are not as strict. I’ve been doing that pretty consistently for the last two years, although I’ve done it off and on forever. But I tend to be good at those things. Like a development role for instance, is somebody has an idea for a show, a series, and a production company then creates, one, the paperwork, an outline or something to sell the show to a network, but they also need a minute and a half to three-minute reel, almost a preview to give the networks a sense of who are the characters, what’s the story.
Here in New York, I work mostly in what we call non-scripted television or reality television. And so even though, they’re, “real people,” they’re still like the characters of the show. But that short sales pitch, three minutes, a minute and a half to three minutes, it’s all about rhythm, it’s a pop song. And music is really important too. You have to be able to cut to the music and I’ve found out a little niche for myself doing that because I think musically, my background in music definitely helps with that. I feel like it’s sure you have to be able to do graphics and all that, and you have to be able to tell a story in a very … There are so many things that go into it, but I think part of my strength in that field is because I have a good musical ear and a good sense of rhythm, and that comes from being a musician, but also just loving music. And of course now learning so much about the craft of scoring stories, narrative, and movies and stuff, that’s definitely been a huge strength as well.
CM: I love that connection to pop songs. And I’m glad you brought that up because it definitely sounds like being able to connect quickly, keep it in someone’s mind as they’re going through it like a good pop song does, it keeps you wanting to come back for more. But some of the best pop music has roots into the past, in history as well. So it’s not as … there’s some real depth to it if you choose to go there.
JBF: Sure. And that’s also, when you think about pop music, of course, pop is short for popular, and so that definition changes. Like Sinatra was pop music for his era, and then, but it was popular as the time changed. And then all of a sudden, Sinatra still, he’s releasing an album with Antonio Carlos Jobim doing Bossa Nova tunes the same year Sgt. Pepper’s comes out. And they’re both fantastic records, but they’re so drastically different, but yeah, The Beatles were the pop of that era. So it just, I don’t know, it just triggered that thought when you mentioned that, because pop does change.
There was a time when show tunes where the popular music of the day and what we think of pop now is not what we thought of pop when you and I were kids or when our parents were kids. But one of the things that does seem to be important, and I think it started because of vinyl and the idea of like a 45 single, was that they have to be short. Because you can only fit three minutes on a 45 or a single album. So then I think it started this thing that for the most part still stands today, which is they’re relatively short. They have to tell that story or get across that message, both lyrically, but also melodically and everything in a very short amount of time. And it’s a craft, it really is.
I don’t listen to a lot of pop music these days because I don’t have time to do much of anything, but I will admit that in my 20s I was digging like Britney Spear’s stuff. Max, I forget what his name was now, but there was her producer for those first two albums, I always thought was like a genius in pop music. He knew how to craft an amazing pop song and he’d worked with a lot of people and it’s a skill, and it’s just creativity, but also having to sell it and having to do it with time constraints and all that. It’s just this whole interesting topic to me.
CM: Absolutely, and I love the connection to development editing because in the same way you’re riding the trends of today as much as the pop music is riding the trends of today.
JBF: Oh sure, yeah. And the music I need to use often has to be trendy.
JBF: It depends on the reel. When you’re doing stuff where it’s guys or like manly men building trucks or driving through mud, AC/DC is always a good backing track for that. But when you’re getting into things that are more, I don’t know, like Bravo-oriented, we have to be able, I do check. It’s both the curse and the beautiful thing about development, is that because nobody is … it’s not going to ever air, that you don’t have to deal with copyrights and stuff. It’s never going to be going out for mass consumption, so you can use and do whatever you want. You can use any song you want because there’s no fear of having to buy the license for it because it’s never going to air.
That’s great. But also in development, you’re starting from scratch and very rarely do you get a producer who’s working with you that will tell you stylistically what they’re looking for. Even though they do the interview with the person and maybe they’ll tell you, or you can read from their outline what the gist of the show is, and sometimes they’ll even write a script or transcribe what the interview says. They’ll give you certain things, but creatively, you can do whatever you want. That’s both great, but also really challenging and a bummer because exerting yourself creatively is tough. It’s not digging ditches or doing menial labor but it is strenuous in its own way. And when you’re exerting yourself 10 hours a day for somebody else creatively, it’s tough to have anything left in the tank to come home and do your own creative stuff.
But to bring it back around to what we were talking about, I will go on The Billboard 100 and see what songs are popular, and I’ll listen to songs. And if something rhythmically catches my ear and I can feel that it’s going to work for what I need, I will find it and I’ll use it. And if I can find like a karaoke version, I’ll use it so that I’m not bound to having the lyrics there because it’s an interesting puzzle. That’s all really editing is, a puzzle, even when you’re editing long form, it’s like finding, I always say, it’s like you’re editing a puzzle where none of the pieces quite fit together perfectly, and you have to be resourceful and creative to find how they fit the best they can and make something that works out of it sometimes.
CM: Yeah. What I love the pursuit that you’re going on of discovering music, discovering the sounds, because it’s really about the language of music. And every pop song is different. It’s a different verb, it’s a different noun, and it’s a different sound, it’s a different emotion, all of these things come together. And how much of it is the language of what you’re working on, but also the language of the producer that you’re working on and their understanding of what is required of the piece?
JBF: It varies from project to project, it varies from producer to producer. When you’re working on a series, unless you’re doing the first couple of episodes, before it finds its stylistic way, that can be challenging and that you’re inventing the language of the show then. But once that’s established, as an editor, you’re just coming in and fitting into it and doing your best to match that style. And for the most part, creativity as an editor almost disappears. You often choose the music, but often that music gets rejected and you have to put more different music in. That’s why I think the development stuff is both interesting and also a bummer.
Sometimes when you’re working on something and you’re into the subject matter, that’s cool. Like there was a horror related thing that I cut last year and it took me four days to do it because I was just way into it, and I totally understood what the show was, and I understood what music it needed to have, and I understood rhythmically what it needed to do. But then when you get a show that’s not anything that you personally would ever be interested in, it can difficult to find it. Because you either don’t watch that kind of thing, or maybe it’s something, it’s also because it doesn’t exist yet. And often in those cases producers very rarely, like I said, give you anything. They might send you a reel to a previous thing and say, “This is the feel we’re going for,” or if I’m really stuck, I might ask for that. But for the most part as a development editor, you are the main creative force behind that reel.
You didn’t come up with the idea. You didn’t do the interviews with the people for instance, but you’re scouring the internet for B -roll. Like if you’re doing like a cooking competition show, you’re looking through YouTube, everything and scouring every piece of video you can find for those beautiful food hit, a steak heating in the grill shot. Because like I said, you don’t have to pay for any of that because it’s not commercially used at all. So you can, a lot of the first couple of days of getting to development reel, is just scouring YouTube and finding footage of things, with the prank show, looking at other prank shows and trying to pull moments from it. Like I said, with food, pulling those things or sometimes you just have to, sometimes I’ll message another editor and I’ll be like, “Hey, do you have anything? This is the moment, do you have anything that goes here?” Or like, “I’m really stuck on music, do you have… ” Because I’m old, I’m 42 now. I’ll go to a younger editor…
CM: Oh crap, we’re old? No.
JBF: For that world, we are. I’m like, “What’s a good song now?” That stuff is great, but it’s challenging. I’m not complaining, but like I said, when you have aspirations to do your own things, it can be really difficult to be bogged down with being creative for somebody else’s vision. And that’s one of the things that I find really interesting about these composers that I talk to for the books, because that’s all they do. They might do their own things on the side, but their whole job is helping somebody else fulfill their vision. And it’s a very unique position.
And I was just talking to somebody else recently, and I was talking about how unbelievably kind and generous they all are, all the composers that I’ve met. And I thought a lot about this when I did the first book, and then when I was doing Scored To Death: The Podcast, and I came to the realization that they have to be because they … I don’t think you can be a film music composer and have an ego, because it’s not your music. You’re not doing it for yourself. You’re not writing something that you necessarily like. You’re doing something to … You’re in service to a story or in service to a film or in service to a director and a producer. And ultimately the goal is to produce something that you like that works and that everybody else likes, but unfortunately that’s not always the case.
And I just don’t think, there’s not room to have an ego in that business. You have to be able to kill your darlings, and move on and do whatever you need. And it’s something that I definitely struggled with as an editor early on. And then at some point you get broken down and you have to realize that this isn’t yours. And just because you think this, in your mind, this is better. You’re not doing it for you. I always say to younger editors or younger story producers, I’d be like, “You’re not trying to make the best thing it can be, you’re trying to make it the right thing, for them.”
And that’s something that is a struggle. And sometimes I always point to younger story producers and younger editors and they really get frustrated, they really work hard and me and another editor will, who’s more of my age or who has been in the business longer, we’ll talk about them and we’d be like, “Yeah, but they’re young. They still care.” They’re still trying to make their thing and unfortunately it’s not usually your thing. And like I said, sometimes you’re the right guy or gal or whoever.
LIke I said, I did a horror-oriented reel last year and I was the right guy for it. And ultimately I could, in that case, I was able to fulfill my own creative enjoyment out of creating it because I knew what it needed to be, and I knew that what I thought it needed to be was going to be what everybody else is going to like. Because ultimately in the terms of development where it’s a little more relaxed in terms of, like I said, somebody giving you a direction or less strict than a series, if it works, it works. And that’s just times that I still do get frustrated because it’ll be like, when you think that something really works and somebody is like, “No, can you change it?” Even though I still don’t care anymore, of course I still do, because I just spent like two weeks doing it. And the music is something that I do get bugged about or they’d be like, “Could you change the music?” And I’d be like, “But that track works so well.” But it’s subjective.
And then the problem is once you put in a new piece of music then it’s not like, you can just, “Okay, here’s, I’ll take out that minute of music, I put this minute of music.” Again everything changes about it. It’s like you, when you take out one piece of the puzzle, all the other pieces move. It’s like Jenga or Tetris or something. Once a new piece goes in and things aren’t hitting properly, moments aren’t playing out right and then you end up having to fix everything, I don’t know. I like puzzles and putting together models and weird things like that, so in a way, I think my mind is suited to be an editor, whether I like it or not. I think I’m just, my mind works that way.
CM: I’d love to walk through your thinking because when I’ve taught editing to students that are getting into it, the first piece that I often try to explain to people, editing to beats, editing to, like you said, the rhythm of the piece, so where do you usually start? Is it four on the floor and you’re just cutting on two and four, clapping on one and three, or do you have a process that you follow or is it more of just where is the music landing?
JBF: It’s changed over the years and obviously working on a series is different than working on a three-minute reel or working on something that’s narra- When I say a series I’m talking mostly like reality-type stuff, and a narrative, it’s very different because you’re following a script and the script has its own rhythm. And sometimes that translates and sometimes it doesn’t, depending on the footage and how they did it or sometimes when you see it, that rhythm doesn’t work and you have to find your own rhythm.
When I first started cutting sizzle reels, these development reels to sell ideas for shows, I would try to pick the music first and then cut to it. And then after a while of just doing it over and over again, it changed, not intentionally, not like I was like, “I need to change this,” but just the nature of the work made me alter my strategy because you need to find the right moments.
In the new book, the composer, John Harrison, who worked with George Romero, scored Creepshow and Day of the Dead, and he’s become a director in his own right. He directed, there’s a new movie on Hulu based on Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, but he did a movie a few years ago called Books of Blood. And he directed the movie Tales From The Dark Side: The Movie, and he produced and directed and wrote in the early 2000 Syfy channel had an adaptation of Dune. And he did that. And then he produced and wrote Children of Dune, which was the sequel of that. I was talking to him. I was like, “What’s a thing that you learned from George Romero?” Because he was also George’s assistant director on Creepshow and Day of the Dead, so he was on set and then he ended up scoring those films.
And so I said, “What’s a thing that you learned from George Romero that when you’re on set now, it’s something you still do and you learn?” And he said, “One of George’s big things was like, you have to have the camera in the right place.” So you have to look at the scene, you have to figure out what the important moment of that scene is, or moments, and you have to make sure that the camera is in the right spot to capture that moment. Because if you miss that moment, that scene doesn’t work, and then maybe the rest of the film doesn’t work. So you really have to figure out, pick your moments and make sure the camera’s in the right place to capture those moments.
And that’s true in editing too. You have to pull the lines that tell that story and you have to find the order for those lines. So it’s usually like, okay we’ll have an introductory section and then maybe a little character section where we get to know them and then this, and then we have to have the finale. So you have to find … The nature of my process changed because I started to just have to pick the moments first. Because once I can get those moments on the timeline in the editing program, then I can build everything around it, around those moments. And it’s how a lot of the composers I talk to work. Some of them don’t, some of them start from the beginning and go to the end. And that’s how I worked in the beginning, which is I picked the music and I would always try to get that 10, 15-second, maybe 20-second introduction.
It’s funny, because that was strategic not in a creative way, but in a way of dealing with producers. Because I’d have to do something really flashy upfront right out of the gate so that they would leave me alone for the rest of the … Because if you’re just working on the whole thing and then you never have anything to show them until the end, because you haven’t finished one section, then they start to get antsy. Because they’re wondering what’s going on, I want to see something, so I used to do a really flashy opening. I’d find the perfect piece of music that really drove hard, and I’d find all the B-roll, and I’d do the graphics, and I’d show them … The first time, I was like, “I’m still working on the rest, but I have the first 20 seconds.” And they’d see that, they’re like, “Oh yeah. Okay, that’s really good.” And then that buys you time on the backend, because they’re just happy that they saw something.
Once you got that out of the way, then it’s about finding the essence of the story you’re trying to tell. And it’s like being a writer or being a director and probably a cinematographer too, or even a composer. The music has to hit just right, here’s the crux of the story in this scene, what is the music? It can’t be in the way, I can’t get in the way, it can’t be distracting, or when the X fighters destroy the death star, you need to uplift everybody. That’s the moment where everybody, that whole orchestra comes in and everything is, because you’re trying to take the audience somewhere even further than the movie itself can bring you. And so it’s all about storytelling, whether you’re editing or composing or directing or anything.
And I find editing is also all about rhythm and it’s about what feels right. And that’s the thing for me that you could put it all together, and if all the information is there, if it doesn’t feel right, then there’s something going on rhythmically and you have to figure out how to make it. Because it’s not something that’s… you can explain. So when you show it to somebody or a network executive who isn’t necessarily a creative person, they won’t know why it doesn’t work. And they can’t say, “Well, it doesn’t work because of this, but I can overlook that because I can see the show in it.” If something rubs them the wrong way, you lose them, and it’s a sales pitch really. And it’s the way a pop song is, if that hook doesn’t get you, the rest of the song is not going to work for you and it’s not going to be memorable to you, and you’re not going to be humming it the next day when you wake up in the morning, because it’s stuck in your head.
So it’s all about rhythm. For me, editing is about rhythm and feel. And ultimately all of these things, whether you’re telling a narrative story or a reality-based television story, it is all just story. And so you have to figure out what the story is and what are the right elements and moments to tell that story in the best and most efficient way.
CM: I love that you were describing the structure and how you think about the 10 to 15-second intro where we’re going to grab. You look at a pop song and it has a structure, it has the intro, it has the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, out, or verse, chorus, bridge, out depending upon the artist. But what I love about that approach is that you can start analyzing things with structure in mind.
As you were talking, I was thinking about my favorite prog albums and how that artist in particular has a structure that a lot of his albums have followed throughout his career. And so it’s almost like as an editor, as an artist, as a development producer, as a storyteller, you’re going to be drawn to certain structure over others. I’m more inclined to certain structures than maybe you are or someone else is, and that seems to be an important thing to understand.
JBF: Yeah, and some of it is just formula, and in the way that some pop songs are just formula, at least like it used to be. There was verse-chorus and there was three chords, depending on the key. There was a certain formula to making a hit. And certainly guys like Phil Spector, they had a formula, they had their way. Like Berry Gordy in Motown, that was a Motown sound, and that was part of not just the band, obviously that was a huge part of it, but it was the structure, but also the emotional structure, how does it affect the listener?
And in what I’m currently doing, which is, I’m harping on this development reel stuff, but that’s just what I happen to be working on these days. There’s a bit of a structure. You’d need an introduction just like an essay or a short story, unless you can get creative with structure and you can start with the end and then have flashbacks, and there’s ways to liven that up. But at the end of the day, when you have sometimes a minute and a half to tell that story and let somebody know who these people are, what’s their job, and why is this story interesting? Because sometimes you can’t get too creative with the structure. It has to be pretty clear and linear in a way, and so you have to introduce, yes, you get that big opening where it’s maybe a funny line. Maybe they slip up in the interview and they say something and then they laugh at it, those are the kinds of things that we consider character moments.
Aside from what they’re talking about, you want to get a sense of who they are and whether they’re likable or not, because ultimately that’s what somebody is buying, is the person that you’re … When you’re talking about reality television, that’s really what they’re buying. That’s what gets, for me as an editor, frustrating about development because you either like these people or you don’t like these people. Anybody should be able to look at this and imagine. Say the show’s about fishermen, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, well, can’t you add this or add that or read this?” I’ll be like, “Look, they either like these guys or they don’t” and they’re in charge ultimately, they’re the network.
So if you want these guys to not be fishing and run a bakery, then you can do it, you can do whatever you want. You can take these guys and have them do whatever you want. And yet, there’s like this whole song and dance that goes on. Ultimately you can make the show whatever you want. Why do we have to show it to you? I have this theory that, because ultimately you’re trying to please your boss, who’s trying to please his boss, who’s then trying to please someone at the network who works for the guy who can make the decision. You know what I mean? There’s like this hierarchy of hoops you have to jump through before the person that actually matters even sees it.
And I’m always like, if that person who actually matters who owns that network, runs that network knew all the money wasted on making all these changes before he sees it, I wonder if the entire business would change, the entire industry would change. Because this guy just wasted $10,000 and he didn’t even know it before he gets to see it. Whereas if you say, “Look, these are the people. And we’re thinking about they build trucks, but what structure that truck building show’s going to take can be whatever you want.”
I’m a strong proponent of, “Let’s just show it to the person who’s like decision matters.” And people, I’m old and I’m jaded, and so sometimes I get fresh. And some editors and story producers will find it crude and they’ll almost be offended, and I’ll just be like, look at the end of the day your opinion doesn’t matter, my opinion doesn’t matter, whether this works to us doesn’t matter because we’re not the ones that are going to put it on the air. It needs to go to John Doe at AMC or Bravo or whatever. And ultimately he’s the only one whose opinion matters here, so let’s just show it to him.
CM: You can do that?
JBF: Let’s just show it to him, and if he wants it changed, then let’s change it. But why do we have to change it for the person who’s third away? I worked on a cooking show for the Food Network. And the rough cut, whoever watched the final cut and gave the okay on the final cut was the head guy of that show at Food Network. But then he had two people. There was head someone under him and then there was someone under that person. So the rough cut would go to the third in line, and then we’d get all these notes.
And then for some reason, the fine cut didn’t go to that person, it went to the next person in line. And then you’d get these notes from the person who has to just fine cut before it’s done, they would be like, “Why did you do this? How would you change this?” And I learned to just make sure I keep my older cuts, because a lot of the times they were having me change edits, change cuts to go how I had it before the person with the rough cut changed it. And then ultimately then it goes to the person whose actual decision matters. I don’t even know how he got on this train of thought here, but …
CM: We were talking about structure.
JBF: Yeah. Well, that’s the structure of hierarchy.
CM: Exactly. Well, and you might feel like we’re in the weeds on this a little bit, but I don’t because whether you’re working for yourself or working for someone else, you need to understand whose voice really matters in fleshing out a story, in telling a story, in developing a story, and editing is really a crucial part of that, what do you show? What do you leave on the floor?
JBF: Yeah, because ultimately, like I said earlier, all of these jobs are in service to the story, and the person who’s either going to put it to the air, who’s paying for it. Sometimes as a director in film, you get lucky enough that you end up not having to really answer to too many people. That happens with like Martin Scorsese who can put out a three and a half hour film, and nobody’s going to tell him like, “No, this needs to be an hour and a half.” But until you get there, it’s all about pleasing somebody else ultimately, even if it’s your story, you’re having to please somebody. It’s a really important lesson to learn early on, and that’s what I was getting at earlier with learning not to care. That’s a crude way of putting it and it’s not totally true, but it is to a certain extent. The idea of, yeah, you have to be able to kill your darlings.
I remember it really early on, the first summer out of graduating film school. I got a job editing educational videos for an educational video company, and there was a show about the effects of marijuana and cancer. And I cut it like it was a documentary, and the comment was like, “This is too much like 60 Minutes or something.” And that was a rude awakening because it was like, “Okay, it’s not about making it good,” because that’s a huge compliment to me.
CM: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much.
JBF: Something like this would be on 60 Minutes, but they’re like, “No, this is 13-year-olds are watching this.” So I had to go back and change it all. And ultimately that was the lesson, I’m not trying to make the best version of this, I’m trying to make the right version of this. And I’m trying to please my boss who is more familiar with his audience than I am.
CM: Yeah, so we’ve talked a lot about editing, your journey editing, leaving the ego at the door, at what point do you really approach Scored to Death and really allow yourself to pour your energy and passion into that project?
JBF: Well, that started because of a love for that kind of music, specifically Goblin, the band Goblin, which was an Italian progressive rock band who got started scoring Italian films, and specifically Italian horror films in the 70s. They toured America for the first time or a version of that band toward America for the first time in 2013. And I went to see them live and it was a magical moment. It was one, that was something I never thought I would see. These guys were one of my favorite bands of all time and they didn’t necessarily get along and they had never toured America even at the height of their popularity. So to see them live was really special to me.
And then I do remember it and it’s the preface to the first book. I recite it as one of the inspirations, which is, I was like, there was a song, they were playing the theme song to a movie called Phenomenon and they added this really rocking middle section to it. And while that was happening, I looked around and I saw everybody’s head bobbing up and down. And it was a sold-out crowd in Brooklyn, New York, and I realized that I wasn’t the only one that loved this kind of music. And that just got me very excited about that music again, with anything like, it comes in waves. I think you listen to one album 10 times in a row over two weeks and then you move on to the next one. And then a year later you hear a song from that album, “Oh yeah. I love that album.” And then you get ready to listen to the album again, a couple more times, you come back to it.
And so that show started was like the tiny little snowball at the top of the mountain that then tumbled down the mountain and just grew into this giant boulder of a snowball down the hill. Ultimately what it did was it made me want to know more about Goblin.
CM: That’s cool.
JBF: And because I think most geeks of anything or fans, when you’re really into something, at least for me, and I think some people can relate to this, when you’re really into a band or a movie or a filmmaker or whatever your poison of an addiction is, you need to feed that addiction, you need to know everything you can find out about it. And seeing how the band was from Italy, there wasn’t a whole lot. Now there’s a whole book that was originally written in Italian, and since then it’s been translated into English. So you can buy an English language book now that tells you more about Goblin than you’ll ever want to know. But at the time, that didn’t exist here.
When I couldn’t find the information that I wanted to find, I decided that I needed to be with the one, to find, go to the source. That’s how the inspiration of the book really started, and then it became, “Well, if I’m going to do it, who else do I want to interview? I would love to find out more about John Carpenter.” And it just became this quest for knowledge, really with the hopes that someday it would find a place that other people would read it.
I don’t necessarily think of it as a particular obsession with film music, for instance. Since I’ve written the book, I’ve become part of the, “film music community.” And I see really passionate fans when it comes to film music. And like I said earlier, to me it was never, my passion wasn’t film music. My passion was music and my passion was film, and it was just part of that. Growing up, I would listen to John Williams and then turn it off, and when side A was done and if I didn’t want to go to side B, I’d put in Billy Joel and I’d listen to that. It was part of my listening and I never really thought of it as something separate than other music. But I do find creative people interesting, and I like to hear or read or discuss their process and their passions.
So that’s really why the book started. One, because there was knowledge I wanted to learn. And two, the reason why it continued and why a podcast and then a second book came to fruition, is because after I did the first book, I realized just how much I loved talking to them, or with them, I should say. And learning, having them tell them their stories to me and learning about their creative processes or why they got into film music or what they were thinking when they did the score. Why did they choose those instruments?
It just became something that I just found and still find endlessly interesting, and that’s why for the last, I’ve been on this journey now for seven years since the beginning of the first book, was yes, I love film music and I love horror film music, without a doubt. If I didn’t, in some way this would be a very big waste of time. But that wasn’t really what drove me, it was just wanting to know more about it, and then ultimately really enjoying the conversations that I had with these people. And that’s why I’ve been continuing it.
CM: To bring it back to our earlier conversation of development, you’ve learned how to develop things and then create things on top of that. So I don’t know if you would have been able to really do this project if you hadn’t have had all this training on scouring the internet and researching and finding the things that you need, and when they weren’t there, what’d you do? You then created your own things that, I don’t know, I just see so many beneficial things from the past conversation and your past journey that made that possible.
JBF: Yeah. Well, ultimately we’re all just like the culmination of our experiences. I also, before I started Scored to Death, for about three years, I wrote for a blues website because my passion musically was blues-oriented, and I was a blues musician, and so I would write reviews, but I would also interview blues musicians. And had I not done that, maybe I would have been too intimidated to try to do the book? But because I had some interviews under my belt, the idea of just reaching out to John Carpenter and saying, “Hey, can I talk to you for this potential book?” Didn’t seem that farfetched to me at the time. Had I not had that experience, maybe I would have been like too afraid or just not, or maybe the idea wouldn’t even occurred to me to do it.
And I think the other thing that helps a lot, the interviewing process was, while I was in film school and we were focusing mostly on narrative, we had acting classes, and we learned things about talking with actors and I just got very good at communicating with people. I don’t know, good is relative and maybe I’m completely off base, but …
CM: This is all about you, so you are absolutely on base, you are on point.
JBF: I got comfortable with it at least, let’s put it that way, and communicating with people with something that …. But also, to be honest, now that I think about it, when I was in high school and even through college, one of the jobs I did, which was various ones, whether it was working at McDonald’s or Blimpie’s or whatever, everybody had jobs when they’re a teenager. But one of the jobs that I did do for a long time was I used to teach at a hockey school, hockey skills. I played hockey in high school and I taught kids from, they could barely stand up without skates on, let alone skates, to adults.
This is the job that I had at night after school or on weekends or during the summer breaks. I did this for many years and my boss was very into, obviously it was his business, so he wanted you to be a good teacher. But during that process, he taught me how to communicate with people. And part of that was even reading, I don’t know if people remember this self-help guru, Tony Robbins, his first book, which came out in the 80s. My boss made me read that book because a lot of that book was just about communicating with people and how some people are visual and some people learn through sound. Depending on how you learn, I could either show you how to do it, or I could tell you how to do it, and everybody’s going to take, some people are going to learn in one way and some people will learn another way.
So just thinking about communicating with people helped me with directing, which I just practiced in school. And then I think ultimately it helped me in the interviewing process. Being able to communicate with them, being comfortable with communicating with people. A lot of people have commented that my interviewing style for the books is very conversational, and that’s one of the reasons why the title of the book became Conversations with Some of Horrors Greatest Composers. Because even though ultimately I’m asking questions and they’re answering them, they really were conversations. And that all comes from all the experiences that led up to doing those books. It came from teaching hockey, and reading Tony Robbins, and then going to film school, and learning how to, and then interviewing Steve Cropper for a blues website or Leslie West. And then ultimately doing these hours long conversations with film music composers. Without all that experience leading up to those books, those books probably wouldn’t exist. And if they did, they would be very different than they are now.
CM: And I’m glad that you mentioned conversations because as someone who loves to interview people and to talk with people, I love reading books that are collections of interviews, because you get a sense of the person’s style. And I like your style. I like the way that you approach it, because not only is it a conversation, but you go deep, you really dive deep into the person and their career, and I like that approach so much.
JBF: Well, film composers are, they have a job that is as important, if not more important to the success of a film and how, and not even necessarily financial success, but creative success, the success of the story than anybody. And they really are still even with like the resurgence of the love of film music on vinyl with record labels like Mondo Death Waltz and Waxwork and La-La Land Records, and even though there’s like this market for it, and obviously there’s fans of it, they still really go underappreciated in my opinion.
And it’s also the nature of the music. It’s like the nature of the job. In some ways you can argue, if you’re really listening to, if you’re hearing the music and movie, maybe they’re not doing their job right, because they’re supposed to be. In some cases, they are literally supposed to be invisible, no pun intended because it’s music, but music does so many things in a movie, so many things, more than maybe any other specific job, the actors, the camera work, the way it’s edited, more than any …
Obviously, they all do their own thing and they’re all equally as important, but music does a lot of different things. And it depends on the movie, it depends about on the composer, it depends on the story being told, but it fills so many functions. Part of the reasons for the books after a while became also just to celebrate them and let them tell their story because it’s an important story to be told. And there are people that want to become film composers, the hope is that they will find these as useful tools. But it’s also just to celebrate these guys who do something wonderful and are straddling this line between mediums of visual storytelling, but also musical storytelling, because they’re very different things. But these are the guys that make that combination, in some ways it’s the popular classical music of today, and sometimes it’s electronic and sometimes it’s symphonic, but it’s a very special thing. And these people that do it are fascinating.
And to me anyway, and I hope that when people read the books, that they will also find them fascinating. And I don’t know, I just think it’s important to give credit where credit’s due. And so the desire to dive deep into their, not just their lives, but also the creative process, comes out of the appreciation for what they do and wanting to help them tell their story so that people know about them in a way that maybe they didn’t earlier.
CM: Yeah, that’s great. And as you approach the sequel, what kind of things were you looking for? Was it more of the same? Was it a continuation of the story or was it something different? Something deeper?
JBF: Well, the intent was a continuation of the story. The first book, Scored to Death, came out and then when it didn’t look like another book was going to happen, I started the podcast because I wanted to continue that work. I wanted to continue talking to them and I wanted an outlet for it. And two years later after the first book came out and after a year of waiting and then a year of doing the podcast, then the idea of doing a second book became a reality. It seemed feasible, and my publisher was willing to go with it now. And so, the second book may not have happened if it wasn’t for the podcast, oddly enough. But when I started the podcast and then the second book, the intent was really just to do more of the same, but not even through editing the podcast, but actually editing the text of the book as I was doing them, transcribing the text and then editing the text. It became pretty clear to me that though the intent was to do more of the same, I wasn’t the same anymore.
CM: I love that. Yes.
JBF: It became different. It was all subconscious, and it only became in retrospect that I started to think about it and actually even talking about it with my editor after they read the initial manuscript for it, because I was like, “What do you think?” And he’s like, “I really like it.” And he’s like, “It feels really different from the first book.” And I said, “Yeah, it does, and I don’t know why.”
And then I started to think about it, what is different? Because it’s a lot of the same questions. Some of the questions are not, each interview has their own specific questions. A lot of the questions that were similar in the first book for each interview, some of them got omitted for some reason. I was different, and looking at it, it was one, I think it was self-confidence, comfortability, the kinds of things that come with having done it already, having done 14 interviews with these guys. One, you settle into your own groove or your own rhythm in a certain way. But also you feel more comfortable doing it, more confident doing it.
And then something else that happened with the first book that I think played a huge part, and this was definitely a discovery that I made really thinking about it. I had no idea it affected it while I was doing it, was that when I did the first book, I ended up becoming friends with some of these guys.
CM: That’s awesome.
JBF: And going out to California, I live in New York, but going out to California and having dinner with some of the composers from the first book. And the time between the first book and the podcast and then the second book was long enough that a real relationship formed with some of these guys.
And so some of the interviews in the second book came out of being introduced to these composers by composers from the first book, which of course changes the relationship. When you’re a friend of a friend, and you’re introduced to them by somebody that they know and they trust, they react to you differently than you would if it was just like, “Hey, can I interview you?” And they don’t know who you are. That was different.
But also I found going into the second book because there was like four or five composers from the first book that I had and still are genuinely close to, my demeanor changed because I think in some way I subconsciously felt like I was more on equal footing than I did in the first book, and less of just the fan that wants to know more, but more like … Because my publisher said that, he’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know what is exactly different,” but he’s like, “Not that the first book’s interviews were immature, but the new book’s, there’s a maturity in the new book, that the interviews have.” He’s like, “For instance, you talk about your own music with them, which you didn’t even mention in the first book.”
JBF: I think I came at the interviews in the second book more confident, more secure in myself, my own thoughts, my own abilities that made me a musician, and so relating to them as a musician, more than maybe I did in the first book. And so it ends up being a very different book, not just because of the people I interviewed, but the conversations feel very different. And I think it’s great. I love that it feels different because to me that’s success.
It almost wishes that I did the first book now, but the first book … And I’m not to put the first book down because I think I’m very proud of the first book, and I think the things that I did and the first book are great, but it’s just one of those things where you’re just like, “Oh, if I knew then what I know now.”
CM: But what’s so great about that is as you’re describing book two, I’m very excited for it because I’m excited to read the evolution of you. It sounds like you’ve learned so much and I’m excited for that because like I mentioned, book one was great, but I’m excited for this new version of you, and to read more about your music and that connection, I think that’s going to be really special.
JBF: Yeah, I’m really proud of it. Once I really thought about what was, why things were different, I became even more proud of it, because it seemed like more of a personal success to me, the growth. There was growth between the two books.
JBF: For instance, I interview a French composer named ROB. He scored the remake of a movie called Maniac, and he scored a movie called Revenge, which was a French film that appeared on Shudder here and became a little bit of, got some buzz around it. And most recently here in the States, he composed the music for a movie called Gretel & Hansel based on the Hansel and Gretel story.
And in talking to him, he and I are about the same age. We were both born in 78. And even though he was in France and I was here on the East Coast of the United States, something I also discovered with Saturday Night Movie Sleepovers, which is a nostalgic movie podcast and when we talk a lot about movies in a nostalgic way, is that we all in a way, if you’re around the same age, no matter where you are, you’ve experienced, we have this collective childhood.
The commercials we saw, the toys we played with, the movies that came out, the music that was popular at the time, and we all have these memories. And even though ROB was in France and I was here, there was this communal childhood experience. And a lot of that interview is about that. And I was hesitant to put it in the book because I was like, is this too much of a tangent, but it’s also it’s everything that formed his musical sensibility is also like going to the video store, and looking at this box, we talk about the importance of the pictures on the VHS tapes.
CM: Yeah, absolutely.
JBF: Because those were your first window into what that movie was when you saw it on the shelf. And there’s on the side spine of the videotape, there was always a tiny little picture that still frame with the title of the movie. And that was the first thing you saw of that movie. And so there’s conversations like that, that never would have happened in the first book.
And some of it comes from that, the new book has a wider variety of people that are closer to my age than the first book did. But it just becomes about relating personal experience that I have with experience they have, connecting the dots between those things and forging a rapport and a relationship with the person you’re talking to. And that stuff happens more often in this book. And I think it makes, hopefully it makes for a fun and interesting read while also being very revealing about these artists, and their passion, and their craft, and their mastery of their craft.
CM: How exciting. Who were some of the composers you talked to in book two?
JBF: The way I approach the first book was, there’s three things. There was one, who do I want to talk to most? Whose music do I love? And putting together an eclectic variety of people, whether it’d be age, style, musical style, where they’re from, so there are Italian composers in the first book, American composers, people whose career started in the 70s, people whose career started in the 90s and the 2000s. So that was the goal for the first book. And the first book ended up being heavily weighted in people whose career started in the 70s and 80s, but there were more, “contemporary composers,” in there too.
The same rules applied to the second book, but there was a new rule, which was, what ground can I cover that the first book didn’t cover? There were composers that came to prominence either right at the end when I was doing the first book or since the first book. And since the first book was heavily weighted in composers who got their starts in the 70s and 80s, I tried to make the new book more weighted in people whose careers started in the 2000s. In terms of the, “more contemporary composers,” we have Disasterpeace who scored up It Follows…
JBF: …ROB, who’s a French composer who I was just talking about, a female composer named Holly Amber Church, who works currently primarily in independent horror, but she’s fantastic. And I’m sure she will be scoring much bigger films at some point in the near future. Let’s say Michael Abels, who is older than me, but who came into the public eye as a film scorer with Get Out and Us. He survived in the classical music realm and various kinds of other musical industry before becoming a film composer for Jordan Peele’s first movie. He’s still new on the scene, even though he’s had a fantastic and a lengthy career in the music industry.
I had to go back to some classics that I grew up with like Richard Band who scored Re-Animator and Puppet Master. John Harrison, who I mentioned earlier, who worked with George Romero and scored Creepshow and Day of the Dead. Joe LoDuca who scored the Evil Dead movies and that Ash vs Evil Dead series that came out a couple of years ago, as well as all kinds of stuff. These guys, I’m just naming a couple of these massive filmographies that these guys have had. Brad Fiedel who scored Terminator.
JBF: That’s exciting because Terminator is one of my favorite movies of all time. He also scored Fright Night. That was very exciting to talk to him. Charlie Clouser, who has scored all the Saw films, and a number of other films. He was also in the band, Nine Inch Nails, for almost a decade in the 90s and early 2000s.
CM: Okay, that’s why the name sounds familiar.
JBF: There’s 16 altogether, a couple of Japanese composers, Kôji Endô, who worked with the Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike and Kenji Kawai who did the original Japanese Ring movie. I’m sure there are some that are escaping me off the top of my head. It’s a wildly eclectic collection of, even more, it probably varied and eclectic than the first book, which I’m very proud of. And it leads to some fascinating conversations. Bear McCreary, who does The Walking Dead and who scored numerous television shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but also tons of horror movies like the most recent Godzilla movie.
It’s a wide variety of composers whose career spanned decades, whose musical styles are different and who have scored some of the not just the best horror films and television shows, but some of the best films and television shows ever made. And I can’t forget probably my favorite interview of all time, I got to interview a composer named Bob Cobert who scored the original Dark Shadows television show. And he was 95 when I interviewed him. And sadly he passed away in February. I think it was February of this year, 2020, at the age of 96. And that was just an amazing time. I’m so thankful and honored that I got to know him at the end of his life and was able to put together a two-hour interview retrospective of him telling me about his life and his career, because it was an amazing career.
JBF: And he’s not a name that comes up often. Although some of his films, though he scored a movie called Burnt Offerings, which is a cult classic horror film, and Bob was just great. Getting to talk to these creative people is the joy and the point of it. And getting to help celebrate them and give them an avenue to tell their story so that the other people can learn about them and hopefully learn from them. It’s the goal, and so I’m very proud of the new book.
And I love the lineup, John Massari who did Killer Klowns From Outer Space, who was a fascinating guy to talk to. I equate his interview to a masterclass in film scoring. We talked a lot about tricks of the trade, and he tells me about things that he learned, when he was working under more prominent composers, when he was young and the things that he learned from them. And so really that interview in particular is very educational for anybody who’s looking to score films. And so yeah, it’s a great collection of fantastic people, wonderfully kind and generous people and above all very talented people. So I’m pretty proud of it.
CM: Exciting. Well, where can people go to hear the podcast, buy the books, listen to your music? Where can they go?
JBF: The podcast is called Scored To Death: The Podcast, and that should be in most places you find podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, there’s also some episodes on YouTube. I also did a panel for the Salem Horror Fest in October. There’s a zoom panel that I did with five composers, some from the new book, some from the old book, that’s also on my YouTube page now, so Scored To Death. On social media @ScoredtoDeath, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the books are of course available on Amazon or if you’re interested in a signed copy, you can find out information about the books and me and an order copies of the book from me directly at scoredtodeath.com. And the music, I have a website called jblakeblues.com, but I have an album called, When You Coming Home, that I did a few years ago and that’s available wherever you can stream music.
JBF: You can hear that on iTunes or Apple or whatever they call it now on Amazon and Spotify and whatnot.