Island Music: An Interview with Arrow Composer Blake Neely
Yesterday saw the release of the original television soundtrack for the first season of Arrow, and listening to it, a few things become clear. The first is how wide ranging the score is, offering up both gentle, romantic themes of love and longing as well as relentless, dark beats that effectively convey the violent vigilante justice that the show’s also known for. The second is how comfortably familiar the score is to those of us who have seen the show, a surefire indication of how successful series composer Blake Neely has been at creating and continually incorporating character themes into the mix that don’t overwhelm the story or action onscreen. What that means is that you may not be able to hum the Oliver/Laurel love theme offhand, but you’ll recognize it the moment you hear it.
We were curious how the score to an ongoing super hero project like this comes together, so we went straight to the source, asking Neely about his background when it comes to television and super heroics, and finding out just what pieces of music this integral member of the Arrow team would want with him if he were ever stranded on an island.
Is Arrow the first super hero project you’ve scored?
Although this is technically my second super hero project, I consider it my first real one. In 2010, I scored ABC's No Ordinary Family, a series about a family discovering they have super-human powers. It was a fun show to write for but had a much lighter tone. Plus, it wasn't based on pre-existing characters. Arrow is firmly rooted in comic book mythology and based on a great, complex character. It had a built-in fan base before we even started.
What are some of the other TV shows or films you’ve worked on?
[Arrow Executive Producer] Greg Berlanti and I go back over eleven years to when he hired me on the WB's Everwood, which was my first television show to score. Since then, I've been fortunate to work on many series, including CBS's The Mentalist, now starting our sixth season, ABC's Brothers & Sisters and Eli Stone, CBS's Golden Boy, and many more. Some may know my work—both the main title theme and much of the underscore—from the HBO mini-series The Pacific.
Films I've scored include Life As We Know It, The Great Buck Howard, The Wedding Date, First Daughter, and I've worked on other composers' scores, writing additional music for such blockbusters as the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, King Kong, Something's Gotta Give and many more.
Musically, how would you describe the Arrow score?
I like to think that the Arrow score is a hybrid of electronic and orchestral. Sometimes when I'm writing a cue, I forget where the orchestra stops and the electronics start, and I try to blend these sounds to keep it from being too traditional or too artificial. Having grown up on some of the great super hero film and TV scores, I know that there are certain things an audience expects from a show like this. I have no problem with using a familiar musical language to remind us that this is a comic book. Ultimately, I hope the score has enough of an original sound that listeners can eventually tell Arrow apart from the others.
The show is a pretty consistent combination of heavy action and angst-ridden romance. Is it a challenge bridging those moments?
Oh, it's definitely a challenge, but that's the fun part of my job. I've always loved puzzles and brain teasers. The trick to scoring, as opposed to writing an album or concert piece, is to be unnoticed. I want the audience engaged in the story, enjoying the roller coaster ride but not thinking about what's keeping the car on the tracks. Music can glue together all the edits, shots, scenes and emotions and make it (hopefully) a seamless ride for the viewer. But I've also been careful to write themes for Arrow that work big and small, so that I can adapt them to fit the action.
Are there any recurring themes or cues we should listen for as we rewatch Season One or listen to the soundtrack?
Greg [Berlanti], Marc [Guggenheim] and Andrew [Kreisberg] have always endorsed my belief that a show like this needs character themes that return again and again in variations to remind the audience of key story points.
Musical themes work in a cool way, in that even if a character isn't on the screen or being talked about, I can make you think of him subliminally simply by putting his theme into the score. I continue to create themes that can return in subtle or even obvious ways throughout the arc of the series. Of course, Oliver has his main theme but also sub-themes for the many layers of his character. He and Laurel have a love theme. Mom had a theme for the Undertaking. The bad guys all have themes, which makes it sad for me when one of them dies. So I try not to become attached to bad guy themes. Diggle has a theme. Even the Island itself has a theme. What's fun for me is to assemble these theme ingredients over the years and see how they work with other themes in different recipe combinations. But it's also my job to make sure it doesn't get too confusing or jumbled.
How familiar were you with the Green Arrow character before you started on this? Are you a comic book fan?
Growing up in small-town Texas, I was a huge comic book and action figure collector. I was always more of a DC guy than Marvel. (And I'm not just telling you that!) My first comic book was Aquaman, and I quickly had all of the Justice League book, dolls, costumes and action figures. I slept in Superman pajamas with a cape! But I lost touch with comic books for most of my adult life. When I heard about Arrow, even before reading the script, I called my brother and picked his brain. He has always been an avid collector of comics and even does comic art as a career. So he could tell me, "OK, that's Oliver Queen and he will soon learn that..." But working on the show has reawakened the comic book kid in me. I find it hard to pass a store now that has comics or action figures without going in and buying something.
Finally, if you were stranded on an island for five years, what music would you want with you?
I would take Arvo Pärt, Mahler, Copland, Beethoven, Bach, Britney Spears and The Crystal Method. I'd also take Alan Silvestri's score for Cast Away, not because it's a movie about being on an island, not even because it's absolutely beautiful, but because for me Alan perfectly captured the sense of hope. And I'd need a lot of it. That and mayonnaise, the only desert island condiment.
You can download Arrow – Original Television Soundtrack: Season 1 by clicking here.
Or enter to win a CD copy of the Arrow soundtrack along with the Season 1 Blu-Ray Combo Pack. Details on how to enter can be found here.