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Jeff Russo tried to avoid scoring FX's 'Fargo' like a TV show

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Jeff Russo is the composer for FX's "Fargo"
Justine Ungaro
Jeff Russo is the composer for FX's "Fargo"

Composer Jeff Russo says, "Television turns away from music because they use music as a crutch" due to time and budget, but with "Fargo," they tried to make it cinematic.

The FX television show "Fargo" is loosely adapted from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie of the same name. The show is similar to the film: It’s set in the Midwest, there’s a string of bloody deaths, and a lot of people seem to be in way over their heads.

Fargo’s second season, starting tonight on FX, focuses on entirely new characters, a new story and a new score by composer Jeff Russo. He's already been nominated for an Emmy for his work on the first season of "Fargo." 

The Frame's John Horn talks with Jeff Russo about using an Eastern European orchestra for the first season of the show, how television relies too heavily on scoring and how his rockstar life with the band Tonic compares to his TV composer life: 


What's the fundamental difference in the lifestyle between a touring band and scoring for television?  

Well, there's no drugs and no hookers. 

On tour with the rock band? 

On tour with the rock band there's none of that stuff. 

Tonic - If You Could Only See

But in Hollywood... 

But in Hollywood there is [laughs.] The difference is mainly travel and how you end writing music. When I sit down to write music for my band, we don't care what anybody thinks. When I sit down to write for a visual media that someone else has created, I'm sort of at their mercy. They tell me what they like. They tell me what they want and I give them my interpretation of what that is. As I do that, and they say, "Okay, but really what I meant was this," then I make changes, where as I would never do that if somebody said, "I don't like that guitar solo." I'd be like, "I don't care what you think." 

But when you're dealing with your bandmates, they have a musical vocabulary. When you're dealing with a showrunner, they know what they want, but they may not know how to say it. So how do you have a conversation about music when the words may not be available to the person with whom you're working? 

Well, it differs from show to show. On "Fargo" for instance, our showrunner, Noah, was a musician. So we have a very easy vernacular. In other shows I work on, they have absolutely zero vernacular. It's my job as a composer to translate. So when they say, "We want it to sound more blue." I have to figure out what that means and that's just part of the job. It could be a guessing game sometimes. 

What were the inspirations behind the theme to "Fargo?"

When I sat down and talked with Noah that first night, he said that he wanted it to feel cold and lonesome, but also to feel the expanse of the open fields of snows. So it was really about wanting to stay within the confines of the feel of the movie. So the movie had a certain tone, so I couldn't go outside the tone of the movie. We wanted to keep the tone, but to create our own identity. 

Fargo TV Theme Song

A lot of great directors and writers are going into television these days, and with that, a lot of the scores for television have become more expansive. What was your experience like scoring for "Fargo?"

In this particular case, I actually made a conscious decision to want an Eastern European orchestra to play the score for season one because the sound of an Eastern European orchestra is a thing. 

In terms of their instruments and/or playing style? 

In terms of their playing style in the way they emote. But in terms of what is available to us, you know, I think that when we made the decision to do this show, we needed to make it sound like a movie. It couldn't sound like a television show or else we wouldn't be able to stand up to the original. 

What does a TV show sound like? 

Well, the TV show sounds like the music didn't matter. Television turns away from music because they use music as a crutch. When you're making television you're on a very short time schedule. You have a very limited budget and when you don't get it, you need to be able to fix it in post. A lot of times, like, "This didn't really feel scary enough so how do we make it more scary." Well, we use music to do that. 

So that's a lot of what you have to do over the course of your career. 

I would say I've had to do that a lot. I get that phone call, like, "We really didn't get this to be funny." 

That's a huge burden. 

It's also a composer's worst nightmare — try to make it funny with music. You know, I don't have a slide whistle! I can't do that! You know, but as a composer what we like to do is we like to just support the narrative and we wanna follow and not lead. 

But on a show like "Fargo," where you're working with very talented storytellers you don't have to be leading. You can follow. 

You're absolutely right. And that's the thing, we will watch "Fargo" without music and then decide, you know, maybe we could use music there, but everything is working without music. When you can get it to work without music then any music you put in is gonna be great. 

Fargo drums score

I understand you had the chance to work with a marching band for season two? 

So we're always trying to do cool, new, fun things. Noah, our showrunner, is always having these ideas. He'll just call me up in the middle of the night and he'll say, "Hey, what about blah blah blah." And I'll say it's a great idea. So one day he emailed me. He was like, "You know, we need another sort of rhythmic idea." We did this thing in season one where episode two opened with just a drum beat and it became sort of thematic for these two bad guys. 

So he called me up and said, "Could we do something that is reminiscent of that. We need some rhythmic thing to be that thing that talks about what we did in season one." And I said, "Yeah, that sounds like a great idea." And he said, "What about marching drums?" And I said, "That's a really great idea. Why don't I write a piece of music for a whole drum line and we'll see how that works." So I wrote this piece of music and then I called him and said, "So, here's this piece of music that I mocked up. I think I need to have it done by a whole bunch of live players and why don't I ask the USC marching band to come into the studio and record it?" And he immediately back and said, "Oh my god! That's a great idea! Let me know when you're doing that." 

So I called the professor at USC and we got them to come down. We got 14 guys to come down to the studio, and when I say guys, I mean kids because they are children. I was in the studio and I was looking at these guys who were playing so fantastically — and they're all 18, 19, 20 — and I was totally blown away by it.

That was a lot of fun, and a lot of them came in saying, "Oh, I loved season one! It was great! I remember that cue."  

Do they show in their USC marching band outfits?

No, they didn't and the thing was I had to get pizza for everybody — because they're college kids — and I ordered 15 pizzas. 

And it wasn't enough. 

Well, at the end of the day, there were no pizzas left. So let's just say that. 

Season two of "Fargo" premieres on FX on Monday, October 12. 

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