Christopher Lennertz has composed music for many of the top-grossing comedies of the last few years — like Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief, along with television and big-budget video games like the Medal of Honor franchise and Mass Effect 2. He also did the amazing music for Marvel's One-Shot short film Agent Carter.
This year brought us Horrible Bosses 2 along with Ride Along and Think Like a Man. Speaking with Lennertz, I was taken aback time and again learning who he has worked with and how that has shaped what's becoming a signature sound amidst a sea of other film and television music.
What got you started with music?
The initial start was probably eight years old. I went to see someone my uncle was dating who had a band and there was a trumpet player, which at the time I thought was pretty cool. I ended up starting to play the trumpet in school. I did that for about three or four years. Then I hit 12, 13 years old, started getting into rock music, and socially speaking started to realize that playing guitar was cooler and girls dig guitar players more than they dig trumpet players.
Did you start joining bands, or did you start learning by yourself?
I started learning by myself, but then I started getting into bands around 14 or 15 once I actually knew how to play a little bit. That's when it really blew up for me and I decided that I loved doing music, that I wanted to play and wanted to perform. At the time we were practicing a lot, playing at parties and we were quite horrible I think although we didn't think so at the time. I became super-obsessed learning how to play, writing songs, and getting that feeling of making music that people would enjoy.
How did you shift when you decided you wanted to make it your life and profession? What steps did you take?
I think I decided by [age] 17, junior year [when] I started applying to colleges, that I wanted to do music. I probably wanted to be a guitar player more than anything else and I decided that was how I was going to do it. I wanted to go to college to study guitar, read theory, and do that kind of thing. I decided to go to the University of Southern California because it was in Los Angeles and that's where all the music was, and that got me to music as a profession. It wasn't until sophomore year that [I decided] film scoring was going to be what I did.
What clicked for you about film scoring?
It was pretty monumental. It was a day, sophomore year in college. I had been studying with a composition professor and he actually said, "Have you ever thought about film music?" Now that I think about it, he was a pretty legit composition teacher and I think it was kind of an insult because he said my music sounded like film music, which probably meant that it sounded relatively predictable and tonal. He was longtime friends with the great pianist Ralph Grierson — who's just spectacular — and told me to call him and see if he could show me what a recording session looked like. So, I did.
[I] ended up sneaking onto a Universal Studios recording stage pretending to be his roadie. Sat on a stool next to him and out walks Henry Mancini. And that was it. I watched that session, I watched him work. He was changing cues — there was one where it was very orchestral and straight and the producers didn't think it was fun, so he turned it into this big band chart on a break. It was amazing how he kept doing all these different styles of music, and timing to picture. To me, as soon as I saw that happen — because I was an eclectic music lover who liked Zeppelin as much as Coltrane and Stravinsky — it gelled that this was a career where I could do all sorts of music. I literally left that session and the next day went to the registrar office at USC and changed my major.
Eventually you started working for Michael Kamen. Were there a lot of steps to get there?
There were quite a number of steps. First was getting to senior year where we got to start scoring and I got to study with Elmer Bernstein, which was huge. Elmer was one of my main teachers when I was a senior and half way through the year I started interning at Roger Corman's company and started watching that process from the music department side.
I bet that provided an interesting view point on scoring.
It totally was. Here's a guy where the movies were terrible, but he gave tons of people their first shot and gave me my first shot — you know, James Horner got his start there, James Cameron, Jack Nicholson, Ron Howard — so, I was sitting in the office of the music department and there was a terrible movie, really low-budget, about strippers who kill each other and they were going to use a bunch of temp music because they couldn't even afford a composer, and I just opened my mouth and said, "What if I just do it for free?" They said, "Go meet the director and if he says that's cool, go for it." So, that was my first feature.
I scored that movie, probably didn't do a good job — I didn't know what I was doing. [I] was just out of school, pretty green, but I scored [the film], it was fine and it led to a bunch more. I ended up scoring 14 movies for Corman in the first three years, and that was my night job because I needed a way to make money. Those really didn't pay much and anything they did pay I ended up hiring musicians with that money.
So, my day job was where I got very lucky for the fourth or fifth time and I ended up meeting Basil Paledouris. I started by moving boxes for him when he switched studios and ended up working for four years as his assistant and then his programmer, orchestrating and helping on a bunch of projects. He was my mentor and became family. So, I watched how that was done and was assisting on some great movies during the day and was writing these slasher movie synth scores at night.
Then I started getting some bigger movies and the TV show Brimstone, which got my foot in the door on TV. Soon after I got this call that Michael Kamen needed some help. I had already started to get a very busy schedule on my own and a very dear friend who also knew Michael said, "You know what, you should really go take six months with Michael because he is so good at making people happy. He's so savvy and charming and I think you'd learn a lot from him." So, I took that leap. Stopped doing my stuff for what amounted to nine months and worked on 101 Dalmatians, started Event Horizon, and just watched how he did it. He really was great. You know, before there was Hans Zimmer there was Michael.
By this time, a lot of people I went to school with at USC, a lot of filmmakers who I had done short films for, had started working. That really led to my work taking a big jump. One of my friends created the show Supernatural — now in its tenth season. Another friend I met through these friends ended up doing Horrible Bosses and Identity Thief. Luckily, thanks to my training I was able to jump in and it's gone from there. A lot of what I write is from their specific trainings and approaches.
You've really got a sound for your films. Do you have a different approach to a big-budget comedy like Horrible Bosses or Identity Thief compared to something more indie like Thanks for Sharing or Adam?
Especially the dramas, you don't want to get in the way of those as much — although I love doing them. The general approach is similar, but a lot of the choices have to be made keeping in mind what the film and the characters need. Something I got from all my mentors is to look at pieces of music and ask if it's the kind of music that would be going on in the character's head. If it is I'm probably on the right track.
Did you set out to develop music that defines each film?
I think the true test of a film score's greatness is when you can't listen to the music in any other way than thinking of that movie. So, if you hear Jaws it's Jaws. You cannot temp Jaws [music] into another movie. It's not generic scary music, it's Jaws. And I think that's so amazing. Some people only get a chance to write a piece of music that's integral and a part of a film's identity a couple times. The more times I can do that the better. I don't always do it, but that's the goal I set out for myself and with the collaborations I get to engage.
Have you ever been brought in before a film has begun shooting?
I love getting brought in early. Usually it's because I have worked with a director before. That's why I so admire those relationships like John Williams and Steven Spielberg [have] because when you listen to the music that comes out of those relationships that have had more conversations and more time to develop trust it just leads to better music. I would be more than happy to just work with five or six main directors for the rest of their careers and we can all just get better and better. I think that's what it's all about.
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