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The Last Ship - 10 Questions with Composer Jim Dooley


TNT's action-packed sophomore drama The Last Ship is a few weeks into its new season. The going hasn't been easy for the crew of the USS Nathan James. To give us a bit of an insight into what's coming up this season, I fired ten questions to Jim Dooley, who scores the series alongside James Levine. Dooley's discography is spread across many areas, and in 2008 he picked up a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series for his work on ABC's Pushing Daisies. Here's what he had to say about the coming episodes and his experience in the industry.

1. Firstly, how are things shaping up for season two of The Last Ship in terms of your work with the score? I noticed this season has an additional two episodes.

I believe we're three episodes, two if you don't count opening - it's a double episode which is how we did it. It’s coming along great, we're about three left for Jim (James Levine) and I to write this season and we're just having a blast doing it. It's wonderful to see it go from the scripts that we got eight months ago to a final finished version with the actors doing their thing, the visual effects, and all the departments bringing it home.

2. Speaking of those, with these big bold new storylines being introduced this season how has the score changed compared to Season 1?

This season we are approaching it more with the suspense and thriller as to, we get to dive deeper with each character and story line. This season has become more of a psychological thriller than last season, so we have to look for a way to play action and drama as it looks to the characters coming home to a country in pieces.

3. So I'm assuming you've already seen most, if not all of the episodes of the 2nd Season while only the first three I believe have aired on TNT - is there one which you would consider a favorite or must watch for whatever reason?

There are only two episodes that I haven't seen. This coming weekend I believe is 2.04, that's one of my favorite episodes. I obviously can't talk in great detail about it but there are some great new character themes that we introduce in this episode. Who can you trust? Who can't you trust? It's always a constant surprise to me the way that (creators) Steven (Kane) and Hank (Steinberg) have really written the show. As soon as you get comfortable or something good happens you see how later on it may not have been such a good idea. This episode has a lot of wonderful action and drama in it.

4. You score The Last Ship with James Levine, how do you two work together to produce the score of the series?

I've known Jimmy for 15 years, I know he goes by James, and I go by James as well on paper but he calls me Jim and I call him Jimmy. We both started and worked at Hans Zimmer's Remote Media Ventures, which is now Remote Control Productions so we've collaborated many times before. Getting into this we didn't have to go through lots of getting to know you on the score, at least as the collaboration goes. So what we had going for us was a great level of trust. In the beginning of the season we wrote a lot of new pieces with the mantra of suspense and thriller and once we had all this music we sat down together and said okay, "I like this rip you had, so let's use this for that" and we could see things in each other's music that you might not be able to see by yourself. So once we divided up with broad strokes of dramatic material then as each episode goes by, I'm like "Okay, we have a new character in this episode Jimmy you take this one" or he'll say "Okay Jim you take this character for the episode" and then we'll look at each other's cues and kind of say, "Know what? Maybe we can do this a little bit better." So our process is really informing each other and keeping an open mind about what is best to support the open narrative of the show.

5. It's probably fair to say that your discography is one of the more diverse among composers out there, with credits in television, film, gaming, trailers, and more. Is variety something you thrive on in your line of work?

I couldn't do it without the variety. Variety being the spice of life, but more specifically as a composer each project has its own. Think of it as a race. Sometimes in sprinting you are at a marathon and having to oscillate between the two - think about having to do a television show which for 1 episode you have 6 days compared to a circus where you have years. Having that kind of variety really makes the job interesting. A video game might be 6 months. Running these different races is what keeps you going. It keeps you from getting into too many patterns of writing, meaning that I write a new episode every 6 days and you do that 23 times a year. That can become mundane, when you're always challenged with new ways to run your race it's great. It's the same way when you work out and you do the same exercises every time, nothing happens. The concept is changing it up to work for you - and this is no different.

6. You've worked alongside some big name composers and on some blockbusters projects in your time. Is there anyone in particular you look to as a role model or a source of inspiration?

Obviously Hans Zimmer has been a longtime friend and it's nice to pretty much grow up with him basically like a father. I started working for him when I was 22 years old and I'm going to be 39 next month. That's a long time to be around anyone of that stature. We've been through so many things together that it's a family. It's the same thing with Jimmy, we've all essentially grown up together. We were all there in our 20s, now we're all there in our 40s, that's the majority of my life with these people. All the people down at Remote have been an influence, when you're working hard late at night, it could be 2am on a Sunday and you're not alone. You can draw strength from that, if you don't know what to do or a musician to hire or you need a new perspective on something it's kind of this composer support group. And that is something that's unique, and something that we've all thrived on.

7. For the geeks out there, talk me through your setup and things such as your software, hardware, instruments, etc.

So my basic setup, I have two duplicate rigs - one is at Hans' place and one at my home. The desks are identical. I run Q-Base off a Mac and that is my sequencer. I've been using that since I worked on Gladiator, so I got quite used to that. Pro Tools is a mixer and I have two iPads for quick cues, dialogue, and clip mixing. I have a host of sample tanks running various samples, some of my own, some of Zimmer's custom samples, some commercially available libraries. What I do is try to find one good instrument in a library and use that one, it's not like I use all the ensemble. I just like the woodwinds from Vienna and the harp, so I'll just use those. Then, a lot of the samples that we make are custom for The Last Ship. Jimmy and I make samples, sample guitars and then cut them up. That's a very simple and easy way to add your own personal touch and colors to a score. He's a great keyboard player, I'm a good guitar player so we can get in and do these things pretty quickly, but that's my basic setup. I have quite the speakers and yeah a lot of plugins - that's pretty much the rig. All in all I'd say my rig is - let me count - I got a couple Macs, a couple sample tanks, yeah this big isn't that big - I'd say you’re looking at 5 or so computers. The one in Santa Monica I think is like 20.

8. I'd like to go back to something you touched on earlier with just the diversity of your work, as it gives you a unique perspective. What do you think are the biggest changes in the television, film, and gaming industries from your point of view as a composer?

Well there are a lot of things, I'll give you a few examples. The level of production that's expected on any budget is just now so high. I've seen "Oh just kind of do a demo" and come back with "Here's a piano demo" and they then say their people are expecting full fleshed out deliverables. Doing great demos is nothing new but the level for anything is now a finished product that sounds final. So everybody is stepping up their game. You can do more with less, doesn't mean anyone with GarageBand is a composer. You can use it as a video game, not as a compositional tool. You can do great things with it but that doesn't mean that everyone can. I mean it's the piano part that has a really nice composition. For me, the bigger changes have been that you have to be more creative about where to find work and be open to more possibilities. I'd never imagined I'd have so many different kinds of work compared to fifteen years ago. I would do a TV show, a video game, a movie - but now between that, commercials, live entertainment, iPad games, you have to be more creative about where music can go. There's so many more people doing it and there's tons of work out there still. Even though there's more composers out there, there's a lot more product, but really being creative about what instrument choices that you make and what you create because there's so many great sounds out there and so many people that use the same things. It's about being even more creative by standing apart from the rest of the pack.

9. Where do you think the television, film, and gaming industries are heading in the near future since we've seen it change so far? Are there any new innovations that are in their infancy that you're seeing that you think may shake things up?

I'll tell you this, dynamic music as it relates to the video game industry is really in its infancy. It's not the way that the actual gaming interface has grown - the actual music function has not that much. I think that there is a lot of potential for it to expand in new and creative ways. That it has the ability to adapt and have adaptability more to gamers experience with. I'll give you an example, it's not like here's an exploration piece and then when you get to it battle music begins and when it finishes it goes back down, that's really fundamentally basic. I think there is going to be more opportunity for dynamic music in the audio engines. But a lot of games don't need it so I can see why it hasn't developed as much. There's already so much going on that you can't have everything changing at every moment, it doesn't make it a pleasurable experience. Sometimes it's okay to have a drumbeat in the background while the world is blowing up, there are so many things you can concentrate on. Having dynamic music with something like Little Big Planet where there's not a huge amount going on onscreen, so the music can be a lot more creative. I think that's a good example of dynamic music. I think there's a lot of possibilities out there.

You're starting to see it, and I think you're starting to see a lot more of it now as the record industry collapses. We're going to see more of those people coming onto the scoring and gaming side. You can do better with spending 6 months on a record or you can spend 6 months on a score and make more money. So I think it's going to be the scoring of video games and TV possibly becoming a lifeboat of the pop world. If you're not the tent pole top 10 musicians, I think the middle ground is getting eaten alive and is going to need a place to go and video games are a really healthy industry and really pushing at the limits sonically, at least as it relates to choices - people are pulling supreme talent into these places.

10a. To finish up, what are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of your job?

There are so many challenges I wouldn't even know where to begin. Trying to find new ways to express yourself. For instance, right now I'm just starting to, I thought I hit every genre on the planet until now, and now I'm about to do a couple of ballets, and trying to find a way to do that. It's constantly challenging getting into new genres that you're going from a circus to a TV show and now to a ballet or how to express yourself, how you want to express yourself in new genres. It forces you to, I don't know if it forces you but it propels you to travel and listen and watch and experience the world so that you can have some pool to draw from so you can have something to say. Sitting in a cubicle in Los Angeles will not help you. You need to go out and live so that you can take that living experience and have something to share with the rest of the world.

10b. What is the most rewarding part?

I'll tell you, I love working with my friends and people that are super creative and understand the job. It can be an intense process but you can do it with civility and that's something that not everybody does. I love getting in, getting dirty and trying things, we all want to make the best thing and when we get there together that's when it's supremely rewarding for me, it's not about me presenting this one great idea; I go into my cave and here's my idea, this bright polished shining diamond that's not the thing, it's me coming and saying "What about this" and then the director saying, "That's interesting what if we did this with it" and then the producer saying "Okay that's great but lets bring this person on and try to add this". That force of making something together, that's when it's really rewarding for me. It's about the team arriving there together.

That's all from Jim. Those answers were full of detail and fascinating to read so a big thanks for him for taking the time to share them with us. You can listen to a great selection of scores on Jim's website, www.jimdooley.com, and one of Jim's tracks for The Last Ship on SoundCloud. Follow him on Twitter @jimdooleymusic and like him on Facebook. You may also enjoy reading my other interviews with Criminal Minds composers Marc and Steffan Fantini, and Dominion composer Bill Brown.

Thanks for reading! As always, you're welcome to share your thoughts in the comments below.

The Last Ship airs Sundays' 9|8c, on TNT

About the Author - Jimmy Ryan
Jimmy Ryan lives in New Zealand, and works in the IT industry. He is an avid follower of drama television and has a keen interest for television ratings and statistics. Some of his favorite shows right now are Person of Interest, Scandal, House of Cards, Orphan Black, The Blacklist, The 100, How To Get Away With Murder, Elementary and Castle. You can visit his television ratings website, www.seriesmonitor.com or follow him on Twitter, @SeriesMonitor.
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