How Lucy in the Sky composer Jeff Russo found his groove

Photo: Jeff Russo.. Image Courtesy Justine Ungaro
Photo: Jeff Russo.. Image Courtesy Justine Ungaro /

Jeff Russo is a star on the rise, his scores transcending genres, mediums, and worlds. With Lucy in the Sky, he brings the stars down to Earth.

The outer space of movies is as full of music as the outer space of real life is devoid of it. Every cinematic journey to the final frontier has a distinct sound, from the brass of Star Wars to the organ of Interstellar and the theremin of First Man. At least three separate pieces of classical music are permanently tethered to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unfathomably vast and remote, space inspires humans to think outside the box — composers as well as scientists.

Pushing boundaries is nothing new for Jeff Russo. The composer started his career as a founding member of the rock band Tonic, for which he received two Grammy nominations, before branching out into film and television. He broke out with FX’s Fargo, offering a warped version of Carter Burwell’s theme from the original Coen brothers movie that, over the course of three seasons, has developed a personality of its own. Since then, he has dabbled in action (Mile 22), period drama (Lizzie), utopia (Star Trek: Discovery), dystopia (Altered Carbon), and psychedelia (Legion).

Lucy in the Sky is perhaps his strangest effort yet, existing in the borderland between reality and fantasy. Directed by Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley in his silver screen debut, the film spins the true story of former astronaut Lisa Nowak into a psychological thriller, following Natalie Portman’s Lucy Cola as she mentally unravels upon returning to Earth from a mission in space.

Russo’s score is both characteristic of his work (the synthesis of orchestral and electronic instruments, the layers of dissonance and harmony) and unlike anything he’s done before. It has a delicacy that is alternately eerie and soothing, even freeing. Culturess had the opportunity to speak with Russo about his score, space movies, and the emotional power of music.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Culturess: First, I wanted to start with a couple of more general questions. You started your musical career as part of the rock band Tonic before you started getting into movie and film scores. What motivated you to make that transition?

Russo: Playing in a rock band was the thing that started my whole career. [It was] really what I wanted to do my entire childhood. But, you know, as one sort of progresses in their career making art, I think part of that growing and part of that moving forward is wanting to try other things and try various other types of music making.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do after I had worked with and played with my band for so long. The fact is, I still play with my band. But I became interested in writing music for movies and TV when I was invited to a friend of mine’s studio who [writes music for movies and TV.] When I saw them do that, I was very interested in it. So, I decided that I wanted to see if I could make a go at it.

Culturess: Are there any particular scores or composers that you used as inspiration when you were making the transition?

Russo: I wouldn’t say there was any one particular composer and/or film score that I used as inspiration. But I will say, I went to see Brokeback Mountain. The score for that movie really moved me. It was really emotional, and I connected with the sound of the score and the way Gustavo made the score with guitar and strings and pedal steel and lots of instruments that I was very familiar with. So, that was that was very – I don’t know about inspiring, but certainly, like, motivating.

Culturess: It’s a really beautiful score.

Russo: Yeah, it is gorgeous.

Culturess: How do you think your background as part of the rock band influenced the way that you approach film scores and TV scores?

Russo: Coming from a background of writing songs, I think that really has influenced how I look at narrative and how I look at telling a story. Because I’ve always been involved in telling stories, you know, telling by song. I didn’t come up just writing instrumental music; I came up writing music that was based around lyrics and words. So, the way I look at a narrative is the dialogue in any given show or movie becomes my lyrics.

Culturess: What appealed to you about Lucy in the Sky?

Russo: What appealed to me is the way Noah was going to tell the story. He wanted to fashion the story of this woman [breaking] down, but also have a bit of magical realism. You know, a lot of that goes back to telling a story from a child’s point of view, I think. I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind, but that’s what it evokes in me – magical realism. And I thought that was a really interesting way to tell a story. So, I was very interested in [figuring] out how I was going to write a score for that.

Culturess: I can definitely hear that in your score, with the use of instruments like the harp, I think you use?

Russo: Yeah, that’s true.

Culturess: So, I read in an interview you did a couple years ago where you said that you tend to write from an emotional place. What was that emotional place with Lucy in the Sky?

Russo: The emotional place of Lucy in the Sky was trying to track her feelings of losing herself. You know, the idea of the movie is this woman goes to space and has this existential moment that’s seeing her whole life before her and the whole universe and then feeling small when she gets back… and how that can affect someone. And how that would be translated into music was what was interesting to me, like trying to translate the idea of having one feeling and then realizing that you are not where — not what you thought you were.

Culturess: How did you access that emotion when you were writing?

Russo: That’s an interesting question. I actually don’t know the answer to that. How did I access that emotion? You know, I sit in front of a keyboard, or I have a guitar in my hand, and I think about how something makes me feel. I don’t deliberately try to access a specific emotion. I sort of just let the emotion wash over me.

Culturess: Did you have any specific inspirations? Like, did you do a lot of research? Or, I was reading an interview with Hans Zimmer where he talked about how his music is personal, so he uses memories and his life. So, I was wondering if there’s a specific source that you use when you try to generate ideas.

Russo: Well, yeah, music is very personal. So, I sort of just try to get in touch with how I’m feeling. I don’t look to anything to specifically try to get me somewhere. Music is extremely personal, and it is something that just happens. I don’t tend to, like, look to try to find it by looking into some other medium or even other music.

Culturess: So, you didn’t really use other movies or other scores as inspiration?

Russo: No, I listen to music for enjoyment… If there’s a specific style that I’m called upon to write, I might listen to traditional versions of that. Like, if somebody said, we would like a Renaissance piece of music somewhere, I might go listen to some Renaissance music, just [to] familiarize myself with the style. But I don’t really look for inspiration.

Culturess: Okay, that’s kind of interesting just because there’s a long history of space movies that have used music in memorable ways. Like, 2001 has the classical soundtrack and then last year’s First Man used the theremin. You weren’t intimidated by the idea of following in those movies’ footsteps?

Russo: Well, first, I look at our movie as not really a space movie, but a terrestrial movie, like a movie about someone who has gone to space and it is about what happens to her when she is home. One of the things I needed to do was call back to her feelings when she’s in space. So, I did have to sort of keep that “we’re in space” feeling alive.

But in terms of being intimidated, I try not to look sideways. You know what I mean? All I can do is what I do. That’s it. That’s all that I have. All I have is me, in terms of trying to figure out what to do. So, I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated by other space movies. Every space movie has its own thing. And I was hoping to create my own thing for it.

Culturess: Why do you think the idea of space makes for such a rich source for music?

Russo: I think that the idea of space travel, people marvel at that. There’s an awe to it. And I think that that reflects in music. When you’re talking about things that are evocative of certain emotions, music has a very good way [of pulling] on those strings.

Culturess: Are you interested in space?

Russo: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say that I’m specifically interested in space other than, you know, I have a curiosity as to what it is out there. But I don’t have a specific interest in, like, trying to research it or figure out what it’s all about. I’m interested in human emotion. That is the thing that interests me most… I think the quickest way from one point to another in the telling of a story is emotion. And that’s where music comes in very handy.

Culturess: When you were writing, was there a [point] where you felt like you figured out what you were doing? Like, was there like an instrument that you knew that you wanted to use?

Russo: In the case of Lucy, what I did was I created instruments that were not instruments. I tried to create these new instruments to give me some sounds I hadn’t heard before that I could then base my melody-writing on. I spent the first, like, two months of writing the score trying to figure out what the sounds would be. So, I had a friend of mine who builds instruments… build me some instruments. That sort of formed the basis for the score.

Culturess: What’s an example of one of those instruments that you built?

Russo: We used something called a bow drone, which is this big metal tripod that has a wooden wheel that spins, and as it spins, it vibrates against a long piece of metal string, in this case from a piano – a low string from a piano. And I’m able to make that wheel spin by taking this big bow and bowing it back and forth so that the wheel spins and then vibrates the string. That created this very low, resonant tone… A lot of the score has that in it.

Culturess: Okay, interesting. So, was it just sort of a process of experimentation?

Russo: Well, I had a conversation with my buddy. I had an idea as to what I wanted it to sound like, and he had something that he wanted to show me. He sent me some ideas, and I was very excited about some of those ideas in what they sounded like. As we continued to work on that sound, we found this one instrument that he had built was going to work really well.

Culturess: Is that something you’ve done a lot for your scores? Or was it unique to this movie?

Russo: Unique to this score.

Culturess: Who did the vocals on the score?

Russo: Lisa Hannigan.

Culturess: Ah, okay. Lucy in the Sky and Legion share similar themes in that they both address ideas of madness and alienation. But the scores sound very different, with Legion being more dissonant and chaotic, whereas Lucy in the Sky is more melodic. I was wondering how your approach to those themes differed between the two projects.

Russo: Well, every project is its own thing. I wouldn’t know how to approach two projects in the same way. So, I don’t know that I just needed to come up with a different idea musically for one versus the other. They’re not similar stories, although there are some similar thematic things that happen. But that doesn’t really play much into what I’m writing, if that makes sense.

Culturess: That makes sense. Speaking of Legion, I was hoping you’d talk about it a little since it just finished this summer. How did your approach to the score change over the course of the show’s three seasons?

Russo: I would say that it only changes in terms of how the characters change. My approach didn’t change. I choose an approach to tell a story and then that’s the approach that I have. You know, it isn’t quite as complicated as you make it seem. Music-writing for me is very personal, and it flows. It’s very fluid. I don’t spend too much time trying to think about what I’m doing. I try to just let it happen.

Culturess: What was the thinking behind the use of cover songs? Like, how did that come about?

The use of cover songs was simply a matter of that is what the producers wanted; that is what the showrunner wanted to do.

Culturess: Do you have a favorite?

Russo: You know, as I make creations — as I create — they all become my favorite at one point or another. So, I can’t point to one thing that I love the most. I was very fond of the “Behind Blue Eyes” from season 2. I’m very fond of the R.E.M. cover [“Can’t Get There From Here”] we did in season 3. There isn’t one favorite, no.

Culturess: I guess the last question I had was just, is there a plan for a release of the soundtrack for the third season of Legion?

Russo: There is. We’re working on it. There are a lot of issues with the transfer of assets from Fox to Disney, which happened in the merger. So, there’s been a hold up with getting that done. But it will happen, hopefully this year. If not, it’ll be the beginning of next year.

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Lucy in the Sky is currently playing in theaters.