Billion-Dollar Composer: Steve Jablonsky

There’s a misconception about composer Steve Jablonsky. He doesn’t just write pounding action music for big-budget toy and game movies, as might be expected after the billion-dollar grosses for his “Transformers” trilogy and the already internationally successful “Battleship” — although he’s pretty good at it.

He also has composed the slyly witty music for TV’s “Desperate Housewives,” which just concluded its eight-year run on ABC; a series of strange and scary scores for remakes of classic horror movies; a faux-medieval score for the comedy “Your Highness”; and the bright and bouncy music of the recent “Sims” videogames.

Director Michael Bay, who has worked with Jablonsky on more than a dozen films as either director or producer, puts it this way: “Music can make or break a scene. Steve’s contribution to the success of the ‘Transformers’ trilogy and many of our other movies cannot be overstated. I feel very privileged to have a composer of his caliber on our team.”

Jablonsky has already started work on Bay’s next film, “Pain and Gain,” even though it’s still shooting and not scheduled for release until next spring. And just this month he’s begun moving into his 5,000-sq.-ft. Santa Monica studio, a few blocks from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios where he’s spent most of his career.

Collaborators talk about the 41-year-old composer’s unassuming nature while raving about his reliability.

“He is quiet and courteous, and says very little,” says producer Brad Fuller, who has worked with him on six horror films including “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Says Universal music president Mike Knobloch: “Steve has this unflappable, even-keeled, mellow and friendly demeanor.”

Zimmer, speaking from London where he’s finishing work on “The Dark Knight Rises,” recalls something Jablonsky’s former boss Harry Gregson-Williams once told him: “He will never let you down.”

Adds “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry: “I just couldn’t adore the guy more.”

Jablonsky’s story is that of a young composer with great technical skills who started as an intern, worked his way up through the ranks, and took advantage of remarkable opportunities while being mentored by some of the industry’s most in-demand composers.

The Pasadena native, who took up the clarinet at age 9, switched from a computer science major to music halfway through his time at UC Berkeley, where he graduated in 1992. A film score buff who loved the music of John Williams, Ennio Morricone and Zimmer, he simply phoned Zimmer’s studio (then called Media Ventures) in 1995 and asked if there were any internships available.

They hired him.

“I got in at a good time because it was so much smaller than it is now,” Jablonsky recalls. Within six months, he was helping composer Gregson-Williams (newly arrived from England) unpack and set up his gear.

Assisting Gregson-Williams — who was himself collaborating with Zimmer on “The Rock” and Trevor Rabin on “Armageddon” — allowed Jablonsky to observe the process and eventually led to assisting Zimmer directly, adapting the composer’s themes for such films as “Hannibal” and “Pearl Harbor” into scene-specific cues.

What Zimmer refers to as “the turning point” was in 2002 when Jablonsky submitted a melody for the animated “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” that wound up becoming one of the movie’s Bryan Adams songs. “I knew he could arrange and do all the technical stuff,” Zimmer says. “But this was one of those tunes I wish I had written.”

Soon Jablonsky was scoring his own projects, including the ABC series “Threat Matrix” and the HBO movie “Live From Baghdad.”

Bay, who had witnessed Jablonsky’s growth through the previous years, gave him a shot at a feature with the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake in 2003 (produced by Bay’s company), which led to the entire series of horror remakes.

Fuller, one of the producers on those films, recalls that Jablonsky “was always looking for really bizarre sounds, sounds that would make people feel uncomfortable. He’s really great at building ‘dread’ musically. And he orchestrates our ‘jump scares’ perfectly.”

Jablonsky’s upbeat score for the Japanese-anime film “Steamboy” and his soaring theme for the Bay-directed sci-fi thriller “The Island” preceded the big assignment: “Transformers” in 2007. (Surefire sign of success: “The Island” music is now a popular choice for trailers.)

Bay gives minimal direction, preferring to react to Jablonsky’s music after seeing early footage: “When Michael says, ‘Get that to my cutting room,’ I know he really likes something,” the composer says.

Last year’s fantasy comedy “Your Highness” provided a fresh opportunity, scoring a sendup of medieval adventure films not only with lutes and recorders but also cheesy ’80s synthesizers.

Recalls director David Gordon Green: “I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if we got Jablonsky. He could give us that epic nature and still get that emotion that we needed.” The composer responded with a straight-ahead adventure score that still managed to wink at the story’s absurdities.

But for now, with “Battleship” out, “Desperate Housewives” ending and Bay’s next epic in the wings, Jablonsky remains busy and says he’s having fun.

Asked about his overall film-scoring philosophy, Jablonsky answers: “If something works for me, if I think something feels good, I stop there. I try not to overthink it. That’s what I present to the filmmakers, and I’ve been lucky that most of the time they’ve been in agreement with me.”

Billion-Dollar Composer: Steve Jablonsky
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