“As the story developed and there was more heartache and ambiguity, I started playing with variations of romantic themes and adding different colors,” Novak tells Variety. “The genesis was about the promise of true love.”
Ahead of the series finale, Variety speaks with Novak about wrapping up his first series, his process on the romcom versus a comedy like “BoJack Horseman,” and growing up in a creative household with his brother, B.J. Novak.
What was most important to you to do when working on the music for “The Mindy Project’s” series finale, and did it include a return to the melody that plays whenever Mindy (Mindy Kaling) is attracted to someone?
That music was licensed, so it was not an original piece of music by me, but I’ve borrowed that melody. I did use it in the finale, but from another character’s point of view — maybe the first time it’s used to convey attraction and romance not from Mindy’s point of view. More than just this episode, I’m thinking about the whole six years wrapping up. It’s been a journey. I’m trying to do service to that by going back to Seasons 1 and 2 because while I’ve evolved the sound, I’ve paid attention to go back to certain melodies that I consider classic. I think everybody working on the show feels some attachment and wants to wrap it up in a way that connects the finale to the pilot. I put extra time into the music for the finale to try to enhance that feeling. It’s been an emotional goodbye. I’ve written so much music for the show and sometimes it feels crazy, but it has become a part of my brain, playing those notes. I like to feel like I’ve contributed to that world. It’s amazing to go through a show all the way from beginning to end. That’s a first for me.
Are there certain instruments you prefer to use?
I got the instrumentation and style down by the end of Season 1. The most prominent instrument is probably the clarinet — it conveys a lot and it’s fun. I haven’t added a bunch of new instruments for the final season, but I’ve evolved their interactions. The way in which the music flows tends to reflect the pace of the episode, so I write original music for each episode. I don’t reuse a lot, even though I repeat a lot of ideas. I write my music around how the episode is cut and how the story goes. It’s reflective of what’s happening on-screen.
You’ve composed music for other TV shows such as “BoJack Horseman.” Do you have a general process that you use when you’re approaching any TV show?
I try to not think with my brain. I try to feel what’s happening. It doesn’t always work because it’s abstract, but I try to watch what’s happening and let my fingers rest on the keyboard, and if they start playing something that seems to fit the action, I’ll roll with it. I care a lot about trying to match the tone in a way that’s organic. It’s not usually strategic. Both “The Mindy Project” and “BoJack Horseman” alternate between serious moments and lighter comedy, in which I’m following the bounce of the conversation and the rhythm of the joke. I try to make it personal by letting the feeling go straight into the music.
Does working with different people on each show influence the environment and the way that you work on each?
Definitely. It seems to me like the creator of the show is the sun and everybody orbits around the sun. You see their influence everywhere; their humor permeates the atmosphere. I also think the network has to do with it. “The Mindy Project” was my first time composing music for a series, so I had a learning curve. By the time I started working on other shows, I had gotten experience under my belt, so I was able to focus less on the learning and more on the process.
What is your approach to theme songs? How do you know when something is meant to be the theme song?
I try to feel myself dancing a little. Maybe that’s because I tend to work on comedies and shows that are a little more upbeat. I have a test: if my mouse cursor starts moving around because my hand is dancing and my head is bobbing, that’s usually a good sign. But there’s still a lot of other people who need to feel it, too. I try to generate a lot of ideas quickly and if something gives me a positive feeling, I’ll send it. Then I wait and see what people respond to because it really is a collaboration. At that stage, there are key things about the show that I’m privy to, but meanwhile the writers are creating all this nuanced stuff so they have more background about the tone than I do. In some ways, it is a shot in the dark.
Does your personal taste inform your approach to composing?
To a degree. I’ve always loved bouncy, catchy music like that in cartoons and video games. Stuff from when I was a kid still gets in my head. The music on “The Mindy Project” is quite animated, and a lot of the music on “BoJack Horseman” is like that as well. Lately, I’ve been listening to more ambient sounds. I’m making more energetic music for work and listening to more relaxed stuff to come down. I’m gravitating toward slower, almost meditative, music, and I’m making some of that in my free time. I love the music I make for TV, but making that stuff opens me up to perceiving sounds which are the opposite.
You and your brother are both involved in the arts and entertainment world. Growing up, were your parents very creative?
We grew up in a family that took entertainment like it was high culture. Together we watched shows like “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” which I still consider top-notch quality shows. There was a lot of emphasis on comedy and sitcoms. Entertaining people is a noble thing. It gave us both some foundational aspects that made us comfortable with show business.