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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

24 Days of "24": The Man Behind the Show's Music

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take some time and chat about my beloved “24” with a fellow fan. But this wasn’t just any ordinary fan. This was Sean Callery, the show’s music composer.

More than once Callery has brought me to near tears with his perfect touches to powerful “24” scenes. And as we both started to get a little nostalgic, I must admit he almost did it again…

The first thing Callery does each season is read the first four scripts to “get a feel for the characters and see who’s going to be a main player. Like this season with President Hassan.” But four scripts is his limit. “I am a fan of the show as well. So I don’t like to read too much. If I know a character is going to die in the fifth or sixth episode, I’d rather not know it because I don’t want that knowledge to unconsciously sneak into my writing somehow.” However, Callery only gets to enjoy the show as a fan one time because after the first viewing of a new episode he has to get professional.

“I pay attention to what I feel when I’m watching it.” If there’s a major emotional moment like a death scene, Callery will start writing that part first. But sometimes he starts at the top of the show. “I see how the story is unfolding,” he said.

Callery explained that the music should support the story without getting in the way. “You never want the music to stick out in a way that takes you out of the story. For ‘24,’ it’s a very subtextual approach. A feeling of menace, love, tension, whatever the mood, the music should enhance and compliment the experience for the viewer.”

There was less music during the first season of “24,” but in season two, one of the executive producers wanted there to be “a continuous low level feeling of dread” to go with the story of a nuclear threat. So Callery “looked for textures and colors” that would create that feeling. The producers loved the energy and flow that came from that approach and he’s been doing it ever since.

When asked about his favorite moment or a moment he’s particularly proud of, Callery cited the sequence in season five when Lynn McGill sacrificed himself in order to save the rest of the people at CTU. “I was given the opportunity to score that moment a little more heroically for him. It could have been very action-like, and it’s always cool to try a different and unexpected idea for a scene. ” Callery’s choice to go more heroic with the score helped add to the unlikeable character’s redemption. “The best characters, for me anyway, were the ones that had good qualities and bad qualities. The flawed characters were always the best.”

After mentioning flawed characters, Callery started telling me about the moment that is his all-time favorite. I had to smile while hearing him describe it because I realized he was describing my all-time favorite moment as well—the death of George Mason in Season 2. That episode won Callery his first Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Dramatic Series.

“Receiving the honor of an Emmy was an amazing and humbling experience,” he said. In addition to Mason’s death, the episode also featured Jack saying a tearful goodbye to his daughter and ended with a beautiful shot of the Mojave desert. Callery views that episode as a bit of a turning point for the show.

“In Season One we were sort of learning how to do the show while we were doing it. No show had attempted to tell a 24-hour story in real time before. It was exciting and a little scary. We were always fine tuning the craft. But the George Mason episode brought a new level of quality and elegance and emotional depth to the series. One wishes you could bottle those magical moments when you see these elements come together, and uncork it from time to time.”

When the word nostalgic came up during our conversation, Callery said, “Make no mistake. It is nostalgic. This is a very tight crew.” But Callery admitted he wouldn’t feel the full impact of the show coming to an end for two more weeks. When we spoke, he was working on the 23rd episode. “I’m extremely happy with the way the last two are coming together.”

Nine years ago last week, the “24” pilot was completed. And then of course came the events of 9/11. “It’s bizarre to say the very least to have worked on a fictional drama that would so closely mirror the tragic current events that would come five months later. The fourth wall came down a little bit, it was so close,” Callery said. “The show came along at a time when we were feeling very vulnerable as a nation. Jack Bauer was a problem-solving hero, albeit at times a controversial one. The show really resonated with many people during that time,” he said.

“It’s a once in a lifetime show that came along at a fascinating time in history, and I feel grateful and blessed to have been a part of it.”

Callery’s three “24” soundtracks: “24,” “24: Seasons Four and Five” and “24: Redemption” are available now. You can also hear Callery’s music on “Medium” and “Bones.” He will next be scoring the History Channel’s Kennedys miniseries, which will reunite him with “24” co-creator Joel Surnow.
Photo Credit: Kelsey McNeal/FOX and Mitchell Haaseth/FOX