In an interview with Awards Daily TV, composer Blake Neely discusses the shift from scoring The CW superhero shows to Netflix’s doc series The Keepers.
Composer Blake Neely has had a diverse career composing the scores for over 20 television shows and a wide variety of documentaries. He has already been nominated for three Emmys® for his work on Pan Am and The Pacific as well as for creating the main title music for Everwood. Currently Neely works as the composer for five The CW shows including four shows set in the DC Universe as well as the new teen hit Riverdale. Recently he spoke with Awards Daily TV about his work on the recent Netflix documentary series The Keepers.
Blake Neely’s score for The Keepers stands out for being so radically different than what a typical crime documentary would sound like. Instead of going for the dramatized loud reveals, he instead focuses on the survivors throughout the story and composes a score that supports their story instead of amplifies their emotions.
Throughout our conversation, Blake Neely detailed his process working on The Keepers, his great working relationship with director Ryan White, and what it’s like working as one of the main composers for The CW.
What initially drew you to signing on as the composer for The Keepers?
I was drawn to working on The Keepers because of my friend and director Ryan White. This is our third project together after doing The Case Against 8 and a documentary on Serena Williams. While we were working on Serena, he showed me this teaser he had put together of The Keepers. He hadn’t even sold it or anything. It was just something he had been working on for a while. I’ll do anything Ryan does, but I was so intrigued. It was such a new subject matter. Starting on the project, I thought it was going to be a simple ‘Who-done-it?’ about who killed this nun. Then it goes on to unlock this dark underground of Catholic Church corruption and sexual abuse.
How did you approach scoring something like The Keepers?
I wanted it to be scored with very intimate and more subtle pieces. Throughout the series, I used mostly solo instruments: a solo violin, a solo female voice, a solo piano. But also I wanted to evoke the emotions of strings, and I also incorporated organs and a choir to represent the Catholic Church.
Overall my approach was to be intimate and emotional and to set the tone so that these brave women were able to tell their story. It’s a much different approach than on the superhero or FBI shows I do on a regular basis. We are dealing with real life subjects telling their stories. Also, other shows are big and bombastic. The Keepers was much more of a cerebral piece.
As you mentioned you are currently working on four superhero shows for The CW (Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow) as well as Riverdale. What was it like transitioning from those projects to The Keepers?
A welcome change of pace! The transition was one that I certainly wanted because of the change of color, tone, and style. I try to achieve that with every project just to keep it fresh, and you discover different things than everything else you’re working on.
Working on a project that focuses on a tragedy that affected real people did you feel a certain responsibility to portray the victims and survivors in an authentic way without sensationalizing them?
I’m glad you noticed that. I’ve talked about responsibility before. With the superhero shows, I always feel this responsibility to uphold these iconic characters that have been around since way before I have been on this planet. This was a very different kind of responsibility. Most of the documentaries I have done dealt with people that have long past, but these are people that I went on to meet. You don’t want sensationalize the experiences they are detailing.
One of the hardest things to score was when Jean was describing all of the horrific acts that were done to her by this priest. You almost just don’t want music at all, but you realize it makes it even more uncomfortable without. Ryan and I worked very hard to make it subtle. It is true that in these true crime stories that, when there is a big reveal, you want to come in with a sting. We are very careful not to do that because it’s not that kind of piece. It’s a tight rope to walk.
You have such a strong working relationship with director Ryan White. Do you feel you have more freedom to be creative when creating your scores?
Oh yeah, he gave me a lot of freedom. It’s interesting because I would run a lot of things by him regarding the music, and he would never have a problem with it. He’s very supportive of the process, and if it works it works. If it’s too much, he will simply tell me. Having worked with him on three projects we’ve developed a shorthand and kind of a wink or a nod. We have a great relationship.
While collaborating, we once had a conversation about a lighter piece of music that I worried didn’t fit in because it came after such a dark moment. His response was that the story needed a bit of sorbet before the next darkness. It’s always conversations like that.
One of the most unique pieces throughout the The Keepers was the main title theme you wrote. What were you hoping to convey with that piece that framed the entire series?
What I wanted to do with the main title was to write something that would change every time the audience listened to it. The music itself doesn’t change, but I wanted something that would come across as mysterious in Episode 1 and, by Episode 6, would feel sad and haunting. I hope it was successful, but I also wanted to do something that sounded different. Something that wasn’t over the top. That’s why I chose the solo violin and the haunting vocals. Writing a main title is a lot of pressure trying to figure out if it represents the entire project as a whole.
Were there any other unique challenges while writing the music for The Keepers?
It’s just what you were saying earlier. The challenge was asking ourselves the questions on whether or not we sensationalized the story, whether we were commenting too much, and do we even need music in that moment. It wasn’t one of those projects where I felt pressure to be unique and ask whether the sound has been done before. That wasn’t my M.O. here. That happens on the superhero shows, but with The Keepers, I was completely focused on keeping it real the entire time.
Looking back at the documentary is there a moment or a scene that sticks with you that you’ll keep thinking of throughout your life?
It’s not necessarily because of the music, but one of the scenes that has stayed with me is the moment in Episode 7 where Ryan asks the archdiocese a series of questions to gauge whether he is lying. I won’t give anything away. That scene when he is reading the answers back to the two victims will stick with me forever. Watching these people receive get answers they have been waiting for their entire lives. I would say more but don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
What do you hope audiences take away from The Keepers?
I hope they take away a bit of anger at how the system can work not in our favor. I really hope they begin to have more compassion for others. We don’t know what other people have been through and what secrets they are hiding that they’ve had to deal with. Just to have a bigger heart and compassion for people would be a wonderful takeaway. And if anyone wants to go out there and solve the crime that would be amazing!
As we mentioned before you are the composer for five wildly popular shows on The CW. How do you ensure that each of those shows has their own unique sound while also making sure the DC Universe shows remain in the same world?
That’s kind of just established in the sound palettes that I chose. I like to say that you don’t like to be at a country-western concert and suddenly a jazz band walks out. I knew we were going to crossover these characters, so I had to be able to identify the connecting style and instrumentation and then figure out how to make four different sounds from that.
Is there a specific moment from the past year of working on these shows that you are particularly proud of?
There were two moments that stick with me that I am proud of. I loved The Flash musical episode which came together great. The other moment is the four crossover event because we had done a double crossover before but had never done all four which became possible once Supergirl transferred to The CW. I love our crossover episodes.
Where can our readers catch your work next?
All five shows were picked up for future seasons. I have a film that I am working on called Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda that will come out next year. I am going to try to release the soundtrack for The Keepers on Spotify and Amazon, and the soundtracks from my shows will be coming out later this year.
The Keepers streams on Netflix.