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Interview – How Composer Gary Lionelli Musically Brought “O.J: Made in America” To Life


Posted June 21, 2017 by

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Interview – Composer Gary Lionelli

This past year the fateful story of O.J. Simpson and the events that occurred the night of June 12, 1994 have been seen through a much deeper lens with ESPN’s highly addictive documentary O.J.: Made in America.  Garnering an Academy award nomination and win for Best Documentary, all the cinematic stars aligned for this project.  One major element that stood out and helped bring another level of emotional realness to the project was the score by composer Gary Lionelli. Even with over thirty documentary credits under his belt, it’s not easy creating an original score for a seven and a half hour intensely dramatic project, which many people had already seen in different parts throughout the news. We decided to speak with Lionelli about creating the O.J.:Made in America score.

Interview - Composer Gary Lionelli

What initially attracted you to OJ: Made in America?

At first I wasn’t interested in taking the job. It was such a violent story, and so sad, plus it was real life. I also wasn’t sure I wanted live and breathe those dark events for 6 months while working on the film. I also wasn’t sure anyone would be that interested in OJ at this point. But after the director told me he initially had the same feelings about it, and that he had to be convinced to do it, and that the film was set in a much broader historical context, and that he wasn’t going to go anywhere near guilty or not guilty, I start to get excited about it.

Did you score OJ: Made in America in chronological order or did you jump around? Is it easier for you to go in order?

The first thing the director, Ezra Edelman, asked me to score was the infamous Bronco chase. It was a very important segment, and 30 minutes long, so it was more or less a litmus test for me. I usually prefer not to jump right into scoring in the middle of a film, but the chase stood on its own as a piece, and I did come up with some thematic elements that I was able to use in other parts of the film. After that, it was all scored chronologically, which is how I usually work.

How closely did you work with the director Ezra Edelman? Did he have a very specific sound that he wanted?

Ezra had an overall vision for the film, and often was very specific with any given scene. More often than not, I’d be scoring the subtext of the character or scene rather than commenting musically on what is literally happening in the scene — that is, scoring what is going on in the mind of the character rather than what he or she is doing. Or scoring the impact or consequence of an event rather simply the action of the event, literally. So many times the music has to comment in a much broader sense than simply echoing what’s going on in the scene at any one given moment. This helps the viewer’s understanding what the director is trying to say with the film. As for the sound or personality of the score, he wanted some moments to have a reflective, lonely jazz feel, and tragic in nature.

How did you initially decide on the palate of sounds you used for OJ?

Ezra specifically wanted solo trumpet and oboe in the score.  I had Jeff Bunnell on trumpet, playing in a lyrical, introspective, and detached style. Most of the cues he played on also had a 40-piece string orchestra, which we recorded at the Eastwood Scoring Stage on the Warner Bros. lot. I think this combination had the effect of a forewarning about O.J.’s ultimate tragic fall from his once great heights. Another element of the score is musical sound manipulation and mangling of organic instruments, which is something I’ve done for a long time in my scoring. It’s an extremely time-consuming way to conjure up cues because of all the trial and error involved, but the results can give a film an identity that sometimes goes beyond what you can do with an orchestra alone.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome with this project?

The biggest challenge was to get the score done in time. It was a 7 1/2 hour film, with over 180 cues, all to be written and recorded in a relatively short period of time. And then musically speaking, because everyone is so familiar with so many of the events of the story, including the Bronco chase, and the long drawn-out trial, I had to find a way to make it dramatic without either going too much over the top, and being too conspicuous, or the opposite, going too lite on everything, too under the radar. I had to find the right balance.

I know you have scored both scripted and unscripted projects. Do you approach the 2 differently?

I approach them the same way musically, now more than ever. It used to be that one difference was that in narrative films, there would be certain places in the film that were crafted to evoke a certain emotion, or elicit a certain feeling from the audience, and the score would need support that and bring it out, amplify it. And in the older documentaries, you’d be scoring the overall scene to convey a broader mood. But now these things have merged and I’m finding a lot more narrative film techniques in documentaries, and that makes the scoring the same.

Besides OJ, what documentary that has been released in the past year has stood out to you and why?

I recently watched part of Charles Barkley’s new film series, American Race, and was gripped by it. It was a compelling film about what people in the country really have to say and feel about race. It echoed many of the same themes as in O.J.: Made in America. I found the interviews to be very frank and eye-opening. I highly recommend it.


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Written by:

Chris Miller

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