When Kevin Kiner first got a call from fellow Samaritan composer Jed Kurzel, he thought he was simply signing up to help out a colleague, but instead, he found himself co-writing the score for Julius Avery‘s superhero movie, which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Kiner has collaborated with other composers before, of course, but he wasn’t terribly familiar with Kurzel’s style going into the project, so he had to give himself a crash course in Kurzel’s work to ensure a cohesive score, otherwise, it might sound as if two different people had composed the music.
For those who haven’t seen the MGM production yet, Samaritan is not a traditional superhero movie. It’s about broken lives and broken families. Young Euphoria star Javon “Wanna” Walton plays Sam, a teenager who suspects that his neighbor, Mr. Smith (Sylvester Stallone), is the long-missing superhero Samaritan. Mr. Smith would rather keep his head down and go about his business, but he reluctantly befriends the kid, which turns out to be for the best when Sam gets himself into danger with a local gang. The film’s third act is wild and unlike any other superhero movie in recent years, so be sure and check it out if you’re into that genre.
Below the Line recently spoke with Kiner, who discussed the unique scoring process, his work in the Star Wars franchise, and his unusual path to the entertainment business:
BTL: How are you doing today?
Kevin Kiner: I’m really good. Really good. Working on the season finale of The Bad Batch right now.
BTL: I cannot wait.
Kiner: Yeah, it’s a good one.
BTL: Yeah. So tell me, how did you first get involved with Samaritan?
Kiner: Jed Kurzel and I met at a symposium in Cologne, Germany called Soundtrack Cologne. We were both guest lecturers there and he was literally just right across the table from me at lunch. We started talking about action cues. There are a number of challenges that action cues present to people and I’ve always just loved doing action cues. I go way back to the Chuck Norris, Walker, Texas Ranger [days], and that was one big action cue, that show, for eight years. [Jed] got this movie and the schedule got really compressed so he gave me a call and asked for some help. I wound up working a lot more than I think either of us thought that I would. It became more of a co-writing thing than just help-out kind of thing.
BTL: What did you initially expect?
Kiner: I don’t think I went in with a lot of expectations. I just was probably expecting [a] blockbuster action movie, and it is that, but it is very different. The film is very different than what I [had] thought of and also the score is very different from what I had envisioned. At the time, I was not crazy familiar with Jed’s writing and so I really had to become familiar with his composing style and get into his head. I’ve collaborated a lot with a lot of great composers like David Arnold, Clint Mansell, and Gustavo Santaolalla. Getting into Jed’s head was maybe the most difficult.
I’ve had this conversation with him and he would say something like, ‘yeah, right, because [even] I don’t know what I’m gonna do next.’ [laughs] I think that’s true but there is a sensibility that Jed has [and] the really good thing about it is it’s very unusual. We all try to be unique and unusual. I’ve been doing this for 39 years and I believe I wouldn’t have lasted in this career if I hadn’t changed and evolved. I believe even going [back] to my Star Wars stuff, I believe that wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if those scores hadn’t changed and evolved from the time when George Lucas [first] hired me.
BTL: Generally speaking, at what point in the process do you typically start working on the score?
Kiner: Well, this one was a little later in the process for me. But normally, when a rough edit starts coming together, some guys — like, Tyler Bates is a friend of mine. I know he started Guardians straight off with the script and they were shooting with his themes playing in the background, and I know other guys that are doing that. That’s a philosophy that certain directors have. They really want to get immersed in the music from a very early point. Usually, I come in later than that, when shooting is happening, and start getting ideas going.
BTL: How long was the composing process before you moved on to actually recording with musicians?
Kiner: I would say it was probably about three months, maybe two, two-and-a-half, something like that. I don’t remember exactly. Again, the schedule had gotten really compressed and at one point, it was looking like we were gonna have to do it in three or four weeks or something. It was nuts. COVID kind of messed things up and it got extended. It was really good for me to take that [time] — I bet I spent more time studying and getting a palette for Jed than I did the actual writing. I spent a good amount of time writing as well but I really spent a lot of time making sure that the score was cohesive and it didn’t sound like two different guys.
BTL: Did the pandemic have any sort of an impact on recording the score?
Kiner: Well, we were one of the first back and on the Sony stage in Culver City. Everybody had to [socially] distance. Less people were in the recording booth. We still had a good number of musicians. More for technical reasons, we separated the strings from the brass because we wanted that isolation. I would say that the string players, when we were doing all of the string parts of the orchestra, had to sit a lot farther apart than they were used to. That presented challenges in terms of making the orchestra sound like an orchestra, and yet, we really didn’t want it to sound like an orchestra. This is not a John Williams score, and so we processed the strings quite a bit anyhow, so there’s this kind of melding between some very electronic sounds and some string sounds and they’re both kind of distorted.
BTL: One thing I’ve noticed in recent months is that more and more films are listing the entire orchestra in their end credits.
Kiner: Oh, really? I haven’t noticed that.
BTL: I know they were included in the Lightyear credits and a few others.
Kiner: Oh, that’s cool. I should push for that because we — I tell a story… Jed had come up with a cello part. Initially, it was Cyrus’ theme and he’s definitely a bad guy, so basically, it is Cyrus’ theme, but it became more of a pervasive theme throughout a lot of the action cues. It was this cello he played himself, and he’s not a cello player. Part of the concept is that the movie is all about broken people and broken lives and a broken superhero, and who wants to get away from his superhero path. The score needed to sound broken, in a way, and part of the way we did that was being out of tune and playing kind of mangled, bad cello.
Anyhow, I took what Jed had played and what had become this theme and I played it for the cello players. I’ve got eight of the greatest cello players on Earth. I didn’t just notate it, but Jed played it in such a unique, particular way that I wanted them to hear that. We had a discussion about, like, ‘Okay, how do we perform that, as an ensemble, with the basses sometimes? We came up with about five to eight different ways of performing that lick and it really brought the band into the creative process, which was super cool, because these guys are just fabulous. They have expertise and knowledge of little tricks that they can do that I have no idea [about]. That’s one of the things I’ve learned in my days, and I’ve talked [about with] older guys when I first started — be willing to talk to your players.
I know John Williams will call his guys up. He called up Dan Higgins when he was doing Catch Me If You Can. Dan Higgins played the saxophone. I think the discussion went something like, ‘you might want to take a look at this. It’s pretty damn hard.’ Dan spent a lot of time. I know Dan Higgins really well and he’s worked for me many times in the past and he’s just one of the greatest, but he brought his own thing to that. When you get involved with your players, it just enriches the score.
BTL: Speaking of John Williams, you’ve worked in the Star Wars universe, for which the maestro has already created a wealth of material. How does that differ from working in a world where you’re essentially composing everything from scratch?
Kiner: I’ve likened it to my collaborations, in a way. I’ve met John twice. The main subject of one of our conversations was, ‘how did you like the chicken tonight?’ at the dinner [we shared], and we never really talked about music. I told him how much I admired him and how he was responsible for me becoming of film and television composer. I’ve never collaborated directly with him but I have all of his source material and I have permission to use it because I’m in Star Wars. It’s sort of like collaborating with John Williams, in a way, and then taking it where I want to take it, or where Dave Filoni wants to take it, or Brad Rau now with The Bad Batch. That’s the way I feel about it.
BTL: And how does it feel to be a part of that Star Wars universe?
Kiner: Well, it’s incredible. In the same way, I’ve got to pinch myself because Rocky was a huge deal in the ’70s and so was Star Wars. These were the seminal films: Star Wars, Superman, E.T., Rocky, all these great, great movies. Now I get to score a Stallone film and I get to score Star Wars. It’s an absolute dream come true. For a child of… I was in college [from] 1976-80. I went to UCLA. It’s a great dream come true.
BTL: How did you go from being pre-med to becoming a film and TV composer?
Kiner: Well, you’re a rebellious child and you tell your parents not “screw you” but, “whatever, I’m going to be a musician.” I never really consciously did exactly that but I just started playing a lot. I would have been a musician more straight ahead if my parents had not been against that. I was a good student and I tried to be a good son. I was going to be a doctor like my mom told me to be and then I just started gigging around town.
It was really fortuitous that I went to UCLA and I was in the mecca of film and television and records and all that. As I started gigging, I found out that I could actually play with these cats up here and that I had something to say that was relevant. Because I grew up in a very small town where I felt extremely inferior to anybody in Los Angeles or even Las Vegas or any of those places where I thought all the musicians were gods. It was an evolution, and by the beginning of my senior year, I was really, really chafing at academia and being pre-med. I was doing well. I had a very high GPA. I would have been a doctor. I would have gotten to med school, at least, for sure, but I would have been a terrible doctor.
BTL: I was headed towards pre-law at one point and then I saw The Second City National Touring Company during my freshman year of college and everything changed.
Kiner: That’s [cool]. I have a story I tell — Kenny Loggins came to UCLA and somebody asked him [something similar because] he was in a similar situation. He was going to UC Riverside and he said, I think, that he was studying economics or bookkeeping or something like that. He realized that he’d spent 95 percent of his day working on what he was going to fall back on and none of his time, virtually, doing music, which was his number one plan. He, I believe, dropped out of college, too. I saw him, he spoke, and he said those words, and that really hit me deep. I believe that’s one of the real kind of cattle prods that got me out of pre-med and into music.
BTL: Interesting. So yeah, seeing Second City inspired me to move to Chicago for improv, and weirdly enough, I became a film critic along the way.
Kiner: Well, isn’t Roger Ebert [from] Chicago?
BTL: Yeah, Ebert was a Chicago guy when he was still alive.
Kiner: When he was alive, yeah. I mean, there’s a great history — one of the greatest film critics ever, right? The John Williams of film critics.
BTL: Yeah. It was so nice to speak with you today, and I look forward to watching The Bad Batch when it premieres on Disney Plus.
Kiner: Yeah, I do encourage everyone to go watch Samaritan. The soundtrack is out now on Lakeshore. I think it’s a really interesting soundtrack. Both Jed and I are really proud of it.
Samaritan is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video, while Season 2 of Star Wars: The Bad Batch will premiere Sept. 28 on Disney Plus.