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The Flight Attendant Composer Blake Neely on 20 Years With Greg Berlanti and How a College Rejection Letter Fueled His Emmy Win

May 11, 2022 01:04 | By
The Flight Attendant

Image via Jennifer Rose Clasen/HBO Max

If you’re a fan of the CW, you’ve probably heard the work of veteran Composer Blake Neely, whose many credits include All AmericanArrowThe FlashLegends of TomorrowRiverdale, and Supergirl, as well as Netflix’s creepy thriller You.

All of those shows hail from executive producer Greg Berlanti, who goes back 20 years with Neely, who composed the main title theme for Berlanti’s show Everwood. That family drama series brought Neely his first Emmy nomination — he was also nominated for ABC’s Pan Am and the HBO miniseries The Pacific — and Neely finally won his first Emmy just last year for his work on Berlanti’s hit series The Flight Attendant, which is about to wrap up its second season on HBO Max.

For Season 2 of the series, Neely delivers once again with a percussion-driven, high-octane accompaniment to the frenetic and zany goings-on as newly sober Cassie (Kaley Cuoco, who also serves as executive producer) investigates an international murder mystery on behalf of the CIA. Over the course of eight episodes, Neely fine-tunes musical cues that illustrate the Hitchcockian directive initially given by creator Steve Yockey and executive producers Berlanti, Cuoco, and Suzanne McCormack.

Below The Line spoke with Neely via Zoom from his recording studio Cow on the Wall in North Hollywood, where if you look closely beyond the console, you can spot the Emmy statue he won for The Flight Attendant‘s main title theme. Neely recalls the surreal moment when he finally won the award, and he also talks about his small screen influences, where the ideas for his music come from, what sounds he uses to support the rollercoaster of emotions on screen, and how he is rewarded time and again for doing what he loves.

Blake Neely

Image via Kristin Burns

Below The Line: Going back to Season 1, how did you initially get the gig?

Blake Neely: I go back 20 years with Greg Berlanti. We’ve had just a great ride together and I got a script for Flight Attendant. He introduced me to Steve and Kaley and Sarah [Schechter], who had already been at Berlanti Productions for years. We just had a meeting. I loved the script and told him I really wanted to do it, and they asked me for my ideas.

BTL: What is it about your relationship with Greg Berlanti that serves your professional collaboration so well?

Neely: After this long, it’s like we were never apart. [After] 20 years, it’s like a great marriage, a great friendship, brotherhood. What’s really important about it is [how] we spent so much time in the early years around each other and working together. Everwood was his first show. It was my first show. We were kind of teaching each other how to do this. He can say an adjective now like, ‘I think this one should be blue’ and I’ll find it. For The Flight Attendant, it was ‘Hitchcockianfrenetic, mystery, and throwback.’ We just have such a shorthand. He’s such a trusting collaborator. He lets me do my thing and then he’ll give me notes. It’s so familiar and so tight and supportive, and he gives me a lot of freedom and leeway.

BTL: What were some of those initial ideas that you were given for the first season?

Neely: As I mentioned, Steve Yockey, the writer, had said there was a Hitchcockian approach to it, both visually, story-wise, everything. [Composer] Bernard Herrmann is one of my favorites and he would just come up with a crazy instrumentation like 24 clarinets only; scores like that. Steve said he liked percussion and in the meeting I said, ‘what about only percussion?’ He loved it, and then I had to go and figure that out. It was great because it put me in this little tight creative box, which can lead to some crazy ideas.

BTL: How would you describe the score in terms of your influences?

Neely: It definitely has throwback elements and probably a lot of those come from all the TV that I watched as a kid. I’m in this golden age of television where it’s more like you’re scoring movies. You get a wider breadth to get bigger ensembles with more music in these shows than say the ’90s, where there are just kind of strings, ins and outs. A lot of television [shows] that I absorbed growing up were Dick Van Dyke Show, and Leave It To Beaver, where the music was so substantially memorable. What I love are just memorable and catchy themes that let you know ]your] favorite show is on. You can hear it from the kitchen.

BTL: Speaking of which, you’ve created quite the catchy theme for The Flight Attendant.

Neely: There are a lot of directors who think of our roles as the sound department. Greg and Sarah have always considered me another writer in the shows because you have to find what’s missing and write that in (with music) in the subtext. I still didn’t think the music would be such a character of its own until we got into it, and they just allow space for that. There’s a lot of Cassie looking around and sneaking around, and in those moments, music has just got to drive the bus.

The Flight Attendant

Image via HBO Max

BTL: How do you create those moments musically?

Neely: It’s a really hard show to nail down tonally for the producers. Just visually, is it a comedy, is it a thriller, is it a drama? It’s all of those so and there are heavy emotional moments, like in Episode 6 with Sharon Stone. The scene “Brothers and Sisters” was very moving to write. Finding that tonally in the music is all about what instruments will provide the tone that I need. Whether it’s a bowed piano string, or using that lamp over there that’s gonna give me that tone, and then I like to put together a musical soup of things that don’t really go together. For instance, when you use guitar in a score, that sounds familiar to an audience and [they think] ‘where is the guitar player in this scene?’ But if it’s this crazy mix of instruments, your brain just sort of lets it go and you just pay attention to what’s happening in the story.

BTL: How do you support the emotional moments on screen with music?

Neely: It’s hard to remember how emotional the show gets, too. One of my favorite scenes last season was the call to Davey (T.R. Knight) from jail and [Cassie] just realizing she was a completely broken person. This year, the four women running from that spa in Iceland is hilarious, but in Episode 6, it breaks your heart. I liken it to [being] an actor and you have to find the character, and so I was very wound up and it took a minute to come out of that. I also wrote the music for Time Traveler’s Wife (HBO, May 15) and it’s just beautifully written and gorgeous. I cried so many times while scoring that thing. I like it all because it keeps it fun. If I just wrote sad music all the time, I’d be a sad person [laughs].

BTL: Do you use sounds to create those tonal moments? For instance in “Drowning Women” where Cassie slips and takes a drink, it almost sounds like horses’ hooves.

Neely: There were some tap shoes used. In the Reykjavik episode (“The Reykjavik Ice Sculpture Festival Is Lovely This Time of Year”) when we went to Iceland, I used ice in glasses, blowing on bottles, even a mouth percussion with beat-boxing. Whatever I can do to support the craziness that’s happening on screen.

The Flight Attendant

Image via HBO Max

BTL: Where do the ideas come from?

Neely: I’m more accustomed to, say, like, an improv actor. I start watching the scene and I have my keyboard with me and my computer and I just start finding the rhythm in the scene and the tone. A lot of it is improv and a lot of it happens at stoplights in my car and I have to get out my phone and do a voice memo, which sounds crazy. It happened with the beat-boxing. I hadn’t done mouth percussion yet so I’m driving and sounding out the beats looking like a crazy person. The main theme ‘ba bom ba da bom.’ I was like, making coffee one morning in the house. I ran to my piano and played it and [thought], ‘that’s what we’re gonna do,’ and it just went from there. I think music is just magic like that. It just can happen and if it comes too quickly, you sometimes have to say ‘I probably stole that from someone,’ so now I have to ask my co-workers, “Is this just me?” I’m lucky to have a team that will tell me.

BTL: How would you describe the recording process?

Neely: I have a keyboard and all these computers. I play all the parts and then I have a recording stage in the next room where we can play on drums and other instruments and record it all into the computer to picture so everything is done to the movie or to the show and it’s in sync. It’s just me and my keyboard.

BTL: How did you get the name for Cow on the Wall Studio?

Neely: I kind of love it. It was sort of an accident. I was looking to set up a publishing company and I needed a name that was going to clear quickly that no one else had. Because I went to the University of Texas, I’ve always had this wooden longhorn on the wall. I just said, “how about Cow on the Wall?” Even though it’s a steer, that’ll clear. It cleared, and years later I saw a legal document and they abbreviated it to “C.O.W.” I thought,’that’s fun.’ So then it became Cow on the Wall Studio and everyone calls it “COWS.” There’s farm stuff everywhere. My dad was a farmer.

The Flight Attendant

Image via Julia Terjung/HBO Max

BTL: Do you have any favorite pieces in Season 2 that you’d like to call attention to?

Neely: When she first gets to Berlin in Episode 1, I called the piece “Here We Go Again.” It turns out it’s like a seven-minute sequence with no dialogue. That was a lot of fun because it takes all these twists and turns. It was fun finding a new way to do that music again. It’s tough after eight episodes and a total of six hours of music last year in that style, can we level up? What’s fun is finding that new percussion instrument or something new to bang on, and, of course, the piano. Thank god the piano is a percussion instrument. That was my get-out-of-jail-free card. For this season, the team said I could do anything I want but I can’t change the main title.

BTL: What are your memories from winning the Emmy last year for creating the show’s main title?

Neely: Winning was a great experience but like people say, I had to experience it to believe it. It’s [an] out-of-body [feeling]. You’re so hopeful but you don’t want to get your hopes up. I remember standing up, buttoning my coat, and the next thing I remember, I was coming off the stage holding my Emmy. I kind of remember what I said. There’s video of it, so I didn’t make a fool of myself, but I felt choked up. I was pretty good in remembering to thank everybody that put me on the show. Everyone else, like family, friends, and agents, I thanked in person. You come off and you stand in this hallway and you do this long press walk and interviews and pictures. I felt like an eight-year-old, like, “where are you taking me?” [laughs]

BTL: Tell me how your musical upbringing informs the way you create music today.

Neely: My grandfather was musical. My mom was rather musical. My brother is an artist and my sister is a rancher, so none of us went the same way. I was rejected from music school, infamously. I studied piano and drums and french horn growing up. I went to the University of Texas and to be in the music department, you had to pass a principal instrument exam, and I chose piano. It was the hardest one to pass and I just couldn’t do it. I have this wonderful letter from the University of Texas to 18 ½-year-old me that says, ‘you should consider other career options.’ And it’s been the greatest fire under me my whole life. ‘No, I don’t want to consider other options, I’ll just figure out how to do it.’ It’s been a wild and just blessed career and I’m not done any time soon. If this wasn’t my job, I’d still do it every day because I love it. If I can do something in my free time for fun and I can make a career out of it, and make a living and get my ideas out to the public, it’s very rewarding. What I try to do is tell the story with my music, and hopefully write something that’s catchy enough that people remember.

Season 2 of The Flight Attendant is currently streaming on HBO Max.