Sweet Magnolias composer James Jandrisch unlocks mysteries behind the music.
James Jandsrich has signed on for a second season as the composer for the wildly popular Netflix original series Sweet Magnolias. The talented composer gave us a look inside the world of composing for film and television. His lengthy resume also includes the film 2 Hearts, a romantic drama now streaming on Netflix. You can also appreciate James’ music in several Hallmark Christmas movies, one of which is probably my most favorite “ever” (that’s a hint!)
I had the privilege of interviewing James about his work on the show. James peels back the curtain to tell us how he started composing for film and television and the myriad of steps involved in producing the final product. I learned that there are both organic and very technical aspects to creating the music that sweeps you in and out of so many of your favorite scenes in Sweet Magnolias. I asked James to help viewers unravel the mystery of how the music contributes to the variety of emotions and reactions that we experience while watching the show.
What is the job of a composer?
James used a fictionalized scene called “Helen’s kiss” as an example throughout our conversation. (Truly, this is no spoiler. But I know who I would like to see her kissing in season 2, how about you?)
James: “A composer’s job is to identify emotion, amplify it, and take it away, essentially, mold the viewer’s experience to the vision of the filmmakers.”
“I never think a score should draw undo attention to itself without absolute necessity. But for the viewer, my job from the get-go is to draw you in, bat you around a few times, and then let you go.”
“I like to think of the music as another character in the scene that you can’t see, almost like a narrator that guides you into this world that they are in. The music should help you forget about everything else and identify what you are feeling between the two of them [kissing] right now.”
“The sweet spot for me is when you get the right reaction.”
The sound of Sweet Magnolias
The first cue (piece of music) James worked on was the scene where Maddie leaves the law office and Helen follows her. In this one scene, James describes the gravity and depth of his task as composer. He shared that this scene was one of the hardest.
James: “In a 15 second span, you had to state what the sound or the style of the show was going to be like. You had to state the amount of emotion that Maddie is feeling at the end of her marriage. You had to state Helen’s reaction to help her friend, giving her support to try to make her feel better. You had to add the Southern flavor of the sound there. All in 15 seconds. Go!”
“What helped for that scene was that we had this orchestra, these strings, fairly large orchestra there, it rang out and hits you right in the heart and it works and I put the other twangy guitars, banjos and mandolins underneath it and it all comes together and sounds like the show.”
James goes on to describe the absolute importance of staying faithful to the story.
James: “You have to stay true to the story, what it’s telling and the vision of the creators. Fortunately, the Sweet Magnolias scripts are wonderful.”
Let’s take a look at how it all comes together.
James can play just about any instrument! Although, he confesses that wind instruments are not his forte. I have to wonder if he is just being humble. James has played with several bands but was coy about sharing names.
James grew up in awe of his father who he describes as an incredible jazz musician. He watched his father work as the musical director for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) working on many different genres of shows. James studied composing, orchestration and arranging at university. James began composing jingles which ultimately helped him as a composer for film.
James: “[Composing jingles] is where I kind of realized that, ‘Hey, you know, I have a lot of power to effect people’s emotions with this music thing’. Specifically, with jingles and commercials, you have 30 seconds. You have to go quick, man! They’re only spending millions of dollars, so don’t get it wrong.”
Do not give him spoilers
James never wants spoilers for the show. He prefers to focus on each block he is given at a time. James explained that Sweet Magnolias films in blocks of 2 episodes each. So, that’s five blocks total. There is a spotting session for each block where he is advised of what the producers want musically for those episodes.
James: “Your influence is always changed once you’ve seen it. And as a result, that first feeling, you forget, you know. For example, ‘I know in scene 2 that person’s going to get murdered, so maybe I don’t go as big here. Maybe I go smaller.’ That kind of thing.”
That certainly makes sense to me, let’s just hope that “specific” example never applies to Sweet Magnolias, right?!
There is much work to be done before James steps in to compose as well as many steps after that. But even after James submits his tracks to the mixer, there is still the possibility of making adjustments. And things certainly do move quickly! As I mentioned before, James works on two episodes at a time (a block) and only has a about a week for each of those two episodes. Interestingly, he just met for the spotting session for the first block of season 2 last week.
Shooting the scenes
Of course, the scenes for the episodes must first be filmed. Something called an editor’s assembly is created, which includes all the scenes for a script. Showrunner Sheryl J. Anderson and Co-Executive Producer/Director Norman Buckley make decisions about what will remain before the episode becomes a locked episode. Netflix may also give input before an episode is locked. There are no more picture changes made on a locked episode.
Then the locked episode is prepped for a spotting session by adding temporary music as placeholders in different places in the episode. James describes it like a newly edited film and says that the film editors for Sweet Magnolias are fantastic.
James attends the spotting session with producers, describing Sheryl as being at the helm. He mentions Norman Buckley, David Dewar, Matt Drake and Dan Paulson as some of those who may attend. James describes decisions considered in the spotting session.
James: “All those that are involved go through a time-coded version of the show from beginning to end and say [for example], ‘We’d like music here and we’d like music here. Let’s talk about if this scene needs music.’ Does this require a score or what we call source music, which is part of music supervision?
“For example, ‘At 10 minutes 30 seconds and 20 frames into scene 3, we’re going to have a love theme. We want it to start here and stop there. And we want this to maybe be a recurring love theme.’ So, I’ll suggest writing a certain motif that can be developed over several episodes, so that if you hear a certain thing going on, it’s an emotional connect.”
James explains that these moments are mapped out as cues. The length of the cues are dictated by the scene.
James: “Once we have a template or map of what I am going to do, I say ‘OK, I’ve got these four scenes with these characters together and I’m going to map them out. I’m going to write a theme for this specific situation. And at the end when they get together, I’m going to amalgamate all those themes and put it together in a piece of music that goes underneath, behind the whole process.’ It’s almost mathematical in its approach, but as you can see in the end, the key is to try to make if feel natural, to feel like a piece of art, feel like you totally identify as if it’s a silent narrator to guide you along.”
Creating the music
Between current technology and being a multi-instrumentalist, James does not necessarily have to hire an orchestra for the music. He works with a DAW (digital audio workstation) allowing him record and combine all the different instruments as separate tracks layered in the multi-track workstation. Of course, the option is still available to hire a full orchestra as was done for the 2 Hearts movie.
James can also collaborate with other musicians as he did in Sweet Magnolias season 1 with Sean Watkins. Sean is a Grammy award-winning musician who is also part of the band Nickel Creek that performs the opening credits song “Destination” in Sweet Magnolias (you know, the part where you can “skip intro” but you never want to because it’s so good!) James may record a track and send it to Sean who could lay guitars into the music that James wrote.
About those cues
James shares that a cue is about 1-2 minutes long and that there are 20 to 30 cues in each episode of Sweet Magnolias. That’s a lot of music to create!
James: “Each cue amplifies emotion in the scene. Sometimes you may need to adjust a flavor or something that they want to sell as a feeling that is going to be important later on, want to kind of pre-empt that feeling even though it may not quite be there in that particular scene. It’s like suggesting, ‘I bet she’s going to get together with him.'”
“You identify that specific situation unconsciously, that this is an emotional thing, and if it’s done, hopefully, correctly, and if I’m lucky, it happens more easily than not. I’ve said this before, that if you’re lucky, and you put together your themes and your sound, your pacing, the show essentially starts writing itself and you feel like you are a conduit. And all of a sudden, you’re literally watching this thing happen where it was once you’re music, and now it’s not you’re music, it’s the show’s music and the show is guiding you as what to do. And you feel very much a part of it.”
James also advised of a couple of other scenarios where he may need to compose music for the show.
- When ADR (automated dialogue replacement) is required, James may create music to go with it so there is no “hollow” sound with dialogue only.
- Sometimes transitional pieces are required when shifting between two scenes that are thematically very different.
Approval and Mixing
After creating the music, James puts together a QuickTime (or little movie) for the producers to review. They give him some suggestions for things to adjust at some places. James makes any changes based on the producers’ feedback. Then Netflix has their turn for review. James indicated that they gave great suggestions in season 1.
Then it is time to deliver tracks to the mixer. Each cue may have up to 50 instruments. The instrument tracks are put in sub-groups of instruments (or stems) that are given to the mixer.
The mixer has to combine and balance James’ music, dialogue tracks, synthetic sounds for all things in the scene (such as children playing or the noise of a clock you see), plus Foley sound effects. There can be hundreds of tracks for a single scene and the mixer has to balance all of them and produce for all the different languages.
Even after all of that, because all the sound and music is prepared as multi-track, James still has the ability to make “push/pull changes or edits” if required.
That’s a lot of work, right? James agrees but has this to share about the team at Sweet Magnolias.
James: “When you’re working on a great product, it’s easy to get through. It’s a great gig because everybody’s so awesome and we’re a family. We’re getting through the process as a family.”
The car scene, plumbing problems and Mary Vaughn’s surprise
I did not want James to give away all of his secrets, but I did inquire about some of the tricks of the trade when it comes to eliciting different emotions or reactions with music. How does music make it funny, sad or any other feeling?
James describes comedy as one of the hardest styles to get right. He says it is all about rhythm and timing, when to start and stop the music at different points. This may make you think about when Maddie’s sink pipes were leaking and the music starts when she opens the cabinet door and stops when she closes. It starts again when Cal “fiddles” with it (no pun intended!)
James decided to use a slide guitar for the scene where Skeeter reveals the hole in the spa ceiling to Helen. He said he used “a common blues structure” and stopped and started the music at certain places. He explained that you laugh when the music comes back.
Our Sweet Magnolias composer used a novel approach for the scene where Mary Vaughn drives by as Cal is removing his wet shirt. Since the sighting is unexpected, James used the slide guitar but reversed the sound file to make it sound funny and out of place.
Of course, you also have the sad scenes in Sweet Magnolias. James explains that the music’s key and instrumentation both have a lot to do with emotion. He said that strings tend to come out in emotional scenes.
James spoke about the ending car scene.
James: “The musical key is the home base of the song. When you shift one note up, the brain feels it more intense now. Anticipation is amplified as you move one key up to the next.”
“A few times, I modulated to a new key. By the way, this was the hardest stretch of minutes to work on. As a piece of the score, it was challenging. It took the most amount of planning, use of time, manipulation of tempo, and modulation.”
James describes it as being the most hard thematically as well. Working on this piece took James back to the time of a horrific accident endured by his son. The scene was successful much in part to the fact that James could identify with the scenario. Fortunately, James’ son recovered well from the accident, but James described it as “very touch and go” for a while.
A musician’s depth of experience can be very useful to a project but taxing as well. I know we all appreciate all the work and emotion that James puts into his job as composer on Sweet Magnolias.
I am very grateful to James Jandrisch for the generosity of his time in talking about the job of composer on Sweet Magnolias. He provided us with so many great insights and explanations.
I now have an even greater appreciation for how the music has added to my experience as a viewer. I cannot help but re-watch Sweet Magnolias again with a particular interest in the music for each scene.
With that said, I will honor James’ intentions when I have the pleasure of watching season 2 for the first time. I will watch and allow the story and music to move me naturally without interruption. As he said, you only have one chance to experience the show for the very first time!
Enjoy more coverage of Sweet Magnolias here.
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