Composer and arranger Kenny Wood has composed across different mediums including video games and films. His most recent project, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game, is a dark comedy thriller about four close friends who reunite after 8 years. During their reunion, they play a drinking game where they reveal their deepest darkest secrets to one another or they have to play for eternity. The concept of the game is “You lie. You die.” Kenny has said that Gatlopp: Hell of a Game was a treat to compose for, especially since it has an extended animated title scene which is a “playground” for composers.
Other notable projects that he has contributed to include End of Fall, Go For It!, Scream 5, F9: The Fast Saga, Magnum P.I, Despicable Me 3, Fate of the Furious, Amoeba Battle, and Oktapod which was nominated for an Oscar.
In addition to his impressive resume, Kenny is also an advocate for composer assistants, having penned the Assitanting the Composer guidebook with the help of a brilliant team of contributors as well as co-founding Teammates: A Community for Assistants of Media Composers, which is a group which strives to make the assisting experience better for everyone involved.
PH: Can you share your background and how you found yourself in the production industry?
Kenny Wood: First, thank you for having me and publishing this! I consider myself an LA native, even though my family trotted across the country during the 70s and 80s. In ’84 (before I turned 2) we finally settled in LA county, but we still moved from one home to another on what seemed like an annual basis. As a result, TV, and movies were a big constant in my youth and I always had a fascination with entertainment. WB cartoons were a big part of that and for those who know, the music in those are masterpieces. Fast forward a few years, it was Danny Elfman’s score to Batman that had another huge impact on me, so much that a career in music was now like a tractor beam pulling me in. As a teenager, I learned all I could, taking trumpet lessons, teaching myself the piano, and making song arrangements for the high school marching band. I was incredibly lucky to have had teachers recognize my passion and foster that learning.
I majored in music at UCLA and USC and after finishing my studies in 2009, I dived head first into the ocean-sized pool that is Hollywood.
Despite having some small successes early on and all the skills and confidence I felt I needed, it really took a long time for the professional relationships to form into a solid shape. Among those colleagues was Norman Arnold, who I would credit with turning my career into a sustainable one. Him being one of the first people in the professional world who gave me a shot, my music earned placements on hit shows like TMZ, Extra, and The Ellen Degeneres Show. I would later go on to assist some big-name composers including Heitor Pereira (Despicable Me) and the Oscar-winning Mychael Danna (Life of Pi). And that brings me to today, where my filmmaker friends from college (for whom I’ve scored literally hundreds of little projects) are now getting greenlit for medium and big-sized projects of their own. In between, I’m providing additional writing and arranging help to some more big names including Brian Tyler (Fast Franchise) and Keith Power (Magnum P.I., Hawaii Five-0).
PH: You’ve worked on some pretty notable projects! How has each of these shaped you into the professional you are today? (Feel free to give specific project examples, if relevant).
Kenny Wood: Thank you, yes! I would say since working for Heitor Pereira, I’ve been a part of so many gargantuan projects as a contributor to additional music and/or arranging. Some of those include Despicable Me 3, Fast8 and Fast9, Scream 5, Magnum P.I., Rescue Rangers (which just came out recently), and some even more exciting things I can’t yet mention. These are exactly what they seem to be, incredible opportunities to be working with awesome composers and music teams, putting music to scenes created by awesome casts and crews, and sharpening my dramatic and musical senses so that I can take those sensibilities into the projects where I’m the main composer. Not only that, with these projects, I get to check off a bunch of career bucket-list items like writing music for the famed opening Disney castle logo, putting a new spin on the Hawaii Five-0 theme song, or getting a chance to have a hand in rebooting my most beloved 80s and 90s programs. It’s a genuine fantasy!
PH: How did you get involved with Gatlopp: Hell of a Game?
Kenny Wood: At a young age, I knew I wanted to pursue music for the film. I studied composition in school and paired up with student filmmakers in hopes that my collaborators and I can continue working together professionally. Gatlopp was exactly that dream come to fruition. Alberto Belli, for whom I scored his graduate thesis film while at USC as well as a big handful of other small projects, asked me to be a part of this movie–his feature film directorial debut! There was no chance I was going to say no to this one. His style of filmmaking is one in which I could immerse myself for my entire career and be happy as a clam. I’m really proud of him and excited to see how he’s going to bring future scripts to life. He’s immensely talented.
PH: You described the extended animated title scene as a “playground” for composers. How so?
Kenny Wood: Music within film or TV has historically played an enormous role, especially in the main title sequence, and I believe that’s how we became so enamored with the greats of the past like Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, North by Northwest), Shirley Walker (Batman the Animated Series [and movie]), Henry Mancini (Pink Panther), and John Williams. They were legends of title sequences. These days, media music is a bit more subtle and nuanced, but when a rare title sequence comes around, we composers are giddy with excitement because it’s a chance to be alone in the soundtrack (with no other dialogue or effects to compete with) and present something really memorable. Arguably the most famous (and frequent) title sequences in cinema’s long history are the ones from James Bond movies. Imagine how fun it would be to work on one of those, that’s the level of sheer joy composers get when a movie or show leaves space for a composer to shine. Gatlopp is no exception and I went for it, full throttle!
PH: Are there any general rules of thumb for composing? Can you describe your process and approach when working on something new?
Kenny Wood: I’ll come back to those rules in a bit, but my process begins with a chat with the director. I may or may not read a script, but what I will do is pry open the characters and get to know who they are and what they’ll do in situations–why their actions (or inactions) are so important to the story. Doing this gives me a sense of what’s at stake at every turn and that heavily influences my musical decision-making. So the first rule of thumb is to leave out anything that doesn’t support what the character is feeling (or what the audience needs to feel in response to that character). In my mind, this is how you get the music to really work to picture–don’t be a distraction if that’s not the intent.
Another part of my process is researching (or discovering) any styles or sounds that would fit well within the story. If it’s a particular instrument or musical genre I want to incorporate, I make sure to try and know everything there is to know about it so that in addition to creating something moving and compelling, it’s also authentic to that style or culture.
A couple more general things: Know when music needs to be there and when it DOESN’T need to be there. And lastly, it’s fun to draw inspiration from your heroes and imitate their styles, but wild success hinges on you having a distinct voice apart from everyone else–so always try to (tactfully) put your personal stamp on things.
PH: Throughout your time in the industry, what have you learned about yourself (both personally and professionally?)
Kenny Wood: I’ve learned that it’s really hard to separate the personal and professional. As a person, I fail, I get rejected, I brood over setbacks, but as a professional, I build failsafes into my workflow, I draw from experience, and I persevere. There’s a lot more to it than that, but to put it simply, there are times when passion is leading the way and other times when control is necessary. Balancing those two counteracting forces is how we stay afloat. Another thing I’ve learned is that relationships are central to both personal and professional lives. It’s important to communicate, have empathy, and share because what’s the point of anything if you don’t?
PH: How did the Assisting the Composer guidebook come about?
Kenny Wood: Real quick for those who may not know, I’m also an advocate for composer assistants and some great friends and I oversee a community of people who are all at various stages in their careers, most of whom are current, former, or prospective assistants. Back in 2019, there was a huge discussion in a popular composer forum about the mistreatment of assistants and many people were chiming in with unique perspectives on the matter, but none were really doing anything to help those getting abused. I chimed in simply by saying I’ll put a list of composer-assistant guidelines together from my own experience (which included some mistreatment as well). A luminary from the group then announced in a grand way that I’ll be authoring this set of guidelines and that we should all eagerly anticipate. Now I was on the hot seat! I knew a simple list wasn’t going to suffice or have any lasting impact so I set out to get a team together, conduct some research, and after 6 weeks had passed and over 100 people responded to a survey, the 75-page guidebook was completed and released for free to the people of the forum. It made a huge splash and received all kinds of praise for how thoroughly it covered the problems faced by assistants and how these issues can be approached for a solution in a professional manner.
I could have stopped there, turned it into an ebook, and let some pennies trickle in, but rather than do that, I decided to keep the momentum going and create an online community. TEAMMATES: A Community for Assistants of Media Composers (on Facebook and Discord) was born and has been steadily growing for the past 3 years. We now have about 3000 members and lots of daily activities from discussions to job postings to skills development. But arguably our most valuable feature is an anonymous question form for people to ask those hard-to-ask questions as well as a wonderful team of admins who are there to help any member with a specific need such as how to respond to a particular studio situation or how to craft a well-written email or negotiate their assistant salary. It’s amazing to be giving back to my community in this way. Every second I volunteer for this cause is well worth it, especially when our members succeed and let us know about it. As for the guidebook, it’s still in use, it’s still free, and all are welcome to check it out!
Link to the guidebook: http://bit.ly/2GwlDEF
PH: Composer assistants can almost be referred to as unsung heroes—how have they been helpful to you in the work you do?
Kenny Wood: I believe wholeheartedly that assistants are flat-out heroes, full stop. With social movements happening like #payuphollywood and even #metoo, the time is now to show some quality leadership, stop the abuse, and give fair pay and/or fair credit where it’s due. In actuality, I have no full-time or part-time assistants of my own. When I’m in need of help, I will delegate a very specific task to someone and pay them well for it. I may expand in the future, but certainly, as a figure for fair assistance treatment, setting a good example for a healthy, transparent work environment is essential for me. John Powell (How to Train Your Dragon, Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Christophe Beck (Frozen 1 & 2) are ones who aren’t shy about shining some of their spotlights on their assistants. I think all composers should follow their example.
PH: Is there a particular scene from Gatlopp that you’re excited for people to see and hear?
Kenny Wood: After going on and on about how fun title sequences are to compose, it would be weird if I didn’t say that one! But really, the entire movie is an adventure ride and it’s so fun from beginning to end, I can’t wait to hear what the reactions will be. I could point out things to listen for from every score cue but to keep from going on too long, I’ll just say that the movie’s climax has some of the craziest music I’ve ever written for film. It’s kind of like mixing soda and pop rocks, but instead using a blowtorch and a tub of gasoline–all while a stampede of elephants is thundering through your living room in Venice, CA.