INTERVIEW: Composer David E. Russo Scores The Odyssey ‘Windows On The World’

David E. Russo’s music is featured in Gotham and its spin-off Pennyworth, and in the new film Windows on the World from director Michael Olmos, the soundscape takes viewers along an emotional odyssey of lives changed by the horrific events of September 11, 2001.

Starring Ryan Guzman (9-1-1) as Fernando, Windows on the World centers on the character’s journey from Mexico to New York in search of his father. The latter may have died at ground zero. Fernando’s father, Balthazar, played by the legendary Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica), is an undocumented busboy working at Windows on the World, a complex of venues atop the north tower. The film is a journey full of hope, love, and hard lessons.

PopAxiom spoke with David E. Russo about Sicilians, the rise of technology, and underscoring the film Windows on the World.

Sicilian Sounds

David’s career spans three decades. His earliest IMDB credit is for fun alien comedy Spaced Invaders. How did music play a role in his life before it became a career? “I came from a family of disgruntled Sicilian immigrants, all of whom were musicians. My grandfather used to play guitar on the radio in the 1920s in New York. No one ever made any money, and it was never really possible as a career.”

David continues to share his early years. “I grew up in a house full of Sicilians singing, and there was always music and fighting and yelling, but it never occurred to me there was a living to be made at it.”

A realization later in life prompted David to start working on what would become his lifelong passion. “It wasn’t until after college, where I had no idea what I was going to do, that I kinda woke up and realized the only thing I had any ability in was music.”

Truer words are rarely spoken. “Fear is a tremendous motivating factor, and it got me moving.”

Beyond Belief

More films and TV followed, including scoring 28 episodes of the Beyond Belief: Fact Or Fiction. “That kept me afloat. In the early days, it’s pretty touch and go. That kept me alive.”

About Beyond Belief, David says it was “… an ultra low budget series. The options you had as a composer those days were very limited on a low budget. Now, we can do full orchestras, and it’s pretty convincing. Back then, it was heavy lifting to get things to sound decent.”

Like most artists, David is his own worst critic. “It’s really cringe-worthy when I look back on it. But I was fortunate to have the job.”

edward james olmost-film-vix

About Windows on the World

Windows of the World is available on streaming service Vix. The composer’s relationship with the film begins long before filming began. ”I’ve had a deep friendship with [writer/producer], Robert Anderson, for 15 or 20 years now. He’s a remarkable guy. He’d written this script with his cousin [Zack Anderson], and I had read it years before. It was a moving story.”

David heaps praise on Robert. “I’ve done one other film with him. I just love being around him and working with him. It’s incredibly creative.”

So, for David, he “… knew the story intimately long before I met Michael.”

Film-making is a massive collaborative artistic process. David says, “When Michael came in, he had a particular vision that was clear and emotional.”

The music for Windows on the World came about in a particular way for David. “For this one, I wrote an entire suite of pieces based on my feeling about the film. For me, it was clear from the beginning. It was a film about family. There was a theme for the family and a theme for the main character’s odyssey as he travels.”

A significant influence on a film and its score are the locations. “… the difference between going from Mexico to New York. Trying to musically express the differences in cultures and energy. How he comes to this foreign place and deals with the craziness of New York.”

Ryan Guzman-vix-film-windows on the world

David wrote, “… a bunch of pieces based on what I imagined.” So, how much of that music was in the final cut? “Almost all of it.”

However, David shares the story about one piece that didn’t make it to the end. “Robert has deep relationships with jazz musicians, he’s won Grammy’s for producing jazz albums … I did one piece for New York with saxophone and jazz that he hated. It was summarily trashed. He went to Grammy award-winning David Sánchez, who wrote a piece for New York that was far, far better than what I’d done.”

The script, the settings, the director, and producer all contributed to the energy David used to create the music. But there was one more influence with a significant impact. “The film has these interstitial paintings by artist Sandow Birk, those were really inspirational. The kid is reading Don Quixote, and it’s about this odyssey. There’s this little mythic element that undercuts the film that I was tapping into. I was trying to emotionally connect with what those drawings say and the idea of this journey.

Get the soundtrack!

Music 2.0

Computers are now a vital part of the film scoring process. David shares his thoughts on the good and the bad of working with technology. “The challenge now is, if you’re working on TV … there’s a time crunch. You’ve got seven to twelve days to make music for an episode. Gotham, let’s say, was 42 minutes of the show after commercials, and we had 38 minutes of music every week. So, the computer enables you to physically get it down. The shows I’ve been doing involve full orchestras, which is impossible in the time frame to do it without these tools.”

The drawback to this technology is that “… everyone seems to have the same toolkit. So, the challenge is to create something that serves the story and is sonically distinctive in the time that you have. I’ve always struggled with the machines trying to bring life to them. That’s the biggest challenge, trying to create something that is true to the story and is not just generic.”

More tools never hurt, though, and neither does taking the time to blend the old and new school. “Computers are really good at taking a sound and manipulating it endlessly to become something else. I found that I spend much more time these days putting a microphone up and trying to record stuff; capture performances and sound.”

In the end, scoring a film or TV series requires an approach that’s “… essentially the same … it’s trying to get a feeling for what the spirit of the thing is and trying to come up with a sound palette to express that. And limiting yourself to a particular palette in a certain sense to find a unified expression for what this show is about.”

About his own process, David says, “I’m never theoretical about stuff. It’s always about emotion and what feels true. If I feel like I’m lying, I know it’s not true. It’s not an intellectual process at all.”

Wrapping Up

As humans, we acquire inspiration from all manner of sources. For an artist, being around other artists provides a creative energy boost, unlike anything else. “The first job I got out of college was at Paramount Studios as a secretary in the music department. At that time, this was in the early 80s, they had this recording studio, Stage M, that was really vibrant. I saw everybody work. John Williams, James Horner, Bill Conti, everybody who was doing big stuff. That was really inspiring to me.”

David reveals who is his personal number, one composer. “Ennio Maricon is the sensai. I love John Barry too. But Maricon inspires me more than anybody.”

In the age of remakes, what movie would David love to score? “There was a really cheesy movie from the 70s called Logan’s Run. That would be a great film. The story is pretty interesting and the dehumanization of society and over-population. It could be great.”

Windows on the World is available on Vix. What’s coming next from David? “I’m contributing to a documentary. It’s from Michael Webber, I scored something for him a few years ago called The Elephant In the Living Room. He’s been working on this new one called The Conservation Game. That’s going to be a good one.”

Is Windows on the World on your watch-list?

Thanks to David E. Russo and Costa Communications
for making this interview possible.

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Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.

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