Over a decade and a half ago, a producer named Greg Berlanti was looking for someone to create the music for his first self-created TV show, The WB's Everwood. With only a few TV credits — and no ongoing series credits — to his name, composer Blake Neely submitted a demo, met with Berlanti and began a collaboration that has stretched over a dozen TV series.
In 2012, after the duo had Jack & Bobby, Brothers & Sisters and Eli Stone under their belts, Berlanti approached Neely with the script for what would become The CW's hit show Arrow. "I had no idea this would lead to the huge DC universe that it is," Neely recalls to TV Guide. But of course, it did. Arrow led to The Flash, which led to DC's Legends of Tomorrow, and would eventually tie in to Supergirl, as well as two animated series on CW Seed.
Below, Neely explains the genesis of a superhero universe's soundscape, from humble beginnings in a dark room to surprising fan favorite themes and being inspired by fear.
It's no secret that Arrow's executive producer Marc Guggenheim was inspired by Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy — particularly it's kick-off, Batman Begins. Turns out, Neely was similarly inspired by Hans Zimmer, who scored the Nolan film series.
"We talked a lot about making it grounded, and emotional, but [it] also was always going to be very dark," Neely recalls. "But the question was, how do we make it our own? How do we not copy, but take Arrow in a different direction?"
For Neely, that difference came in embracing opera, both in reference to superhero drama and the "huge arcs of emotion" that are inherent in one of the most flamboyant theatrical art forms. At that same time, he wanted to keep that grounded feeling. To go big — and small — simultaneously, Neely did something surprising: he sat in a dark room and stared at pictures.
The composer credited that this is how he usually begins his process, and something that has informed the scores for Arrow's spin-offs as well. Neely plastered a room with "Green Arrow" comic books and stared, and thought. Eventually, Neely emerged from that room with a nine(ish)-minute suite that would encompass most of the main themes he'd play with over the course of the first season. Rather than write individual themes, Neely was able to mix and match as he saw fit, blending, say, Oliver Queen's (Stephen Amell) theme with Thea Queen's (Willa Holland) theme, and more.
The breakthrough Neely needed to crack the score (and escape his self-imposed exile in that dark room) was something that could only come from staring at those images; playing on the idea of bows and arrows, most of the instruments in Arrow's musical soundscape are, you guessed it, bowed. "There were a lot of strings, and plucks, and pulls, and things like that," Neely says, adding, "As with every superhero, it turns to the big brass for the heroic moments. That was the start of it all."
Despite all that work, we'd forgive you if you're not immediately humming Arrow's main theme in your head. The drama — like many modern shows — doesn't have an expansive title sequence, just a quick push in on the show's logo. To establish that theme, Neely plucked out what he thought was "the most powerful, or hopefully memorable seven seconds" of his suite. Rather than writing a seven-second piece, his feeling was, just focus on what fans will react to.
Funnily enough, fans of the show have told Neely they like another bit even better: a rising, high-pitched note that Neely accidentally hit on as the music that plays when Oliver pulls back his bow. Versus the weeks of sitting in a dark room and composing, it's surprising that something that was meant to be background noise is the fan favorite. But Neely doesn't mind.
"Any way you can stamp a character for the fans, to be memorable, that's a win," he says.
You'd think creating a score for a spin-off of a superhero show would be as easy as a tweak here and a twist there. But of course, The Flash presented its own challenges. Particularly that the main character, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), was introduced on Arrow over a two-episode arc before he became a super-fast superhero.
Neely started there, then, with creating a theme for Barry the scientist, not the Flash, the superhero. Where Arrow was all strings and brass, Barry's theme was faster (sorry), lighter and included more electronic sounds. The orchestras were kept the same to create continuity between the shows (and presumably for budgetary reasons). The strings and brass, which Neely calls "the glue," were also still there.
Once Barry Allen was set, it was time to tackle the Scarlet Speedster. For that, it was back to the dark room, this time with images of jet engines and propulsion. The Flash was, in a way, more difficult than the Arrow theme, because the composer had been seeped in the darkness of Star City for so long. Still, he powered through and eventually created the hopeful, sci-tech score you hear on screen.
And then he needed to mix the two for crossover episodes, which may have been the easiest part of the process.
"I can have the strings playing The Flash's theme, and then put Arrow's brass theme on top of, or the reverse... And you've got a crossover mash-up," Neely says. "For me it seems easy. For fans, it's like, 'How did that happen?'"
If Neely has one regret, it's not knowing in Season 1 that brilliant scientist Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) was secretly the evil speedster known as Eobard Thawne, a.k.a. the Reverse Flash.
"I always tell the writers not to tell me what's going to happen..." Neely says. "I like to score these shows from the audience perspective. I like to be surprised, so I don't drop musical hints that shouldn't be dropped."
That meant that while Wells' theme was set — and continued over the next few seasons, despite Wells being replaced by different alternate universe doppelgängers (don't ask) — he wasn't able to properly tweak it into Eobard's theme. "You develop a theme for someone and the character dies or goes away, and it's almost like you sent your kid off to college and he won't return your calls," Neely jokes.
Another superhero show, another surprising challenge. This time, it was Supergirl, a reboot of Superman's famous cousin, with Melissa Benoist in the cape and tights on CBS — not The CW, like Arrow and The Flash.
"They were not in the same universe," Neely notes. "They didn't know of each other. There wasn't talk of a crossover."
First, Neely needed to set the tone. He looked again to movies, this time John Williams' score for the '80s Superman films, and Jerry Goldsmith's score from the Supergirl motion picture. The result leaned more orchestral than the dark tones of Arrow or the light electronics of The Flash, but over time it morphed to become closer to both of the previous shows. Good thing, too, because soon talk of a crossover began. And not only a crossover, but Supergirl made the surprising move from CBS to The CW, meaning more crossovers (two this past season alone) were par for the course.
Though Supergirl's hopefulness is more compatible with The Flash's similarly upbeat tone, even combining the two created new issues. "Supergirl's music is based on a triplet galloping feel, and Flash's is pretty straight eighth notes," Neely says. "To combine those was a rhythmic challenge that took a while."
Though Supergirl maintains its own feel — "We're still in the world of aliens, and mutahumans, bad doings in National City" — Neely has managed to juggle the previously separate world of Kara Danvers and company with those of Oliver Queen, Barry Allen, and our next group of heroes.
DC's Legends of Tomorrow
When Neely found out he'd be scoring the superteam show Legends of Tomorrow, he already had themes ready for most of the cast.
"I thought, 'Well hey, I've got material for Canary, I've got material for Captain Cold's theme. I have Heatwave, Firestorm... I have pretty much everyone,'" Neely recalls. "And then you get into the show, and you realize, yeah that works to some extent, but it's such an ensemble piece that you can't just always say, 'here's Firestorm.'"
Instead, he decided to craft a team theme, something that would get across how big and bombastic (Neely calls it "rock n' roll") the show became. The tagline of the show is that they're not heroes, they're legends. That's what Neely wanted to get across.
To do this, he shook up the process. Gone was the dark room, the pictures, the epic nine-minute suite. In order to reinvent himself and the process on his fourth superhero show, he tried to write a "straight out theme that I'm going to carry the show with." The individual themes are still present in the show and come out when a hero does something noteworthy, but that main Legends theme is the singular creation Neely came up with — something that stretched him perhaps even more than any of his previous assignments.
"So maybe in that aspect, the inspiration was fear," Neely says, laughing.
The CW's superhero shows return starting with Supergirl on October 9 at 8/7c.
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