TNT’s dramatic thriller, The Last Ship chronicles a global catastrophe that nearly decimates the world’s population. Because of its positioning, the Navy destroyer U.S.S. Nathan James avoided falling victim to the devastating tragedy. But now the crew and its captain exist in a chaotic world with few survivors. As the second season opens, Captain Chandler (Eric Dane), XO Slattery (Adam Baldwin), Dr. Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra) and the rest of the crew come home to a world they no longer recognize. I spoke to Emmy winning composers Jim Dooley and James S. Levine about the musical elements that turn the post-pandemic tale into one of most TV’s most addictive shows.
The Last Ship > TNT > 2-hour season premiere! Sunday, June 21 9pm ET/PT
And while you may never have heard their names, you’ve certainly hear their work in television and films’ biggest hits. I was interested in knowing how each got involved in composing for television, so I’ll let them give their brief history, in their own words.
Jim Dooley: ”I’m originally from New York and I went to college to study composition. And it’s a strange place to study composition, because there aren’t a lot of happy composers in New York City. I moved to LA and went to USC for the graduate scoring program and all of the composers are rolling up in their Mercedes Benz’s, and Jags with smiles across their faces and I though, “Wow! I’ve never met composers like this before.” After that, I got a job as assistant to [X-time Oscar-winning composer] Hans Zimmer from Gladiator to Riding in Cars with Boys — 1999-2001. And after that, he invited me to stay on as a freelance writer, and that’s where I met Jimmy, when he was a freelance writer on Pearl Harbor, I was the tech who put the samplers in. So we’ve known each other a very long time… Skin was my first prime time series, from Jerry Bruckheimer. We lasted 3 episodes, they put us against the Yankee’s World Series, and no one watched it. But good things have come since that.” Dooley is an Emmy Award-winning composer/songwriter with a resume that includes Oscar-nominated films, video games and major television shows. Just a few of the projects that Dooley has worked on include The 2015 Senior PGA Championship theme, ABC’s Pushing Daisies (which earned Dooley a 2008 Primetime Emmy Award for “Best Original Music Composition for a Series.”), and a long list of hit films including Madagascar and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Daddy Day Camp, The Da Vinci Code and The Ring.
James S. Levine: “I’ve always been involved with music, but when I got out of college, I knew I wanted to be involved with music, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. So I scored some commercials — which was really exciting for me — and I met a few people in LA who were scoring TV shows. So I came out to LA for the day on a fact-finding mission, and I spent the day in somebody’s studio. And then I knew that this was what I wanted to do, so I moved out to LA two months later. Interned with Hans Zimmer and then apprenticed with Zimmer and other composers. A music supervisor had heard something I’d composed and gave it to Ryan Murphy and he was making Nip/Tuck, so that was my first solo job as a television composer. And after that, I love it, and do it as often as I can.” In addition to The Last Ship, Levine currently scores Rizzoli & Isles, Major Crimes, and has also composed the music for the first three seasons of FX’s American Horror Story franchise, (and he received an Emmy nomination in 2014 for AHS: Coven), Damages, FOX’s Glee, TNT’s The Closer and USA Network’s Royal Pains. Since 2001, ASCAP and BMI have honored James with over 20 film and television music awards, including those for most performed underscore.
When I asked the duo how they approach the unique sound of The Last Ship, Levine explains, “We’ve always approached what we do as creating a musical/ auditory world that is unique to a specific show, a specific character, a specific place within the body of a show. So there’s something about the harshness of what these sailors face in their day-to-day and the coldness of what America has become after this pandemic that made us want to go to a darker place. A place that is a bit more stark and industrial. We took these darker-sounding elements and paired with some more traditional scoring elements like orchestra and guitars. It felt right when we started putting these ideas up against picture.
In Season 2 of The Last Ship, Levine reveals that the show’s score has changed to reflect the show’s change in story direction. “While there’s tons of action in Season 2, the show seems to have become more of a thriller than a show about survival. In the first season, we were racing for the cure. And we have the cure now, and the thrill has become, how are we going to deliver it to the populous? And how do we save the planet? And that’s a thrill ride, and the score has evolved in that way. The show is definitely going to a very character-driven place.”
Also in Season 2, viewers will meet several new characters and I asked the men who they use music to introduce new characters and personalities. Dooley explains: “When introducing a new character, first we try to find — let’s call it a color. It’s not necessarily a theme, but it’s a sonic identity for this new character. That process begins with us sitting down and talking with Hank [Steinberg] and Steve [Kane] to get their thoughts. In addition to the people directing, and writing, and producing the episodes, they have a real deep understanding of what these characters are about and see what we can do to bring that to life.”
Levine can’t give plot specifics about season 2, but did hint, “there’s a very big theme that is specific to a central plot point and it took us a while, we banged some ideas back and forth — it’s an odd-metered thing — that is pretty incredible.”
The men encourage the show’s viewers to “Listen for the Dobro; it’s a British punk-rock influence sound. It’s a guitar with a metal reverberating sound. You’ll hear it in the Grand Old Opry.” So of course I asked if that sound means something great is coming and the men laughed. “Well, maybe not-so-greatness. The greatness is in the evil,” chuckled Dooley. “I would say that something dramatic is coming.”
Dooley reveals that the tone of Season 2 is quite different from Season 1. “When we were getting the scripts (we get them as early as possible so we can start working on concepts), it became clear that this was much more of a suspense and thriller than season one. And when we were listening to what we’re calling our ‘mission theme’ for this season, I remember thinking, that the music was great because we needed something to help tie our characters together when they’re doing their ‘thing.’”
One of the biggest surprises that I learned form talking to Levine and Dooley is how much music is in a single episode of television. “It seems like a ton; it’s like a dump truck full of music,” laughs Dooley. And when he thinks about the magnitude of his job, Levine gets a little freaked out. “I don’t even like to think about it, because it makes me nervous to think about the amount of work that goes into each episode,” he reveals. “But if you want me to put a number on it (Of course I do!) — it makes me uncomfortable because when I start writing an episode, I never think about the amount of music that I have to write — but generally, we write between 32-38 minutes of music per episode.” (Without commercials, an episode has about 44 minutes of original programming; so that’s a lot of music!) Take a listen to tonight’s two-hour premiere; you should hear music or sound elements playing underneath almost every scene.
Levine also said that the music has to be customized for each and every episode. He explains, “The themes and motifs and orchestrations get repeated, but there’s never a music cue that’s exactly the same. Our show isn’t like a 30-minute sitcom where we have a library of music cues that we can just drop in. Everything has to be tailored, nudged and fixed to fit a scene perfectly.”
Even though Jim and James can’t talk about specifics of the plot (You know, secrecy and stuff) Levine teases that “the end of Episode 3 and the totality of Episode 4 is a really great development in the series and it launches a different energy in the music.” Dooley agreed and adds, “There are some very clever bad guys and some surprises as we get into Episodes 2-4 that we had to address in some really interesting musical ways … You’ll just have to watch.”
The Last Ship > TNT > 2-hour season premiere! Sunday, June 21 9pm ET/PT
Eric Dane image © TNT