Emmy and Grammy nominated composer Ron Jones created some of the most memorable Star Trek scores during Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first four seasons. TrekMovie had an opportunity to chat with the veteran composer about his time with Trek, including his tumultuous exit, working with Seth MacFarlane, and his latest work, including the short film, Sky Fighter, which has a funding campaign ending this week.
Scoring Star Trek: The Next Generation without a compass
Let’s start at the beginning. How is it you ended up working on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Steve Schaeffer, who is one of my main percussion guys and a legend in studio work, called me one day and says he was doing a score for MGM, and Harry Lojewski, who is a legendary music director at MGM, was advising Robert Justman, who was one of the producers for music for the new Star Trek. So, he got me a drive on to Paramount in 1987 and I didn’t have an appointment and I came in and they were recording for this World War II movie, and during the break my friend grabbed Harry and said, “I want you to meet my friend Ron, ” and shoves us into the projection room and he button-holes the guy saying “Ron’s your guy, all the session guys think he’s the next cat, so you should listen to his stuff’.” So, he goes into another studio where Hans Zimmer is scoring Rain Man and kicks him out.
Let me go back. I had put together a demo tape. I had done some horror films and different things, and I spent about eight hours on it and thought it was pretty good and played it for my wife and she said, “Don’t do that, just play him your energy stuff. It doesn’t have to do with science fiction, just energy.” So, I went back into my studio and slammed together some tracks that were just energy. I wasn’t planning on getting the gig anyway, but I went and had this cassette I don’t really believe in and we go into Hans Zimmer’s studio and Harry puts it in the deck and Harry listens for about a minute and gets on the phone and I think, “Great, I am being dismissed,” and while the music is playing he is talking and he gets off the phone and says, “Thursday, you go to trailer 9, that is behind this building”, and I go, “Why?” and he says, “Because you are doing Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Bob Justman was your point man when it came to that first season?
Yeah, they had divided up responsibilities among the producers, and for Justman music was one of his things. He and his wife were great music aficionados and very, very humanistic and very much into the arts. And they were beautiful people. I think they picked the right person who could resonate with the humanity of Star Trek. Dennis McCarthy was also signed. I didn’t know Dennis and didn’t know he was doing it. I didn’t know I was doing it until they threw me in there. Dennis was assigned to do the pilot, which was a two-parter, and I was assigned to episode 3 [“The Naked Now”]. I got to score that first, since Dennis wasn’t ready, because it was a bigger project. So, that’s how it started.
What were your instructions from Justman on how to compose for this new Star Trek?
Well, they were concerned that with a bald captain, and such a very different crew and different look than the original, that they were going to have a shock seeing this new ship and British captain, so they were very mindful of trying to make everything a bridge [to TOS]. So, they wanted us to incorporate a lot of Alexander Courage’s music into the thing. I took a stance of sort of taking the essence of the iconic style of the music of the original and fusing it with something more cinematic.
You can hear that in the music for not only me, but Dennis, and how it evolved and changed in response to the writers becoming more comfortable, the actors becoming more comfortable and everybody fitting into their roles. At first, everybody felt like they were in a fishbowl and there was no compass and you didn’t know what was right and what was wrong. The jury was out and Paramount was chewing their fingernails out. I never play it safe, but I play it smart. I tried to find a happy balance. We kicked the training wheels off as we got to that point and certainly by the third season it felt like it was Star Trek: The Next Generation and not an iteration of the previous series.
Fighting for melody in Star Trek
Who was directing you after Justman left at the end of the first season?
Really, Rick Berman was the executive producer and his word was law. And Peter Lauritson was taking the role of Robert Justman, sort of being line producer and “get it done” kind of guy in post. But Peter didn’t really get involved with musical analysis, he was more about making sure the show was done. Robert Justman was more like a curator from a museum. Robert was more involved in the texture of what was being expressed. So, all we could do is do our best and then Rick Berman would come in and scream if he didn’t like something. We were like a dysfunctional family, unlike when Robert Justman was there it was like having a kind captain of a ship that was guiding everything. After that it was sort of like, “Who has got the wheel?” [laughs]
Famously you and Rick had a falling out and you left the show after the fourth season. During that period was he trying to move you into what has been called the “sonic wallpaper” style or was it more sudden at the end when you left?
No, they said “Do great stuff.” Kind of like the opening titles, to go boldly. That is what I got. I did that. When we did the 50th anniversary concert, we got everybody in a room and we talked about it and there was a whole bunch of stuff they told Dennis that they never told me. They sort of left me alone. So, I was just as surprised, as the thing sort of broke down.
Going back to that issue that melody should be suppressed. It is like a writer being told not to use nouns, or not use adverbs. Well, you would say, “That’s just silly, that is going to sound like Mongo in space.” You are handcuffing the expressive ability of the actors and everybody. Music is the only part of a production that actually evokes the neurochemistry of emotion. Otherwise it is like a math printout. So, to take out the core element? It seems like a forced regime on the art and craft of music and expression.
The contract for composers allowed them to fire you any time. So, if you run into a wall with somebody, they can say, “We don’t like you, goodbye.” So, I did 42 episodes. Seems like if they didn’t like it they would have said, “You know, on ‘Best of Both Worlds,’ that sucked and you are gone.” But they told me it was the best thing that ever happened, on numerous occasions. So, I don’t know what stuck in whose craw.
Were the issues just creative?
I know I was more expensive than Dennis. Most television shows are run by accountants and not creative people and they get bugged by things that cost money and I always wanted big orchestras and big groups. When I did Family Guy, I got the orchestra up to 96, in an age when people are scoring on their laptops in the bathtub. I am the antithesis of doing it cheap and half-assed. So, if you were in my shoes, wouldn’t you want to wake up each day and do a great job and not a mediocre job, just to placate the third-level bookkeeper? They spent more on bagels than they do on music. I would rather go down in flames doing it with passion and doing it right. And my shows stand. So, if you put my shows against somebody who decided to do it wallpaper, let’s have a blind contest. And then watch the show and say, “Hey, that score was moving to the story.”
Wasn’t it about some freaking people in space? Wasn’t it about the challenges that they encountered? Shouldn’t the music have responded in an epic way? This is mankind out in space. This is the universe! It’s not some stupid sitcom. It was epic, everything is on the line. There was an episode, “Who Watches The Watchers,” where they were trying to not influence a culture, but they did and one of the people died and so they tried to convince them that the Starfleet guys weren’t gods. And they say, “Hey, we got a guy on board that’s dying.” How do you play death? If you don’t have a melody, what am I supposed to do? Just D-minor? They put you in an impossible bind. If I am on trial for this, so be it.
But, really the people with that power are the ones that have the paintbrush. Sometimes they paint with a brush and sometimes they paint with a machine gun. So, they were painting with concrete and machine guns when I ran into the wall with that. Every time I did a score from the beginning, all 42 times, I assumed I was fired. I said to myself, “Well that was fun, now it’s over, I stuck my neck out on that one.” I was on a suicide mission.
Is there one of those times that you were most challenged on, the one you thought for sure was the one that was going to get you fired?
Early on, Denise Crosby wanted off the show, so she gets killed by a big blob. And they had one act of the five acts, seven and a half minutes, was a complete scored version of a funeral in the holodeck. I could just see the network saying, “Let’s have seven minutes of a funeral with one of the major cast members dead, that ought to keep the ratings up.” So I scored it and the studio musicians, who are pretty jaded, came in to the booth on the playback and they were weeping. Everybody was floored by it and when we went to the dub and they loved it and then Rick Berman slams in on the next show. I am in there and he says, “Jones, can’t you write anything non-emotional?” and slams the door. So, right off the bat, something about me pissed him off.
I am sure if we were on a desert island we would be friends and I don’t have any continuing angst. I don’t think about it, only when I am doing an interview. This happened 30 years ago. I was a young guy doing this epic show and I am not perfect, he is not perfect. I am happy for what I did and proud of every episode. Other ones like “Who Watches the Watchers,” or “Offspring,” where Data had a daughter. I really wrote my butt off. I would have to go to the emergency room because I was so exhausted. I couldn’t have given anything more. I slept on my studio floor. I drank four pots of coffee a day and just killed myself. It’s hard when you don’t get appreciated when you are doing that.
Parodying his own work on Family Guy
Someone who did appreciate you is Seth MacFarlane. Is it fair to say he hired you due to his love of Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Yeah, and Duck Tales. He would come home from school and put his books in the corner and sit and watch Duck Tales. I wrote a very Indiana Jones and very epic type of genre score and he loved it. So he said, “Oh, Ron Jones.” I did all these different kind of shows that became his favorites. He would say I ruined his summer when they had the cliffhanger from ”Best of Both Worlds.” So, I got 15 years of gigs from Family Guy and working with Seth on multiple things. So, really, it was kind of an extension of Star Trek.
They did a gag about the “Best of Both Worlds” cliffhanger, so you ended up scoring an homage to yourself?
Oh yeah. There wasn’t a show they made fun of that I didn’t work on. They would make fun of The A-Team and I worked on that. They would always pick stuff I worked on. They would give Walter [Murphy] stuff that was direct parody things, but I remember the “Best of Both Worlds” one they gave to me. I am parodying myself and they go, “Yep!”
Since working with Seth on Family Guy and his other projects, you have moved up north to Washington and established your own facility, SkyMuse Studios. Have you put Hollywood behind you?
My wife and I missed the Northwest. I didn’t leave Hollywood. My studio is 1,200 miles away, but it is a Hollywood studio. When I looked in the rear-view mirror when I left Fox, I said, “I am taking this with me”. So, I built a major studio myself and I can do whatever I want with it.
So, producers find me. We can do everything, including sound effects and foley. We are on 22 acres of beautiful forest with a guest house for producers. You can walk across this beauty to the studio into a no-pressure environment and we will make your freaking film. So I am working on a lot of different projects. Someone just called me about a Netflix thing right before this call. And we are supposed to be doing this thing kind of like Game of Thrones. A comedy is coming and another documentary. So there are all kinds of things and everybody cares. The goal for this is to work with people who give a darn, who really want to do stuff. I couldn’t change people there. You could lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
I have nothing against doing major films and projects. It is only a two-hour plane flight to get down there and we have telecommunications and Skype. Even Michael Giacchino lives in Encino and he won’t drive to Warner Brothers, he would rather do it off of Skype. I don’t know who has it better or worse. I appreciate the silence here. We have miles of trails here. I enjoy doing what I want to do. Right now, I am producing my own album for a group I started called “Jazz Forest.” I am doing what I want to do and don’t have to fit a clique or a scene or any of that stuff.
Sees his DNA in today’s Star Trek music
You mentioned Giacchino. I’m curious if you have any thoughts on his scores for the Star Trek movies.
I think he has sort of hit a stride as to what J.J. [Abrams] wants and what the energy of the package is. The franchise has to compete against the Marvel features and all these big blockbusters, so it can’t just be Star Trek, it has to be Star Trek on steroids. It has to hold its own and the cost to the studios is half a billion dollars, so the pressure on Michael is not only to do what is right for the show, but also compete against Transformers, and Fast and the Furious, and all that other stuff. You can tell there is a lean to try to stay towards that energy and I always thought Star Trek was a little bit more cerebral, like a chess match between Captain Kirk and the force out there. But the chess match sort of game doesn’t translate to a big action movie. I have respect for Michael and I think he is bridging the gap.
And any thoughts on the music for the new TV show, Star Trek: Discovery?
Not really. When I was doing the 50th anniversary tour in Los Angeles I actually met two of the producers backstage. It was fun to meet them and they liked my music, and you can hear my influence and the influence of Giacchino and everybody. I put my thumbprint into the DNA of that music stream, just like I picked up from Alexander Courage and everybody. So, it’s nice to be part of that canon.
Return to sci-fi for Sky Fighter
You are attached as a composer to a sci-fi short film, Sky Fighter, which is presently raising money on Indiegogo, and the writer-director is Lukas Kendall, who produced your Star Trek: TNG CD box set. What is that project and what is your relationship with Lukas?
A lot of people in science fiction know the impact of soundtracks, and Lukas as a young man started really being focused on this with his own newsletter in high school. He became successful and came to Hollywood and started Film Score Monthly and I got to know him when he came to interview me when I was scoring Star Trek 30 years ago. I was really impressed. He is an East coast intellectual, but still down to Earth. And he loves soundtracks! Paramount was never going to allow a soundtrack collection of my work, but he stayed on it for year and finally broke through and got permission, which was epic. We did 14 CDs. It took us over a year just to do the liner notes with Jeff Bond. And just listing the music was 52 pages in a CD booklet. Who does that? He is just a nut about detail and creativity and really a champion of putting something in people’s hands they can listen to and really understand.
And, lo and behold, I am dazzled by his ability as a screenwriter. I have read several of his original pieces and they are great and fantastic. They are something a major studio can do. He has combined his love of science fiction and literature and screenwriting into this project called Sky Fighter, and I have read the script a couple of times and he asked me if I would jump in to score the pilot. Right now he is raising money to do the pilot and hopefully get that thing made, and with all these distribution channels out there, there is a high chance of getting this thing made. The studios don’t fund unless you are Aaron Sorkin or whoever, so all these filmmakers have to go out and fundraise and beat the drum.
Have you worked out the approach? Is it more retro or modern sci-fi?
I can’t say. It is going to be whatever is right for the story. There are a couple of guys against a whole armada of forces against them, so there is a lot tension and a lot of drama and a lot of action. It is not a soap opera, so there is going to be a lot of action in the score. Maybe electronic, but I sort of like to wait until I see it, instead of going from the script.
Find out more about what Ron Jones is up to these days at skymusestudios.com.