Jupiter’s Legacy, based on Mark Millar’s comic book series, premiered this week and from episode one, promises much more than a typical hero’s journey. The show is set in two time periods. One follows the formation of the Union, a collective of the world’s first superheroes, and the other follows their children, who must contend with the legendary reputations of their parents and a new generation of supervillains. The story is bold, mixing elements of superhero narrative and family drama, and demands a bold score to elevate it. We had the chance to chat with the series composer, Stephanie Economou, to learn how she crafted a cohesive score that can play with mythical dignity in one scene and with grunge scowl in another.
Emilia Yu: Can you tell me about how you got into film scoring?
Stephanie Economou: I started out as a kid playing piano and violin. I played in orchestras growing up and started composing in high school because we had this great composition program. And I really loved it, so I went to a music conservatory for college. I had some friends who were going to college right down the road and they were like, we have these short films. Do you have any interest in scoring them? I was marginally terrified, but really interested because I’d never done anything like that before.
I grew up loving film and TV, so I wanted to learn more about the process. Scoring those short films was the first exploration into that. And I really loved it. Being at music conservatory and writing concert music can be very isolating. You’re in a practice room a lot of the day by yourself. It felt really nice to talk to people about my music that weren’t musicians. They pushed me to explore things that I wouldn’t think to explore if I was just creating music on my own. I really loved everything about creating a sonic landscape for picture.
I moved out to L.A. after that and started working with composer Harry Gregson-Williams (Shrek, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Martian). That’s how I started building my credits and getting experience. Working with Harry was so great because he’s such a versatile composer. I was constantly challenged to branch out stylistically and develop new skills for writing.
EY: How did you get involved with Jupiter’s Legacy?
SE: One of the executive producers, Hameed Shaukat, we had a couple of mutual friends in common and he had heard my music and called me up. I was kind of surprised and I came in and sat down and we hit it off.
It was a longer process, but that was good because by the time I actually got composing, they had really fine cuts of all eight episodes. We sat down and spotted everything. We went through every episode, talked about concept and what they wanted from the music, and they wanted it to feel like a long feature film. They didn’t want it to feel super episodic. I definitely had the time and perspective to see what’s happening in each episode and ask how can I reflect these storylines to feel like they’re evolving with the narrative?
EY: One of the pieces that’s always showing up is that opening theme that represents the Union and the Utopian. What big ideas or concepts were you trying to convey in that to represent the Union?
SE: It was important to me from the start to have a really strong theme for the Utopian and for the Union. It kind of became the show theme essentially. It felt right to me to create that as Sheldon’s (Josh Duhamel) theme, because he embodies all those traditional aspects of what the Union represents, what the Code represents. I wanted it to feel like it had a sense of dignity to it. You’ll hear it a lot on French horn, on a brass section. That’s kind of the stereotypical superhero sound, so it fit him in a way. But I also knew I was going to break that down and have it present in more intimate moments when things were fracturing. So I gave it some gravitas to play proudly in big action sequences or in these bigger superhero moments, but it also needed to work in more intimate, sensitive moments.
EY: It’s interesting because it has this, as you say, dignity to it and it’s very mythical. But it’s also got this mild sense of foreboding.
SE: Yeah, exactly. That was the idea. At some point, it’s slowly taking a dark turn and I wanted to be able to put it on a low choir and have it feel menacing, like there’s something bubbling below the surface.
EY: What about the sound of Hutch (Ian Quinlan) and Chloe (Elena Kampouris)? They’re a lot more electronic and modern film score sounding. What were your influences for those sounds?
SE: I didn’t really have an idea for Chloe’s theme until I saw her first action sequence. I don’t like to throw this word around, but she’s a total badass. She broke away from this traditional lifestyle or traditional narrative of the superhero to do her own thing, and she really looks down on what the Union represents. Then when we see her use her powers for the first time, she is so powerful. And yet she’s living this alternative lifestyle that everybody disapproves of. So what came out for her was something that nothing else in the series sounded quite like. I think that had to do with influences from music that I listened to growing up. I didn’t try to do a specific thing, but it came out as this dark industrial rock thing.
In episode four she has a lot of very intimate, dark moments where using rock metal wasn’t totally appropriate. So the theme that you hear on the guitars in her action sequence is on a piano or a guitar or a bell-y instrument with a different arrangement around it. It’s still that same theme, just with a different interpretation. Her character lends itself to that, as did Raikou (Anna Akana). I think she’s my favorite character in the series. I was super inspired by her action sequence, which is really stylized, and it had a more modern rock vibe to it. I created a little motif for her, which is on a mouthpiece trumpet, just doing these bendy things. So whenever we see her on screen, we hear that. She definitely demanded a unique signature.
And Hutch, he doesn’t really have a theme, but he does have a motif or a signature which I called the bass growl. It’s a distorted bass that you hear, like a little sting on him. That was actually one of the first things that I had written after the Union theme. He just seems like an off the beaten path dude, who’s a bit of a criminal doing his own thing. And we don’t know a lot about his story. We don’t know what his ultimate motivations are. So I wanted to give him something that was a little bit dark, but grungy. Giving him this bass growl that’s heavily distorted and kind of strange seemed to fit every time he was on screen.
EY: And George (Matt Lanter), he may have his own motif, but I was too distracted by him always being associated with that song, “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine.” Was that already written in before you got there?
SE: That song was in the earliest iteration of the cuts that I had seen. I still wanted to give George a little something, but I knew full well that it’s really that song that’s super attached to his character. It works so well for his swagger and absurdity and wealthy white dude mentality. Even so, there were a couple of scenes in episode three with his theme, and it follows him around a little bit, but it’s not as developed as some of the other themes. It’s this plucked dulcimer thing. I think it’s episode three where he’s sitting at the dining table in the morning and he’s got ninety-nine eggs to choose from in front of him. And there’s a little waltz that I wrote with his theme in there. I wanted it to feel elegant and high class because that made it funnier. He’s such a funny character, so I wanted to do something that had more levity to it.
EY: Jupiter’s Legacy is both a family drama and a superhero show. But what part do you find more compelling personally?
SE: I think it does a really great job of showing the difficult relationships that parents have with their children, or that siblings have, or that friends have. The relationships are quite convincing, particularly between Sheldon and Walter (Ben Daniels). We come into their relationship knowing there’s some sort of animosity there, but there’s a lot of subtle animosity that develops between siblings without you even realizing. They did a great job of not pushing that element of their relationship, but letting it unfold. There was so much love between them, but also so many things that were unspoken. And then you look at them in present day and you see how that continued to evolve despite their closeness and them being these pillars of the Union.
EY: Are there any films or things you’d really love to score in the future? A dream job?
SE: I tend to get very stir-crazy if I feel like I’m doing the same thing creatively over and over again. As long as I’m working with people I respect and have a good relationship with, and people who are going to challenge me to push more into the experimental, or create things that demand that kind of musical landscape, that would make me really happy. I want to start out every project being terrified because I’m not sure what I’m doing or because it’s something new. I’d love to work with more female writers and directors, people who have a different voice and offer a different perspective to this art form. That would feel really meaningful.
EY: Speaking of that, I saw that you’re a board member for the Alliance for Women Film Composers. What does that entail?
SE: The alliance is an incredible resource. We have hundreds of members who are female composers, arrangers, songwriters, orchestrators, just a really diverse, incredible group of talented women. I’ve been a board member for several years now and I recently created, along with a couple other people on the board, a mentorship program. We go through applications and find six mentees and pair them up with A-list composers, both male and female, to get that one-on-one experience. I’ve always felt that accessibility to people with incredible experience in the industry has always been a lot harder for women to get, so we place specific importance on that.
That’s been a really rewarding experience, seeing them go on and evolve in their own work, and seeing the generosity of the mentors in this industry. Everyone’s so busy, but they volunteer a small bit of their time and it’s so life-changing for these mentees. There have been so many people who are like, I don’t know any female composers, how do I meet them? Well, there’s the Alliance for Women Film Composers. We have a directory on the website where you can find hundreds of female composers and listen to their work.
And there’s other great things that the alliance does, like outreach. Growing up, I never saw a female composer. We play orchestral music that’s all white men. Classical music has been so whitewashed. That’s not a coincidence. Being able to create more visibility, like seeing a woman conduct an orchestra, or giving them space to speak and talk about their work is really crucial because there’s a really unconscious bias there, especially for young kids. They don’t even know it’s possible to pursue this if you’re a young girl because they don’t see it in front of them.
SPOILER ALERT: This portion of the interview contains light spoilers for volume one of Jupiter’s Legacy.
EY: Later on, towards the end of episode seven when they’re unraveling the mystery of the island and getting their powers and becoming worthy, there’s so many layers to the music to unpack. The sound shifts to be a little bit more spacey. How do you achieve that?
SE: I wanted to create a sound for the island itself. In the moments where the characters are starting to turn on one another, there’s this tap-y percussive high drum thing. There’s also this very eerie ambient sort of theme. It’s not a big sweeping theme, but there is this motif that I established and it was created using the mouthpiece of a trumpet or a flugelhorn, and my mouth making very bizarre sounds. It’s coupled with the percussive thing. It’s subtle, but you hear it all the time, like when it suddenly starts snowing or as they’re traveling through the dust storm, as we pan out after Walter has his breakdown and when we see the maze of the island. It’s in that final scene. It’s in the rock wall scene. It’s in the final scene before they get their powers on the moon of Jupiter. I wanted that to be a key thing. It also comes at the end of episode six when they see the island for the first time.
In one of those very early spotting sessions with the producers, we watched through episode seven and I was like, this is pretty wild. The music has to do something bold that matches the incredible scale of this. What if I wrote a chorale, like a requiem-type piece of music using the main theme and really developed it? I actually had that idea from the very beginning. Because of that, I realized it’d be weird to get to episode seven and suddenly there’s a bunch of vocals. So I unpacked the idea of the choir and made vocals a part of the whole fiber of the score leading up to that.
And once we got there, I was like, okay well the choir has to sing something, like sing on a syllable or words. Why don’t I go back to the original comic book series by Mark Millar and find this scene on the island and take his text that he wrote and translate it into Latin because Latin had been used on the other vocals. That felt like a good way to incorporate all of the story elements together.
EY: Were there any other details from the score that you don’t think the audience would necessarily notice, but that you worked really hard on?
SE: Yes. Yes, yes. Thank you for asking that. One of the many challenges our crew faces on the island is when they’re in this space and all of the walls close in and they can’t get past. They all go up to the wall and put their hands on it, and they notice when they touch it, these lights comes on start to climb up the wall. It was the idea from the beginning that each individual person’s light needed to have a sound. When they’re all touching the wall, the sounds don’t necessarily work together, like the tones don’t come across as being harmonious until all of their hands go up on the wall and all the lights go up and the walls open. This is something that ordinarily lends itself to being sound design or something, but our showrunner really wanted it to be music, kind of like Close Encounters. I didn’t want to give them random tones because I had established themes for almost all of these characters by the time we got there. So I did a very composer-y thing, and took a small fragment of their theme and made it part of the sound for when they touch the wall.
When Sheldon puts his hand on the wall, you hear the first two notes of his theme on French horn, as we hear it a lot of the time in the series. That’s his sound and then the tone comes out of that. Then George does it with his little plucked dulcimer thing and a tone comes out. Grace has this violin harmonic motif and then her tone comes out. There are moments where some of their hands are on the wall and the light goes out, and they take their hands off, so that whole motif is reversed. There was a sense of trying to create depth in that space, making it diegetic, and then you have underscore too, so there’s non-diegetic music going on at the same time.
The whole concept is when they’re struggling to get all the lights on, Walter and Sheldon have to come together and put aside all the animosity from the past in order to move forward. When that finally happens, everyone’s tones are hanging in the air. Then Walter’s note changes and Sheldon’s note changes, so it becomes this big major chord that all works with the score. After that I was also faced with the challenge of what to do with these tones once all the lights are on and the walls are opening. So I made it part of the score track. These bell-y tones became an arpeggio that flutters along with the score as they walk into the light through the wall. That’s definitely something no one’s going to realize but it was a fun thing to create.
Jupiter’s Legacy volume one is now streaming on Netflix.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]