Joel P. West talks scoring Just Mercy

Joel P. West. Photo by Rae Ashley.

Joel P. West spoke about scoring the music for Just Mercy and working with Destin Daniel Cretton during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Congrats on the world premiere of Just Mercy at TIFF.

Joel P. West:  Thank you.

How did you feel about the reception at Friday night’s premiere?

Joel P. West:  I felt great about it.  This film is kind of interesting because from a filmmaker standpoint, it’s really a vehicle.  Everybody who worked on it is kind of champions of Bryan Stevenson’s work, who the film’s about.  It’s a movie that takes place in the cast but he’s very much still in the middle of his work on mass incarceration and trying to just widen the conversation about racial inequality in North America, specifically the United States.

It felt like the audience connected with the reality of it.  I don’t know if they loved the movie but they definitely connected with just the reality of what we’re portraying.  To us, that’s the point of it so it felt really good.  It was cool because Bryan Stevenson was there and it was really powerful to hear him talk.  I was really delighted and seemed like people clicked it.  It seemed like people had a little perspective shift, which is definitely what I had working on this.  It was great.

When did you decide that you wanted to become a film composer?

Joel P. West:  I kind of stumbled into it.  I’ve always loved music and it’s just kind of always been an important part of—I just love listening, finding new music.  I’m a songwriter.  I never really thought about doing film music until somebody just asked me to do it.  The music I naturally like to make is sort of slow and quiet.  Once I discovered it, I knew it was kind of a perfect thing because I just love recording new music all the time. I don’t really love performing the same music over and over, which is kind of the other route.  I grew up not really watching movies or being aware of it so I never did it.  It wasn’t really my consciousness. As soon as I discovered it, I just kind of saved up for a few years and quit my job just started going after it because I really love the collaborative process of it.

Do you have a favorite film composer besides yourself?

Joel P. West:  I’d say probably Jonny Greenwood.  I’m a big Radiohead fan but it’s his music.  Also, the movies he works on.  It’s just like very—to me—perfect.  Exciting but not drawing too much attention.  Worth a listen off screen but works for the movie.  I really love his work. He’s my favorite.

You and Destin Daniel Cretton go back many years.

Joel P. West:  Yes.

At what point do you generally get brought on to start working on his films?

Joel P. West:  With him, I like to start really early.  With anybody, I like to start early.  He likes that process, too.  I find that once you start editing a film, you really need music to work, and you really have to start shaping it to function and scenes and trying to figure out what’s there.  I find it really hard to just have that open-ended creativity that I kind of love as a musician once you get to that phase.  I usually am very familiar with the script.  As soon as they start shooting, I can see dailies at night to see what footage they’re shooting, and then sometimes to stop by set just to kind of get a feel for what it looks and feels like.  As soon as I do, I usually just start jumping in and start making music. That was the same for this one.  I started well before they started shooting—just to kind of start getting some ideas on the table and figure out what the general tone is.  It’s really hard to talk about music that doesn’t exist so I was like, just make some stuff so that we can start using comparative language. I like to start really early.

Jamie Foxx as Walter McMillian and Michael B. Jordan as Bryan Stevenson in Just Mercy
(L-r) JAMIE FOXX as Walter McMillian and MICHAEL B. JORDAN as Bryan Stevenson in Warner Bros. Pictures’ drama JUST MERCY, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

With regards to Just Mercy, what were you looking to do with the score?

Joel P. West:  On this one, no.  I think everybody worked on this just wanted to do whatever we could to make it true and then make it feel human.  I think one of the biggest things that this movie does well is it just brings a human feel to something that you usually just read in statistics.  It really makes you feel like what this would be like if somebody in your family was wrongfully accused or unfairly sentenced—if your dad or your sibling or your kid—so I think that that was really the goal for everybody—just to bring some humanity to it.  It’s also a really dark, kind of hard to watch slow movie so we’re also just trying to make it beautiful and dignifying.  That was kind of sort of the approach but I had no idea where it was going to go.  We just sort of we just wanted to feel very personal and beautiful.

With working on Short Term 12, at what point did you realize that it was a special film?

Joel P. West:  You know what?  That was the first feature I ever scored.  At the time, I really had not watched that many movies because I just grew up in the woods. We didn’t really have a TV and so I don’t think I totally understood how special that film was because it just felt natural.  And that film—if you’ve seen it, it just feels real.  You just kind of feel like you’re there.  It almost feels like a documentary.  I honestly didn’t pay that much mind.  It just kind of felt true, it felt real.  I think in hindsight I started to realize just how special it was and how it just authentic and how hard it is to be that light-footed telling such a heavy story.  See, I don’t think I totally understood it until later.  It was kind of a special moment.

It was announced earlier this year that Destin would be directing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings for Marvel.  Are you excited about the possible chance to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as a composer?

Joel P. West:  I am. I have no idea what to expect.  They have their whole own program over there.  I’m not sure if I’ll be a part of that one but I’m excited to see him make that movie.  I’ve never seen him like direct an explosion or anything so it’s going be fun to see that.  But yeah, we’ll see.

Just Mercy is currently playing in select theaters and opening wide on January 10, 2020.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.