Emmy Winner Sean Callery on Composing the Perfect Theme for 'Jessica Jones,' 'Designated Survivor' & More

Jana Davidoff
Composer Sean Callery conducts a master class at the 10th annual Krakow Film Music Festival in May in Poland.

There’s a good chance that Sean Callery comes into your living room almost every night. As one of television’s top composers, he wrote the theme and scores for Designated Survivor, Homeland, Elementary and Jessica Jones

He had the distinction of winning Marvel its first Emmy last year when his work on Jessica Jones garnered the Emmy for best original main title theme music. It was Marvel’s first Emmy but Callery’s fourth: He won in 2003, 2006 and 2010 for his scores for 24.

Callery recently performed the themes to 24 and Homeland before an audience of more than 12,000 people during an evening of film and TV music at the Krakow Film Music Festival. “That was a one-of-a-kind scenario where you have such a passionate audience,” says Callery, who also conducted a masterclass during the festival’s weeklong run in May. “This community seems to have a tremendous affection for film and tv music.”

Callery talked with Billboard about the creation of some of his most beloved TV themes, including Bones, which ended its run in March after 12 seasons but lives on in syndication. 

24: When I wrote the theme I had not seen any footage of the show, but I read the script and I could see that there was a very long exposition opening sequence. [Show creator] Joel Surnow said, "This is what I think with regards to Jack Bauer: He’s a hero, but he’s not without taking risks and being a little impulsive, making spontaneous decisions that actually get him into trouble.” Then as the series went on, he became more of a wounded warrior. He made a lot of sacrifices for the country and the greater good and the theme survived through that. It survived being played in slower form, but you don’t think about that when you’re writing that. It got written more as more of a heroic theme with a little bit of darkness to it. 

Homeland: I was finishing season 8 of 24 and they were [starting] Homeland. I met with [creators] Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa and director Michael Cuesta. They asked me what I thought the show should be. The first thing that came to mind was that this was not an action series, that this was a political thriller. There was an aspect of [Carrie] in the script that said she listened to jazz, and one of the central mysteries that she discovers about Nicholas Brody, she makes at a jazz club. One of the very first pieces of music I had to write was a very eclectic piece where people are soloing back and forth and she looks at the finger movements of the players. We knew that [the theme] was going to have some notion of jazz. The language of jazz is extraordinarily broad, but for me it was a bit of Bill Evans, a little bit of Miles. There was an aloneness to her character that I thought warranted something intimate between a piano and solo trumpet.

Jessica Jones: Working for Marvel was the first time I joined a film studio that has such a rich, interconnected stable of characters. They have a wall of something like 500 characters in their offices in New York. [Executive producer] Melissa Rosenberg heard Homeland and she wondered if I might have a take on Jessica Jones. Marvel has very strict rules about when you can look at material, and I wasn’t able to look at any of [Krysten] Ritter’s performances, because the director was still making the director’s cut. They brought me into a room and showed me stills of the set and Krysten Ritter and the other characters. I was allowed to take notes, but I wasn’t allowed to take those slideshows with me. Jessica lives in the shadows. She’s a good person, but she’s put up a wall of defense because of some injuries in her life. There’s just a little bit of swagger to her, and that’s what began the first little notes. She almost reminded me of a cat since she could jump up high.

Designated Survivor: It is such a pleasure to say I’ve hung with [Kiefer Sutherland] a few times. We realized something: [I] and the music editor worked on every episode of 24, and the only other person who did that was Kiefer, so we have a bit of a connection just by survival. When Designated happened, I asked through an intermediary [about scoring the] pilot, and [Kiefer] was all in support of that, so I owe him quite a bit of thanks. He’s also very much into music. His voice is actually quite good. I don’t know how they’ll work that into President Kirkland singing, but I think that would be kinda cool. [Laughs]

Bones: I miss it. Bones is a real badge on several fronts. The first is that I had never really done any lighter fare. It was a blind audition. I had to write for three scenes -- about 10 minutes worth of score -- and so did two or three other folks, and they just put it before [showrunner] Steven Nathan and [creator] Hart Hanson. I got chosen and I was so thrilled. Steven is originally an actor from Broadway, and I think the show was so successful because he knew how to entertain. He knew rhythm. I  just learned so much from him.