Timothy Stuart Jones on Composing for Duke Kahanamoku Documentary ‘Waterman’

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Today we are joined by Timothy Stuart Jones. He created the signature sound for NBC’s show Chuck, and his recent work includes portions of the score for Thor: Ragnarok, The Lego Movie 2, Holmes and Watson, Connected, and The Willoughbys. Timothy has also worked with independent and emerging filmmakers.

His work includes Joel David Moore’s upcoming film Hide and Seek, Lin Oeding’s Office Uprising, and Jesper Ganslandt’s Beast of Burden. His latest project Waterman, directed by Isaac Halasimais and narrated by Jason Mamoa, is a documentary on the life of Duke Kahanamoku, a surfer and world-record-setting Olympic swimmer.

Jam Addict (JA): What did your career journey look like that has brought you to where you are today?

Timothy Jones (TJ): I grew up on a large farm in Arizona and started playing with synthesizers in Junior High. I loved all the synth-pop bands like Depeche Mode, A-ha, and Erasure. I also loved listening to movie soundtracks and dreamed of doing it one day. When I discovered that the Berklee College of Music in Boston offered a major in film scoring, I jumped at the opportunity. I left my third year at UCSD and applied for a transfer to Berklee. I bought a plane ticket before I even knew I had gotten in. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had some solid creative and technical skills under my belt.  I still had everything to learn, but it was a great start.  I worked and learned from other composers until I was doing films of my own.  I was a twenty-year overnight success!  Haha.

JA: How do you see your role in Waterman — do you see it as more artistic, technical, or as a mix of both? And do you find that there is room for your personal touch on a project?

TJ: This is a great question.  I think any film score has elements of it that are purely technical.  Things like, ‘Hey can you help us with the transition montage so that it feels like time is passing and gets us to our next section?’ Maybe the film has on-camera musicians and they want the composer to back them up and fill out the sound. Mostly highlighting things on screen that help with the storytelling by pointing something out for the audience. 

The artistic side is where the fun is. The composer’s job is to tell the story with emotion and texture delivered by the score. There has to be something of me in every score.  It’s very difficult to finish a score in which you’re not invested in to some degree. To me, music is most effective when it has those personal touches.

They might be references that only I would ever hear, like small ties to my life and experiences thus far on Earth. Most of the time they are hidden, but they connect with me as little echoes of things I’ve heard and loved. If I’m enjoying what I’m writing, hopefully others will too.

JA: How has your background informed your success as a composer?

TJ: I had summer jobs on the farm. I worked hard learning to arc weld and I walked into cotton as tall as I was when it was 120 degrees outside.  One of the main things I did was drive a wheat harvester 12 hours a day. I didn’t even have a driver’s license yet. It got me very used to sitting in one place for a long time!

Mostly, I discovered what real hard work is. Being a composer is often difficult but having other jobs has given me perspective.  I’m grateful for that. I guess I would say that my background reminds me of how fortunate I am to be writing music for a living.

JA: What has composing the score on Waterman taught you about yourself, or life?

TJ: Duke Kahanamoku was an amazing person.  He excelled at so many things in and out of the water.  He also had real life-long struggles due to the color of his skin.  Yet, he seemed to be able to balance those things in his mind. It must’ve hurt him deeply, and it’s heartbreaking that he was treated the way he was. However, to all that knew him, he was warm, funny, impressive and an inspiration to millions of people around the world. I am grateful to Duke for his legacy, that I was chosen to do the music for his story. It’s an important story and one that people need to hear.

I think a lesson I take away from Duke is one of grace and living in the moment. We spend so much time living behind and in front of ourselves. When I’m composing it is almost a place out of time.  I’m hyper-focused on the piece of music or the scene I’m scoring.  Connecting with something like that is one of the purest ways I know to be present.  I think it’s a meditation of sorts. Living in the moment is something that I’m trying to do daily, even if it sounds like a cliché. Waterman really reinforced how hard I want to work at accomplishing it.

JA: When you were assigned your role on Waterman, what was the first step in your process? 

TJ: It was an interrupted process.  As a proof of concept, I scored one of the biggest rescue scenes in the film almost two years before I officially started scoring the movie. Once I got the green light from the director and producers, I began at the piano working on material for the entire score.  I then wrote down my sketches on paper so that I would have them to refer to as I went along.  

JA: Who is your dream director or creative to work with?

TJ: This may sound a bit broad, but any director who will let me stretch out and bring something unique to the table.  A filmmaker who is willing to let a composer take some chances and not overcontrol the situation is a find. Oh, and Peter Jackson haha.

JA: What one sentence of advice would you give to aspiring composers?

TJ: Never stop learning, because that is how you will find the things that are unique to you and will help you go the distance.

Thank you for reading! You can learn more about Timothy Stuart Jones on IMDB and his website.

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