Two-time Grammy nominee Jeff Russo is at the top of his game with his haunting and sumptuous score for Netflix’s noir thriller Ripley.

The in-demand composer cleverly balances the murderous antics of the titular social-climbing character with the romanticism of the Idyllic, Neapolitan coast setting, pulling the audience into a tense anticipation of what will happen next.

Ripley is a limited series adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith crime novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Series creator Steve Zaillian wrote and directed all eight episodes about a grifter, Tom Ripley, played by Andrew Scott, who lives in New York and is hired by a wealthy shipbuilder to track down his prodigal son Dickie (Johnny Flynn) in Italy and convince him to return to the United States. The series is shot in black and white and also stars Dakota Fanning, Eliot Sumner, and Maurizio Lombardi.

Part of the series’ enjoyment is watching as Ripley commits heinous acts to cover his tracks and works overtime to get away with his crimes. Emmy award-winner Russo balances the struggle of involuntarily empathizing with the psychotic killer who is constantly backed into a corner and fighting his way out in horrific ways with music that underscores Tom’s isolation and fear.

“What became very apparent was there is that lonely feeling, which I think comes from Tom’s underlying fear that he’s looking for something that he doesn’t have,” explains Russo. “He’s looking for this life while he is alone, surrounding himself with all these people and surrounding himself with all this luxury, when still, at the end of the day, he’s alone in his psychosis, and I wanted to underscore that.”

Russo spoke with Awards Focus about transitioning from his band Tonic to scoring film and TV, the important note that Zaillian gave him regarding the mood of the series, emphasizing loneliness in Tom’s theme and balancing the score when a character doing bad things is having a comfortable moment.

Ripley. Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in Episode 101 of RIPLEY. Cr. Lorenzo Sisti/NETFLIX © 2021

Awards Focus: Before you moved into film scoring, you were in a band called Tonic. What inspired you to move into scoring for film and TV?

Jeff Russo: I don’t know that I was inspired specifically to make a direct move. I really enjoyed the idea of writing narrative music to accompany media, whether it’s video games or television, or films.

I remember seeing Brokeback Mountain and thinking, what a beautiful score and a wonderful way of merging this sort of Americana with this very cinematic sound. That was very inspiring to me but I don’t know that I made a specific choice to make a change until the change had already sort of been in effect.

AF: It’s very interesting going through your filmography because, in recent years, you’ve created scores on a diverse range of projects like ‘Mrs. Davis,’ ‘Ripley,’ ‘Fargo,’ ‘Love and Death’ and ‘Star Trek.’ That’s just naming a few because the list is endless.

What draws you to a project, and how do you differentiate between the genres?

Russo: When I talk to a filmmaker or when I read a script, I’m inspired in one direction and think about how I might support a character, story, or location. I enjoy doing dramatic work, and sci-fi is a great example of drama that is set against the background of something that is that kind of fiction. Aside from what the director and producers want, the story is what really guides me the most. Everything stands on its own.

AF: When it came to joining ‘Ripley’ and the initial conversations with series creator Steve Zaillian, were you reading the scripts first, or was there more of a tonal and pacing conversation to initiate the scoring process?

Russo: I did read the scripts and started writing before I saw any picture. Then, we started having conversations about pacing and tone, and those secondary conversations adjusted my trajectory.  With the series being set in 1963 Italy, I thought it could be very romantic in feeling. When I had those conversations with Steve, he was like, we’re not making a romantic version of this. This is a noir thriller. It’s about a psychopath who ends up being a serial killer. So, that led me from one gentle direction into another gentle.

One of the things Steve also said was that if you ever find yourself lacking in what to do, think about what the composers of the time might have done. What would a composer like Mariconne or Nino Rota have done in terms of that early sixties thriller film? We definitely have a good amount of that style, and then we also have this more modern thriller-type music. So, it’s a mix. That was all an amalgam of our conversations over the course of three and a half years, you know?

AF: As you’re composing, are you watching dailies and working with the other sound teams making the practical elements, or is it afterward in post-production that you’re piecing compositions together?

Russo: It’s actually all of the above. There was a little bit of that early on where I was writing and then getting material from the production sound recordist. But it really wasn’t until we got into post-production that I started to understand and hear how Steve was putting together the sound design of the show, which is so immaculate, and how it plays with the score, which became very important. As we were mixing the score and then, subsequently mixing the shows, I was even making minor changes as we went all the way up until the very end editorially to try to figure out how it would all work together.

AF: On the soundtrack, the song ‘Tom’ emphasizes this remorseful, lonely person with this undercurrent instrumentation of imminent danger. Was that something you’d conceived early on to support how Andrew Scott characterized Ripley?

Russo: Well, it’s interesting. The very first thing I wrote was that theme. There’s a piano sketch of it on the soundtrack as well, which is the very, very last song on the soundtrack. As I arranged it into a more orchestral piece, which is the second to last song, the conversation I had at the time with Steve was that this feels very romantic. There’s a romanticism to it that I wasn’t sure would work in the show, and in the end, what happened was that the melody that ends up in the show is all over the place. It’s played on various instruments like the flute and the clarinet. It doesn’t really play in its bigness the way I have it on the soundtrack, but it does play melodically all over the place, which is why I included the sketch on the soundtrack.

What you are talking about became very apparent: there is that lonely feeling in it, which comes from Tom’s underlying fear that he’s looking for something he doesn’t have. He’s looking for this life while he is alone, surrounding himself with all these people and surrounding himself with all this luxury, when still, at the end of the day, he’s alone in his psychosis. I wanted to underscore that.

Ripley. Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in Episode 103 of RIPLEY. Cr. Courtesy of NETFLIX © 2024

AF: There’s another song, ‘Dickie by Day,’ which is so much more menacing than other songs. Was that always the intention?

Russo: That really does play into the sinister feeling of what Tom was doing in taking over Dickie’s life and becoming Dickie. That feeling was something that I needed to impart in a piece of music, and that was the right one.

AF: How did you approach the compositions according to locations like New York and Palermo so that they achieved different moods?

Russo: It was less about where we were and more about what was going on emotionally with the characters. The difference between what was going on in New York and Italy is stark. I ended up deconstructing later material to play in the very early parts of episode one to plan ahead as to what was going to be later on, pointing to the fact that it was all bubbling under the surface in that first episode.

As we moved from Palermo to Venice and Rome, I didn’t want to feel like I needed to write southern Italian music, and I needed to write Northern Italian music and more of central Italian music. I didn’t really need to go into that detail. I just needed to be very aware of Tom’s emotional state. The only themes that had any real merit for me were Tom’s themes. I realized that every theme I wrote was a Tom theme because it was all about how people and situations interacted with Tom.

AF:  So the Palermo scenes, for example, were brighter and a little more hopeful because he felt like he’d gotten away and was starting to use the money and enjoy himself more.

Russo: I agree that the Palermo scenes had more of a sense of winning. A part of it has a bit of that comfort that he felt, that he’s more comfortable in his skin. That grows throughout the entire show, all the way until the end, where he triumphs. He’s made it, done it, gotten away with it, and now he’s moving on. That was a difficult thing to come to grips with in terms of how I was writing and what I was writing for that.

AF: As a viewer, it’s an interesting struggle hearing that tune that emphasizes a character doing bad things and having a comfortable moment. It’s so impactful having the score help the mood but also ensuring we’re not giving him too much of our sympathy.

Russo: That was my struggle. I want to empathize with the psycho killer, but my own understanding of myself and my own understanding of my own empathy made that very difficult, especially with writing the very last piece of music, which was this piece of music that was accompanying his win. I needed to still be able to feel my own inner tension and inner struggle with it all while acknowledging that Tom was able to actually get away with everything. As much as you feel like you’re rooting for the bad guy, that also made me feel kind of bad about myself, and I didn’t want to give in too much.

It was a very delicate balance. I needed to really look at the entire series; he’s an engaging character, and you feel bad for him, and then you also feel hatred for him at the same time. It’s like he does these terrible things, but you feel like he’s doing these terrible things because he’s backed into a corner, but he’s not backed into a corner; he’s backed into a corner because he doesn’t want to get caught. So, that’s really the struggle. He’s human, but he is also a psycho.

AF: Is that when you start playing a little bit with technique where something that’s a bit more staccato, like in the song ‘Next Steps’ is a bit more threatening than a more fluid approach to the composition, which could suggest an easier time for Tom, where he isn’t struggling with burying a body?

Russo: There was that, and there was also this idea of wanting the viewer to have a little fun. You definitely wanted to have fun with it because I wanted people to enjoy the act of watching this happen. I also needed to join with him in that way. While you’re right, to a certain degree, some of that sort of staccato stuff wasn’t necessarily meant to make it more difficult. Some of the staccato and pizzicato was meant to have a little more fun with it.