Terence Blanchard likes to tell his students: “A turtle never gets nowhere unless he sticks his neck out.”

They’re words to live by for Blanchard, who didn’t set out to score films, or write orchestras, or create award-winning jazz albums. But, when the opportunities presented themselves, he took them. That includes his decades-long collaboration with Spike Lee, which all began after the director heard him riffing on the piano and wanted to use the sounds for his next project. Since 1991’s Jungle Fever, Blanchard has worked with Lee on dozens of films over the span of 30 years including Malcolm X, Clockers, 25th Hour, Inside Man, BlacKkKlansman (the film that earned him his first Oscar nod).

Now, the composer is nominated for a second time for the pair’s latest collaboration, Da 5 Bloods — a tale of four Black Vietnam veterans who return to the country decades later to retrieve their squad leader’s remains and a buried treasure. Blanchard spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his ongoing relationship with Lee, their latest collaboration, and what he’s focusing on next.

You’ve worked with Spike Lee for decades. How has your work together evolved throughout all of those years?

Well, I think, it’s a matter of trying to really help him tell his story through his cinematic vision and it’s evolved through me just growing deeper and deeper and deeper into his style. If you look at all of his films, especially with Da 5 Bloods, Miracle at St. Anna… those are military films and they can have some action, but that’s not the type of music he wants. He wants more operatic, heroic type music and in doing that you have to find a way to kind of keep the energy up. So, he’s forced me to try to figure out how to maintain those things in a scene and still give him the strong, melodic, thematic development that he loves. Over the years, it’s just become more apparent for me about how to do that with him. I’ve just learned more and more about how to make that work.

So you first get the script for Da 5 Bloods. What are your initial thoughts?

When I get the script I read it and I go “Oh man, that’s beautiful.” Well in the case of BlacKkKlansman I was like, “This can’t be true. Is this a real story? What are you talking about? I never heard this before.” Then I found out it was a true story. With all of his films, the scripts are very compelling but I’ve learned early on with Spike you can’t start writing music just based on that. I can come up with thematic material, but I try not to do a lot of writing based on it, because his vision is so unique that when I’m writing from a script, I’m writing based on my movie that I’m creating in my mind. And when you finally get a chance to see what he’s done, man it can go in a lot of different directions. I’ve learned over the years just to be patient and wait to see something.

So you score to picture. Talk me through your process. Where do you start?

Well, I mean the first thing that I have to do is just watch the film and get a sense of the pace for the film. And see how he put together everything because like I said, the script is one thing but when you actually get the film it can be something totally different. So, that’s the first thing and then after we go through the spotting session, which is to figure out where to put music — what scenes need music, which ones don’t — then it’s a matter of me just familiarizing myself with those characters, which I’ve already done through the script, but I’m talking about but their performances. For example in Da 5 Bloods, of course I read the script and I knew Paul’s character but Delroy Lindo’s portrayal was just amazing. I had to familiarize myself with his cadence and his voice. Same thing with Clarke Peters. When I start to work on a scene, I will watch it over and over again. That first scored piece of music, which is the helicopter shootout at the beginning, man I watched that thing over and over and over again just to make sure I didn’t miss any details. There’s a whole bunch of variables that come into play and when you start to really plot them out, the movie tells you what it needs.

And you hired Pedro Eustache to play the duduk, an ancient Armenian instrument, for parts of the score. How do you identify ways to use these instruments that aren’t found in a traditional orchestra?

That kind of is just knowing the capability of the players and knowing that they have all of these instruments. Pedro is one of those dudes. Pedro is probably the dude that can take a piece of paper and put it over a comb and make music out of it. He’s one of those types of guys, and I knew that when I wanted to use the duduk, he was the guy to get. Sure enough, as soon as he started to play, he has such a vibe and such a sound where you just have to give this guy room to do his thing. There were also moments where we just let him play. We said “This is the vibe. This is what we’re going for.” Then he would play around with the thematic material and improvise based off of that.

Sounds like a lot of trust.

There’s a lot of trust. It’s very much like being on a basketball team. You have five guys who all can shoot independently and you run some plays, but the plays may all change based on who’s guarding who and who’s open…You know, because you come in with a plan. I’ve written a score and I’ve written these cues, but we have the players, why not let them do their thing? Because they’re going to add that extra layer to it that a lot of times can breathe life into music.

Something that I always noticed about Spike’s films is the score really feels like another character in the film. The presence is always known and felt. Does that change your process at all?

Oh definitely. I mean some of the things I do [with Spike], I don’t really do with too many other people. First of all, he’s not shy in terms of playing the score. You’re gonna hear it, that’s for sure. It’s not gonna be way, way down in the background. When I push in the orchestra and make them have a really big crescendo, you know it’s going to be huge in the theater. So knowing that he will do that allows me to be able to manipulate those things even further. You know sometimes you work with directors and you do stuff like that and then they turn the music way down. You can’t really hear it, which kind of negates the effect of all of the dynamic shifts. Whereas Spike is the opposite. I have to be mindful of that. When I want something to be pianissimo, man I gotta write in and make sure that we play it that way. I love that about him. Knowing how he’s going to play music in the film allows me to say, “Okay, I know what he’s gonna do here. Let me really take advantage of this and really, as a melody continues, have the harmonies open up and widen and just become much more of a bigger thing to get that emotional impact in the scene.”

Do you have a scene that you would say was the hardest to score from the film?

The first one, because there was a lot of action and it was, I think four minutes long. Doesn’t sound long in everyday life, but in music terms that can be an eternity when you have to write out every note. Those notes, figuring out what they were going to be took me three days, and then another two days to figure out who was gonna play it in the orchestra. But I’m glad that I did it because it set the tone for the rest of the film, in my mind. The hardest thing about scoring is to crack that idea of what the sound of the score is going to be. And then once you have all of those tones and colors, then it’s off to the races. 

Who are some of your biggest influences as a composer?

On the jazz side is definitely Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson. Then on the film side, Tom Newman. He always gets embarrassed when I say that. We were on a panel discussion and I said that he just gets this look like “Okay here this dude goes.” But it’s true. I love him. I love Harry Gregson-Williams. I love Christopher Young. I love John Williams. The thing that I like about them is that — it’s like being a jazz musician. Everybody has the same instruments but nobody sounds the same.

You’d said that you knew from a really young age that you wanted to be a composer. What drew you to it?

My piano teacher, Roger Dickerson. He’s one of those unsung heroes. I got emotional talking about him the other night. If it wasn’t for this guy, I wouldn’t be doing anything. This is the guy who taught me how to compose. I told him that I had thought about composition, and then next thing I knew I was like 15 or 16 years old and he had me writing a piano concerto, based off of a six note tone row. So that bug was always in me from an early age.

How did you move into film?

When I was playing on some of Spike’s earlier films. I was like “Wow, that’s interesting.” I didn’t know that job existed. Once I saw that I became extremely interested, but didn’t pursue it. It just kind of happened by dumb luck — me playing the piano and Spike hearing me playing something and wanting to use what I played. It just kind of started from there.

And now you’ve started writing operas. How did that come about?

I guess I’ve always put out in the universe that I wanted to have a career that will constantly make me grow and by putting that intention out the universe, [it] has really come back to me in that way. Jim Robinson just came up to me in New York and wanted to talk to me about writing an opera. And when I did it, it was a hell of an experience. I thought that was it. Then at the premiere — “We want to commission you to write another one.” Damn. Okay. 

Now that you have two in the books, are you ready to do another?

There you go, see that’s how it starts! I’m trying to get out and they won’t let me. [laughs] I mean probably. There was some people who approached me about some projects so we’ll see what happens

It seems like you’re willing to try anything once, which I really admire.

I’ve always been this way, just curious about music. Jim Brown says something that just blew my mind. He said “It would be a shame to go through life without ever finding out what truly turns you on.” And to me, that’s the way I look at this. It’s not that I want to play all types of music because I don’t. But there are things that pique my curiosity and things that I know that make me grow. You know, that’s what happened with all of these ventures. So, I try to tell my students all the time: A turtle never gets nowhere unless he sticks his neck out.

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