Spike Lee’s go-to composer since Mo’ Better Blues hit theaters 28 years ago, Terence Blanchard knows the realities of longtime creative partnerships—the way in which the challenges that present themselves on projects change over time. It’s been a long time since Blanchard has had to have so much as an extended conversation with the director, and when BlacKkKlansman came around, the challenge became one of managing tone. Based on a 2014 memoir by Ron Stallworth—the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs bureau—the comedic drama watches as its hero infiltrates the KKK, in a plot so bizarre, the composer thought, early on, that he was reading a piece of fiction. Working on a ‘70s-set production, Blanchard didn’t think about period indications when it came to his music. “One of the things with Spike’s movies is that the music takes on a narrative role, and I don’t have to worry so much about those types of things,” he explains. Instead, Blanchard would contemplate a tricky balance of musical color, demonstrating respect for Stallworth and his experiences, and seeking genuine emotion, without going over the top.

BlacKkKlansman Set
David Lee/Focus Features

Can you give a sense of your diverse background as a musician? How did you first come to compose film scores?

Growing up in New Orleans, I was a jazz musician—it was kind of inevitable. I heard a lot of great instrumentalists, great trumpet players and I’ll never forget…One day, I was on the road in Chicago, I had a day off, and I went to go see Star Wars, and I kept thinking, “Who are those trumpet players that are playing this great music?” So, it started to peak my curiosity a little bit. Then, all of a sudden, I got hired to work on some of Spike’s earlier stuff. Just as a session player. Then I got a chance to see his father actually scoring films, and that peaked my curiosity because I studied composition, and I’d always wanted to write for larger ensembles.

Then we were doing Mo’ Better Blues, man, and we had to do some pre-records for the actors. We took a break, and I sat at the piano, and started playing this little theme from a song that I was working on, for an album that I was going to do for Columbia Records. Spike walks in and he goes, “Man, what’s that? Can we record it and use it in a film?” At the time, I just thought it’d be great publicity to have one of my songs in a Spike Lee movie. They recorded the thing just for solo trumpet, and I remember when they shot the scene, and got the scene back to the editing room, Spike was trying to make the scene a little fuller, and couldn’t find a way to do it. So, he asked me to write a string arrangement for it. He said, “Can you do that?” I lied and said, “Yes.” [Laughs]

I immediately called my composition instructor, Roger Dickinson and he told me, “Trust your training.” Brought the arrangement in, gave it to Spike’s dad, he handed it back to me and says, “Well, if you wrote, it you’ve got to conduct it.” So, then I had to go out in front of the orchestra, and sit up and wave my hands, and listen to them play. It was an awesome experience—that was the first time I got a chance to stand in front of that many people, playing something that I had written. When we had finished, Spike said, “Oh, you’ve got a future in this business.” I thought he was just trying to encourage me, but then he called me to do Jungle Fever.

David Lee / Focus Features

Do you remember the first time you ever met Spike?

I can’t remember which one came first, School Daze or Do the Right Thing, but it was on that first session. I walked in the session, and back then I was a huge Lakers fan, and they had just beat the Celtics. I had on a Lakers hat, t-shirt. Spike was standing at the door, greeting all the musicians as they were coming in, and he just looked at me with a smirk and goes, “Lakers fan, huh?” [Laughs] And I went, “Sure. Yeah, what’s up?” That was a different side of our relationship. He would call me up: “Terence—Spike. I got two tickets to the Knicks game. You want to go?” I lived around the corner from him, so we would go to games, every now and then.

What was your first reaction when Spike approached you with BlacKkKlansman?

When I found that it was a true story, I was totally blown away at the idea of a rookie—let alone a cop, period—having the integrity and the bravery to do such a thing. Just to come across this ad and automatically call it. You can tell he made some rookie mistakes because he used his own name when he called in. But to devise a plan to actually infiltrate the Klan and do what they did, it’s one of those moments in our history where you say, “Yes this story has to be told.” It had to be told in such a way that we not only pay homage and honor Ron Stallworth, but also put it in context, because there are crazy things going on in our world right now. His story is a constant reminder that we always have to stay vigilant and be on our game, because there’s some dark forces out here. They want to turn back the hands on the clock, and we can’t allow that to happen.

What did Spike have in mind early on, when it came to the film’s score?

When we first started talking about the music, the first thing he said was, “I want to have an R&B band.” I said, “That’s perfect because I have an electric band called The E-Collective. This is right up our alley.” But I know what it is that Spike likes. I remember when we first started working together, we had a conversation where he said, “Look, I don’t like underscoring. I don’t like when music changes when the door’s shut, or a scene changes. I like very strong melodic content.” I go, “Okay, fine.” With this, the only other thing he said was, “Okay this is going to be like Malcolm X,” in terms of the grandeur, the power that he wanted to have in the story.

When I saw some of the first cut, there was something about seeing those Afros, those leather coats and those bellbottom jeans that took me back to that period. I’m a product of the ’70s, so the first thing that I thought of was Jimi Hendrix, playing the National Anthem. I kept saying that in my mind, that has to be one of the most patriotic things on the planet. Here was an African-American guy, playing this theme, which to me had the effect of screaming, “I’m an American, too. I belong here, and I should be afforded all of the rights that everybody else has.” I called Spike and said, “We should feature guitar,” and that’s what we went for. I told Charles Altura, the guitarist featured in the score, “Hey man, just give me a distorted sound.” I didn’t say anything about Jimi Hendrix, because I wanted it to be [in his own voice].

David Lee / Focus Features

Could you describe the bare bones of your musical process in working with Spike?

It’s always been in interesting process because Spike likes to get a lot of melodic content before we start. He’ll send me a script before they start shooting, just for me to get some ideas percolating, and he only wants to hear them on the piano. I’ll send him a number of things, and he’ll put it in his phone or his iPad. When we start to spot, he’s already made some decisions about which theme he would like to be what. Then, we go through the film and talk about where music should go.

After that, he really doesn’t want to hear anything. When that first started happening, I was a little put off by it because I always wanted to run stuff by him. What I realized is that he wanted to hear it fully orchestrated the first time, like the audience would hear it. It made realize how much trust he puts in me, and when somebody puts that type of trust in you—dude, you work hard. Once I start to score at home, I’m constantly reevaluating, all the time. When we get to the studio, that’s where it really starts to come together because the great musicians that we’ve been using out here in L.A., they get it right away. As soon as we do the first cue, you can just tell how things are going to go because they bring a life to it that sometimes I can’t imagine. That’s the thing that I love about being in the music world. I can create themes and melodies and rhythms and harmonies and all of this stuff, but then when that human element hits it, when people start to put their spirit in it and it starts to come to life, that’s when I get really juiced to go further.

What informed the primary melodies and themes we hear throughout BlacKkKlansman?

With Ron’s story, there was a majesty about him in my mind, and I related to the struggle. I hate to use that because it’s such a general term, but I related to the struggle that all people of color were dealing with, and still are dealing with. Not asking for special treatment, just to be treated equal. That’s where the music comes from for me, that yearning, a wanting to be heard.

Do you think of this score as working in different modes? It seems to gravitate to different areas at different times, including sweeping orchestral pieces, jazz, blues and funk.

It’s funny, man. I’m at a point now where I don’t look at them as being separate; I look at them as being just another color. The key to it all, in my estimation, is to not get any of those things to try to do something that they’re not strong at. I’m not going to try to get the orchestra to swing, and I’m not going to try to get the electric band to play the way an orchestra would play, but understand both things and use them for their strengths. That comes with experience. I feel like I’m getting to a point in my career where I’ve done so many different types of things, where I could bring all these elements in and recognize a situation and say, “Oh man, you know what? I could really use that pulsating rhythm here for this, and then use the orchestra around it, and shade it in such a way. Then, when we come out of it, I’ll let the band pause, and have some transitional things, and let the guitarist play over it, and then we’ll sweep right into an orchestrated thing for the rest of the scene.” That’s how my mind works, when working on some of these things. With a lot of it, it’s the transitions that become more important, how you get in and out of those things.