To learn that Justin Timberlake, the multi-platinum pop star, actor and owner of handfuls of Grammys and Emmys, composed an orchestral film score feels very, shall we say, left field. But the seed was actually planted at a young age.
"I think when I was a kid I would hear movies more than I would watch them," said Timberlake, 35. "I saw 'E.T.' at a drive-in with my father, and hearing that main theme to the movie, and how it's used when the bikes take off and they fly over the police barricade, and you hear that sweeping melody — I'll never forget that moment."
The Tennessee native's scoring debut is for the new indie drama, "The Book of Love," now in theaters and video on demand. The film stars Jason Sudeikis as a grieving widower — his wife is played by producer and Timberlake's wife, Jessica Biel — who befriends a teen orphan played by Maisie Williams ("Game of Thrones").
It was directed by Bill Purple, who met Biel as an assistant director on the 2005 film "Stealth." Biel and Purple's wife, Michelle, formed the production company Iron Ocean Films — and Purple cast Biel in his directing debut, the 2007 short "Hole in the Paper Sky."
"We were shooting that," Purple recalled, "and Jessica — who's the most punctual person ever — showed up 45 minutes late. My wife immediately started ribbing her, and she's like, 'I met somebody last night.' 'Who?' 'Justin Timberlake.' [My wife] was like, 'All right, you're forgiven.'" (When Biel and Timberlake got married in 2012, they asked Purple to officiate.)
All the while, the director was developing his debut feature based on Robbie Pickering's screenplay (then titled "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea"). It crawled in fits and starts for almost a decade, hindered by the difficulty of finding finances for a quirky $5-million indie. At one point Zach Braff and Chloë Grace Moretz were the two leads, but it was a constant seesaw of scheduling and money never lining up.
Six years ago, when things finally seemed to be moving, the Purples were having dinner at Timberlake's house.
"And he brought it up," Purple said. "'Hey, who's going to score your film?' I hadn't even thought of it yet. He was like, 'I'd be interested in doing it.' And I was immediately like, 'Yes, that's interesting to me.'"
"The Book of Love" finally shot in early 2015. Timberlake began composing in earnest that summer — having just come off his yearlong "20/20 Experience World Tour," and having a son with Biel.
"I would chip away at different melodies, just arranging on the piano, and record voice notes and send them to Bill every now and then," he said.
He cited a famous classical work as inspiration for his approach.
"'Peter and the Wolf' is like the classic breakdown of character and melody," he said. "I remember seeing that when I was really young. Every time Peter was in the forest, you'd hear his melody. And then you hear the wolf's melody, and you hear all these different animals' melodies played with either strings, or different woodwinds, or percussion. So we sort of tackled it that way."
"Going into it I felt like, 'Well, he's going to come into this with an electronic or pop sort of modern sound,'" said Purple. "And when you get to know him, you realize his music is so based in blues and country and the roots of music — the music he listens to. I didn't expect him to come from a much more traditional score standpoint, which he did — which I loved."
The theme for Henry (Sudeikis) was assigned to acoustic guitar ("because he's so grounded," said Timberlake) and Williams' edgy character was represented by electric guitar. A solo female voice stands in for Biel's character, who — spoiler alert — dies within the first few minutes and appears mostly in flashbacks.
"It's almost like her spirit is living through the movie," said Timberlake, "so we wanted to make the sound of her more ethereal, something otherworldly. We actually created some synth sounds for her that just felt interesting and different."
In some ways, he said, writing dramatic score was similar to songwriting — "the script and action, those are basically your lyrics" — but also fundamentally different.
"The payoff in writing pop music is always like, 'Oh yeah, here comes the chorus,' right? But making a score, there may never be a payoff. You're more following suit. I find scoring is basically creating music that stays out of the way."
Since this was his first film score, Timberlake called in a composer friend, Mitchell Owens, to help with the technical aspects of composition and arranging for strings. (Owens is credited as a co-composer.) They performed most of the solo instruments — piano, guitar, bass — themselves.
"If you heard a part, you would just jump on an instrument and start picking it out," said Timberlake. "Sometimes it's just easier when you're hearing something one way to just [play it] yourself. Even if the players are there, I'll beatbox something or I'll sing what I think the bass melody should do, and they'll start playing with me. But we were under a bit of a budget, so we were kind of the players as well."
Unlike a more traditional, symphonic score, Timberlake's music for "The Book of Love" doesn't outline a dramatic narrative so much as sustain a mood or a groove. "I think groove will always be a part of any type of music that I'm involved with," he said.
In that way it's reminiscent of the scores of Mark Knopfler, another recording musician who has composed for films. In fact, Timberlake is just the latest in a lineage of popular artists who have either dabbled in or migrated to film scoring, from Danny Elfman to Trent Reznor, whose scoring debut, "The Social Network," featured Timberlake the actor.
"I think Trent got the bug in [Justin's] ears," said Purple. "Because there's no pressure. You can do something musically, and if it bombs or blips, he's not going to get hell for it. And if it's great, then great. If he wants to go write a song ... he knows the moment he does that it becomes this promotional giant machine."
That machine has been in high gear for the last eight months as Timberlake has promoted his Grammy-nominated song "Can't Stop the Feeling" for "Trolls." He got that gig right in the middle of scoring "Book of Love," which is what made the score take a diced-up six month to write.
Timberlake said he would definitely consider writing more film music, and was glad to get his "bumps and bruises" working with friends and family on a project he cared about.
"I grew up being such a cinephile that this is something I've always wanted to do," he said. "You just never think you're going to get the opportunity. But you're always thinking, 'Wow, wouldn't it be amazing to write music for a whole movie? I think sometimes when I'm making albums, because of my acting background as well, I almost feel like I'm writing for a character."
Purple said Timberlake's film composing inexperience was actually a boon.