Interview: Composer Joseph Shirley Talks Creed III and The Mandalorian

ComingSoon had the opportunity to speak with composer Joseph Shirley about his work on Creed III and The Mandalorian Season 3. Shirley spoke at length about working alongside director Michael B. Jordan, the difficulties that come with a franchise, and what it was like following in the footsteps of composer Ludwig Göransson.

ComingSoon: I’m so hyped for Creed III – I love the Rocky/Creed franchise – clearly the name alone is a draw, but were there other factors that drew you to this project?

Joseph Shirley: I’m hyped too! It’s funny – you spend months and months experimenting, working out the music on a project, and collaborating with its director. Yet, when the movie FINALLY comes out, it takes on a totally different form and feels fresh again – because it finally becomes real, and you’re able to learn from what resonated with its audiences.  

What drew me to this movie was my passion to this franchise in working under Ludwig for the first two Creed movies, and also my childhood obsession with Rocky IV. The stakes, the score, the bad blood between Rocky and Drago. That movie had everything for me as a kid growing up. I remember watching that movie with my brothers in the TV room countless times.

This is Michael B. Jordan’s directorial debut, what was he like as a director — how did he approach the musical aspect of the film? 

Michael was such a joy to work with. He was passionate about every department of this movie, and gave everyone his attention when they needed it. It was astounding to me, the feat of directing a movie and also being its star. Also, his vision for some of these scenes felt so new for the franchise, creative and ambitious. I had the privilege to spend almost every Friday morning with him for months, here at my studio reviewing my music. We had some late nights as well – one in particular was a vocal session I had with a phenomenal singer, Maiya Sykes, for the final fight sequence which we called “The Void”. Mike and I conducted Maiya through the glass of the vocal booth, while she watched the sequence and riffed over it. It was thrilling for both of us to kind of play in the sandbox together like that.

Mike was really devoted to the process too. Oftentimes, I felt like he was giving me feedback, as if I were one of his actors on the set with him, and we’d be crafting the emotion of the music together live in real-time. It was amazing to feel that close to the story with him.

You’re tackling a franchise that’s been around since the late 70s — which is crazy! — was it difficult to find a new way to tackle the score? Did you feel compelled to add your own voice or was your goal to recreate/expand upon the previously established themes?

For me, it was important to help tell THIS story, and to try my best to not get caught up in the pressure I put on myself as it related to the legacy of the franchise. Mike and I gravitated towards the emotional through line of the story, and so I think our score has a bit more of a subtle gravitas and darker emotional texture as compared to what Ludwig so brilliantly wrote for C1 and C2, as well as the iconic Bill Conti themes. But, there were definitely times he and I wanted to “go for it” and really lean into that heroic and lush orchestral sound that this franchise has become known for.  

In certain key areas of the movie, I wanted to honor the musical legacy of this franchise, but at the same time, help tell OUR story which deviates from that formula in a lot of interesting ways. Dame and Adonis in particular needed a new texture musically, one that felt more personal and intimate, but also kind of suspicious in tone.

What was the most challenging aspect of Creed III and how did you overcome it?

The most challenging aspect for me was following Ludwig, whose music many people have adored for years, and whose music I also have revered in many ways. He’s a big presence in my musical life and a mentor for me in my young career, so I wanted to make sure what I was doing was right for the movie, but also respected in the legacy from which I started out. With all that in mind, really the only way to get around it was to focus solely on THIS story and devote myself to Michael’s vision in telling it. Everything else goes away when I can get into the middle of a story with someone like Mike, and commit to telling our story the way we want it to be told. It became easier to “get lost” in this story, as Mike and I began experimenting with how we’d break off from the established sound and start making something new. 

Is there a track you’re particularly proud of that you want moviegoers to pay attention to?

I really enjoyed creating the score in The Void. It’s more of a produced sound, nightmarish, kind of like a Sci-Fi or horror movie. But we wanted to give it a Greek Tragedy / Greek Chorus through line as well. The most exciting elements to me are all the vocal samples I sang, and Maiya sang, as well as the amazing Choir I recorded on it here in Los Angeles at Warner Brothers.  

Also, I really loved making the song for Felix’s Walkout “Viene por Sangre” with the singer JVZEL! I simply wished it could have been a longer in the movie!

Mr. Jordan has stated his desire to expand the Creed universe — would you be interested in exploring future Creed films? How do you see the music evolving in sequels/spin-offs?

Of course, I’d be interested! Creed III expanded on the Creed universe in so many beautiful ways, that I would be honored to continue to build on what we did here. As far as the direction of the music in these movies – it’d depend on what the story is! I’m not sure which direction they’d go in story-wise, so we’ll have to wait and see.

Give us all The Mandalorian Season 3 spoilers! Kidding, I know you can’t say much about upcoming new episodes, but how does the music evolve in the latest adventures of our masked hero?

This season is BIG. The scope of this season widens quite a lot by the end of it, with many new characters. Musically, I wanted to match that and help support all the ideas that Jon Favreau, Dave Filoni, and Rick Famuyiwa have come up with. Jon specifically asked for a more classic touch for some of the characters, in order to set up how those characters grow throughout the season – possibly a bit more of an orchestral treatment to some of their themes. By the end of the season, it gets very robust in tone and orchestral support.

What can fans expect from the upcoming season, musically?

A big sound with new arrangements of Ludwig’s previously loved themes, as well as some new themes that build progressively through each episode. Each episode has a different touch sonically, as well as some really fun curveballs story-wise, so it was a blast to be along for the ride musically throughout this larger Mando S3 story. It’s a wild ride.

What do I have to do to get your job working on two of the hottest properties in Hollywood? 

I will let you know when I wake up from this dream!

Is there anything you learned on either of these projects that you’re excited to apply to future endeavors?

I learned so much about myself, and how to work with people. I learned it’s always important to run with an idea wholeheartedly all the way to the finish line, even if that finish line switches on you in the course of the project. And, especially when an idea or a direction gets scrapped – that you can build something even better coming out of that experience of knowing and loving the first idea, while starting on something new. I’m already excited to keep building on these experiences and lessons this year.

Speaking of which, do you have any upcoming projects you can discuss?

Yup! I’m producing songs for an animated movie, and scoring a fun teen comedy at the moment. Both projects are excellent and I can’t wait for folks to see them!


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