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Q&A: Grammy award-winning composer Mateo Messina

Messina discusses his creative processes as a composer and, more recently, as a director

Mateo Messina addresses the audience holding candles at his 18th annual symphony “Firelight” at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Wash. on Nov. 6, 2015. He reminded the audience that “sometimes it is best to walk forward in the dark.” // Photo courtesy of Jose Moreno

Mateo Messina is best known for his work composing the soundtrack of the movie “Juno.” For his composition, Messina won a Grammy for ​​Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for Motion Picture, Television, or Other Visual Media in 2009. On top of that, his work has been featured in Oscar-winning movies and independent films. 

Messina is a Seattle native who graduated from Western Washington University with a business degree in 1995. He has been playing the piano since he was 3 years old and writing music since age 7. 

His career in music was kickstarted when he wrote his first symphony at age 23 and became one of the first performers at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. Benaroya became the home of Messina’s annual symphony to raise money for Seattle Children’s Hospital. To date, he’s raised over 2 million dollars and is set to premier his 25th symphony on Nov. 8, 2024. 

In 2023, Messina made his directorial debut for his short film titled “Little Wing.”

Q: ​​Tell me a little bit about how your short film “Little Wing” came about.

A: “Little Wing” is from a novel I had written in my 20s called “How Many Times Does a Pixie Fall Down from the Sky?” It was about this little pixie character that infiltrates this guy's real life and gets him to think and look at life differently. I made [“Little Wing”] to understand how to make a film properly and work with a crew of 30 to 40 people and bring on actors, photographers, production designers, lighting people and all that. 

It was fun to make. I love storytelling. I've been writing symphonies for 24 years and this was just a different way of portraying a story. My goal of putting art into the world is to bring joy and make sure people know that they are loved and accepted.

Mateo piano
Mateo Messina plays the piano alongside an orchestra at his 15th annual symphony, “The Voice of Finnegan Farrell,” at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, Wash. on Nov. 9, 2012. Messina hosts yearly symphonies to raise money for Seattle Children’s Hospital. // Photo courtesy of Frank Melchior

Q: Would you say that, for future projects, you want to head more in the directorial direction?

A: I'm leaving myself open to it, but I will always be a composer no matter what. So even if I direct films, I'll still write a symphony probably every year until I die. I'm writing symphony number 25 right now. It's just part of my DNA.

Q: How do you apply what you know from composing to directing?

A: Surprisingly, it's very similar. From a technical aspect, the workstation we work in to compose and produce music [is] very similar to editing software.

In the end, it's a collaboration. When I work with an orchestra, I rely on every single musician to bring their passion and their heart into it – not their mechanical ability to play the notes. In film scoring, it's very similar. It's strangely less about music and more about pace, tone and emotion. It's all about the emotion of the characters – especially the protagonist – and how to bring the viewer in to feel all those things without telling them how to feel. That's kind of a high-wire act.

Q: What challenges did you face during the creative process of composing “Juno”'s soundtrack?

A: The challenge was how to hit the tone of this character that was really unique. I had worked with the director on a film previously and we’d gotten close. He goes, “Hey, I want you to read this script.” He knew my oldest brother and his wife had adopted.

[Juno, the main character, deals with a teen pregnancy and the process of adoption.]

I read the script, and I was like, wow, it was very emotional, but also different than any other script I'd read. One day the director called me up and he had asked Elliot Page, “Who does Juno listen to?” and [Page] is immediately like, “Oh, The Moldy Peaches.” 

I listened to The Moldy Peaches and I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is the key.” What we're gonna unlock is: how do we get this spirit to go through the whole film? I'd [need to] write a whole bunch of music that tied it together. 

Some people thought they were listening to a drum set and it really was just me pouring a pint glass of water into a bucket of water. I would slap an apple for the snare drum and it was funny that when you're listening you don't even notice that it's not a real drum set. You're like, “Why does it sound so organic?”

Mateo Messina rehearses with an orchestra at the WAMU theater in the SODO district of Seattle. Messina composed his first symphony for an orchestra at age 23 and hasn’t stopped composing since. // Photo courtesy of Frank Melchior

Q: How did those creative challenges you had during “Juno” compare to the creative challenges you had directing “Little Wing?”

A: I’m a big believer in confidence, not arrogance. I detest arrogance. But confidence, there’s a side to taking something on that you just have to believe you can do it and then go do it. Whether you do it right or wrong, you have to take that leap of faith. Doing “Juno” or even after writing my first symphony, I don't read music. So, I went and wrote my first symphony without reading music. 

With “Little Wing,” [I had] to find this balance of, hey, I may write a symphony different than other composers and I might make a film a little differently, but at the same time, I need to respect how [other] people work.

You work with all these principles, from production designer to composer, to cinematographer, to costumes, to casting. They dedicate their whole careers to doing this one certain thing. So why would you think that you could do it better than them? So you just go, how do I convey the tone, the spirit, the pace, how I want this to feel and look without saying “Make it look like this?” Because I want their ideas. 

Q: What are some of your favorite projects you've worked on?

A: I had a really fun comedy called “Blockers” about five years ago. I just thought everyone was really good at their jobs and really smart and that was just fun.

Then there's the unexpected things. I remember while we were finishing “Juno,” Jason Reitman called me up. He's like, “Hey, could you write music for this commercial? I'm directing an episode of ‘The Office’ where Michael Scott makes a commercial. So we need one from him and one from the corporation that owns Dunder Mifflin.” I ended up writing music for a Dunder Mifflin ad. I didn't even expect it – I had to do it on a Tuesday night and have it ready by Wednesday midday. Those things are fun.

Janisa Cook

Janisa Cook (she/her) is an opinions reporter for The Front this quarter. She is also on Western's women’s rowing team. In her free time, she likes to paint, go to coffee shops, and hang out with her roommates. You can reach her at

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