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How Scores to ‘Three Billboards,’ ‘Get Out’ and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Tune Up Intensity

A newcomer and two past Oscar nominees scored 2017’s crop of suspense dramas. Each tells a story — musical and otherwise — vastly different from its competitors but all yield a similar result: intensity. A look at three of the contenders in this year’s awards races.

Get Out
Score by Michael Abels

In scoring “Get Out,” Los Angeles composer Michael Abels looked to writer, director and star Jordan Peele for direction to the social satire in horror-film guise. “In our first meeting, we came up with this idea of ‘gospel horror,'” says Abels, who first came to Peele’s attention via YouTube. After hearing a classical piece by Abels, Peele tracked him down while the film was still in pre-production. “We talked about African-American music and how it usually has elements of hopefulness. He wanted this to be very suspenseful and without that hope.”

According to Abels, Peele looked for an African-American voice to be present, both literally and figuratively. So the composer wrote phrases like “brother, run, listen to the ancestors, listen to the truth, run, save yourself,” had them translated into Swahili, and hired an eight-person choir to sing them. The voices recur throughout the score.

Peele was so wowed with the results that he used that music over the opening titles, while remainder is mostly strings, harp and percussion, with a smattering of brass and woodwinds “for color and intensity,” adds Abels.

Equally impressive: “Get Out” was Abels’ first feature film score, though the newcomer looked to one of the greats for inspiration: Says Abels: “I felt it needed a Bernard Herrmann-like score because the film so clearly is a psychological thriller.”

Murder on the Orient Express
Score by Patrick Doyle

For Kenneth Branagh’s remake of the Agatha Christie thriller, he called on his longtime collaborator, Scottish composer Patrick Doyle (“Hamlet,” “Henry V”), to underscore the mystery.

Doyle, who describes the music as “a late Baroque-early Classical feel,” was inspired both by the elaborate train that was constructed in Surrey’s Longcross Studios and by actor-director Branagh’s performance as Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. “I saw an early clip of Ken as Poirot and I thought, this is like Plato meets Bond, the convergence of two worlds,” he says with a laugh.

Doyle wrote a plaintive piano and cello melody for the backstory involving many of the suspects. He then turned that piece of music into a song, with lyrics written by Branagh and sung by Michelle Pfeiffer at the end of the movie. Says Branagh: “The theme accompanies the sadness and heartbreak at the center of the story. The song expresses a kind of ache inside one of the central characters and offers an additional emotional closure.”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Score by Carter Burwell

New York-based composer Carter Burwell could be a contender for his middle-America, folk-flavored score for Martin McDonagh’s film about an angry mother (Frances McDormand) who very publicly presses the local police chief (Woody Harrelson) into action to solve her daughter’s murder.

“Martin wanted you to feel you were in this little town,” Burwell says. “The sound of guitars and mandolin seemed true; it felt like that place.”

Burwell opens with a theme that he describes as “emotional and melancholy,” reflecting the loss of her daughter. Then “events careen out of control,” he adds, “and she goes to war with the police. When she’s on the warpath, there’s a clap-stomp, clap-stomp that you might hear in a Baptist church.”

Burwell has two other scores in contention this season: “Wonderstruck” and “Goodbye Christopher Robin.”

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