Film Composers Tap Into Offbeat Inspirations for Scores

An electro-acoustic cello for a comic-book villain. Sampled whistling for young revolutionaries in a Latin American jungle. A German rendition of a Beatles song for a satire on the Third Reich. A retro synth score for the tribulations of a gambling addict. Angry, dissonant music for two men alone in a 19th-century lighthouse. Avant-garde saxophone solos digitally inserted into a soundtrack.

The rulebook for film composers has been thrown out, it seems. A number of this year’s films feature daring musical approaches, suggesting that filmmakers are more open to unusual soundscapes, which in turn makes their films even more interesting and provocative.

“It seems like there’s an openness of spirit, especially on the outskirts of Hollywood,” says Mica Levi, the British composer whose overpowering music for “Jackie” earned her a 2016 Oscar nomination. “There are always people who are interested in making something they haven’t seen, and therefore are open to taking risks.”

Levi contributed a spare and atmospheric score to “Monos,” director Alejandro Landes’ modern-day “Lord of the Flies” set among teenage soldiers holding an American doctor hostage in a South American jungle.

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“It’s a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments,” she explains. Inspired by the actors using their mouths and hands to make whistling sounds, she did her own whistling and augmented it with synths and timpani. “I tried hard to just make it drums and whistles, but I didn’t get away with it,” she quips; strings and flutes are briefly heard.

Director Robert Eggers’ original idea for music in his intense period character study “The Lighthouse” turned out to be wrong. “I originally wanted it to be quite minimalist, but I should have known better,” he says. “The over-the-top indulgent writing, the insane performances and the camerawork, all as wild and crazy as Robert Pattinson’s character, required the same [musical treatment].”

He encouraged composer Mark Korven to pursue atonal compositional techniques. “Rob wanted the stormy black sea, the cruel wind,” says Korven. “It’s about character and mood. The score, essentially, is the character of the sea, the squalls, the dark mythology.” Horror today, he adds, “is so drenched in cliche that when someone comes along that’s thinking outside the box, filmmakers can seize on that.”

A large collection of brass is the core of “The Lighthouse” soundtrack, Korven notes, with such other offbeat colors as waterphone, bowed crystal and “some ludicrously badly played accordion courtesy of myself.”

The director was briefly disturbed by a studio executive’s comment that it sounded like “a Yeti moaning in the wilderness.” “You have to question, when is the obscurity adding to the tension and when is it just strange?” Eggers admits. “With any score, it’s about supporting the story. So long as it supports the story, and isn’t distracting, people will go along for the ride.”

A much lighter musical mood permeates “Uncut Gems,” with Adam Sandler as a New York City jeweler whose mounting gambling debts may well be the death of him. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie “wanted a cosmic atmosphere that had symphonic bones, an exciting kind of frivolous, wild and very melodic score,” says composer Daniel Lopatin.

It’s almost entirely vintage synthesizer sounds, “a total bouquet” of vintage electronics inspired by the work of Vangelis, Wendy Carlos, Tangerine Dream and other artists active in the ’70s and ’80s. Often loud and in-your-face, “there’s a brazen quality to it,” says Lopatin, who is also known as Oneohtrix Point Never.

Lopatin quotes Josh Safdie as saying “we don’t do underscore, we do over-score.” The composer believes that “real filmmaking is every department having as much heart, as much soulful connectivity as possible, to the ideas that are firmly in place in the movie. When we do that, the result is what you hear. That’s our style. We certainly had the luxury of having so much freedom.”

This year’s musical risk-taking extended to the use of songs, too. “Jojo Rabbit” director Taika Waititi opens his Nazi-youth satire with the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (“Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand”). Composer Michael Giacchino, when he saw the completed film, thought, “Holy cow, that is the greatest choice ever. If you were to put any other song in there, it just wouldn’t work.”

Inevitably, there was difficulty in clearing the rights to a Beatles song. But Giacchino knew Paul McCartney, having worked with him on an animation project. “So I called Paul. I explained exactly why it was important, what was going on, and within minutes, his people called me back and were like, ‘All right, what do you need? Let’s get this straightened out.’”

Screenings for representatives of all four Beatles were arranged, as all four parties must sign off on licensing issues, and Waititi got his 1963 classic. Similarly, David Bowie’s “Heroes” – the 1977 art-rock song that some believe was partly responsible for bringing down the Berlin Wall — is used at the end of the film. “The choice of those two songs was pretty inspired, and I just wanted to help out and make sure that they stayed in the movie,” Giacchino says.

Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, whose score for “Joker” is among the year’s most talked-about, credits director Todd Phillips with reaching out to her. “I knew that he was keen on the cello, because he liked what I was doing in my solo work,” she says from Berlin. “When they started shooting, they used the music quite a lot on the set, to influence Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and the general pacing and choreography.”

The bathroom scene, in which Phoenix begins dancing, “is his actual reaction to the music,” she adds. Guðnadóttir does not play a traditional instrument; rather, it’s a Halldorophone, an electro-acoustic cello that has the classic cello strings but also a set of resonating strings that are mic’d and fed into a speaker, “so it becomes a kind of feedback mechanism, like a Jimi Hendrix cello, a wailing monster.”

“I’m playing through a stack of amplifiers in the room,” she adds. “It’s one person’s journey, finding out who he is and where he comes from.” Eventually the cello, as Joker’s voice, is overwhelmed by the orchestra, which “kind of suffocates the cello. It’s interesting to have one instrument go through the same transformation that the character goes through in the story.”

Daniel Pemberton’s music for “Motherless Brooklyn,” despite the film’s late 1950s setting, is similarly 21st-century in its technology-driven outlook. Edward Norton’s private detective is drawn into a web that has a jazz club at its center, so the composer asked English saxophonist Tom Challenger to record some musical ideas: “Show me what you can do that no one asks you to do,” Pemberton says.

They experimented in the studio and that resulted in a series of avant-garde sax riffs that Pemberton could digitally “turn into loops, or change the pitch, or use them as the basis to build tracks,” he says.

Challenger’s saxophone is heard throughout the score, often echoing or distantly heard in the sound mix, hinting at the jazz backdrop while also subtly heightening the drama with a modern musical sensibility.

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