‘When They See Us’ Composer on Mixing Sweetness With ‘Horror Film’ Sounds for Score

Kris Bowers, who wrote the "Green Book" score, moved well away from jazz in scoring Ava DuVernay's dramatization of the Central Park Five.

Kris Bowers photographed at the Variety
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Belying his resume, Kris Bowers is a young man — so young that he was only 2 weeks old when a jogger was attacked in Central Park in 1989, kicking into motion the miscarriage of justice he would become immersed in three decades later when signing on to score Ava DuVernay’s Netflix limited series “When They See Us.” The pianist-composer’s credits range from his own Concord Jazz release to providing the score (and on-screen hands) for “Green Book.” Having previously earned a Daytime Emmy, Bowers admits “it feels different” to be up for a primetime one.

The saga of the Central Park Five is, at least till near the end, the feel-bad story of the summer. How tough is it to underscore that without bumming viewers out even more?

We definitely wanted it to feel as bad as possible! But we also wanted to hold onto the fact that these are young kids whose innocence is being stripped away, and that innocence has to be represented for us to really feel it being taken. They did make it through, and there is an ugly beauty to their resilience as young men and members of the African American community. That was something else that I was trying to always stay conscious of, no matter how much we wanted to be demonstrative about the horror of what was happening.

The initial episodes have what almost sounds like subtle horror-movie scoring.

Definitely. I told Ava after I first saw it that I wanted to approach it more like a horror film, or at least take inspiration from that — although “horror” brings to mind other things, and “nightmare” is maybe even more specific to this project. The first thing that I thought to do when I watched the show in my interview with her actually was to take saxophones and cellos and trumpet and violin and have these different instrumentalists play the weirdest sound they could think of, and we created weird, eerie soundscapes with a lot of that stuff. But the show also has sweet piano themes that represent each of these boys’ relationship with, in most cases, the love of a black mother. So even at the center of some of those horror-sounding cues will be a very strong melody of piano with strings that, without the horror aspect, wouldn’t feel scary. The combination was an effort to make us feel both things at the same time — love for these boys and disgust about what was going on.

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Dan Doperalski for Variety

How did you sign on?

Jason Moranis, an incredible jazz pianist who is a mentor of mine, is Ava’s creative musical brother, and was supposed to do it, but couldn’t because of his touring schedule, so he recommended me. I think Ava was skeptical, wanting to feel from me that I was going to make this as personal as she was. After I watched it, I was too emotional to even articulate myself, but I told her how what happened to those boys was one of my parents’ biggest fears. Another thing that helped her feel comfortable with me was my own story about being arrested for protesting, after Darren Wilson was acquitted [in the Ferguson, Mo., shooting case]. Even though my arrest was more like a field trip to jail, you quickly understand how people lose their minds in that space when nobody gives you information or treats you like a human.

Instrumentally, did you know right away that the approach you were going to take was a mixture of basic simple piano and fuller orchestration?

Some of the temp was pretty electronic. There was some Cliff Martinez stuff in there, and Cliff Martinez is one of my biggest influences as a composer, but it was more of his electronic-sounding stuff. The scores that they had in there as temp sometimes would be things from “The Nick,” for example. One of the things that Ava and I talked about is that if we weren’t careful, especially a lot of the interrogation scenes or the courtroom scenes could feel very much like a procedural drama. One idea was to figure out how to make more organic instruments sound like they’re being used like synth instruments — like taking a note that maybe the saxophone player played for 30 seconds and stretching it out to like two minutes, and that becomes the path for a cue. Or instead of using some sort of synth ARP, we had a drummer play bucket drums in a bunch of different iterations — bucket drums with mallets, with sticks, buckets filled with water, filled with rocks, buckets that were plastic, buckets that were metal — and then put those through processors so that they could act as a lot of those pulses that we might be used to hearing rhythmically, in other types of scores. Just the sound of it being a bit more organic I thought was important, given what we’re watching, given the content.

But is there still electronic content?

There is some electronic stuff in there, and I think that my goal with that was trying to have this mixture between the two so we can’t really tell what’s organic and what’s synthetic, essentially. But it was always leading with the organic stuff and then kind of using any synthetic element to maybe accentuate or emphasize it, but trying not to lead with that.

For the Emmys you have to submit one episode. Was there any thought that went into episode 2 being the episode of the four that best represented your approach?

The score in the series continues to morph throughout the whole series, but I think that episode is the most transitional. In the third episode and the fourth episode, we don’t really ever hear a lot of those horror sounds that I established in the first one, and so the second one is the last time we hear some of the remnants of those things — and it’s also introducing some more optimistic sounds as well. It’s the episode where my job was most difficult, because we know what’s going to happen to these boys, and so this episode we had to shape it in a way so that by the time we get to the end of the episode, when we find out the verdict, there’s a drop in our stomach. We want to be in the same place that these parents an these family members or whomever was there watching the case felt when that verdict came down. There are ups and downs, trying to find any sort of happy moment that we could. For example, when we first meet the lawyers, that cue is of one of the happier, more upbeat cues because it’s the first time we feel like maybe these lawyers are going to help them, and so we kind of get a little bit more excited about the potential of it not going the way that we know that it goes. With that episode we were trying to drop people into that moment in time, so that they almost forget what actually happened. I remember when we watched the premiere at the Apollo, where they watched the first two episodes back-to-back, I knew that we had accomplished that when the verdict came at the end of the second episode and people in the audience were screaming out “no!” — freaking out about it as if it was all a surprise to them.

There are a lot of a lot of themes that I established and developed from that episode. At the very end of the episode, for example, there’s a long sequence after the verdict where one of the mothers says, “You try to do your best for your son and be there for them every step of the way, and then one night you might look away and everything could change,” essentially. For me one of the theses of this whole series is how much how much black mothers love their children, especially their sons, and how much these boys need that love in this world. And so that cue is a theme that returns in different iterations. Each of those mother-and-son moments have a theme that’s some sort of variation on that one cue, and so that cue is a big moment for me.

You had a strong emphasis on jazz for a while, but this is not a very jazz-like score. You were influenced by Oscar Peterson — is that still kind of your home base?

Yeah, it is. it’s funny. I look at how people like Lalo Schifrin played with Dizzy Gillespie, or John Williams put out jazz trio albums. There are some incredibly prolific and legendary composers that started off as jazz pianists. And I think it’s because in jazz, you have to have an incredible handle and knowledge on theory and on compositional techniques, because improvising is basically composing on the spot, essentially, and being able to think of melodies very quickly and being able to be that malleable. I could be playing a chord, and if the musician I’m playing behind plays a totally different note that doesn’t fit with that chord, then my job as a pianist is to figure out how to make that note fit in the chord that I’m playing. So because you have to be so adaptable, I think it prepares you so well for being a film composer. Of course, you also have to then do all the other studying of all the other genres and compositional techniques that it takes to be a film composer. Even with the score for this, somebody told me when he listened to it that  “I totally hear how this comes from jazz.” Because some of the things that I’m laying against each other don’t make any sense harmonically or theoretically, but I’m doing it just based on my gut instinct or my feeling or my ear, and all of that comes from being in jazz and knowing that I can play this chord and play something that technically doesn’t work at all, but if I do it in a certain way it’s going to sound right. I think those types of skill sets make it a bit easier to venture out into something like this that’s a little bit more experimental.

What’s next for you?

I just scored a horror film with Justin Simien [for whom he previously did “Dear White People”] called “Bad Hair,” inspired by “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby” and classical composers like Ligeti, Bartok and Penderecki. I’ve been doing audiobooks with Kobe Bryant, and we just did one Phylicia Rashad narrates called “Legacy and the Queen.” I’m also working on a film with Mark Wahlberg and Connie Britton about this teenage boy named Jadin Bell who committed suicide because of online bullying. There’s a documentary by Bing Lu, “Until the Lion Speaks,” about programs in Chicago that rehabilitate young men that come from gang violence. And I’m doing a project with Kyle Connaughton, a Michelin star chef with a restaurant in Sonoma, working on a dinner concept where we’re going to create a 15-course meal based on a storyline. I’ll write a score to it, and we’ll have it in a space where we can have an open kitchen and a live orchestra.