Like many professional musicians, Roger Neill wears many hats: he’s an in-demand composer for film (including Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” and “Beginners”), TV (Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning comedy “Mozart In The Jungle,” Fox’s “King Of The Hill”) and radio (NPR’s “This American Life”). He’s an arranger and orchestrator for many musicians’ albums and tours (including John Legend and the French group Air), and a multi-instrumentalist fluent in everything from piano and guitar to the charango and the dobro.
It was the latter hat that became most useful when it came time to create the score for his latest project, HBO Max’s teen friendship comedy “Unpregnant,” which premieres September 10 and stars Haley Lu Richardson and Barbie Ferreira. Though Neill had secured his composer role with the film prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he didn’t have a rough cut to start work on the music until after quarantine and remote orchestral performances became the indefinite norm.
“Normally I would have time to put together a small combo of musicians, but this was really difficult to try and do that,” Neill says on the phone from his home studio in Los Angeles. “I play guitar and woodwinds so I could record stuff in my studio, but I reached out to certain players who I knew could do multiple parts. For example, there’s a string player I rely on who did some violin sections who I had record 16 [separate times], since I couldn’t get an ensemble together. Likewise, with a drummer or bass player, I tried to figure out the best way to do this under the new protocols.”
Like an increasing list of TV and film projects just starting to hit the air, most notably HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” virtual orchestras are quickly becoming the new composer pivot. While the remote work certainly requires more takes and post-production to sync up the separate parts, Neill says it’s not entirely without its benefits for the community at large. “My engineer Jason LaRocca was doing a project for a full choir with five voices at a time. He said, ‘it’s gonna sound different, but it’ll sound really good.’ And maybe that new sound is something we think is cool and try to replicate for other projects out of necessity. I think we’re figuring it out — it’s interesting trying to come up with something different and cool and better.”
“Unpregnant” also reunites Neill with writer-director Rachel Lee Goldenberg, who he also collaborated with on this year’s musical remake of “Valley Girl.” Songs for Screens caught up with Neill to learn more about how to strike the right musical tone for a comedy about teenage abortion, his Tame Impala inspiration and what other composers can learn from his initial experiments with virtual orchestras and self-recording.
“Unpregnant” is a comedy that strikes a tricky tonal balance, given that it deals with the heavy subject matter of abortion. How did that present a unique challenge from a music perspective?
Tone is one of the things that makes it fascinating. It’s this weird mashup. I’d worked with the director Rachel Lee Goldberg before, so we had a shorthand of how to communicate. “Unpregnant” is about a high school woman who finds out she’s pregnant in the first scene at the restroom of her school. She’s a type A personality — an on her way to Ivy League kinda gal — and she’s on a mission to figure out what she’s supposed to do. So she and her ex-friend have this Thelma and Louise moment where they have to drive cross country to get an abortion without her mom finding out.
I think the thing we’re proud to have accomplished is a wonderful balance of tone. It really is a heartfelt, lovely comedy about two ex-friends rediscovering themselves and loving and supporting each other. A lot of fun and weird things happen, but at the heart of it, she’s getting an abortion and that’s what it is – it’s a serious thing not to be taken lightly. And the film doesn’t try to pander, it just portrays it as the right decision given the circumstances.
This might not be obvious to anybody, but I was using Tame Impala as a sound kickoff point. With “Valley Girl,” which was set in the ‘80s, I wrote a score that had some ‘80s elements, so with this one I said, “Let’s go with the ‘90s” because Tame Impala has a ‘90s sound to me. I went with these particular synthesizers and patches, and I was trying to create something that felt youthful but also had the elements I needed to do my job which is to tell the heartfelt part of the story to create the kind of action-y parts that were necessary and at the same time create a score that was unified. So that’s what we set out to do.
Obviously it’s trickier than ever to create a “unified score” under pandemic conditions. What was it like working in that kind of environment for the first time?
I think it worked out fine. I’ve talked to a lot of my colleagues and we’re all learning how to do a lot of this stuff on our own, and a lot of what we’re doing now could become permanent in our industry — relying on people to do their parts at home and record a whole orchestra and record a whole woodwind section and send back the parts. It’s just what we have to do to get this stuff done. So there’s still a lot of live players, but no one is playing at the same time.
Has your project pipeline slowed down yet as a result of prolonged production shutdowns?
Not yet. I was fortunate to be contracted for two films back in February, “Unpregnant” and another one I’m working on now that’s a much darker drama. So I’m super busy, but I don’t know what I’m gonna do when these projects are done. We’ll see when people are ready to go back into production. Everyone wants to work, so the smart producers are trying to figure out some ways to get things going, where people can be in different rooms or what have you. People want to see new things.
Anybody who’s in Los Angeles who cannot record at home, they’re quickly becoming a dinosaur. In the future it won’t be exclusively that, but for now that’s the reality. I really have just been like all of us, working day after day, rarely leaving the home studio. I’ve talked to some of my producer colleagues who kind of don’t mind it though, it’s nice to be busy. So in the long term, I’m optimistic — we’ll see how the short term works out.
Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Hampp on Twitter at @ahampp.