On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with Michael Abels, an orchestral composer who wrote the music for the movies Get Out, Us, and Bad Education. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Butler: What’s the step-by-step process of scoring a film. You said for Cory Finley’s Bad Education you first saw a rough cut. Did it have temp tracks on it already? Was it cut to preexisting music?
Michael Abels: Some of it was, and some of it wasn’t. Temp tracks are a necessary evil. Directors usually offer to screen the film for a composer without any music, but time is short, and you need to know what’s informing a director’s view of the film musically. A composer needs to get inside a director’s head as quickly as they can—and not just their head, because music lives in our soul. You’re having to suddenly get to know someone in an intimate way and then be able to use your skill to express them as if they were a musical artist in the way they are a visual artist. That being the challenge, temp music does a lot to help you fast-forward the conversation.
I always ask the director, “What emotions or what actions do you want the music to tell the audience at this point?” I don’t want visual artists to have to speak in musical language. It’s my job to take what they tell me and what they’re feeling and translate it into music. Rather than to try to use language they’re uncomfortable with, I encourage them to speak the way they would speak to an actor or to a cinematographer or any other of the craftspeople they collaborate with. Just to hear someone speak about what they’re feeling or thinking without them trying to process it, you get a much more accurate impression about what’s going to be correct, I think.
How do you actually learn how to do that? Someone is giving you information, and then you have to process it into your art form and language and then give it back to them. Then they have to listen to it and say, “Ah, yes, this is actually this thing that I was thinking,” or, “This isn’t the thing I was thinking, but it’s better,” or, “Nope, never mind.” How do you learn how to do that, especially since you’re working with different artists each time, who each have a different vocabulary?
You’ve summed up the whole challenge! For those of us who write or create anything, there’s two brains. There’s the creator and the critic. The critic is the one that tells us what clothes to put on and is this room too warm, and what are we going to have for lunch and all these judgments we need to make to function. But when you’re creating, that voice can shut down every good idea you’ve ever had. You have to learn to let the creative voice just do something without explanation and justification and let that bloom for a while. Only after the flower has had some water and some sun do you want to let that critical voice that you use every day have at it to say, “Well, this is the flower, but it could be so much different. It needs to be a different color, it needs to be taller, the leaves are the wrong shape.”
But if there is no flower, your critic doesn’t get to make those judgments. How that relates to a filmmaker is that you have to be the creator and create based on what they’re looking for and then allow them to have that voice that says, “I love it and it needs to be totally different.” One of the notes Cory Finley gave me was about a piece called “Eye Contact,” which is in a love scene. After he heard my first version of it, he said, ” ‘Eye Contact’ is insanely gorgeous. Can you change the first three chords?”
What did he want out of those first three chords?
It was too dark. In this scene, at least one of the characters is in a lot of conflict internally, which he doesn’t express, but it’s clearly going on. I was feeling that and responding. In his mind, in the way it was landing for him, the music was implying that there was something darker in the scene that the audience should really be feeling at that point.
It strikes me that you faced a particular challenge with the Jordan Peele film Us, because you have two antagonistic groups combating each other. How does the music express point of view when you have two opposing point of views at once?
Jordan is someone who likes to start hearing music in preproduction, while he may still be working on the script of the film, in fact. Because when he imagines a world and a story, he imagines the music in it as much as he imagines the characters and the setting. The first thing he said to me about Us was “Well, obviously it’s about duality, so give me some instruments that don’t belong together. Give me some duets of things that don’t go together.” I had read the script, so these were inspired by the film, but when I sent them to Jordan, I didn’t tell him which scene they were for, because I didn’t want my conception to limit him. If he liked them, I figured they would speak to him in some way that related to the film.
I think that the demo I did is in the film virtually as I first wrote it. It’s called “Beach Walk,” and it plays as you see the family walking down the beach. It’s supposed to be a happy day at the beach, but the music’s really troubling and unsettling.
I read an interview with Jordan Peele, where he said that you were a good fit for his work because you’re a nice person, and the best horror is made by empathetic people. I was wondering what you thought about that.
First of all, I’m flattered that he said that. So much of my job is to channel the emotions of the lead character. I write frightening music because I’m genuinely frightened by the things that are happening on the screen. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch them, it’s still terrifying. The characters don’t know what’s happening, and that’s why they’re terrified I have to express the emotion in music as well as the actors do in their bodies and voices.