Sometimes directors don’t want you humming the music as you leave their film.
More than ever, filmmakers are seeking fresh musical approaches, especially when the subject matter is dark or fantastic. Three late-2023 releases demonstrate this with music that catches the ear in unusual ways.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos had never commissioned original music for any of his previous films. So for “Poor Things,” which seemed to demand a bespoke score, he turned to a composer who had never written one before: English musician Jerskin Fendrix, whose 2020 album “Winterreise” he had admired.
Fendrix is a classically trained pianist and violinist who has written an experimental opera and defiantly resisted conventional pop-music sounds. Lanthimos hired him six months before beginning principal photography on his sci-fi black comedy starring Emma Stone as Bella, a Victorian woman raised from the dead who embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery.
Fendrix began writing based on the script, concept art, production drawings and costume designs. “I was allowed to compose in a very pure and unrestrained way,” Fendrix tells Variety from his London studio. “We decided very early on that there would be no temp score. We never discussed a single other piece of music, any other score or composer.
“Mainly, the music is serving to illuminate the psychological interior of Bella,” he explains. “It couldn’t be a score that was polished or invincible, something that sits in the background. It also serves to remind you of this kind of creeping shadow that hangs over the film.”
Bella’s musical world is as strange and unconventional as the character. Fendrix recorded every instrument and voice separately. “I was able to go to every single recording of every player and surgically alter it,” he says, “to see how I could keep this emotional core but then warp it to an extent where there was uneasiness.”
So high instruments were processed to sound like low instruments, and vice versa. He played all the violins and keyboards himself, taking special interest in the woodwinds (“wind that comes from a person, breath and life and organic function”) and mechanical instruments that relied on blown air (pipe organs, accordions), all pitch-bent and digitally altered. “The result was quite eerie,” he says.
There are also high-pitched voices — Fendrix singing, but “doctored to make it sound a lot cuter” — and, to reflect Bella’s horror at the evils of mankind, “screaming violins and pipes and woodwinds, with a bass line achieved by getting a sobbing sound out of an oboe and pitching it down 20 octaves.”
Fendrix estimates that 95% of all the music in “Poor Things” was written prior to shooting. He also has a fleeting cameo playing a fictional instrument in the Lisbon sequence. “It looks like a harp made out of bike horns,” he quips.
Mica Levi’s music for “The Zone of Interest” totals only 14 minutes, but it’s so striking that the Los Angeles Film Critics awarded the composer a best music award (their second, after “Under the Skin,” a previous collaboration with director Jonathan Glazer). The opening and closing of Glazer’s film about the Nazi family living next door to Auschwitz accounts for nearly 10 of those 14 minutes of score.
“There was at one point lots of music in the film,” Levi says. “We were trying to figure out what its role was. It was very hard to put music to it. It became too leading, and after a while [the film] started to tell you what worked and what didn’t.”
Levi set up a studio in the Camden area of London to be near Glazer and editor Paul Watts, “so I got to witness the edit process,” something the composer hadn’t done before. The team discovered together that “music was competing” with the critical sound design of the film, particularly the sounds coming out of the death camp.
“Music operates around the film. It can’t be in the reality,” Levi says, so the choral pieces that start and end the film provide that bracing outside perspective. “It was important that the film be shown through a 21st century lens. [Glazer] talked about the cameras being distant, witnessing, observing. What would that be in music?
“One thing that I thought was particularly modern was gradual pitch descent, which is really challenging to do live as a singer — to move gradually down in a smooth way.” Thus, the opening title sequence (which is almost three minutes of black on the screen, calling even greater attention to the music) is a mix of voices, synthesizer and “a kind of modern distortion.”
The thermal heat-camera scenes of a girl outside at night, while the father is reading bedtime stories to his children, are also scored with grim, processed, vocal sounds. “It felt like there needed to be a tone of absurdity,” Levi notes. Winter scenes of the camp were similarly scored.
The six-minute finale — which, again, begins with a long stretch of black screen — features the most clearly heard voices. “Those are real human screams,” Levi says, from “an amazing group of singers.”
For “The Killer,” their fifth film with director David Fincher, double Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network,” “Soul”) faced a new and unexpected challenge: Fincher informed them that he wanted to see “how far we can go in the edit with no music at all,” Reznor recalls.
So the composing partners from Nine Inch Nails were on standby for months until the call came to supply music — but in only high and low frequencies, leaving the middle portion of the audio spectrum for the ongoing narration of the assassin played by Michael Fassbender.
The plan became, “let’s abandon all sense of melody and just make this guttural,” Reznor says. “What would it sound like if we were only below a certain frequency for the most part? How would that feel? That led to a few weeks of experimentation that a lot of the score came from.”
Ren Klyce’s elaborate sound design, plus the addition of the Smiths songs that became the killer’s own personal soundtrack, were the framework within which they worked.
They came up with an hour of material ranging from synth pulses to whining industrial noise, eerie faux-choral passages to bizarre musique concrète. “There’s quite a lot of score in it,” says Ross, “but it isn’t musical in the traditional sense. There’s not a lot that’s telling you, ‘Hey, just sit back and relax, everything’s going to be OK.’”
Observes Reznor: “It felt unnerving to us. It made you feel anxious.
“We thought that it could work as almost his internal anxiety level, something kind of churning away down there, but not in a throbbing dismissive way,” he says. “It provided enough mood and tension to make it all seem a little less safe to watch.
“It was fun to take on a picture like this, a fight scene or a chase scene where you’re not relying on a steady throb, and you’re working with a filmmaker adventurous enough to say, ‘How can we make this work in a way that feels unique?’”