Oscars: 'Jackie's' Composer Scored Film Before Seeing It

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'Jackie' composer Mica Levi

And that's just one tale shared as the nominated composers behind 'Passengers,' 'La La Land,' 'Lion' and 'Moonlight' also dish on the inspiration behind their process.

In a category that often pays tribute to repeat performers (50-time nominee John Williams, anyone?), it’s a dramatic shift to have four first-timers vying with 14-time nominee (and composing family scion) Thomas Newman, 61, for the Oscar. Two — Volker Bertelmann, 50, and rocker Mica Levi, 29 — come from the alternative music world, while Newman, Justin Hurwitz, 32, and Nicholas Britell, 36, have more traditional music backgrounds. Here, all five share the inspirations for their nominated work, as distinct as the paths that brought them to this moment.

Passengers (Sony)

Newman turned to the sea for inspiration for his piano and electronic score to Morten Tyldum's space odyssey, which opens with a bosun's whistle: "In a movie like this, you're creating your own vocabulary. The only thing I could apply was this idea of a ship, in the middle of nowhere," says Newman. "The idea of a whistle, almost as an SOS, made you realize at the beginning of the movie that it was a long, long journey." Tyldum stressed to the composer that "the music could embody any human emotion," says Newman. "Space, in this case, is a setting for human exchange."

Lion (The Weinstein Co.)

Director Garth Davis originally envisioned Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (aka Hauschka) each taking half of the movie: Bertelmann doing piano with strings retuned, or with items placed between them, for the India portion of the film and O'Halloran's more traditional scoring for the Australian segment, but the three realized it made no sense to separate the worlds. "We mixed our styles and were very happy," says Bertelmann. Adds O'Halloran: "The whole score was about restraint. The movie almost feels like a documentary."

La La Land (Lionsgate)

Hurwitz created almost 2,000 piano cues — some as brief as 10 seconds — that he submitted to his college roommate and La La Land director Damien Chazelle as they sought to capture just the right emotion for the musical. "The score was a long and unusual process," says Hurwitz. "Some of the larger pieces ['Mia & Sebastian's Theme (Late for the Date)'] I figured out before the movie was shot." Other portions of the score were written in the composer's makeshift studio adjacent to Chazelle's editing suite. "We didn't feel like there could be any temp music, so I was on hand for the whole editing process."

Jackie (Fox Searchlight)

Distorted strings and delicate woodwinds give Jackie, Levi's second score following 2013's Under the Skin, a haunting tone that matches director Pablo Larrain's moody portrayal of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the weeks after JFK's assassination. Levi, who as Micachu fronts the British alternative act Good Bad Happy Sad, utilized glissandos to place the score in the 1960s and highlight Kennedy's cool elegance. Though composers usually work to an early cut, Levi composed without seeing the movie, sending sketches to Larrain, who then edited the film to her music.

Moonlight (A24)

Barry Jenkins' words provided Britell with all the inspiration he needed to come up with his innovative score for the film. "The moment I read the screenplay and saw the early cut, there was a profound feeling of poetry," he says. "I was so moved by that feeling of tenderness and intimacy. That was my way in: What is the musical analog of that? How do you express that feeling musically?" Britell applied a hip-hop technique called "chopped and screwed" to his classical themes by slowing them down and changing pitch to often render the violins and cello strains unrecognizable from their original form.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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