Film composers may be accustomed to working alone, but they weren't immune to the tumult of 2020. Six film music specialists came together — virtually — to discuss the key to writing an effective score, even when creatively challenged by the pandemic: "What I really miss is playing music with human beings."
2020 was a year like no other, so it’s fitting that The Hollywood Reporter’s Composer Roundtable was unlike any that had gone before.
On Jan. 8, six of Hollywood’s leading film composers came together via Zoom, across three continents, to talk shop: Ludwig Göransson followed up his Oscar-winning Black Panther score with a thumping, time-shifting soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet; Tamar-kali offered up a dissonant, daring soundscape for Shirley that won praise from the likes of Iggy Pop; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had a busy year with work that included the wall-to-wall 1940s orchestral score for David Fincher’s Mank and the ethereal, synthetic sound of Pixar feature Soul; Terence Blanchard, Spike Lee's go-to composer, delivered the majestic musical backdrop for the war drama Da 5 Bloods; and Emile Mosseri, who has quickly established himself as one of indie cinema's most in-demand music makers, created an affecting, ethereal soundscape for Lee Isaac Chung's Minari.
In a lively discussion, this eclectic group of film music veterans and newer talents who find themselves — and their music — in the awards-season conversation discussed the art and craft of film composing, the value of defying expectations and how each of them would score 2020.
What was your greatest musical challenge on the projects that you worked on last year?
TAMAR-KALI To be perfectly honest, I can't think of anything in the process of writing the score for Shirley that was a challenge because I was collaborating with an artist [director Josephine Decker] who literally wanted me to swing for the fences. And so I feel, if anything, that was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It never happened to me before, and I don't expect to have that type of experience again any time soon.
TRENT REZNOR With Soul, working with Pixar, the biggest challenge for us was getting over our own intimidation. We'd never worked with Pixar or in an animated film before, and we were a bit intimidated. We had a lot of time to work on it, but it took a little time for us to work it out, because we didn't want to imitate Pixar movie music. At first, we were creating some pretty mediocre stuff. The biggest challenge was getting out of our own way.
ATTICUS ROSS Actually, that's my greatest fear before starting anything, writing a score or even going to the store: It's, "Will I be able to do this? Am I good enough?" Then once we start actually creating, everything becomes OK.
Emile, Minari was just your third feature film score. How challenging was it to work with director Lee Isaac Chung?
EMILE MOSSERI For me, it was an easier project than on previous films because I was able to write music at an early stage before they started shooting. But I think the challenge was the flip side of that: Because I had so much time to demo, I became too attached to things that I recorded and wrote before they started shooting and lived with for months and months. So the problem came at the back end of scoring the film, on being able to give things up, or replace things that I'd lived with for so long.
Terence, Da 5 Bloods is your 15th film score with Spike Lee. What challenge is there left for you two?
TERENCE BLANCHARD Well, I think the biggest challenge was upping the ante. I mean, Spike came up to me right after the  Oscars, I mean, right literally at the ceremony, and he was telling me he had a great new idea for a movie. I was like, "We ought to take a break, you know?" But when he sent me the script, I thought it was amazing. We had the chance to score it right before COVID became a big problem. We were just really happy to get a chance to get it done right before everything went crazy. We wanted to have a massive orchestra, and if it would have been a month later, then it would have been a catastrophe.
What about you, Ludwig? In scoring Tenet, you were stepping into some big shoes: replacing Hans Zimmer.
LUDWIG GöRANSSON It was very exciting, and it was a challenge. I grew up as an avid fan of Christopher Nolan's films and Hans' work. There's no doubt that they changed the world of film scores and the film world. Stepping into this part as a composer was really a dream come true, to be able to get insight into how [Nolan's] brain works and how it works with music. Because music is such an integral part of this film, and it's always been [with his movies].
My wife had just delivered our baby, and I remember driving from the hospital to Nolan's office and watching the prologue for the first time. That was the first time I saw footage. It was incredible. I did this track four months earlier — and we'd worked on it for four months. And [Nolan] had just put this track over the prologue. I was just blown away by how his visuals worked with my music. It was a crazy, out-of-body experience. That's when I understood: OK, this is how he puts music with images. Now it's game on.
The Tenet soundtrack opens with the sound of an orchestra tuning up, a sound that feels nostalgic in lockdown, since it's been a long time since anyone has been in a concert hall. What part of your job do you miss most from working under COVID-19?
MOSSERI I think it's a great question. Off the top of my head, I'd say the vibe of being in the room with your collaborators, it's just something intangible; it's also irreplaceable. Another part of lockdown is that people are watching our movies in their homes. We've all spent so much time designing this music with the theatrical experience in mind. So it's like an adjustment, a pill to swallow, realizing that most people will be experiencing it at home. But what I really miss most is just playing music with other human beings in the same room. There's nothing like it.
BLANCHARD You can have the greatest sample library on the planet, but there's something about having musicians in the same room, something about the physics of everything happening all at one time. There's something emotional about that. On the sessions I did with Spike [pre-COVID], I found out later there were young men who drove in from all over the country, who drove from Chicago, Detroit, Seattle and New York, to come to L.A. to be a part of them. When you get together in that room, they feel such a connection to what it is that you're doing, they give 110 percent.
I'm always trying to encourage people to bring whatever they feel to the music, you know, because sometimes the guys sitting in the back playing cello might say, "Hey, man, have you ever thought of this?" And you go, "Wow, no. Let's do that." I miss that type of learning atmosphere, even for me, after all these years. I get excited being around great musicians.
TAMAR-KALI I definitely miss live music, not just playing, but even going to a gig. At this point, I'm definitely feeling that loss. Initially, because so much of my work as an independent composer is working in a room by myself, it wasn't such a big change. But one thing that's cool about the situation is that a certain amount of creativity comes into play because people can't lean on how they usually do things.
Atticus, you and Trent recorded Mank in lockdown. Do you see any advantages in working that way?
ROSS When it got time to record the orchestra and the big band, it was literally each musician in their kitchen or living room or whatever, and then assembling those parts together into what you hear in the film. All in all, I'm incredibly proud of how it turned out. But we were already in a bizarre experience, and then it became more bizarre on top of that. Personally speaking, it's hard for me to think of too many advantages, you know, apart from more time with my family.
BLANCHARD If there's one thing that COVID has done for me, it's allowed me to go back and delve into the technology and learn more about it. I've been wanting to do that for a long time, to learn more about programming and stuff like that. But between touring and teaching, I just didn't have the time. So these past few months I've been delving into the computer. That part has been great.
How do you find the right tone for a film? Ludwig, with Tenet, you were tasked with creating a sound for this idea of time inversion. How did you go about creating that?
GöRANSSON There's a scene where the protagonist, [played by] John David Washington, is stepping into a puddle of water, and you see it all in reverse. You see the water coming up to reach his foot. We wanted the music to sound like that: inverse. Today, with modern technology, there are so many different ways in the computer to reverse a sound, you can do it with a mouse click. But one of the elements that I thought was extremely interesting to experiment with was live performance. How can you make the audio of a live performance sound like it is in reverse? It's impossible. You can play something on paper in reverse, but you can't actually have an instrument play in reverse. So one thing I did was to have three percussion players. I had this main rhythm, and I asked them to record it. Then I put it on my computer and I reversed it. Then I played it for them and asked them to emulate that reverse recording as well as they could. Then I took that recording and reversed it again. The result was as close as you can get to a real-life sound of something being inversed.
Fortunately, I recorded about 80 percent of the score before the pandemic hit. But in March last year, in the beginning stages of the pandemic, I moved my studio back to my house and into my bedroom. The only difference was that on the other side of the wall, I had a baby. He was exposed to the Tenet score like 15 hours a day. Playing really loud. But he's fine.
Trent, Mank was your first big orchestral score. What was it like to record it entirely — and virtually?
REZNOR When picture was locked on Mank and we were ready to record, we were already deep into the pandemic. So we made a few decisions that I think were pretty smart. A lot were made by Conrad Pope, because he was going to conduct. Conrad made a series of videos with very clear instructions to everyone, and then we sent out a physical package with the equipment and mics and instructions on where to put them. It was a real testament to the quality of musicians and the band and Conrad that when we got these session files and assembled them back together, it actually felt like a performance with a bunch of people watching a conductor in a room.
The mind-set we adopted to the orchestral material was that of [Citizen Kane composer] Bernard Herrmann — what kind of experimental techniques might he have deployed. Fincher's idea was that the film should feel like it was something from the 1940s that was found on a shelf, that it have the spirit of the era without having to be provably of that era.
Can I ask about your instrumentation choices? Tamar, what is that sound on Shirley, a plucked cello?
TAMAR-KALI So I used a string quartet, piano and my voice. I got the initial cut from [Decker], and she definitely has a style. This film is like a fever dream. It's one of those movies where you're not sure: Did I watch that or was it a dream? It has a mystical quality to it. So what I was trying to accomplish and trying to convey emotionally with the music was that there was a veil between the scene and the viewer, a space between the conscious and unconscious.
[Decker] had spoken to me about using female voice as a lead instrument in the film. And so I went about voicing the main characters, Shirley Jackson [played by Elisabeth Moss], who, for me, was an alto; Rose, the woman staying in the house with her and her husband, who was a mezzo; and Paula, the missing girl, a soprano.
So I went about just creating these shapes, these different women's voices. There was this theme of initiation, possession and initiation in the film. So there's a sound that accompanies Rose when she kind of becomes possessed by the spirit of Shirley, even though Shirley is alive. But she's under her influence. So I used these little motifs, adding a little sound here and there to create these women in their voices. It's so funny, Ludwig, talking about inversion. Because there is a vocal passage in the film that I created basically by simulating or mimicking singing backward. As a teen, I listened to a good amount of music, some stuff on Prince albums, that was backward. So it's like you have an idea of what that sounds like.
GöRANSSON I remember hearing the beginning of And Justice for All, the Metallica album, as a kid, but I didn't know it was backward. It's one minute all backward, and it kind of blew my mind because I had no idea how it was created. It felt like this magical thing.
Emile, your score for Minari is quite restrained. Was that the strategy from the get-go?
MOSSERI It's a very intimate story about a family of five characters in a small space. So when I started writing music at the script stage, it was in that intimate spirit, with just my voice and the piano. Then I had this old acoustic guitar to give the score more grounding. And then, because it takes place in the '80s, I tried to sneak in some synthesizer, just a bit without announcing itself on the score.
But for this particular film, the exciting challenge was finding places to get big with the music. Because it's a small story, but it's also very emotional. It has grand, sweeping moments. We recorded 40 strings, in Macedonia, because the budget didn't allow us to record in L.A.
I think [the strategy] was trying to find a way to strike the balance of this more intimate personal score and also have these bigger, emotional, sweeping moments — but to lean into those moments sparingly.
When you write music, is there a deliberate effort to not sound like a typical film score?
ROSS Well, I don't know about intention. But if you think of Taxi Driver — to me, that is one of the great scores of all time. I can't hear that music without thinking of the film, and I can't see a bit of that film without thinking of the music. That's always the goal: to create a world that feels part of the DNA of the story. It's only logical that you come to a place that feels unique, because otherwise you sound like another story. So it's not like we want to be weird for weird's sake. We're just trying to support the emotional journey of the story and the characters in the way that feels the most authentic. And it takes a long time and there's a lot of thought and a lot of experimentation. But I don't think we've ever let anything leave the studio that we haven't felt, "This is the best that we can do."
Are the studios more open to experimentation on film scores these days?
BLANCHARD The studios want to make money. That's always been the case. I think what has changed is that the public is more accepting of more unique projects. Look at what Ludwig did with [his score to] Black Panther. That was something that kind of changed the landscape, you know, for a lot of moviegoers. It changed the landscape of what is acceptable for a movie score. The directors have always had vision. That's never been the issue. The issue has always been, "What's the flavor of what's going on?" I remember being on a panel one time with Thomas Newman. I used to feel sorry for Thomas because he's like the most temped guy on the planet, you know? [Temping refers to the practice of adding music to a scene during editing as a guide for composers.] At one point you couldn't work on a show without his music being temped over a shot. That doesn't happen as much now.
And part of the reason is that people who buy the tickets are changing. When those folks go out and vote, they say, "This is what we want to see." I'm happy to see that Spike finally got his Oscar. I'm happy to see that Regina King did a movie that's getting attention [the Blanchard-scored One Night in Miami]. I'm happy to see this young Black woman [Tamar-kali] interviewed here on this panel. I'm happy to see a diverse array of people starting to get attention, because that only makes it better for everybody.
I've been in this business for 30 years, and it's not that long ago that there was just one type of sound, one type of voice that was being heard every year. So  was a beautiful thing. It's only going to make things better, getting a more diverse array of stories being told. You know the attack on the Capitol [on Jan. 6] happened because of ignorance and intolerance. That's all based out of fear. And that's the thing we have to fight against. The thing that helps us to move forward from that is the world of art. We have to be the ones to show people how we come together to create these things. Look at this group of people here all talking, collaboration, appreciating each other's contributions. That's a very positive thing.
When Tenet came out, some complained the score was too loud, that it drowned out the dialogue.
GöRANSSON I found that an interesting discussion. What is new is that speakers and the sound is getting better and better every year. There are so many things we can do with sound now. We can have these really low frequencies, we can give audiences crazy new experiences. Nolan is all for that. For a lot of audience members, how we incorporated the sound design into the score was jarring, because it is heavily manipulated. A lot of times you think you know what you're listening to, but you don't. The idea you have in your head, your expectation of what you are going to hear is thrown completely off. And you get confused.
REZNOR You know, when I think back on how we landed with The Social Network 10 years ago: an A-list filmmaker [Fincher] engaging us, putting faith in our ability to do something we'd never done before. From Nine Inch Nails, songwriting was something I kind of knew how to do. But what started to be attractive to me over time was less about creating the great song — you know, the Beatles structure with the perfect melody and the clever chord changes in the bridge. It became more interesting to me to focus on the feeling, the emotional feeling of a song, and then almost deliberately try to break away from the structure and focus just on how the song makes you feel. When it came to writing music to pictures, it was really trying to hone in on empathy and feeling the story. That may be obvious, but it was trying to get our egos, our choice of instruments, and all our techniques out of the way and try to focus solely on the emotional content of the story. That's what we focus on initially and then treat the style of recording, or the choice of instrumentation, as a choice of tool that will help us.
There's often talk about how a good score can save a bad performance, but what about the opposite? Does a great performance influence your music? Tamar, did Elisabeth Moss' performance in Shirley influence your score?
TAMAR-KALI Absolutely. The film was pretty much locked when I got it. But I really love writing to picture. I love reacting to the work. Particularly like here when the work is very strong. I can be inspired by anything: the colors and tone of the cinematography, the atmospheric sound and ambient noise, even the intonation of the actors' voices.
I think it was particularly that case with this film because so much of the score has to do with the psychological underpinnings of the characters. The relationship that Shirley has with her husband [Stanley Edgar Hyman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg], for example. They have this very sadistic intellectual relationship. When they are interacting with each other onscreen, I gave their score what I would call a demonic playfulness, because there's a certain amount of destruction that's happening underneath the general, basic dysfunction. I was able to really tap into some of that in terms of what I was doing with the strings and the piano. There's a certain unraveling that's happening onscreen. And I really wanted to convey that in the development of the score.
If 2020 was a film, what kind of score would you write?
MOSSERI I would try to have some combination of a glowing beating heart, to try to put some love into it, but with some dissonance and pain. I think it would have to contain both.
ROSS I mean, we'll spend a couple of months trying to find the sound on a film that we know exists, so to spend 30 seconds coming up with something clever to say is a bit … The thing with 2020 is: What story would the film be? Because there are so many different ones. If we're scoring the political story, it's just noise. If it was my internal journey, it's probably something else.
TAMAR-KALI As soon as you asked that, what I thought was: a 20-minute primal scream, followed by 20 seconds of real guttural hollows in the vocal fry. If there was any instrumentation, it would be on the extremes of like what your body could process and what you could hear, like the highest frequencies that only like 12-year-olds can hear, and then the deep stuff that goes right into the bones behind your ear. That's what 2020 feels like to me.
BLANCHARD I know exactly how I would do it. I would start with the most angelic child singing with the most optimistic view of what we thought 2020 would be. And it would shift into something that would be dark, you know, maybe played with just a trumpet. The entire thing would be scored with a full orchestra. Then, at the moment of the George Floyd killing, that's when the trumpet and just an open snare drum would commence and it would shift into something dark because of COVID as well. Then brass would come in because, you know, we need to understand there's an underpinning of righteous people who are trying to push forward what this country is really supposed to be about. And the youth in this country stepped forward and came together in a way that we've never seen before. Then, at the point of the election, an optimistic version of that song, with full orchestra, with a sudden, dark, sadistic, unexpected shift because of what happened [Jan. 6] all the way down to some solo instrument as a last beacon of hope trying to move into 2021.
REZNOR I'd maybe take a different tack. Just a simple experimental score of the bowel movement frequency on full blast for a whole year.
GöRANSSON I think I would just inverse myself and go back through the pandemic and score Tenet again.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.