Michael Abels, Hildur Gudnadóttir, Alberto Iglesias and Alexandre Desplat join the conversation on the biggest musical challenges they faced last year and why composing for film is more like being a nurse than a doctor.
It turns out that when you put six accomplished composers in a room and ask them how they conjured some of the best film scores of the last year, they can't fully explain where the music comes from. That might be why there was plenty of talk of magic at the 2019 edition of THR's annual Composer Roundtable. In fact, calmly embracing the unknown was a consistent theme. For Hildur Gudnadóttir, 37, that meant a moment of inspiration that felt like a "lightning bolt" while she composed the score for Todd Phillips' Joker. For Kathryn Bostic, 52, it meant producing delicate, ambient "textures" that wouldn't overpower the intimacy of Chinonye Chukwu's stark prison drama Clemency. Nicholas Britell, 39, came to David Michôd's period drama The King with a trial-and-error approach that has served him well on previous projects like Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and the soon-to-be-iconic theme to HBO's Succession ("I don't know how to do this without experimenting," he says). Collaborating with Jordan Peele for the second time, on Us, Michael Abels, 57, says he prefers not to overanalyze where inspiration comes from: "I need for it to be exciting, magical and unknown." Similarly, Spain's Alberto Iglesias, 64, working with Pedro Almodóvar for the 11th time, on Pain and Glory, says he is consistently surprised with what he comes up with when he is "not thinking." But for veteran composer Alexandre Desplat, 58 — a two-time Oscar winner (2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel and 2017's The Shape of Water), once again in the conversation this year with Greta Gerwig's Little Women — the magic of composing is secondary when you have a deadline to meet: "I just do my job." The composers came together Oct. 25 to discuss how they fell in love with music, the biggest musical challenges they faced during the past year and why composing for film is more like being a nurse than a doctor.
How did you first discover your love of music?
KATHRYN BOSTIC I started playing piano when I was 3. My mother was a classical pianist and composer and also a wonderful singer, and she would play for hours. Just everything from Chopin études, Bartók. I would listen to her throughout the house and just knew this was something I wanted to do. I started playing the piano and writing my own little songs.
HILDUR GUDNADÓTTIR I have an actually pretty similar story. Everyone in my family were musicians. So it was the normal thing to do in my family — to play music with them. I had never really thought about it, I just thought it was something you did. So I started playing the cello when I was 4. My mother had a very strong intuition when she was pregnant with me that I would be Hildur and I would be a cellist. I chose that instrument when I was 4 completely on my own accord.
NICHOLAS BRITELL She was right.
GUDNADÓTTIR Yeah, exactly — she was. I was kind of questioning that my whole childhood, but, when I was in my early 20s, then I knew, "Oh, OK, she was right. This was actually the right decision for me."
MICHAEL ABELS My grandparents weren't musicians, but there was a spinet piano in all the other farmhouses. And what I got out of that as a kid was that playing music is something you did. There was a TV in the living room, and there was a piano in the living room. Like they are of equal entertainment value. So I asked to take piano lessons. When I discovered I couldn't just play "Do-Re-Mi" when I wanted to, I said, "Why does it sound bad?" And [my grandmother] said, "Well, you have to take lessons." I said OK, I wanted to. So in that way I was self-motivated. But there were times when I did not want to practice, and they weren't having that. They forced me. And I think that's the right thing to do. Things that people learn at a young age — it just kind of soaks into their DNA.
BRITELL I started playing the piano because I saw Chariots of Fire. I was so obsessed with that theme. We had this old upright piano, so I went over to the piano and just tried to figure it out. I asked my mom for piano lessons. And the other thing was, at that time we lived on the West Side of Manhattan and I went to school on the East Side. Every morning my dad would drive me to school. He is not a musician, but he loved classical music. So every morning we'd listen to one of the classical stations and I would be listening to, like, Beethoven and Mozart. And I remember being 5 or 6 and there was almost this game of "Oh, is that Beethoven? Is that Schubert?"
ALBERTO IGLESIAS For me, I started with music later. It was my own decision at 9 or 10. My family, we listened to music but we didn't have family musicians. But one of my uncles was an organ tuner. And once he showed me that he was rebuilding a big organ. A romantic organ. And he tuned the organ by mouth. Pipe by pipe. That amazed me, this grandiosity. When I started with the music, for me, it was because I wanted to be alone. I lived with my brothers in the same room. So the way to be alone was to be playing the guitars.
How old were you when you wrote your first original composition?
IGLESIAS Maybe 16. It was for the guitar. I was also studying piano. But [I preferred] guitar. I was very fascinated by [Heitor] Villa-Lobos and the South American composers who did a lot of work for guitar. It has been always a discovery. I try to give my kids this impression that you have to discover [music] by yourself.
And you have to need the music.
ALEXANDRE DESPLAT It took me a while to find the instrument that I liked, that would become my instrument. Because an instrument is an extrapolation of your own body, but also of your soul. I started piano like my sisters. After one year or two, I didn't like it anymore. Then, because I like trumpet, I played the cornet. When you are 7, you can't play trumpet — you play cornet. And something didn't go well. The teacher was too hard. Too rough. Suddenly, there was this instrument, the flute, that I could immediately play. It was just … obvious. This instrument was made for me.
What was the biggest hurdle you had to get over on the projects you worked on this year? Was there an "aha" moment? Do moments like that even happen?
GUDNADÓTTIR Joker is actually one of these projects that I didn't have a lot of hurdles. (Laughs.) It was such a beautiful collaboration, that also started very early on. I started writing the music just after reading the script. So I started writing the music long before they started shooting.
Did Todd Phillips, the director, have a strong sense of what he wanted?
GUDNADÓTTIR He didn't really give me any very specific instructions or directions. He just wanted to feel what I felt. So I started writing the music just based on what I felt. That was really the biggest "aha," and it was like — it was actually probably the strongest "aha" moment I have ever had in my life. It was more like an aha lightning bolt. Which definitely doesn't happen all the time. But I responded really strongly to the script as I read it. I really felt a lot for the character. As I sat down with my cello, I could really relate so much to what [Alexandre] was saying about the instrument — because the cello is my instrument. It's a way for me to express myself much better than I could do with words. So I am sitting there with the instrument, trying to find my way into [Joker's] head. And as I found his notes, it was really lightning — struck by lightning. I was like, "This is his voice! This is his voice! This is what he wants to say."
It was the theme itself?
GUDNADÓTTIR Yeah, the theme itself. So this was the music that I sent to Todd. And then when I started getting the dailies, the first one I got was the bathroom gun scene, which is the moment where Arthur kind of transforms into Joker. Joaquin [Phoenix] told me a few weeks ago that he had been having a bit of a hard time finding the right way to get into the transformation. So Todd started playing the music. Joaquin just reacted to it. And this scene wasn't in the script at all.
The bathroom scene came about because of the music?
GUDNADÓTTIR Yeah. This dance that he does during that scene, it didn't exist in the script and it was never supposed to be there. But apparently for Joaquin that was really kind of the key shift to become the Joker. So that was his "aha" moment, and it was just so logical because this was exactly what I had felt when I had written the music.
BOSTIC On Clemency, I was fortunate enough to start the process with the script as well. But I will say that the edit the film ended up with had no music at all. There was no tonal reference because of the nature of the film. So with the music it took me a long time to find the tone. At first it was going to be vocal textures to sort of reflect the voice of the Alfre Woodard character, Bernadine. And then the sparseness was so important in terms of the tonality that even one note at times was off-putting to the director because you are listening to silence virtually for two hours. Finally we found the tone, which is the ambient kind of textures of that environment, of the prison and also the pulsating nature of Bernadine's character. So I wanted to capture that, but I did it in very sparse, sort of pulsing tonal moments.
Clemency and The King seem similar in that the music is deployed very efficiently. Is it hard to write music that you know has to be very effective in short bursts?
BRITELL On The King, actually, I came on after it was already almost fully edited. I saw an entire cut of the movie with no music, nothing. It was just blank. And so I had some initial instincts, but the question is, "Where does the music go?" And how do you deploy it, like you were saying. I think the big question is this question of "What?"
BOSTIC That's it.
BRITELL Like what is the music? It could be anything. The interesting thing is figuring out the sound and where the music goes and how this happens is … it requires such close collaboration. Because there is an infinite number of possible ways to do it. But the big challenge was actually that David [Michôd] is based in Australia. They were doing all the post in Australia. So I started experimenting with some ideas in New York. What was really the challenge was trying to figure out a way to find this feeling and then looking for it, but doing it from an incredibly long distance. What I learned and what really came true is that we found we had to be together. So David came to New York, and we spent this really wonderful period of time in July where we just dove in. It was kind of like a fever dream almost, but we figured out all these ideas together and found a sound.
How much should the audience be aware of the score?
DESPLAT As much as they are the beauty of the photography. Or the playing of the actors, the performances. It's a whole. You should be able to analyze the movie when you watch it. And at the same time, take it as one object. I can't watch a movie where the actors are great and the photography sucks. It's a combination of magic. All these incredible moments come together. Because there is a director that brings all these things together. I don't believe that the music shouldn't be heard. The music should be at its place — at its right place.
DESPLAT Sometimes you have the necessity to be loud. Or very soft where it should be soft. It's as simple as that.
Is avoiding cliches a concern, especially when working within a genre? Michael, is that something you're aware of when working on a horror film like Us?
ABELS It's more about "What am I trying to say?" Jordan [Peele] really loves music that sets most people on edge. That lights him up. So I know I am being invited to just do crazy things. I am writing in an environment where that's going to be applauded and accepted. I get to have this fun sandbox to build it in.
What if you're not working with that kind of freedom? What if you're in a situation where it's less positive or encouraging?
DESPLAT I've been pretty lucky to work with directors who were quite influenced by Eurowpean cinema. So they were open to different ideas. I think [a bad situation] has happened once. But it did not occur before I went to the theater and I watched the film. Before that, everything was fine. And then I saw the film and there was no music.
It was taken out completely?
DESPLAT Kind of …
GUDNADÓTTIR Really? Oh no. And they didn't tell you?
Did you ever get an explanation?
DESPLAT You don't need any. (Laughter.) You just move on. What are you going to say?
But how can that happen? Aren't you always working in tandem with the director?
BRITELL I think to some extent it depends on where in the process you are. I remember on Moonlight, I would work very closely with Barry [Jenkins]. And I would send things to Joi McMillon, one of our amazing editors. She was actually one of the people who took one of these pieces and put it in a certain place. I think it depends on how closely you're working with the team. A lot can change in the very end when you are at the final stage. That's the first time that all these elements are actually coming together in one place with the sound and sound design, the mix, the music, final picture …
How much does the overall sound design of a film impact what you do?
BOSTIC In Clemency, it was quite impactful for me. Because the use of the sound design was very essential for me in keeping the honesty of that environment, that prison environment, with the routine of the inmates walking and the metal doors clinking and the reaction of family members watching loved ones on death row. So I wanted to make sure that I could get in different textures. Because the film is so visceral, I had to really be sensitive to not having the music overstate the emotional groundswell that [the characters] are going through.
Music is so subjective — how do you know that what you've written is going to have the desired effect?
DESPLAT It's how the music vibrates with the film. The moment that the music follows the storyline and draws you into the film, or helps you explode with emotions or keeps you tense or whatever it is — it's quite a craft more than anything. You need to experiment. Because you can have great, fantastic ideas when you read the script, and then comes the movie and it doesn't work. Because the movie is the guide. At that moment, only the movie decides. Sometimes you try something and it just comes back, you know, like a boomerang. I wish there was a rule. But no.
What do you mean by "how the music vibrates"?
BOSTIC Sound is vibratory energy in music and in tones. And in certain notes, when you hear them at intervals — I don't want to get too scientific about it — but it's a very empathic kind of interaction. It's a sort of a sonic conversation that's triggering something instinctual in you once you hear it. Everyone is different, but it is definitely a vibratory response.
And generally speaking, you know what those vibrations are going to do to the viewer?
BOSTIC I don't. I don't necessarily from my point of view think, "OK, I am going to trigger this in a viewer." I mean, obviously we have certain genres or parameters of emotional direction that you are supposed to capture, but for me it's very organic. And I think in that is honesty. I just don't second-guess it. It's like breathing for me. It's natural. If I start second-guessing breathing, then I'll asphyxiate.
BRITELL I totally agree. I think there is kind of a thesis that we all have maybe when we are working. If we feel something, the thesis is that we hope others do. There are infinite possible ways that people experience things. And I think maybe the most mysterious part about music is context. Because a piece of music may feel a certain way on its own. But the amazing thing is that when you put it up against a picture, I would say it always makes me not only see the picture differently, but I also hear the music differently. I don't know how to do this without experimenting because you don't really, at least I certainly don't, know what's going to happen when I put a piece of music up [onscreen]. Sometimes you put something up that you think has totally the right feeling. And then you are like, "Wow, that doesn't work at all."
It seems like there's some magic involved. Something that can't be explained.
ABELS That's what makes it so fun. I don't completely want the entire scientific answer spelled out to me as if there was no magic. I need for it to be exciting and magical and unknown.
There must be times when the magic isn't happening.
DESPLAT It cannot not happen. (Laughter.) It's the only answer I have. Because the clock is ticking. The director has finished. He is coming tomorrow morning. I already didn't sleep much last night. I have to be ready and there is no way. The second he opens the door to my studio, I need to play something, and so I don't care about inspiration. I just do my job. I need to find something — whatever it is.
What do you do when the ideas aren't flowing?
IGLESIAS Sometimes I feel like I can't do anything interesting. And it's because I have too much noise in my head. Too much because even my own music, I am playing too much. I have to get distance. Sometimes I listen to classical music or Béla Bartók or Aretha Franklin. That [reminds] me in a way that really, music is a miracle. We are the servants of that. And then maybe something happens. I don't know — adrenaline or something …
BOSTIC I completely agree with you. Sometimes that adrenaline is so powerful because you have got that tension. And then when you have that release and you are not thinking — you are just present. I always marvel at what I come up with when I am not thinking about the constraint, even though there is that constraint of a deadline. All of a sudden it's like, "OK, you just have to completely yield to what you have to do." And in that moment for me is a lot of magic.
Have diversity and inclusivity within the composing world gotten better in the past few years?
ABELS After Get Out came out, I was contacted by a lot of young composers of color who said that they were rooting for me and that they really look to me as a role model. And so we ended up founding Composers Diversity Collective. Hollywood has woken up to the fact that diversity is good for the box office. It's not a hindrance. That is the result of the success of a lot of films in the past few years. So the purpose of the Composers Diversity Collective is simply to say to people who say, "You know, we want to be inclusive and we know it's good, but we just don't know anybody" — our purpose is to say: "Hey, over here. Here we are." This should give people who want to be more inclusive a place that they can go and help simplify that. I see people I know over the last few years working more. And that's great. There is also a lot more content being produced. So I think these two things have helped and are working well together. Because there are a lot more directors who need music. So I don't know if that's a trend, but I know of more diverse composers now who are working than I knew a couple of years ago.
GUDNADÓTTIR I just heard there were some studies that — I hope I am not saying anything wrong — but I think three years ago [the industry] was one percent female composers. Two years ago, it was three, and then it went up to six. But I think it kind of went down to two again. So I think it's just a slow process because there is so much that needs to happen for this to truly, truly change on a deeper, molecular level. Because girls and female composers also have to see the opportunity that this is actually a job that they are able to do. That takes time for that to sink in — for women or girls to see that as an option.
BOSTIC But I think on a broader level, until we start talking about "OK, I am calling you a person of color because" — why? Like, everyone has a color. I'd really like to talk about why we have the need for stratification.
GUDNADÓTTIR I think people have really become aware of the situation and they are reacting to it. But I think, at least speaking for myself in the last years — in the last year specifically — it's almost never talked about in any interviews that I am a female composer.
BOSTIC That's right.
GUDNADÓTTIR Like my gender isn't actually very important. And this is something to truly celebrate.
GUDNADÓTTIR Because this is something that really shows us that change is happening.
DESPLAT It seems that society is moving very slowly, unfortunately, and as you know, sometimes it goes further and then it goes back. So we hope that it keeps going further. I mean, Quincy Jones opened the gates of cinema in the '60s, you know? And they should have been kept wide open. Why are we still struggling to have diversity? It makes no sense to me.
What is your biggest complaint about the composing process?
ABELS I guess what comes up for me is the unpredictability. A film is a journey, and it's a unique journey. (Laughs.) You sign up to be on that journey, so you can't always predict where you are going to be in another week or another two weeks. I always need to be prepared to adjust.
BRITELL I think there is sometimes sort of a paradox for people who are trying to create things. Which is that in order to do the things of creation, you need to do like 300 other things to get into the situation where you can do the creative. And I think maybe it's just inherent in the nature of working in entertainment.
What are some of those 300 things?
BRITELL I mean logistical things. Travel. Administrative things. Being a part of the industry, I would say. Which is so important and can actually be really special. But at the same time I think, on a personal level, I am never happier than when I am just in my studio, by myself, just sitting in front of a piano. I sometimes joke about how you have to do like a million things just so you can be alone in your room. I was also going to say one of the nice things about these sorts of things is we get to see each other. We get to meet each other and talk.
You mean other composers? You enjoy talking to one another because it's so rare?
ABELS Yeah, and inspiring.
BRITELL Hearing other people having the same questions … it's very special.
IGLESIAS I think we are in a very special position even being here. We are very privileged. Of course it's very difficult. Sometimes you have to confront your problems. But all jobs are very difficult. I remember when I started with this, with making music for movies, the composers who were composing the "high culture" — or the contemporary music — they felt like our job was something not so good. A minor job. Like the difference between a doctor and a nurse. (Laughter.) And, well, I didn't feel like this.
DESPLAT Like a nurse?
IGLESIAS Like a nurse. But I love the nursery we have. And sometimes, it's better to be a good nurse than a bad doctor. (Laughter.)
ABELS Always. It's always been.
How do you balance your personal lives with the demands of your job?
BRITELL It can be very difficult. I feel very lucky because my wife, Caitlin, is a cellist.
GUDNADÓTTIR Yeah. I was going to say I think we all work with our spouses. I think that's the trick.
BRITELL It's a family affair. It's very family-oriented. I am very lucky I can say to Caitlin, "I wonder how this might sound on the cello?" And at the same time it can be really difficult. When you are immersed, you are immersed. It requires such an almost unbelievable level of focus at times.
DESPLAT It's difficult. But living with a violinist helps, of course. She knows what the life of a musician is. She knows my ups and my downs when I am writing. But of course there is, like you said, frustration. I don't go on holidays. There is no choice because we know that the schedule is stronger than us. We can't do anything. There is a deadline and we can't fight it. There is nothing we can do.
There must be a great level of understanding among the people around you?
ABELS Incredible. Just incredible understanding. I don't work with my husband, but we have standing dates, where that time is reserved for us. And I occasionally, right near the end, I have to ask for permission to bow out. But I make a huge effort not to. It really has to be just red alert. But he can read when the red alert is coming. I don't know how he does it, actually. I guess that's why that works. Because he somehow knows I don't want to cancel. And he somehow senses when it would be a good idea if I did.
You must really appreciate that.
ABELS More than I can even say.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.