The Meaning Behind 'Get Out's' Haunting Score

Courtesy of Universal Studios
'Get Out'

A producer called music teacher Michael  Abels out of the blue to ask him to create the Jordan Peele film's sounds, which are as multifaceted as the thriller itself.

Michael Abels' journey to scoring Get Out began with a phone call from Blumhouse producer Phillip Dawe — a call Abels sent straight to voicemail.

"It's L.A. You don't pick up calls from strange numbers," says Abels, who, while known for his genre-bending orchestral works, hadn't scored a film since his student days at USC. His day job, which he still has, is music director of New Roads School in Santa Monica.

Dawe told Abels that director Jordan Peele had found Abels' orchestral work "Urban Legends" on the internet and wanted to send him the screenplay.

“The script I read was about 90 percent of what you see in the finished film,” he says. “It was just one of a kind. And I thought, I’ve lived in this town long enough to know that a great script does not always a great movie make. And who’s to know how it will turn out, but there’s never been anything like this and I would love to be a part of it.”

Soon Abels and Peele, both of mixed-race heritage, were talking about what "scary" really means and how it translates to music. “He told me that he wanted the African-American voice both literally and figuratively in the music, so we talked about African-American music and about how it tends to be hopeful,” Abels says. “But what he really loves in horror movies is the unexpected terrifying music, and how can we manage to bring both of those things together? So I said, ‘I think what you’re looking for is kind of gospel horror.’”

While the film was in preproduction, Abels wrote "Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga," in which black voices singing in Swahili warn Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to "run far away" and "save yourself." (The title phrase means "listen to the ancestors.") For Abels, the track was "just a demo," but when the film was in post, Peele told him that "Sikiliza" would be the main title.

From there, Abels began to drill down, starting with the scene where Catherine Keener’s character hypnotizes Chris. “The audience is a little bit hypnotized in that scene as well, and I felt like, well, the music has to do just as a good a job as the writing and directing,” he says. “I thought if I can get [Peele] to sign off on a cue for this scene, then I’ll come out of that with a lot of things. I’ll come out of it with a sonic palette, a general sound of the instrumentation. I’ll have some actual melodic themes that I can use out of it, and then I can build the rest of the score around that and it will all seem integrated.”

It worked, and the hypnotism cue became the key that unlocked the rest of the score, which — with hints of bluegrass, choral harmonies sung in Swahili, and harps and strings that recall the sound of thrillers from the ’50s and ’60s — is as nuanced and multifaceted as the film itself.

Since Get Out's success, Abels has signed with Kraft-Engel Management, which represents such composers as Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman. But his newfound fame hasn't made him any cooler to his New Roads students. "When some of them saw the film, they would say, 'Hey Mr. A, good job with Get Out,' " he says with a laugh. "But are they going to treat me any differently? No!"

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.