Oscars: How 'Shape of Water' Music Evokes an Underwater Feeling

Awards - score - Shape of Water - Desplat and del Toro working on The Shape of Water -H 2017
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Composers from awards contenders including 'Wonderstruck,' 'Victoria & Abdul,' 'Mudbound' and more evoke an era with precision, while also creating something original.

The current crop of awards contenders spans nearly 150 years — from 1887 in Victoria & Abdul to 1927 in Wonderstruck up to the present day, with plenty of stops in the 1940s via Dunkirk, Mudbound and Darkest Hour and a quirky detour to 2002 for Lady Bird.

For composers, the era becomes another consideration when scoring a period piece, but they warn against being too doctrinaire when it comes to designing a sonic landscape confined to a specific time frame. "Principle rejection is a silly idea," says Thomas Newman, who composed the music for Stephen Frears' Victoria & Abdul.

Newman's score was primarily orchestral, but he also employed synthesizers — obviously an instrument not around in the 1800s — to provide a low-end and midrange drone to enhance certain scenes without overwhelming the dialogue.

"If it's an ambient tone, you don't question it," says Newman, who took the same approach when he scored 2002's Road to Perdition, which was set in 1931. However, if the instrumentation "takes on something that points too contemporary, your ear will reject it and you don't use it," he says. "The movie has to be believable in its setting, and the music can't disagree with that."

Carter Burwell tackled not one but two eras in Todd Haynes' Wonderstruck, a film that takes place in 1927 and 1977 with different yet converging storylines. "The time periods did affect my choice of instruments in that I wanted them to be period-appropriate," says Burwell. "[In] 1927, it's all acoustic instruments, while 1977 includes electric guitar, bass and synthesizer. However, the periods didn't really influence anything beyond that. The orchestration, the rhythmic and harmonic structures were more influenced by the story and the characters."

Burwell stayed period-specific for the first half of the film, but as the action shifts to New York's American Museum of Natural History for both main characters — though they initially remain separated by 50 years — he started to blend the themes and instrumentation. "I had many discussions with Todd even before he shot the film," says Burwell. " 'Should the music point [out] the distinction between the periods or try to connect them and make them more continuous?' There were many other issues regarding the role of music that were more important — for instance, how much the music should tell us about the story and how much it should withhold." 

With Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, which takes place in Cold War America circa 1962, Alexandre Desplat didn't concern himself with the era. Instead, he focused on the water theme, including using 12 flutes. "I'm a flutist, so I know what they can deliver in terms of texture and sound and blurriness and softness," says the Oscar winner (for 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel). "There's no trumpet playing or anything banging. It's all very soft, like if you were underwater."

Needle drops in Lady Bird helped conjure the time period, freeing up composer Jon Brion. The 2002-set film uses Dave Matthews Band's 1996 song "Crash" and 1995's "Hand in My Pocket" from Alanis Morissette. "On good days you can connect the movie to people's experiences by shaking loose their memory banks in real time," says Brion.

Ultimately, the composers say their job remains the same regardless of when the film takes place. Says Newman, "It all comes down to, 'How do I advance the storytelling?' "

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.