'The Life Ahead' Composer Gabriel Yared on His Instant "Crush" on the Sophia Loren Drama

Gabriel Yared
Courtesy of Netflix

The Oscar-winning composer explains how he worked through the pandemic — remotely overseeing a studio recording in London from his home in Paris — to create the evocative score for the Netflix feature.

Having scored around 100 films since his first venture into cinema with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1980 drama Sauve Qui Peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself), Gabriel Yared — who won both an Oscar and Grammy for 1996’s The English Patient, the first of four collaborations with the late Anthony Minghella — sits among today’s great movie composers.

For his latest feature, Netflix’s The Life Ahead, the Lebanese-French 71-year-old crafted the music to accompany one of cinema’s most enduring icons, Sophia Loren. Directed by her son, Edoardo Ponti, the drama — adapted from Romain Gary’s novel The Life Before — tells the story of Rosa (Loren), an ailing former sex worker and Holocaust survivor who strikes an unlikely bond with Momo (Ibrahim Gueye), a 12-year-old Senegalese kid she first encounters when he robs her on the street.

For Yared, the film was practically love at first sight. Yet it was one that came with unusual complications due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only was his work with Ponti done almost entirely remotely, but — unable to travel — he even oversaw the recording of the score in a London studio while at home in Paris.

Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter as part of Netflix's week-long Playlist series, Yared discussed his approach to composing The Life Ahead’s essential themes, why a film score should operate on a subliminal level to express what the imagery and dialog can’t and his “unusual” choice of favorite film score.

How did you come to work on The Life Ahead and what was it that drew you to it?

Edoardo came to my place in December in Paris and said, "This is the film, please watch it, I’m going out for a walk." So he left me with it and I watched it and it was immediate — I had like a crush on it. It wasn’t finished yet — it was still in the process of being edited. Usually, I like to join a film early, it responds better to my overall composing process. But I just loved it. It has this subtle sweetness. Also, and this is very important for me, I felt an instant connection with the director. I need to feel that I can communicate with him or her and have a real bonding experience. Since the beginning, Edoardo and I had a very harmonious working relationship. I knew that we would have a beautiful and fruitful collaboration.

Did coming so late to the project present any difficulties?

The actual problem was that Edoardo came to me in December, when there was no COVID. And we were supposed to see each other very often in Paris. But he had to go to Los Angeles, where he lives with his family, and we never saw each other. It was only remotely that were together, working on this for eight months.

I also recorded in London — I always record in London. So I had a special program setup by the studio that enabled me to be here in Paris and hear exactly what the engineer could hear. But the musicians were not happy because we were very far from each other. I was giving instructions and I had all my principles, so I knew who was on the first violin, second violin etc. It was very friendly and very creative, but nobody was at ease, really. But I'm sure you won't say this if you listen to the outcome, because they played so beautifully.

So what were the early conversations with Ponti about the music he was looking for?

What I loved was that he asked me to start working and writing the main themes before addressing the specific themes shot by shot. Which meant that I needed to marry with the spirit of the film first. He created a theme category list. There was Rosa’s theme, there was the family theme, there was the theme of Momo. To begin with, it was tough to create themes that could work as a whole and be able, not only to accompany the story, but also to elevate it. So this was probably my biggest musical challenge.

Were there any specific requests?

For Rosa, he wanted a Yiddish inspired piece. It's very difficult to be authentic with this type of music, which I deeply love. And I really worked a lot to capture the spirit of it, without it being too sad or too happy. It needed to have the right balance.

Where do you start with these themes? What were your initial musical steps?

Firstly, it’s about looking at the film as much as I can, until I know it's inside — in my heart, my mind. And then I stop looking at the images completely and I just try to work with the memory of images. And what's left are just those memories of the things that have really marked you in some way, things that you really love. And I close my eyes, forget about the film, and start thinking, "what will marry with, for example, the world of Rosa." Sometimes it starts with just a little idea, but I write it down in my music book. Because I don’t only rely on my ear — it can be a bad judge.

When I started thinking about Momo, the African kid, I very quickly decided that that his music was to be whistled. Because to me, whistling contains the musical elements and connotations that are the closest to his character. In their scenes, I work with electronic samples, with superimposed pianos and harps, to underscore the eerie deterioration of Rosa’s human mind and body. For the rest of the score, I had a very small ensemble of strings in order not to invade the image and the story, and to respect the intimacy.

Do you compose primarily on the piano? Is that where it usually starts?

Sometimes I compose on the piano, sometimes it's in my head. And sometimes, I just start singing. I love to sing when I’m composing. Because when the voice comes in, you know that there's something true, there's something genuine.

How aware do you think a viewer should be of a film score? Do you think it should be unobtrusive and not call attention to itself?

It’s a difficult question. The film score should express what neither the image nor the dialogue nor the characters could express, in a kind of subliminal level. To me, I think film music needs to be thematic. When people talk about film scores, they very often only remember the main themes. I always say the same phrase, which I really believe in — if music has the body, then the theme is the face.

But I don’t know if the score should or should not call attention to itself. Often directors say that music is like a character in the film. But if it is a character, then you have to give it space and to let it speak. If you look at a film by Hitchcock with Bernard Hermann, or Fellini with Nino Rota, or Leone with Ennio Morricone, you have directors that give the music space and a voice. Then it has character. Otherwise it’s just an underscore.

Do you have a particular film composer you admire the most? Or someone who perhaps has influenced your work more than others?

One of my top favorites is Bernard Hermann. I’m not necessarily influenced by his work but I admire him, because he had a unique approach with thematic material, with instrumentation and orchestration. And he was an artist who I don’t think necessarily wanted to please. But he always wanted to capture the sense of each of his films with his music. His film scores could be performed in a concert, they had a life on their own. And at the same time, films like Vertigo or Psycho would not exist without his music.

And do you have a favorite film score?

I think I’m going to say something very bizarre. I would say it’s probably Fantasia. I know it’s a strange choice but, to me, there’s no better match of music and images. You can take a pieces which was written for the concert halls or the ballets and place it on images and create a completely different experience. Why I like it is, for once, the process was inverted.