The white, western world’s idyllic vision of childhood has always been a time of bliss, a cocoon of playful innocence into which nothing bad should ever intrude. It’s a feeling of almost-holy sanctity that’s been conveyed in traditional, tender orchestral form via such composers as Elmer Bernstein (“To Kill A Mockingbird”), John Williams (“Hook”) and David Grusin (“The Cure”). But rarely has a world seen, or heard through children’s eyes taken on the kind of rustically surreal tone like a black girl’s view of her happily outcast New Orleans community in 2012’s Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Drawing on a rural lyricism as off-kilter as its loving, junk-gathering tribe, composer Dan Romer and filmmaker- musician Benh Zeitlin created an utterly unique, scrapheap fairy tale of a movie and score, conveying the indomitable, smarter-than-her-years Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) as she stood firm in the face of monster pigs and a catastrophic storm. It was a score as both person and environment, its thematically offbeat, alt. region-specific sound drawing on Romer’s own innovative background as both composer and album producer for the likes of such artists as Christina Aguilera, Ian Axel and his own band Fire Flies.
Now given a journey to a far darker continent, Romer turns from playing the first person narration of the courageously likable Hushpuppy to Agu (Abraham Attah), an African boy whose carefree world is horrifically ripped apart by a civil war he can’t begin to understand, but one he nevertheless becomes a murderous pawn of with his fellow “Beasts of No Nation.” Directed by Cary Fukunaga, whose unsparing work has ranged from the fatalist immigrant voyage of “Sin Nombre” to the bleak first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” this Netflix production plunges audiences into a strife-torn land where nothing is sacred – let alone the very idea of childhood as a sacrosanct. Once again not going for the musically obvious, Romer has crafted an eerily beautiful alt. score that matches Fukunaga’s intent on avoiding easy answers, or emotions for a continuing, intractable situation that the world’s ears have been closed off to. With a hypnotic mix of electronics and samples, Romer conveys a slithering charisma in the Commandant (Idris Elba), a guerilla leader who takes Agu under his wing, pushing his ersatz son into acts the boy never imagined possible. His cult-like magic is a dark spell indeed, as violent percussion, crystalline atmospheres, ghostly voices and an organ turn the jungle and its targeted villages into a hallucinatory wasteland for what’s the trippiest, ritualistic war madness score to be heard since Carmine Coppola’s Doors-inspired work for “Apocalypse Now.” Yet there’s a tender poetry to Romer’s unsettling score, the reminder that a carefree kid once existed in this brutally wizened form that gives his second score to feature the word “Beasts” a new resonance in that word.
You’ve certainly set yourself up as an unconventional composer with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Beasts of No Nation.” Where you always drawn to “art music” as an approach to film scoring?
I think the reason I generally come off as an unconventional composer is that I come from a music production background as opposed to a composition background. I spent a lot of high school at LaGuardia in NYC obsessively studying Bach Chorales, which is where I really learned harmony and voicings. Once I started college, my studies were focused on timbre. I was very focused on how to make organic instruments seem unreal.
Do you think that scoring a child in impressionistic, almost tribal surroundings for “Southern Wild” made you an obvious choice to score “Beasts of No Nation?”
This was actually my second film with the director, Cary Fukunaga. We worked on a group of vignettes called “Sleepwalking in the Rift.” We really liked working together, and had a very strong sense of collaboration, so I think that was a lot of why I ended up scoring “No Nation”. Tonally, and sonically, I feel the two films are very different in most ways. However, what I find works very well when scoring films about children is scoring from the child’s point of view, which is a technique I used in both.
What’s it like to explore cultures as a composer, especially ones mired in third-world poverty that I imagine is quite different from your own experiences?
Working on “Beasts of No Nation” was a fairly intense journey, and a certainly a bit of a culture shock. I cried many times the first time I saw it, and thought I would eventually be able to stay steady while working. But sure enough, the tears continued all the way through the final mix.
Could you talk about your collaboration with Cary, and is he as dark and depressive as he might seem given his work?
He’s not dark or depressive at all. He’s calm and caring, and he inspires a feeling of camaraderie. I have a mild case of Tourette’s syndrome which is exacerbated by sugar, and whenever he would hear me tick he’d quickly start talking about what I was eating and made sure I put something healthy in my stomach, which, when you’re working as intensely as we were, is often difficult. As far as out collaboration goes, he was very hands-on with his musical ideas. The score started out as fairly orchestral, and it eventually turned very ambient and electronic, which was a collaborative decision, finding the right balance of electronic and organic based sounds. I was working in the same facility as him for most of the scoring, and he was able to jump in pretty constantly to give me feedback, which was super-helpful. Cary has a vision for everything he makes, and nothing ever feels coincidental, no matter what the process is for the specific piece.
How did you develop your main them for Agu, and what you wanted it to say about his character?
The piece that I would most relate to Agu is a simple 4 bar figure. It was a piece of incidental music played on sampled wine glasses I wrote for a scene where Agu was wondering outside his village alone. When Cary heard it, he immediately identified it and asked where else that piece was. It was nowhere else, and he said that it should be used way more. It eventually ended up as the main theme.
How did you want to reflect Agu’s descent from an innocent boy to war-hardened soldier?
I wanted a sense of anxiety, confusion and sadness to permeate the whole film. Agu is trying to do the right thing, and what is right and wrong can get tricky based on circumstance.
How “African” did you want this score to be? And how child-like for that matter in its instrumentation?”
We didn’t want to get involved with music from any specific culture. We wanted the music to have a region-less style to it. This led us to a score based on synthesizers and pitch-shifted samples.
Can you see any similarities between your musical approaches for “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with “Beasts of Nation,” especially given young characters that narrate their circumstances in search of a family??
Again, they were both scored from the child’s point of view. It’s more emotional to see these stories through their eyes than our own.
“Beasts of No Nation” takes a believable, almost documentary approach. Did that make it particularly hard to score, especially given that we hear no underscore at for twenty minutes until Agu’s town is captured by soldiers?
There’s only once piece of score in the first maybe 20 minutes, which is a very light Mellotron flute piece. It’s important that this piece is in the beginning, since that sound comes back in a more skewed, psychedelic tone later in the film, and hopefully it reminds you of how his life used to be. I wanted it to feel like the score kind of takes over once the back story ends, and that became very clear by putting almost no music upfront. Besides, the beginning has a lot of fun moments, and we would’ve had to make music not characteristic to the rest of the film to score those moments properly. The music of the village and the radio worked better.
What kind of instrumentation did you use to get such a weird, psychedelic sound for your score? It just might be the most troubling, and trippy “prog-rock” war score of its type I’ve heard since “Apocalypse Now.”
Thanks so much!! Aside from synthesizers, I used a program called Iris 2 to manipulate samples that I made with my collaborator Saul Simon MacWiliams. Some of those samples were bowed guitars and cymbals, wine glasses, coyotes, airplanes, submarine sonar beeps and violins playing as fast as possible. I also used a bunch of Mellotron sounds. I also had my very old friend Ariel Levine play electric guitar, and trombones by Tim Vaughn, who’s in my favorite band to see live, “Slavic Soul Party!” d
How do you think your work as a song producer for alt. acts, as well as your own alt. playing figured into the scoring of “Beasts of No Nations?”
I think the role of a film composer is very similar to the role of a music producer. They both involve helping someone else’s vision get across the finish line. A band or artist coming to me with a batch of songs that need production is pretty similar to a director coming to me with a film that needs music.
Could you talk about the organ sound in the score? Were you going after a religious tone with it?
It’s a Mellotron organ sound with a filtered pipe organ. I associate that kind of vintage organ sound with grainy 70s visuals. That sound really started working well as a mood setter, and stayed out of the way of voices. It’s in quite a few cues, often paired with Mellotron flutes.
Your first truly “big” cue is when the Commandant psyches his army up into taking the town bridge. Could you talk about scoring that scene?
Cary and I talked a lot about that cue. My first instinct was to go for heroism, which felt wrong. The second was to go for tears, which also didn’t sit right. I think we reached a more ambiguous tone that was less leading and let the performances and cinematography do more of the heavy lifting,
Another impressive, and truly horrifying sequence is when Agu truly becomes a bad as the violent forces that shaped him. How did you want to capture his drug-fueled frenzy to wipe out a town?
That piece has five sections to it that are all very different from each other. I could talk for quite a while about that piece, but I think what was really important was highlighting the ambiguousness and psychedelia, and then building up enough tension to make Agu’s decision at the end of the cue feel like an emotional/moral decision, as opposed to a drug and adrenalin fueled one.
Could you talk about the use of percussion here?
Most of the percussion in the score was a drum kit we built out of muted string instruments, played with what were essentially chopsticks by Adam Christgau. We put a guitar, a ukulele and a violin with rags on them on snare stands, and then rigged a chopstick kick drum pedal on an upright bass. Then a ton of distortion was applied. We also used some bucket drums that were played by Seth Faulk.
There are moments in the score where music joins with sound design to create an also sub-sonic, angry presence to the music. How did you achieve that bass-breaking effect in connoting madness?
If I remember correctly, that rumble I used was a bowed cymbal distorted and filtered, pitch shifted down five or six octaves. Anything can give you a bunch of low end if it’s pitched down and processed enough!
“Beasts of No Nation” isn’t the kind of movie one can imagine watching repeatedly. Were there points where the film got so overwhelming that you had to set it aside?
I felt the more I worked on it, the more I became immersed in the emotional climate of the film. It was important to me to work long steady hours in this world.
Tell us about the end title song “Twer Nyame”
It’s an Ebo Taylor song. He’s a very popular artist/music producer from Ghana. Cary showed the song to me pretty early during scoring. Agu’s mother sings it in the beginning of the film, and whenever you hear a female vocal playing behind score, it’s that melody. We thought it would be really beautiful to have it sung over the credits with an arrangement that had instruments from the score in it.
Are you hoping to do something truly lighter next time out, and perhaps more “traditional” at that? Or do you think you’d rather remain in these often-dark worlds as a composer?
I’m happy to score something light or dark, traditional or non traditional, depending on how much the film affects me. Although I have to say, I DO love crying.
“Beasts of No Nation” debuts on Netflix Instant October 16th.