Interview with Emile Mosseri

Of the new crop of composers to spring from an indie sensibility and all of the fertile, innovative ideas that come with it, perhaps no musician has captured the idea of what it is to find an outsider’s American measure of success than Emile Mosseri. Hailing from Egyptian roots, Mosseri has poetically captured themes of home ownership, breaking the bank and dealing with culture shock in such scores as “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Kajillionaire” and “Random Acts of Flyness.” But then, this member of the alt. band The Dig doesn’t exactly score films and shows as much as he conjures emotional moods, from glorious dream-like tone poems that take listeners into surreal head spaces of characters who, in their distinctive way, are trying to beat the expectations of pre-described life, and the system at large to find their own place in the sun. It’s a beautiful, unexpected emotional approach that yields lyrical fruit for a South Korean family making a farming go of it in 1980’s era Arkansas with the critically acclaimed film “Minari.” 

Composer Emile Mosseri (photo by John Marsico)

As drawn from the childhood memories of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung (“Lucky Life”), “Minari’s” most familiar face is “Walking Dead” actor Steven Yeun as the young patriarch Jacob, a chicken sexer who sees his far bigger talent in growing his country’s native crops for a burgeoning immigrant community, all while his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and adolescent son David (Alan Kim) cope with dislocation – even with the surprising warmth given by the locals. Not so much a fiercely narrative-driven Hollywood movie as it is a micro budget slice of life portrait of a clan attempting to meld the land in their own small way, “Minari’s” emotional heart is mainly derived from David’s growing relationship with newly transplanted grandmother Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-jung). In the same way in following his own past musical harvests, Mosseri’s brings a delicate poignancy to “Minari” with memorably beautiful themes that radiate with immense sympathy and understanding for the characters. But beyond its poetry, “Minari’s” score also impresses as oddball counterpoint with its Theremin-like electronics, stride piano and voice that often play like a hallucinogenic western as much as it might fit into the wonderful anything-goes new wave of indie movie scoring. There’s a loopy, lovely wistfulness to “Minari’s” sound to complement and counterpoint its intimate sincerity, showing Emile Mosseri again as one of the most striking composers of his particular, offbeat crop. With “Minari,” Mosseri impresses again as an empathetic, unique talent that truly takes scoring to brave new melodic lands that are about a bigger idea of finding one’s home as much as they are an hearing a magically idiosyncratic place of mind. 

Do you think that musicians who start out in alternate music, as you have with your band The Dig, end up creating scores that are more interesting than the norm?

I think there’s all kinds of film scores that come from all composers from all kinds of backgrounds. I do think whatever you experience in your musical life before you start scoring films will inform your music one way or the other. It’ll bleed through. And I think that’s what’s so special about this art form – is that people come from all different types of places. Sometimes its classical music, or some composers are classically trained, some composers are drummers first, some composers are songwriters. And that’s what’s so exciting about the media is that it’s wide open, it can be anything. I do think that some of my favorite composers in the film world have come from bands and continue to work in both mediums.

You certainly had a great title to start scoring features with “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag.” How did you help point the way?

“How to Tell You’re a Douchebag” was a fun movie. That was a film that I scored with another with a great composer named Alex Schiff for Tahir Jetter. I’d met Jetter through Terence Nance, who’s an amazing filmmaker as well. I had initially written some music along with Alex Schiff for his film “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” in 2012. I’d worked with Terence who introduced me to Tahir who made “How to Tell You’re a Douchebag”. Then, Terrance got a show picked up on HBO called “Random Acts of Flyness” and I was one of five composers that worked on that show. I moved to LA around the same time. That sort of plugged me into to this to this world out here and I through that opportunity, I got connected with Plan B and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” All the other films I’ve scored have been for Plan B, as well. They have been an amazing creative partner and introduced me to three incredible filmmakers and I’ve been very grateful for that.

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” for me was the closest a recent score has come to approximating a tone poem, as well as an elegy for dreamers and their lost way of life. Could you talk about composing the score, and the notice it got you?

That was a dream job to write music for a film that was essentially a love letter to a city in such a poetic but also grandiose gesture. It is a beautiful love letter to the last city essentially. And I was grateful for the opportunity to be connected with my friend Joe Talbot, who is a brilliant filmmaker and who kind of pushed me to write big, grandiose regal music. In fact, that music had found a home in his film and that’s the composer’s dream – to work on a film that begs for big music like that. There are so many scenes that have no dialogue, just sweeping images of San Francisco. So it was an exciting challenge to figure out how to romanticize San Francisco musically, how could we? What was the musical language to fit in this picture? I think that’s a bonus that was such an unexpected and thrilling experience for all of us, especially since it was my first film. It was also the first film for the filmmaker, Joe’s; for Jimmy, whose story it was and stars in the film; for Christina O, the producer; and Adam Newport-Berra, the cinematographer. It was all of our first feature film, so there was a family around that film, and we got to share that experience of being put out into the world and connecting with people together as a family. It was really special.

Could you talk about your television work with the Amazon mystery series “Homecoming” and “Random Acts of Flyness?”

Both of those shows were really fun to work on. Completely different. “Random Acts of Flyness” is an impossible show to describe if you haven’t seen it. It’s a brilliant part sketch comedy and part kaleidoscopic, vignettes that talk about what it’s like to be young and black in America, in 2018. I worked the film alongside four other amazing composers, Terence being one of them. The show creator is an amazing composer along with his brother, Nelson Bandela.  Nick Hakim and John Bap also wrote this amazing music for this show. I did my work on that show and worked directly with Terence and they had done their work. Then, it was fun every week to see everybody’s music live next to each other in this amazing piece of work. I was really grateful to be among such great composers and working on such a special and important project. “Homecoming” was a fun show because the first season was just needle drops of legendary film noir composers like Bernard Herman and Michael Small, and they didn’t have a composer. I was brought on a second season to write original music. It was sort of fun to write my version of what that old-school, 70s thriller and film noir music would be, which was a new thing for me. I hadn’t written that much music that was that dark and unsettling from that genre yet, so that was an exciting territory for me to explore.

Tell us about working with Miranda July on “Kajillionaire?” And do you think her own origins as a performance artist was a good fit for your style?

I don’t know where to begin. She’s such a singular artist and it was incredible experience working with somebody like like her. There is nobody like her. I say somebody like her but that doesn’t really exist. It was a dream to work with her. I’d been a fan of her work for many years and she made this incredible film. I was sort of beside myself – being able to have music that I had written find a home in her film. It is sort of a heist movie and love story and I got to really lean into both worlds but also bring out the romance in the film and write sort of unapologetically romantic music in a style that that was fun for me. And the fact that it found a home in her film was the greatest joy.

How did you come aboard “Minari?”

I came on board through Christina who produced “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” She had introduced me to Isaac, who wrote and directed “Minari.” I actually met him at the LA premiere of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” at the Vista Theatre. Christina had sent me his script, and then sent him some of my music. Then, we discovered that we live in the same neighborhood. We got together and talked about his film and talked about music, art, life, and we connected. At the time, he hadn’t shot his film yet and I just wrote a bunch of music in the spirit of his film. They ended up using it to sort of build the edit, which was really fun for me, because I’d never worked that way. Normally, I inherit a locked cut, or some kind of rough cut of a film. But for this film, I wrote all this music from the script stage, and it allowed me to sort of stretch out my legs a little bit, musically, so to speak. It was just an incredible and special film, and I’m really proud to be part of.

MINARI.Actors Steven Yuen and Will Patton, Director Lee Isaac Chung.Credit: Joe Rushmore/A24

How did you and Isaac decide “Minari’s” sound?

I had written a bunch of music on the piano and sang a bunch of melodies. It started from piano and voice. As for finding sound for “Minari” we weren’t as concerned about stylistically, having it fit into Arkansas in the 80s or into a Korean family. We were more worried about emotionally feeling connected to the family and the story. Then, in time, the instrumentation and stylistics revealed the sound of the score. After some experimentation, we ended up recording 40 strings in Macedonia, and I played guitar, sang, added synthesizers, woodwinds and Gina Luciani played a flute beautifully on the score. Once you see it in the film, then it’s a whole other thing, you know?

Was there a member of the Yi family that was a favorite of yours to score, and did you try to personalize the music to their characters, particularly when it came to the relationship between grandmother and grandson?

There weren’t specific themes or specific instruments designated to the characters. There were melodic themes that were assigned to different melodic ideas that corresponded to different themes in the film. It’s hard to pick a favorite. They were all so incredible. David and Soonja, the connection between grandson and grandmother – they had a very special relationship in the film. They had a very special chemistry. I felt a connection to those moments where they go for a walk together, where they’re starting to really become friends. Because at first, David’s a little bit weary of her, and then they have this beautiful moment together and they go for a walk. That piece of music is called “Halmeoni” which means grandmother in Korean. That piece of music became their little theme, and it was nice to have this theme for their friendship.

In the same way that you reflected ethnicity in your score for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” how did you want to get across the Yi’s Korean heritage?

Well for both films, we didn’t stylistically reference heritage or ethnicity in the music. With “Minari,” we didn’t want overtly 80s music because it took place in the 80s or overtly Americana, like 20 guitars, because it took place in Arkansas on a farm in this rural part of America. We also didn’t want it to be an overtly Korean sounding score. I think it needed to be stylistically something that was built out of its own fabric and connected emotionally and not stylistically or highlighting any kind of heritage or ethnicity. Sometimes there’s a juxtaposition. With “Last Black Man” for instance, you’re hearing old regal music with strings and brass like a majestic, classical acoustic score. But you’re seeing a city in 2018 and there’s a juxtaposition there. That’s exciting, creatively, and I think we try to take the same approach with “Minari.”  

In that respect, what do you think is distinctly Korean about the relationships in Minari, and what are universal to every family?

I think that the film will resonate with Korean Americans the most on another level. But it also resonates with any immigrant story. It really resonates on any human level with its universal story about family, career, ambition, about having a new start and about childhood memory. It deals with concepts and themes that are that are deeply universal. It is deeply human, and I think that this film is operating on many levels. It resonates with me as a human being in that, I was excited for my father to see the film because he’s an Egyptian immigrant that left Egypt in the ‘50s and shared a bed with his grandmother. He had this sort of salty grandmother that would tease him and, in this sort of, I think there’s people who will see themselves in this film in different ways. I think that’s a testament to what a beautiful and powerful film Isaac made.

Could you talk about the themes and instrumentation of “Minari?” One instrument that particularly struck me was the stride piano.

Aside from some of the instrumentation I mentioned earlier, I would add that I worked with an amazing company called Joy Music House with the orchestrator Catherine Joy, and she produced the session in Macedonia with an orchestra called Fame. So that was a magical experience. 

Do you think the score’s often otherworldly, if not magical sound (especially with theremin-like electronics) conveys the idea of the Yi’s being strangers in a strange American land?

I think the otherworldly, dreamlike sound is more in service of the film being a childhood memory of Isaac’s. And I think when you’re dealing with childhood memories, it’s connected to a dream. This was his emotional recollection of his childhood memory, and some things are so visceral and so human that it is a childhood memory you have that does feel like a dream. Sometimes you can’t remember what you lived, so I think the otherworldly quality adds a sort of a magical fairy tale quality to the score. It is in service of the film being Isaac’s memory and not so much in service of the family feeling displaced or in a strange place like the land Arkansas.

Given that the family is stuck in the middle of nowhere, do you think there’s an aspect of the score that shows them mentally transporting themselves to another reality?

I think it was more about scoring their emotional experience as a family. It’s highlighting Jacob’s spiritual connection to the land, so, in that sense, it’s not scoring Arkansas or their relationship to Arkansas, culturally. I think that part of the film is explored in other parts of filmmaking not as much as in this score. I feel like my job as a composer was to highlight their beating heart as a family and emotional connections that they have between themselves. And, also to set the tone but not transport them out of Arkansas into another place. I think that part is kind of all built in.

Did you want to get across the idea of farming in your score?

I think so. Jacobs’s connection with the land is also tied to his connection with himself and his career – to his dream. Really, that was his dream. It could have been anything, as far as musically, how I treated it. I’m more scoring his dream musically. Emotionally, his passion and his dream are more than farming. That’s probably the reason why I didn’t want too much acoustic guitar, harmonic or any Americana sounding stylistic things in that in the score.

How did you want to use voice? 

I like to use human voice in all my scores in different ways. I think there’s something very visceral about it. You can literally breathe life into a score with the human voice. I think, for other films, I’d used other vocalists. For this film, I sang. I use my own voice on the score and in the writing and demoing process with the plan to replace it with another vocalist. Then, the deeper we got into it, and once they put the demos in the film, it was working – it felt okay. Since a lot of these recordings were made as I was writing them, a lot of that stuff ended up in the film, so I think having human voice singing in the score was something that just came together naturally. I’m grateful that they didn’t want to replace my vocals. 

You often use a beautifully lush orchestra in the score. At points when combined with the female voice and neo-western rhythms, it reminded me of Ennio Morricone (who himself scored one of the great “farming” movies with “Days of Heaven’). Were you a fan of his work?

Yeah, I mean he’s the greatest. He’s such a giant. I’m a massive fan of his. And I think that the way that I highlight the more American side of the score was influenced by him in the sense that he’s the King of the Western. 

Like “Last Black Man,” “Minari” is a score that exists melodically and poetically on its own. Is that something you strive for even while playing to picture?

Yeah, absolutely. I always strive for that and in deciding what films I work on; I look for opportunities where I can write music that would exist as an album outside of the film. Because you don’t want to force that on a film if that’s not what the film calls for. There’s no room for it in the film. But, because my first job is to serve the filmmaker and their vision and their story. I strive to write music that can be listened to outside of the film, and I’m lucky to work with people that also have that same goal. They want albums attached to their films that allow people to sort of wallow in this period of the film, which is what I like to do as an audience member.

Do you think films like “Parasite” and “Minari” are bringing a sort of Korean renaissance to Hollywood, especially given that it’s a culture and people that have never been given their due there before?

I think it’s amazing that Korean film is reaching and connecting on a wider level in recent years and I think that “Parasite” winning an Oscar and doing as well as it did is so encouraging and thrilling as a film lover and as somebody who works in the industry. They’re completely different films, but I remember with “Parasite” going to see the movie and everybody telling me it was the best movie they’d seen in 10 years. I saw it without expectations and it completely exceeded my expectations. It was such a profoundly deep film, but also such a fun film. I think that it is creating a moment and opening up the door for a lot more people to connect with films that aren’t in English. It is a huge victory for filmmaking in general.

What do you think distinguishes your sound in composers who are adept at the indie field? And do you think the sound of acclaimed films like “Minari” is helping to push cinematic boundaries?  

Well, I’m certainly not one to say. I am just grateful to work on a film that’s this powerful and that’s connecting with people in this way. I think that indie film, in general, there’s so much amazing music being written. I am grateful that I get to work on films and do my thing – write something that feels like it has a piece of me in it. And if it finds a home in a film, that’s amazing. I’m flattered by that question, but I don’t know how to answer it other than that.

Is there a culture that you’d particularly like to score? 

No. I think I’m just excited to work with different filmmakers that are telling different types of stories. There’s no specific culture. One of the great joys of this job is you get into something different every time and are musically personifying different types of stories.

Between “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” “Kajillionaire” and “Minari,” do you think you’re a composer who’s specializing in an offbeat musical vision of The American Dream?” And would you say you’re a composer who’s living it now?

I do feel like specializing in an offbeat musical vision of The American Dream is a testament to the filmmakers that I’ve been lucky enough to work with and the musical decisions that they’re making with the stories that they’re telling. The musical decisions that they’re making are extensions of the stories that they’re telling and the choices that they’re making are pushing me to explore different realms musically. It’s all a testament to their instincts as filmmakers. I feel that they’re all, in their own ways, offbeat visions of the American Dream and that the thread between these is something that I’m grateful for and just circumstantial. I do feel very grateful to be able to do this work for a living and write music for a living. It’s not lost on me what a privilege that is. 

Watch “Minari” on VOD, and get Emile’s score to “Minari” on Milan Records HERE

Buy Emile Mosseri albums HERE

Visit Emile Mosseri’s website HERE