Interview with Kathryn Bostic and Joel P. West

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > Scoring Sessions > Interview with Kathryn Bostic and Joel P. West

There’s no end to the volatile chorus of opinions that accompany the death penalty, or the social inequalities that determine the guilty, and innocent who live or die as the clock ticks down to the final sentence. It’s a countdown and the struggle against it that yields two vastly different scores with “Clemency” and “Just Mercy,” movies that both look at the toll of those caught within a prejudiced system. Fastidiously obeying it is a by-the-book warden, while the other similarly themed film has the lethal ruling confronted at every step of the way by a never-say-die defender. It’s a difference between stolid anguish and unrelenting optimism that marks the musical approaches of Kathryn Bostic and Joel P. West.

As a composer and singer usually given to lyrical and vibe-accented scores like “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” “Dear White People” and “Middle of Nowhere,” “Clemency” (for which Bostic also served as an executive producer) restrains the musician from going for the kind of rousingly orchestral score one might expect from the “prison” genre. As compelled by the dramatic restraint of writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (“alaskaLand”), Bostic conjures an impactfully succinct, out of the box score that meshes reversed sound design, hushed voices and transfixing electronics to convey a dreadful countdown both sterilized and morally dirty. Given the muted nature of “Clemency” that relies so much on devastating performances of Alfre Woodard as the warden Bernadine and Aldis Hodge as the inmate Anthony who comes to the realization of his seemingly unstoppable fate, Bostic’s innovative work speaks volumes within its ghostly, mournful intimacy, music that leaves the final opinion for its audience to grapple with.

While “Clemency” fictionalizes a death penalty case with as much truth as possible, “Just Mercy” adapts the good fight of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-trained lawyer who journeys to the racially treacherous ground of Alabama to fight for the rights of seemingly doomed inmates, sped on the road to the electric chair thanks to negligent representation and outright false evidence. There he encounters the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), whose lethal conviction seems all the more outrageous given the “evidence” against him. Given a more traditional, and real approach of a crusading hero, composer Joel P. West fights back with a surprisingly bright soulful score that’s all about not giving up on a seemingly doomed case. Drawing on the gospel music that inspires Bryan and Walter, West goes for the heart with chorus, Hammond organ, lush strings and a jazz-pop attitude feel that melodically lets the listener bear the prison system. Reteaming with director Destin Daniel Cretton after hearing the dysfunctional family dynamics of “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” West builds on his indie, alternative roots to create an emotionally lush, soulful feeling for his biggest Hollywood venture, one that captures the inspiration of a church service without ever feeling like a sermon. It’s a captivatingly tuneful lesson in “Just Mercy” that powerfully encourages the audience to stand up with its heroes against the system.

Now, Bostic and West talk about scoring that’s a study in tonal and emotional contrasts, yet both with a unifying voice that asks listeners to truly open up their ears to the toll of the ultimate punishment.


Beyond being its composer, how did you become involved with “Clemency” as an executive producer?

I had been speaking with the lead producer, Bronwyn Cornelius about this film, and she gave me the script. I thought the story was so evocative and timely and really purposeful that I decided right away that it resonated with me. I met with the director, Chinonye Chukwu, and we talked about scoring the film. I also talked to a friend of mine who had just started working with a production company, Ace Productions, and they were looking for films to develop and to finance. I said that this film is something that I think they’d be crazy to overlook. They agreed. I introduced the lead producer to the financiers, and the rest is history!

When I believe in something, I really think it’s important to get behind it and wear as many hats as you can within reason, without of course, driving yourself crazy. I really believe in this film, and believe in the message and the content of it “Clemency” is an important movie, and I think Chinonye did a beautiful job with the tremendous integrity she had in the telling of this story. She chose to tell it from the warden’s point of view. It’s about the trauma, and its impact on those who are part of this intense and horrific rite of passage. Prior to making “Clemency,” Chinonye spent four and a half years, if not more, working in the prison system. She participated actively with inmates and taught a screenwriting class with women inmates. She really invested in the different types of personnel and people who are involved with this type of incarceration. She talked to several wardens and chaplains, and began to see the impact of the tragedy and the trauma. After the execution of Troy Anthony Davis she felt compelled to make this film.

‘Clemency’ director Chinonye Chukwu

You certainly took an outside of the box musical approach to it.

It was a bit of a challenge in that the edit was done without any music. There was no point of reference, which can actually work in the favor of a composer oftentimes. But in this case, the musicality was so crucial in terms of not needing a heavy handed emotional response. Chinonye really wanted the audience to marinate deep in the emotional tone of Anthony on death row and of Bernadine, the warden. So it took a while to find something that was going to be resonating in a sort of barren and sparse tonality, but something that would still be evocative and witness the unfolding of her journey. Initially I talked with Chinonye about vocal textures. I did a lot of multi-layering of vocal textures, and sounds with voice and different nuances, which is why in some of the cues you do hear that overlay.

Of course I’m such a huge fan of Thomas Newman’s scoring techniques. I love what he did on “The Shawshank Redemption,” as well as David Robbins’ score for “Dead Man Walking.” So I had tried a little bit of an orchestral sensibility, and that was the wrong tone for what Chinonye was looking for. She really wanted something to enhance the barren and the stark compartmentalization that Bernadine goes through emotionally. So how do you speak to that, as well as the passage of time, which was also another character the director wanted to have as a sort of musical color? There’s the time up until the death of these inmates, there’s watching the clock, the hands of the clock ticking by, the steps being taken, the walking in the prison. In other words, what is that beat? What is that pulse, it’s a heartbeat that becomes stable and unstable at the same time because of the darkness of that environment.

It took me a while to find an approach where I used tones that were metallic and industrial. I did some different phasing with some of the instruments, some backwards looping, and then put a vocal texture here and there. Chinonye really wanted a stripped-down score. She was emphatic about that and I’m really happy with what we ended up with. I think it really works well for this film. And I think it reflects the inner nature of what Bernadine and the inmate, Anthony are going through.

Do you think in a way having a score that’s short and minimal makes it all the more impactful, especially in a film where silence is so important?

Absolutely. The fact that it is as sparse as it is really helps to serve the overlying resonance of the story emotionally. We went back and forth about where the music should be placed, in our spotting sessions. I had wanted more music in several instances, but ultimately that was not what Chinonye wanted. And to her credit, I now understand why. It takes a lot for the audience to just sit in that stillness and silence, to live with these characters. The score is very specific when it appears. Some of it has more of a sound design element, which I think it’s very effective. That was the intention, so that when we do hear tonality, it’s purposeful. It’s not just necessarily to heighten an emotional intention beyond what’s already being experienced. I think it’s important for the audience to be in that barren space that is Bernadine’s world, one that she has compartmentalized so effectively up until this point of her trauma beginning to implode on her.

On the other hand, I was happy in that I was able to create the song “Slow Train” because I love that part of my musicality as a singer and songwriter, It’s heard in the bar scene in a way that captures her response to the deterioration of her marriage because of her emotional turmoil. So that setting gave me a different place to write from.

What links the song to the score is your use of voice.

That’s right. I wanted to have that element of the blues, which was something that Chinonye had initially given me a note about. She wanted a blues sentiment in some of the score. So that was some of the vocal textures we initially tried. I had to be very selective about the placement of that, because this was a very delicate film to score. It was probably one of my most challenging films to score because “Clemency” requires such sensitivity to the space, and the silence … of silence also being music.

The movie is almost Kubrickian, in terms of the kind of sleek, spotless naturalism and rigid emotion, very much what you wouldn’t expect from a film like this.

I feel the story is such an internal reflection of Bernadine, and that internal journeying that she’s been dealing with throughout this entire role that she has as a warden. That’s because she has to have some sanctuary within herself that is vulnerable, and that seeks solace. And even though she masks it, and even though she has to work diligently at compartmentalizing it, that “sleekness” that you’re talking about is present enough in the silence and in her self-reflection that it enabled me to, on a sensory level, to find the tones that I chose.

How do you think your personal opinion about the death penalty is reflected in your score?

I think “Clemency” will make people have conversation on many levels. I don’t like to generalize and say what people are going to come away with. I just know that it’s a powerful film. It’s an evocative film. It’s a visceral film. And that in and of itself is something that can perpetuate awareness, and a conversation that I think could be very important. 


Was giving the score a Gospel flavor always the evident choice for you and Destin given how much that music meant to Bryan and Walter?

I think that Justin’s approach to this was the same as, as everybody on the film. “Just Mercy” is a vehicle to bring Bryan’s work to the world and trying to stay as close to the truth as possible. We kind of knew that music wasn’t going to be used to tell the emotional stories, as music can be an enemy in making things feel like they’re a little fictionalized or overplayed, when in fact a lot of stuff that’s happening in the film is completely real for people right now. There are families who are stuck in this stuff. So the idea was to use music to bring some beauty and dignity to this story, and to be true to Bryan’s life. He grew up playing piano in the church, so he’s a musician himself. I got to go out to a weekend of events the Bryan’s organization, Equal Justice Initiative, put on. Music is a big fuel for his work, and singers like Patti LaBelle and Sweet Honey in the Rock were there. The real life Walter McMillian also loved gospel and soul music. It was important for my score to honor that, and to make you feel that you were in their world.

What instruments reflect gospel music for you?

We experimented with a lot of things. The first idea was to bring in a gospel choir because there’s so much emotion throughout the extremely rich and just amazing history of African American music through vocals. That’s both through gospel choir as well as people seeing together in unison. There’s a powerful feeling of solidarity in that. There’d be string arrangements that ended up becoming gospel choir arrangements.

Another aspect was the film’s setting in the late 1980s and early 90s. Yet from our perspective, “Just Mercy” could seem like something that happened in the past. It’s a story that continues to happen, and has only gotten worse. So the music couldn’t let the audience off the hook with the feeling that these kinds of events only happened in the past, that it’s been wrapped up and now we’re beyond it. We wanted there to be a feeling of something current and youthful in nature. So have used a rhythm section that really felt true to these grooves. There are also the jazz references of Bryan’s world and African American music in general. We recruited the fresh players that are in the current movement of church music, while also taking it into the next wave.

We put together this really incredible band that kind of just took the score over. I got them in a room, booked some really long sessions and just let them go and poke some really long sessions. There’s a drummer named Karriem Riggins who plays with Common. We pulled two people from Childish Gambino’s touring band, and found this really incredible 20-year-old music producer and guitarist named Justice West. He has a really great feel for jazz guitar that doesn’t sound dated. So we assembled this really great group and turned the music over to them so they could put their stamp on it. They provide an undercurrent to the strings and the choir to give the more emotional, pretty stuff that was given a little bit of a backbeat that feels a little more current. So that was the approach there.

There’s also a song-like approach to the score that’s reminiscent to the jazzy soulfulness of how David Grusin (“The Firm”) or Quincy Jones (“In the Heat of the Night”) might have approached a story like this further back in the day.

There were a lot of places in the movie where we felt like the initial idea was, “Okay, this is a good spot for a song. This is a section that needs some energy and it should feel like a needle drop.” We looked for those songs. But while we felt that approach would be right, we couldn’t find the song. So we took the alternate approach of “Let’s make some score that feels like a song, like maybe an instrumental version of what could be a Marvin Gaye tune, or a live backing track for a hip-hop thing.” So a lot of it was just trying to solve places where a song would have been nice had that song existed. But it didn’t, so we sort of made a vocal-less “song” that was totally tailored to the scene, and allowed space for the dialogue.

I was struck by how warm, and even optimistic the music sounds for all of the terrible things that have happened to these prisoners, and the danger facing those defending them.

Bryan Stevenson is an incredible person. He’s larger than life and an incredible human being. He totally could have had a parallel life of probably being a professional musician or making a lot of money and doing other things. But he’s chosen this path. What’s most impressive about him is that he spends his time in the most deflating, ugly, horrific world that most of us don’t know that much about, and would prefer not to because it’s pretty uncomfortable stuff and pretty overwhelming. Yet somehow, even though he exists in those spaces, and fights with no response, he somehow still has this crazy optimism. I think he really does treat people with dignity, honor and joy. It’s pretty unbelievable. But I think it does illustrate how truly he sees a person of power, a person of wealth, or a person who is on death row as equals and as just humans who are broken. He treats them all with the same amount of patience and love. Because of him, “Just Mercy” isn’t really a heroes and villains story about some racist caricatures from South versus some innocent people of color. It’s about all of us living together in this country and thinking about what we tolerate, either ignorantly or not – about whether or not we really believe at our core that we’re all entitled to the same and justice and the same opportunities.

“Just Mercy” builds it emotions to the release of a full gospel chorus. How important is it to give the audience that musical satisfaction after all they’ve gone through with Bryan and Walter?

There was a lot of debate about that until the very last day of the sound mix about how much the music should let the audience “off the hook.” Ultimately we all sort of trusted that the film had not let them off the hook. Because if you’ve made it to that point, you’ve already seen some ugly truths. So we didn’t think there was the risk that ending on a nicer note would let people forget about all of these terrible things that are still happening. As a viewer when I watch “Just Mercy,” I have so much emotion that’s built up. We needed the music to give them an invitation to release that. But it’s still a tough question cause we really want people to leave the theater with an urgency to learn more and to think about the solutions to these very large systemic problems. We just had to trust that feeling was there as the music gives them a chance to regroup. I also think they’re cheering Bryan for being an endless well of hope. I don’t think he’d want the film’s score to end on a note of doom and gloom. His take on it is “We have work to do. Let’s get into it and keep our heads up.”

Having scored nearly all of Destin’s films, how do you think that “Just Mercy” has shown how you’ve both progressed as artists?

‘Just Mercy’ director Destin Daniel Cretton

It’s fun because when we made “Short Term 12,” I don’t think either of us knew what we were doing. Since then we’ve worked with each other and on other things as well. I’ve learned from working with other people, honing my craft as a musician and expanding my network of musicians that I work with. “Just Mercy” felt like a full homecoming for both of us because of how much we cared about Bryan Stevenson and doing whatever we could to help further his message and his work. I think that Destin and me just have shorthand now. The puzzle is knowing we’re going to land somewhere, even if we have no idea where that’s going to be. I think we feel really, really comfortable experimenting with things together. There are a lot of directors I’ve worked for that I would never show some of the stuff that I’ve shown Destin in terms of the demos not quite being full quality yet. But that’s because Destin is open to the process. That’s the benefit of working together a lot.

I can definitely say that “Just Mercy” was a big team effort where the moto was “no idea is a bad idea.” My amazing music editor Del Spiva, was onboard from the very start and a huge part of developing what the music was. There was a really cool family that formed around this movie and then particularly this score. I’m really proud to be a part of it.

How do you think the score reflects your own personal opinion about the death penalty? And how do you want that to affect the audience?

For me the most emotional scene in the movie is about Herbert’s last day. He has his head shaved, then is walked down to his execution. Bryan’s book talks about watching this old, pretty harmless, very troubled man with PTSD from Vietnam. And he points out that once everybody in that death chamber, no matter what they think about the death penalty, and everybody, all the staff and the generalist and everybody that regardless of what everybody thinks about the death penalty or race, feels that this isn’t the right thing to do. It’s not a heroes and villains moment. It’s really just a bunch of people asking, “What are we doing?” That sort of selective human experiences is what I wanted to put in the score – to just remind us that with all of the heavy opinions and politics, that this is just the story of a bunch of people trying to live together. I think the music is trying to stay true to Brian’s approach in seeing the humanity in everybody, no matter, no matter where they’re coming from.

“Just Mercy” opens in theaters on December 25, and “Clemency” December 27th. Listen to Kathryn Bostic’s score on Milan Records HERE and Joel’s score on WaterTower Music HERE

Visit Kathryn Bostic’s website HERE

Visit Joel P. West’s website HERE