Interview with Michael Abels

(photo by Ray Costa)

The definition of come-from-where success for many concerned, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” revealed a TV-centric comedian who could turn satire into a socio-political cinematic knife. Equally captivating was the work of modern classical composer Michael Abels, who enlightened the body bidding of a sunken place with uniquely twisted music that truly got under the cultural skin. A box office and Oscar success with all audiences that racially redefined the horror genre, the utter, sinister originality of “Get Out” and its score made us wonder how Peele and Abels could possibly top it.

Now with “Us,” the answer comes from America’s literal underground as a nation-encompassing lookalike legion of the “tethered” emerge to take long-simmering vengeance. As opposed to playing the same tune, the color that counts here for Peele and Abels is orange, as humanity itself falls under the scissor-wielding mute killers by way of a bizarro underworld – with the Wilson family under particularly lethal focus. Wife and mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) must face off against her childhood trauma come back in the form of a raspy-voiced double, whose own “family” will pursue father, daughter and son down a literal rabbit hole.

Music plays an even bigger part in “Us,” as Michael Abels moves between slithering melody and off-kilter Baroque instrumentations, music the lets us know something angry is lurking under the surface of gorgeous vacation homes and an amusement park town. With the gibbering tethered given voice with a choral “Anthem” every bit as creepy as “Get Out’s” use of “Run Rabbit,” Abels impressionistic, chamber-like work captures his other modern classical identity, while paying off the dissonant rage of today’s horror scoring once all hell breaks loose, and then keeps going from there. There’s also no small feeling of ironic musical humor for the have and have-not point that Peele is ultimately making. It’s relentless, smartly inventive thrill ride score, that doubles down on Abels’ composing promise, climaxing in a dazzlingly lethal dance-off as Peele warps the family’s preferred hip hop listening into musical combat unlike any other.

Now Michael Abels reflects on a new collaboration for an auteur steadily transforming himself into a new, multicultural generation’s mesh of Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling, as given a distinctively scary and ironic musical voice that lets us hear the real monsters as “Us.”

How did “Get Out’s” instant success affect you as a budding film composer? And do you what you learned on it made “Us” easier to dive into?

The success of “Get Out” had a life-changing effect on me, although it was gradual. As a result, I’ve been able to devote my life full-time to being a composer and because that has been a lifelong dream, I’m blessed beyond belief. What I learned on “Get Out” was the musical mind of Jordan Peele and to understand what kind of music excites him. As a result, in approaching “Us”, I already had a good understanding of what musical choices would be able to help him tell his story most effectively.

How do you think that “Us” shows how Jordan has developed as a writer-director? Would you say your collaboration was the same this time out?

I think that “Us” shows that Jordan Peele is what I would describe as fearlessly creative. He’s not going to settle for doing anything expected and I’m delighted by that aspect of his creative personality. Our collaboration on “Us” was similar in some ways to “Get Out.” For example, for “Us” I wrote some music for Jordan based off of reading the script and he started making some choices based on that. So, music was very much a part of the pre-production as it was in “Get Out”. Another way it was similar is that Jordan’s very clear about what he thinks makes music work in a film and in horror and so, the types of notes I would get from him about what he liked and what he didn’t were consistent.

“Get Out” began with the memorable use of the 1920’s tune “Run Rabbit.” “Us” starts with the equally striking, but original theme song “Anthem.” Can you tell us about writing this Gregorian chant-sounding piece, what you wanted it to reflect and what its words mean?

That was an example of one of the pieces that I wrote for Jordan to listen to just based off reading the script before they started shooting. But unlike the main title theme of “Get Out”, the lyrics of “Anthem” from “Us” don’t mean anything. I made them up. The reason is because the music isn’t meant to sound like any particular culture over another one. Although, the nature of the style of music makes it sound more western than non-western. But the reason it sounds that way is because it’s meant to conjure up the feeling of an organized movement of people preparing for battle. And so in a sense, it’s a battle anthem. And it’s the anthem of the tethered although at the beginning of the film, we don’t know that. All we know is that there’s a bunch of people and they sound organized. And they sound organized and unhappy!

But there are also some deliberate non-western elements in the anthem. It starts out with just children’s voices alone, which is another great Jordan Peele juxtaposition of something that is supposed to be happy and friendly in a context that is clearly meant to make you unsettled. And then as the anthem grows, a very kind of seductive rhythm enters, definitely not a march. It’s a very syncopated, tribal rhythm designed to let you know that this music refuses to be pigeonholed into one culture. And that was important because as Lupita’s doppelgänger character says in response to the question, “Who are you people?” She smiles dryly and says, ”We’re Americans!” It’s very pointed humor that’s there for a reason.

Like “Get Out,” “Us” has a slow, though relatively shorter burn to where the terror gets going – and then doesn’t stop. How did you want to reflect that pacing, while not making the score to exhaustingly tense?

Michael Abels and Jordan Peele (photo by Ray Costa)

With any piece of score I do, Jordan and I discuss a lot about telegraphing to the audience. And I think it’s super important in any horror or suspense film how you deliver the scare, whether it’s with slow, uneasy dread or whether it’s a jump that you don’t see coming. And every moment of terror or fright in the film was carefully crafted by Jordan to deliver according to that plan. So depending on the type of fear the audience needs to experience, the score pacing reinforces and helps support the type of scare it is.“Us” is not broken up like “Get Out” with some scenes of pure comedy that are done without score. In “Us”, the comedic moments are briefer, and so the score is paced according to what the characters are experiencing. When the characters are under threat, the score is terrifying. When the characters are taking a well-needed breather to get their bearings, the score backs off and lets them figure out what’s going on. I paced the music according to the pace of each scene.

How did you want to musically separate the main characters from their doppelgangers, as well as to distinguish the tethered family’s lethal abilities?

Early on, we had explored whether there was a way to have a duality, in that the musical theme might be done one way in the everyday world, and another way in the tethered world. But ultimately, the story is about this tethered rising up into the everyday world. So that paired theme concept wasn’t really executed, because you have to deal with the emotional experience the characters are having, rather than a concept. But the score where we are in the tethered underpass world and the score has a lot more elements of sound design. That comes from the sonic experience you have when you’re in a tunnel and things are rumbly and reverberating. So there’s a definite difference to above ground score versus below.

Was it important to give the “tethered” some kind of humanity as well?

That was crucial and I found myself empathizing with them a lot. I think that’s the beauty of the story that Jordan is telling. He realized that we would feel both fear of and compassionate for the tethered and that that’s confusing. So there were places in the film where we discussed whether this was a moment where the score needed to identify with the tethered rather than be afraid of them.

Given the chillingly raspy voice that Adelaide’s tether speaks with, was it important to make sure the score sonically wouldn’t get in the way of her affected speech?

One hundred percent. It’s an incredible voice that Lupita brought to that character. And it had scoring challenges because it’s a raspy whisper. There are key scenes– both the scene in the underpass where she is telling the story of the tethered and then earlier on right after the initial home invasion, when she explains who they are, where she has these long soliloquies in her raspy voice and I had to be very cognizant of how to find a sonic world that would complement rather than compete with that voice.

Would you say that this score draws more on your modern classical background?

There are more of the types of orchestral effects that you would find in 20th-Century concert music in the score to “Us”. So by that definition, yes.

Michael Abels composing Get Out

Conversely, how important was it to make “Us” work as a traditional horror score. And how did you want to balance that approach between melody and more impressionistic fear?

The way I score a scene is very immediate. I’m trying to channel the emotions of the character as they’re having an experience. When we have emotion, our emotions may be informed by what we know intellectually. But nonetheless, it’s very visceral and unfiltered. So, when I’m scoring a scene, I’m not considering whether it’s important to give a nod to traditional horror, or Impressionism or anything. I’m only thinking what music is going to convey this emotion. The analysis of what worked comes after the fact.

Tell us about your spectral use of voices and chorus here, as well as eerie use of the violin and the cimbalom. In a way, did you want them to speak for the wordless “tethered?”

Jordan is really drawn to voices and vocal effects, and he loves strings. I think, especially because of the strings, I think of Bernard Herrmann. The cimbalom and the violin both have significant parts in the score and it was fun writing for them. The key to making it sound evil is the dissonance that’s present in both the harmonies and the melodies.

“Us” certainly has no lack of satiric humor to it, as well some jokes for geeky movie fans. Do you think there’s any humor in your score when it comes to seeing the tethered try to become the originals – especially when it comes to Elizabeth Moss’ character?

Completely. That scene is a classic Peele-ian joke, where there’s something funny out of the juxtaposition of elements that are absolutely surreal together. I really enjoy helping Jordan deliver humor in that way. I saved scoring that scene of Elisabeth Moss and the mirror for the end of a recording session, on a day filled with otherwise very dissonant music. The violins were rewarded after playing horrifying effects all day with playing this wonderfully syrupy classic Hollywood-sounding theme. Although little did they know it would accompany such a disturbing image on-screen.

When Adelaide goes down the literal rabbit hole, you could have taken some fairy tale approach to the music, but chose to play the situation scarily straight as opposed to going for the metaphor. In that way was it important not to nail Jordan’s ironic visuals on the head with music?

Adelaide goes down the rabbit hole, what we need to notice is how she has gone, over the course of the film, from being filled with dread to be willing to confront whatever is about to happen. So the music depicts her emotion of preparing for battle.

“Us’” most striking sequence is the almost entirely new orchestration you bring to the climactic killer ballet-off. How difficult was it creating a “Pas De Deux” that would work as both a dance piece and terrifying action, especially given the scene’s quick crosscutting?

I think the dance aspects are very much present in the way Jordan staged and directed the fight sequences. There is a long, slow wind-up to the two Adelaides engaging each other, a back and forth that is very balletic. Similarly, the beginning of the cue that scores it, “Pas De Deux”, takes the “Why You Treat Me So Bad” sample from the Luniz “I Got 5 On It” track, and emphasizes the back-and-forth between the melody in the violins and violas, and the bassline in the cellos and basses. As a result, you hear the lines as two distinct melodies, one high and one low, which answer each other. Even though the high and low phrases aren’t precisely on shots of the two Adelaides, it’s unmistakable that the musical duality represents them. Finally, when the two Adelaides engage and the music becomes much more intense, the audience is already set up to hear the music as a battle or dance of two different ideas both sonically and visually.

Where were you in 1986? And do you remember Hands Across America?

I was here in LA! I remember Hands Across America, but I did not participate. Although I greatly enjoyed adapting Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” into a cheesy 80s underscore for the faux Hands Across America TV commercial in the initial scene of “Us!”

After “Get Out” and “Us,” how would you describe Jordon’s growing brand as a metaphoric horror impresario? And where do you see you partnership going while exploring other, un-“tethered” opportunities as a composer?

Michael Abels at the Chicago Orchesta Hall (photo by Todd Robinson)

“Metaphoric Horror Impresario” — very nicely said! I think Jordan is just showing the world that there’s no end to the creative genius that he has and that he’s going to be sharing with the world. And I am very excited to go wherever he chooses to invite me along.

“Us” is now tethered to theaters across America, with Michael Abels scores for “Get Out” and “Us’ available on Back Lot Music.