Interview with Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur Irvin

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America seems to be headed back to what some might call the good old days before The Civil War. Perhaps it’s because the southern diehards remember the antebellum past in the glossy Mint Julepwhite colors of “Gone with the Wind” and “Song of the South,” let alone “Birth of a Nation.” Others more deliberately fond of unquestioning servitude want a horrific history steeped in enslaved black skin and blood to repeat itself without the the damn Yankees putting a stop to it, especially when it comes to today’s furiously arisen African American consciousness. 

Now that hateful desire to turn back the clock is viscerally revisited by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, as two writer-directors go from  videos featuring Jay-Z, Khalid & Normani and Duke Dumont & Ebenezer to make a joltingly impressive horror feature debut with “Antebellum.” Drawing inspiration from “The Village’s” psychotic cosplay and the lethally crushing subservience of “Get Out” (with that film’s humor understandably drained here from its social statement), “Antebellum” effectively casts singer-actress Janelle Monáe as Eden, an empowered black writer who won’t back down before her white critics – an attitude that marks her for enslavement in a plantation that horrifically breaks its prisoners back into chattel.

Yet Eden isn’t one to back down for all of the terror her “masters” put her through, a fist that steadily rises through the defiant score by brothers Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Roman Gianarthur. With a neo-classical cello beginning the thematic beat of a piece as emotionally powerful as what Beethoven might write for a requiem, Wonder and Gianarthur convey a twisted stateliness that’s rotten to the core. Slithering electronics and strings capturing a pit of sadistic oppression, yet with a melody that slowly claws to the surface, finally exploding into drumbeats and a full-on choral and orchestral call-to-revenge arms, all climaxing in a deliciously provocative image of payback to supremacists assured that they’ve finally won the war. 

From getting across an unimaginable existence to rousing payback that would have an audience cheering if theaters could be packed, “Antebellum,” much-like “Get Out” is a seeming come-from-nowhere score – one of the year’s best that calls out its black composing talent to watch. Where the latter’s Michael Abels had arrived from the concert world for his big Hollywood break, brothers Nate and Roman hail from their Grammy-nominated roles with Monáe’s Wondaland Arts Society (as well as Nate’s membership in the band Deep Cotton). Given their stylistically different grooves in that rap, concert and album world (not to mention their innocently charming songs for Disney +’s “Lady and the Tramp”),perhaps most impressively shocking thing is just how terrifically this duo captures a finally thunderous, pointedly old-school scoring sound. Though certainly impressionistic at playing the unspeakable, “Antebellum” is also more melodically centered than one might expect given the increasingly batshit world of horror scoring. All make for a debut that’s terrifically confident in its ability to get the viewers’ blood boiling as it fights the chain-holding powers that want to be again.   

Was music something you always shared as brothers? 

Nate: Yes. We played mixtapes that our dad put together for road trips that we really enjoyed. 

Roman: When we were doing chores around the house our mom played music as well. They mostly played Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerren, Rock Modernoff, Anita Baker, church was also a huge influence – Mississippi Mass Choir, Hezekiah Walker, Kirk Franklin (we did youth choir together). Roman actually performed his first solo to a Kirk Franklin song, and I played the piano. 

What film scores did you both like growing up? Do you think it ever influenced your songwriting? And in turn, did songwriting influence your composing?

Nate: All the James Bond films, John Barry’s work, and all of John Williams’ scores. The main theme from “Superman” really caught my attention. I used to be in love with Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme as well. I was always into films with big themes. 

Roman: The first John Williams score I ever fell in love with was the first “Home Alone” score. It’s interesting to be able to see the through line from that film and films like “Catch Me If You Can.” The music is always so peculiar to the characters and the story. When I started making music at Wondaland in Atlanta there was an actual thought of “how can we make this album feel like a movie while we wait for a movie project to come.” 

Nate: We have a pop sensibility because of the albums we’ve worked on. In pop music you have to create to make the listener know the song right here, right now. Great film scores feel the same way; whether it be the “Star Wars” or “Superman” theme. You can whistle them without too much of a second thought and just know it.

What was your reaction to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us,” and Michael Abels’ scores for them? Did you think it was a new beginning in terms of black-themed horror films, as well as them serving to bring on new black composers with distinctive voices?    

Roman: We were both extremely struck by the score of “Get Out” in particular. The score was creepy from the horror film perspective, but I thought that the moving moments there were very odd tri tone intervals with the vocal. They also have very familiar kinds of sounds you know you’ll hear in a horror film, like plucked guitar or orchestra strings. It was very minimal but very effective. There was a low baritone – I think a bassoon or maybe contra-clarinet juxtaposed with the actual soundtrack. That set the table beautifully for the film. 

Nate: I remember the “Us” trailer and the “I Got 5 On It” clip and was blown away. Like, “Oh that’s what we doin’?! Well, well well!” 

Roman: As far as black-themed horror films go, I thought it was a huge step forward. It wasn’t that it was good for a “Black horror film” it just felt like some crazy new shit we hadn’t seen or heard before. Because of the content of the film and musical tint of it we felt like it was a huge opening of the door the in the way “Black Panther” was. While that film was a different genre, the confluence of those two films and their scores was encouraging. 

Photo by Matt Kennedy

Some listeners might think you’d been at film composing for a long time after hearing “Antebellum.” What was your “learning curve” like to achieve that level of craftsmanship on your first major scoring gig? 

Nate: The one thing we knew to do was to connect with composers who had done it before and who would help us learn the technical aspect of it. There’s a technical aspect of scoring that’s not the fun part but necessary. We figured out who our music editor and team were and that was key. It made the writing of the music simpler. The writing part is the fun part; how to put it to picture? Figuring out the software was the biggest learning curve. Once we had that part down, our music editor Leo Birenberg really helped us be able to focus on being creative, which we know how to do already. Editors (musical, literary, etc.) never get enough credit. They help you hone what’s worth continuing to work on and help pick what’s going to be ultimately used and works for the film. As you can imagine, we wrote a lot more music for the film than what was needed.

Conversely, do you think that the freshest film music comes from people who are new to it?

Nate (chuckling): Well, John Williams, has been doing it really good for a while so I’m not going to say that. He hasn’t fallen off, so. 

Roman: The freshest music comes from people who are most inspired. 

Nate: Exactly. 

Roman: Either people who have a good sense or technical wherewithal to translate the vision they have. We can easily point to John Williams; it seems he has no limit to his well of creativity.

Writer / Producer / Directors Christopher Renz (left) and Gerard Bush (right) Photo by Kyle B. Kaplan

How did you work together as a composing team in the service of two directors who were also getting their big cinematic break here? And could you see any similarities in how they worked together as well as your own musical synergy? 

Nate: We wanted to synch up early on, so we tried to listen and closely stick to Chris and Gerard’s initial ideas. The phrase they kept repeating was “hauntingly beautiful” which is what we kept going back to while we were writing music. We didn’t see their process as much; we imagine it was a bit different from ours as we’re brothers. 

Did being brothers make “Antebellum” easier or harder to score together?

Roman: It made it easier. Having someone you trust to share the workload and anxiety was helpful.

Photo by Matt Kennedy

Could you talk about the main, rhythmic theme, and why you took a classical approach for it, one that becomes its own “Battle Choir” requiem by the end of the film?  

Nate: Chris and Gerard requested strings and we were very much interested in that too. 

Roman: That goes back to speaking with them about their vision and sticking with that as best we could. 

The cello is the driving instrument in “Antebellum.” What do you think is particularly evocative about its sound?

Nate: The cello is the best string instrument. 

Roman: When Chris and Gerard said “hauntingly beautiful” we thought that the cello lends itself best to that as it is a tenor instrument and it has the widest range of all the strings. For me at least, when composing something classical, it’s a great instrument to start with because of that range and warmth. 

Nate: People will tell you a cello is the closest instrument that sounds like a human. That’s the one! So you’ll get that real feeling in there. 

Roman: The most important thing with this particular motif in the film, was that the cello was played in a particular way, with a very rosined bow and aggressive; we wanted it to feel evocative. We had our longtime collaborator and cellist, Grace Shim, come to the studio to work with us on this. 

Photo by Matt Kennedy

Given that “Antebellum” throws you right into the terror of slavery without any explanation as to how “Eden” got there, what challenges did that create musically? And how did you want the score to serve the second flashback section of the film, especially in bringing in more modern orchestration? 

Nate: We thought a lot about the film and how there are scenes that take place in the present. We added four instruments toward the end of the film to have that growth. That was our goal. We didn’t keep all of it but there are cues that have instrumentation that bring it into a more context. We did consider what instruments were used in the time period and grew from there. With more modern scenes you’ll hear more synthesizers. 

Photo by Matt Kennedy

Tell us about structuring the final escape / payback third of the film, and how you wanted the powerful use of slow motion at the start, and the end of the film to epically pay off the score?

Nate: What we wanted to do was have the score almost bookend. In the first part the film feels like this terrifying thing and by the end is the same feeling with a different version of it; almost in revenge form. It’s about taking back your power and turning the tables on the oppressor really. 

There’s an especially rich orchestral quality to “Antebellum.” How did you achieve that?

Roman: With the help of our music editor, Leo Birenberg, who helped us put together a great orchestra. We want to especially thank Grace Shim, Alex Page, Drew Forde, Wynton Gant, and JP Barjon, who were our string players that we worked with the most before our final scoring session. 

Powerful drum percussion and voices don’t make their entry into well into the score. How did you want those elements to have particular impact?

Nate: The percussion was part of the modernizing of the score in scenes. As we go from the earlier time period to more present day, the idea was to mix those drums with the orchestra. That helped push the score into that modern space. 

Photo by Matt Kennedy

How emotionally difficult was it to work on “Antebellum,” especially for the first third of the film? 

Nate: It was definitely difficult and tough. 

Roman: Yeah, especially watching cuts without music and just seeing the raw footage from some of the scenes. 

Nate: It definitely felt harsh. But it was also depicting a real reality that was not something that [Black] people just existed in for 30 minutes. People lived whole lifetimes and had generations of family that went through that. We just had to get through watching and working on the first third to move onto the next. 

Photo by Matt Kennedy

Given that a lot of horror scores tend to be abstract now, “Antebellum” is surprising by just how melodic it is. Was that an ironic way of going against a “modernist” grain?

Nate: Like I said, we like themes. I was listening to our score in the house by myself before we turned it in and was scared as shit. So when we turned the music in we knew that theme was going to be strong. When we got on set the next week they were shooting to it and playing it in between takes. People were whistling it too, so we knew we had something. 

What do you think sets “Antebellum” apart in the new wave of socially conscious black horror films? What kind of message do you hope the film, and your score give to audiences – let alone to Hollywood’s impression of you as composers? 

Nate: I don’t think the goal is to be separate from these other films. The point, as I see it, is to build upon the rich history and the new language that is being developed around horror as it relates to Black and Brown bodies and minds. We hope our score speaks to the deep emotions, history and possibilities at the core of this film. 

Would you say that “Antebellum” is particularly powerful because of the horrors of real-life politics and supremacist movements in America? 

Roman: One of the powerful quotes that Chris and Gerard used often and had everyone who worked on the film use as a kind of North Star was Faulkner’s quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ​There are white people that try to deny  white supremacy and police brutality against Black people and try to deny statistical disparities and discrimination. There is an obsession of trying to forget the past. 

Nate: Or they try to divorce America from its obsession with White Supremacy. White Supremacy is something America has held onto as a real concept since the country’s inception. 

Roman: Very much so. And the film is quite aggressive around the metaphor around that. Those that are trying to deny that is the reality of America’s original sin are trying to ignore that. We both grew up in North Carolina, we saw the Confederate flag everywhere and people arguing it’s about states’ rights. 

Nate: People never finish that phrase: It’s about state’s rights to enslave Black People. That’s what that flag stands for. We’re in a time where the truth of these symbols and horrors cannot be watered down or ignored. The film addresses that head on. 

Could you possibly see this story continuing? And if so, how would you do it, and into what new territory would you want to take your musical approach?

Nate: Honestly, the story has started to feel closer to a documentary than a fictional horror film as we’ve been moving along this year. There’s the story of a young white man driving out of state and killing two innocent people protesting and fighting against police brutality and racism. So as far as a part II for this particular story, in a lot of ways it feels we’re already living in it. 

Where do you see your work as composers going in the “new normal?” And do you see your non-orchestral origins being a positive when achieving a full-on symphonic sound, which you’ve done so well here, is now a particular challenge? 

Nate: We’re going to keep on writing and working. That’s what Black people do. Under duress we keep writing and creating art and working. That’s what our ancestors did and what we’re going to keep doing. We’ve also been doing orchestra sounds with two people for a long time (laughs). You don’t get 80 plus piece orchestras when writing pop music. 

Roman: We’re going to continue innovating; like Nate said that’s what Black people have always done. We like creating. This ain’t nothin new. 

Dare to visit “Antebellum” on VOD now, and listen to Roman and Nate’s score on Milan Records HERE

Special thanks to Gillian Williams